The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XII - Journey Above and Below

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

“We shalt be safe here, right?” Amile asked as she huddled next to Pelgan behind the crumbling wall. The were many buildings on the eastern bank of the Yurdon river, and also many that had been abandoned. The Magyars had found what only a few years ago had probably been a modest home. It was now nothing but a series of close packed walls naked to the night sky.

“Safe from what?” Kaspel asked as he tested his bow string.

Amile narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. “Dost thou wish me to say it aloud?”

Chamag nodded his head and closed his eyes. “Aye, we hath no need to fear them here. We hath left the desert behind. If Nemgas saith it, then I wilt believe it.”

Even though the dreams had vanished when they’d left the desert, what they saw and felt in them lingered in their minds. None of them wished to speak of what they had seen, nor did they ever wish to venture into any desert ever again. Yesulam was still too dry for their taste. They all longed for the endless grasses of the Steppe.

But until they had defeated the men who were trying to kill them, they could never go back to their land.

After they had found this abandoned home to rest in for the night, Nemgas had left them to explore around the river. He claimed that he would find a way for them to cross the wide river without them being seen. It was too deep to ford, and there were only a few bridges. None of them were quite sure how he hoped to accomplish this. But they waited, each hoping that Nemgas would return soon.

Gamran nodded slowly, rolling his juggling balls back and fort between his fingers. “I hath no fear of them anymore. In fact, I wilt show thee that I hath great joy in my heart. Nemgas hath led us safely through a land that tried to kill us and here we art, all alive!” He smiled to each in turn as he rose to his feet. For the first time in weeks, Gamran actually felt alive. He began to juggle his balls gaily, eyes meeting all of his fellow Magyars. He even smiled to the Driheli knight who sat alone with hands and feet bound. To his surprise, the knight began to grin.

“I hath delight in my heart too,” Pelgan announced. He pulled his juggling balls from the pouch at his side, and soon the two Magyars were tossing the cloth sacks back and forth in intricate arcs.

Amile began to laugh brightly as she watched the two young men. Berkon and Kaspel both began to smile slightly. Chamag chuckled under his breath and ran a whetstone across his axe. Gelel sat with arms crossed and let his eyes waver between his fellow Magyars and the knight. Petriz noted the youth’s gaze, but did not pay him any heed, preferring to watch Gamran and Pelgan demonstrate their prowess.

Gelel sucked in his breath at this. That knight had no right to ignore him. If not for him, they wouldn’t be in this predicament at all. Still, what Nemgas had told them when they had left the desert behind rang in his mind as clear as any bell. It was the knight’s idea to trust the horses that had saved them. Even Nemgas had been unable to resist the draw of the dreams, though he would not say what it was he dreamt.

Just thinking about the dreams made Gelel close his eyes tight and pull his cloak close. His life was saved by a knight, while his friend Hanalko’s life was taken by one. He just had to know why.

Gelel crawled over to where the knight sat. He knew Chamag was watching him closely, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t going to hurt the man; not this time at least. He drew close enough so that the knight could no longer ignore him. “Why didst thou tell Nemgas to trust the horses? I thought thou wished to kill him.”

The knight did not look at Gelel. “My squire again to see I wish.”

“What dost thou saith?” Gelel asked. The knight’s strange way of speaking made his head turn.

“Thy tongue awkward on my tongue is,” Petriz explained, a slight humourous twitch to his lips. “You I did not here come to kill. Nor want to do I.”

Gelel pursed his lips tightly, and crawled back from the knight. Petriz turned his eyes to gaze at him, and he smiled slowly. “Thou a boy are. In such a rush a man to become do not be.”

Gelel opened his lips to say more, but then turned his head at the sound of boots upon the dirt. Pelgan and Gamran immediately dropped their juggling balls and had knives in hand. Chamag shifted up against the wall, fingers curling tightly about his axe. Berkon and Kaspel had arrows knocked, and Amile held a slender blade so elegantly that one might think her a bravo.

“‘Tis only I,” Nemgas’s voice came to them as he appeared from around the end of the wall. He smiled as he saw the juggling balls on the ground. “Please, thou shouldst not cease on account of me.”

“What hast thou found?” Amile asked as she sheathed her sword.

“I hath found the tunnel entrance. ‘Tis guarded by two men, but we shalt pass them by without trouble.”

“Dost thou mean to kill them?” Chamag asked as he ran one finger along the edge of his axe.

Nemgas shook his head. “Nae, ‘twill not be necessary. An we kill them, then their bodies wouldst be found, and then they wouldst seek to kill us for good cause. They wouldst know that we hath entered the city.”

“But if we dost not kill them, then they will know we hath entered as well,” Kaspel pointed out.

Nemgas nodded. “Aye. If they wilt know that we art to enter the city, then we shouldst at least do it without blood on our hands.” He waved to each of them and gestured outside.

“But wilt the guards not run to alert their brethren that we hath arrived?” Kaspel persisted, his face set in a deep frown.

Nemgas pondered for a second, and then looked down at Petriz. With his feet bound, the knight had not even attempted to rise when Nemgas returned. “The one who seeks to kill us sent this man and others. They art of an order of knights hailing from the lands across the sea. Whoever hath sent them dost not act with the knowledge of the whole city. If he did, then it would have been knights of Yesulam, and not the knights of Driheli sent to kill us. The guards wilt not be expecting us.”

Kaspel still appeared worried, but said no more. He began to lash their belongings to the horses along with Berkon and Pelgan.

Amile stepped forward with one hand on her hip. “Thou means to at least subdue these guards ere we enter the tunnel?”

“Aye. We mayest pose as travellers seeking direction from them. When we dost near them, we can draw blade. Outnumbered, they wilt surrender.”

The youthful girl smiled winsomely and shook her head. “They wilt tell others of what they saw, Nemgas. They art men. I hath a better idea.”

The tunnel entrance was not auspicious. It was set in what at first appeared to be an abandoned village. Half crumbled homes dotted the rocky landscape. A few of the buildings were still standing, though most had lost their roofs to the wind. In the centre of the town was a modest clay building. There were no windows, only a single doorway wide enough for two men standing abreast to enter. The doorway was built from rectangular bricks that stretched on either side twice as far as the door to support the heavy transom.

Flanking either side of the doorway was a soldier dressed in the green livery of Yesulam. Even though it was night, they had no fire lit. All of the buildings immediately surrounding the tunnel had been reduced to piles of rubble, giving the Magyars no room to approach. But there were enough obstructions to allow them to circle behind.

Except for Amile. She had removed her colourful tunic and breeches and bore only torn linens. Her arms, face and hair were smeared with the grime of the desert, and she stumbled noisily through the ruins, breathing heavily as if from exhaustion. The guards could not help but notice her as she almost collapsed into view.

“Help me!” she called in a half whisper. Amile slipped and fell to the ground. The two guards looked on bewildered.

“Who are you woman?” the guard on the left snapped, gripping his curved sword tightly in one hand. The second guard had not yet reached for his weapon.

Amile rolled over, deliberately exposing one of her breasts. It too was dirty, but still soft from maidenhood. “Men! They kidnapped me! Ye must help!”

“Come closer woman,” the second guard called. His voice was softer, but there was an anxious quality to it. “What have they done to you? What men do you speak of?”

Amile put one hand to her forehead as she pushed herself to her feet. The torn linen that barely clung to her chest now revealed both her breasts. In the cold air, they could not help but entice lonely men. “Please, help me,” she said again. “I must get...” Amile fell to her knees again from weariness. The first guard tensed while the second took a few steps closer to her.

“Who did this to you?” the second guard asked as he reached for his blade.

“Be careful. She has the look of a prostitute to me,” the first guard snapped as he began to glance at the nearby buildings.

Amile gasped, her eyes wide. She recoiled from them both, trying to crawl backwards. “No! Not you too! Don’t make me do that!”

The second guard grunted unpleasantly and held out his open hand to her. “No one will harm thee here, lass. Come where it is safe.”

The first guard would have said more, but felt a knife blade at his throat. “I wouldst cut out thy tongue for calling her a whore,” Pelgan whispered. “But I hath too kind a heart for e’en that.”

The second guard turned in time to see his companion sink to his knees after Pelgan smacked him in the back of the head with the hilt of his dagger. He joined his companion on the ground a moment later when the flat of Chamag’s axe struck him in the forehead.

Amile chuckled to herself as she leapt to her feet. “Why didst thou not let me take him? I couldst hath done so!”

The burly Magyar laughed and nudged the unconscious guard towards her with his boot. “Thou mayest take him now.”

Nemgas looked at them both and nodded. “Good work. Now tie them up and leave them here. There shouldst be no guards on the other side. We shalt be safe here on in.”

“Safe?” Gamran asked as he pilfered one of the guard’s purses. “We wilt be in the city of our enemy, Nemgas. Thou hast a strange idea of safe.”

“Yesulam dost possess myriad tunnels and sewers. We wilt be safe enough.” He gestured towards Berkon and Kaspel who were with the horses at the river’s edge. “‘Tis safe! Bring them and we shalt be on our way.”

It did not take long before both guards were securely bound and left at their posts. Pelgan set their waterskins in their laps where they could be reached, but with Gamran’s help, all of their other possessions were stripped. Quite a few of the more useful found their way into the Magyar packs.

Nemgas looked up into the Heavens and grunted. “We hath only a few more hours of darkness. ‘Twill take us an hour at least to cross the tunnel. Let us waste no more time.”

Taking the lead to Sir Petriz’s bay mare and with a torch in his other hand, Nemgas led them into the tunnel. The ceiling was only seven feet high, which meant that the bonds on the knight’s legs had to be cut. His hands were still bound at the wrist behind him. Yet still he stared in awe at the tunnel walls. There was a subtle verve in his eyes that Nemgas could not ever recall seeing before.

The tunnel sloped downwards fairly quickly. It was only marginally a ramp, as frequently the sharp corners of a stone step would emerge, and they would all have to take an extra step to carefully guide the horses down. After about ten minutes the tunnel levelled out. It never grew any taller or wider, and the stone remained a featureless sandy brick. The clop of horse hooves reverberated and echoed back to them.

In all of it, Nemgas was surprised to hear Petriz speaking to him in his native tongue. “This is Yezekiah’s Tunnel, isn’t it?” Nemgas glanced back at the knight and narrowed his eyes. “I am not some ignorant soldier, Magyar. I know what is written in the Canticles. And this tunnel was once used by Eli’s people to bring food and water into the city during a siege.”

Nemgas nodded his head slowly. “Aye. It has not been used much since then. The Yeshuel have kept it prepared should the city ever fall under attack. In one of the other buildings a team of horses was kept ready, and further down stream a boat is always waiting. There are other ways for the Patriarch to escape if it should come to it, but this is one of them.”

“A poor one,” Petriz noted drily. “If an invading army were to hold both ends, you’d be trapped inside.”

“Indeed,” Nemgas agreed. “It has never been used for that purpose. But it would be impossible for an army to mount a siege of Yesulam from this side of the Yurdon.”

“This side? Are we not under the river now?”

The air was growing damp, but there was no visible sign of water along the tunnel walls. “Aye. If you are quiet, you may even hear it.”

Petriz said no more, and the Magyars were equally silent. As the minutes slipped past, they each began to feel something they could not quite define. There was a heaviness to the air that was almost stifling. And with the walls pressed so close each of them was beginning to feel as if they were just as much a prisoner as the knight.

And then, in the background behind the clopping of hooves, they could hear the faintest of soughing. There was a flow of water overhead, a very heavy flow. The rock groaned from the weight of it, and each of them drew their arms in a bit closer. They never saw any cracks in the stone, but they certainly were scouring the walls to find them.

“What dost thou intend to do when we reach the other side?”

Chamag’s voice was so sudden that Nemgas nearly stopped right there. He glanced back over his shoulder at the large Magyar and shrugged his shoulders slightly. “We wilt need a place to hide. I fear that wilt be our first task.”

“Thou didst mention the sewers. Dost thou wish to sleep with the filth of the city?”

“Nae,” Nemgas grunted and shook his head. “Thou needst not fear that. Yesulam hast been built upon a hill, so there art many tunnels beneath it that hath no perfidious odour. I hath been thinking of hiding beneath the merchant’s district. There art many places there that wilt protect us. And it wilt allow us to seek information more openly than the priestly places.”

“But we wilt need to wear plain clothes?” Gamran asked, a half-smile on his face.

“Aye, I fear that thou hast spoken truly.”

Gamran chuckled and shook his head. He heaved a melodramatic sigh and lamented, “‘Tis the lot of a Magyar to always be unwanted! But at least we hath always been so brightly clad before!”

“And thou shouldst not steal all that thou seest,” Nemgas warned, knowing the news would break his fellow Magyar’s heart. “They hath little patience with thieves in Yesulam.”

“Truly an uncivilised place,” Gamran surmised with a bit of a bounce in his step.

Not a one of the Magyars failed to laugh.

“At last!” Nemgas said quietly. “See, ‘tis the end of the tunnel!”

Abruptly twenty paces ahead the walls spread outwards into a small antechamber. There was a closed door at the far end only faintly illuminated by their torches. Sconces stood on either side of the wooden door, but they were unoccupied.

“We art still underground,” Gelel observed in surprise as they spilled into the small antechamber. There was not enough room for all of them and their horses, and so the boy could only poke his head around the aperture.

“Aye, but what didst thou expect? We hath not climbed upwards at all.” Nemgas listened for a moment at the door before pushing it open. “Many centuries ago this room wast also guarded. Back in those days Yesulam had many enemies nearby. There wast a few battles when they feared they wouldst need this tunnel.”

Nemgas pushed the wooden door wide and thrust his torch forward. The hallway beyond was longer with several alcoves along the side in which a soldier could hide to defend against an enemy. A row of three doors lined the far wall. He poured into Kashin’s memories and knew immediately what lay beyond each.

“The two doors on either side art store rooms,” he explained as he led the others into the hallway. “Beyond the centre door is a staircase that wilt bring us out onto a higher landing, whence we wilt take a different path than the clerics of the Ecclesia would.”

“Stairs?” Amile asked as she passed into the hallway. “How wilt we guide the horses up?”

“Driheli horses they are,” Petriz declared with a bit of pride. “Stairs they can climb.”

“We wilt be careful,” Nemgas added.

The hallway was completely empty and only the light of their torches brought any illumination. Along the walls the stones had been stained black above each sconce. Despite being so far underground and left empty for so many centuries, the air was not stifling.

“Art thou certain they lie not in wait for us?” Kaspel asked quietly, his voice a harsh whisper. “Thou didst say that the tunnel hath not been used for centuries. But whither the dust?”

Nemgas frowned and thought back to what Kashin knew. “They dost keep these halls clean in case they must be used. I assure thee that we wilt not be ambushed.”

As he promised, there were no soldiers waiting behind the centre door. Only a long four foot wide staircase stretched up into the darkness above. The edges of the steps were rough as if hastily built. And indeed they were, constructed in the midst of a siege upon the city. But as far as Nemgas was concerned, they were large enough for horse hooves and perfectly solid.

“Slowly now,” he cautioned as he guided Petriz’s bay mare. When she saw Nemgas rising up the stairs, she lifted her fore hooves higher, and cautiously set them down in the centre of the step. Nemgas found himself smiling in admiration at the talented equine. Petriz was right. The Driheli horses had no difficulty with stairs.

After the first minute, Gelel let out a heavy breath. “How many stairs art there?”

“We passed beneath the river,” Nemgas reminded him. “And Yesulam hath been built upon a bluff. It wilt take some time. Patience.”

The stairwell turned from time to time, and Nemgas guessed that it had to be facing east again by the time they finally reached the top. It took them nearly ten minutes to reach the landing, and when they did, even Nemgas’s legs were sore from the climb. The horses were all quite happy to be out of the confining walls. They had been well behaved the whole time, but now that they had room to move, they stomped and snorted indignantly.

Petriz leaned against his bay mare and spoke some quiet words in her ear and that settled her down. The other four only required a quick tug on the reins to still them.

Along one side of the staircase one of the inlets for the sewer system brought mostly fresh water past. Set into the wall was another staircase, this one illuminated by a pair of sconces that had been freshly lit. The masonry continued into the darkness. The water trickled gently as it flowed, though there was a faint scent of something foul in the air.

“Why art those torches lit?” Pelgan asked. He gestured to the sconces with one dagger.

“We hath come into the main part of the sewers. There wilt be many lit torches. We may see an engineer or two, so we shouldst be careful. Withal, I doubt that they wilt be here fore the break of dawn.”

Nemgas did not feel worried about being discovered, but he was not willing to take any chances either. Kashin had never spent much time in the sewers, but the Yeshuel were required to study maps of them. Nemgas let his mind sink into those phantom memories and he could feel his way through them towards the merchants district. Without a word he guided them down several turns, some taking them away from the water, others taking them near sewage strewn rivulets. There was nothing too repugnant, but several times they all held their breath.

“What’s that?” Gamran asked as he turned his ear towards the low roof. Nemgas narrowed his eyes and listened. Faintly, coming from somewhere ahead, was the harmonious union of men’s voices.

“Chant,” Nemgas murmured. “‘Tis the dawn prayers!”

He could not help himself. The song evoked memories of a life that was not his own. He felt and saw the bright mornings, the voices arrayed around him in praise of Eli building a cathedral of sound that towered into the Heavens. Bright robes and dark faces, all topped with dark hair became clear to him. Serene smiles and calculated words reverberated between his ears. And his body felt the energy of a full day’s training with sword, hand, and shield.

Kashin’s memories were too much for him. Nemgas ran down the corridor until he saw a faint shaft of light cascading down one wall. He peered out through the opening and smiled as he saw sandalled feet moving past. And they were singing the prayers of the sun’s return. First light had come at last.

He held one hand over his mouth to still his friends to silence. They all watched him curiously. Petriz had his head lowered in prayer.

“What hast thou found?” Chamag asked brusquely with arms crossed over his chest. There was impatience in his voice, but Nemgas did not care.

“Yesulam. We hath arrived.” Nemgas looked back down the tunnel and sighed. “Come. We shalt find a place to stay. Soon we shalt rest.”

“And then?” the burly Magyar asked.

Nemgas glanced once to the prying knight and then back to his fellow Magyars. “And then we shalt find the priest who didst send the Driheli against us.”

“And stick a knife in his gullet,” Pelgan added. There were a few mirthless chuckles as they continued on their way through the subterranean halls.

The Keepers were so tired that they did not object when their initial questions about the strange ship that rode the air were turned aside by the enigmatic Nauh-kaee. Through Abafouq, Guernef told them that they must rest and recover their strength first, and that when they awoke, their many questions would be answered. James was the first to fall asleep, and after Jessica had cast another healing charm upon the donkey, she too succumbed to exhaustion. One by one the rest of them let their weary eyes close.

Only Charles remained awake to watch as white-capped mountains slowly glided past the ship. Banks of cloud gathered about them, but parted before them to allow them to pass. There were nearly a dozen Nauh-kaee flying in the air around them, with four harnessed to the front of the ship like a team of horses tethered to a carriage. There were two more on each side, and another two in the rear. Guernef remained in the ship with them, watching each of them as they fell asleep.

For the first time in what seemed a long time, Charles knew that he did not have to worry about the safety of his friends. He could relax and allow himself the leisure of more pleasant thoughts. Settling down near the rear of the vessel, he undid the straps on his back and set what remained of their belongings to one side. He then curled his long tail around his flanks and became very still.

One of the disciplines he had learned in his many years at Sondeshara had been to remain still for hours and meditate on his Sondeck. Yet flesh could never be as motionless as stone. His granite body was immovable and finally at rest. Stone did not like to move, and while the Binoq’s spells had allowed him to move like creatures of flesh did, Charles was still stone and knew it was better to be still and let the world move around him.

Ruminating on it brought him a measure of contentment. It was also the first time since the Runecaster’s curse had made him this way that he was not surrounded by rock. He didn’t have to share the world with the mountains anymore. He could be his own summit and root. The delicate yet firm wood of the boat was his trees, the saddle bags his bushes, and his companions the many lives he felt and watched over that made his slopes their home.

The rat allowed himself to sink into those pleasing thoughts for several minutes before a sharp spike intruded. “Matthias.”

He did not need to move at all to recognize the harsh squawk as that of Guernef the white gryphon. But it was the first time he had heard anything intelligible from the Nauh-kaee. Though it felt like a strain, he managed to turn his head in acknowledgement of the greeting.

“Matthias, I must talk to you now while the others sleep. And you must talk to me.” The Nauh-kaee leapt over Habakkuk’s sleeping form to stand before the stone rat. The kangaroo’s ears flicked once, but he did not wake.

He moved his jaw. “How can I understand you?”

“Because I choose to allow you to understand me.” Gold and black eyes studied him with such predatory acuteness that Charles was surprised when his rodent instincts did not kick in. Normally, an avian who studied him so intently and with so little obvious concern would have made him tremble and yearn to find someplace to hide. But not now. He just didn’t understand why he should be afraid.

Guernef did not wait for him to reply before continuing. The words that the rat heard were harsh and lecturing. “You have become too comfortable being stone. Twice now you were nearly lost to the mountains.”

“But I am still here,” Charles pointed out. He felt vaguely threatened now, and felt his Sondeck begin to flare to irritated life.

“I see your thoughts. They carry on the wind. You have begun to see yourself as the mountains see themselves.”

Charles did not blink, but only pondered the words. He had felt the intense pressure inside the peaks of the Barrier Range. Their roots went deep into the Earth where it was always warm, and life grew along their base, climbed their slopes, and was supported and observed in every way by the snow-topped summit that shouldered the sky. No age went by without their notice. They could be jealous warden or helpful protector. It was an appealing notion. He did feel rather like his life had been in pursuit of the latter ideal.

“Stop it, Matthias.” Guernef command was strident and his eyes burned ever fiercer. “The enemy made you stone by a curse, but you are in danger of fulfilling it. You may dream of being a mountain, but it can never be. You are only so much stone. If you allow yourself, you will either be trapped as mineral, or you will become a stone spirit forever bound to your mountain, unable to leave.”

“But Akkala and Velena have marked me,” Charles lifted one paw and gestured to the two Lothanasi symbols that glowed with a faint light upon his chest. On the right was the twin spirals of Akkala and on the left Velena’s circle atop a cross that resembled a looking glass. The Goddess of Healing and of Love. When the Runecaster died, their power would return him to flesh.

Guernef was clearly not impressed. “If you give into stone, you will fail them. You will stay a creature of stone and never again see those you love.”

“That is not what I want.” In his mind he felt his children climbing up his slopes and his wife Kimberly and Baerle picking cherries from the bushes that grew in his soil. The thought pleased him.

The Nauh-kaee lunged forward with a violent squawk. Charles felt so lethargic, he could not even bring his arms up to defend himself. The beak griped him about his neck and he cringed as it scraped and nicked his granite flesh. Guernef leaned back slowly, his wings spread menacingly. “You are a fool. Be flesh for them, not stone. Remember them as flesh, or you will leave them in misery.”

“I will keep them safe,” Charles assured him, remaining still, though very upset that he’d been scarred. It would take decades to heal.

“You will leave them in sorrow.” Guernef snapped, and the rat felt the words jab into his mind like a knife. “Stone is jealous and thinks only of itself. You are better than that. Do not leave your wife without a husband and your children without a father. Is that what you truly want?”

Charles shook his head slowly. It took some effort. “No. I want to be both. I want to keep them safe and see them grow. I miss them all terribly.”

The Nauh-kaee’s voice became softer, almost compassionate. “A mountain can only watch; it could never be involved in the lives of those it loves. You have a soul for flesh, not for stone. Do not be seduced by its cold promises.”

The more he thought about it, the more the rat knew that he wanted to be able to hold his children in his arms. And he certainly yearned to train his youngest Ladero in the arts of the Sondeckis. He could not do that as stone.

“What would you have of me?”

Guernef leaned back on his haunches. He leonine tail began to lazily flick up and down. “As stone, you will not feel the need to sleep. Spend this time thinking of your family and all those you love that you left behind in Metamor. Think on all those things that you would like to do for each of them when you return. Things that require you to be flesh. Recall all that you have done with each of them, and recall what it felt like to have fur and skin instead of just stone. Think on those things of flesh and blood, not stone and rock.”

Charles ponderously began to nod. “I will do as you suggest.” Guernef regarded him intently for a moment before turning his gaze away. “I never asked for this,” he added. “But I have been able to help them as stone in ways that I could never have as flesh. Do you want me to forget that?”

“No. Remember it later.” Guernef paused and then opened his black beak again. “When you enter the caves of Qorfuu, you will be surrounded by ancient stone. It will be very appealing to you, but you must not join with it, ever. The winds can only keep you aloft for so long.”

Charles was not sure what the Nauh-kaee meant by that cryptic remark, but nodded again. “I will do as you say. Thank you, Guernef. And thank you for finally allowing me to understand you.”

“What was said was for your ears alone. I would not have otherwise.” And then the Nauh-kaee leapt back over Habakkuk and settled down in the centre of the ship. Within moments, he appeared to be asleep.

Charles settled back into his torpor, but this time filling his mind with images of Kimberly, Baerle, and his children. One by one he thought of them and what he would do first when he saw them again. He smiled. Just thinking about kissing his wife reminded him how good it would be to be flesh again.

It was well after dawn of the next day when James finally opened his eyes again. He was staring at the bottom of the air-filled cloth balloon that held the ship aloft. The tethering ropes held taut and audibly thrummed at each change of the winds. The air was surprisingly warm, and for several long minutes, the donkey could not understand or guess where in the world he was.

Finally, the soreness throughout his body brought his mind back to the present. He blinked a few times and brought a stiff hand up to feel at the left side f his face. The damage done to his eye had been healed by the magic, but he winced several times as he ran his thick fingers across his muzzle. Faintly he felt the outlines of scabbed wounds crisscrossing his hide. He briefly wondered if he’d bear the scars the rest of his life. He rather hoped it made him look distinguished instead of deformed like some of the old soldiers who spent their days at taverns drinking ale and talking about the good old days until one day they just couldn’t get up anymore.

James sighed and looked around. The others were still asleep, though from the way they were slowly stirring it would not be long until they woke too. Charles had his back to him and appeared to be intently going through his belongings for something. For a moment James thought to speak and talk to his friend, but no, he needed a moment alone.

It was strange now that he thought about it. For most of his life he’d felt alone, and now that he was in the company of people he’d come to know and that had come to know him, he wanted to be alone. It was not that there weren’t other people he’d known throughout his life. It was just that he’d always felt as if he were on the outside looking in at life.

He’d spent his entire life at Metamor, and for many years he thought he would never even venture beyond the city walls. His father and older brother had been killed during the Battle of Three Gates, leaving him alone with his mother. He’d been just old enough to be changed by the original spells, and so had been trapped at the city. At his mother’s behest he had not tried to join Metamor’s armies. Instead he took a job working in a meat merchant’s shop to help support them both.

And then his mother died shortly thereafter leaving him with nowhere to go. When he went on his yearly patrol mission, the other soldiers dismissed his abilities with bow and sword, making him feel even more useless. Eventually, he’d given up entirely on ever doing anything more than working in the merchant’s shop. He didn’t even have hope of becoming a merchant, let alone prosperous or important.

And when the Winter Assault destroyed even that, taking away from him the few people who knew him. At first he’d thought himself cursed by the gods. He’d been sent on an errand into the castle that day. He could remember cursing the hideous storm and how it would naturally fall to him to do that odious chore. And then soldiers had hustled him into the Cathedral to keep him safe. When the fighting ended, he’d found that everyone else at the shop or in town had been killed.

For days he wandered about in a daze unsure of what to do. He would frequently just break down and cry. Never had he expected that any would try to help him. In fact, even after Charles had found him a place to stay at an Inn and bought him a meal, he’d thought it was all some elaborate hoax that would end with him being indentured to pay off his tab.

It took him some time before he began to realize that the rat meant exactly what he said. He truly wanted to help James get back on his hooves and do something good with his life. Nor had it been merely an act of charity. Charles befriended him, and while he was a bit overprotective, he was still a friend.

Those five months in Glen Avery had seemed a dream. For once, others sought to involve him in their lives. He was not constantly denigrated, but assisted and thanked for his help. And not one of the rat’s companions acted like James didn’t belong at the table with them. And now here he was in the company of new friends, fighting to stop a terrible evil. He still did not understand how he could hope to do any good, but he knew that for his friends and especially for Charles he would try his hardest.

Feeling the warmth inside the boat fill him, he began to stretch out his legs and arms. The rat heard him at last and turned his head. “Ah, good morning, James. How are you feeling?”

James let a smile cross his supple lips. “Better. Still sore though.” Though he’d wanted to be alone earlier, after spending a few moments considering how events in his life had turned out, he didn’t really want that anymore. He was happy for the conversation.

“Your face is looking much improved. Jessica’s healing magic has definitely helped.”

“I hope I’m not going to be disfigured.” He saw the lanky black hand-shaped scar that adorned the right side of the rat’s face, and would do so for the rest of his life, even after he returned to flesh. James immediately felt guilty. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think.”

Charles shook his head and idly slipped the scroll case he held in one paw back into a satchel. “It could have been healed, but I asked for the gods to leave it.”

James blinked in surprise, ears tilting forward. “Why?”

“I was touched by a Shrieker. And I lived. This mark is proof of it. How many others can say that? I doubt there is anyone else alive in this world who can make the same claim.”

The donkey laughed quietly as he finally understood. “You’re showing it off?”

“I can think of worse scars,” the rat replied with a shrug. “But you will not have to worry. I doubt that your cuts will leave any scars. At least any that can be seen through your pelt.”

James nodded and leaned back against the gunwale. Lindsey was stretching his arms wide and yawning, but his eyes were still quite bleary. Beside him Habakkuk was also beginning to stretch out his legs.

“What is this ship?” James finally asked, gesturing with his arms. Lifting them high hurt a little, but no more than after several hour’s practice with his sword.

“I wish I knew,” Charles replied. His black gem-like eyes narrowed as he examined the interior of the hull. “I suspect it is of Åelvish design. Although it’s far more plain than I would expect from them. But you can see a few traces of it. Look at the inside of this crosshatch. Notice the fine lacework? That’s a knot peculiar to the Åelves.”

James followed the rat’s finger and saw several strands of the wood underneath the cross beam were intricately interwoven. As he looked at it, he thought for certain he saw that it was shaped like a mighty tree. His eyes widened in fascination. “Remarkable!”

“It is a creation of the Åelf,” a third voice, one that was strikingly powerful, echoed in his ears. James turned and saw the frightening Nauh-kaee Guernef standing before him. James hadn’t even heard him land!

“You can speak!”

“I will speak more soon, and of this ship. Once you and your friends have broken your fast. There are many days yet to our journey before we arrive, so rest and recover. Soon I will answer what questions I can.” And then the white gryphon jumped into the air and dove over the side of the ship. Before either Charles or James could reach the other side to see what had happened, he swooped upwards and into the distance, wings spread wide and body lifted upon the winds.

“I hope he doesn’t do that again,” James said as he peered over the edge of the ship. Though many mountain peaks glided past at eye level, the ground was still a long way beneath them.

“I fear we have many more days of it to go.” Though there was a far away look in the rat’s eyes, James knew he was just as queasy about being so far from the earth.

It was another hour later before the rest of the Keepers were finally awake and fed. Some of their food had been lost on the river, and so they had to make do with hard bread and a bit of cheese. They were all sore from their flight, something that none of them wished to speak of. But each of them were keen on learning more about the vessel the Nauh-kaee had rescued them with. Not even Abafouq knew what it was.

First they marvelled at the massive balloon that kept them aloft. Then they watched the Nauh-kaee who flew along side of them. Lastly, they had each taken turns peering over the side of the ship only to sink back inside a moment later with an uneasy look in their eye. All except Jessica who jested kindly of their acrophobia while pretending to replicate Guernef’s frightening dive. But the looks of nausea that some of them quickly bore were enough to convince her otherwise.

When Guernef finally returned to the vessel, some of them had begun to grow impatient. “We know that you can speak,” Lindsey announced as he sat on his satchel against the side of the hull. “So tell us what this ship is, and where it is taking us.”

Guernef stared at the northerner with deep golden eyes. Lindsey kept his arms crossed, refusing to be intimidated. But that did not seem to be Guernef’s intent. “The ship, as some have already guessed, was built by the Åelves many millennia ago. It is the nature of all creatures to be born, grow into maturity, enjoy the wind on which they ride, and then die. In their death they make way for a new generation to tread the world. When the Åelves made this ship, they were in the height of adolescence. No part of this world could go unexplored or unmastered. Not even the sky.”

The Keepers all crowded a bit closer to listen to the Nauh-kaee. Charles could not help but grin as he heard the inflection of a true storyteller buried somewhere beneath the monstrous feathers and fur. Even Abafouq appeared rapt with awe.

“But the Åelves have lived long lives. As time passed and their race left the peaks of adolescence for the crags of maturity, they left the air to creatures born to it. Their fleet of ships they tore down, creating memorials to their days in the sky, but never again venturing into its heights. Our races have long been friends, and it was our knowledge that led the Åelves to ride the winds. So it was to our race that the last vessel was given. It is called Nak-Tegehki by my people. The Sky Leaving.”

Kayla frowned and gestured at the ship. “I heard that the Åelves always made very intricate buildings. Apart from a few pieces, this ship looks quite plain.”

Guernef turned his head to her, eyes intense. “You have seen clearly. But the wood that the Åelves used has long since rotted. It is our charge to keep this vessel built as a sign of that friendship. We have replaced every bit of wood many times over. But we are not craftsmen of wood, cloth or rope. That is why much of this is plain. But from age to age the Åelves will send us a piece they fashioned for Nak-Tegehki, and we preserve them as best we can.”

“I had no idea that the Nauh-kaee possessed such a vessel,” Abafouq said in amazement. There was a look of disappointment in his face though. “I had no idea.”

“It was a gift from the Åelves to the Nauh-kaee. Now it is being used for the first time, as a gift from the Nauh-kaee to the seven of you. Perhaps the Åelves in their wisdom bequeathed it to us for this very time. None can say, and the winds only carry us where we must go. They do not tell us the why.”

“And where is it we are going?” Lindsey asked as he crossed his booted feet at the ankles.

“To Qorfuu,” Guernef replied. “It will be some days before we arrive. But it would have been another two months on foot, and none of us can spare that time.”

“So why didn’t you bring this ship to us when we began our journey?” Kayla asked while one paw absently rubbed the hilt of her katana.

Guernef shook his massive head. “The winds were not right. And it had to be summoned. Only one amongst my race can summon the ship, but it takes many to guide it.”

“And who is the one to summon it?” Jessica squawked curiously.

“It is I.” None of them appeared particularly surprised by this. “I am the Kakikagiget of my people, as Abafouq has told you. In your tongue, my task means ‘Listener of Winds’. I act as storyteller, sage, and soothsayer for my people. I alone control the true magic of the winds, and I alone can summon Nak-Tegehki.”

“So why tell us this only now?” Charles asked from the rear of the group. Even laying on his lower torso, he was still taller than the rest. It was strange not to be the shortest of his friends.

“And for that matter,” Lindsey added, “why couldn’t we understand you before?”

“I was not ready for you to understand me,” Guernef replied without much verve. “But you know now because the winds say it is time for you to know.” He lifted his head and his wings began to stretch. “I must fly.”

Without even waiting for the others to object, Guernef jumped out of the vessel again. James covered his eyes quickly to avoid seeing the gryphon fall over the side.

“Well that was cryptic,” Habakkuk remarked in amusement.

“You would know something about that,” Charles pointed out, though there was good humour in his voice.

“I fear I did not know this,” the kangaroo replied, patting his paw on the wood beneath him. “I’d love to know how they are able to fashion even this wood without hands. Ah well.”

“I guess there’s nothing else we can do then,” Kayla said as she leaned back against the side of the hull. “How long before we reach this Qorfuu?”

Abafouq shrugged his shoulders. “A few days at least. I don’t really know.”

“I thought you lived in these mountains,” the skunk pointed out.

The Binoq laughed. “On the mountains and beneath them! Not hundreds of feet above them! I don’t recognize them from this high.”

“Oh, of course,” Kayla laughed a bit, and slowly she began to smile very wide. “You know, this is the first time in a long time that I remember being able to just sit and relax without worrying about anything.”

“I don’t advise taking a walk if you grow bored,” Lindsey grunted as he hunkered down.

“But what can we do here for so many days?” Jessica asked while stretching her wings.

“Talk,” Charles said. He leaned forward some, paws resting at his middle. “And I know just the way to start. I suggest that we tell each other the first thing we’ll do when we return to Metamor.”

Even Abafouq managed to find something to say.

He was not sure how long he’d been unconscious. One minute he’d been staring at the traitorous Bishop Jothay of Eavey, and the next a dull pain resounded in his mind and all the world became black. As thoughts began to swirl in his pain-addled head, only one coherent idea broke through. He had to warn Kehthaek and Felsah, but as the real world took form around him, he knew it was too late.

Akaleth woke to the sound of low chanting voices and a dull throbbing where he’d been struck. The ground beneath him was stone, and he felt very cold. As he blinked light into his eyes, he realized that he was somewhere underground.

Akaleth tried to stir, but found his arms and legs were shackled to the ground. His black cassock was gone, and he was left dressed only in his linens. A short distance away were all of his things, the whip, the screws, even the small mirror he kept with him for reflecting light.

His eyes scanned wider and he saw that he was in a large chamber. Nine pillars stood against the domed walls, each pillar arching along the ceiling to unite at the centre. Along the floor, veins of fulgurite stretched from each pillar towards a large stone altar. Along the walls stood men dressed in heavy concealing robes who were each chanting in a hypnotic rhythm. Atop the altar was a small dirty boy bound hand and foot. Behind him was the Bishop.

“Ah, you are awake at last,” Jothay crooned in a sickeningly sweet voice. A rapturous glamour crossed his face and he stroked one hand along the haft of the golden blade. “You will feed him one day too, Father, but not today. But he is hungry. Hungry. So hungry.”

“What are you doing?” Akaleth cried out. He wasn’t going to hurt the child was he? If there was one thing that irked Akaleth more than pagans it was seeing harm come to a child. He could well remember the sting of his father’s whip on his back all the years of his youth. Only the Ecclesia could keep the children safe. Or so he’d always thought.

The child tried to cry out but a gag had been stuffed into his mouth. His eyes were wide with terror. Akaleth screamed for him as Jothay plunged the blade through the child’s chest. The boy’s body began to spasm and arched towards the golden sword. Blood rose up along the metal before it seemed to evaporate into the air. The flesh began to shrivel as the child’s body was quickly desanguinated. Even the desicated corpse was drawn into that blade. Within moments, there was nothing left but ash.

A poisonous grin came to Jothay’s face as his eyes stared ravenously down at the altar and the quivering blade. Those eyes slowly lifted, yellowed with jaundice, and they met the Questioner with a sadistic glee.

“And now, Father, I leave you in Zagrosek’s capable hands.” Akaleth drew back as far as he could before the chains gripped him. The black clad Sondecki was staring down at him with a vacant expression. “You will tell him who else knows about Marzac. And until you do, you will feel pain.”

Akaleth looked at Zagrosek one last time before closing his eyes. The pain would come. He knew it well. Oh yes did he ever know pain.

He still screamed.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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