Book 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
“There,” Abafouq pointed. He stood at the railing of Nak-Tegehki and gestured toward two peaks that towered over their neighbours. Nestled in the cleft between the peaks was a hollow of jagged rock, and inside was a black hole standing open like a screaming mouth. “That is the Door of Mahku. We are above the Tabinoq now, and through that passage we will find Qorfuu.”
Kayla stood next to the little Binoq and nodded her black-and-white furred head. “What does Mahku mean in your tongue?”
Abafouq beamed as he tightly held the railing. “Mahku is Lord of the Wind. His mighty breath brings fresh air to our caves. Within that door one can feel his touch. Those who are not prepared will be swept from their feet and dashed against the rocks inside.”
“How strong are the winds?” Jessica asked. The hawk stood a few paces behind them and had been preening her wing feathers. Even after nearly five days of rest she still did not have all her feathers arranged the way she liked.
“They are strong,” Abafouq admitted. “Not quite as strong as this.” He lifted one hand over his head. The air above Nak-Tegehki’s keel was fierce and cold. It whipped his short black hair around his ears.
“So long as we can enter.” Lindsey muttered. He patted one hand on the wood beneath him. “But where are we going to land this? How do we land it?”
The white gryphon lifted his head from the bow of the vessel and turned golden eyes upon the Northerner. “I will land him. And soon. You will not have far to walk to reach the Door.”
“You won’t be coming with us?” James asked. The donkey was sitting next to Charles and going over their supplies. They had very few left now, and would run out in another week more. But Abafouq assured them that they would find food aplenty in Qorfuu, and so they did not bother to ration what they possessed. But they worried still.
Guernef squawked once to the donkey, and then turned his head back to the mountains before them.
“I guess that means no,” Charles murmured to his friend. “He might not fit in the caves.”
“There’s a pleasant thought,” Lindsey groused as he ran a whetstone along the edge of his axe. “I hope I’m not going to spend the entire time crawling through this Binoq city.”
Abafouq stepped down from the side of the ship and looked the sizable Northerner over. Lindsey was easily twice the Binoq’s height, and perhaps more. Charles guessed him to be six-and-a-half feet. It was not uncommon for the Northern men to be so tall. It was said that in days long past the races of men and giants intermingled in that frozen landscape. Most scholars thought such theories poppycock, but after living in a valley of animal-men – not to mention becoming one himself – Charles was willing to believe many strange things.
“No,” the Binoq said after finishing his appraisal. “You should be able to stand most of the time. You will need to be careful in many rooms. Caves are not like the houses of wood and stone your people build. The ceilings are not flat and bend where they will.”
“So why not level them out?” James asked curiously.
Abafouq folded his hands together before him and pursed his lips as if he were about to launch into a discourse on cave stability. But before he could open his mouth to speak, the vessel began to shudder beneath them.
“What was that?” Kayla asked with raised hackles. She gripped the railing so tight that her claws were splintering the wood.
“We’re descending,” Jessica replied, stretching one wing out to the horizon. “It was nothing more than a change of the wind.”
“So we’re going to land soon? It’ll be good to stretch my legs again.” James smiled and wiggled one hoof in the air.
“I find that ironic considering that a few days ago you were thrilled to finally have a chance to rest,” Charles pointed out with an amused grin. In the last few days he had spent as much time as possible thinking thoughts of flesh. It had been strange at first, but slowly more and more emotions began to return to him. It surprised him to realize how cold he had grown in the last month. While his friend might be glad to walk again, the rat was terrified that he would slip into stone thought again.
James set his hoof back down with a thunk. “That was a few days ago. Now I just want to move again!”
“I think we’re going around the mountains,” Jessica pointed with her wing. “We’re turning east again.”
For three and a half days they had headed east. Sometime in the night of the third day they had turned southeast, and had held that course ever since. No longer could they see the green line of the Elderwood Forest on the horizon. Somewhere to the southwest lay the plains of the Outer Midlands. It was remarkable how far they had come in so short a time. The last time he had been this far east nearly eight years ago, it had taken three months for him to cross the Midlands to reach Metamor. Now they had done it in a month and a half.
“There is a plateau beyond Mahku’s Gates,” Abafouq informed them. “I believe that is where we are going. The path from there to the Door is not difficult.”
Kayla leaned her head over Nak-Tegehki’s railing again. Her long striped tail lifted a few feet to give her better balance. “I don’t see any signs of sentries or fortifications.”
Abafouq laughed as the ship shuddered again. “There’s no need. No humans have ever found these caves. All we need to fear are wild animals. A few guards deep inside keep them from inhabiting our passages.”
“And none have dared try since the days of the last King of the Midlands,” Habakkuk said. He had been quiet for so long in his part of the vessel that nearly everyone had to turn and look at him. The kangaroo was nestled beneath his travelling quilts, with only his head poking above them. A moment ago his eyes had been closed. Now they were open and lucid. Charles had to wonder if the roo had merely been pretending to be asleep.
“Not completely true,” Abafouq admonished with a small smile. “There have been hunters and woodsmen who have scoured the mountains seeking glory. Few have returned to tell their tales. My people do not want to be discovered.”
Habakkuk nodded slowly, though there was an unpleasant moue on his muzzle. “There are always fools who seek to challenge the unknown. And there always will be. And almost to a man they will remain unknown to history. But it only takes one to defeat the unknowable horrors they taunt for the world to tremble.”
“Like Yajakali?” Abafouq asked, his voice quiet. He whispered that name as if afraid its bearer might hear.
Habakkuk began to nod when another tremor shook the vessel. Kayla cried out and pushed herself back inside. “We’re definitely landing. I think I saw the plateau.”
“Well, we should make ready to travel again,” Charles announced. “I should probably continue to carry our supplies.”
“That is wise,” Abafouq agreed. “Let’s secure our belongings again. We have only a few minutes before we land.”
It took less time than the Binoq surmised. As they were tying the last satchel to the stone rat’s back, Guernef stood and spread his wings. All around them mountain peaks blocked the sky. With a heavy shudder, Nak-Tegehki came to rest upon the broad mesa. “It is time for you to walk again,” the Nauh-kaee’s strident voice cried from the bow. He turned his head and met them with golden eyes. “You have much yet to do in these mountains. I will join you again when you have left Qorfuu.”
“So you won’t be joining us,” James said to himself. The donkey gripped the side of the vessel and slowly scrambled over. His hooves crushed soft pebbles against the hard stone. He kept one hand on the railing to steady himself. “This is an amazing ship.”
Charles laughed a bit as he leapt over the side. He splayed his toes in the gravel as he landed. Not a one of the satchels jostled. “It sure feels good to walk again.” And even as he spoke, he felt the immensity of the mountain beneath him. He drew his thoughts back, focussing his attention on the Nauh-kaee. Each of them had landed alongside the craft. They were all the same white in colour as Guernef, and their eyes were impenetrably alien to him. He could not imagine how an intelligent mind lurked behind those avian orbs.
“I just hope that your people will have some place warm for us to stay,” Kayla said as she held her cloak tightly about her shoulders. “I’m tired of being cold.”
Lindsey helped Habakkuk over the side of the railing and nodded his head. “I’m used to the cold, but a warm fire would be really nice about now.”
“I am sure we will have warmth a plenty this evening,” Abafouq assured them as he jumped down from the railing. “And something warm in our bellies too.” Guernef landed behind him so softly that Charles did not even hear the pebbles stir. The Binoq smiled and glanced over his shoulder. “And so you will leave us again my friend?”
“It is how it must be,” Guernef replied, though for the first time there seemed to be a hint of melancholy in his scratchy voice. “It is not permissible for one such as I to venture into Qorfuu. I will be waiting. What comes next is a journey we must all make together. For now, I return Nak-Tegehki to his resting place. Perhaps in another thousand years he will see service again.”
Jessica opened her beak to thank him, but he jumped into the air too quickly. The other Nauh-kaee spread their wings and began to fly. The vessel stirred against the pebbly mesa before rising after the gryphons into the sky. They watched in silence for several minutes, until the huge balloon that kept the vessel aloft disappeared behind one of the peaks to the north.
At long last, Habakkuk let out his breath. “I doubt we will ever see Nak-Tegehki again. The adolescence of the Åelves, he called it. How true indeed.”
They stood silently for a few seconds more before Abafouq spoke. “Well, there is no sense in waiting any longer. Let us continue on our way.”
No one objected, and after tying the guideline around their middle, they resumed their old travelling formation. Before them towered the two largest mountains nearby. The mesa fell away on three sides in sheer cliffs, but the northwestern face abutted one of the two mountains. They were well above the tree-line, but also many fathoms beneath the ice caps. All that they could see was dusty gravel and the bare face of rock.
The mesa was not completely flat. As they neared the grey spire they encountered a gentle upwards slope. A icy cool wind began to blow down from the peak. Apart from Charles, they each drew their cloaks more tightly about their heads and shoulders to cover ears already swelling from the chill. The rat felt the cold only as a subtle hardening of his granite flesh. There was no pain in it for him.
When they left the mesa and started along a crossways path towards the crevice between the two mountains, the wind became fiercer. Abafouq could still make his way without grasping at rock, but Kayla behind him was on all fours as she scrambled her way along the treacherous crags. And those following her were no better off. With four legs in his taur form, Charles was able to scale the mountain path without using his hands, but only just.
“Just a little bit further,” Abafouq called back as he scrambled up a rather steep portion of the path. The path continued after a six foot rise. “I’ll anchor the line if you need me to.”
Kayla nodded to the little man as she dug her claws into the rock. “Please. I don’t think I can make this.”
The Binoq removed one of his iron stakes from his belt loop and hammered it into the rock. Charles felt a tinge of irritation from the mountain beneath him at each stroke. Everyone else held on as tightly as they could, each doing their best not to look down. Without the mesa beneath them, they could each see the steep slope that gave way after perhaps thirty yards to a sheer drop. They had crossed many treacherous paths since setting out from Metamor, but not a single one of them had been pleasant. They would all be very happy to finish this rise.
“There,” Abafouq called as he deposited his hammer in its loop. “Give the line a tug, Kayla. It should be solid.”
The skunk nodded a bit uncertainly, but tug the rope she did. It held firmly, and a moment later, Kayla drug herself up over the rise. She collapsed with a heavy breath next to the little man. “Please tell me we never have to do that again.”
Abafouq chuckled warmly. “Nay, this is the last one.”
“Good,” James grunted as he began to hoist himself up the rise. He could not find any good purchase with his hooves, and he scrapped them ineffectually against the rock wall. Charles took a step closer and gave his friend a firm heave. He was nearly rewarded with one of the donkey’s hooves striking him in the face, but James did manage the climb.
None of the others had any difficulty, and in a few minutes Abafouq had removed the stake and lead them between the two peaks. The wind grew stronger with each step, and soon even the Binoq had to grip the rock path with his hands. Deep shadows lined every crevice, making it even more difficult to judge handholds.
The path continued to climb for a few yards before it levelled out, allowing them a view of the northwestern peaks. Only a half hour ago they had been sailing upon the air over those lofty summits. Now they were fighting to hold on against a gale that threatened to cast them into the void behind them. Even though the crevice sloped down before them, the screaming air was so fierce they were forced to lay as flat as possible to keep moving forward.
And eventually, they could not move at all. “This is crazy!” somebody screamed from behind the rat. Over the wind, he could not tell who. It might have been the hawk.
The Binoq turned his head and shouted, “We have to keep going!”
James lifted his head long enough to cry “I can’t move!” He then lowered his snout back against the stone. His hooves were crushing the small bits of stone that held him against the wind.
Charles dug his paws into the stone, and began to wonder if he might be able to blend with it enough to move his friends to safety. Just a little dipping into the stone this one time would not hurt him, he felt sure. So long as he did not give into the thoughts of stone he would be just fine.
Just as he let his paws sink into the cool embrace of granite he heard a sharp commanding cry behind him. He knew without seeing that it was Jessica, for no other voice but hers could screech so stridently it made even his stone ears ache. A moment later a brilliant blue lens formed above them, and the winds disappeared.
“Hurry, I cannot keep them at bay for long,” Jessica said raggedly.
Abafouq wasted no time in scrambling forward. “The Door of Mahku is just ahead! I know a place we’ll be safe from the winds.”
Charles was grateful that he did not have to venture through the mountain again, and was quick to follow his friends as they scrambled down the incline. The blue shield the hawk erected was already showing signs of strain and buckling across its luminescent surface. Charles could see maddening azure hues streaming over the lens. It took him a moment to realize that he was seeing the wind itself.
“Everyone, here it is!” Abafouq called as he scrambled down a large incline. The path dropped abruptly a short distance ahead, and the walls of stone were wide on either side of a massive gorge leading back beneath them. The Door of Mahku.
“I won’t be able to keep the wind away much longer,” Jessica warned as she jumped down the ledge.
“We’ll need to anchor ourselves,” Abafouq announced. “Quick, everyone hammer your lead into the stone. I have a plan.”
Though it pained him to do it, Charles did not hesitate in driving one of his stakes into the wall of rock. The end of the stake was fastened to his lead line which was secure about his waist. This would not be the first time that he’d had to use it, but he certainly hoped it would be the last.
Abafouq grabbed another rope from the rat’s pack and began to stake it into the rock in three places. The other end he tossed into the gaping black maw. Though it was barely noon, no light seemed to penetrate the Door.
“Now, one by one we’re going to cut free our lead lines and climb down this rope. There is a side passage protected from the winds about thirty feet inside. I will not have any trouble finding that. If the winds come again, just hold tight to this guide rope and we’ll all make it safely, understand?”
The Binoq barely waited a full second before he cut his lead line and started down the tunnel. Kayla wrapped one arm around the guide line and kept the edge of her wakizashi against the end of her lead line. James was only a few feet behind her, eyeing the fading blue lens that kept the winds from them. Already distinct cracks were beginning to form. Jessica winced with each new crack. Charles knew it had to be taking all of her concentration to keep that shield in place.
“Here,” the rat said, grabbing the hawk about the waist with one arm. “I’ll hold you tight.” He let a bit of Sondeck flow into his grip. The wind would not be able to snatch her away now.
“Kayla, I cannot go further until you enter,” Abafouq called from out of the darkness. Charles peered after him, but saw nothing. The guide rope was swallowed up by the shadows within a foot.
The skunk took a deep breath and cut her lead line. Her steps were at first tentative, but as she passed through that gaping maw in the mountainside, she grew confident. A moment later the black tip of her tail vanished.
“Let’s move faster,” Lindsey grunted. “At this pace the wind will be back any second.”
James nodded. “Right.” He cut his lead line and started after the skunk. Charles took a dagger in his free paw and cut both his own and Jessica’s. The hawk had her wings drawn in tight, and her talons were scrapping feverishly against the rat’s flanks.
“That’s it,” Jessica said with a heave. Above them the blue lens shattered and vanished. Charles smashed into the wall as if some giant hand had struck him. Habakkuk and Lindsey were also thrown into the rock, the former gasping for breath and clutching at his side in agony. The guide rope drew taut instantly, and he thought he heard Kayla scream.
There was nothing else he could do. Keeping his grip on the hawk firm, he climbed around the face of the rock, his other paw holding the guide rope. As soon as he set his foreleg before the Door of Mahku, he felt himself sucked inwards. He lost his grip with all of his legs as they were sucked past him down the dark hole. He let out a cry as his other paw began to slip along the guide rope. The sky before his face was a brilliant white agony as the wind bit at his jewelled eyes. And inside the tunnel, the howling of the wind was a continuous thunderclap in his mind.
Charles spread his legs out as much as he could and let his paw slip along the rope. His only hope was that Abafouq and the others had found the side tunnel. If they were crying out to him, there was no hope for him to hear it. He could not even hear Jessica’s cries, and her beak was pressed against the top of his head. When a strange blot in the light came before his eyes, he could only assume it was the kangaroo climbing down the line too.
He pressed his cheek against the rope and felt the fibres as they brushed past his stone flesh. The tunnel sucked at him, the wind trying to pull him down some gullet whose end he could not fathom. He pushed his Sondeck into his arm, keeping his hold just firm enough that he would not fall but still slide. Inch by inch he allowed himself to move, all his will bound into his Sondeck. It snarled with fierce energy, like a dog on a leash allowed to snap at trespassers.
And then he felt something grabbing at his tail. A paw. Yes, that had to be a paw. He felt his tail guided into some place where there was no wind, and he straightened out his hind legs to follow after his tail. He clutched Jessica tightly around her waist, even as more and more of his stony flesh was drawn out of the tunnel and into the side passage.
He clutched the rope the whole time, drawing the end of it after him into the dark interior. “You’re safe now. Give me that rope.” It was Abafouq’s voice. Charles held the rope tight while the little man drew the end of it inside the aperture. At last, he let Jessica go and deposited her on the ground.
“Thank you, Charles,” Jessica wheezed as she stumbled to find her footing in the dark. “Lucien!” A soft light suffused the cave. They were in a small antechamber overlooking a long dark stairway. The black steps led down, but they could not see where.
“Charles, James, can you help me with this?” Abafouq’s strained voice was almost a snarl.
Both the rat and donkey wrapped their paws around the end of the rope and held it taut. His toes splayed against the stone, and he could feel Kayla sprawled out behind them. She was breathing heavily, but otherwise all right.
It took another minute, but finally the long feet of Habakkuk the kangaroo came into view. Charles reached forward and gripped the Felikaush’s legs and drew him inside the antechamber. He collapsed on the ground with a heavy tremble. He pressed one paw against his side and winced. “Did you break a rib?”
Habakkuk shook his head. “Just a bruise, I think.” He took a quick look around the room and grimaced. “Abafouq, I thought you said the wind was never that bad.”
The Binoq frowned visibly, and there was a worried look in his eye. “It never has been.” He tightened his grip on the rope. “Something must be terribly wrong.”
Jessica was looking over the room as her light spell continued to illuminate its contours. Charles glanced over his shoulder and watched as she slowly ran the edge of one wing along a jagged wall. The top of the stairs was formed by two columns of rock that had fused together over the course of millennia. But it had stopped growing long ago, whether from the touch of mortal hands or from the cold glacial air, the rat could not guess.
“At last,” Abafouq cried. Lindsey’s feet slipped into sight. Ten struggling seconds later, the Northerner was on the floor gasping for breath.
“Where in all the dungeons of Nasoj did that come from?” Lindsey spat as he groped to his feet.
“I don’t know,” Abafouq admitted as he let go of the rope. Charles and James did a moment later. It snapped from their hands and disappeared down the tunnel. “Maybe my people will know better. We shall ask the elders of Qorfuu when we see them.”
“Down this way I suppose?” James pointed at the stairs.
“Yes. Let us take a moment to catch our breath and then we’ll continue on down.”
It was the first time in a long time that any of them could remember the Binoq suggesting they wait. Charles slumped to the ground, and James nearly fell across his back. Lindsey leaned against one wall while Habakkuk and Kayla continued to lay where they had crawled. Only Jessica remained upright. The witchlight she had brought to life hovered in the air behind her head, but it could neither penetrate to the base of the stairs, or into the wind tunnel.
“Door of Mahku,” Lindsey muttered. “It was more like the Throat of Mahku. I am never doing that again.”
Abafouq frowned at that, and his eyes took on an almost bitter cast. There at the edges of his eyes, Charles fancied he saw tears begin to well. But the Binoq rubbed his face with his hands thoroughly before any could fall. Standing, he stretched and took the first step. “Well, it is a long way down, so we best get started.”
It took five full minutes before they reached the base of the stairs. They had been carved out of solid rock, a blend of basalt and granite that reflected little light. The ceiling was just high enough that none of them had to duck, but Lindsey grumbled several times when he came within inches of bumping his head. Charles was reminded of the strange tunnel beneath Metamor that he had traversed on the Winter Solstice before. But this stone was natural and possessed no magical properties.
Yet there was something strange about it. As the rat made his way down each step, he felt a guarded wariness pervading the cavern. It was as if the stone consciously pondered who they were, but at the same time flinched from inspecting them too closely. It did not even like allowing the rat to slide his claws through its substance.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, they found themselves in a small corridor that slowly widened the deeper it went. Both floor and ceiling were smooth and dry, and along the walls outlines of pillars could be seen. There was no light apart from the witchlights Jessica had summoned. Four of them scouted forward into the chamber, bringing a soft illumination to walls that felt lonely.
“Where are we?” James asked softly.
Abafouq bore a pensive frown. “In days of old, these passages were guarded. But it has been many generations since those days. It will be some time before we reach Qorfuu proper where my people live.”
“I hate to think what they might hope to do against anything that could get through the wind,” the donkey murmured, his voice trailing into whispers. He stepped as softly as he could upon the ground, but his hooves continued to clack. Kayla and Habakkuk both seemed to twitch each time that hollow sound echoed from the walls.
The passage was wide enough at its end for all of them to stand abreast. A stone wall greeted them at the base, and strange symbols were carved into the wall. Abafouq lifted his hand and drew his fingers across the chiselled runes. A small sigh brushed across his lips. “I made these.”
“What does it say?” Kayla asked. Nervously, she gripped Rickkter’s wakizashi in one paw.
“Goodbye,” he replied, his voice empty. “Goodbye to my family, and my people. I left Qorfuu not because I wished to see more of the world, though that I certainly did. I left because I felt I had no choice in the matter.”
Kayla turned to face him, the silver blade glimmering in the pale light. “Why did you leave?”
The little man took a long breath and then shook his head. “Another time perhaps.” He turned to his right, and they saw that the passage curved away and downwards. More runes were inscribed in the stone. He narrowed his eyes and took several hurried steps. “This was not here before.”
Lindsey strode ahead of him down the passage. It appeared unremarkable, just a long ramp that continued to turn to the right as it wound down inside the mountain. Charles followed after the Northerner, feeling a distinct sense of unease. The mountain was holding its breath, waiting for something. He met Lindsey’s eye and whispered, “We are not alone here.” The Northerner warily nodded.
“They know we’re coming,” Abafouq said at last, his eyes widening. “They know we’re coming this way.”
“What?” Kayla drew her breath in sharply.
Habakkuk lifted his paws over his head even before the shadows came alive. From up around the bend several Binoq spearmen strode forward, so fleet of foot that Charles barely had time to react. A very finely honed edge rested beneath his chin, though he could not imagine what the wielder hoped to do with it.
“What in the world?” Lindsey swore as he found two spears jabbing into his waist. Kayla had time enough to draw out her katana before she was surrounded. James backed against the wall with his short sword in hand, but he too was outnumbered. Jessica spread her wings and opened her beak to call out some spell when the kangaroo’s voice broke through.
“Do not bother. They are not going to hurt us. They were expecting us.”
“Yes, we are,” a new voice echoed, this one haggard but with the same brightness that Abafouq possessed. The witchlights flowed down the tunnel and brought a stout little man into relief. He had a wide nose and a long mop of black hair on his head. His cheeks were ruddy and thick, and his eyes were big and black like coal. He smiled to them. “I speak your tongue a little. Not as good as some. But we knew you come.”
“Inkiqut!” Abafouq cried, pushing his way past the other Binoq. “It is I, Abafouq!”
The other Binoq looked to their companion with both distance and sorrow in his eyes. “It would be better if you never come back, cousin.”
Abafouq blinked in surprise several feet from him. Some of the other Binoq pointed their spears at his chest. Their faces were deathly serious. “Infa Foqo!” He shouted several other words in his own tongue that none of them could understand. But the tone was indignant, that was clear.
Inkiqut replied softly, but there was an unwanted authority in his voice. The two of them continued to speak in their own tongue for nearly a full minute. The whole while Abafouq’s voice grew more and more desperate and frightened. Finally, a deep sadness settled in his tones, and a heavy sigh escaped his lips. “Then let me alone face it. My friends have done nothing. They were told to come to this place.”
The other Binoq nodded his head. “The fair ones told us they come. And they will be allowed. Now come.”
“No,” Habakkuk said sharply.
“No?” Inkiqut asked incredulously.
“No. Guests do not come at the point of a weapon. Put down your spears, and then we will come. Not a moment before.”
Inkiqut glowered for several seconds before he shouted an order to the other Binoq. Not a one of them looked happy about it, but they drew back their spears. “Now come. Human guests in Qorfuu. First in all time.” He turned and stalked down the twisty corridor. The other Binoq followed with him.
Abafouq stood with his head lowered and his hands balled into fists. Kayla stepped to his side and placed one paw on his shoulder. “What’s wrong? What did he tell you?”
He snapped tersely, “Nothing. Nothing for you to worry about.”
“You are our friend, Abafouq. What is it? Please?”
The Binoq let out a long breath and stared at the close walls of stone. “I have broken the laws of my people by bringing you here. Though I had no choice, I have violated one of our most sacred of covenants.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Charles snapped. “We’ve come all this way only to be balked by this!”
“We haven’t been,” Habakkuk pointed out, gesturing to the departing Binoq. “We are expected. But we are still unwanted guests. Let us conduct ourselves very well. If I am not mistaken, it is you Abafouq who will bear the burden of our presence?”
He nodded slowly. “Aye. My judgement will come.” Kayla pressed her paw more firmly on his shoulder. Angrily, he pushed her away and began to walk down the passage. “There is no time for this now. I do not wish to talk about it. Let us be on our way.”
Quietly and unhappily, the others followed after him.
There were many peepholes in the walls of the Schanalein castle in Breckaris. Usually they were used to spy on the Duke’s visitors to discover what mischief they intended. Though most of Friedrich Schanalein’s vassals were not fools and did not speak openly while in their rooms, there were also peepholes in the dining halls and audience chambers where tongues might wag more freely. Knowing the schemes of his subjects had been one of the ways the Duke of Western Pyralis had maintained his power for so many years.
But never in all that time would he have imagined his teenage son Kurt would use those same peepholes against him.
For Kurt the decision had been easy. Ever since the Marquis du Tournemire had come through Breckaris last Spring, his father had changed. Friedrich had never been a very affectionate father, but there had always been a strong measure of fatherly concern in his voice and manner. Now, the shrewdness was gone from his eyes, and he was a vacant and distant creature, given to brooding and staring for hours on end.
And of his son, he no longer even tolerated his presence. Kurt was of an age to serve in the armies, and his father had commanded that he join one of the city’s regiments. Under other circumstances, Kurt would have enjoyed serving as a young officer. He now lived in the barracks and found an easy camaraderie with the other soldiers, both the young and the veteran. Much of his time was consumed by drills and training, and twice already they had scoured the nearby countryside – not in search of anything in particular, but merely to be a dominant presence.
Yet in those moments when he could spare a few hours, Kurt found himself in the castle, lurking behind the walls and watching his father through tiny holes that none would see. Much of the time his father would do nothing. Lately he had spent a great deal of time talking with Bishop Hockmann. The priest was chastened after his failure to invade Sathmore, and he vacillated between humility and fury.
But that night, he saw something different. His father stood alone at first, tall and gaunt, with his white hair fraying at the edges. But after only a few minutes, Franz, one of his father’s heralds, announced that two women were here to see him. But his voice was strained, as if he hadn’t wanted to show them in. And he fled as quickly as he was able.
When Kurt saw the women, he knew why. The one was dressed in a purple cloak that obscured her entire face. There was a symbol on her breast, but she was too far away for Kurt to make it out clearly. But he recognized the cut of the cloak, and knew that she had to be a mage from the Southlands.
The second woman seemed so pathetic that Kurt could not imagine why she was even allowed in the castle. Her clothes appeared to be a mish-mash of animal furs, many of which were ragged and had not been cleaned in years. Her skin was covered in grime and, he suspected, blood. She walked like a slave, broken and without hope. Kurt had never seen such a look of utter dejection and emptiness.
“Duke Schanalein,” the cloaked woman hissed. Kurt had to stifle a wince at the sound of her voice. “I have just returned from an arduous journey and now have come here to finish my work; Marquis du Tournemire’s work.”
Kurt sat up straighter and tensed. It was true! He’d been right! This was that traitorous vassal’s doing! He must have woven some sort of spell over Father.
Duke Schanalein looked at her blankly. “What do you need?”
“A place to stay. Private, one that will allow me to work in solitude without fear of being disturbed. And for you I have other instructions.”
“The Tower of Theodoric will suit your need for privacy. Now, tell me what more I must do.”
“You will reconstitute Hockmann’s forces and dispatch them to the east. I want the eastern border of your land completely secure. There will be a strange group of foreigners attempting to pass through your land in the coming months, and you must stop them.”
“It will take some time to organize all of the men, but it will be done.”
She nodded slowly. “That is all for now, your grace.” Turning slightly, Kurt thought he saw a glint of red escape the cowl of her cloak. He shuddered.
And then, the mage seemed to take note of the second woman who was following her. The beaten women did not even look up, but cowered and trembled in her presence. “And as for this one.” She paused and thought for a moment. A hiss escaped her throat. “She will do well as a prostitute. See to it.”
“Of course,” Duke Schanalein agreed.
The beaten woman let out a moan of despair. It was cut short when the mage backhanded her across the cheek. Kurt let out a gasp, and then covered his mouth with both hands. The purple cloaked mage snapped her head about, but saw nothing. Kurt had already fled.
Akaleth fingered at his bonds. Most of the time when Zagrosek was torturing him, he would leave the priest unshackled. Whether from overwhelming arrogance or to further convince Akaleth of his helplessness he was not certain. In truth, there was little the Questioner would have been able to do to his torturer. He was not a particularly strong man, and against a Sondecki, he was but a sapling ready to be felled.
With Zagrosek gone, he was shackled in one corner of the massive chamber. His hands were bound in iron manacles which were chained to a rock far too large for him to move. He’d tried that first. Second he tried to work the end of the chain from the stone, but it was bound fast. Now he felt at his manacles. Many a time he had put the Questioned in manacles to assist in gaining answers. Ironically, Zagrosek was even better at securing prisoners than he was.
His entire body was sore from his last beating. Zagrosek did not use a whip, much to Akaleth’s dismay. Akaleth’s father had already torn his back to ribbons with a whip. For many long years his father, the puritanical Rebuilder, had tried to beat Akaleth’s love of all things Ecclesia, amongst other sins, from his body. By the time he was ten, he had learned to endure the whippings. The whip was familiar. And now the whip was comforting to him.
When he’d come of age, he’d fled his father’s home in the hills north of Abaef. The communities there were small, and so a small enclave of Rebuilders would not garner much notice. Akaleth had journeyed straight for Yesulam, and spent the next ten years studying to be a priest. He’d been delighted when he was chosen to be a Questioner, and had then revealed the existence of the Rebuilder sect so close to the heart of the Ecclesia.
He’d been there when they took his father. Akaleth used the very same whip to loosen his tongue. With every strike of the whip across his father’s back, Akaleth had hoped that he would relent and beg for forgiveness. But no, his father refused him at every turn. He’d gone into the grave a proud heretic. It was all Akaelth could do not to see those he Questioned as his father reborn.
It was always the whip that he remembered. Had Zagrosek used the whip on him, he could have withstood it for months. But the pummelling he took from the man’s fists was more than he could bear. He would not break, not for this evil man. There had to be some way he could escape. But it would have to wait. It would have to wait.
His eyes trailed up to study the mad Bishop Jothay. He was talking to that vile sword again. Just looking at it made his flesh crawl. It was worse than the masked figures that clustered around the room. They never said anything and smelled like rotting flesh. But at least they were probably men. That golden blade was not really a sword at all, he felt sure of it.
Jothay set the sword down and turned to one of the entrances. Akaleth followed the gaze while keeping his head down. He really didn’t want their attention. But what he saw nearly made him gasp. It was Zagrosek returned from whatever errand he had been sent on, and with him was a bound Bishop Morean! He had a nasty bruise on the side of his face, but otherwise looked fine.
Jothay was livid. “I told you to kill him, Krenek! What is he doing here?”
“I thought we might be able to get him to talk,” Zagrosek replied. “One of the two will talk.”
Jothay narrowed his eyes and lifted the sword, placing the tip under Morean’s chin. “I don’t need two. Just get that damn Questioner to speak and I will be happy.”
“Oh, he will. Or he can watch Morean die.” Zagrosek smiled. “Or Morean can watch Akaleth die.”
Akaleth tensed. How dare they even think such a thing!
“No,” Jothay murmured thoughtfully. He had that malevolent child-like smile on his face again. “I have a better idea. Bring him over to Akaleth, and wake him up.”
Zagrosek dragged Morean to within six feet of where Akaleth was chained. Morean was dressed in a blue Sondeckis robe the Questioner noted. Zagrosek gave him a firm shake, and the man slowly opened his eyes. He took a long deep breath. “I failed, didn’t I?”
“You have no idea how much, your grace,” Jothay crowed as he drew closer, cradling the golden blade in his hands. “You have no idea.”
“Jothay!” Morean sucked in his breath. “I never thought it would be you. Why are you doing this?”
“Oh, when I’m through we’ll be remaking the world, your grace. And you’ll be helping me do it.”
“I’ll never give you anything,” Morean declared. “And I will never help you.”
Jothay lifted the sword until the blade obscured his face. “Oh, not like that you won’t. You are far too stubborn. A Sondeckis through and through. But we can change that. You see, Akaleth here has watched me drain all the blood and life from a child with this sword. But that’s not all it can do.” His eyes slid over to the Questioner. “Are you watching us? Good. You will love this!”
“I doubt it,” Akaleth muttered under his breath, quiet enough he was sure they wouldn’t hear him.
Jothay brought the tip of the blade to Morean’s cheek. “You see, your grace, the sword feeds on blood, on the flesh of mortal men. It was made for that very purpose. But when it is sated, it can do other things to men. The sword does not hunger for your blood right now. Else I would not be able to stop it from plunging through your skin. How does it feel, your grace? Is it cold? It is warm? How does it feel?”
Morean tried to pull his face from the blade. His flesh looked pale where he had been touched. Real fear began to blossom in his eyes. He began to sweat. “That sword... I have heard of it in legend. How did you come by it?”
Jothay’s smile grew. His lip split and blood began to well on the cut. “Yes, this is the sword of Yajakali. Feel its power! It doesn’t have to steal blood. It can steal your will too. See all these figures around us? How else do you think they have come to serve me? This sword has brought them, they the Blood Bound! And soon, very soon, it will bring all the world to its knees. And you are going to help.”
Morean struggled, but Zagrosek held him firm. Jothay did not seem to notice. “The only thing that upsets me is that the process will destroy your mind as well. You could tell me what I want to know and then I would just kill you so you won’t have to help. But if you’d rather be destroyed, I can certainly oblige you.”
“Do whatever you will. You will never see Eli’s kingdom.”
“Oh, stop thinking so small!” Jothay cackled. “I’ve something much better in mind. Here, let me show you.”
Akaleth felt his heart freeze as he watched Jothay push the blade against the Bishop’s neck. Even Zagrosek averted his eyes from the spectacle. Morean’s blood did not flow from the wound. Instead, the colour in his flesh began to fade. A moment later it began to shrivel and crumble, while his eyes seemed to melt in their sockets, white puss oozing across his cheeks like tears. On his tongue died a horrible scream, one that ended in gibbering madness.
“You monster!” Akaleth shrieked, jumping forward only to be yanked back by his chains. “You vile monster!”
“How uncouth!” Jothay twittered. He smiled and kissed what was left of Morean’s face. “He’s so adorable like this. I think I’ll keep him. He’ll want a different robe. Go now. Be a good little slave. Fetch yourself the right colour robe.”
The thing that had once been Morean began to shamble off towards the other end of the chamber. Akaleth fell to his knees and began to retch. But he had nothing in his stomach, and so only gasped for putrid air. Already the reek of decayed flesh radiated from the new Blood Bound.
Jothay giggled merrily and hugged the blade to his chest. He rubbed his bleeding lip across its surface and began to sing, “The blade of Yajakali! The greatest you’ll ever see! Hehehe hehehehe!”
Ignoring the crazed Bishop, Zagrosek bent down and smacked Akaleth across the face. The blow sent him sprawling to the cold stone floor. “Now, where were we.”
The day was still young, but in the Marzac swamps it was already sweltering. A solitary figure stood on the vine-choked beach. He was dressed in a blue doublet and hose, unconcerned with the manner in which the putrid foliage discoloured his garments. His aquiline nose was turned up and he gazed imperiously at the modest sailing vessel that had drawn as near to the narrow peninsula as the coral reef would allow. A small rowboat had been lowered to one side and several men were hading ashore.
Marquis Camille du Tournemire smiled. The ship was flying the familiar blue flag of Whales. The silly rabbit had done precisely as he’d wished. He could see the lapine had not been foolish enough to send scouts equipped with Whalish fire. No matter. The more vessels under his control, the further Marzac’s influence could be extended into the sea.
The Coral Basin that lay to the south had once been swampland four hundred years ago. Historians in Whales chronicled a massive earthquake that shook the entire region. The swamp sunk into the sea, while the land north of the Chateau rose above the waters for the first time in thousands of years. It was that fortuitous event that allowed the land and its single building, the great Chateau, to come into the Marquis’s possession.
The rowboat drew near, and he could see the ship’s captain with two other sailors inside. The captain was staring at him eagerly, a determined look on his face. Camille nodded his head and gestured to the small bit of bare sand that had not been overgrown. The men rowing saw him and turned the oars. Half a minute later, the prow of the boat dug into murky sand, and the captain climbed over the side. His boots splashed into the ankle-deep water.
“Are you the one we are supposed to meet?” the captain asked, his eyes lost and seeking. The corruption of Marzac was fresh in his mind, but its control was absolute.
“I am, captain. Is this the only ship to know what must be done?”
“No,” the man shook his head stiffly. “There are four others who wait out beyond the reef maze. I came to learn what you would have of us.”
The Marquis lifted his nose higher. “Good. There will be more. For now, bring this land’s touch to all the sea in the Coral Basin. Beneath these waters its presence still lives. You only need remain on its surface to draw it up so that any other who should pass by will learn of its need.”
The captain lowered his head. “Of course, your grace. Is that all you wish us to do? What if those who do not understand should fire upon us?”
“Lead them into these waters. They will quickly change their minds.”
“It will be done.”
The Marquis took a long deep breath, his smile faltering for a moment. He could feel the cards stirring uneasily. Though they remained back in the Chateau, he still felt their disquieted susurration.
“Be off then, captain. Return in one month’s time. I will have a new order for you then.” The Marquis waved his hand in dismissal, and the captain went. He climbed into the rowboat, and the sailors bent furiously over their oars. Camille did not even wait for them to leave before turning into the dense swamp. Behind the lines of trees he could already make out the tawny spires of the Chateau. They pulsed with frightful power.
The air stank with decay. But the Marquis thought it the most delicate of fragrances. Success was always the sweetest aroma. Every day brought his success closer. Soon, an entire compliment of the Whalish fleet would be under his command. Now that Whales was set to be neutered, no nation in Galendor or the Southlands could hope to challenge him.
He felt like a bit of tea to enjoy this moment.
Book 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