The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XVIII - The Walls of Nafqananok

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

Though the beds the Binoq provided for them were comfortable, and the first real beds that any of them had slept in for over a month, none of them slept well that night. Without the sun or stars to guide them, not a one of them was certain what hour of the day it was. Charles attempted to feel through the mountain, but the stone of Qorfuu prevented him from feeling very far. The lights of the city were always lit, and so only their weariness convinced them of the need for slumber.

The place that Inkiqut brought them was a secluded building that stood overlooking the waterfall and lake. A long stone ramp climbed the walls of the cavern until it reached the lonely promontory. The edifice was finely wrought, and bore the appearance of a copse of trees whose branches had grown together. As soon as they saw Andares-es-sebashou standing before the vertiginous facade, they knew the building was meant for any Åelf guests they had the privilege of hosting.

The food that had been prepared for them consisted of a bowl of buttery soup, soft bread, and a fatty roast of blind lamb. Inkiqut had told them the name of the eyeless creatures they herded, but Charles could not recall it anymore. The others told him it possessed a smoky flavour that was quite appealing, but the rat could only watch and ponder if he would ever be able to eat again. Not long after their repast, they laid down to rest.

Charles did not need sleep, but it felt good to let his mind sink into a state that resembled dreaming. He wished to think of his wife Kimberly and their five children. Had they moved to Metamor as Charles had asked them too? Had they learned how to walk upright yet? Were any of them speaking? There was a subtle ache in his chest, but he felt nothing else. He knew he should be filled with misery, but all he managed as stone was a cold emptiness.

But thoughts of his family, or even of his many friends at the Glen and at Metamor, would not stay with him. Every time he thought he was about to drift into a peaceful slumber, his ears would twitch with the sound of one of his companions stirring from bed. At first it was merely James slipping off to relieve himself, but then Kayla left for nearly an hour’s time, taking Rickkter’s blades with her. Charles could not tell just what she was doing, but he could hear her voice whispering. He thought that she was asking a question, but he could not tell of whom.

After she returned to sleep, it was Lindsey who rose. The woodsman had been tossing and turning for some hours already, and had apparently finally given up on sleep. He stalked outside the main building and the rat could hear him beating his fists against the stone walls of the cavern. This continued for nearly ten minutes before Habakkuk slipped from his bed to join Lindsey outside.

Charles knew it was impolite to eavesdrop, but his rodent ears brought every soft word spoken to his mind. “What’s troubling you?” Habakkuk asked.

“I can’t sleep,” Lindsey replied, his tone curt.

The kangaroo paused only a moment. “I’ve seen you grow more distant day by day. What’s troubling you?”

Lindsey snorted, and Charles imagined him turning away from the kangaroo. “What do you care?”

The sound of Habakkuk’s voice was hurt. “You know I care, Lindsey. I have always cared. Please tell me.”

“Will you listen to me this time?”

There was a tense pause, and Charles realized that his claws were gripping the edge of his bed too tightly. The wood was splintering.

Habakkuk’s voice was soft, almost inaudible. “I always listen, my friend.”

“You didn’t listen to me when we were being chased by that crazy woman. She could have killed us all. She very nearly did.”

“If we hadn’t stopped... I saw her killing us, Lindsey. I saw her defeating us in our exhaustion.”

“You saw,” Lindsey groused, his voice full of bitterness. “It’s always about what you can see. What good have your visions done you anyway? What good have they done anyone?”

Habakkuk did not say anything for nearly a minute. Charles realized he was leaning so far forward over his bed he was about ready to fall out. Embarrassed, he glanced to see if anyone else was listening. Kayla and James were both snoring now, and even Abafouq sounded asleep. He could see the silhouette of Jessica in her full hawk form perched on a small stand, but he had no way of knowing if she slept or not. Andares made not even the faintest of sounds in his repose.

“I do what I can with them. It is not enough, but I do what I can. I have no choice, Lindsey.”

“You’ve always said that, Zhypar. That’s all you ever say. Why not trust somebody else for a change? Why not trust me?”

Habakkuk let out a heavy sigh. “I do trust you, Lindsey. I’m sorry I haven’t done better. I just cannot ignore what I see. I can not do that.”

“You are a prophet, not a prisoner,” Lindsey hissed. “Stop trying to make me feel sorry for you!”

“I am a prisoner, Lindsey. I... wait, where are you going?”

“I don’t know!” Charles could hear Lindsey walking down the ramp. A moment later Habakkuk followed him. They continued talking, but the rat could no longer hear what they said. He tried to ponder what the conversation could mean, but all he could think about was Habakkuk’s last words. What did he mean that he was a prisoner?

He did not hear either of them return, nor did he hear any others get up that night. The rat found his dreams at some point, and remained inside a world of tree and warmth until he woke to the gentle touch of Andares’s hand on his shoulder.

“Good morning, friend rat,” the Åelf said. His pearly-grey lips were spread in a smile. “Permit me a moment to marvel. I have seen many strange things in my days, but never living stone.”

Charles blinked and shifted in his bed. He had adopted his two-legged mostly human form for the night, and was now much smaller than Andares. “It is not a marvellous thing to me. I have been able to do many strange things with this body, but I would still rather be flesh again.”

Andares nodded and lifted his hand. Charles could see that the others were also rising from bed. Habakkuk and Lindsey as well. He wondered how long they had been out. Rather noticeably, neither would look at the other. The rat grimaced as he slipped from his sheets. “So today we see these Walls of Nafqananok?”

Abafouq was already dressed and warming his hands next to a lantern. “Yes. I’ll take you there once we have had something more to eat.”

“Where are they?” Jessica asked between preening her feathers.

The Binoq shrugged lifelessly. “Towards the centre of the city. It will take us some time to reach there.”

“It only took us a half hour to climb this ramp,” James pointed out. “Will it take much longer to reach the walls?”

“Several hours,” Abafouq admitted. “You did not think this cavern was all of Qorfuu did you?”

James blushed and lowered his ears. He had thought that.

“Will we need to bring our supplies?” Charles asked, glancing between the Binoq and the Åelf.

“Nay,” Andares replied. “We will return here to sleep afterwards. The road we take to leave Qorfuu is nearer here than it is Nafqananok. Bring only something to eat while we are there. But the rest of your supplies you may leave here.”

Charles nodded and felt relieved that he could remain two-legged and mostly humanoid. Perhaps if he was not nearly as conspicuous as he was when four-legged, the Binoq might not take such a keen interest in him.

“I’ll bring writing implements,” Habakkuk offered. “There is much we’ll wish to record from the Walls.”

“Good,” Andares said with a faint smile. “I will see to breaking our fast while you prepare yourselves.” And without another word, the Åelf vanished into the upper room where the foodstuffs were kept.

They ate sparingly that morning. Neither Habakkuk nor Lindsey seemed inclined to much conversation and the two avoided each other. Kayla was also reticent, though her mind was not withdrawn from the present, merely distracted by some other thought which she did not voice. Andares was also quiet, though his face and voice when heard were inscrutable. Abafouq was a bit livelier than the previous day, and he was willing to describe all the various features of the city as they passed by, but when he fell silent there was always a measure of disquiet in his posture.

James and Jessica both remarked frequently on everything they saw. Charles added his own thoughts from time to time, but otherwise let his friends ponder amongst themselves.

And there was a great deal to see. Abafouq led them through a vaulted opening in the cavern near the lake and the blind sheep pens. Once they were closer, Charles could see that the beasts had very large ears and soft paws instead of hooves. But they were without any eyes at all. James refused to look at them, claiming they made his flesh crawl.

Beyond the portal was another large cavern that closely resembled the first. There were several more fields of moss, as well as a few roads upon which heavy wagons were drawn by oxen. James was relieved to see that these were the more familiar sighted variety that he knew. Abafouq explained that they were bringing in grains from the low-lying fields that the Binoq cultivated. The grains were hardy despite being grown in a mountain clime. Harvest was already upon them, and the Binoq had to hurry to gather all that they had sown before the first frosts came back.

The next cavern they entered was a bit smaller, but the buildings that clung to the walls were larger and more decorative. Some were monuments to the Binoq elder families, and others were their homes. He pointed out one group of buildings that had been set off by themselves and told them that these were the shrines to the Binoq gods. Jessica gave a squawk when she saw them and noted that the symbols for each of the Binoq deities was very similar to the Lothanasi faith.

“Why does that surprise you?” Abafouq asked sardonically. “The gods are the gods. Even if they may have different names amongst my people, and look a bit more like Binoq than your own representations imply, they are still who they are.”

Charles felt a bit self-conscious when passing by the Binoq temples. Upon his chest glowed the symbols of Velena and Akkala. He half wondered what their names were amongst the Binoq, but did not have the courage to ask. Nevertheless, the sigils felt warm against his stony flesh. Whatever power the pantheon had in human lands was still very potent here in Qorfuu.

The next two caverns they passed through were much like the first two, though the rock seemed older somehow. Charles could not quite say why, but the stone homes seemed to possess a measure of antiquity that he’d not even felt in Metamor. A hundred generations of a single Binoq family had been born, reared, lived, and died in each of those homes. This he instinctively knew.

As they passed into the next cavern, Charles allowed his claws to sink into the stone. It was more welcoming, like an old man eager to have the attention of his grandchildren. For a few moments the rat enjoyed the satisfaction of the rock before he realized that it masked some terrible infirmity. He pushed deeper, and felt a sudden spasm of pain push him back out again.

“Charles?” James asked. “Is something wrong?”

“What is that smell?” Kayla suddenly cried, pressing her paw to her snout to cover it.

After the skunk had spoke, each of them began to detect a heady metallic odour that clung to the inside of their nostrils. Apart from Charles they all covered their noses. Abafouq took a cloth and wrapped it over his mouth. “Cover your faces. The air here is poisonous.”

Charles took out a cloth and helped tie it across Jessica’s beak. She smiled thankfully but said nothing. The rat could not smell anything, nor could he feel into the stone to see what might be causing them such discomfort. Not knowing what was wrong irritated him. “Why is the air poisoned?”

“Quicksilver,” Andares replied, his voice faintly muffled through his surcoat.

“Quicksilver?” Charles asked in surprise. “How much of it?”

A moment later when they passed through the aperture he saw just how much. From a crack in the rock face flowed a river of silvery light. It crashed into a rock basin and pooled there before draining into another crack that fed the deep. “This was not here a few years ago,” Abafouq said in awe. “What’s happened here?”

“I’d like to know how you can have a river of this!” Jessica cried. “My master Wessex had a few flasks that he sometimes used in his studies, but it took the metallurgist several months to purify even that much.”

“The mountain bleeds,” Andares surmised before continuing on down the road. They could see that the Binoq had placed stone walls to keep the quicksilver contained. For a moment more they watched the silvery liquid pour free from the cavern wall, but they were quick to follow Andares after their noses began to sting.

“The mountain bleeds?” Charles asked as he caught up with the Åelf.

Andares nodded slowly. “The wound will heal in time. Did you notice which way it was flowing?”

“Down?” the rat suggested.

The Åelf’s lips twitched in amusement. “Yes, but it also flowed to the southwest. Towards the place of our enemy.”

“I don’t have any idea where North is down here, let alone Southwest,” the rat pointed out. “How could you tell?”

“One does not always need a lodestone or the stars to know North, friend rat.”

“So what does it mean?” Jessica asked, fighting the cloth tied over her beak now that they were away from the foul airs.

But to their surprise, Andares shook his head. “I do not know if it means anything. It may be a coincidence. As Matthias has said, it flowed down like water or wine would do. Perhaps the lay of the land near the crack has nothing to do with our enemy. But perhaps it does. When any beast breathes, you can feel the rise and fall of their skin over much of their body. So it is with the earth.”

Abafouq had a particularly foul expression. “One thing is certain, my people see it as a bad omen. And I will likely be blamed for it.” He kicked at a loose stone and it scattered across the ground.

Jessica opened her beak to say that was silly, but she could not find the words. In silence, they continued towards the next opening. The vaulted passage led towards the north, and was longer than many of the others. It was a full ten minutes before the passage opened wide and they stood in a low ceilinged chamber spaced with several pillars, each bearing a brilliant light. Before them stood a short mesa and a long wall at its edge at least ten feet in height. Far at the extreme left was a narrow opening. Several Binoq spearmen stood guard before the entrance, but there was nothing else in the room.

“Welcome,” Andares said, his voice echoing from the far walls. “Here before us is the oldest record of civilization, even more ancient than the writings of the Åelves. The Walls of Nafqananok!”

“Are you sure you won’t need us?” Kayla asked for the second time as Habakkuk climbed up the stairs to the entrance behind Abafouq and Andares. Jessica had shrunk down into her animal form and had flown up to the top of the wall.

“There is not much room for even the four of us,” Andares pointed out. “Wait out here and when we are done, we will return.”

“More people mean more eyes,” Charles pointed out.

“Can you read the ancient Binoq runes?” Abafouq asked him. The rat blinked and then shook his head. “I am the only one who will be able to read the writing, so if there are too many of us, you will just be in the way.”

Lindsey had already stalked off along the wall and out of sight. Habakkuk glanced after him for a moment but then shook his head. “We’re wasting time. Let’s go.” He took the final step and passed between the high stone walls that stood only a few feet apart. On the left wall runes had been chiselled into the stone. The right wall was bare.

Behind him, he heard James sigh and Charles agree to wait. Abafouq and Andares slipped inside the passage behind him, while Jessica hopped along the top of the right wall, looking down at the writing curiously. She began to grow into her humanoid form. “How old are these carvings?”

“Tens of thousands of years,” Abafouq replied. “Do you see the way they are blocked off every six feet? Each stone table is to contain all of the history for a single year’s time. The historians amongst the Binoq debate for months what to write. The most important details always end up presented somehow.”

“But in some years very little of historical note occurs,” she pointed out with a confused squawk. “And in others, entire books have been written just to understand why everything happened. How did they fit it all into so small a space.”

The Binoq let out a bitter laugh. “Over the millennia, the Binoq tongue and the Binoq script have diverged. They are and have been for a long time two distinct languages. To fit so much history in so small a space our written language became terse to the point of incomprehensibility to one untrained in its deciphering. When we read what we have written, all the meaning that had been pared down becomes plain.”

Abafouq shook his head slowly. “And now even our tongue has two dialects; that which is spoken underground, and that which is spoken aboveground.”

“Why would there be two dialects?”

Abafouq looked up to her, and it seemed he became dizzy staring so far over his head. “The Tabinoq was not always so cold. You know that speaking frequently on the peaks can steal the warmth from your body.”

Habakkuk grunted and ran his paws over the words. He was staring at the second recorded year, but the runes made no sense to him. “How far inside must we venture?”

Abafouq shook his head. “I’m not sure.”

Andares gestured to the first section. “Perhaps we should know where we begin. I have never seen the Walls, and I am curious how far back the Binoq have recorded the march of history.”

“Certainly. Lift me up so I can begin.” Andares knelt down and hoisted the Binoq onto his shoulders. Abafouq lifted his finger and traced it across the very first runes. “There is much that has gone on before this hall was discovered. With great regret, all that has come to pass to bring us to this juncture may be lost to antiquity. Our sorrow is allayed by the knowledge that no future generation need fear disappearing into obscurity. For so long as these walls stand, the Binoq will record time. The decision to begin this monument to life was undertaken with trepidation and alacrity. Our elders, Mother Hunter Vituqut and Father Herder Nafqanuk decreed that it be so. It was Father Herder Nafqanuc who struck the first rock, and so it is to his name that this monument be dedicated. And Mother Hunter decreed that Binoq would hereafter count time from this year forward.”

He bent down a bit to read the lines that were on eye level with Andares. “In a little over one hundred thousand years, all of the walls in this monument will be filled. Perhaps on that day, there will be no more history to record, and we can go to rest upon the great mountains that Tequ has built for the gods.” He shook his head. “It goes on like this for some time I fear.”

“So,” Habakkuk said, rubbing one paw over his snout, “How long after this did Jagoduun fall?”

Abafouq took a deep breath and pondered it. “I am not certain of the exact date, but we Binoq do not keep the same calendar as either Humans or Åelves.”

“If what you read is true, then the Binoq count their years since the creation of Nafqananok,” Jessica squawked. She was hopping back and forth on her talons, being careful not to grip the stone too tightly.

“This I know better than any of you,” Abafouq replied testily. “In the Binoq calendar, it is the year 19,437. Which means that Jagoduun’s fall would be around the year eight-thousand or a little after.”

Jessica let out a sharp cry. “Eight thousand!”

“Yes, we have a bit of walking to do,” the Binoq agreed, his face becoming glum. “Let’s get started.”

Habakkuk was already hopping down the narrow passage. He did not wait for the others to follow.

“Well,” James remarked after Habakkuk and the others disappeared within the surprisingly unremarkable Walls, “what do we do now?”

Charles glanced once at the Binoq spearmen who warily watched them, small hands gripping the hafts of their spears tensely. “We wait. I don’t know what they are looking for in there, but we can only assume they’ll find it in time.”

“Lindsey!” Kayla shouted, taking a few steps to follow the northerner.

“Let him be,” Charles said mildly. He wished he could do something to reconcile the woodsman and prophet’s rift, but he didn’t truly understand its nature. The rat knew the best course of action was to let them sort it out for themselves. “There’s nowhere to go in here. He’ll be fine.”

Kayla tightened her black paws against her belly and then sighed, long tail drooping. “I wish I knew what’s gotten into him lately.”

“Maybe he misses home,” James suggested. He scuffed his hooves against the stone. “I know I do.”

Charles patted his equine companion on the shoulder. For the first time in a month, the rat had to reach up. After being in his centaur-like form for so long, it felt strange to only have two legs and be but four feet in height again. “We all do, but the Åelf said that our journey would last us for a few more months at least. There is nothing we can do but keep our eyes, ears and noses before us. If we succeed, home will still be there waiting for us.”

“I wonder,” Kayla mused as she watched Lindsey’s receding figure. “I wonder if Rick will be awake when we return.”

“Akkala said as much,” Charles replied. The memory of the Lothanasi priestess Raven hin’Elric summoning the goddess Akkala and Velena to see to Rickkter’s wounds and to his own stony condition flooded in his mind. To call their presence powerful would be rank injustice. Though he had been a committed Follower since his earliest days at Sondeshara, in that moment, he knew he could have been a devoted Lothanasi just as easily.

“I remember hearing Akkala tell Raven that when the card that holds his soul is destroyed, he will wake and be whole. I have no doubt before this is all over we will cross paths with Marquis du Tournemire again.”

“And this time we’ll be ready,” Kayla said, gripping the pommel of her katana.

James nodded firmly, drawing out his long sword. “I may not be very good with this, but I’ll help, Kayla.”

The skunk chortled and blushed ever so slightly. Her whiskers drooped, and her eyes lowered. “Thank you, James. I fear I am not very good either.”

Charles smiled and drew his short sword. Until he had joined the Long Scouts the previous year, he’d not had extensive experience with a blade. But it was one thing that the fox Misha insisted he learn. As any of the other Longs would say, the rat had been a quick study.

“Well, if we are going to be here a while with nothing else to do, then let us practice our swordplay.”

Kayla’s eyes brightened, and she drew the katana. It hissed as it came free of its scabbard. “I’ve been wanting to try this blade, Charles.”

“I haven’t practiced in a month. I hope I haven’t forgotten anything,” James murmured as he spread his hooves and crouched lower. Charles recognized it as one of Angus the badger’s fighting stances.

“James, I know Angus has been teaching you, and he has praised you highly. Kayla, I do not know what you have learned. So first, I’d like to see the two of you spar. Gentle now, we don’t want to actually hurt each other.”

“I’ll be careful,” James replied, turning his long snout to regard the skunk.

She lifted her tail a bit in readiness, gripping the katana with both paws. “Me too.”

And naturally, despite their promise, they still managed to draw a little bit of blood.

“It’s been an hour,” Jessica pointed out, her voice weary. “This place goes on forever! We must be there by now!”

“Abafouq?” Habakkuk asked. His legs were sore from hopping in so confined a space. The kangaroo had tried to count the menhir, but after only a few hundred he’d confused a five and a six and lost track.

Andares hoisted the Binoq onto his shoulders and Abafouq began to trace his fingers across the script. “The Åelves of Carethedor discovered on an equatorial isle a vast and prolific jungle. At its heart is a nexus of thirteen magical conduits, more than any other location yet known in the world. At its centre, the King Ahdyojiak of Carethedor has begun to erect a trio of pillars to harness this incomparable energy. His alacrity for the endeavour was undiminished even though incongruous forces left many Åelves in the form of glyphs upon tree and rock. To allay the fears of his people, he ordered the crystal towers of Carethedor to bend their light across the gulf of leagues between his city and the nexus.”

Abafouq blinked and brushed a bit of dust off the next few words. “It goes on to describe something that I do not understand. I do not know the words written here, but I think it is explaining how Ahdyojiak was able to bend light. Something about harnessing the power of the Earth’s torque.” He shook his head. “It is beyond me. Regardless, I believe this happened before the fall of Jagoduun.”

Jessica and Habakkuk glanced at each other, but the kangaroo could only shrug.

The Åelf set Abafouq down and said, “It is so. King Ahdyojiak of Carethedor died a thousand years before the fall of Jagoduun. With his death a great magic passed from our world into the next. The power of Carethedor is not like that of the moon. It waxed but once, and has waned ever since.”

Habakkuk rubbed his paws together and stretched his legs, long toes wiggling briefly. “Well, I suppose we should keep moving then. We’ll check again in another ten minutes.”

Jessica let out a long sigh as she spread her wings.

“Good!” Charles cried as Kayla slipped the point of her katana passed his guard. After she had managed to give poor James a nasty cut on his upper arm, it had been obvious that the only one of them who could spar safely was the stone rat. It had been the donkey’s left arm, so he had no trouble fighting after they’d bandaged the wound. But most of the last hour-and-a-half it was the rat and skunk who practised.

Kayla smiled and attempted to dash the blunt end of her blade against the rat’s neck. Though he was stone, the sharp end did chip him if she struck at the right angle. Charles was ready for it and slipped beneath her blow, and brought his sword up into her unprotected side. “Remember don’t overreach. More than anything else, that will kill you.”

“Yes, yes. I’ll figure it out eventually,” Kayla groused as she backed up and crouched in her fighting stance.

“You’re definitely improving,” Charles added as he spun his short sword between his fingers. “I think you are good enough to kill pretty much any Lutin you face one on one. Especially with that sword. Did Rickkter show you anything with it?”

“Some,” Kayla admitted as she rocked on her toes. Her long tail flicked from side to side in an attempt to draw the rat’s eyes.

Charles leaned back and smiled. He waved his paw like one of his old teachers at Sondeshara had done. He’d always seemed such a frail old man, but it had taken years before Charles had been able to land a single blow. “Again!”

Kayla tensed and leaned back like a snake readying to strike. With a glint in her eye, she leapt forward, her sword point coming in straight for the rat’s chest. Charles lifted his sword to deflect the blow when the skunk twisted with her arms, bringing the tip just over the top of his sword. He ducked to one side, and brought his blade up to her mid-section, but she danced back as soon as her strike missed.

“Good,” Charles said as he swung his blade in a quick arc. “Knowing when to retreat is important. If you cannot get your sword in the way, you need to step back.”

The skunk smiled and wove the tip of her sword back and forth before her eyes caught something behind the rat. Charles narrowed his eyes, and said, “Trying to distract your opponent by moving your eyes is a dangerous trick. It may work in that chess game, but on the battlefield, it usually gets you killed.”

Kayla lowered her blade and nodded her head at something behind him. “It’s that Binoq. Inkiqut.”

Charles turned around and saw Abafouq’s cousin walking towards the entrance to Nafqananok. He was flanked by four more Binoq spearmen. The expressions on their faces were grave, and they would not even look at the Keepers.

“This doesn’t look good,” James said. The donkey was holding his wounded arm tight against his chest.

“No, it doesn’t,” Charles replied. “But there’s nothing we can do about it now.” Had he lungs, he would have sighed. Instead, he turned back to the skunk and raised his sword. “Again.” Kayla sighed before complying.

“Look, here!” Abafouq cried, gesturing with shaking finger at one of the menhir. “I see the name Yajakali!”

The others all turned their heads immediately. “Have we found it?” Jessica cawed.

“Maybe,” Habakkuk pointed out. “I will write down what we find.” He set down his knapsack and removed his tablet, parchment, ink and quill. Andares lifted the Binoq onto his shoulders one more time while the little man excitedly began tracing his fingers over the ancient runes.

“Yes, yes, I believe this is it. Or at least, it is only a year or so before Jagoduun’s fall,” Abafouq smiled and his eyes gained a bit of the impish delight that they had seen in him in the early days of their journey through the Barrier Range.

“What does it say?” Jessica squawked impatiently.

“Oh yes... hmmm... this first part talks about an earthquake in the Flatlands. Ah, here we are. In the land near Jagoduun, the son of King Kaerbashyia, Prince Yajakali, discovered a heavy ore that was unknown to his people. He discovered that when refined, he could extract several unique minerals, including one that would shine of its own accord. It possessed a magical energy incompatible with that known to the people of Jagoduun. Yajakali has made it his mission to study this mineral and learn its secrets.”

Abafouq frowned. “The next bit is concerned about the humans of Kitchlande and Sonngefilde. Hmmm...” he scanned the text for a long minute and then shook his head. “The authors seem to find the rise of humankind to be an event they’d rather not have to write about. After that it goes into political happenings here in the Tabinoq. Let’s try the next menhir.”

“I wonder what this mineral Yajakali discovered was,” Jessica asked as she hopped along the top of the wall.

Habakkuk finished writing down as much as he could and stepped further through the tight hall. “We know the humans of the Southlands will invade Jagoduun soon. The answers we are seeking are here.”

Andares carried Abafouq to the next section and the Binoq was quick to start reading. “Okay, it looks as if the humans of the Southlands are beginning to organize themselves. Several leaders are called by name. The writers continue to believe it is an anomaly. Let me see.. Yes, here we are.” Abafouq cleared his throat and recited, “Prince Yajakali of Jagoduun has made a most remarkable discovery. He attempted to create alloys of his new mineral which he has called lucnos.”

“Lucnos?” Jessica asked. She had never heard of this.

“In your tongue,” Andares said softly, “it means ‘light of night’.”

Abafouq waited for Habakkuk to write this down before continuing. “He attempted to create alloys of his new mineral which he has called lucnos with plumbum. Plumbum is common in the soil of Jagoduun, but being a soft mineral it could not be used. Though his alloys remained unusable, he was delighted to discover that over the course of months his new substance secreted bits of quicksilver and gold. He was dismayed to discover that once removed from the alloy, both transformed back into plumbum in days.”

“All this alchemy is making my head swim,” Jessica pointed out in irritation. “When does he build the weapons?”

Abafouq waved his hand at the hawk and kept reading. “Undettered, Yajakali used the lucnos to decorate his chambers beneath the city. The people of Jagoduun have called his exquisite artwork the Hall of Unearthly Light. On seeing the hall, King Kaerbashyia demanded that his son cease to study this mineral, citing a fear of its strange powers.” He continued to scan the runes for another minute but shook his head. “There’s nothing more here.”

“That’s all right. I have everything you said written down.,” Habakkuk grabbed his ink and stiffly walked to the next menhir.

“This may be the one we want,” Andares said as he carried the Binoq. “If memory serves me correctly, the last that Ava-shavåis heard form Jagoduun was of this Hall of Unearthly Light.”

“You aren’t that old, are you?” Jessica asked in surprise.

“No,” Andares laughed, a twinkle in his golden eyes. “But I have read the histories of my people. The tale of Jagoduun is a sad one for which my people still mourn. Still, I have already heard details now that I had not known before.”

“Good,” Habkkuk muttered. “Continue please.”

Abafouq nodded his head and brushed a bit of hair out of his eyes. “In an act of surprising aggression, the human armies laid siege to Jagoduun throughout the year. They were led by nine wizards of unparalleled power. None had suspected their mastery nor their ambition. King Kaerbashyia sent calls for help from all the Åelf and other civilized races, however unfavourable weather and a series of disastrous earthquakes prevented aid from reaching Jagoduun before its terrible end.

“Yajakali sequestered himself in his Hall of Unearthly Light and used all his magical and alchemical knowledge to craft a weapon to defeat the human wizards. He began imbuing conventional metals with purified lucnos, but was unable to fashion a sustainable alloy. It was impossible for him to refine the lucnos sufficiently; impurities grew within the metal and propagated evenly throughout its substance. Yet he also discovered that lucnos grew within the ore that he had mined. A heavier substance lingered there, and within that ore he now called matraluc.” Abafouq smiled. “I believe that in the common tongue that means ‘Mother of Light’.”

“That is so,” Andares replied.

“Yes. Let me see... Yajakali forged the matraluc into gold, and enchanted each piece with arcane magic. His aim was to draw out the power of the nine human wizards who plagued his land. First he constructed a dais, then a censer, and lastly a sword. These each bore the number nine faces, and each face bore a chevron, one for each wizard. Upon the winter solstice, Yajakali enchanted these weapons and bound them into the fabric of the nexus upon which Jagoduun was built.

“The nine human wizards sought to use the power that night to bring down the walls of Jagoduun. Their spell would have, if allowed to succeed, razed every wall in the city, leaving only a ruin. Although much is still not known about the tragedy, it is believed that both Yajakali and the nine completed their spells simultaneously. The spirits of the nine were ripped from their bodies, but when between the veils of the worlds, the human spell ripped a hole in the fabric of existence. Jagoduun was destroyed in that moment, killing all with hundreds of leagues. This included the Åelf army that was finally nearing Jagoduun in aid.

“The reverberations of that blast could be felt even in the Tabinoq. Rock slides cut off several ancient passages, and nearly a hundred Binoq died that night. In the Flatlands south of Åelfwood a grey cloud descended from the heavens and consumed the earth. The very next morning ash coated the land as far away as Carethedor. A blue star shone from the pillar of clouds, but only at sunset.”

Abafouq took a deep breath. “That is all that was written that year. Do you wish me to keep reading?”

“Give me a moment to copy this down,” Habakkuk said as he furiously moved his quill across the parchment. Jessica watched him for several seconds before turning her head to one side. Andares also glanced down the passage at the approaching figures. Five Binoq were moving slowly towards them. Jessica recognized the one in the lead.

“It’s Inkiqut,” she said softly.

Abafouq turned his head and frowned. “Cousin? What brings you here?”

Inkiqut stopped ten feet from the four of them and crossed his arms over his chest. “I speak so you understand. Abafouq, the elders ready to speak with you. You must come.”

“What do they want with me?” Abafouq shot back, his face at first defensive, but it was quickly replaced with a look of weariness.

Inkiqut shook his head. “They not tell me. Only say bring you. And bring you now.”

Abafouq took a deep breath and sighed. “I fear I must leave you now.”

“I understand,” Habakkuk said softly. “I doubt we will learn any more anyway. We know what substances went into the weapons of Yajakali. That may be enough.”

Andares set the Binoq down gently, and then straightened. “We shall return to the domicile and wait for you there, Abafouq.”

“Thank you,” he replied with a wan smile. He then strode to his cousin and crossed his arms. “Well, Inkiqut, I am ready.”

The other Binoq nodded gravely and turned to leave Nafqananok.

When the six Binoq were out of sight, Jessica squawked anxiously. “I wonder what they are going to do to him.”

“He will pay the price he was meant to pay,” Andares replied with deep melancholy. “It is what we all must do. Go ahead and tell the others we are finished here and will be with them soon.”

With a quick nod of her head, Jessica spread her wings and jumped from the top of the wall. Spread below her was a twisting spiral of stone that seemed to stretch for miles. It was the history of the world turning inward and inwards upon itself. And somewhere, deep in that ever-tightening passage of rock, was the present.

She could not help but wonder if their names would be carved there for all eternity.

“Are you absolutely certain?” Prince Phil of Whales asked Commodore Pythoreas with a bit of bread half-way to his snout. His chief councilor for the Navy had interrupted the rabbit while he was taking his noon-day meal.

“I am afraid so, your Highness.” The man’s face was ashen, but his body remained crisp and formal as befitting a seasoned officer of the fleet. “The scout ships that were sent to investigate the waters near Marzac did not return.”

“None of them?”

Pythoreas shook his head. “Not a single one has come back. The corruption of Marzac has spread even further than we thought.”

Phil put the bread down and stood up a little straighter. Being an over-sized white rabbit made it difficult, but he managed. “If none of our ships returned, how do you know they have gone to Marzac? Could not some of them have been delayed by the weather? There have been several foul storms crossing the Coral Basin lately.”

The officer shook his head. “Heraclitus brought in this report. He watched the ships turn from their appointed course towards the mainland.” Heraclitus was a dragon who had taken a keen interest in the affairs of men. He lived on the cliffs of Whales, and enjoyed watching over the Navy and people of Whales. In return, he was given the latest tomes from all across the world to add to his collection. Phil had entrusted to Heraclitus many pivotal missions in the past. He was only thankful that the corruption of Marzac had not claimed him too.

“And there is worse news, your Highness,” Pythoreas continued, his voice tight.

Phil lifted his chin, ears held high. “Tell me, Commodore. What is it?”

“Heraclitus also spied the Troilus in its crossing of the Coral Basin. It was returning from its year-long patrol of the Splitting Sea. As it passed through the Basin, it abruptly turned north towards Marzac.”

Phil felt his spine go cold. “The Troilus is equipped with the Fire.”

“Yes, your highness,” Pythoreas confirmed, his lips drawn taut across his face. “And her captain knows the secret of its making. I fear our enemies will soon learn our greatest secret.”

Phil beat his paw against the table and cursed himself for a fool. “No, it cannot be so simple as this. There must be something we can do.”

“If we have lost the fire, then our enemies will use it against us. We cannot let them survive.”

Phil narrowed his eyes. “We cannot send in a fleet to destroy Marzac. Any ships we send in will turn against us. We have to draw his fleet out to meet us.”

“We are not prepared,” Pythoreas pointed out. “It will be another two months yet before we will have enough ships to mount any such gambit.”

“We have enough to form a blockade,” Phil said, rubbing his paws together. “Yes. We will keep them blocked in. I want all available ships formed around the Straits of Good Fortune.”

Pythoreas shook his head. “Your Highness, forgive me for saying so, but I fear that is folly. If we put ships on those waters, they too may be corrupted by Marzac. We do not know how far its power extends.”

Phil took a deep breath and nodded. “You are right. And we’ll need the vessels here to draw them out. I believe we may assume the waters within sight of Whales are safe for now. But we need to insure that no more ships come sailing through the Coral Basin. Have Heraclitus deliver messages to all our ships in the Sea of Pyralis to form a blockade stretching from the Boreaux swamp to the Breckarin coast. They should sail in an arc to avoid the Marzac swamp and the Coral Basin.”

“Your Highness, you do realize how large an area of sea that is? It will take many ships to prevent all passage.” Pythoreas could not hide the note of incredulity in his voice. Phil did not mind, but he saw no other choice.

“This is how it must be done. There are established lanes of commerce in the Sea of Pyralis, those can be closely monitored. But no ship of Whales should be allowed through, and if we can turn back any other nations vessels we must.”

Pythoreas took a deep breath. “You realize that Pyralis will be furious at us for blocking their shipping lanes.”

“I will prepare messages for the captains explaining what has happened. They will also be instructed to tell foreign vessels that a series of wrecks have made the Coral Basin unnavigable for the time being. Our factors in Pyralis and Boreaux need to keep our ships stocked and replenished. Heraclitus shall deliver them messages stating that I will recompense them for any losses. Is there anything I have missed?”

Pythoreas shook his head. “Nothing that I can think of.”

Phil nodded and stared at the bread he had yet to eat. “Good. Have my scribe sent in with quill and parchment. There are going to be too many messages for me to write personally.”

“I will see to it at once.”

After the officer had left, Phil picked the bread back up. He discovered to his dismay that he no longer had an appetite. Whales had lost the Fire; something so unthinkable that he had once led her ships in battle to prevent had occurred on his watch, and because of his mistake. He was not a religious man, but he was beginning to understand why many found prayer comforting.

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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