The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter II - Onward Heedlessly

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

The sun was unforgivably hot. Nemgas had known heat such as this in that other life that was not his own but whose memories he felt – the life of the Yeshuel Kashin. It was not uncommon for a Summer day in Yesulam to be so hot as to sear the skin off a man’s bones. On those days, men wrapped themselves in cloaks from head to toe. They would be hot, but their flesh would be protected.

It was such a day that he and the rest of the Magyars woke to that morning. It had been a week since they had fled into the desert after slaying the Knight Templar of the Driheli in battle. In that week they had travelled five of seven days, the other two being too hot to venture outside the lean-tos they had erected for themselves and their horses. Today was going to be another such day.

“How doth any man live in this furnace?” Gamran asked in an uncharacteristic foul mood. The little thief had one hand over his face to shield himself from the sun’s light as he peered out from the only slightly bearable shadows. “Varna couldst prepare her greatest meal without fire here!”

“There are men that do make these barren lands their home,” Nemgas replied in a soft voice. He remained beneath his lean-to, but even shaded the shining sun rising in the southeast was making his eyes water. “‘Tis not an easy life, harsher e’en than the life of a Magyar, but they do live here.”

“‘Tis hard to believe,” Berkon quipped while wrapping cloths over his head. “How much longer wilt we stay in this forsaken place?”

Nemgas shook his head. “‘Tis a good question. We shouldst travel by night, but ‘tis e’en more dangerous to walk these sands after dark.”

“We wilt run out of water in another week,” Amile pointed out. The only female amongst their group, she was proving a welcome reminder to the men. Even Pelgan, whose heart Amile stole, was not distracted by her presence.

Nemgas considered the seven other Magyars whose company he enjoyed on this foolhardy quest. His wagonmates were all with him, Gamran the thief, Pelgan the tumbler, Chamag of the axe, and both Kaspel and Berkon of the bow. There was also Amile who was both an Acrobat and the woman that Pelgan hoped to one day wed. And the youth Gelel who had witnessed his closest friend slain by the Driheli. Nemgas was uncertain if it had been wise to allow Gelel to come on such a dangerous journey. He sometimes wondered how many of his friends he was leading to their death – none more so than this youth who had not even seen his fifteenth year. His wagonmates and Amile he could rely upon, Gelel he had to watch.

Nor was the young Magyar the only one that he was forced to watch. By a cruel twist of fate they had in their care one of the Driheli knights. Nemgas stared at the lean-to in the centre of their camp. His hands and ankles were bound tightly, but it appeared the knight had no desire to escape that day. He lay still with his eyes closed and his bearded face passive. Only the rise and fall of his chest gave evidence that he still lived.

Sir Petriz of Vasks was going to quickly become an unwelcome burden, and to date, he had not proven himself valuable. Nemgas had talked with him several times, but the knight was stubborn. Nemgas could respect his stubbornness and devotion to his duty, but it was beginning to wear his patience thin. And in the desert, one had to always be a master of their emotion or else they risked madness and death. But until he relented and told them something useful, he would just be a drain on their water and their food.

“Water,” Nemgas murmured, rubbing the stubble on his chin. In the last few days he’d begun to let his beard grow. Shaving was a luxury a man of the desert could ill-afford. “There be places in the desert where we canst find water,” he told Amile. “I dost believe that I canst find one ere we run low. ‘Tis only one of our worries.”

“And the other be food,” Pelgan said as he slipped underneath the lean-to. He’d been checking on the horses, and from the look of dismay on his face, Nemgas knew that there was more bad news to be heard. “Our steeds wilt run out of feed in three days time. We canst stay here another day. We must find food and water.”

Nemgas grunted and saw all of their faces looking towards him. “Methinks we shouldst discuss what we wilt do. Let us speak quietly.”

Each of the other Magyars drew closer, shawls wrapped tightly over their faces to protect them from the sun. It shone with a scalding brilliance that their eyes watering, and the tears drying before they could fall.

When Nemgas could see them all closely huddled beneath the lean-to, he took a deep breath. The air was hot going down his lungs and tasted of sand. His tongue yearned for a single draught of water to wash out the acrid flavour, but he resisted the temptation. “We hath decisions to make this day. The Driheli hath led us into a brutal trap. We must continue towards Yesulam, but we canst not return to the Steppe. Shouldst we venture onto the Steppe, the knights wilt corner us and kill us. Shouldst we continue through the desert, we may still die. We hath need of water and food. There art a few places in the desert where we shalt find both, but they art not common. But through the desert we must go.”

Chamag snorted and leaned forward on his haunches. “So let us travel by night. ‘Tis chilly, aye, but we wilt not use as much water.”

Even as several of the others concurred with the larger Magyar, Nemgas shook his head. “This desert hight the Desert of Dreaming. There art dangers at night that do not walk by day. We shalt see things, things that art not there. Thou wilt be walking, and though thou thinkest that thou art following the rest of us, thou wilt truly be wandering alone. Thou wilt step into quicksand and ne’er know it until thou art dead, buried beneath the sands of the desert for all time. Thy dickimengro wilt wander the desert lost and unable to find peace until the end of time.”

“And if we dost die here from thirst, wilt we wander the dunes for all time?” Chamag countered, his dark eyes narrowed. The others were unsettled by Nemgas’s words, but it was easier to fear running out of food than it was dreams at night. Gelel especially was nodding as burly Chamag spoke.

Nemgas grimaced and balled his hands into fists. “We hath a great risk howsoever we choose to act. The desert art large, and we hath a goodly distance to travel yet. But we shouldst risk not lightly the dreams of the desert. He art harsher at night than we canst know.”

“I wilt ne’er change my mind that we shouldst travel by night,” Chamag replied with a heavy shake of his head. Some of the shawl began to come loose and he had to hold it in place with both hands. “Thou hast ne’er been afraid of spirits and haunted places before, Nemgas. Why now dost thou choose to fear?”

Nemgas bristled, his eyes narrowing. “I fear not the desert! I fear not e’en for mine own life, so thou hast best not be calling me craven.”

The other Magyars began to tense. Both Nemgas and Chamag were stubborn, and to see a test of wills between them left each wondering what they should do. Who should they side with if it came to a brawl? Who was right about when they should travel? Those questions began to bounce back and forth in their minds as they watched with their lips pressed shut.

“I doth not think thee a coward,” Chamag replied, but their was still heat in his voice. “And thou shouldst not be craven on account of our lives. We hath chosen this path with thee, Nemgas. We wilt see it through to the end.” And it was then that Nemgas realized that the fire in his fellow Magyar’s voice was not directed at him.

Nemgas took a long deep breath, making sure to only breath through his nose this time. They were Magyars all, and at the end of the day, all they had was each other. Those were bonds that could not be severed. “Forgive me, for I hath spoken harshly. I doth not say what I hath said for fear of thy life, Chamag. I hath great confidence that we shalt endure no matter what adversity the gods doth place fore us. Nay, my fear ‘tis for Pelurji. Shouldst we make a mistake and fail to reach Yesulam, he wilt surely die. And I wilt give my life to protect his. ‘Tis the reason that I fear, Chamag.”

The other Magyar slowly began to nod. He leaned back on his haunches and sighed heavily. “Thou dost speak true. Forgive me for speaking ill of thee, Nemgas. ‘Twas wrong of me. Thou art the bravest man that I dost know.”

Nemgas let a smile cross his lips, and he put a hand on Chamag’s shoulder. “I thank thee, Chamag. Perhaps I hath o’erestimated the danger of the dreams at night here in this desert. Perhaps we shalt o’ercome them. We wilt leave as night approaches and do our best to cross this desert. But we must be ready, and we wilt need to take care that none of us falls victim to the dreams.”

“We couldst tie ourselves together,” Pelgan suggested. “We hath enough rope.”

“We need tie the horses’ leads together as well,” Berkon pointed out. “What if the animals fall prey to the dreams more quickly than we?”

Nemgas nodded thoughtfully. “All very true. And there art one more thing that we needst discuss.” When none of them spoke, Nemgas pointed towards the knight who still lay with his back to them, hands and ankles bound. “What of the knight?”

“Leave him,” Kaspel suggested. “He hast done aught but slow us down. He drinketh our water and eateth our food and for what? He wilt betray us in the end.”

“I wilt not kill him,” Nemgas said, his voice firm. “He didst sacrifice his life to save a youth. I dost risk my life to save my boy. I wilt not see him killed. He hath been nothing but honourable. A burden, aye, but an honourable one.”

“He art still a burden,” Kaspel pointed out, digging his boot into the sand morosely.

Nemgas pondered for a moment before speaking again. “I wilt make him an offer. Shouldst he reach for a weapon or try to escape, then any may kill him. But I fear that I must loose his bonds, else he may ne’er be of any help.”

The other Magyars nodded their heads one at a time. Kaspel was not the last to agree, but Gelel. The young Magyar shot dagger eyes towards where the knight lay. “I hate the knights,” Gelel finally said. “I think he shouldst die.”

Nemgas glowered at the boy. “That man wast not the one who killed Hanalko. That man hast died. Hanalko hast been avenged. We hath not come this way to gain vengeance. We hath come this way to save Pelurji and our people. Thou shalt not touch him, Gelel. Thou hast sworn to me that thou wouldst not touch him.” An oath that Nemgas had forced out of Gelel on their second day of journey. When none of them had been watching, Gelel had approached the knight with a dagger in hand. Only the knight’s cry of indignation warned the others in time.

For a moment, that cry reverberated in Nemgas’s ears. Sir Petriz had not been afraid for his life. He’d only been insulted that the Magyars would kill a bound man who had surrendered to them.

Gelel appeared ready to turn and bolt, but he finally managed to still himself. His whole body collapsed inwards, the rage having left him empty. “I shalt keep to mine oath, Nemgas. Forgive me.”

Nemgas patted him on the shoulder. “There art nothing to forgive. Now, I must speak with him alone.”

Nemgas pulled the shawl tighter around his face as he crawled out from under the lean-to. The sun’s heat crushed into his back as if one of the mirrors of Pelain had been deposited there. He scrambled a quickly as he could through the short space between their makeshift tents until he was sitting next to the prone knight. The shadow was only marginally cooler, but still unbearably warm.

“Wake up, Sir Petriz,” Nemgas said in the foreign tongue of Stuthgasnk. He knew that Petriz understood his own language, but he was not yet interested in helping him develop any facility with it. He still wanted to be able to speak freely with the other Magyars, and that would become impossible if he helped this man practice the Northern tongues.

The knight, who was laying on his left side, opened his right eye and favoured him with a half grin. “Good morning to you too, Nemgas. What questions will you ask of me today before throwing me over my horse like a sack of potatoes?”

Nemgas sat cross-legged before the knight, and had to resist the temptation to deliver a swift kick to his stomach. “We are not travelling today. And if you will listen to me, perhaps we can come to some accord where you will be allowed to ride your horse. But you will have to take an oath with me.”

It was clear by the sudden twitching in his muscles that Sir Petriz was keenly interested in being able to ride again. A knight was not complete unless he was in the saddle. This much Nemgas knew. “What would you have of me now? I will not betray the Driheli.”

“Nor will I ask you to do so. Not for this. I only ask that you stay with us, never touch a weapon, nor try to grab one. If you do that, you will be killed. And should you try to escape, then either our arrows or the desert’s rays will finish you off.”

Petriz frowned. “I have already given you my word that I will not attempt escape, Nemgas. Does a knight’s word mean that little to you?”

Nemgas glowered down at him. “I saw one of your knights kill a child, Sir Petriz. So no, a knight’s word means very little to me. Even yours. No swear this oath, and I will undo your bindings.”

Petriz took a deep breath and nodded. His eyes had gone wide at the mention of the child killed by a Driheli. What he thought of it, Nemgas could not guess. “I swear before Eli that I will never reach for a weapon while I am in your custody, Nemgas. Nor will I attempt to escape your custody until you have given me your leave.”

“Very good,” Nemgas replied softly. “We will need the rope, so I will have Gamran untie you shortly.”

“That is fine. I would have you know one thing, Nemgas.”

The Magyar stared at the knight, and saw an intensity to his eyes that made him wonder anew if dragging him along was as bad an idea as Kaspel feared. “No matter what happens, I will never be a Magyar like you. I know you did that to Golonka. But I am a knight, and that will not change.”

Nemgas would have smiled back to him. Many who had become indebted to the Magyars said such things, but all in the end wore the brightly coloured tunics of their kind. But the smile that wished to emerge on his face died there. What this man spoke, Nemgas knew wit utmost certainty was the truth. This was the one man in a million that the Magyars could never adopt to their ways.

Unsettled, Nemgas scrambled out of the lean-to and into the blistering sun.

“It is time,” the marten said as he stared at the gatehouse that towered over the banks of the Silvassan river. The three companions each took deep breaths, knowing that the moment of their parting had come, while a fourth quieter person watched them and waited for instructions. For nearly three months now they had journeyed together from Metamor, through the northwestern edge of the Southern Midlands and down through the eastern edge of Sathmore.

But now that was all coming to an end. The raccoon and the marten stood a few paces from the skunk, though with their medallions, they all appeared human. Vinsah and Malger gazed at the illusionist Murikeer who had made the journey for them possible. Murikeer smiled back to them, his one eye full of hope. The other was covered by a freshly scrubbed eyepatch.

“I wish you both a safe journey,” Murikeer said. “Vinsah, I wish you a safe journey to Yesulam. May you find what you seek there.”

The raccoon priest inclined his head. One paw was curled around their pack horse’s lead, and his tail flicked back and forth inches from the beast’s foreleg. “And I wish you godspeed in your quest, Muri. May you find your father and bring his bones to rest in his home.”

“Thank you, Elvmere,” Muri said, his smile widening. It was a bittersweet smile. They all were. “And you, Malger. Good luck with your journey. And don’t ever ask me to play those drums again. My paw pads still hurt!”

Malger let out a sudden laugh, one in which they all shared. “Ah, my good mage, ‘tis an art just as subtle as thy illusions. You have more facility than you think, but if we should journey together once again, I probably won’t ask you to play.” He winked and the skunk sighed.

“I suppose that is the best I can hope for. Well, until we see each other again, I bid you each farewell.”

“I sincerely hope that our paths will cross again,” Vinsah told him, and he knew it to be true. They had been strange companions for a Bishop of the Ecclesia to have, but he felt closer to them than to any other from Metamor. In fact, as he thought on it, apart from Akabaieth, there had been no others with whom he felt such close communion. Only should the Council allow him to return to Metamor would they see each other again. But as far as Vinsah was concerned, it was the most natural place for them to assign him. There was no Bishop in the Northern Midlands to nurture the fledging churches in that country. He smiled at the thought of such an appointment.

“They may,” Murikeer said, even as he took a step back from the gatehouse. “They may. Until then.” His muzzle remained open as if to say more, but then he turned and began to walk back towards the streets of the city.

Vinsah and Malger watched him as he left, their eyes straying upwards to the citadels of Silvassa. It was an old and prosperous city, built layer upon layer over the centuries so that the oldest of foundations were of a completely different style than that of its most recent additions. The older archways were circular or flat, while newer passages rose to an arched point with heavy buttresses on either side. Golden domes topped the Lothanasi chapel and the residence of the Silvassan royal family, but in the lower wards, bronze and lead were found everywhere.

It took only a few short seconds for Murikeer to disappear beneath one of those old round archways marked by a bronze encrusted keystone. After he was gone, both Malger and Vinsah turned to each other and then to the last member of their group. She was tall and lithe, and if not for the cloak she wore, would have been seen by all for what the curses and her former master had made her – a red-furred vixen. A coiffured net currently in fashion with ladies in waiting hid the shape of her ears beneath the cowl of the cloak, while a tight belt around her waist kept her tail from ruffling the back.

But these measures were minor contrivances compared to the life of training she had undergone. Sheyiin had been born to a family of servants, and they had prepared her for a similar life. She was completely dedicated to her master, so long as that master treated her well. After Malger had slain the man that had used Metamor’s curses to turn her into a fox for his travelling sideshow, she had dedicated herself to serving the marten. Her training made her inconspicuous, at least until her master needed her for something.

“We’ll never slip you past the gatehouse,” Malger said out loud. “You do realize that.”

She nodded her head. “I go where you go. I am a servant. They will allow me to pass.”

“If they allow me to pass with one such as you,” Malger replied. “The Bard’s Mandate only goes so far. I do not know if this will be allowed.”

“If they do not let me cross, then I will swim.”

Vinsah shifted uneasily at that. The Silvassan river had passed its Spring high, but the current was still very strong. Malger frowned. “That will not be necessary. We will bring you across. I am a bard after all.” He flung back his cape with a flourish and lifted his chin high. “We shall be prepared to entertain the guards if need be. Elvmere, drums. Sheyiin, my flute.”

Vinsah draped the set of three drums over his neck and let them settle at his waist. He held his paws before them, ready to keep whatever beat the bard requested. Malger blew a few notes on his flute, short sharp notes to test the flute’s tuning. He made a slight adjustment, and then played a long bright tone. Satisfied, he let it fall from his lips. “It is time for us to leave now. Elvmere, Sheyiin, the horses.”

They had three horses carrying their things. The fourth had been left in the city for Murikeer to reclaim. Elvmere pulled the lead for the one on which his belongings were stored, while Sheyiin took the other two. Together the three of them approached the gatehouse.

The gatehouse, like the city, was an amalgam of architectural styles. The inner foundations were made of close fitting small stones, while the newer sections were fashioned from larger blocks with interlocking cuts. Its batteries towered on either side of the wide arched bridge across the river, with numerous crenellations and slits for archers. They could see at least three guards standing on either tower. Another dozen were stationed on the city side of the portcullis.

Most of the traffic across the bridge was comprised of merchants hauling goods from Pyralis to Sathmore or vice versa. There were a few men on pilgrimages, and even a few of the upper class crossing for sheer pleasure. At this time of the year, with the Festival of Song just past, there were several bards returning to Pyralis. If not for Sheyiin, they would ave been completely unexceptional.

When they passed beneath the portcullis the captain of the gatehouse stepped out from the wall and held out his hand. “Halt for inspection.” His voice was bored.

“As you can see, good captain,” Malger said, in a lilting voice. “We are but three minstrels journeying into yon pagan land to bring them a bit of entertainment. Please allow me and my apprentice and servant to pass.”

The captain glanced over Malger and Vinsah very quickly. His eyes stopped on Sheyiin and he waved her forward. “Please open your cloak, milady.” He then gestured to the guards. “Check their bags.”

Several soldiers came forward to inspect the horses and the goods they carried. “All you will find are the instruments of my trade, some books, and a bit of food for the road..” The golden copy of the Canticles was buried in the bottom of one of the sacks beneath several other tomes. Unless they were suspicious, they would never find it.

And the guards didn’t. They only glanced inside their bags before closing them and returning to their posts along the inside of the gatehouse. The guard captain had a far more interesting inspection. When Sheyiin drew back her cloak, his eyes widened in surprise. “By the gods! What is this?”

“She is my servant,” Malger replied. “A curse was cast upon her that has made her this way. My apprentice and I bear medallions that protect us from this curse. We keep her covered so that others do not suffer her fate. And it is why we hope to leave Silvassa so quickly, for we fear others catching her strange malady. ‘Tis not harmed her mind, for she is still an excellent servant, but I fear what others should think.”

The captain took several steps back, and made the sign of Akkala over his chest. “Then please, continue on good minstrel. Take her into Pyralis and away from our good city.”

Malger smiled and slipped a bit of coin into the captains hand. “Our gratitude to you, my good captain. May the gods’ blessing be upon you and your wisdom.”

The captain took the coin and waved them through hurriedly. After they were out of earshot, Vinsah chided the marten. “You know he cannot be cursed from being around her or us.”

“True,” Malger admitted with a wry grin, “but he did not know that.” Vinsah knew he should feel guilty for allowing the bard to lie their way trough the gate, but he didn’t. It was not the first time a lie had smoothed their way. Still, he’d do penance later that night.

The bridge had been originally built in the days of the Suielman Empire. In those days, both banks of the river had been ruled by the same men. Every thirty paces across the bridge a statue stood along the edge. Some were pikemen and hoplites of old, while those in the centre were dressed in robes with laurel crowns. Noble bearing was chiselled into their faces, with proud eyes gazing towards the heavens. Vinsah partially watched them as they walked across the wide bridge. Most of the time, he barely saw them.

Though he still accompanied Malger, he could not help but feel the departure of Murikeer deeply. It had been Murikeer his lady had told him to accompany so long ago when he’d first come to Metamor. But he knew that he had to continue on towards Yesulam, and Murikeer had no intention of ever travelling to the centre of the Follower faith. And so, they had finally parted ways.

Their journey together had begun as a surprise to them all. Vinsah had left Metamor alone, with no idea how he was going to cross the many leagues between Metamor and Yesulam while a raccoon. And then Murikeer and Malger had chanced upon his camp and made him an offer. Murikeer wound an illusion spell around his yew pendant that made him appear as a human. When Vinsah looked into a mirror, he saw his face from his youth decades past.

The curses hadn’t just made him a raccoon, they had also made him young again.

And it was a good thing too, because he travelled with Malger and Murikeer on foot. Their journey through the northwestern reaches of the Southern Midlands had been uneventful. At least until they had neared the Sathmore border. There they had been accosted by thieves, and faced a village sacked by overzealous Questioners and their Yesbearn knights. Vinsah shuddered as he remembered the scene of the dead. Not even the Ecclesia priest had been spared the massacre. And the women, the children, and the infirm had been left to die, buried beneath the collapsing ruins of the Lothanasi temple.

They had been able to save those people, but in the process they’d been revealed as Metamorians. Being able to walk openly in a foreign land as he was now, a humanoid raccoon, had been uplifting, but it was short lived. When they left Estravelle, on went their illusions. No other saw their true selves until they freed the leprous woman from perpetual servitude. They had revealed themselves to her, and sent her to Metamor where the curses could heal her decaying flesh. He had prayed nightly to Eli that she would safely arrive in that city.

Vinsah wondered what the curse would do to her. He seemed to recall that she had hoped to be changed into an animal like they. Few he knew had yearned for that fate. Certainly not Murikeer who had been hunted by men for years after his change. And certainly not Sheyiin who followed behind them so quietly that it was very easy to forget that she was there.

But the Bishop could never forget that, not after what Malger had done to Maximillian and the mercenaries he had guarding his sideshow of animal-cursed people. Slaughtered to a man, their crimes upon the marten’s tongue as he slayed them. From the moment that Malger drew his blades to the moment that the court released him, Vinsah felt as if he’d held his breath. And after it was over, the other cursed left for Metamor, while this vixen insisted on serving Malger.

Vinsah looked up and watched as the smaller city on the other side of the river began to come into view. They were halfway across the bridge. “Well,” he murmured softly. “We have come a long way together. And we’ve done far more than we had ever expected.”

Malger nodded slowly. “That we have. You did very well with Hockmann.”

He grimaced. It had scarcely been a week since he had exorcised the evil spirit that had been controlling the Bishop of Breckaris. It had felt the same as the one that had infested Bryonoth, and that did not surprise him. Murikeer had duelled the Runecaster that had helped kidnap Bryonoth. And more to the point, had helped murder Patriarch Akabaieth.

If there was anything that he regretted in the last few months, it was that they could not have stopped her. She had been able to escape almost effortlessly. At the very least he would have something more to warn Yesulam about. If these evil men could take control over people such as Bishop Hockmann and bend them to their will, then they were in graver danger than any had anticipated.

“He should be in Breckaris before we are,” Vinsah said softly. “It will take us some time still to reach that city.”

“Not so long,” Malger replied as they stared down towards the Pyralian gatehouse. It looked eerily similar to the Sathmoran side, though the city beyond was far smaller in scale. Vinsah could not even recall its name. “How do you intend to reach Yesulam? Will you walk the length of Pyralis? It will take you three more months to reach Marilyth, and another month more to reach Yesulam. You know that your medallion will not work in the Holy Land.”

Vinsah nodded and ran one claw along the twisted branches of the yew. “I know. I hope to sail from Breckaris. There are many ships that will make the journey up the Yurdon river to Yesulam” What he did not say was that in his dreams his lady had shown him a boat. He saw her so infrequently since he left Metamor that each such visitation felt like a bittersweet reunion. The warmth it brought him would last him for days.

Malger nodded slowly. “I am glad to hear that. I was hoping to convince one of the river runners in Eldwater to allow us passage downstream to Breckaris. We can perform for them, and in the towns they make port in. It will be a quicker and easier journey for us. Sheyiin can stay below decks where she won’t be noticed.”

Vinsah pondered that and nodded. It seemed reasonable enough. And it would bring them to Breckaris more quickly. This journey had already taken longer than he had expected it would. A bit more haste was called for. And for some reason, even though they would be entering a land dominated by the Ecclesia, he felt a strange sense of discomfort at this knowledge. He’d grown used to seeing the signs and symbols of the Lothanasi. Never in all his long years had he thought he’d ever feel that way.

“So what songs will you wish to perform in Pyralis? I doubt they’d appreciate some of the ones we used in Sathmore.”

Malger laughed warmly and nodded. ‘That is true. Don’t worry my good apprentice, I shall teach you the new ones that I think will delight the audiences. Speaking of which, now is as good a time as any to begin your practice.”

Vinsah patted the drums with his paws, eliciting a muffled beat. “I am ready, master bard.” But there was a mischievous look in the marten’s eye that gave the raccoon an unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach. He’d seen that look before, and knew it meant that the priest’s tongue would soon be sore. His tail tip twitched as he watched his companions lips curl into a smile.

“No, no, on this song you will not play the drums. Draw out your octave flute, young Elvmere. For this song you must play as I sing of a knight and his fair lady.” He twitched his fingers in the air, as if tracing out the notes of the tune. “‘Tis a sad song, but one that has few enough notes. You will not find it difficult. At least not after you have practised it through a few times.”

Vinsah let out a small churring laugh. “Very well. The octave flute it is.” When Malger had first asked him to play that slender instrument, he’d felt a heavy sense of dread overpower him. But now after three months of practise, he felt certain that the marten was not overestimating his abilities. They shouldn’t be tossed out of any Inns for the priest’s performance anymore.

Taking the silvery instrument in his paws, he lifted it to his snout and blew a note. It sounded weak, but there was still plenty of road before them. Malger smiled and with a few words of advice, helped the raccoon coax something bright and warm from his breath.

When the wind blew, Agathe pulled her purple cloak tighter. A simple incantation could warm her body in ways the mercenaries’s pitifully small fire could never hope to accomplish. But speed and stealth were her allies in these cold mountain passes. Rare enough were the living creatures in the Barrier Range; rarer still was the practice of magic – most especially of the sort the Runecaster practised – and their quarry counted at least one sorcerer among their number. Did she use her enchantments to push back the cold, she might as well have ignited a towering bonfire; indeed, an erupting volcano would not have been more obvious to her spellcasting enemy!

The mercenaries she had hired were a brutish lot. Dressed in animal furs, they had enough body hair that they could have skinned each other to make more clothes. They were a burly stock, clearly children of the Giantdowns. Even the weakest of them could have broken Agathe like a handful of twigs. But after their first night, none of them wanted to even go near her when they did not have to.

Not only did their appearance appal, but their manners were ill-suited to civilisation. Though Agathe had several times demonstrated her skill in the dark arts, and her face was horribly disfigured, to their eyes she was first and foremost a woman. In their land, women were good for precisely three things: cooking, cleaning, and fornicating. These men were interested in the last, and despite her warnings that if any dared to touch her they would not have time to regret it, one of them had been brave enough to try.

It had been their first night following the Keepers into the mountains. They were still close enough to the Valley that Agathe could risk using her own magic; as long as the Keepers didn’t know they were being followed, Agathe meant to keep it that way. She did not tell the mercenaries that meant she would not use her skills as a Runecaster. And after the first night, she had no intention of ever telling them.

One of the younger men whose beard was not nearly as long and scraggly as the rest thought he could prove something by bedding their employer. Agathe allowed him to put his hands on her shoulder. But the moment his tongue touched her neck, his entire body caught flame. He didn’t even have time to scream. He writhed in silent agony as his flesh burst into brilliant orange flame. The pyre lasted two seconds at most; then his body was a blackened lump of charcoal. A few white bones protruded from the dark mass, testifying that the thing had once been a man. None of the mercenaries went near her after that.

They still did what she’d paid them to do. Upwards into the mountain passes they climbed following after the Metamorians. The Keepers left a clear trail to follow. It was obvious that some of them were utterly unschooled in the arts of stealth and concealment. Even Agathe could see the paw prints the kangaroo left behind. Within the first few days, the leader of the mercenaries – Agathe never bothered to learn his name – told her that they’d gained an hour on their quarry and would be able to strike at them within the next few days.

Despite his words, Agathe wasn’t satisfied. This cursed journey had been marked by all too many unavoidable delays, and as she looked over the expanse of ice and rock, she knew that one such moment was coming to a head. She could feel the flow of magic and the way a few particular threads were settling around one of her hirelings. The mercenary group had waited in the Metamor Valley a few days while Agathe had gone to Metamor with Zagrosek to meet with Yonson in order to tie the censer to the Keep. During that time, the curses had explored the mercenaries trying to find some way to latch onto their life force.

The only reason the mercenaries had agreed to wait that long was that they knew they would be leaving the valley quickly enough. What they did not realize, was that the curse was spread in every direction from Metamor, not just north and south. So even as they trekked those first few days trough the mountains, the curses of Metamor had lurked around them looking for any purchase. All the while, the mercenaries had thought themselves safe.

Agathe was not worried. She could see the curse, and had erected countercharms that would hold it at bay. She was incapable of undoing any curse of Metamor after it had made itself known, but she could shield herself from its effects. And all the while they journeyed, she watched the curse lose its battle to take the mercenaries – all save one. One of the three curses had clutched him, and was working its way into his system, coiling tightly in his spirit and flesh until it would spring out, showing its effects to all the world.

As they crested a small incline in the ice flow, she saw that the magic was coming to the surface of the unsuspecting mercenary. One moment he was laughing over some crude joke with his fellows, the next he had lost his footing and unleashed a cry of pain. If not for the guide rope about his waist, he would have plummeted off the side of the ravine to his death.

Agathe watched curiously, her purple cloak pulled tight about her frame as the man’s beard faded, his face softening. His chest expanded in two shapely lumps, while his hips widened; his voice rose in pitch with precipitous quickness. And by the time the mercenaries rescued their fellow, he had become a woman.

Agathe snorted as she saw this. The curses had claimed this one quickly. She’d heard that they worked strangely. Some victims, like this one, would change in moments, others would suffer a days-long transformation. The mercenaries were wary as they looked at the newly minted female. “What the hell?” one of them barked, his voice gruff. “I thought you said we were leaving Metamor, bitch?”

“We have,” Agathe replied, her gaze frostier than the ice that surrounded them. “The curses stretch even into these mountains. Oh do not fear, you are safe from them now. She was the only one they were able to claim.”

The erstwhile man had been driven unconscious by the change. One of those holding her up slid his hand down her shirt feeling at the new breasts that were there. “He really is a woman! Ha!” Before Agathe’s eyes, the mercenary slipped his other hand down the new woman’s pants. She woke with a scream.

Agathe snapped her fingers. “Silence her, before she alerts our quarry.” One of the other men gagged her with the rope, his eyes hard. “Good. Now bring her along. We’ve lost enough time to this nonsense.”

The man who’d become a woman still hadn’t figured out what happened when her fellow grabbed her by the arm and dragged her up the slope. Her eyes were wide with confusion and fright. Agathe met them with her one good eye for a single moment before turning back to their path.

The wind was cold and the mountain forbidding, but Agathe would not lose her quarry. No matter what.

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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