The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XXXII - Beneath the Dark Sky

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

“How much farther?” Amile asked, her voice weary and thin. In the gloom of the ancient catacombs, her words seemed as dry as the bones they passed. “Berkon’s wound hast opened again!”

“We’re almost there,” Kashin replied. Amongst them all, knights, priests, and Magyars, he alone was alert. But until an hour ago, to some extent he had not even existed.

Had he a left arm, he would have pointed ahead. Instead, he shifted Sir Czestadt’s broken leg as gently as he could on his right and nodded down the long hallway. The walls were old clay, and in the soft light conjured forth by the Questioner Father Akaleth, took on the appearance of rust. Inset in the wall were stacks of burial alcoves, most filled with musty skeletons. Some still had coins atop the eyesockets. Even the little thief Gamran was too exhausted to think about adding them to his purse.

“There, at the end of the hall,” Kashin added. “There is a storage chamber the Yeshuel use but rarely. We’ll be safe for the night there.”

“I dost remember it still,” Nemgas muttered, his voice shaken. Kashin caught his eye. It was like looking in a mirror. Nemgas had a lock of white hair that fell to the left, and Kashin’s fell to the right. The slight crook to his nose was there too. And most visibly, Nemgas’s right arm ended just above the elbow, the same place Kashin’s left ceased.

For eight months, Kashin had been an unconscious presence in the back of the Magyar’s mind. Now they were split, and he knew it would take both of them some time to adjust.

“Here we are,” Kashin said, pointing his stump at an old archway. Father Akaleth went in first, bringing a warm radiance to chambers lightly coated in dust. The storeroom was small, with wine shelves, and a few casks of foodstuffs. The other side of the room held boxes of candles and ewers of lamp oil. Several more chests were closed, and Kashin knew that some of them held linens. “Father, check the chests for linens. We need to lay Berkon and Sir Czestadt somewhere clean.”

The priest did as instructed while the others filed into the chamber. They were all quiet, their faces haggard, eyes drooping. Luckily, Akaleth found a chest of linens on the first try. A few cobwebs clung to their surface, but otherwise they were clean. With Amile’s help, he laid a pair down flat on the ground. Grateful, the Magyars set Berkon down on the first, while Kashin, Nemgas, and Sir Petriz laid the Knight Templar down on the second.

“Help me fill these lamps with oil,” Akaleth said to Amile, handing her one of the lamps that had been sitting atop the linen chests.

“But thou dost make light,” she replied, even as she poured a bit of oil into the lamp.

For a moment Akaleth ignored her, focussing instead on lighting the wick with a bit of flint. When the flame grew into a warm yellow radiance, he said, “All things have a cost. Even this.”

Kashin glanced at Sir Czestadt briefly to make sure it was only his legs that were broken. Czestadt’s face was twisted with pain, but there was nothing that splints and rest couldn’t heal. He turned to Berkon, about whom the Magyars were clustered. Pelgan was inspecting the wound on Berkon’s thigh where a Blood Bound had bitten deep into the muscle. The bandages were soaked with blood. His shirt was also stained red where foul claws had gouged into his belly. From Kashin’s vantage, the lacerations did not look serious, but the leg wound could kill him.

“How is he?” Kashin asked.

“We dost need new binding for the wound,” Pelgan said, his voice tight. “Priest. Canst thee do aught?”

Akaleth finished setting the lamps around the chamber and let his own light fade away. “I will try. Father Kehthaek would be better for this, but he does not know where to find us.”

“If he art where he shouldst,” Nemgas pointed out, “then he wilt be where we met ere we tracked Jothay.” He turned his eyes upon Kashin. There was uneasiness in them. “Thou dost know where that be.”

“Aye,” Kashin replied. “I will go and bring him here.” He disappeared into the musty corridor without making another sound.

Akaleth knelt beside Berkon, gently pushing Pelgan aside. His fingers nimbly undid the bandages around the Magyar’s thigh and grimaced at the bloody mess. Berkon’s breathing was tense, his eyes shut tight. The wound looked like an animal bite, and there were places where the blood still oozed free. Akaleth frowned as he saw pustules lining the torn flesh. “I shall need more of those linens, as well as some alcohol to clean this. And give Berkon something to bite for the pain.”

Nemgas settled down against an empty wall and watched Amile and Gamran jump up to do as asked. His eyes gazed over to the two knights. Sir Petriz had removed several long planks of wood from the top of the wine racks and was preparing to set Czestadt’s legs. The man who had been their enemy lay with eyes staring emptily at the ceiling. “Chamag, help Sir Petriz.”

The burly Magyar grunted, gave Berkon a comforting pat on the chest, and wordlessly rose to his feet to assist the knight. Petriz briefly smiled to him, then his focus returned to Czestadt.

Nemgas ran the fingers of his left hand – his only hand – across the stump where his elbow used to be. The skin felt tender, as if he’d left it too close to the cook-fires for a few hours. But there was no other sign that he’d been cut. Unnerved, he began rolling up his sleeve to hide the end.

When he’d secured the end of the sleeve to his satisfaction, he returned his attention to his friend Berkon. “When didst they wound him?”

“When he didst fire the arrow that struck Jothay,” Kaspel replied. The archer had removed his belt and placed the tough leather between Berkon’s teeth. “They took him from below, beasts.”

“He is not dead,” Akaleth snapped. The priest was dabbing the wound with a fresh linen. “Amile, where is the wine?”

“Forgive me,” she cried as she brought over a bottle. “The rest hath been emptied!”

Akaleth held the wine bottle one-handed and leaned the neck towards Pelgan who crouched near Berkon’s feet. “Remove the cork, please.” Pelgan swiftly inserted the tip of a dagger into the cork. He gave it several twists before the cork came free with a sullen pop.

The Questioner held the bottle over Berkon’s thigh and looked into the man’s face. “Are you ready?” Berkon managed to nod his head. Pelgan grabbed his legs and held tight. Kaspel and Gamran each took an arm. Gelel put both his hands on Berkon’s chest, while Nemgas slid over and sat opposite Akaleth, holding down the archer’s uninjured leg.

“Clean the wound,” Nemgas ordered. Akaleth pursed his lips and began to pour the alcohol. Immediately Berkon bit down hard into the leather and all of his muscles tensed. Gamran nearly lost control of Berkon’s arm and had to sit on it to keep it still. Berkon moaned and tried to scream in agony as Akaleth rubbed the alcohol throughout the wound. He paid special attention to the pustules, making sure he drained each before soaking them with wine and gently scrubbing them clean. By the time he was finished, the bottle was nearly empty.

“That should be enough,” Akaleth announced. He wasted no time in tying a new bandage in place. “There, that is all I can do. Father Kehthaek will be able to do more. It really needs a poultice to heal, but I have no skill in those arts.”

“I thank thee for what thou hast done,” Nemgas replied, but he could not smile. He gazed past the priest and called, “How art Sir Czestadt?”

“His legs hath been set,” Chamag replied with a grunt. “He shalt not walk for many moons.”

“When wants to he will walk,” Petriz said quietly. “The pain no matter.”

“Must all Driheli speak such poor Galendish?” Pelgan muttered so softly, Nemgas doubted any but he had heard it.

“So what hath we to do?” Gelel asked, his eyes oddly bright. The young Magyar was likely still shaken by what he’d seen that night.

“Now we must wait for Kashin and Father Kehthaek.” Nemgas watched Akaleth curl against a chest to get some sleep. With nothing else to do, it seemed a good time to ask about the priest’s strange gift. “Father Akaleth, how didst thee make the light appear?”

Akaleth closed his eyes and sighed. “It is something I’ve always been able to do. I thought it a thing of evil like magic. Until tonight, I had never shown it to another. I... I still don’t know what to think of it, but for now I am happier to have it than not.”

“For the first time in thy life?”

“Aye,” Akaleth replied, his lips parting in a bemused grin. “Probably so.” He shifted and drew one of the linens over his body. “Wake me when Father Kehthaek gets here.”

A moment later the small chamber deep beneath Yesulam was filled with Akaleth’s faint snoring. He was joined by Berkon a moment later. And though the others all yearned to do the same, they could do nothing but stare at each other, waiting but not knowing for what.

Father Kehthaek had waited until he’d seen the Sondeckis ship disappear down the Yurdon river before he’d returned to the underground passages where he hoped to reunite with his strange allies. The minutes had dragged into hours, and still there was no sign of their return. He sat to offer prayers for their safe return, only because his knees had given out an hour before.

He also prayed for Vinsah. Excommunications were not commonly undone, and even then it was not easy. It took acts of penance and reform on the part of the petitioner that few men could hope to achieve. In the raccoon’s case, what was there for him to do? He could hardly recant his statements considering that many on the Bishop’s Council had made similar ones in the past. And he certainly couldn’t become fully human again without using magic, one of the reasons for his excommunication! No, the reform needed to take place on the Council, and most especially with Patriarch Geshter.

That Geshter had gone to Marzac to perform the exorcism that had been removed from the archives was more frightening than Vinsah’s expulsion. An agent of darkness was working through the Patriarch to corrupt the Ecclesia. It was only by the grace of Eli that more harm had been avoided.

But this would do Vinsah little good now. Kehthaek licked his lips and quietly prayed, “Holy Father Akabaieth, take my words to our Lord Yahshua, whom you served faithfully for many years. I seek comfort for Vinsah who has been taken from grace by the Ecclesia he came to serve. Yahshua gave us the Ecclesia, and I pray that it will be preserved for Him. Please, Holy Father, pray these things to Eli, our Most High.”

It was faint, but there was a scuffle as of a boot a short distance down the corridor. “Amen,” Kehthaek added, made the sign of the yew tree before his chest, and then rose to greet whomever had come.

The figure that emerged from the darkness into the small alcove was familiar, but not quite in the way he expected. He was dressed in black as if in mourning, with one lock of white hair falling across his right brow. His left arm ended in a stump, and in his right he gripped the golden Sathmoran blade that Nemgas had carried. It looked like Nemgas, but not quite.

“Father Kehthaek,” the voice spoke with the familiar accent of one who grew up in Yesulam. “My name is Kashin. Our friends wait below. Some of us are injured and need your holy touch to mend.”

Kehthaek hid the surprise. Kashin had been the Yeshuel who had survived the attack on Patriarch Akabaieth. He had lost his left arm above the elbow, but according to Nemgas, he had died upon a strange mountain. Now what should have been a ghost was as solid as the walls of the catacombs.

“Why did they send you?”

The man frowned and waved the sword point in the air. “Jothay is dead, but Berkon and Sir Czestadt were both wounded in the fight. Yes, Sir Czestadt is aiding us now. I know my appearance is confusing, but we have no time to delay. There are injured that need healing.”

Kehthaek did not give any outward sign, but he knew that he must go to see to those hurt. That Jothay was apparently dead did not fill him with any joy. He had hoped, even to the end, that there might be some way to save the Bishop of Eavey from the evil of Marzac. Now that hope was gone.

“Lead on,” Kehthaek said at last, drawing his black Questioner robe more tightly around his chest. Kashin turned and walked back the way he came. Despite the ache in his legs, the elder Questioner had no trouble keeping pace with the once dead Yeshuel.

At some point, Sir Petriz also succumbed to his weariness and dozed as he slumped against the wall next to the Knight Templar. Though Sir Czestadt’s eyes were closed, Nemgas very much doubted his one-time nemesis was truly asleep. The scar where his blade had cut into Czestadt’s face glowed in the lamplight as if the wound were fresh.

The Magyars each attempted to sleep with varying degrees of success. Berkon’s sleep was fitful, but at least he did sleep. Pelgan and Amile huddled together, but neither seemed to sleep for more than a few minutes. Then their bodies would twitch as if some ghoulish phantasm was waiting for them in their dreams, and they would be awake again. Gamran did not even attempt to sleep, turning his juggling balls around and around in his hands to settle his mind. Chamag was asleep in one corner, and Kaspel looked ready to nod off next to him. Gelel was far too wound up to sleep, and was rocking back and forth as he sat, only because if he’d paced Kaspel would have thrown something at him.

Though Nemgas was tired, sore, and in need of sleep, his mind would not allow it. Ever since they had escaped the evil temple, his mind had been focussed on one thing – Kashin. After Nemgas had climbed down the strange mountain Cenziga in the Flatlands, he had always wondered how it was possible for him to be. He could remember growing up amongst the Magyars, learning all that there was to know amongst his people, but he could also remember those few weeks when he did not exist.

When the Magyars had rescued Kashin from the brutal winter snows of the northern Steppe last January, Nemgas could no longer remember being a separate person. He was bound up with the Yeshuel, their histories intertwined. Until Cenziga, Nemgas may not have existed. If Kashin had not gone to the mountain, would Nemgas have ever been? It was an unsettling question that he had no answer to.

Now that Kashin was alive again, Nemgas could not help but wonder what he was. Was he merely a reflection? Was he the person Kashin would have been had he been born a Magyar instead of in Yesulam? If he and Kashin were separated, why did he still have Kashin’s memories? And now that Kashin had returned, what was there for Nemgas to do, or even to be?

There was literally no one alive who might know the answer to these questions. Kashin would be left wondering just as much as he. Everyone else who had ever felt the touch of Cenziga was dead. The only place where there might be any answers...

Nemgas lifted his head and gazed at Gelel, who had slowly rocked his way closer to the older Magyar. The boy’s face was full of confusion and concern, both for Berkon and for himself. There was a needful look in his eyes, and so long as the boy would not ask about Kashin, anything to distract Nemgas’s thoughts would be welcome.

“Dost thee wish to say something?” Negmas asked quietly. He leaned back and beckoned him closer with his left hand. “We hath no other tasks before us now, so thee mayest speak.”

Gelel nodded and glanced down at Berkon, and then over at the priest and the two knights. “The evil man wast killed. The knights no longer try to kill us. Do we hath to stay here still, or canst we return to the wagons?”

Nemgas felt a bit of shame. This boy was trying so hard to be a man, yet here he was worried that his fellow Magyars would think him craven for his homesickness. They likely felt the same way, but would not say it out of respect for Nemgas. And for Nemgas’s boy, Pelurji. Nemgas reached out his arm, hiding the ache that filled his heart at the thought of the boy who’d been injured by the Marzac-tainted dragon. He hoped that Pelurji was waking even now, but some small voice in the back of his mind assured him that it was not so.

What was worse, that same voice told him that there was nothing more he could do about it anyway. “I dost not know, Gelel. We hath done a great deal here, but we must see what still needs doing ere we can decide that.” He leaned in closer, until their foreheads brushed. “My heart yearns for the wagons too. We wilt see them again, I promise thee.”

Gelel nodded, his face somewhat crestfallen. He was about to ask something more when he looked up in surprise. Nemgas followed his gaze and saw two shadows nearing the archway. Though he could make out no details, he knew it was Kashin and Kehthaek as surely as if they were standing next to him.

“Thou hast found him,” Nemgas said softly as the pair entered. Gelel stood up and backed up a few steps, eyes greeting the black-cloaked Questioner priest warily. Kehthaek’s face was distant, and he studied them cautiously.

“What happened to you?” He asked, looking first from Berkon and then to Czesadt. Sir Petriz began to stir slowly, blinking sleep from his eyes at the sound of the priest’s voice.

Kashin slipped past him and swept his right hand towards the wounded Magyar. “I will tell you once you have examined Berkon. He is in need of Eli’s healing, father.”

Kehthaek did not nod. Instead he knelt down next to Berkon and rested his hands upon the man’s chest. Gingerly the fingers probed at the scratch marks. After a moment, he said in a soft whisper. “These will heal soon.” He then let his hands slide over the already reddening bandage over the Magyar’s thigh.

The other Magyars were beginning to stir now as well. Kashin sat upon one of the casks of foodstuffs, the fingers of his one hand tracing along the rim of a lamp. He let his shadow fall across Father Akaleth’s face, and the younger priest began to blink in irritation. A moment later he too stretched and rose from his short nap.

“This is not good,” Kehthaek announced, prodding the bandages. “I will need to put a poultice on this as soon as I can. It will not heal properly until we do.”

“Thy touch heals, be not so?” Gamran asked nervously.

“Some,” Kehthaek replied. “There is a corruption in this wound that must be drawn out with herbs and medicines. Perhaps leeches also. I know where to find them. But until I have them, there is nothing else I can do.”

“When can you get them?” Kashin asked.

“I merely need enter the Questioner temple. How long will it take to reach?”

Kashin frowned for a moment. “It is not quite an hour’s walk to the temple cellars. After that it depends on where in the temple the medicine supplies are kept. I can get you inside the temple basement, and I can help you avoid the Yesbearn and the few priests who will be awake at this hour, but you will have to lead me to the medicine.”

Kehthaek slowly nodded and rose to his feet. “Father Akaleth, I would like you to discover what in this chamber can be made edible. I will need something to eat upon my return.”

Akaleth began folding his blanket. “Of course, father. May Eli speed your way.”

Together, Kashin and Kehthaek left through the archway that only a moment before they’d entered. Chamag grunted and laid his head back down, “I didst wake for that?” Beside him, Gamran actually chuckled.

Nemgas was sure neither of how long it was before Kashin and Kehthaek returned, nor of how long it had been since any of them had last been above ground. The last time they had seen the sky was when they had been in Jothay’s quarters. Sir Czestadt had just beaten the other Questioner priest Felsah, and then escaped through a secret passage that led them all to that malevolent altar. It had been dusk. So much time had passed since then, but they had no way to know if it was still night, or if dawn had already come.

After the priest had left with Kashin to get medicines for Berkon, Nemgas had notched a candle to help him measure the passage of time. If he’d done it right, then each notch would take a quarter-hour to melt. It helped some, but the wick seemed determined to extinguish itself at the slightest hint of breeze. So Nemgas was certain when the two men returned shortly after the fourth notch was consumed, more than just an hour had passed.

When Kashin crossed under the archway with a small satchel slung over his shoulders and a jar of fresh leeches in his hand, most of the Magyars were asleep. Nemgas had fallen asleep briefly at one point and had dreamed of Kisaiya his betrothed and Pelurji his boy, but he was awake now. He rose and loudly scuffed his boots on the cold clay floor. “Thou hast everything?”

Kehthaek followed Kashin inside and met the Magyar’s gaze. “I believe it to be so. Prepare for us food to eat. Dawn is still hours away and there is much to discuss.” This surprised Nemgas, but at least he knew now.

While the others began to stir, Kehthaek knelt beside Berkon and undid his bandages. The pustules Akaleth had drained were back, and though the flesh had begun to scab, it was still moist. Akaleth revealed himself to be awake already, and at the elder Questioner’s request for food, he rose from where he reclined to produce the uncooked grain he’d found. “It is not much, Father, but it is all we have; we dare not light a real fire in this place.”

“It will suffice,” Kehthaek replied. He reached into the satchel Kashin had brought and took out a small knife. “Please place something between his teeth.” Nemgas took Kaspel’s leather belt and set it inside Berkon’s mouth. Akaleth and Kashin helped the Magyar keep Berkon still while Kehthaek cut through the pallid scab. Berkon’s eyes snapped open, but he did not tense as badly as before. He was too weary from the pain to feel anymore.

Kehthaek artfully opened the wound, and then using a bit of cloth, drained the pustules again. “The leeches will suck the corruption from his wound. Only then can I make the poultice.” As he spoke the other Magyars all began to gather nearby. “While we wait, perhaps you can explain what happened down there tonight.”

All eyes turned to Kashin and Nemgas. Both of them gazed at each other, but it was Kashin who spoke. “Do you mean to us, or to Jothay and the sword?”

Kehthaek took a thin, green leech from the jar and set it upon one of the pustules. It oozed closer before latching into the flesh. “Both,” came the reply. “Everything since you last saw me.”

“First,” Akaleth interrupted, his eyes haunted, “what happened to Felsah? The last I saw of him was not good.”

“He is safe,” Kehthaek replied. “More than that can wait. For now you must accept that he is beyond our reach. I will tell you more later. What happened last night is more important right now.” Akaleth held back whatever more he wished to ask. Still, the relief was plain in his eyes and in the way his body relaxed.

Kashin waited a moment before he began describing all that they’d witnessed, from Czestadt’s arrival in Jothay’s quarters, all the way to the subterranean temple sinking deeper into the earth leaving all entrances blocked. Occasionally one of the Magyars or Sir Petriz would interject with some tidbit that Nemgas had not seen. Kashin only knew what Nemgas knew of the fight, but in a way, he understood its significance better than any of them save perhaps Kehthaek.

When he was finished, Kehthaek took a moment to ponder it while eating some of the grain. “So Yajakali’s blade actually bent like an eel?”

“Aye. And it drove itself through Jothay and into the stone altar.”

“And the veins of fulgurite, how many did you say radiated from the altar?”

“Nine,” Akaleth replied. “And each led to a pillar upon which was chiselled a symbol. The symbols were different on each pillar.”

Kehthaek nodded slowly. He plucked one of the leeches from Berkon’s thigh and dropped it back in the jar. “It is clear from the way you describe it that this altar and temple were old, placed here beneath Yesulam many years before the Predecessors settled this land. It had once belonged to a series of pagans before Eli cleansed it for His people. One of these pagan tribes must have built it.”

“Perhaps,” Akaleth mused, “it was built for this very night. The blade seemed to know exactly what it wanted. If it could kill Jothay like that, then it could have claimed any of us at any time.”

“And it had to be tonight,” Kehthaek continued for him, “because Jothay and the sword have been there for a month at least, likely longer. And we should not overlook the significance sorcerers place upon the Equinox. It is said that magical forces wax when the stars and planets are aligned, or when they lie in certain configurations.”

“Aye,” Akaleth agreed. He reached one hand into his sleeve, but then quickly drew it out again. “But what were they trying to achieve?”

Kehthaek turned his gaze to where the Knight Templar lay. “Sir Czestadt, did Bishop Jothay tell you what he meant to accomplish?”

The knight did not stir, but he did speak in a hoarse whisper. “No. Nothing me he told.”

“Then we must assume the blade achieved its ends, apart from Father Akaleth vanquishing the Shrieker. There is nothing more we can do about it now. However, its ends are evil, and we must work to stop them. For now,” he gingerly removed another leech, “I want to learn more about you, Kashin. You appeared when Nemgas was struck with Yajakali’s sword. How is this possible?”

Kashin shifted uneasily and stretched his fingers. “For the same reason that this sword, “ he gestured to the jewelled Sathmoran blade at his side, “and Caur-Merripen were not shorn in two by Yajakali’s sword — they had all been to Cenziga.”

The Magyars, except for Nemgas, flinched at this name. Kehthaek removed a third leech and studied the wound again. “What is this Cenziga?”

He took a deep breath and replied, “It is the ash mountain of the Steppe. I know there are no mountains in the Flatlands,” he cast a quick gaze at Akaleth, upon whose lips that very objection died. “But Cenziga is still there. It is strange, like no other mountain I have ever seen. From the west at dusk a blue star shines from its summit. It is the only time it can be seen. When it is close, it appears as nothing but a pillar of fog. And it speaks... it speaks in your mind like a drummer beating on a drum. I heard it speak to me on the Steppe, and I had to climb it. I was going to die if I didn’t climb it.”

Kashin paused, glancing briefly at Nemgas. The Magyar who had climbed down from Cenziga said nothing, his eyes firmly fixed on the leeches still draining the poison from Berkon’s wound. With an inaudible sigh, Kashin continued, “When I reached the summit, I saw a spire of power, and faces in the sky. It was as if I stood at the very edge of the world. Even now I cannot make sense of it. The spire bent downwards, and did something. All I could focus on was my name. And in my head, I called myself both Kashin and Nemgas. What I did not realize at the time was that the mountain was splitting us apart. Nemgas was inside me, but he was a separate person with his own identity. The mountain split us.”

Kehthaek lifted his eyes, the Questioner mask firmly planted over his face. Yet Kashin could see a need in those eyes to know more. “And yet you died on the mountain?”

“Aye,” Kashin replied, licking his lips. “Or at least it seemed to Nemgas that I died. He saw the mountain destroy me, saw me disintegrate in a puff of ash. But what truly happened was that my mind, my identity, all that I was, was hidden away inside Nemgas’s mind to be freed when the time was right. That time was tonight, when we faced Jothay. When the power of Marzac touched us, Cenziga broke us apart again. It is why we each have only one arm, and why there are now two jewelled blades that you can see.”

Kashin lifted his own, and then gestured to the other still buckled at Nemgas’s side. “Before, only one of these blades was visible. But the other was always there too. And only one who had been to Cenziga could touch it. It is why poor Grastalko’s left hand was burned when he grasped the blade with his right. It is why Sir Czestadt was struck down in the desert by what seemed thin air.” Kashin chuckled mirthlessly to himself. “And I am not the first touched by the mountain to have faced creatures corrupted by Marzac.”

Kehthaek removed the last leech and deposited it in the jar. He set the jar aside and began pulling out herbs from the satchel. “Tell me who else has been to this mountain. Any one living?”

Kashin shook his head. “Not that I have heard. The only other person I know to have gone to the mountain was Pelain of Cheskych.”

Kehthaek’s hands paused over the wound. “Pelain? Of The Suielman Empire?”

“You’ve heard of him?”

“Stories.” Kehthaek resumed applying the herbs around the wound. He used a soft white powder that he sprinkled, especially where the leeches had sucked. “I have heard stories of him. Tell me how you know he climbed Cenziga.”

“If you know of Pelain, then you know of the city he built at the base of the Vysehrad mountains – Cheskych. Well, while Nemgas and the Magyars were in Cheskych, he met a pair of boys, one of whom told him that Pelain had climbed the ash mountain. One of the village elders told us a tale of how Pelain died. I had thought... pardon me, Nemgas had thought that he would hear a tale of Cenziga. Instead, he heard a tale of a dragon corrupted by dark powers far to the west. The dragon was inhabiting the ancient city they called Hanlo o bavol-engro, but which we would call Carethedor.”

Akaleth’s face wanted to sneer, but he kept it still. “Carethedor? That place is a legend. Used to frighten children.”

“We were there, or rather, the Magyars were there.” Kashin gave Akaleth a meaningful look. “Do you really doubt that, Father?”

The younger Questioner took a deep breath and shook his head. “After everything I have seen, no, I don’t doubt it. Not any more. I am sorry. Continue.”

“Very well, the Magyars went to Carethedor, as they all know. Nemgas and the boy Pelurji went into the city, and found their way to its centre. They discovered the bones of the dragon, from which hung the skeleton of Pelain, still dressed in his signature wolf armour.”

“Wolf armour?” Sir Petriz asked.

“The helmet was shaped to make his head look like a wolf’s, and the armour was designed to give the appearance of silver fur. It had not tarnished despite its age. There was also a grave, and in this grave was Pelain’s body, also wearing the wolf armour. The conclusion was clear, wasn’t it?”

Nemgas nodded and sighed. “Pelain wast two. Cenziga shore him in two as it hast shorn Kashin and I in two.”

“And it created a duplicate of Caur-Merripen, the silver and black blade that Pelain used, as well as his armour.” Kashin took a deep breath, glancing at Kehthaek to see if the Questioner had any actual questions. But the priest was studiously applying his medicines to Berkon’s wound, and would not look up. “The dragon came to life while we were there in Carethedor, as did both skeletons. It was the boy Pelurji who smote the dragon, using Caur-Merripen, a sword he should never have been able to pick up. When Sir Poznan of the Driheli came to kill Nemgas who lay prone from what the dragon had done to him, Pelurji drove Caur-Merripen through Poznan’s back.”

Czestadt let out a choking laugh. “By a boy Lech killed?” He laughed again, bitterly.

“Pelurji collapsed after being struck by one of the dragon’s bones. He fell into a sleep, and has not woken from it since. The Magyar seer told Nemgas that the only way to wake the boy was to destroy the evil that corrupted the dragon. That is why the swords could stand against Yajakali’s blade. They were touched by Cenziga.”

Kehthaek smiled ever so slightly as his hands wrapped fresh bandages around the wound. “Interesting. It is unfortunate though that Cenziga itself is utterly unavailable to us.”

“‘Tis not to be taken lightly,” Nemgas snorted. “‘Tis a place of terrible power that I assure thee hast killed far more men than it hast split. Whatever power it holds it grants but sparingly.”

“No doubt,” Kehthaek replied as he pulled the bindings tight.

“So what dost this tell us?” Chamag asked irritably.

“It tells us that these swords may yet be used to balk Marzac’s power,” Kashin replied.

“There are others in the Ecclesia under Marzac’s influence,” Kehthaek pointed out as he finished binding Berkon’s thigh. “We likely can do nothing about Yajakali directly, but we can eliminate his pawns by cleansing the Ecclesia.”

“For this will I help,” Czestadt announced. “Of the Driheli, home them I will send. Not understand this battle they will.”

“Stay I will,” Sir Petriz declared. “Me you need will.”

Czestadt opened his mouth to argue, and then closed it in silent assent.

Kehthaek turned his gaze to Nemgas, his eyes surprisingly soft. “You appear conflicted. Do not be. To cleanse the Ecclesia, one must be a part of it. This is no longer your task.”

“Dost thee say we casnt leave, and return to our wagons?” Amile asked, her eyes brightening. Gelel sat up straighter, and a longing filled every pair of Magyar eyes.

“If it is your choice, yes.” Kehthaek laid one hand on Berkon’s leg. “I ask only that you stay another day and night so that he may recover enough strength to journey with you.”

Nemgas took a deep breath and turned his eyes to Kashin. “I... we must return to our people. Thou hast thy master to avenge. I hath my boy to save.”

Kashin nodded and smiled faintly. “May Eli bring him back to you. One day you must bring him here so he may know me too.”

“He knows thee already,” Nemgas replied, his face filled with a strange pride. “For he hath a brother too.” Kashin blinked in confusion for a moment, and then his smile returned stronger than before. The two men began to laugh warmly, each one sounding just like the other.

“Excommunicato! Excommunicato!” Geshter bellowed, the hammer in his hands crushing Vinsah’s body. He shrieked like a beast, clawing and biting to escape from his assailant. Geshter towered over him, cyclopean in stature, the breadth of his hammer was wider than the raccoon’s head. But it was each exclamation that truly wounded him. And each time Geshter cried out, Vinsah felt himself give in more and more to the animal. At the end, he was reduced to biting Geshter’s ankle, naked, while all around him were the shattered and smashed symbols of his faith. “Excommunicato in perpetua!”

[hr /]

Vinsah woke with a strangled cry. His body trembled, but he was not cold. His eyes opened to near total darkness; only a sliver of light where the hold opened onto the deck revealed anything to his nocturnal vision.

He was laying in the hold of the Sondesharan vessel, nestled between crates filled with foodstuffs, parchment, clothing, and other supplies needed to support a Bishop and his retinue. The one whom the vessel served, Bishop Morean of Sondeshara, was now dead; slain by the traitor Jothay because he had discovered part of Jothay’s plans. Now it delivered the raccoon from his enemies. They would take him back to Metamor, the one land where Vinsah could be safe.

But to do what? Vinsah did not know.

He pulled the blanket closer around his body and slowly stretched his legs and toes. Physically he was fine. Ever since the curses of Metamor had made him a humanoid raccoon, he’d been stronger, sharper, keener, and in possession of greater endurance than he’d ever had before. After making the long journey through Sathmore and the Midlands with Malger the marten and Murikeer the skunk, he’d been in even better shape.

Vinsah groped along the ground until his paws found the small pouch. He gripped it tightly, and could feel the broken pieces of his yew digging into his palms. His body trembled again. Spiritually, he’d never been so desolate as this. Excommunicated. He was forbidden to partake of the Eucharist; he could no longer do penance for his sins, and he could not be forgiven. Paradise was closed to him now; even Purgatory was beyond his reach. Like the crushing of his yew, Geshter had condemned his soul.

If there could be no hope of Yahshua’s mercy and love, then what was there left?

“Abba!” Vinsah cried in sudden anguish. He beat his fists against the nearest crate, chest racked with sobs. “Why? Why?” But unless the Ecclesia granted him the status of a Penitential Supplicant, even his prayer would afford him little. Prayer was never truly ineffective, but in as many ways as are possible to men, the excommunicated are cut off from Eli.

But perhaps not from all of Eli’s servants. Vinsah slid down to his knees, toe claws catching in the blanket and pulling it taut around his shoulders. His head pressed against the crate as he squeezed the words from his throat, “My Lady. Please come to me. It is I, your Elvmere. Please! I... I need you.”

He did not expect her to come, and in that he was not disappointed. The hold was quiet but for the creaking of timbers, the soft cries of rats, and the distant voices of the crew. He was alone for now. If his Lady came to him, it would happen in his sleep.

But all he had in his sleep now were nightmares.

Vinsah snarled in sudden fury and tore the blanket from his shoulders. His claws rent the fabric, and with a hiss he threw it aside. As he shivered, his anger found voice in a beastly growl deep in his throat. Had one of the crew happened upon him in that moment, he might lash out as a cornered beast lashes out in fear at the one who trapped it.

When he finally stilled the rage in his flesh, the raccoon sat down with his things. He traced his fingers across one of Akabaieth’s journals as he reached for the lamp. Once the meagre flame brought some light to his corner of the hold, Vinsah took the journal in his lap and began flipping through the pages. It wasn’t until he saw his name in the text that he was able to read. His heart tightened in anguish when he realized what his mentor was describing.

29 September 691 Cristos Reckoning

I had the privilege of consecrating a new Bishop this day. Vinsah of Abaef has proven to be a capable priest, and will serve as a loyal and blameless Bishop for his people, his Ecclesia, and his Eli. The decision to select Vinsah was an easy one, a fact that both encourages and dismays. I am encouraged by his alacrity for the priesthood, dedication to Yahshua and His calling, keen intellect, and most especially for his faithful devotion to Yahshua’s Ecclesia. Yet at the same time he is not blinded by the politics of our time. I know he will prosper and Eli will bless his ministry.

What dismays me is that there are so few priests like him. Far too many see the struggles in our world as one more reason to become insular. Eli created all people and creatures of our world. To see Eli in all things takes a critical but honest eye, one motivated by the just love that Yahshua embodies. It is my hope that Bishop Vinsah of Abaef will be a voice of reason and faith on the Council.

Eli has His plans, and we are permitted only humble thanks for being a part of them. I see in Vinsah an opportunity for the Ecclesia to right the wrongs of our past... of my past. I pray that in time we can all see and play our parts in the vast plans that Eli has created for us. He gave us Yahshua so that we might know redemption, and the Ecclesia that we might have the barest taste of His kingdom. Though priests make mistakes, Yahshua promised us that His Ecclesia would endure forever. He did not promise what form it would endure in. If we give in to our worst instincts, we may see the Ecclesia reduced to its ancestral lands. Our foolishness cannot destroy the Ecclesia, but it can condemn millions when it should embrace them.

Enough of fear. This is a joyous day. Bishop Vinsah of Abaef will bring to the Council many admirable traits, not the least of which is his trust in Eli and optimism that trust engenders. I am blessed to have his counsel for the remaining years of my Pontificate.

Vinsah stared at the words, trying to remember how he felt that day almost sixteen years ago now. Humbled? Certainly, but also excited and grateful. For a time he’d been heady with wonder at all the good he could do as Bishop. Over the years, he’d lost much of that reckless enthusiasm, but he’d always tried to serve well. But he had never realized how much hope his mentor had invested in him.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered bitterly. “I failed.”

Unable to hold back, the raccoon sobbed anew.

The night air was pleasantly cool against Commodore Pythoreaus’s cheeks. It was nearing midnight, and normally at this hour he would be asleep, but the steady drone of activity down at the wharves had called to him like a forgotten love. And so, one of the commanders of the Fleet of Whales had donned his uniform to see his many cherished vessels.

The sea was filled with a sombre fog, so from his bedroom window the wharves appeared a blanket of white through which masts emerged like dry reeds in a marsh. The night air was still, not offering a breeze worthy of the name, which left the heavy fog lying flat and still across the water. After climbing down the embankment to the Marine Barracks he saw that the fog was not as dense as he first suspected. It ebbed slowly away from the wharves along with the tide, revealing ship after ship. The vessels were so close that he heard several of the deckhands shouting jokes from ship to ship, voices muted and indistinguishable through the blanket of fog, as they kept the vessels clean and ready.

He had spoken with Prince Phil that morning, and the rabbit wished to wait until there was more news before striking. But the mighty fleet of Whales, the most powerful Navy in all the known world, was always ready to set oar or sail. Pythoreaus looked on in pride as he saw how true that was.

The Marine Barracks overlooked the wharves and afforded a good view of the entire bay. He stood atop a squat tower on the seaward side of the barracks accompanied by two Captains who had come into port in the last few days. More would be arriving in the days and weeks ahead. It was rare indeed to see the harbour so full. Already there had been complaints from merchant ships that it was taking thrice as long as normal to unload their goods. If Prince Phil chose to commandeer their vessels they would complain even louder; for a few minutes at least.

Just thinking of the rabbit who had returned from Metamor to rule in place of his ailing father made Pythoreaus glance along the escarpment. The steep hills rose behind them, and to his left he could see the palace of Whales where his King suffered abed. His heart trembled with concern for his majesty, King Tenomides, who had fallen ill at the beginning of the year. The doctors still hoped for a recovery, but it had been nine months now. How could there be any hope for him now?

“Commodore,” Captain Ioannes said in his heavy voice. He was a large man with scars along his arms due to an accident that broke a pressure seal and vented the constituents of raw Whalish Fire which ignited instantly. In throwing the container overboard to save the ship his arms were doused. Even though it had only been enough to fill a cup, it was his quick thinking to bury his arms in a barrel of sand that had saved him. “Have you heard any word on when we will take action? I have been talking with some of the other Captains, and none of them seem to have any better idea than I.”

“Soon,” Pythoreaus replied. He did not like waiting either, and was more abrasive than he intended. “I expect we will begin arraying our forces soon. For now, we continue to patrol the straits while more ships arrive.”

“This is more ships than I have ever seen in port before,” Captain Erepheus noted. He was young, only made a captain of the Whalish Navy a few months before. Despite the fact that he had already served for seven years, there was in his eyes the breathless excitement of the new recruit, head still filled with tales of adventure and glory, not yet come to grips with the grit and hard work that was nearly the whole of a sailor’s life.

“Indeed,” Pythoreaus admitted. “The last time I saw so many was during King Tenomides coronation. I was first mate then. Of the Dolphin.” He squinted his eyes at the eastern sea. The fog was slowly ebbing away, and he thought he saw something moving there. “Ioannes, your spyglass please.”

Ioannes turned his eye to the fog bank and stared even as he passed the spy glass he carried on his belt. Pythoreaus lifted it to his eye and turned the long tube until the distant fog became clear. At first all he saw were shadows in the distance, dimly illuminated by the lights of Whales, but after a moment he realized they were ships.

“There are vessels coming out of the fog.” Pythoreaus scanned what little he could see of them and smiled. “Whalish vessels. More of our fleet.” The hulking shadows were low and long; heavy Dromonai of the fleet. But something about them pricked at the commander’s nape and unsettled his gut. Several somethings, to be truthful, and it was Ioannes observations that brought his doubts to fore.

“Why don’t they have torches lit?” Ioannes asked, his voice stiff and tense.

“There’s a little light there,” Erepheus pointed out. “Close t’ the ca’sle.”

Pythoreaus swivelled the spy glass until he could see it clearly. The ships were now leaving the fog bank and he could see that there were at least a dozen in stacked array rather than the loose harbor approach. Three ranks abreast and four deep, already swinging into the far end of the harbor where the support fleet was laden and moored. “That’s not a lamp,” he realized. “That’s the Fire.” His heart beat faster, his mind frozen with a sudden fear. All of the ships he could see had their full rank of maneuvering oars out, spumes of seawater churning white as the spades bit deep and swift. He heard no beaters but the tempo of the oars was not for mooring or even careering. They were surging forward at full engagement speed. What were those ships named? He picked out the dim devices upon their prows, illuminated fitfully by the moon light, and nearly choked in horror.

“Sound the alarm! Prepare for attack!” he shouted, his voice rising several octaves.

“What?” Erepheus asked in confusion. Men down on the wharves had not heard him and continued working away in blissful ignorance.

Pythoreaus grabbed Erepheus by his collar and hauled him close, nose to nose. “Sound the alarm! Those ships are going to attack! Do it!!” He pointed toward the night dark silhouettes quietly cutting through the thin fog swirling upon the harbor waters, oars rising and falling in smooth coordination and unheard under the general noise of the work upon the docks below. “No torches on deck, and their dischargers are lit! They are attacking!

Ioannes was already shouting orders to the men below. Pythoreaus turned to the flags to signal the watch tower when the lead vessel launched its fire. The entire leading eschelon drove their oars deep as one and hauled hard to starboard to bring their discharge nozzles to bear on the unprotected docks. Unable to breathe, he watched that great ball of crimson flame arc through the night sky. The laughs of the sailors quickly turned to cries of panic and then screams of agony as the fire splashed across the deck of the easternmost ship, engulfing it in flames.

“Launch all ships! Launch all ships!” Pythoreaus screamed. Another ball of fire screamed through the air as the attackers, ships of Whales and crewed by men of Whales but all corrupted by an evil they could not fight, continued to bear down on the wharves. Close upon the braking turn of the leading echelon the second and third ranks turned less sharply, bearing toward the next line of helpless piers and trapped ships while the lead assault line cleared their nozzles. More fire arced into the still night air. The fourth line of Dromonai braked outside the assault approach and spread to interdict any ships that could successfully break from the docks. The screams echoed up and Pythoreaus watched a burning man leap into the sea only to continue to burn and sink like a glowing ember beneath the surface.

But there was nothing the Commodore could do anymore. The sailors could see their danger but did not know the why of it. They could all see the fires spreading, see the arcing spume of fire leaping from sea to docks, an arc that no other weapon but Whalish Fire could remotely resemble. Confused and panicked they all attempted to flee from the docks or into open waters where they could maneuver, but as a body without coordination they added to the danger in their mindless flight. A few groups rallied and made scattered attempts to combat the swiftly spreading flames in small areas but were soon overwhelmed by heat, smoke, or fleeing crews. Meanwhile the rogue ships continued their flanking pass along the wharves just beyond easy bowshot, discharging their fire in an orderly, sedate rotation uncontested. Already, the fire had spread from the first ships onto those around them.

One by one the great assembled fleet of Whales burned. None that were able to cast from their moorings and maneuver into open waters made a successful escape, cut down by the quartet of vessels blockading the mouth of the harbor. Only a single desultory return shot leaped from a moored ship and caressed the aft of an attacker to no great affect. That ship was soon ablaze under two replies from the darkened attackers. The night sky was painted vivid crimson on a canvas of roiling black and voiced by an orchestra of the damned. The buildings along the front of the wharves began to steam and then smoke and very soon those, too, were beginning to smolder and burn. A shuddering clap of thunder rolled across the city and sea when a burning ship’s Fire ignited within its pressure vessels, sending burning remains high and far.

Behind Pythoreaus a high pitched wail began to cry. The alarm. Too late to do anyone any good. He refused to weep as he watched the mighty fleet of Whales one by one begin to burn with their own secret flame.

At the scream of the tocsin, Phil leapt from his bed. His wife stirred but slowly, unused to his military training. The rabbit bounded to his balcony overlooking the harbour and gasped in horror. A nightmare lay below him as several Whalish ships in the southeast launched volley after volley of fire at the dockyards. The liquid flame had spread over the decks of several ships already while only one or two of their own fleet had managed to escape their moorings and pull away from the docks. A single arc of fire leaped from the docks in response but splashed aft of its target.

Phil’s mind tried to comprehend the scene before him. So much death and so many screams of terror rising to his ears. His own joined them and he threw himself at the floor, his mind retreating into a safe place in the back of his head. As the fires raged below and men died the Prince of Whales busied himself with trying to dig a hole in the masonry to hide.

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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