The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XLV - Prisons of Breckaris

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 soldiers had no difficulty marching the Keepers to the dungeons, as they were still under the Marquis’s compulsion. As if they were but marionettes, they all marched amiably into the dank corridors beneath the garrison at the castle’s bailey wall. And as though he were feeling magnanimous, the Marquis changed both Charles and James back to their two-legged forms. The naked donkey walked with a noticeable limp, but his face betrayed none of the pain he must have felt from his branding.

The guards split them into several different levels under Agathe’s direction. The Runecaster’s voice was angry and the guards were quick to obey, their eyes the only ones filled with fear. Charles was glad that she kept James and he together, and was surprised when she also ordered both Habakkuk and Lindsey to follow them down into a long corridor lit only by the occasional torch. The hall stank of mould, faeces, and tar; no hint of the sea air permeated this deep. The cells were all along one side of the hall, and they were shoved into the first four.

Once the doors were slammed, Agathe drew a rune upon Charles’s door, which glowed a bright blue for a moment before fading. The rat wanted to grab her through the cell bars, but the Marquis’s cards kept him firmly rooted in place. It was too dark to see her expression, but the rat could make out the smouldering of her empty eye socket. He imagined she scowled at them one last time before seeing to the other prisoners.

They heard the guards leave the hallway, but Charles felt certain they stood just outside. Somehow, he doubted subduing the guards would be their most challenging task. If they could not even break free of the Marquis’s control, then why bother even locking them behind bars? And why not kill them? The Marquis could certainly have done so at any point; their helplessness had never been more apparent. Was it because Qan-af-årael was not in du Tournemire’s deck?

Unable to solve the many riddles that surrounded them, Charles turned his attention to his cell. It was made from the same masonry they’d found in the throne room, only these blocks were still rough, and coated with a thin layer of slime that he did not want to speculate on. The ivy pulled tighter around his body; Charles wasn’t sure if it was afraid of the mildew, or attempting to protect him from it.

For many long minutes after the guards had left, they stood frozen by the cards. And then, without warning, they all felt the compulsion leave their bodies. Surprised, Charles collapsed to the ground and took a moment to flex his stony flesh to be certain he was acting under his own will.

James’s moaning voice brought his ears up. The donkey was using the warrior’s breath, something Charles had taught him as a way to manage pain. Deep, slow breaths would steady the body and allow the mind to focus. James was no expert and they could all hear it in the way he cried.

“James, try not to think about the pain. It will heal, you will heal. Pain and fear will kill your mind as surely as a sword will kill your body if you let them. Remember what I taught you.”

The donkey’s voice resounded faintly, “I’m trying. It hurts... they branded me like a beast!”

“I’m sorry... I’m so sorry,” Lindsey cried, but his voice was so low it sounded as if he were miles away.

“Not... your... fault!” James exclaimed through clenched teeth. Charles heard him crawling around, and then his breathing became less ragged. “Ah... that’s better.”

“What did you do?” Charles asked, eyes studying the iron bars of his prison. If not for Agathe’s spell on the door, he would have already bent the bars. Or he could shrink down to the shape of a true rat and slip through them. But he suspected that would be a bad idea. The last time he’d crossed one of Agathe’s spells he’d become a statue, and only the intervention of a pair of Lothanasi gods had given him a chance of becoming flesh again. And for that to happen, Agathe had to die, which judging by their previous encounters struck him as unlikely.

“I put the brand against the floor,” James replied after catching his breath. He was still wincing as he spoke, but not as bad as before. “It’s wet and cold.”

“Good idea. Now do we have any that will free us from this place? I’m hesitant to do anything because that witch put a spell on my door before she left.”

“And you shouldn’t,” Habakkuk called out. “I’ve seen this moment, or at least events around it. And if you do anything to that door, or even try to slip through the stone around it, you will be lost.”

Charles grimaced. “Is this the time you spoke of when you asked me to trust you and not enter the stone?”

“Aye, it is. And there are other things. I once said I had seen a city, a father and son, but I knew none of them. This is the city, and Duke Schanalein is the father.”

“And the son?” Lindsey asked.

“He was not in the throne room.”

“And do you see anything now?” James asked. Silence was the only reply. “Zhypar?”

“Nae, I see nothing. Nothing at all.” Habakkuk’s voice was empty, and that fact more than any other brought the rat real fear.

“Where are you taking us?”

Kurt kept walking, knowing Tugal was right behind him. Soldiers patrolled along the top of the bailey wall, but they wouldn’t see anyone who walked flush at its base especially after dusk. And that was where they trod, a soldier and a serving woman, following the inside of the bailey wall.

“The dungeons are beneath the old barracks,” he whispered. “We’ll never get in through the main gate, but there’s a servant’s entrance. The door is hidden on the inside, so prisoners will never know its there.” He fell quiet at the sound of boots overhead. Tugal nodded and walked lightly. Beneath the servant’s smocks the Mother Superior had supplied, she kept at least one pair of knives. Kurt suspected she had even more hidden, but he didn’t want to pry.

When all was silent but for the distant cry of a hawk, Kurt pointed towards a squat structure of ancient stone and creeping moss lit by torches and lampstands. It was built into the bailey wall, with only arrow slits for windows. “Do you see the small door next to the gutter? That’s where we go.”

“No guards?”

“There will be plenty inside. Keep your head down and say nothing.”

The door was fashioned from heavy iron and did not open easily. Kurt had been expecting this; no servant entered the dungeons without an armed escort; it took a trained soldier’s strength to move that door. “Now remember,” Kurt cautioned after he’d pried the door wide enough to step through, “we don’t want to kill the guards if we can help it.” Tugal narrowed her eyes but said nothing.

Beyond the door was a staircase leading down. A single torch at the bottom of the steps brought illumination. Kurt motioned for Tugal to slip past him while he closed the door. He was surprised that it made no noise; even the hinges sounded well-oiled. But he was not the type to worry over good fortune.

With sure step they reached the bottom of the stairs and were faced with another door. Tugal glanced at him and he nodded. She lowered her eyes and kept an air of meekness as she pressed on the handle. The door opened into one end of a hallway with a set of barred iron doors in the middle. Two guards sat playing dice in front of the doors.

One of them lifted his eyes and studied them with a scowl. “I was told not to expect you tonight.”

Kurt tried to hide his dismay. “I was never told to shirk my duties, and I won’t on the word of the gaoler.” He stepped further into the light, allowing the soldier to glimpse his officer’s uniform. The guard’s eyes widened in surprise. “We have important prisoners to watch, and you two are playing games?” Kurt had a lot of practice as the Duke’s son feigning indignation, and he could tell it worked. “Where are the other guards?”

“In the barracks above! There’s no way the prisoners can escape.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Kurt replied. “What are your names?”

“Alaric and Einhard,” the first guard said. He gripped the pommel of his sword, suspicion dawning in his face. “You’re too young to be an officer.”

“And you look familiar,” Einhard added. “Have we seen you before?”

Well, that bluff failed. Time for his back-up plan. “Aye. I’m Kurt Schanalein, son of the Duke.” Their eyes widened in surprise, familiarity becoming recognition. Kurt smiled affably. It was time to treat them in the manner with which he’d won the confidence of his fellow soldiers. “Alaric, Einhard, I am not here to test your loyalty, nor to question your devotion. I am here to see to the prisoners and to make sure that more guards aren’t needed. My father asked me to do this only a short time ago, which is why you have not heard of it. Soldiers rarely do hear of these things, something I know now that I have become one too.”

Alaric and Einhard glanced at each other. Einhard took a step back from the table, while Alaric gave Kurt an apologetic stare. “I’m sorry your grace, but your father ordered us to detain you and alert the others if you appeared.” He drew his sword while Einhard took quick strides towards the stairs at the other end of the hall leading to the barracks above.

Tugal immediately dropped her pretense and dashed after Einhard. The guard turned in surprise, but fell beneath her weight. One dagger flashed in her hand and then Einhard went still. Alaric stared in horror before lunging at Tugal. Kurt drew his sword and put the tip to the man’s neck. “Do not make me kill you, Alaric. Lower your sword.”

“Your grace...” his voice was angry but he complied. Tugal busied herself with Einhard’s body, but Kurt didn’t dare risk a glance. He hoped the guard was all right.

“Tell me where the prisoners are. Tell me, Alaric.”

Alaric closed his eyes, and then nodded quickly. “There are four in the cells beneath us, three below them, two more below them, and one more in the lowest cellars.”

“Where are the keys?” Alaric shifted his hips and a set of keys jingled on his belt. “Toss them to the ground.” Alaric did so. “How many guards wait below us? How many?”

“The standard complement,” Alaric snapped. “I can’t believe you’re a traitor, your grace!”

“And by this time tomorrow, I won’t be,” Kurt assured him. He heard Tugal pluck the keys from the ground and begin testing them in the lock. “Open a cell; we’ll put these two together.” Alaric glared at him but did nothing while Tugal found the right key. After opening the massive iron doors, Tugal dragged Einhard through. Kurt nudged Alaric meaningfully and the guard followed them into the first row of cells.

Tugal chose a cell towards the rear of the corridor that already stood open. Kurt saw that the prisons were currently empty, a fact that struck him as mildly disturbing. He had no time to speculate, and gestured for Alaric to join the limp form of Einhard in the cell. Alaric frowned and then buckled when Tugal struck the back of his head with the hilt of her dagger.

“Why did you do that?” Kurt asked in surprise.

“You don’t want him shouting for help do you?” Tugal replied as she dragged him into the cell beside Einhard. Kurt grimaced and glanced at the second guard; he wasn’t bleeding, so she must have knocked him out too. Good.

Kurt watched her efficiently bind the two guards, and chuckled to himself. “Weren’t you thinking of joining the nunnery this morning?”

Tugal grinned. “Aye, but I haven’t been baptised yet.” Kurt chuckled again and set about checking the guards for weapons. On Einhard he only found a sword and a dagger. Those he set in a different cell. Tugal brought Alaric’s weapons a moment later.

“It will look better if I have the keys,” Kurt pointed out. Tugal nodded and handed them over. “Now let’s free the Metamorians. There should be four of them on the level below us, and only two guards...” Both their heads turned at the sound of booted feet running up the stairs ahead of them. Tugal clutched her knives tight, eyes narrowed, body tense and ready for a fight. Kurt held his sword the way he’d been taught, hoping he wouldn’t have to kill anyone.

Half a dozen soldiers poured into the hall, swords drawn. “Lower your weapons and we won’t kill your companion, your grace,” one of them shouted. How had they known, Kurt wondered. Had somebody been spying on him as he’d been spying on his father? Well, there was nothing else to be done, they had to fight. He could hear Tugal growling and saw a smile spreading across her lips.

But it was not Tugal who answered them. From behind them a raspy voice cried, “Lux Caecus!” A brilliant flash of light filled the chamber and the six guards threw their hands to the faces, gasping in pain.

Kurt blinked the flash from his eyes, while Tugal rushed the men, smacking them on the head with the butt of her dagger. One by one they went down, not a one of them able to stop her. Kurt turned to see who had cast the spell and was forced to blink again; not from the light, but from the strangeness of what he saw. Standing just inside the outer doorway was a hawk as tall as a man. It regarded them with alert golden eyes that missed nothing. This had to be the missing Keeper.

“You... You’re the one that got away from the ambush,” Kurt stammered. “Thank you for saving us.”

“Who are you?” the hawk asked in its raspy voice. Tugal stared slack-jawed at the Metamorian. “I overheard you say you were going to free my friends, but why?”

“I’m Kurt Schanalein, and this is Tugal. We too are victims of the Marquis du Tournemire. I hoped we could help each other. Who are you?”

The hawk studied them a moment more before saying, “Jessica. My name is Jessica. What do you wish of my friends?”

So the hawk was a woman? There did seem something feminine in her voice and manner. “I need your help to free my father from the Marquis’s control. He’s a good man and would never do this if not for du Tournemire.”

Jessica considered it and finally nodded. “I will help, as will my friends. Do you know where they are?”

“Yes, but we must hurry. That fight was sure to alert every guard in the barracks.”

Jessica squawked, and it took them a moment to realize she was laughing. “I cast a silence spell on the door here. Nobody outside can hear any of this.”

Kurt grinned and breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, thank you again!”

Tugal kicked one of the unconscious bodies and grimaced. “When do the guards change?”

“Midnight,” Kurt replied. “We have about five hours before anyone notices.”

“Then lets make good use of the time,” Jessica suggested.

“And fast,” Kurt added. “These guards knew it was me. We don’t know who else may know!”

Before proceeding to the next floor, Kurt and Tugal put the other six guards in the cells while Jessica cast another enchantment on the pair of iron doors to protect them. They would still be trapped, but with all of her friends together, she was confident that they’d find a way out of the prison.

Once satisfied, the trio proceeded deeper into the dungeon. At the end of the hallway, there was a turn to the left which led to another hall filled with empty cells, while on the right a set of stairs descended further beneath the streets of Breckaris. The stairs were wide enough for two men to walk side by side, so Kurt and Tugal went down at the same time. Jessica followed them as quietly as she was able.

The stairs ended in an abrupt right turn with a set of iron bars. The door stood open, and the guard station beyond was abandoned. All of them must have come when they’d heard Kurt and Tugal above. Beyond the guard station lay two corridors, both of them lined with cells on one side. Down the darker of the two they found the first of their friends.

Lindsey saw them first, and waved his arm through the bars, calling out Jessica’s name in a harsh whisper. The trio came into sight, and the Keepers flocked to their prison doors. “Jessica, praise Eli!” the woodcutter added. “We’ve been worried about you. Who are your allies?”

“This is Kurt and Tugal,” Jessica replied, even as Kurt tried the keys in Lindsey’s lock. “We have a mutual enemy in the Marquis.”

“All mankind has a mutual enemy in the Marquis,” Charles groused, even as he heard Lindsey’s cell door open. “Good to know somebody else recognizes it.”

They next came to Habakkuk’s cell, and the kangaroo gasped when he saw them. “So that’s it! You’re the son!”

Kurt and Tugal glanced at each other in confusion, until Lindsey grabbed Kurt by the collar. A dagger pressed into his groin a moment later and Tugal hissed, “Put him down or you’ll never be a man again.”

“If that worked, I’d welcome it,” Lindsey snapped, but he set Kurt down anyway. Tugal, her eyes still confused, drew back her weapon, but she did not sheath it. The woodcutter glared at Kurt, whose face was flush with surprise. “You’re Schanalein’s whelp. He’s the Marquis’s ally! What are you playing at?”

Kurt straightened his uniform and scowled, but not at the woodcutter. “The Marquis controls my father with his cards. He’s been doing so for nearly nine months now. I’m a pariah in my own home, only kept alive because I’m the sole heir. I’m here to free you because I want your help to free my father.”

“He’s telling the truth,” Jessica said, placing her reassuring wingtips on Lindsey’s shoulder.

“We cannot fight the Marquis,” Lindsey sighed. “We cannot save anyone from his evil.”

Kurt frowned, but resumed unlocking doors. The same key was used for all the cells in the hall, so he’d soon freed both Habakkuk and James. The donkey limped as he emerged, the black brand visible on his thigh even in the gaol’s dim illumination. Tugal handed him a pair of baggy pants from her tunic and he took them gratefully. He was still bare-chested, but at least he was modest again.

When Kurt approached the rat’s cell, Charles bade him stop. He held out his paws and shook his head. “You cannot free me just yet. A spell has been placed on the cell door. While it lingers, you dare not touch the door.”

Kurt blinked and backed away, one hand making the sign of the yew over his chest. “How will we get you out?”

“Go find the others and free them. Jessica can stay and study the spell. With luck she can break it. Then, I won’t need the keys to escape these bars.” He grinned, and the Keepers grinned with him.

“But what of James? He looks injured,” Jessica objected.

“It’s a brand, as you saw,” the donkey muttered. “The more I walk, the better I will be.”

“He speaks truth,” Tugal said. She eyed them warily, as if their presence was uncomfortable. Charles guessed that she’d never seen a Keeper before.

“We’ll hurry back,” Kurt assured them. “There are probably more guards below somewhere, so be careful.” He set off for the other corridor followed closely by Tugal. The Keepers gave him a bit more distance, as if they weren’t sure they could be trusted. Charles hoped they could, but after the day’s events, he was lucky he still knew up from down.

Once they were gone, Charles leaned towards the cell door and whispered, “Can you open it?”

Jessica stared at something only she could see for some time. She would glance between it and the rat every few seconds, but did not acknowledge the question. It wasn’t until she lifted one talon and pried at the air that she finally answered. “I think so. It’s very complicated, but I’ve seen far worse. And from the same hand.”

“Truly? When?”

“On his grace, Duke Thomas, when they tried to turn him into an ordinary horse.”

Charles nodded and grimaced. He’d been living at Glen Avery when that had happened, and so he knew very little of it. Misha probably shouldn’t have told him - Andwyn may have ordered him not to - but the fox didn’t listen very well when the safety of his Longs was concerned.

Jessica was using the short claws at the tips of her wings and the toes of one foot to pry something apart. It was as if a giant knot that he couldn’t see bound him inside. Watching her balance almost effortlessly on one leg nearly brought a laugh to his tongue but he stilled it. Instead, he turned his mind back to what she’d revealed of the spell’s caster. “How do you know it was the same mage?”

“There are features to the runes, a style of drawing, that I recognize from the spell on his grace. It has to be the same mage.”

Charles crossed his arms and spoke even quieter than before, “If I tell you something, will it distract you?”

She shook her head. “I’m almost finished. What is it?”

“I know who killed your master. I know who killed Wessex.”

Jessica lifted her eyes, shock and horror filling them. “What?” He could see the agony of memory suffusing her. It was like a wave of sand sweeping across the desert rocks, swallowing them whole one by one until all that was left was the storm. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, stilling that fury. “Let me break this spell; then tell me.”

“Of course,” Charles waited as the hawk worked. She was shaken, but she hid it well. He could see the slight trembling of her feathers, but her wing tips and talons were sure. Had Charles been flesh and blood, he would have been nervous, afraid that something would go wrong. But he was stone, and stone was very patient. There were certainly reasons to be thankful that he was stone and not flesh. But that time would soon end.

It only took Jessica a few minutes more before she visibly relaxed. The lock in the cell door clicked and the door swung open. She stepped back and took another deep breath, exhaling slowly, wings and feathers sagging from the effort. “There. It’s safe for you to come out. Now tell me what happened to Wessex.”

Charles cautiously stepped through the doorway, but he felt no different. He stretched his fingers and toes, glad to be out of the cell. Then he turned back to the hawk and pointed at the door. “Her name is Agathe; she is the one who ensorceled me, my cell door, Duke Thomas, and she is also the one who murdered Wessex and reanimated his corpse last Winter’s Solstice.”

Jessica stared hard at the door, and then at the rat. “Agathe? The Runecaster?” Her voice was distant, but there was steel there. Her eyes narrowed, simmering with an anger that had long been set aside. “Is she still here?”

“The Marquis left her here to be our gaoler,” Charles replied. “She is here and she is alone.”

Her beak cracked in a predatory grin. “Alone?”

“Alone. I tell you this because you deserve to know. I saw her face; those scars were made by Wessex. I don’t think Zhypar or Qan–af-årael would want me telling you this, for fear of what you might do. Please do not jeopardize the rest of us for revenge’s sake.”

“That I will not do,” she assured him, but the fire still smouldered in her voice. “Still, if I have the chance to kill the Runecaster, I will.”

“Good. Now let’s find the others. We have yet to escape this prison!”

The next level down had been free of guards, but the one below that had a pair who vainly tried to block their way. Jerome, once freed from the Sondeck sapping manacles, punched both men so quickly that not a one of the Keepers saw him strike. He assured a worried Kurt Schanalein that neither man was dead, but he couldn’t promise that none of their ribs were broken. While Abafouq and Kayla did what they could for their wounds, with Lindsey and James keeping a ready eye open for reinforcements, Kurt led the rest into the dark corridors slick with mildew and pools of putrid water.

“How can anyone stand guard duty in this place?” Jerome complained quietly.

Kurt shrugged. “We don’t normally keep prisoners this deep. Usually there are no quards down here. If Alaric spoke the truth, then there won’t be anymore. But I think he lied about that.” Tugal nodded grimly and gestured to a side passage. “Here they are.”

They found Guernef squeezed into a cell barely large enough to hold him. In fact, it was so small he couldn’t turn around; his tail swayed back and forth through the bars, and his hindquarters showed welts where some guard braver than most had struck him with the flat of his sword. Despite his confinement, he was still an imposing figure, and Kurt was quick to step out of the Nauh-kaee’s way after opening the door. Guernef had to keep his wings tucked in tight, but he managed to pry himself free.

“Guernef, are you well?” Habakkuk asked. Tugal stared at him in awe, but not as if he were a surprise. It was as if she found his presence here in the dungeons the startling thing. It was almost as if she’d seen a Nauh-kaee before. The kangaroo wondered at that, and wondered at why there was something familiar about her, but was too distracted to ponder it for long.

Once free of the cell, the Nauh-kaee stretched his wings, limbs, neck and beak. His white feathers and fur were smeared with the mould clinging to the walls. He glanced at Habakkuk, dark avian eyes measuring him and the two newcomers. “I am well. Who are they?”

“Allies. Kurt Schanalein and Tugal. They’re helping us escape and can be trusted. Do you know where the Åelf are?”

Guernef turned to Kurt and Tugal, and squawked, “I thank you both.” Turning back to the kangaroo he added,”I did not see where they took Qan-af-årael, but Andares was led down this corridor.”

The passage took two more twists before they found him. He sat in the last cell, yet somehow managed not to dirty his trousers with the mucus coating the stone floor. There were a few smudges on his tunic, but these came from the handling of the guards, not his cell. Other than these, he appeared unharmed. Like the Nauh-kaee, he accepted their benefactors without question. But neither did he know where the ancient Åelf had been taken.

“He must be on the sewer level,” Kurt reasoned. “Alaric was right about that much.” He grimaced and stared at Guernef. “I’m afraid you’ll have to stay up here. The passages down there are too narrow. You might not be able to traverse them either, Zhypar.”

“We’ll rejoin the others then,” the kangaroo agreed. “Jerome will stay with you. There may be more guards.”

“You doubt I could handle them?” Tugal asked defensively, her hands curling around her daggers.

“Nae, but you’re better off with him than without him.” Jerome nodded in agreement, but said nothing. The answer obviously satisfied Tugal, as she relaxed her grip. “Do not dally. Ours is a journey needing haste.”

While Habakkuk and Guernef returned to the stairs where Kayla, Abafouq and the others waited and kept watch, Kurt led Tugal, Andares and Jerome to a dark, narrow passage that turned into a set of stairs descending even further beneath the city. The walls were coated with slime, and so close together that Jerome’s shoulders brushed either side. A single torch at the bottom of the stairs cast light into the febrile gloom. They could hear the steady drip of water, and their noses flinched at the scent of decay that lingered in the stale air.

When they reached the bottom of the stairs, their boots splashed in water. Kurt was expecting it, but both Tugal and Jerome grunted in surprise. Peering down the long dark hall lined with cramped cells just big enough for a man to lie down and drown himself, Kurt saw that there were no more guards. He leaned back and whispered, “The city’s sewer system flows through here. There’s a sluice which lets us raise the water level.”

“And drown the prisoners?” Jerome asked.

“Sometimes,” Kurt admitted. “Sometimes to clean this place too.” He started down the hall, one arm covering his nose. “Only the most dangerous are ever put here.” Although when they found the Åelf halfway down the blighted hall, he could not have appeared any less dangerous. His face was frozen in a peaceful expression as if sleeping, and he did not stir when called.

“Some sort of stasis spell,” Andares surmised.

“Get him out and well take him to the others,” Jerome muttered. “It must be a powerful spell to hold him in place.”

It took Kurt a few tries to find the right key, but once they unlocked the door, Andares lifted the frail form of the ancient Åelf and hoisted him gently on his shoulder. Tugal was the first back up the stairs, followed closely by Andares. Jerome motioned for Kurt to go on ahead of him, and the young ducal heir was quick to do so. The Sondecki gave the water-logged hall one last glance before joining them.

Jerome found the general emptiness of the prisons eerie. Even in Sondeshara, a land where few would even consider breaking the law, there were always some prisoners. Not everyone in Sondeshara was a Sondecki, and those intent on breaking the law always seemed to think they would never be discovered. But discovered they were.

But here, the prisons were empty but for them and the piddling guards set to keep them here. Why?

When they found Kayla and the rest, they saw that Charles and Jessica had finally joined them. The two guards were bandaged and locked in a nearby cell. All heads lifted as they neared, but it was Jessica who cried, “What happened to him?”

“A spell of some kind,” Jerome replied. “Can you do something about it?”

Andares gently laid Qan-af-årael down on the floor, then backed up to give the mages room to study him. Kurt and Tugal stared at the Keepers, marvelling at how creatures so beastly could still be so human too. For Tugal it was a real horror. These were the very people she’d been hired to kill. She’d once seen all Keepers as monsters, and was all too eager to see them die. But it had been her friends who were the monsters. There was something greater in these beastly men and women, something she could no longer hate.

Tugal withdrew from the group as the hawk, the little man, and the gryphon all bent over the strange old man and began studying him. The little man who was not a midget nodded and muttered to himself, until the hawk’s words caught their ears. Golden eyes left the still body and found Tugal. What she saw shocked her in a way the prisons had not. “You’ve been cursed, Tugal! I see it on you!”

All eyes fixed on the woman. Kurt stood next to her, while she crouched defensively, body tense and eyes wary. Rather imperiously, Kurt declared, “Terrible things have happened to her, but she is not accursed!”

“She means the curse of Metamor,” Tugal admitted. This hawk had the mage’s eye; there was no point denying it now. The Keepers all knew what she meant. “And aye, I was a man once.”

“What are you doing so far from home?” James asked, even as the hawk returned her attention to the Åelf. Abafouq had glanced up at her briefly, but did not seem interested. Guernef had not even turned from his examination.

Tugal sneered. “Home? I am not a Metamorian! I...” she took a deep breath and several more steps back. She clutched knives in both hands. “I hail from Politzen. An accident led to this.”

Kurt had heard much of this already, but from the look of embarrassment on his face, it was clear he’d hoped that Tugal’s past would remain secret. Lindsey grunted at the news, while the other Keepers listened curiously. “So how did you end up here in Breckaris?” Kayla asked, her voice filled with neighbourly concern.

Tugal flicked her eyes at the skunk. “I and several friends of mine were hired to kill some Keepers.” They all tensed, except for Charles who if she didn’t know better, looked as unmoveable as a statue. “I never liked the woman who hired us; southern, strange, withdrawn – she scared us more than the elements, the Keepers, even death. I wished for death after the curse made me a woman..”

“You were one of the barbarians chasing us through the Barrier Range,” Habakkuk said, his voice quiet, even and without judgement. “What happened?”

Tugal turned away from them and stalked down the passage into the darkness. Kurt swore under his breath and chased after her. The Keepers looked at each other, none of them knowing quite what to do. Kayla nudged Lindsey’s shin. “You’re the only one of us that looks human...”

Lindsey scowled at her. “Mercenaries from Poltizen were in Baron Calephas’s army when he stormed my homeland!” He saw the irritation in the skunk’s eyes and sighed. “Very well.”

It did not take Lindsey long to catch up with the two. Tugal had only gone around the corner, and Kurt was there with one hand on her shoulder. The woman was crying!

“What’s wrong?” Lindsey asked, suddenly feeling a deep sympathy for this woman. “What happened to you?”

Tugal sneered at him. “What else do men do with women!”

Lindsey nodded, understanding dawning. In a cold land far from home, barbarians would enjoy any woman they could find. Lindsey had fought off several when he’d still been a woman. He licked his lips and sighed. “I was once a woman, Tugal. I understand. Nobody here blames you for what happened.”

Tugal turned in surprise. She wiped the tears from her eyes, anger filling her eyes. Lindsey wasn’t sure if the anger was directed at him or herself. Kurt stayed by her side, but he lowered his hand. “You were a woman?”

“The same curse that struck you, struck me. I wish another had struck me. I do not mind being a man, but...” Lindsey leaned forward, feeling awkward admitting this to somebody he’d only just met, but he could think of nothing else to say.. “I was in love, and now we cannot be together. It is not the same sort of pain, but, it is a pain that slowly kills you over time. Especially since he is with us even now.”

Both Kurt and Tugal stared at him. Kurt’s jaw hung open. He closed it and swallowed, but said nothing. Tugal shut her eyes and shook her head. “My friends raped me. They were delighted when I changed, and wasted no time in taking me. And she let them. She let them...”

Lindsey grunted and stroked his beard. “How did you get from the mountains to Breckaris? We’ve been travelling constantly since then, and I cannot believe how we did it.”

Tugal took a long deep breath, stilling the rush of emotions that had overcome her. Kurt took a step back to give her more room, but she didn’t appear to notice. “She cast some spell. Took me to a place darker than winter. There were... pillars of some sort there.”

“Pillars?” Lindsey asked. “That sounds very strange. And then what happened?”

“Then we were here and she had me put in a whore house!” Tugal glared at him again. “Is that enough for you?”

Lindsey nodded. “I trust you. Now. You are more a victim of this Agathe than I am.”

Kurt clasped his hands together. “Good. Are you all right, Tugal?”

“Aye,” she gestured towards the hall. “Let’s see if your friend is well.”

It took much longer for the spell binding Qan-af-årael to be broken. It was at least a half hour of nervous waiting before he finally blinked. A few minutes later, he had finally been able to move the rest of his body. The mages did not appear winded, but they were strained by the effort of undoing the Runecaster’s charms.

Charles and Jerome had ventured back to the upper levels of the gaol, with Kurt showing them the way. The guards at the gaol’s entrance had woken, but neither had been too eager to confront the walking statue. The Sondeckis risked investigating the barracks, but could not get past the stairs before they discovered that Kurt was right – there were far too many guards to attempt that exit.

The servant’s entrance was undefended, but it left them out in the open in the courtyard. But the alternative would spill blood, and that they wanted to avoid.

By the time they returned, Qan-af-årael’s recovery was well on its way to being complete. “Good,” Charles said when he saw the Åelf standing again. “That must have been a very difficult spell cast on you.”

Abafouq nodded. “I have seen more difficult ones, but not many. The enemy is more clever than a bear who smells fish.”

Placid, the ancient Åelf opened his eyes and addressed them. “Forgive me for doing nothing when confronted by the Marquis’s degenerate magic. The eldritch power within those manipulative cards can only be negated by a fire that I do not possess.”

Lindsey rubbed his hands together. “Is there any way to destroy them then? I couldn’t stop myself. I tried! I tried.”

His smile was understanding, but sad. “The hold he has over you can only be weakened, never eliminated. At least not by my power.”

Kurt shifted from one foot to the other. “But what of my father? The Marquis has left Breckaris. Isn’t there anything you can do for him?”

Qan-af-årael turned to face the young man and studied him for several long seconds. The others looked at each other, and then back at him, wondering what he might say. There was a silent hope in the hearts, one that only he could answer. They were free from their prison cells, but unless they could be free from the Marquis’s prison, they may as well as return to their cells. They held their breath, able only to hope.

The Åelf’s smile came only slowly, but it filled them with excitement. “Aye, there is something that can be done. But it must be done quickly, and it must be done quietly. Can you lead us back to the castle without being seen?”

Kurt rubbed his hands together and blew through his fingers. “It will be risky, but I think there’s a way. Come on. Night’s already fallen, and somebody’s sure to check on the guards soon.” He led the way up the stairs, and all of the Keepers followed them. “With luck we can free my father and Bishop Hockmann both from the Marquis.”

“And then we can deal with Agathe,” Jessica added, the anger in her voice a simmering cauldron of pitch. Charles nodded to her, took one last look around, and then followed the rest of them up the stairs to the surface. It was time to leave the goal.

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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