The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XLVIII - Imbervand

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

When the blackness cleared, Jessica gawked at the strange world she now saw around her. Directly before her stood a pillar stretching into the incomparable heights, narrow but solid. Fashioned from a gray stone, it nevertheless appeared to glow a pulsing crimson. The style of its construction was like nothing she’d ever seen – delicate, yet sturdy in a way that even the Åelves couldn’t reproduce.

On either side of the pillar existed an empty blackness, as of a world that was waiting for the creator’s hand to illumine it. Beneath the pillar, and upon which she now lay, was a triangular platform of close fitting stones. At each vertex stood another pillar like the first, for three pillars in all. And beneath of her, shocked and struggling, was the Runecaster Agathe, fighting her purple robes which had tangled her arms when they’d fallen through.

A memory came to the hawk, of a time spent studying with Misha’s sister, Elizabeth. The world bell... pillars... death... Ahdyojiak! Agathe had summoned the Pillars of Ahdyojiak, and now Jessica was here with her. Her mind reeled at the ramifications. This place could take her anywhere in the world if she only knew how to use it. She immediately wondered how she would return to her friends in Breckaris. But there was one thing even more important to the hawk, and that lay beneath of her, one hand finally free of the robes.

“Agathe!” Jessica cried, her fury remembered, she tried to bite at the lump that was the Runecaster’s head.

The fingers danced in the air, and the hawk felt a concussion strike. She flew backwards, crashing against one of the pillars and slumping to the floor. Jessica shook her head clear, and brought her wings up, conjuring a bolt of fire. The Runecaster tried to rise, but it struck her in the chest. Her robes caught flame, and she thrashed about, screaming obscenities. Another twist of her fingers and the robe righted itself, a blast of arctic chill descending from the limitless blackness above and extinguishing the fire.

Agathe turned, empty red eye socket smouldering like an opened forge, and pulled her other hand free. Jessica felt terror grip her heart. This was the woman who had killed Wessex and reanimated his corpse! This was the woman who had nearly killed them all in the Barrier Mountains! Jessica was just a journeyman mage, and not a one of her friends was here to help. This was madness!

The Runecaster lifted her hands, a blue rune flaring to life as her fingers moved. Golden energy arced from its centre, and the hawk was only just able to bring up a shield. Cracks marred its surface, but it was all she could do. Jessica put her energy into it, staring through one half-lidded eye at Agathe. The witch had a contemptuous smile upon her lips, her scarred cheeks giving her a devilish cast. She drew another rune, and the energy struck again.

Jessica breathed rapidly, keeping the pillar at her back, wondering what she could possibly do. Agathe stood in the very centre of the triangle, feet spread wide, the darkness behind her so complete that the hawk found it difficult to look at anything else. What lay in that netherworld beyond the pillars?

Drawing up her strength, Jessica, thrust her shield forward, braced her talons against the pillar, and leapt! Agathe’s eye widened in surprise, and she hastily drew another rune. But the hawk wrapped her wings around the Runecaster, and the two tumbled forward, to the very edge of the platform. For a moment they teetered there, the safety of the grey floor on one side, the infinite emptiness of the Imbervand on the other. And then Jessica flung one talon towards the darkness and they toppled over the edge.

Agathe screamed in rage, and beat at the hawk with her fists. Jessica, tried to peck her with her beak, but squawked in agony when her beak met a magical barrier. Agathe’s one eye was nearly as red as the empty socket. Yet despite the darkness all around them, both of them were as clear to each other as if it they stood outside on a sunny day.

Overhead, the platform and the pillars receded as they fell towards some unimaginable depth below. Frightened by what might exist there, Jessica spread her wings. They caught on invisible currents and arrested her descent. Agathe plunged downwards, but quickly wrapped her arms around Jessica’s foot. The hawk squawked angrily, and tried to rake the witch’s face with her other foot, but her talons met that same magical barrier. The pain of trying to pierce it made her wings buckle, and they were falling again.

Agathe drew a rune in the air with one hand, and ghostly wings sprouted from her back. They seemed a mirror of Jessica’s, fluffy and full of large feathers, but each a nebulous blue that glowed in outline. The Runecaster dug her fingers into Jessica’s leg, and pulled herself up. Death burned in her face; the hawk struggled to kick her free, but to no avail.

Her head now at Jessica’s middle, Agathe drew another rune. Jessica tried to hold her shield before her but the strange flows of magic – how magic could be in this place between all life, Jessica did not know – coalesced like a fist around her heart. She gasped in horror, feeling it squeezed tight, crushing all life from it. She dropped her shield and poured her energy into fighting off that clutching hand. The Runecaster smiled, even as the hawk’s sight grew dim.

The world was but that vague image of Agathe, the pinprick of grey light that was the pillars far overhead, and the fatal agony in her chest. Everything else was an endless sea of night, a night when all the stars had gone out. Jessica felt her energy, saw it strangled within Agathe’s fist, and wondered if there really was anything she could do. Her awareness of the physical began to fade, leaving her with only the afterimage of the magic. She could see Agathe’s wings like bright beacons, and the fist extending from her wrapped tight around Jessica’s poor heart. And then there was something else she saw, something faint and almost invisible. There were three pinpricks of light on the Runecaster’s face.

Jessica used what strength she had left to keep her heart from being crushed, but in every moment when the pressure and the pain waned even a fraction, she studied those points of light. It seemed an eternity, but they grew in prominence the more she studied. The first two were thin slits, and they carried the signature of energy bolts, something her master Wessex had taught her to cast. The third was clearly from a scrying rod, as it seemed to seer into the soul.

Jessica peered into that hole, and saw things beyond her understanding. A young child being led into a city with tall and close-knit walls. Cloaked wizards guided her and other children around. Simple spells, runes of all sorts, and their history were revealed to her. She felt a contempt for the men, who seemed to regard her as a curiosity, and it was then that Jessica saw there were few girls, and no women in these visions. Snubs, dismissive words, but grudging acceptance filled them.

And then a man in black, somebody different, not of those walls or that city. Jessica sucked in her breath — Zagrosek! He took the woman away, to a city in a jungle, of gold, wood, bells and magic. And of an evil that lurked in every crevice. Jessica screamed, fear filling her with an energy she could not imagine. Agathe screamed as well, the hand clutching the hawk’s heart shattered by the sudden invasion.

The wounds... that is what they were; Jessica saw those three pinpricks of light in Agathe’s face and knew them at last. The Runecaster drew another sigil in the air, but Jessica sliced her wing through the middle, dispersing it before it could be finished. Those wounds had been caused by Wessex, her master. Of course Agathe had not been able to heal them, they were magical, and the magic was still alive in them. Wessex, her master, had taught her many things, including how to use his spells when she must. Jessica squawked in triumph.

Reaching out her mind, she poured her energy into those three spells. Agathe screamed, hands reaching to her face, even as the bolts dug further into her cheeks, and the hole in her eye pierced further, back into her brain. The Runecaster’s shrieks echoed in Jessica’s mind, but she pushed further, and further, unwilling to grant this woman any quarter.

The blue wings faltered, and then disappeared entirely as Agathe turned all her energy to trying to keep the wounds from growing, but every time it seemed she had balked the hawk, Jessica turned her anger into more power. “You killed him!” Jessica cried, feeling all of the darkness around her turn to her cause. “But he has also killed you!” Jessica turned Wessex’s spells again, and the bolts pushed back into the brain case, along with the hole in her eye. Fire cascaded from the socket, and the Runecaster’s body was gripped by seizures.

And then, with one final push, Jessica brought all three spells together and let them detonate. With one last soul-searing scream, Agathe’s head erupted in a brilliant plume of scarlet fire, and then her body shrivelled to ash within her purple robe. Jessica pushed it away, spreading out her wings. She watched for a moment as the lifeless ruin disappeared into the darkness below. To her horror, something seemed to swallow it, and all the black around her took on a decidedly malevolent cast. This was no more emptiness anymore. Agathe’s death had woken something.

Frightened, Jessica beat her wings, looking upwards for the pillars, and seeing only a tiny mote of light in the field of night. She angled towards it, pulled her legs close to her chest, and flew with every bit of strength she had. There were no currents in the air to guide her, nor thermals to ease her ascent. Everything was still. She would have to work for every fathom, every foot, and every inch.

How far had they fallen? And did they fall as quickly as they would have on Earth? Jessica had no way to judge; there was no wind of any kind, and her sole reference point was just that, a single star in this empty universe. And how could she even be sure that flapping her wings was bringing her any closer to the platform? Her soul ached to know just one levitation spell capable of moving things heavier than pebbles. Already her shoulders burned from exhaustion.

For a moment she spread her wings and held them steady. The pain subsided and she shuddered, finally understanding what she’d just done. She’d killed Agathe and avenged her master’s death. It was what she’d yearned with all her being for the last ten months. She should feel exultant, thrilled at her victory. Then why did she feel no peace, only emptiness? What had the Lothannasa taught her about revenge? Didn’t she say that it would claim three lives? There was the victim and the murderer, but was she to be the third? Was she to be forever lost in this impenetrable darkness? Would she go mad and kill herself?

Jessica pumped her wings angrily, ignoring the pain in her back. She would not be defeated by this! She had taken up the studies of a Master long before she was ready. She had protected her friends at countless turns. By her powers she had destroyed Lutin marauders, human mercenaries, and now a Runecaster of Marzac. Marzac had taken so much from her already, killing her mentor, imprisoning her lover, as well as everything it had cost her friends. It would not take her life. Not this day!

That strange sense of forboding she’d felt after Agathe died bit by bit crept back into her mind. Undaunted by her pain, Jessica continued to ascend, trying not to dwell on what lurked beneath her. The gray mote had grown larger, a detail only her hawk’s eyes would have noted, but it was still far out of her reach. And so, her mind disobediently returned to consider that otherness in the darkness. What could possibly exist in the Imbervand?

She recalled the first time she’d learned of the Imbervand – the in-between land. Yonson, the lemur ambassador to Metamor from Marzac, had given her a tome on the subject by an ancient southern mage. The Imbervand was that place through which all teleportation spells would pass. It connected all places in the world. The only limitation on how far a teleportation spell could go was determined by how far into the Imbervand the spell went. The Pillars of Ahdyojiak were the only device capable of bringing a person fully into the Imbervand. But in her study, she’d never encountered any mention of anything living there. Thus, this presence could only be the result of her taxed spirit and overeager imagination.

Just as she was prepared to dismiss it, Jessica knew a profane sense of immanence in that darkness. Reason could not dispatch a waking nightmare, nor could wishful thinking. But where Agathe had been a physical being she could see and touch, this was tangible yet immaterial, corporeal yet a shapeless void. And this thing, reaching up from unimaginable depths towards her, scared her in a way no human could.

She pumped her wings faster, but after a few strokes forced herself to pause long enough to shrink into her pure hawk form. Smaller and lighter, she found it much easier to fly, coming ever nearer the platform with its three pillars. For a time – the only way she could measure it was by counting wing strokes – this seemed to work. The dark presence receded, and she was left with her own thoughts.

And then, just as the platform grew from an undifferentiated speck into a recognizable triangular shape, it returned. Whispers flitted through her mind, and images came to her of things so horrible, she had to fight the urge to retch. She saw her body mutilated, pierced by a thousand shards of glass, and other far more terrible things. But she didn’t cry out until she saw the same things done to her friends. She beat her wings harder, flinching as she felt the tips of her feathers brush against something.

It was right behind her, slowly swallowing her into its evil. Jessica screamed in agony, flinging herself towards the platform. It was so close now. Another hundred strokes and she would be there, back between the pillars. The darkness stretched out on all sides, sliding its thoughts into her mind. Somehow, she knew it wasn’t going to kill her just yet. It wanted her, badly. And it wanted her mind destroyed. It wanted, and wanted, and wanted.

She refused to allow herself to be sucked into its miasma of desecration. One thing only filled her thoughts; if she could escape, she would see her lover and soon to be husband, Weyden. He too was a hawk, handsome with dark red and brown feathers. The way he ran his beak across hers had always filled her with excitement. What she would give to be folded in his wings again!

And then the shards of glass pierced him, the blades severed his wings, thorns were shoved through his beak, and his screams tore through her mind. The darkness brushed her wings and taunted her tail feathers. Jessica joined her scream to his, as the tangible blackness began to spread above her, cutting off her view of the platform. “No!” she cried, struggling one last time to escape the living nightmare.

Only a single shaft of light was left, through a hole far too small to pass. A moment before the last of her hope died to leave her in madness, a brilliant flash erupted from the platform. White, so bright she thought it would blind her, an arm reached through that hole. She threw herself against it, and all around her the darkness shattered with the screams of a million mirrors.

Jessica did not know how long she was unconscious. Her mind replayed that horrible escape over and over again, and each time, she felt that nebulous force close around her, suffocating and pitiless. Who or what could have saved her? Had she been saved, or was this all part of the madness the darkness promised?

Then, suddenly, she opened her eyes.

The blackness that had consumed the Imbervand was gone. In its place were vague suggestions of ancient temples and pagodas, but through everything vegetation had sprouted, brilliant flowers, and strange branches and leaves spreading to form a canopy over the earth. But something seemed wrong, lifeless about all that she saw. It took her a minute to realize that there was no colour at all to this world; everything was bleached in grey.

It was only when Jessica began to stir that she realized she was resting between three giant pillars that stretched into a cloud bank over head. The Pillars of Adhyojiak. But where was she now?

“Dost not move yet,” a voice warned from behind her, one unrecognizable, but kindly. “Thy body hath need of mending. What needs be done hast been done, but thou must wait for it to finish.”

Jessica could not feel any injury, just a general stiffness in her wings. The muscles there ached, but that wasn’t surprising after the amount of flapping she’d done. She tried to move her head to look down at herself, but felt a hand rest upon the back of her neck. “She looks like she’s improving,” a second voice said. This one had the character of a Midlander.

“Aye, she wilt recover,” the first replied. It sounded vaguely like a Steppelander, but there was some archaic turn to his accent that she couldn’t place. “She hath many questions, but the ones needeth answering be not the ones she wilt ask.”

Jessica would not remain silent at that! “Who are you?”

“As I didst say, not the questions she needeth answering. Thou shouldst instead be asking, what must be done still. While I do not possess thy answer in full, I dost know of some small part. The answer of why Marzac hath gone to such lengths in its quest, that art more complicated, but from my vantage here I hath seen much that wilt aid thee.”

The hawk narrowed her eyes, trying to turn over, but the hands at her back held her in place. Glumly she stared at the pillars, wondering where they’d brought her now. Dimly, she began to notice that faint lines, like ropes, grew from each pillar. One from each were very strong, and lead off into the ruins.

“Was it you who saved me?” Jessica asked. He may not think the questions she wished to ask important, but she was still going to ask them!

“Aye, ‘twas I who took thee from the darkness. ‘Twas not easy to reach thee; if not for thy valiant flight, thou wouldst hath been lost to it, and with it, likely all our hopes. Thou will meet it again, at an appointed hour. Had it claimed thee, thy madness would have ensured its success. Now, we hath a little hope still.”

Jessica took a moment to breathe. That sounded much like what she’d gathered from the nightmare pursuing her. She didn’t like the idea that she would need to face it again. How could anyone survive such an encounter? And who was this man that he could save her from it? But, more importantly, what was it she faced?

“I was in the Imbervand. I didn’t think anything lived in the Imbervand. What was chasing me there?”

“The power of Marzac,” the second man answered. “It was invited into the Imbervand this last January when its servants carried the Sword of Yajakali through the Pillars. The woman you slew was the one who had summoned the Pillars then, just as she did now.”

“Agathe!” Jessica spat. Hate flared inside of her, then began to die. The Runecaster was dead, dead from spells Wessex had cast so long ago. Her anger could burn only herself now. “Agathe summoned the Pillars of Ahdyojiak in January? Then that is what made the World Bell ring. I heard from a friend that the Pillars had been summoned, and that something powerful had been sent through. It was the Sword? The Sword is here?”

Fear displaced her anger. She had only ever seen the censer of Yajakali, and its destructive power was terrible enough. But what could the sword accomplish? And if the Sword was gallivanting about the world, then what of the Dais, the final artifact of Yajakali? Where was it hiding?

“The sword hath been leashed to Yesulam,”the Steppelander replied. “Just as the censer wast leashed to Metamor. And now with Agathe’s death in the Imbervand, the Sword hath lassoed Ahdyojiak as well. What they didst conspire by their journey through the Imbervand in January they hath consummated now. Long hath they coveted the power of Ahdyojiak. In the last war, ‘twas the one power that thwarted them. Now it shalt be their slave.”

“I never meant to cause that!” Jessica objected, stirring angrily, but the hands on her back kept her down. She must have been weaker than she realized if a simple man could hold her down. She wondered if she was still a normal-sized hawk, but no, the hands against her felt too small for that. And her legs felt long, like they should when she was her half-human self.

“Just as we never meant to aid Marzac either,” the second man replied. “But where we were foolish and greedy, you seek to destroy that power. For that I am grateful.”

“Aye, but who are you?”

“We should tell her,” the man said sympathetically. “I know she won’t have heard of me. But she may have heard of you.”

“Not until the others hath returned.”

“Others?” Jessica asked. And then she saw something moving through the ferns. Her eyes locked on the disturbance, heart pounding rapidly. And then a solitary figure emerged. It was of a young man, his hair light in colour, with the beginnings of a goatee sprouting from his chin. He was dressed like a Midlander, and from his chest emerged the other end of that strange rope attached to the Pillars. He nodded once to the hawk, a half-smile on his face. “She’s awake!”

“Dost thee possess it?”

The young man nodded, unable to take his eyes from the hawk. “I’ve never met a Metamorian before. Always thought one day we’d go up there...” He came closer, and then knelt before her. “This is for you.” He produced a small stone and laid it before her. It rolled on the masonry a moment before settling against a small crack. Jessica could see what looked vaguely like a mountain inscribed on one side.

“What is it?”

“ ‘Tis meant to be kept close to thy heart. Dost not let anyone see it. ‘Tis for thee alone.”

Jessica grimaced but nodded. They had saved her life, there must be some reason for everything she witnessed.

“Where’s Thulin?’ the second man asked.

“He should be right behind me,” the young man replied. He returned to his feet and then smiled. “Ah, there he is now. Hurry up, Thulin! She’s awake!”

“Hurry up?” a voice called back from the brush. Jessica saw a slightly older man emerge there, dark of hair bearing similar clothes. He also had a rope emerging from his middle “What point is there in hurrying in a place where time doesn’t exist?” He had a scroll case tucked under one arm, and he gingerly held it out when he neared. “This is for you, Jessica. One day you will find this very useful.”

“What is it?” she asked. “And who are all of you?”

“It’s time we told her,” the second man said in reproving tones. “And time we explained what’s happening.”

“Aye, ‘tis time. Help her up. She art weak still, and wilt need thy aid.”

The two men came to help the one holding her down. Together, the three of them lifted her. Jessica tried to struggle free from their grasp, but she realized with shock that she truly was weak. She could not budge at all from their grip, and as soon as she put her talons beneath her, she was certain that they would not hold her up. They set her on a stone, with the young man at her side to keep her from tipping over.

She now could see the two men who’d been with her from the beginning. The other Midlander looked like his fellows, though a bit pudgier, with ruddy cheeks and a clever eye. He also had a rope protrude from his middle. It appeared they were all babes still attached to their mothers, but in this case their mothers were the three pillars.

When her eyes first saw the other man, for a moment she thought him a Keeper too, because his chest was covered in silvery fur, and his head was a set of snarling wolf jaws. But after a few seconds study she realized that he was only a man wearing highly decorative armour. She marvelled at the construction, noting the richness in detail. From a distance in battle, it would look as if a wolf walked among men. The face behind the jaws was hard, lean, with an air of dignity that spoke of power and a sense of responsibility that he took pride in.

“Who are you?” she asked again, unable to take her eyes from the armoured man.

“I,” the man with ruddy cheeks answered, “am Kaleas. I was once a merchant of wool from Kelewair. My partners are Thulin and Marin. Together we made a good living carrying our wares west to Ellcaran and south to Ralathe. But that ended earlier this year.” He frowned, and shook his head.

“What happened?” Jessica asked.

Thulin grunted and replied, “We had the misfortune to be playing cards at the wrong Inn. A man saw us, a man with a dark plan. We foolishly allowed him to join our game, and one by one, he used the cards to control our minds. Then he killed us.”

Jessica blinked. Cards? The Marquis? “Were you taken by the Marquis du Tournemire as well?”

“No,” Marin replied. “In that we were lucky. This man could not inflict pain on us through the cards. It was an ordinary deck, but he knew the ancient rituals that made it powerful. Learned if from du Tournemire he did. He called himself Krabbe, but his real name is Zagrosek.”

“Zagrosek!” Jessica squawked angrily. Though he had not killed her master, he was involved in just about every other evil Marzac had perpetrated! “And he killed you?”

“Do you see these?” Thulin asked, holding up the rope that tied him to one of the Pillars. “It is the reason we are here. After taking control of our minds, the woman you just killed summoned the Pillars of Ahdyojiak. We three were sacrificed to the pillars in order to power them and to prepare them to transport the Sword of Yajakali from Ellcaran to Yesulam. Until the Sword is destroyed, we will remain trapped here in this place out of time.”

“This place out of time... but you were killed in January. How is it you are here now in my time?”

The armoured man cut in. “The Imbervand knoweth not time. It wilt bring us to any time in reality we wishest it. But time’s arrow pointeth only one way, and we but follow it like dutiful servants. To go back art impossible.”

“We’re here because you are here,” Kaleas explained. “And when you leave, we will go to the next time that the Imbervand is used. The Pillars are not the only things that can bring us, but it is they that bring us most fully, and the only way we can reach out to others.”

Jessica nodded. “So you are the three who died when the Pillars were summoned in January. That explains that. But who are you?”

The armoured man smiled. “I hight Pelain of Cheskych. Thou mayest hath heard of me, but I doubt it.”

Jessica shook her head. “I’m sorry, no, I have not heard of you.”

“My time and place hath been lost but to a few who dost remember. I didst live a thousand years past, and ‘twas I that built the city of Cheskych in the Vysehrad mountains. Thou dost know them as the Great Eastern Range.”

Jessica blinked in surprise. “I didn’t know there were any cities in those mountains!”

“Thou hath heard of the ancient city of Carethedor?”

The name was familiar, and after a moment of reflection, Jessica recalled where she’d learned of it. “Aye, Carethedor. The Åelves of Carethedor built the Pillars of Ahdyojiak. They were in the mountains weren’t they?”

“Aye, and ‘twas I that found their city. And there, I didst fight a dragon who wast corrupted by Marzac. And there I didst die. And from there, I wast brought here to this place to watch, except when I hath been called to fight again.” His face flickered in dismay, but the moment was brief. “And also when I must be of aid, as I wilt be to thee.”

Jessica’s head felt as if it were swimming. “What is happening? What does Marzac want?”

“If by Marzac thou dost mean the Underworld, then it art a simple question to answer. The Underworld wishes to feast upon all life in our world. The Underworld can only thrive when it destroys. But with the Underworld, Yajakali hath enacted a dread bargain that wilt cast all of us into the Underworld if none stop him.”

“What bargain is this?”

“That I hath no knowledge of. The greatest of minds hath pondered that very question, but the answer hath eluded all of us to this day. But the moment when his bargain wilt complete draws nigh. When the stars dost return to their places, Yajakali wilt hand this world over to the evil darkness that didst give thee chase. To give so much, to tear the cleft so wide, hast required more power than any hath e’er held. ‘Tis the purpose of the artifacts, and ‘tis why they hath been sent to places of great power.”

“Kyia said the censer was tied to Metamor, and she did not dare try to remove it. Is that what she meant? The censer was linked with the magic of Metamor?”

“Aye. When Yajakali doth request it, all magic in Metamor shalt bend to his will. And that of Yesulam, of Ahdyojiak, of Carethedor, of Ellcaran, of Boreaux, of Elvquelin, of Hevagn, of Eavey, and of every land in which the artifacts hath appeared over the millennia. The casting he shalt attempt must not be allowed to succeed. It art an abomination, a violation of the fundamental nature of our world. ‘Tis one reason why he hath become a monster.”

Jessica closed her eyes for a moment, feeling her strength slowly returning as promised. “Are you all right?” Marin asked.

“I will be,” Jessica replied. “Is there any power that can stop Yajakali?”

“No power mankind possesses can do such a thing,” Pelain answered, though there was still a thread of hope in his voice. “But we wilt ne’er be alone in this world. Why dost thou think thy art accompanied by three of the other great races in thy journey? ‘Tis not all of them, but they art the ones needed for this.”

“So what can I do?”

“Thou must go back and journey to Marzac. Thou must be there when Yajakali doth return to consummate his spell. Only when he doth risk himself can there be any hope of victory. His servants, powerful as they may be, hath but flesh and blood. They wilt be sacrificed as Agathe wast, and as Yonson, Jothay, and Loriod wert before them, when it doth suit Yajakali’s needs.”


“The one in Yesulam to whom the Sword of Yajakali was given,” Thulin replied. He licked his lips. “The Sword killed him to tie itself. He’s the one who betrayed Patriarch Akabaieth to Zagrosek.” A fierce scowl filled his face. “Had we known with whom we played cards...”

“There’s nothing we can do about the past,” Kaleas counselled. “If we can even do a small thing for the future, we will now.”

“Aye,” Pelain agreed. He lifted his helmet free, and Jessica finally had a good look at him. His features were, surprisingly enough, familiar to her. She had seen men of Sathmore before, and there was something of him in them. But there was also something Pyralian too, the hard chiselled edges and commanding stare were too distinctive to ignore. What he was, there could be no doubt, was Suielman.

Pelain knelt on one knee before Jessica and lowered his head. “Jessica. Thou art the only one to come into our company that we might share what we know. I wish there wert more to tell thee. Know that the lives of countless men and women who doth come before thee art depending on thee to see their efforts vindicated. Thee and thy companions hath no greater task than this: destroy Yajakali and forever cleanse this world from the powers of the Underworld.”

“I will,” Jessica replied. “It is what we have been trying to do now for four months! We we’re headed to Marzac before we were captured by the Breckarin troops. I suppose we’ll be continuing on our way now that we have been freed.”

“My friends hath given thee two gifts. The first thou already know. The second be a collection of scrolls holding many of the secrets of Ahdyojiak. Do not use them until Yajakali hath been destroyed. He hast made the Imbervand too dangerous to risk. I now give thee two more gifts. The first I impart is a spell that wilt aid thee in the lands of Marzac, safeguarding thy spirit from the passive corruption that infests all life there. The second is a warning.”

Jessica took the scroll case from Thulin, and rolled the small stone between her wing claws. She took a deep breath as she felt the outlines of the protective spell begin to coalesce in her mind. How could he put the spell inside her like that?

But what more caught her ear was this last gift. “What warning?”

“The Marquis du Tournemire hath planned thy escape. He dost expect thee to ride the Rheh Talaran through western Pyralis. His armies wait for thee there, and they hath been given magics to balk the Rheh. Thou must find another way.”

Jessica nodded and pulled the scroll case to her chest. “I will. Thank you, Pelain. And thank you, Kaleas, Thulin, Marin. I knew you had died, but I never knew you. Thank you again. And thank you for saving me. I wish I knew how we are going to defeat Yajakali. Is there anyway we can free my friends from the Marquis’s cards?”

“There exists a man who canst destroy the cards,” Pelain replied. “But he hath ne’er heard of thee. And at this time, he lies beyond the Vysehrad mountains. Thou hast not been claimed by the Marquis’s cards, and thou must not be claimed by them, Jessica. Not e’en to save the lives of thy friends shouldst thou allow him to claim thee. But remember, the Marquis serves Yajakali. When Yajakali hath no more need of him, he too shalt die.”

The answer didn’t really satisfy her, but she suspected that was all she was going to get. “I wish I knew what else I should ask. There seems to be so much to learn.”

“Sadly, ‘tis all that we know,” Pelain replied, frowning. He stood up and held out his mailed hand. “Thou hast thy gifts, and thou hast learned what there be to learn. ‘Tis time for thee to return to the real world. Come, I wilt show thee the way.”

The three merchants stepped back and each of them walked to a separate pillar. The air between the pillars felt thick, and she could see a haze begin to develop. Jessica stood, finding her strength returned at last. Pelain stood just between two of the pillars and gestured out into the jungle. “Thou sees Ahdyojiak, but when thou dost step this way, thou wilt return to the Tower of Theodoric. It ‘twill be no later than when thou didst leave. If thou art ready, step this way. Thou shalt ne’er see us again.”

Those last words made Jessica pause for a moment. “Then know that I will do what I can to save you from your prison here.” Pelain nodded, and the merchants smiled, motioning for her to go on. The hawk took a deep breath and stepped between the pillars.

The world spun for a single moment, and a crack resounded above her. And then the air was clear, and she tumbled forward against the a desultory mess of chalk lines. Behind her the familiar voices of her friends cried out in pain. She turned her head, seeing nothing but an empty room, a single timepiece set against one wall. Behind her, through the shattered tatters of the door, she saw her friends rubbing their eyes.

Jessica leapt to her feet, dropping the scroll case in her haste. She leapt through the doorway, and cried, “She’s dead! Agathe is dead!”

“Ah!” Charles cried out, falling over on the floor. All eyes turned towards him as his body shuddered. Jessica’s heart grew tight as his stony skin drew back, the grey of tone blossoming into colour. First his clothes, which had long been affixed to him, came loose, returning to wool. And then, his fur began to move again, whiskers twitching, ears and nose a soft pink. His eyes, once jewels of the finest obsidian, grew limpid. Every bit of the rat, particle by particle, returned to flesh. The vine still wrapped about him, and for a moment it seemed to squirm in delight.

All eyes looked from Charles to Jessica, stunned and confused. The rat stared at his paws in wonder, rubbing them over his face. The bright Lothanasi symbols on his chest flared to life in brilliant warmth, and then faded, but did not disappear. The rat blinked and began to laugh hysterically. “I’m back! I’m back! I’m back!!”

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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