The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XLIX - Dawn Tales

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

For the first time in what seemed a lifetime, the first rays of the sun through the narrow window brought Kashin up from sleep. He lifted his one hand, the right – his left arm ending just above the elbow where Yajakali’s blade had struck it five weeks past. Five weeks past he’d woken from a night that had lasted even longer, one filled with dreams of colourful wagons, a curious hamlet nestled between the cliffs of Vysehrad, a mysterious city standing as high as the clouds, and a desert where nightmares came to life.

Kashin blinked as he stared past his fingers at the ray of sunlight. The shadows slanted across a bed of linens and wool. The top cover was embroidered with pontifical heraldry, crown and keys with the stylized tree in the shape of a cross at their centre. When he’d woken up from his dream in the catacombs, he’d known who and where he was in an instant. Now he stared, blinking away the nighttime phantoms to comprehend what lay before him.

As his eyes took in the rest of the chamber, his memories seeped back. The chamber was of moderate size, with windows to the east and the west, though most of these had been covered by long draperies also bearing the pontifical gold embroidery. Soft carpets stretched across the floor, though he glimpsed a few bare patches in which nestled an intricate pattern of coloured tiles. He couldn’t see what picture they portrayed.

On the other end of the room stood two more beds, and between them lay three pallets. The pallets were of such a plain design that Kashin knew they had been placed here only last night. But he recognized who slept in each. In the two beds lay Sir Petriz and Sir Czestadt, knights of the Order of Driheli. In the pallets slept the Questioners who had aided him, Fathers Kehthaek, Felsah, and Akaleth.

They were sleeping in one of the Papal suites, special guests of Patriarch Geshter. Yesterday, they had freed him from the evil taint of Marzac.

After sleeping in the catacombs for the last five weeks, it felt strange to lay in a real bed, and to feel real sunshine calling him to the day. Kashin smiled faintly, glancing over his hand. It was now a little over a year past when Patriarch Akabaieth had been slain most foul outside of Metamor. Now, what must he still do to finish the job he’d begun?

“Good morning, Kashin,” the elder Questioner said softly. Kashin lowered his hand and saw the priest turn on his side. Kehthaek regarded him without smiling. “You appear troubled.”

Out of the corner of his eye he noted Czestadt stirring; the Stuthgansk knight undoubtedly listened. But the man who had once vowed to kill him was now his ally. “There is something,” Kashin admitted, returning his attention on Kehthaek. “We have broken the evil’s hold on His Holiness. Yet I do not think our work is complete.”

“And what do you think we have yet to accomplish?”

“I do not know. Surely those who allied with Jothay must be held accountable.” Kashin shifted himself into a sitting position. His black mourning garments sat folded upon the floor next to the bed. He took the shirt and pulled it over his head. He wriggled both his arms into the sleeves, and then pinned the end of the left sleeve closed beneath his stump. “Do you really think it only Temasah and Rott?”

“No,” Kehthaek replied. The priest pushed himself into a sitting position and stretched his shoulders. Kashin felt uneasy seeing the priest disrobed, as if witnessing a great tower revealed to be a ramshackle hut. The priest’s darkened skin stretched taut over ragged bones, and numerous old sores and welts marred even the wrinkles. “And we may yet find more in Jothay’s letters, but I doubt we will need to. Others can comb them now.”

Kehthaek rose from the pallet and donned his priestly black cassock. The red cross shone like a sombre fire alone in a moonless night. Beside him Felsah and Akaleth stirred. The latter had slept in his robes, and apart from the linens wrapped around his hand where Mizrahek’s whip had scoured the flesh, he was a thing of blackness.

“Would you trust others after everything we’ve seen?”

Kehthaek did not lift his hood, and so his slow smile made Kashin shudder. “Do you think we have any other choice?”

“Right the priest is,” Czestadt grunted as he rose. “No choice we have. Seen our swords are, them we cannot now sheath.”

“True,” Kashin admitted. He donned his breeches and stretched. “His Holiness should be saying Matins now.”

“Or having a very long talk with his confessor,” Czestadt muttered in the southern tongue. Sir Petriz gaped at him, then shook his head.

“Either way, he will send for us when he is ready,” Kashin declared. “Until then, we should wait and prepare ourselves.”

An hour later, a young Yeshuel who stammered in awe at the sight of Kashin, came and brought them to the Patriarch’s personal study. As the Patriarch would often enjoy the company of learned theologians, visiting Bishops and other foreign dignitaries, as well as fortunate pilgrims grants the honour of a private audience with His Holiness, his study was furnished with sufficient chairs, lounges, and benches to seat two dozen men in comfort. A personal library occupied a bookshelf on the interior wall, while wide windows overlooked the Yurdon river to the east. Betwixt the windows sat an altar upon which rested golden reliquaries, above which hung Yahshua upon the crucifixion tree. If necessary, this study could become a private chapel with only a slight rearranging of the furnishings.

Patriarch Geshter sat in a high-backed chair with golden angels embroidered in red damask. Before him several other chairs had been set. Four Yeshuel stood guard inside the room, while the one who had summoned them took up position behind the Patriarch, eyes still heady with admiration for Kashin.

Geshter smiled to them, and held out his hand. “Come forward, my children. I have much to thank you for, and much more we need to discuss.” The Questioners each knelt before Geshter, kissing the ring upon his hand before taking seats upon the least comfortable of nearby benches. Sir Czestadt and Sir Petriz did likewise, except they chose cushioned chairs. Kashin was the last to kiss the Papal ring, but he remained kneeling.

“Why do you not sit, my child?” Geshter asked kindly. Could this be the same man he’d seen yesterday? Where before there had been iron and poison in those venerable eyes, now he saw only gentleness.

“I have spent over a year to see Patriarch Akabaieth avenged, your Holiness,” Kashin replied, his words tense. “I came so far as to even draw a blade upon the very office I swore to protect with my life. Am I worthy to sit in your presence?”

Geshter pursed his lips, while the Yeshuel at his side, no more than a boy newly given the green, trembled curiously. Who among the Yeshuel had not heard of Kashin by now, and of the wonderful miracle performed at the Bishop’s Council with a sword of gold? That same sword hung at his side now, eerily silent.

“You did not draw your sword upon the office of the Patriarch, nor upon St. Kephas’s seat. You drew it upon the evil that yearned to destroy the Ecclesia from within. Yahshua has preserved it, through your courage, Kashin of the Yeshuel.”

“I cannot be of the Yeshuel,” he replied, pain gripping his chest, “until all who conspired to kill Patriarch Akabaieth are brought to justice.”

“Even if that requires the very last breath from your body, you are worthy of sitting in my presence this day.” Geshter lifted Kashin’s chin with one hand. “Please, take the seat I have offered you.”

Kashin nodded and did so, running his fingers along his the sleeve tucked against his stump. The Patriarch took a deep breath and laid his hands in his lap. “This is a most unusual day. I have ordered all passages into and out of Yesulam blocked until matters have settled. My ministers inform me that this has caused great unrest in the city, more so than the rumours themselves have created. I hope to open the city soon, but I cannot do that until we are certain the guilty will not flee, nor will they bring in other conspirators.

“The three principal actors, Bishops Rott and Temasah, and Grand Questioner Mizrahek, have been confined to their apartments, their retinues sent elsewhere. I can provide you the protection of my residence for only a short time. There are more matters in the world that require my attention, matters I have neglected or instigated while under the influence of Marzac. It is my desire to leave the matter of seeing to the inquest to another not involved with either side. That will not be easy to accomplish. With at least two Bishops implicated, and with possibly more, we can hardly trust any on the Council to act impartially. And the Questioners... I fear Mizrahek’s complicity, and your actions make that order suspect too.”

None were surprised when Kehthaek spoke. “If I might be permitted to offer a suggestion, your Holiness.” Geshter nodded. “Impartiality is not a virtue. Being able to recognize the truth is a virtue, one that an impartial man should possess. You are loath to trust us with this inquest because you fear we may be too zealous in handing out punishments to those only guilty by inaction. But there are two levels of evil that we seek; those whose hearts have turned against Eli of their own will, and those under the influence of an evil that turns them against their will. For this second type we have a ready means of discovery.”

“The sword,” Geshter said, eyeing the golden blade with narrowed eyes. “Will it show you those who are under that darkness?”

“Aye, your Holiness,” Kashin replied. He set his fingers on the pommel. “I struggled to keep it from the darkness in you yesterday; it wanted nothing more than to strike from the moment I picked up the blade.”

“Thus,” Kehthaek concluded, “you have an impartial witness to this second form of darkness. It may be with Eli’s grace that no more are so possessed. Either way, it seems reasonable that the first action to take would be to bring this sword before every Bishop, and every member of the Questioner order, as well as any others who might be involved.”

Geshter drummed his fingers across his knee. “What you say is true, and can be arranged. How much time would you need?”

Kashin drew the sword slowly, and looked at its golden surface. It gleamed quietly, but gave no outward sign of its power. “I felt the pull as soon as I drew near you. I’d need no more than a few seconds to know.”

“Then this test can be accomplished quickly. But that still does not help us with the greater problem of those who participated of their own accord.”

“Pursue it as you would any other inquiry into heresy, with Questioners,” Kehthaek suggested. “A new Grand Questioner must be selected. Once this is done, three new Questioners can be appointed who will lead the inquest, beginning with those already implicated.”

“And if their sympathies lie with them?”

Felsah gestured to the one-armed man. “Allow Kashin to oversee the Questioning. His actions are above reproach in this matter, as he did precisely what a Yeshuel is supposed to do. He is your surety that nothing untoward will occur. The mandate for the Questioning can specify his presence, and the need for his concurrence before a judgement can be rendered.”

Geshter leaned back and stroked his chin. “Yes, I think you have the right of it. Very well, that is how we shall proceed. But none of you three may participate in the Questioning.”

Akaleth tensed and asked, “Why not?”

“Your opinions are revealed. You are too close to these events.”

“Which makes us ideal to conduct the Questioning!” Akaleth snapped, though he tempered his voice when he realized to whom he spoke.

The Patriarch gave the youngest Questioner a firm stare, and then shook his head. “No, it does not. But you must remember that a part of doing Eli’s work is submitting to the authority of the Ecclesia. Your courage and dedicated cannot be doubted, but now you must demonstrate your willingness to let go and trust in Eli.”

“But what would you have us do?” Felsah asked.

“That I leave to the new Grand Questioner, whomever he may be.”

“Thank you, your Holiness,” Kehthaek replied, his voice simple and face expressionless. “I believe that this solution is the best we can hope to achieve.”

“Indeed,” Geshter replied. “May Eli grant us His grace and wisdom to see it through.” He turned to the two knights and frowned. “I do not see any role for either of you in these proceedings.”

“Nor does there need to be,” Sir Czestadt replied in the southern tongue. “Your Holiness, I ask permission to return with Sir Petriz to Stuthgansk. The Order of the Driheli needs our leadership to restore it to full strength, and what good we can achieve here has already been achieved.”

“I agree,” Geshter replied, smiling fondly on them both. “I also wish to grant the Driheli more leeway in the manner in which they practice obedience, lest some other rogue Bishop lead them astray.”

Czestadt frowned. “You should not make us independent of the Ecclesia, your Holiness. Without the divine protection that the guidance of the Ecclesia offers us, the Order of the Driheli would quickly be corrupted by fallen man.”

“That is not what I had in mind. Rather, I wish the Driheli to answer only to the Patriarch. Otherwise, you are to continue doing as you do now.”

Czestadt and Petriz exchanged a quick glance, before the elder knight nodded. “I feel that is fair, your Holiness.”

Geshter smiled and spread wide his hands. “I will have the alteration to your knightly Rule crafted in a few days.” He lowered his eyes thoughtfully, then stood so quickly they stumbled to rise to their feet. “Remain here another day more as my guests. I will set in motion all that we have discussed. The Ecclesia will need a great deal of time to fully heal. I pray that Eli grants us the grace we need to see it through.”

“He shall, your Holiness,” Kehthaek replied with his characteristic confidence. “He shall indeed.”

“Good morning, Elvmere,” a soft voice called to him. The raccoon-man stirred, the tip of his tail brushing across his nose. He blinked and looked up at the woman draped in simple blue robes. She gazed down at him with an amused grin, noting the beastly pile in which he’d slept. She had given him blankets for the pallet at the foot of her bed, and he had made a veritable nest out of them in his sleep.

“Good morning, Priestess,” he replied, pulling the nearest sheet over his chest. The only light came from a lampstand in the centre of her bedroom, but it illuminated his bedraggled state. Had his months of hiding in the Sondeckis hold made him more beast than man? His appearance should have embarrassed him, but it did not. Only modesty moved his paws.

“I thought you would prefer being woken by me than by an acolyte,” she said, a gentle humour in her voice. “You may take your things through there to dress. I will ask that a second portion of food be brought to break my fast. Can you eat fruit and bread?”

He nodded. “I prefer them. When will your acolyte come?”

“Soon.” A distant look filled her eyes. “The Lothanas prefers my participation with the daily rituals be confined to only the most important of occasions. The acolytes see to my needs and allow me to act as leisure permits.”

Elvmere knew there lay more behind those words, but he wouldn’t ask now. He gathered his clothes and the precious journals and fled behind the door Priestess Nylene hin’Lofwine had suggested. Turning back, a soft chitter escaping his throat, he asked, “Would you have any fish too?” The childish quality made him cringe in sudden embarrassment.

But she smiled, a look of tender weariness in her eyes. “I will ask.”

The raccoon nodded and pulled the door shut behind him before he could say anything else beastly. The room proved no more than a prayer cell, marked with symbols for each Lothanasi deity with various coloured paints. As he straightened out his garments he pondered them, knowing that each was more than a few scribbled lines. They pointed to tangible, communicable powers each with independent spheres of influence. Were they gods in the sense he understood Eli and Yahshua? No. But they were still powers capable of bringing aid to mankind.

A few minutes later, the predicted acolyte, a young woman whose satisfied voice grated on the raccoon’s ears entered. “Good morning, Priestess. Shall I see to your arrangements this day?”

“Thank you, Thelina, but I only require an extra serving with my morning meal. I am very hungry today. For fish I think.” Where Nylene had been gracious and gentle, now he heard a note of tightness in her voice.

“You will take your meal in your chambers of course?” Thelina asked, though Elvmere could tell is was not truly a question.

“Of course. Thank you for your consideration, Thelina.” With that the acolyte left. Elvmere continued to wait, knowing she would return soon. He took that time to arrange Akabaieth’s journals, making sure he had all of them still and that none were damaged. They’d seen a hard road in the many months since he’d discovered them in the wreckage of a smashed wagon at the bottom of a hill near Metamor. He’d only just joined Malger and Murikeer’s company then. What would they think if they saw him now?

More importantly, what had happened to them? Had Murikeer found his father’s grave? Had Malger returned to his homeland? He missed the days of their journey together.

Thelina’s return broke his reverie. “Your morning meal, Priestess.” Something in her voice struck him as wrong. No servant spoke in so haughty a way to their superiors.

“Thank you, Thelina. I have no further need of you. See to your morning prayers.” Gentle, but still the matronly word of command filled her voice.

“But will you not need assistance with your own prayers, Priestess?”

“No, I prefer solitude this day. You should enjoy the company of your fellow acolytes today.”

Elvmere wished he could see what transpired between the two. He could well imagine the look of frustration on a young woman’s face that must even now reside with Thelina. But the acolyte finally acceded to Nylene, a sombre irritation in her voice, “Of course, Priestess. I shall return when you have need of me.” A moment later, the far door shut.

“Elvmere, come join me.” Nylene stood next to a small knee-high table upon which rested a platter of fresh rye bread, a green apple, a stick of honey, a ewer of milk, and single filet of fried fish. His nose twitched at the piscine scent, his tail flicking back and forth in delight, but still he held back the beastly churr in his throat. She knelt down on one side, knees together, blue gown collecting around her feet. “Will it bother you to drink from the same cup as I?”

The raccoon-man cautiously left the cell, glancing furtively to either side, and knelt opposite the priestess. His tail curled atop his toes as he settled into an almost prayerful crouch. “If I am to learn your ways, will I not be drinking of the same cup as you? Why should we begin any different?”

Her smile brightened her face, banishing the darkness that Thelina’s intrusion had brought. “Then we shall begin your instruction with a prayer of thanks and blessing for our food.” Elvmere watched as she held out her hands, palms upraised, before the platter. He did likewise, revealing his sensitive black skin and short claws. “Great Kammoloth, king of the heavens, we thank you for this our morning meal.” She dipped her fingers into the cup and sprinkled a few drops into a bowl in the centre of the table. “As we share this food and this cup, we offer the first drops to you. May you bless this the meeting of our ways.”

Elvmere repeated her words under his breath, wondering how great this Kammoloth’s influence extended in the world. Did he act in each and every event, or did his power manifest only for special favours? This he would learn. When Nylene finished, she did not make any symbol with her fingers, and Elvmere had to keep his paws from tracing the Yew. That was denied him now. He had to do his best where Akabaieth had sent him.

To his surprise, Nylene handed him the cup. Elvmere took it in his paws, and lifted it to his snout. His tongue darted out and lapped at the surface. The wine was rich and creamy. He handed the cup back to her, and she took a drink, her amused eyes never leaving him. Self-consciously, Elvmere stared at the bowl in the centre reserved for Kammoloth. He found he rather liked the ritual of sacrificing the first drops to their chief god.

Nylene tore the bread and handed him the heel. He dipped it in the honey and ate the sweet morsel as slowly as he could. His stomach complained ravenously that he’d not chosen the fish, but he would not show himself to be a beast anymore than he already had. “I confess,” Nylene said, her grey-blue eyes meeting his visage without fear, “that I had not expected to see you again, and certainly not under these circumstances.”

“Neither had I,” Elvmere replied. A dollop of honey glistened on one claw and he licked it clean. “But I believed I would be vindicated, not excommunicated, when I journeyed to Yesulam.”

She tore more bread, turning it over in her fingers. “You do not sound bitter.”

“Bitterness... only the proud, the self-exalted feel bitterness.”

Nylene held the bread to her lips, eyeing him curiously. “You have no pride then?”

“Enough to drown this city,” he replied, this time with a bit of anger. “But what is done is done. Now I am here.”

She sipped at the milk and dabbed her lip with the bread. Every motion was so precise, as if each were its own ritual, its own prayer. “But why are you here? Excommunication is not enough to drive a Bishop of the Ecclesia into the hands of the Lothanasi, a faith that teaches many things that Followers find repugnant. Why not instead join one of the various Follower factions?”

“Excommunication means that I am cut off from the community of Followers. This community is the Body of Yahshua, so it is inappropriate to pretend to fellowship even with rebellious Followers. Nor would I grant them any legitimacy. But,” he admitted with a sigh, “you are right. It is not enough. And believe me, Nylene, I came to this decision only after much agony. But I know the Pantheon is real, all of them, and I believe this without a shred of proof. How can I not be here?”

The priestess brushed back her silvered hair and smiled thoughtfully. She dipped the tip of an apple slice in the honey and chewed slowly. After washing it down with a sip of milk, she asked in kindly tones, “So what would you have of me, Elvmere? Last night you asked for instruction. Though I did teach Malger many years past, he had not your appearance. I cannot conceal you for more than a few days at best.” She frowned and added, “What became of your disguise?”

He touched the pouch dangling from his waist. “Not only did the Patriarch excommunicate me, but he crushed my yew as well. I have no more illusion, and no idea where Murikeer has gone. At best I can masquerade as a normal raccoon, or I can wear a heavy cloak and hope.”

“That will not do. You know you cannot stay here.”

“No. Forgive me, but I must ask a second favour. Can you see me safely to Metamor Valley? It is the only place in the world I may walk openly.”

Nylene finished the last of the bread and let out a sigh. “As you have no doubt guessed, I am a prisoner in all but name. The Lothanas tolerates me because he does not wish to incur the wrath of the people of Silvassa. He is involved in matters dark, but I cannot prove it. Thelina is but one of his minions who keep watch over me. I will do all I can to prevent them from learning you are here. But as to this other...”

Elvmere lapped up the rest of the milk and brushed his snout clean with the back of one paw. “You cannot leave the temple?”

“Not without the permission of the Lothanas. I do have some friends left in the temple. I will ask his permission to go on a pilgrimage to Metamor. It is the ancient centre of the Lothanasi faith, and he may see some advantage in having me gone from Silvassa for a time.” She pursed her lips for a moment, then smiled warmly to him. He licked a bit of honey from his claws and smiled back. “I will ponder what I can do, but somehow, I will see you safely to Metamor, Elvmere.”

“Thank you, Nylene. I knew I could trust you.”

“You may always trust me, Elvmere. Always.”

Her smile warmed him, and even his tail flicked across his toes in delight. Unable to resist any longer, he grasped the fish in his paws and chewed its succulent flesh.

He dreamed of stone.

The first time he had truly slept since the Summer’s Solstice, and still his mind fixed upon granite. He saw himself returning to Glen Avery, to his home beneath the roots of the great redwood, where his wife, his children, and their wetnurse Baerle lived. They greeted him with joy, and he hugged them tight. For little Charles he gave a kiss upon the nose, to sweet Bernadette he stroked behind her ears, for noble Erick he patted him on the shoulder, for delicate Baerle he pinched her cheeks, and for strong Ladero he touched their Sondecks together.

And then he turned to his wife, the Lady Kimberly, who wrapped her arms over his shoulder, their tails entwining, whiskers brushing and feeling the familiar touch of each other’s snouts, and their chests pressing firmly together. He lifted her aloft and spun her in the air, laughing heartily.

But suddenly they were no longer in the wooden confines of their home, but upon the crags of the mountains, reclining naked against one another and staring at the sky. He ran his fingers through her fur, and she smiled back at him, eyes sparkling like jade. And then they were jade, and her flesh hard granite. He did not tremble, but felt the stone overtake his flesh. Together they leaned into one another, faces slowly sliding through each other, until they sank within the mountain together, forever rock.

“Charles!” the world echoed, trembling and shaking with the power of the earth’s foundations. Rubble cascaded down their slopes, and the trees buried in the soil shook so hard their leaves rained down.

“Charles!” Suddenly, the mountain cracked in two, and the rat found himself flesh again. Warmth surrounded him, and he blinked his eyes open. A donkey’s snout loomed above him. Dark eyes met his. “Finally, you’re awake! We were beginning to wonder if you intended to sleep all day.”

The rat blinked and saw that he lay in his blanket with his head on one of his many knapsacks. A few of his friends were busy straightening theirs in the small chambers off the Ducal suite. Charles ran his paws over his face, and felt the sensitive whiskers, soft fur, and tender ears all where he expected them. What he didn’t feel was stone.

“I’m still me,” he said aloud, smiling in sudden delight.

“It’s so odd seeing you as you, Charles, and not as stone,” James admitted as he leaned back on his hooves and gave the rat some space. “You looked so peaceful to be sleeping, but dawn is already an hour behind, and Qan-af-årael says we must make ready to depart.”

The rat nodded, and slipped from his blankets. The ivy still twisted over his back and chest and remained sturdy despite being slept on. He reached into his knapsack for a set of clothes. “I haven’t slept in months, let alone dress myself or eat! I hope our guide will allow us to break our fast before we leave?”

“I hope so,” the donkey shrugged and attended to his gear. “I think the Duke wants to see us though.”

“How is he?” Charles asked. When they’d returned from the Tower of Theodoric last night, Duke Schanalein had thanked them and given them a room in which to sleep. His grace had succumbed to weariness before he could apologize for the lack of suitable beds. After months on the road, sleeping on the posh carpets was a luxury for them. For Charles, it still amazed him that he could sleep again.

“I don’t know,” James admitted. The donkey tightened the straps on his travelling pack and set it against one wall. Apart from a collection of stuffed heads, an ornate table pressed against the wall, a pair of tall cabinets, and a few chairs, the room had been emptied apart from them and their gear. Doors stood in two walls, both of them closed.

Charles snuggled into a loose-fitting tunic and breeches, being careful to work them around the ivy, and then rolled his blanket up. The others spoke quietly, weariness writ in their faces. The rat glanced at Jessica and blinked at what he saw. Where once her feathers had been brown banded with red tips, they had darkened almost to charcoal. Her beak, claws and feet still shone bright yellow, and her eyes a lustrous gold, but all else was stained black.

“Jessica,” he gasped, catching the hawk’s gaze. “What happened to you?”

The hawk held out her wings and curled her short wing-claws. “Did you not see this last night?” The rat shook his head. “Too absorbed with your own change?” He blushed and after a few moment’s reflection nodded. He had marvelled at his flesh ever since the tower. Not that they’d been awake for very long after Agathe had been defeated. They’d seen to Tugal and returned to the Duke’s chambers, then retired for sleep in this one. It had taken perhaps twenty minutes at best.

Lindsey set filled knapsacks into the same corner where the soldiers had brought them last night. “It’s a bad sign,” he muttered. “Here we go to fight darkness, and you are touched by it, Jessica. I don’t like it.”

“It is not a sign,” Jessica protested, standing up taller. “And if it is, I fought something... something I... I don’t understand yet. Evil... so evil.” She shook her head and held her wings over her face. “Please don’t ask me about it.”

“You did not say much,” Habakkuk said softly where he stood near the two Åelf. They sat with eyes closed, either meditating or praying, Charles couldn’t tell which. “Those were the Pillars of Ahdyojiak weren’t they?”

Jessica nodded. “I killed Agathe there, and then I woke up in a strange place. There were others there, the three whose deaths powered the Pillars back in January. And another, a man named Pelain.”

Habakkuk’s ears lifted and his eyes widened in genuine surprise. “Pelain? Pelain of Cheskych? You saw him?”

“He spoke to me, and gave me gifts.” She bent down and rustled in her pack. “I did not speak of them last night.” She paused, and then resealed her pack. “I forgot, he sealed the spell in my mind.”

“What spell?” Abafouq asked. The Binoq ran a comb through Guernef’s leonine flank, while the Nauh-kaee studied the hawk with an intense gaze.

“A spell to protect us as we travel through Marzac. I will teach it to you when I can.” The black hawk closed her eyes and then sighed. “The other gift was a warning. We cannot ride the Rheh through western Pyralis. The Marquis has stationed troops there, knowing of our escape. They have magic to thwart the Rheh. If we are captured again, I don’t think we will escape.”

Charles grunted. “Then how are we to reach Marzac in time?”

“Maybe we can ask the Duke for aid?” Kayla suggested.

“Speaking of which,” Habakkuk added, glancing towards one of the doors. A moment later, somebody began to knock. Lindsey opened it and revealed the Duke’s son, Kurt. “Good morning, Kurt. Is your father well?”

“Aye, he is just sitting down to break his fast. He asked me to invite you to join him.” A quartet of soldiers stood behind the ducal heir, who still dressed in the livery of a common soldier. But where his face had been marred by a look of desperation, now it revelled in triumph.

“How fares Tugal?” Kayla asked as she ran her paws over the hilts of the katana and wakizashi at her sides. “Will she live?”

Kurt frowned, eyes lowering. “I looked in on her before coming here. Her wound is deep, but my father’s physician says she will live. He says it may be a long time before she has fully recovered, if she ever does.”

Kayla lowered her eyes and tail. “Tell her she has our gratitude. If there is any healing we can offer her, we will be glad to do so.”

“Thank you.” Kurt gestured for them to follow him. “Come now. My father will wonder what has happened if we do not hurry.”

The Duke ate in a small dining hall with sufficient space for them to join him at the table. Kurt took his place at the Duke’s right, while Qan-af-årael was granted the seat at his left. Guernef deliberately took a place at the far end, where he pushed all of the chairs aside. Abafouq sat next to him, his chin barely cresting the table’s edge. The rest took places between, with Lindsey, the only human among them, at Kurt’s right.

Haggard lines marred Duke Friedrich Schanalein’s face, though the tepidness in his cheeks had grown flush with sleep and food. His stern eyes softened as he studied them. “Welcome, my friends. I, and all of Breckaris owe you a debt of gratitude. You have saved us from the ravages and intrigues of the treacherous du Tournemire, and rid us of one vile mage. For that I salute you.” He stood and raised a goblet in toast.

“And now, I hope the food I have had brought suits your needs. If you require something else, simply speak and it will be done.” Before them he’d arrayed fruits, melons and breads, a meal that would satisfy even the mostly carnivorous hawk. They ate heartily and gratefully.

They said little during the meal, and nervous servants came in to refill plates that had been emptied. The Duke watched them carefully; Charles and a few of the others returned the appraising stares, but never for more than a moment. They were allies now, even if only because of the trying circumstances.

When they had their fill, the Duke leaned back and smiled, goblet of juice in one hand. “I do not understand how such a strange group as yours has come to be. And I am sure you could regale me with the tale of your adventures at length. If time allows, I should very much like to hear it. But first, we must decide what is to be done now. Agathe is destroyed you tell me, and I now am free of du Tournemire’s control. Bishop Hockmann too.”

“Where is his grace?” Qan-af-årael asked in a quiet voice.

“He is spending this day in prayer. There is much he must do to repair the evil du Tournemire has made him commit.” Schanalein rubbed his chin with one hand. “I fear I will be a long time in Confession when this is done. But your needs come first. Though I will not ask you now for your story, you must at least tell me why you came to Breckaris, and where you will go.”

“It was not our intent to set foot in Breckaris,” the ancient Åelf replied. He spoke in a slow measured tone almost lyrical to their ears. “Only the intervention of our enemies brought us here, intervention that has proven fortuitous for you and Bishop Hockmann. Our intent is to follow the man who once enslaved you both; follow him back to the very hole towards which even now he flees. We must journey to the Chateau Marzac and put an end to the evil that lurks there.”

Schanalein grimaced, but nodded. “I think you are foolish to do so. All who have journeyed to Marzac have become its slaves. This much I learned from du Tournemire. How will you protect yourselves?”

Jessica lifted her beak and said in a quiet voice, “I have a spell that offers us some protection. Only by destroying the evil there will we be saved.”

“So you risk yourselves to destroy something that cannot be defeated?” Schanalein shook his head, incredulous. “I think you make a grave mistake. Surely there is some other way to fight them.”

Qan-af-årael leaned his head back and steepled his fingers. “Do you know of the starfish?”

“Yes, my ancestors used to use them for money. The sailors still use them for decoration and food if they are desperate enough.”

“Then you know that you cannot kill a starfish by severing one of its arms.”

Schanalein nodded, brow furrowing. “That is true. The arm will grow back in time.” He leaned forward, fingers closing tightly around his goblet. “Are you suggesting that Marzac is like a starfish?”

“I am. Only by striking the centre can a starfish die. So too it is with Marzac. Only by killing the source of the evil will it die. If we only fought its emanations, it would in the end destroy us all. And that end draws near. You know something of this, do you not?”

“Only what du Tournemire told me. He liked to boast, but he did not speak vainly. It is more from what his associates told him that I have learned what I know.” He glanced at his son, who watched and listened with keen interest. “I know that they succeeded with their mission in Yesulam, at least in all that mattered. They lost their chief ally in the process, but whatever they intended was successful.”

“The tying of the sword to Yesulam,” Jessica said. “And last night they lassoed Ahdyojiak. Or so I was told.”

Charles and the others glanced at Jessica in surprise. Clearly there was more about her split second encounter with the Imbervand that she had yet to declaim. Schanalein frowned at the black hawk before nodding. “Yes, I remember hearing something about that. I’ve never heard of this Ahdyojiak before — I can barely pronounce it! Nor do I understand what you or he mean when you say ‘tying’ the sword or ‘lassoing’ that place.”

“You aren’t the only one,” Lindsey said under his breath.

“It means that Yajakali now can turn all of the magic contained in those places to his own ends,” Jessica replied. “Yajakali now has access to all the magical power in Metamor, Yesulam, Ahdyojiak, and everywhere else the artifacts have appeared. And there is nothing we can do to untie them. Only defeat him where he lives — Marzac.”

“Very well. You will go to Marzac. Will you be riding your strange horses there? They have been giving my ostlers fits since they arrived.”

“The Rheh are well?” Kayla asked, eyes alight with hope.

“From what they tell me,” Schanalein replied. He leaned back, a half-smile gracing his lips. “Despite their contumacy, my ostlers have already fallen in love with your steeds. Why do you call them Rheh?”

“It is the name that we call them,” Qan-af-årael replied in his softly melodic voice. “But it is not their true name. That only they know and will not reveal. They are not mere horses for your men to dominate. I hope that none of them has been so foolish as to employ a whip or crop to their backs?”

Schanalein shook his head. “Only one dared threaten them, and he swears he will not return to the stables until they have left. He didn’t say just what they did to him.”

“We cannot ride them to Marzac. The Marquis has set a trap for us in western Pyralis,” Jessica announced. “We have to find another way to the swamp.”

“Could you lend us a ship?” Kayla asked, her long tail twitching, eyes alight with schemes. “We could sail down the coast, and disembark once past the Marquis’s armies.”

“You want a ship?” Schanalein stared incredulously at the skunk, and then at the rest of the Keepers, all of whose eyes returned to him. Charles felt a residual fear of the water, but that passed when he remembered that he wouldn’t immediately sink if he fell in. Though the current would be against them, sailing down the coast was still a clever idea. “And a crew too I suppose?”

“None of us here are sailors,” Kayla replied, leaning forward, confidence writ in her eyes. “Nor do we know the waters off the coast, let alone the harbors! Think of it, your grace. We’d be past the Marquis’s troops, and they would still be looking for us! If we are ever to gain an advantage against them, this is the way.”

Schanalein nodded, pondering her suggestion. “And you could bring those horses with you. I certainly have ships in harbor that would suffice. I do not think they would take well to carrying such a motley assortment as yourselves.”

“You can vouch for our manners,” Habakkuk reminded him, even as one of his ears flopped to the side. The kangaroo scratched at his cheek. “I’m sure the sailors would be delighted to receive extra wages for their sacrifice.”

“Now you mean to rob me as well as steal a ship!”

“Father!” Kurt objected, face flush with indignation. “They saved your life!”

“And they will be rewarded for it. But I will not throw away one of my ships on a fruitless gesture!”

Qan-af-årael waved one hand and met the Duke with his golden eyes. “The price of failure in our journey is not merely the loss of our lives, though it will surely entail that. All of the world will suffer for our failure; the Underworld will grant you no reprieve, and will torture you for all time. Your screams will give birth to beasts that will devour worlds we have never heard of, nor can we ever see.”

Schanalein glared at the Åelf and slammed his goblet into the table. “Enough! Very well, I will find you a ship and a crew. But know this, your venture will fail most assuredly, and not because of Marzac. That entire area is being blockaded by the Whalish Navy. Any ship attempting to slip past will be destroyed by the Fire. I grant you a vessel only because you have saved my life. I count it as a sacrifice, and do not expect to see it return.”

Kayla smiled a bit, exposing the tips of her fangs. “We will do what we can to protect it. We can journey at night, with all lights dimmed, something the Whalish Navy cannot do. I know I would lend my eyes to the sailors to aid them.”

“Perhaps that would work, but I remain doubtful.”

“Doubt then,” Charles said. The rat stretched his tail and arms. “I have seen the Whalish Navy in action, and I have seen their boats. I’m confidant we can slip past any blockade. But will you have room enough for us and the Rheh? I do not wish to leave them behind.”

“Of course.” Schanalein let out a deep breath, gazing at his son. Finally, he sighed and shook his head. “Forgive my obstinate heart. You have saved my life, and restored my son. You deserve my cooperation, not my pessimism. But after so long under du Tournemire’s control, I have a hard time believing he can be defeated.” He tapped the table with one finger and then smiled. “I will see about a vessel for you. With luck you will have it this afternoon, though it may not be ready to sail until tomorrow. And there is a bit of news I am sure you will be glad to hear.”

“What is that?” Kayla asked.

Schanalein bore the smile of a gracious host ready to give his guests a splendid gift. “An announcement that I received from your homeland in the days prior to your arrival. It seems that your liege, Duke Thomas Hassan, is set to be married.”

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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