The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LX - The Jungle

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

Metamor looked much as it had the last time Murikeer had seen it, the crowds little different than any other city but for the singular variety given solely to the Cursed kingdom. A pair of Warden’s gave him and Kozaithy a cursory glance as they passed through the Euper gate and gazed upon the main boulevard through Keeptowne, the town that crowded into the walls of the castle’s outer ward.

Much of the destruction that Murikeer remembered had been removed, repaired, or entirely replaced. Even in the cool of the early winter afternoon the work continued. Murikeer wove his way through scaffolding and bearers carrying freshly hewn lumber to shore up repairs before winter hit in earnest. He saw no one he recognized directly though a few did offer a brief nod of familiarity before moving on without addressing him. Kozaithy took a different path upon arriving at Euper explaining that she needed to tell her friends, those that had survived the fall of Bradanes and followed her lead to the healing, and Curse, of Metamor Keep, that she had taken on a new service. While not noble of birth or official station many of those who had followed her fanciful story of a cure for their ailment looked to her as a replacement for the Lady Bradanes, and her daughter, both of whom had perished before reaching Metamor. Only the Lord Bradanes had survived but claimed no nobility for himself despite the assertion of his people to continue following him. The refugees had taken up a large section of Euper that had received some of the greatest damage during the winter attack the previous year and had been steadily returning it to a state of livability ever since.

They had agreed to meet at the fully repaired Deaf Mule, of which Kozaithy was familiar but had never entered, at the seventh hour.

Thus Murikeer passed below the great archway and entered the First Hall, or what passed for it that day, and paused to look around. Past the throngs coming and going on their various duties he saw that the gray stones of the Keep showed no scars from the wars that had scored it during the last decade. The arcade of kings stretched away toward the high dais, the stone kings standing silent sentinel over all that had come after them. Murikeer paused before Ovid I and stared up at the visage that he had last looked upon as a half-destroyed bust riven by the bolt of energy that had taken the life of his first love, the mink Llyn who called herself Joy. He recalled well the words that he threw at her in the heartbeats before the magic intended to slay him passed to her and shattered many of the statues now lining the Arcade of Kings unscarred by their destruction.

Would that Llyn had been so easily repaired.

He pondered shattering the statue anew, but only for a moment, and moved on. The brightness of the sunlight streaming in through the open doors of the Keep gave way to the deeper gloom of the myriad corridors that punctured the ancient stonework of the Keep like the warrens of a rat’s nest. “Hello, Metamor. Hello, Kyia.” He said at some length as he paused in a small courtyard thick with the denuded twigs of summer topiary.

“Hello, Findahl. Welcome home.” Came the reply, a whisper on a breeze that could never have reached the courtyard by the mere vagaries of nature. No speaker presented themselves but Murikeer knew the quiet feminine voice of Kyia. He nodded with a smile and continued his journey with a shift of the small satchel hung over his shoulder.

He in a short while came to the door to the infirmary and pushed it open. Behind the ancient, well work desk the healer Coe looked up at his arrival and quirked his ears forward in curiosity. “Hello, Muri. I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age.” He smiled at his pun and stood to come out from behind the desk while smoothing the equally age worn smock he wore. “How is your eye?”

“I took a long journey, master Coe.” Murikeer crossed to offer the healer a handshake with a smile of his own. “My eye continues to pain me, but it does not fester so badly as it did when I left.”

“If you’re willing to stay a short while I would like to take a look at it. What brings you?” He turned slightly to motion at one of the untenanted chairs. One of the caretakers stepped out of a recovery room, a white Persian cat Murikeer knew by appearance but not by name. She glanced to Coe and his visitor and curtsied briefly before carrying out a stack of dirty linen. Murikeer returned the greeting with a nod of his head while he crossed to the chair and sat down. Coe stepped up close and gently drew the leather eyepatch that covered Murikeer’s ravaged left eye, his whiskers twitching at the fetid odor that escaped despite the skunk’s best efforts to magically subdue it.

“I came to see if a companion of mine was here, I heard he took an injury during the summer and was still recovering.” Murikeer sat stolidly while Coe carefully removed the ball of herbs and muslin that Murikeer changed every day to keep the scarred socket clean and shaped properly to prevent the collapse of the soft tissues surrounding the empty hole. He stifled a wince at the familiar jab of pain attendant to every manipulation of his injury. Compared to the crushing ache that struck him every time he worked magic it was a pittance. If anything his pain tolerance had climbed considerably in the past year.

“It looks healthy enough, for an injury of this nature. It still refuses to heal?” Coe set aside the fetid ball of dark stained muslin and leaned closer to examine the empty orb studiously. “What friend? I’ve none here that would be so long in recovery.” After a lengthy visual examination he walked to a nearby table neatly arranged with all manner of instruments and bandaging to pick up a few small implements and fresh muslin.

“The raccoon mage Rickkter.”

Coe favoured him with a flat stare over his shoulder for a moment before collecting the last of the tools he wished to use and returned, handing several of them wrapped in a muslin square for Murikeer to hold. “He is not being kept here.” Using a pair of slender picks he touched about very delicately within the cavity of Murikeer’s empty socket. Murikeer suffered the stings and jabs of lancing pain with only the slightest hitching of his breath while Coe prized out a few bits and pieces of dead tissue and wiped them deftly with a bit of muslin he held. “Physically there is nothing I could do for him anyway.”

“What manner of injuries did he suffer then? Where is he being cared for?” Murikeer held up the bundle of bandages and tools to let Coe give and take what he required. The collection of detritus upon the first square of bandaging quickly soiled it beyond usefulness and Coe tossed it into a nearby basket to use another.

“In body, nothing by this point. The Lothanasa Raven mended many of his physical injuries and once those her magic did not mend had healed sufficiently she had him moved to her Temple.” Retrieving a pitcher of clean water and pipette he returned and gently rinsed the injured flesh. The fresh bandage quickly became as tainted as the first but with a more healthy red of fresh blood rather than the ichorous black of dead flesh.

“How was he injured?” Murikeer hissed at the chill of the cold water icing its way through his skull. Coe set aside the pipette and began preparing a new muslin replacement to fill his wound.

“How came you to know he was injured in the first place, Murikeer? I take it you’ve only recently returned from whatever travels you endured?” Picking through small ceramic vessels of herbs and unguents Coe began blending them in a pestle. “I am not terribly sure how much I can tell you.”

Murikeer nodded and watched the preparation. “I returned two days ago. Some mutual friends told me that he had received some grievous injuries defending the Duke from some assassins?”

Coe delicately balled the mixture into a muslin-wrapped bundle and returned to carefully work it into the freshly cleaned socket of Murikeer’s missing eye. The pain was sharp and intense and caused Murikeer to hiss despite his best efforts to withstand the pain. “By the by, yes, as accurate an explanation as I could give you. For more you might have to speak with the Duke himself, he has forbade overmuch loose talk concerning the event.” Satisfied that his work was secure he lightly replaced the skunk’s eye patch.

“I will go speak with Raven and look in on him, then.”

“How close a friend is he?”

“I am a mage, as you know. He was my master.”

“Ah. Hopefully the Lightbringer will be able to enlighten you better than I can, I’m sorry.”

“Thanks anyway, master Coe. Should I come by more often for you to examine my own healing? I’m afraid it’s not something any magic or divine touch can remedy.”

“If you’ve been travelling for the last half year without incident I don’t think I could do a great deal more than you have done yourself, lad.”

Murikeer stood and laughed ruefully, “Oh, there have been incidents, my friend. Sometime I will have to tell you about some of the interesting adventures my friends and I stumbled into in our travels.”

Coe clapped him on the shoulder and accompanied him to the door, “Over a pint of juice at the Mule, perhaps, where I can enjoy a good yarn without being interrupted by someone with a wrenched claw or skinned knee.”

By nightfall the plains between the walls of Masyor and the armies of Mallow Horn were emptied and quiet. The grass had been tracked into mud already but the main roads were still clear. Upon the foremost of these Duke Titian Verdane pitched his meeting tent.

The tent was made from a brilliant scarlet weave and from each pole flew a wolf silhouette pinion. Ten large poles arranged in a fat rectangle supported the fabric and between them a long table had been placed with one of Verdane’s thrones at its head. Another twelve shorter poles stood off to each side to allow for servants and soldiers to keep watch. Only a single entrance existed with a foyer through which only Verdane’s guests, soldiers, and servants could pass.

From each pole a lamp had been hung. Verdane sat with regal stiffness while his Castellan Sir Malcolm Royce stood at his right with burly arms crossed. Fidgeting with his spectacles, Apollinar his Steward occupied the space at his left. They were symbols of his position and his power. Both superior military might and their feudal lord would be before them this night.

Food had been brought; bread, meat, and wine from Verdane’s own stores. Another reminder to both besieger and besieged that their wares would run out in time if they continued the folly of their feud. Seated in a lounge between two of the large poles was his daughter Anya. His vassals sat at the table quietly eating, watching and waiting. Several times Thrane leaned forward as if to whisper something to Stoffels, but his eyes would flick to Grenholt who sat at his side and he’d stuff a morsel in his mouth instead.

Verdane’s interest in them was only that they didn’t decide to scheme against him here where he was vulnerable. The Wolf’s Claw guarded the tent along with two squads of pikemen, but against an entire army they could easily be slain. One more reason for keeping all of his vassals here under his thumb.

The first of the feuding lords to arrive was Lord Guilford of Masyor. He was a modestly built man, though with strength in every sinew of his body. As a young man he’d worked the fisheries alongside his subjects, a fact that blistered and callused his hands. He bore a freshly cleaned green doublet bearing the issuant osprey of Masyor. Judging by his still wet hair, the lakeland lord had taken a bath before coming to the tent.

Verdane didn’t stand. “Lord Anson Guilford,” Apollinar said in his loudest of voices. “Take the seat at his grace’s right. As these are your lands the place of honour at the Duke’s table is yours.”

Guilford scowled at the other lords, quickly passing them by to kneel before Verdane. “Your grace. Thank you for coming to my people’s aid.”

Verdane’s stony expression remained. “I have done no such thing, Anson. If I must I will level your castle myself. Sit.”

A slight ripple passed through the man’s form as he rose and sat. He eyed Anya suspiciously as she reclined with equal imperturbability as her father, but said nothing. He sampled the bread and sipped the wine.

A few minutes later the besieging lord made his entrance. Lord William Dupré bore a mail shirt beneath his ram’s head blue tabard. His boots had brown smears where he’d scraped mud off. His hearty face was set in a angry-line, dark eyes scowling as they swept over each of the assembled lords. They practically steamed when they beheld Guilford. But it was only when they caught sight of his wife on the couch that he gave into rage.

“How dare you, your grace, bring my wife here for this! She has no place in this tent! You are using her against me and that is unconscionable!” William frothed at the lips and beat his fist into the table.

Sir Malcolm Royce lowered one hand to the pommel of his sword. His eyes never left William. Verdane lifted one hand and said in a severe tone, “She is my daughter and goes where I wish it. She is here for two reasons. She will witness our discussions here, and she acts as surety for your behaviour.”

William blanched. “You threaten your own daughter?”

“My daughter? Hardly! It is not her person that I hold in surety, but your marriage to her.” At that Anya sat up. Her worried eyes met William’s and she moved her lips as if to speak. William seethed but nodded.

“Lord William Dupré of Mallow Horn,” Apollinar intoned as if the earlier outburst had never occurred. “Please take the seat at his grace’s left and he will begin.”

Dupré did as asked. He glared across the table at Guilford, but unless he decided to throw his wine glass or a slab of mutton, he had nothing with which to strike. The table was wide enough that neither of them could reach each other even if they stretched. Guilford did his best not to look at Dupré, but every time his eyes slipped a fierce anger churned within them.

“I have come to put an end to this feud,” Duke Titian Verdane said. He did not move arm or leg, only his tongue as he spoke. “You have squabbled for too long, and have incited my vassals into rebellion against me. Both of you.” He turned his head an inch to the right. “Lord Guilford, you flagrantly ignored my command to rebuild the bridges downstream from the lake. Your forces have torched farms and villages within Mallow Horn’s fief. Your actions have crippled a portion of the harvest in the Southern Midlands and will lead to hunger and starvation this winter in many cities including your own.”

He then turned his head an inch to the left and let his eyes of iron bore into the unrepentant face of William Dupré. “You, Lord Dupré, allied yourself with fanatical Questioner priests and scoured your land for Lothanasi subjects. You then had them murdered. Not only did you violate my laws in these lands but also the laws of your faith. The mandate of the Questioners does not extend without an order from the Council of Bishops over anyone who is not a Follower.”

Verdane shifted his head back to regard both of them. “I hold these things against you and will render judgement. But first, an order. This siege is over. When we have concluded everything, Lord Dupré will order all of his men to return home and his engineers to dismantle their towers. Lord Guilford will release his soldiers to return to their farms and fisheries. If I have to end this feud a second time your heads will join your flags atop your castle walls.”

He leaned forward slightly. “Now that we have that established, you will tell me why you have done these things. What are your grievances? What do you want that I can give? And what will you offer in reparations for your crimes?”

Anson Guilford scowled but still refused to look at Dupré. “I want vengeance for my son. One of his men killed my Lucat. They hurled him off our tallest tower wrapped in a banner from Mallow Horn. I will not be satisfied until I have blood for my son’s.”

“I had nothing to do with it!” William snapped, eyes livid. “As much as I delight in there being one less Guilford to sully Galendor, I had nothing to do with the boy’s death.”

“Liar!” Anson snapped. “The banner was unmistakable!”

“Anyone could have placed it there who wished us to war against each other. I tell you I did not kill that boy.” A sadistic smile grew on William’s lips. “If it had been me, it would have been you and your wife who were thrown from the tower. I’d much rather fight a war against a weakling boy like that Lucat.”

Anson leapt to his feet, his face purpling in apoplexy. “You... you... dare!”

“Sit down,” Verdane said.

“He’s a monster!”

William leaned back and laughed.

“Shut up and sit down.” Verdane repeated. Sir Royce took two steps forward and put a mailed hand on Anson Guilford’s shoulder and shoved down. The lord of Masyor, stout though he was, fell back to his seat with a strangled cry. Anson slowly turned back to Duke Verdane, though his cheeks still ran red. “Now,” Verdane added, “you attacked William’s lands after the death of Lucat. What evidence do you have that it was Lord Dupré other than the banner? Anyone who wished to sow discord in my lands could have placed it there knowing what you would do.”

Anson took several seconds to breathe. The colour left his cheeks slowly. “The Lothanas of Masyor consulted the gods in this matter. They told him that a dark evil allied to Dupré killed my dear son.”

“Nonsense!” Dupré snapped. “Your gods are but superstition and folly! Even his grace does not believe in them!”

“I do not worship them,” Verdane pointed out. “That is not the same thing. Continue, Anson. What did the gods have to say about this evil power?”

Anson sat a little straighter in his chair, as if he sensed some small measure of victory in Verdane’s theological correction. “The evil came from the south. A land called Marzac.” William fidgeted in his seat with a fierce scowl. The other lords all watched with undisguised interest. “I’d never heard of it and all I’ve been able to learn since then is that it lies at the southern tip of the Pyralian Kingdoms. That is a land said to be cursed but no one lives there so I can only assume it was brought here by William.”

“What would I have to do with dark powers from cursed lands?” William snorted. “I have never been south of the Midlands! Nor have any of my men! This is preposterous.”

“I will be the judge of that,” Verdane replied. He turned back to the green-clad lord of Masyor. “So, what other evidence have you linking William Dupré to your son Lucat’s death?” The news of dark powers was disturbing and something Verdane would need to investigate on his own. But that would have to come later.

Anson pressed one fist to his chin and shook his head. “The banner and the Lothanas’s testimony are all that I needed. My son was murdered. I have the right for vengeance!”

“You have not the right to plunge my lands into civil war,” Verdane replied coolly. Anson opened his mouth to object, but Verdane shook his head. “I am through listening to you, Lord Guilford. It is now Lord William Dupré’s turn to explain himself.” He let his eyes slide across the table to the blue-liveried noble. The colour in William’s cheeks had finally faded, but the fire in his eyes was as strong as ever. “You have already denied having anything to do with Lucat’s murder, so do not bother saying it again. But you have allied yourself with fanatical Questioners who’ve slaughtered several Lothanasi villages under my protection. You have done far more than defend yourself from attack. You have deliberately goaded my vassals to betray me. What do you have to say for any of this?”

William laced his fingers together and rested his hands on the table. He leaned forward, a lop-sided smile gracing his lips. “I was attacked first. It is only just that I seek out allies to destroy those who seek to destroy me. His base of support has always been the Lothanasi in these lands. It has become clear to me that as long as one of us lives this feud cannot end. The one of us with the most allies will be the one to survive. I was determined that it would be me.”

Verdane noted William’s calm, but refused to be taken in by it. “Do you deny sending letters to Haethor, Ralathe, and Llarth requesting they send troops to aid you in your campaign?”

“Why shouldn’t they help me?”

Verdane took a deep breath. “They are my vassals, not yours.”

“Why should that matter? I asked for their aid, and at least Llarth did. They weren’t cowed by you like those weaklings Thrane and Stoffels.” Thrane smiled like an idiot at that, while Stoffels fumed. Verdane felt ill at ease. Why would William speak ill of his would-be allies? Did he have some hidden ally that Verdane didn’t know about? “You should have aided me too, your grace. You are a Follower. You’re lands will be stronger if they embrace a single faith.”

“Pagans spread their false religion by the sword. The Ecclesia does not!” Verdane cast a quick glance at Anson, but the lord of Masyor had sunk into a muttering torpor. His eyes stared at something only he could see as he sat slumped in his chair. Verdane glowered anew at William. “Those who would do so have lost hope and trust in Eli and are damning themselves. And Thrane and Stoffels are my vassals. They are not craven for doing as I say. They are obedient and good servants who will be rewarded for coming to my aid.” He’d have to confess to lying about the craven bit later, but it would mollify them at least.

“Are you suggesting I was wrong to defend myself?”

“Slaughtering Lothanasi villages that do not even owe fealty to Masyor is not defending yourself.”

William sneered. “Traitors! They would stab me in the back. They deserved to die. And I’m glad I had them killed. You may have stamped out the Questioners but they did their job very well. I’m proud of them.”

“Do you have then no justification for your actions other than you were attacked first?”

William leaned back and stared down his nose at the Duke. “Why should I have to justify it at all?”

Verdane swallowed the bile rising in his throat. He spread his hands wide and pushed himself to his feet. The other lords were quick to rise but William remained where he sat. Haughty, he stretched his arms out and said, “You’ll thank me in the end, your grace.”

“We are finished here tonight.” He could barely restrain the rage in his chest. “If anyone so much as thinks of striking the other I will decimate all of you. The only way your heads will not decorate pig poles outside my tent is if you do nothing. We will meet again tomorrow.” He finally turned and stared at William. “And if you do not get on your feet and show me proper respect, Lord Dupré, by the time I have finished speaking, your head will be rolling on the ground at my feet.”

Dupré stood and brushed something off his tabard. “Forgive my impertinence, your grace. But I am right.” He turned and stalked out of the tent. The other lords watched him go with empty faces. Even after he’d left they stood there dumbfounded.

“If you will excuse me, I need time to think. Please return to your tents. I will summon you when I need you. Lord Guilford, retire to your castle, but you will be expected tomorrow.” They each quickly left after making brief signs of obeisance. Apollinar busied himself in one of the private enclosures within the tent, while Sir Royce stayed at his side a statue of coiled tension. Anya rose to her feet, her eyes sullen and distant.

“Anya,” he said. “You must talk with your husband. I am very near to following through on my threats.”

“Please, father,” she said, her voice faint. He hadn’t hear her speak so plaintively since she’d been a girl. “Don’t kill him. No matter what he has said or done, please spare his life.”

Verdane wanted to grant mercy for his daughter’s sake, but if he hoped to save the Southern Midlands he was going to have to make an example of somebody, and William was asking to be the one. He took a deep breath before daring to say anything. “That depends on him. Speak with him and make him see reason. I can understand where Lord Guilford is coming from. But your husband acts like a madman, violently angry one moment and then contemptuous the next.”

Anya licked her lips and nodded. “I will speak with him. Good night, Father.”

He watched her leave the tent. Her gait was stiff and formal. He sighed heavily, lowering his eyes to the table. Beside him he could feel Sir Royce relaxing. “Do you think she’ll succeed, your grace?”

“I hope she does. It’s all gone, Malcolm. Everything I’ve ever tried to build in my life is slipping through my fingers.”

Royce grunted. “You’ll get it back. Jaime will come back to you.”

Verdane lifted his eyes to the tent flap, but they were down and unmoving. Beyond he could imagine the executioner and his axe. Beneath it fell Dupré, Guilford, Calladar, and Otakar. Their heads bounced into the mud and were crushed by wagon wheels and hooves. It proved to be a satisfying dream. “Jaime will come back to me. And he better be alive.”

Royce had nothing to say to that.

After a week of riding the Rheh Talaran over the swamp their golden steeds all abruptly came to land in a dry patch within a copse of cypress. The day was not half over and the sun painfully blistered their exposed skin even though their speed kept them cool. Once they landed the muggy air forced Charles and Kayla to pant like miserable beasts. Even Habakkuk looked out of sorts with his muzzle hanging open with every breath.

Several times the Keepers complained of the unbearable heat. Since entering the swamp, Guernef’s thick plumage had begun shedding feathers in a disorderly array which Abafouq did his best to straighten each night. Jerome and Charles had grown up knowing the heat of the desert but it was nothing compared to the murk of the Marzac swamps and jungle depths. Clouds of mosquitos hovered over still algae-ridden ponds waiting for a foolish beast to come close that they might feed. Mildew and fungus spread across every fallen log and even climbed like vines up tree trunks. The trees were twisted with broad leaves that choked the sunlight but offered no solace. Beasts that looked like logs lurked beneath the gangrenous surface of the water but attacked any who came near. But knowing Steward Thalberg who looked much as they did, the Keepers knew to avoid them. But that was only one peril out of hundreds that waited for them.

And now the Rheh who had carried them over so much of the danger would go no further.

After they set down between the cypress trees, their riders glanced in confusion at each other. Guernef glided down behind them and shook out his neck feathers. James was the first to find his voice. He leaned forward in his saddle and brushed one hand over the bell-shaped white mark on his Rheh’s forehead. “Why did we stop? There’s a few hours of day left.”

“We have come as far as they will go,” Qan-af-årael said as he dismounted. “It is time for us to say goodbye to our friends.” So saying he ran one hand along his Rheh’s cheek. The small stallion pressed his head into the Åelf’s hand affectionately, but would not lift his hooves.

“Well, I guess we start walking,” Lindsey said as he climbed down. “I hope we don’t have far to go.”

Jessica, who’d been riding with him, hopped to the ground and shifted into her human-sized form. She stretched out her wings and wiggled the fingers at their tips. “It’s still swamp as far as I could see.”

Lindsey wiped the sweat from his forehead and then swatted at something on the back of his neck. “Then we better move fast. I hate this place.”

“Try not to think ill thoughts,” Abafouq warned as he jumped to the ground from his mount. The Binoq touched the charm at his neck with one finger and said, “The corruption of this land will use any pass to enter us. We must give it no openings.”

Lindsey nodded and wiped his forehead again. The Rheh remained motionless while he and the others removed their equipment. Charles resumed his six-legged form to carry the extra supplies, though they had to be careful not to crush the ivy that began exploring his lower back. By the time they were finished, Charles realized that he’d never noticed the real weight while he’d been stone. Despite his increased bulk and Sondecki strength, their gear was heavy!

Once the Rheh were divested of the gear, they took a few heavy steps backwards in unison. Their heads lowered and they as one fell to their front knees. The cypress branches caught a breeze and their leaves brushed together in a soft whisper. Words curled through their minds in a sibilant hush.

The wind calls and we must take heed
For now we return to the start.
No more shall Rheh play any part
In thy wondrous acts and deeds.

Goodbye again, the air is now foul.
Goodbye again, time has come to bend.
Goodbye again, the curtain now will rend.
Goodbye again, fear not evil’s growl.

Goodbye ancient one, the star’s child.
Goodbye lofty one, the wind’s song.
Goodbye hidden one, sorrow’s long.
Goodbye strong and mild, never wild.
Goodbye stone and vine, ever more thine.
Goodbye bell’s death cry, balm for mourn.
Goodbye woman gone, dragon born.
Goodbye man who knows, fate divine.
Goodbye eager son, know the night.
Goodbye strength in love, strike with might.
Goodbye soaring mage, last of light.
Goodbye rider’s well, key to fight.

The wind calls and we must take heed
For now we return to the start.
No more shall Rheh play any part
In thy wondrous acts and deeds.

And then, even as they stared in wonder at the golden steeds, they rose to four hooves and leapt into the air. Their hooves burned with iridescent flame as they streaked northwards passed the cypress and out of sight. The ground where they’d once stood was charred black.

None of them moved for several seconds as they pondered the words they’d heard. Charles brushed his fleshy fingers across the vine growing over his chest and back. Had the verse about the stone and vine been about him? And what did they mean by “ever more thine?”

Qan-af-årael approached the spot where the Rheh Talaran had been only moments before. Andares followed him, their heads bowed and reverent. His ancient form knelt slowly, and he pressed his lips to each of the scorch marks one by one. Andares did as well. Abafouq licked his lips as he watched and then gestured to the rest. “It is only right to give thanks for what they have done.”

That was enough to break them from their torpor. The ground was warm, soft, and seemed to kiss right back. By the time they were done their backs didn’t even ache from bending over for so long. Instead they felt eager and ready to continue on their way. It was as if the Rheh had given them one last gift before leaving.

With determined grins, the group marched past the row of cypress and into the swampy maze.

The enthusiasm from their parting lasted them two days. By the third day of travel the hostility of the swamp and the difficulties of making any headway began to wear on them and drive them to grumbling under their breaths. The heat and thick air beat at them constantly. So far to the south, the sun stayed up longer than the Keepers were used to seeing in December. With it so hot they had to remind themselves that it was December! The Yule celebrations were not long in coming. Soon, it would be a year since Nasoj had launched his winter assault against Metamor in the middle of a raging blizzard.

The only raging things they were going to find in the swamp were mosquitos and fever. They’d seen enough of the former to last a lifetime and hoped they’d be spared the latter.

But as they trekked through a particularly marshy section of the swamp, Charles began to understand what Abafouq had meant about the corruption. As they continued south the firm land gave way from time to time to bogs. The trees rose high overhead with their roots visible above the murky water. They tried to make their way from tree to tree to find any land they could. Their legs were soaked and their toes coated in slime that stank worse than the jungle did. Bugs circled them, but Jessica’s repellant spell seemed to finally start working. Either that or they stank too much even for the mosquitos.

His situation was worse than the others. While his four legs allowed him better traction through the muck, he was far heavier and sank more easily through the viscid water. He frequently had to expend his Sondecki powers to push off some rotting log — he hoped they were logs — to get past deeper patches.

But what he thought about to keep him going was his wife Kimberly. He tried to remember every curve of her face, from the soft velvety ears, to the smooth silken fur on her cheeks, to the bright whiskers that framed her snout, to the dark solemnity of her eyes, and to the fulsome curl of her smile. All these and more the rat brought to mind to distract him from their predicament. He even pondered her soft, furless tail. He imagined his paws running down its slender length; he savored the feeling of the warm flesh twisting and turning at his touch.

Soon he progressed past Kimberly’s face to her whole body. He saw she dressed in a variety of outfits. First she wore her working clothes from her days in the Keep’s kitchens. Then she bore a green evening gown that complimented the soft tan of her fur. Then he saw her reclining demurely in the matronly dress she bore while pregnant. And then she lay stretched across their bed without any clothes on at all.

Charles plunged forward through the swamp, smiling to himself as he pondered the visage of his wife spreading herself before him and for him. He feasted upon that image, wishing he could more than just look. He yearned to reach out his paws and stroke her soft fur from thigh to breast to cheek and back again. Just imagining her face filled him with an urgency he didn’t dare contemplate while in his rattaur form.

And then another body climbed onto the bed. Clad in nothing, her paws coquettishly covering her breasts, breasts that fed his children, was the opossum Baerle. She smiled at him, sharp teeth peeking out from beneath her white-furred jowls. Her dark eyes glinted with reflected lamplight. Her long furless tail curled like a finger beckoning him closer. And with her arms she entwined herself with Kimberly on the bed, the two of them opening themselves to him, inviting and sultry.

And then he was there upon them both. His paws groped at their flesh, indiscriminate as to who he touched. Every desire in his body was fulfilled by them, their faces fading from all that he once knew. They were not women but bodies of his desire. The rat felt immense pleasure suffocate him. It seemed to fade for a moment, and a question came to him. Not so much a question as a proposition. This could be his if he opened himself to something else, something that made him yearn to scream. At his frightened refusal the pleasing figures vanished into an agony of darkness.

Charles snapped open his eyes and shuddered, staring fixedly at the long coursing vine that grew amidst a plethora of strange ferns and water lilies. He noted the distorted yellow blossoms whose petals and stamen reminded him of the last remnants of a man screaming in helpless terror. Even they with their tendrils and leaves seemed to gyrate like his wife and her wet-nurse had in his mind.

He glanced at the others in his party to see if they were suffering from illusions and suggestions. But if they did they kept them secret like the rat. He didn’t blame them. His heart beat with shame at the thought of seducing Baerle or of treating her and Kimberly like prostitutes.

As he trudged through the swamp, his paws felt the muddy bottom sliding up between his toes. He grimaced as he yanked up on each paw, the ground clutching at them as if yearning to pull them down. With each step it seemed to grow more and more difficult, and he noticed it was the same for his friends too. “What the?” Lindsey grunted behind him. “My hand!”

Charles turned his head and stared slack-jawed as the northerner’s fingers stretched and changed in hue. Where one had been five meaty digits now hung twisting curls of ivy that sprouted leaves and little yellow blossoms. From beneath his tunic more and more tendrils of ivy pressed forth. They dangled from his hair as his face began to split into broad canary petals. His eyes blinked in terror, his scream dying as his tongue pressed between his lips into a plant’s stamen.

The rat spun as he heard more screams echo into the pitiless heights. Every one of them was suffering Lindsey’s fate, some vegetative horror making them part of itself. The vine wrapped about Charles’s chest throbbed and writhed. He glanced down at his hands and saw his fingers begin their growth into ivy. “No!” He snapped tightening his paws into fists. He yanked upwards on all four of his feet, knowing now that the ground sought to make them roots.

What had the Rheh said of him? “Stone and vine ever more thine?” Could he be stone again? He stared at his fists and pictured them as granite. He thought of being a mountain, hot deep beneath his stony skin, sinking his feet into the soil but taking no nourishment from it. His lofty peaks were bright with snow, solid and determined to stand against the elements beyond the ages of men. Upon him would live the rams and grasses, badgers and rodents, fragrant pines and gentle flowers, and all manners of creatures who dared the heights.

Behind him he felt Lindsey’s bulk collapsing against the water’s surface. He glanced back and saw his upper body bulging outwards into a bulbous green blob surmounted by the wide yellow flower that had been his head. Behind him Habakkuk tried to hold onto his ears with hands that writhed as they splintered into dozens of vines. The same happened to everyone in front of him too.

Charles wrapped his paws around the vine on his chest and willed himself to be stone. He put all thought of Kimberly and what she would say from his mind. He put all thoughts of his children and how they would never be able to run their paws through his fur. His friends needed him more. Their flesh was being made into plant. Stone wasn’t flesh. He would be stone. The stone was his. Charles would be a creature of living stone.

A sullen coolness permeated his body and he felt himself sinking against the ooze and muck. It started from deep within and grew out to his skin, like a crystal growing more and more facets and tendrils. Hard and cold was stone, but also strong and sure. All his fear faded into a calm certainty and a firmness of purpose and devotion. And with that he knew it had worked. He blinked open his eyes and unwrapped granite paws from the vine. It alone remained permeable. Somehow, he’d brought Agathe’s curse upon himself again. The rat of might was now again the rat of stone.

A determined frown creased his snout as he turned towards the large yellow blossom and the maze of vines that snaked through the water towards him and his friends. The plant which had lurked at the edge of his vision before now stood before him menacing in its power. The faces in the blossoms jeered at him, and dark green vines rose from the water to wrap about his stony middle.

And then something happened he didn’t expect. The ivy growing from his back lashed at the attacking vines with a fury he’d not seen in any beast. The purple flowers spat viscous pus across the attacking plant and it writhed as its sinews sizzled and smoked even beneath the water.

Charles pressed forward, reaching out with his stony arms and with the ivy gifted to him by the Wind Spirits in the Åelfwood. The ivy raced from his arms across the open waters and wrapped itself around the sprawling plant. The large yellow blossom in the middle writhed, petals flapping angrily as the purple flowers spat their poison. Charles stood watching in stony serenity as hundreds of vines fell back into that one spot, the screaming flowers falling and shedding their petals like hair falling from a corpse.

He glanced at his friends who were all varying degrees of similar but smaller versions of the plant his vine now attacked. What had once been Lindsey was the farthest gone; he was now a mass of leafy fronds and yellow blossoms that writhed and bulged as their progenitor struggled. Charles turned back to the main bulb and slogged through the mire to its base. He reached into the water and gripped the roots, yanking and tearing with stony claws. The pulpy mass shredded under the assault. Thorny vines lashed him but could do nothing against his granite flesh.

And then, the whole mass rose up as if readying to unleash another attack before falling back in on itself and sinking slowly beneath the algae-ridden water. Charles’s vine slithered through the water and wrapped itself around the rat’s chest and back. Most of the purple blossoms had been destroyed in its fight, but the few that survived seemed to bloom even brighter than before.

Charles turned back around and pushed through the muck towards his friends. Already, the broad yellow leaves drew back against their stalks, revealing their faces where once had only been impressions. The vines withered or withdrew to reveal hands and arms again. Gasps were heard one by one, and each of them shook their bodies, as the last of the vegetation fell off.

“By Artela, what was that?” Kayla asked as she drew her katana and hacked at one of the limp vines that curled near her. She then noticed the rat and exclaimed. “Charles! You’re stone again!”

“Aye,” he replied with equanimity. “It was the only way I could think to protect myself. I...” he trailed off as the others returned to their true selves but not because of them. On his chest the sigils of Akkala and Velena had begun to glow brightly just as they had after Agathe had been slain. The same hot fire burned through him and he cried and clutched as his stony flesh as it gave way.

A moment later, all of them were as before, the rat included.

“I thought...” Charles stammered. “I thought I was sacrificing myself forever.”

“No sacrifice is forever,” Qan-af-årael said with a faint but kind smile. “Especially not one made in love. It is what Velena represents and serves.”

“That’s great and all,” Lindsey said. He still had a few yellow petals sticking out of his neck which he was busy plucking free. “But is he going to have to do that every time we run into something that tries to make us part of the flora?”

“We know what they look like now,” Jessica pointed out. She had jumped onto one of the massive tree roots to try and dry her black feathers. “I don’t think it will be hard to avoid them.”

“It smells odd,” James said as he drew closer to the remnants of the massive bulb. “Like... like...”

“Like pitch,” Abafouq finished. “I am thinking we can burn this even in this damp swamp.”

Charles stroked the vine over his shoulders with one paw. “If you’re thinking of taking that thing with us then you can carry it! I can’t carry everything and save everyone’s life at the same time you know.”

Most of them laughed quietly. Jerome patted him on the flank and nodded. “We’ll try to be more understanding next time, Charles.” And then, with a softer smile, he added, “And thank you for saving us. If you had been stuck as stone, I know I and all your friends would have done everything they could to bring you back.”

The rat nodded and smiled. He ran his fingers along the vine and chittered to himself. “Thank you. All of you. I know you would.”

“That’s right,” Jerome continued. “Now let’s get this plant cut down. I’d like to eat a cooked meal tonight!”

“Amen to that!” Lindsey grinned and hefted his axe with renewed vigor. He was quickly joined by several other hands. Charles watched as his friends dismembered what was left of the transforming plant. He smiled as he felt the vine twitch in vegetative pleasure.

Shallow waves lapped at the bow of the Burning Spear with very little effect on the dromonai’s broad mass. Though the air was mild it was almost becalmed and heavy laden with the rich salty humidity of the sea. The sun was still low on the eastern horizon and mercilessly stabbed at the eyes cast in that direction watching, always watching.

Phil listened to the steady slow creak of oars rotating in their locks accompanied by the grunting sea-chant of the First Crew pulling in time to the drummer’s strike. Below decks the Second Crew stood ready for any action they might be called upon to take on which at this period of empty quietude entailed idle distractions, repairs, and quiet discourse. The Third Crew rested in their hammocks lulled by the sonorous chanting of their fellows at the oars. Phil was also calmed by the age old cadence and only half listened while he stood upon the aft castle with his eye against his far-seer. The heavy brass scope had been roughly rigged to a standpost to accommodate Phil’s thumbless paws during the Spear’s hasty provisioning for their current mission. Yet for all of his staring through the polished glass lenses he was rewarded with the same vision; low rolling waves and the occasional shadow or spume of sea life.

Somewhere out there to the east the corrupted vessels of the Marzac fleet were marshalling among the multitude of mangrove covered islets surrounding the Marzac peninsula, gathering their strength to strike outward once again at some vulnerable point that Phil could not know. Though he had been a master of spies for years this was a battle for which he had no knowledge, no spies in the enemy ranks, no scouts to reconnoiter the enemy positions. He was blind and that blindness gnawed at him with every passing hour. Phil yearned to find them while the season was favorable, before the winter storms from the north made navigation so far from the shores a deadly task.

“How far have we come, Captain?” Phil asked without taking his eye from the lens, “How near have we come to the corrupted waters?”

Standing at the navigation table, a broad slate pedestal upon which charts could be chalked, the captain responded. “We’re twelve leagues from the coast, for what that’s worth, your highness. The Siren’s Table is perhaps ten degrees to the south and is the westernmost point of the peninsula.”

The mage standing behind Phil, Aramaes, grunted. “We have been able to approach within seven leagues safely, your highness, so at our current pace and heading we have another three hours before we will have to come about.” The man’s bald pate gleamed like a augurer’s orb in the morning sun, the fine lines of the blue tattoos ringing his brow etched dark against the man’s smooth, tanned skin. “If we continue to probe the limits of the taint’s reach we risk becoming overwhelmed ourselves.”

“At your command, highness,” Captain Ptomamus continued, “I will proceed as closely to the shore as you ask, to the very flagstones of Marzac itself at your word.”

Phil admired the young captain’s vigour. He was still young, as naval officers went, but he had distinguished himself well on several difficult missions and attained the command of a ship earlier than most. One of the more memorable missions for Phil, shortly after Ptomamus had gained his first ship, involved a journey into the harbor of Arabarb under a flag of truce to slip a spy into the enemy city during the spring only a year previous. The spy had been Phil’s friend the rat-morphed Charles Matthias which, to board the ship under secrecy, had necessitated the bringing aboard a large quantity of native rats among which Charles had mingled. Captain Ptomamus was horribly allergic to rats and, prior to that mission, had always been very scrupulous about keeping his ship empty of them. His reports of the mission had been humorously restrained but Charles had proved to be considerably more colourful in his reports. The rat had spoken highly of the ill-comfitted captain’s forbearance throughout the mission, and his brave command of the ship while they attempted escape from Arabarb. “Hardly necessary, Captain, we will bring them to us. Taking this fight to them would prove fruitless.” Sighting nothing more dangerous than a floating otter Phil abandoned the far-seer and rubbed his aching eyes with his thumbless paws to chase away the ache of too many hours spent at the lenses.

Phil had chosen Ptomamus’ dromonai as soon as he learned of its captain. While he did miss Commodore Pythoreaus’ wise counsel and reassuring presence he needed the experienced commander to hold their northern flank should the Marzac fleet manage to slip around Phil’s patrols. It would be the most exposed and most likely to suffer attack after Phil’s own and the prince wanted a seasoned commander in charge. Ptomamus was a worthy second choice to command Phil’s fleet, despite his youth, well liked by those under his direct command and the fleet as a whole for his charismatic leadership.

Besides, Phil always had Rupert. The great ape lurked nearby dressed smartly in the bright orange of the Whalish Marines. He was a strong, silent presence, Phil’s overmuscled shadow, who watched both Phil and the men. The sight of an imposing ape with determined eyes proved inspirational to the crewmen, not a single sailor on board the Burning Spear shirked even the most mean of duties.

“There is no need to do aught but wait.” Phil said as he hopped a pace back from the far-seer. “They came to us once, they will do so again.” And how calamitous that first raid had been, decimating every ship within Whales’ main harbor with twelve corrupted dromonai and incurring no losses for their brazen assault. Whales lost fully two-thirds of its remaining, uncorrupted, naval strength in that treacherous one-sided attack. The port city, as well, suffered considerable damage.

Luck granted that most of the finely trained crews of the moored ships were ashore and not lost as well. Their rapid response saved the city a much worse fate while their vessels burned. That grace allowed the remaining ships, those that had still been to sea or put in at other harbors, to possess both full primary and secondary crews and in some cases a third crew such as the Burning Spear enjoyed. To a man the sailors were ready to return the favour of pain even if it meant doing battle with their own corrupted countrymen.

“If we don’t find them soon,” Captain Ptomamus said carefully, “we will have to turn back for Whales. We put out with only half of our needed supply to accommodate the Third Crew, and even then what we did provision was hastily stocked.”

“There was little time, Captain.” Phil reminded him gently. “We’ve enough to patrol for another week with what your logisticians put aboard.” He looked over to the Spear’s master mage. “If your mages can supplement the crews’ stamina how long will it take us to return to port?”

Aramaes rubbed a hand over his bald head and downward to rub his chin thoughtfully. “With three crews on rotation and beating a single stroke, from our current position, perhaps four days without wrecking the crew.” He frowned at his own assessment, tapping his index finger against his lower lip. “It will put a lot of strain on the mages, however. But we need not push ourselves so far. During our last long-tell with Pythoreaus’ fleet and Stohshal of the Wind Runners I was told that the windships have taken up anchorage in the centre of the Charyn Turn, which is only half the distance for us to travel.”

Phil’s whiskers flattened back against his muzzle in a pained moue, his ears flicking down. The Turn was a convergence of the cold northern currents coming down the coast of Sathmore and the warmer currents sweeping up along the Marzac coast and was a dangerous expanse of water even in the calms of summer. Anchoring in the slow circulation at the centre of the converging currents, called the Turn, was an easy way to remain on station but required a considerable degree of seamanship to navigate. Ptomamus was hardly any more thrilled than Phil by the news judging by his own wince and the shake of his head. “We’ll never get the dromanai out of the Turn, Ara. Its currents are far too strong. How the windships manage I have never fathomed.”

Aramaes nodded sagely and smiled with one corner of his narrow mouth. Prior to the catastrophe that claimed the Whalish fleet he had been primary mage aboard a windship. “You’ve never pulled canvas on a Wind Runner, Captain.” He chided gently with a bow to take the sting out of his reproach. “The galleass can break out into either of the westward currents to rendezvous and resupply us on the water. If we catch the Sonderush and ride it as far as the turn we can save some hours, and the sweat of our crews.” The mage waved an arm toward the clear southern horizon, “With this weather any rush we ride would prove a safe hastening of our journey.”

Phil nodded at the mage’s logic and knowledge while Ptomamus grunted begrudging agreement. “How are your men holding up?” he asked the captain.

“Gnawing at the mooring lines for some action beyond polishing oar-handles, your highness.” Ptomamus reported with a rueful glance toward the First Crew labouring at their benches below. A trio of deck hands was in the process of doling out water. “They’re soldiers, and men betrayed, ready to take up swords in a breath.” The young captain’s rueful sigh became a smile of pride for his crew, and the fleet of ships trailing along with them. “A fortnight switching back and forth upon the open sea with seldom a sight of land has them restive.”

Phil expected no less and felt no little bit of pride himself after so long at sea. He had paid close attention to the crew of the Spear, and the fleet as a whole, in his two weeks with little else to do but fog the lens of his far-seer. He was duly impressed with their discipline, dedication, and skill. “I have every trust in your men, Captain. They make Whales proud.” Phil glanced across the sweep of ships before and aft of the Spear, four dromonai or ‘fire bearing’ ships and seven identical dromon that lacked fire projectors, and felt his heart swell with pride. It had been many long years since Whales had sortied her larger ships in any such strength, generally having them spread far and wide in small groups maintaining the security of the trade lanes used by dozens of nations. Even after the crippling ambush in the heart of their empire the Whalish fleet stood strong, ready, and capable. “What say you two, shall we stay this course until high sun? Or shall we turn about now and strike for the Sonderush?“ Phil’s statement was interrupted by the solid report of Rupert’s strong hands being brought together in two swift claps.

Phil turned and saw the massive silverback staring at the eastern horizon with intense focus. His heavy apish brow left his eyes as little more than muted glimmers inset within dark, hollow shadows. The ape’s hard stare toward the east was all the message the rabbit prince needed. Though Rupert was mute he could communicate far more clearly than many honey-tongued nobles. Phil hopped back to the far-seer and trained it on the horizon, but he saw only the empty waves capped with blinding sun-gleam.

Rupert reached over and depressed the end of the long brass tube of the far-seer without ever taking his gaze from whatever had caught his attention. Ptomamus and Aramaes stepped up to either side and looked eastward as well, the captain shading his eyes with one hand while the mage grasped the railing and leaned forward with his eyes narrowed. Phil kept his eye to the lens of the far-seer and tried to understand what he was being asked to look for, and after several long moments he discovered what had captured Rupert’s attention; a subtle arrowing V in the water as one might see made by a skimming bird.

There was no bird. “Prow cuts.” Phil breathed in surprise when he finally registered what he was witnessing. It amazed him that Rupert had spied it at all as, even with the acuity of the far-seer, it had taken Phil some moments. “Aramaes,” he called out in a surprised gasp, “use your mage sight, there, a few degrees below the horizon.” He raised a pawn and jabbed it in the direction he was looking. “Tell me what you see!”

“Highness,” Aramaes’s fingers curled over the polished wooden rail and he stared eastward with the same intensity displayed by the gorilla standing silently on Phil’s other side. Phil had ordered the mages to regularly use their mage sight to keep watch for the corruption and for any of the enemy ships using magic but thus far they had seen nothing. Would they now? Despite Phil’s best efforts to make more out of the subtle cutting wave he could see the horizon remained frustratingly empty. “Oh!” Aramaes gasped in surprise, his body lurching up right as if dashed with cold water.

“What?” Phil snapped, “What do you see?” Ptomamus looked over to the mage as well but said nothing before crossing over to the navigation table to converse quietly with the steersman. Aramaes muttered a few words in a language that defied Phil’s ears to hear as aught but useless syllables and glared across the water.

“There they are!” the mage shouted and cast his head from side to side, scanning the horizon with his mage sight. “Direct course to intercept us, two leagues east by north!”

“How many? And why can’t we see them?” Phil demanded, finally giving up on the far-seer.

“An illusion, highness.” Aramaes reported breathlessly. “A damned good one, too, but for your bodyguard’s good sight. Even I was nearly unable to see under it.” He touched his brow with two fingers and Phil saw his eyes blaze with a brilliant white radiance. “I have let the others see, we will try to shatter their veil.”

“Their course, Ara?” Ptomamus asked tensely. The steersman, a grizzled old sailor twice his captain’s age looked on with some concern but held his course steady.

“South and west, they intend to strike across our line. They are, and probably have been for some time, striking engagement speed.”

The captain nodded curtly as he took in the news. His crews would be fresh should any engagement be closed, while having been pushing on closing speed the enemy crews would be exerted. “Good. Highness, orders?”

“Maintain our course until we see what we’re up against.” Phil flicked his gaze from water to mage and back. The man’s eyes shone like twin suns and he whispered as if in some private conversation. Sweat beaded upon the master mage’s bald pate and made his fine blue tattoos gleam with uncanny luminescence.

“They fight.” Aramaes growled, “They know we have spied them, they’re cutting their course inward to close more swiftly.”

“Numbers? Can we engage?” Phil asked again, his body half turned to issue a ready order to the captain when a sound like tearing canvas, but far more loud, rent the air. Phil hunkered down reflexively and his ears went flat against his head. Flickering blue sheets of radiance danced crazily across the waters like the aurora Phil had seen above Metamor Keep on occasion. Through the shimmering blue haze he saw ships; many ships.

A discontented murmur of surprise at the sound became an uproar as the crew also spied what Phil now gaped at. The rabbit prince blinked at the vision revealed to his eyes. He rubbed at his eyes to dash the sun gleam from his retinas and looked again but the vision remained unchanged. He looked from the newly revealed ships to Aramaes and back, grasping the end of the far-seer in his paws and sweeping it across the distant heraldry marking the enemy ships.

“That… that’s more than just our ships!” Phil gasped. An entire host of ships appeared from the dissipating fragments of the illusion used to mask them from sight. From single deck skirmish vessels barely capable of managing on the open sea to ships with multiple decks of oars, or sails, or both the numbers of the enemy fleet were unexpected. In truth the enemy force was not a fleet.

It was an armada.

“The greater number of them look to be little more than captured merchantmen or pirate sturaks, your highness.” Ptomamus intoned flatly as he surveyed the broadly scattered enemy group. It was more a mob than formation, with so many disparate ships corrupted and brought together to serve the tainted power that was Marzac. “But there are some Pyralian Navy dromon among them, as well as Boreaux and even Sathmore vessels.”

“And our own.” Phil moaned, scanning the line of ships, aghast.

“I see the Forge Fire, Storm, and Athene’s Fury.” Ptomamus identified the ships out of hand without relying on the spyglass. The three Whalish fire-equipped dromonai escorted a much larger vessel painted with Pyralian colours. Smaller Whalish dromus and galleas flanked the monstrous flagship and its fire-equipped escorts.

“What is that vessel at their core?”

“The Iron King.” Aramaes informed him flatly, “The flagship of the Pyralian Royal Navy.”

“Arch Pyralis is it’s given name.” Ptomamus nodded slowly, “I’d never thought I’d be facing that beast in a fight. This is the first I’ve ever seen it.” The young captain frowned at the captured Pyralian monstrosity.

“We’re not fighting them here.” Phil managed to force past his clenched teeth with what little calm he could seize. His rabbit instincts urged him to find a dark place below deck to bury himself and let it pass. “Captain, bring the fleet about, it’s time to draw them out.”

“I count some forty vessels, highness, most of which are under canvas.” Ptomamus observed, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning his balance back on one foot while he contemplated the composition of the larger force. “We can outpace those easily under this flatulent breeze.” He turned and strode to the front rail of the aft castle. “Your highness, if we string their lead elements out under oar we can deal with them at our leisure.” That said he turned toward the crew that had stopped rowing at the first appearance of the illusion-masked fleet. “Beaters to time and a half, signal forward V! All ships hard about!” he bellowed loudly enough to be heard by even the furthest oarsman on the bow bench but his order was nonetheless echoed by the Officer of the Deck. “Archers make ready! Aramaes, inform Gods Favored that she will be our north and Sea Fury will be our south. The Spear will hold the centre.”

Aramaes nodded and bowed his head to hold converse with his fellow mages secure in their chambers below the aft castle.

Phil dug the stout claws of his powerful footpaws into the wood of the deck as the Spear’s oars dipped to the water and backed hard to slow the ponderous dromonai. To their flanks the other ships of Phil’s small Whalish fleet copied the manoeuver with flawless precision. “Captain, loosen the formation, make it appear we’ve been routed into full retreat.” The prince ordered with a false calm he tried to convince himself was real while he watched the fastest of the foe’s ships striking ahead of the armada. Despite the fear dancing along his prey-attuned nerves while facing a predator Phil smiled. This time he had a surprise of his own. “I want them to think we’ve broken, to pursue so that they might finish us off.” He rubbed his thumbless paws together and turned to look up at the taller human standing at the navigation table. “I want them chasing us.”

“Oh, they will.” Aramaes muttered. Rupert pounded a fist into his palm with a satisfyingly solid smack and stepped closer to the rabbit prince. Phil nodded to his friend and smiled afresh. Whales would not lose this time, of that Phil would make sure.

He had no other choice.

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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