Book 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
Though they had seen no fighting, the army, trudging through the growing fields of snow, seemed miserable and lifeless as it neared the gates of Kelewair. The foot soldiers especially, many of them nursing frostbite in their toes around the nightly fires. Even the horsemen slouched in their saddles and kept their cloaks wrapped tight about their faces. Though the astronomers would declare that Winter had but one more day before it began, the season had already come to their home and locked it in its gloom.
Yet, when they finally saw the walls of Kelewair and the castle looming before the forest they felt a measure of relief. Their long march was done and they could return to loved ones with tales of peace. Weariness did not leave them, but their steps were just a little bit lighter and a little bit surer. A few even dared laughter and frivolity as they crossed the barren fields still filled with ramshackle tents and hasty fortifications to the city gates.
Duke Titian Verdane drew up his mount and sighed. With the Yule so close, the remnants of his war would have to wait for the New Year to be taken down. Though they hadn’t seen combat, his troops had been at the ready for months now and needed the rest. He’d already sent both Lord Stoffels and Lord Thrane with their forces back to their cities. His spies would make sure they stayed true to their word. And Anya had led what remained of William’s forces back to Mallow Horn. They had even more work ahead of them to rebuild the villages crushed by the feud.
The young Captain Becket of Mallow Horn had volunteered to escort William to Metamor’s lands. Verdane had been suspicious and would have refused but Anya had assured him of Becket’s fidelity. Six more soldiers were sent of Anya’s choosing, and Verdane wrote a letter to accompany Becket and grant him speedy passage. With luck, they would already be north of Braasem, perhaps all the way to Giftum. In the next few weeks William would be changed by the curses. The soldiers were to return and report what he’d become. Verdane hoped it would be a beast as it would make it easier to spot him should he try to return to his homeland.
Of course the letter from the son of Felix seemed to indicate he didn’t have to worry about that. Still, he hadn’t been Duke so long because he trusted in arcane letters. Every precaution he could he would take.
Especially with so many traitors in his midst.
The gates of Kelewair opened to receive them and Verdane turned to his generals and gave orders for the men. He then led the procession into his city. He felt Captain Nikolai and the other members of the Wolf’s Claw at his back, but even their presence was not reassuring. This was a miserable homecoming.
It was hours later after all the pomp and ceremony of a Duke returning from victory that Verdane had a chance to retire to the privacy of his study. The hearth billowed with a roaring fire and his table was arrayed with freshly cooked meat, potatoes, cheese, bread, and wine. He placed his table next to one of the windows so he could stare at the grounds behind his castle.
Romping through the snow was his grandson Jory and the many kennel dogs. Those black-furred canines barked and danced circles around him as they leapt through the snow, leaving divots and exposing the grass in patches. Jory laughed and cavorted, shouting orders from time to time. The dogs obeyed him eagerly. Though he couldn’t see them from his window, he knew that his soldiers kept a close watch on the boy as did the kennel master. But he needn’t have fretted. Ever since coming to live with his grandfather, Jory spent more time with the dogs than with anyone else. They knew him and loved him as one of their own now.
Verdane chewed on a bit of potato and sighed. Now that the war was over, he needed to set aside time to make Jory look up to him as a father. As a grandfather, he did love the boy, but he had no idea how much damage William had already done to the child. Perhaps being with the dogs had returned some of his innocence?
But he would not have his grandchild aspire to be nothing more than a kennel master. Slowly, bit by bit, he would have to draw him back into the castle. His love for the dogs would always be a source of strength, but like iron, it had to be tempered.
Had Jory not been his own flesh and blood, he would gladly let him be so common a thing as a kennel master. It would both be a kindness to the boy and a humiliation for William to see his progeny brought low. But Jory was kin, and that was something Verdane could never forget.
A knock at the door brought him around. His page answered the door, then opened it wide for a red-haired man dressed in priestly vestments. Verdane nodded to his son and beckoned him enter. Tyrion hobbled across the room with the practised ease of a man who knows he is a cripple but will not let any other tell him so. At his father’s invitation, Tyrion sat down opposite him and shared a bit of cheese.
“I am so relieved to see you returned safe, father,” Tyrion said with a faint smile. “In truth, things have been very quiet in your absence. We have had no news of Otakar’s forces moving. Sadly, we also have heard nothing about Jaime.”
“Otakar is waiting on word from me. Will I agree or won’t I,” Verdane ground his teeth together, stared a few seconds more at Jory, and sighed. “He will do nothing until then. Once he knows our word, he will act.”
“Was it wise to send everyone home? If you need them again, it will take weeks before they’re assembled and ready.”
Verdane shrugged his shoulders. “There was nothing else I could do. If I kept them on, Otakar would have marshalled his forces. That is a fight we cannot win, not now.” He stabbed a bit of meat with his knife and held it up. The meat was well-cooked with a sheen of black along both top and bottom. The middle had just a hint of pink. The flavour, full of salt and sinew, was nevertheless empty for him. “Not while he has Jaime.”
“What will you do about it, Father?”
“Give him what he wants. Bozojo is his for now. And as soon as I believe it is safe, I want assassins to murder that treacherous swine Calladar.”
Tyrion thumbed a piece of bread and asked, “What of his family?”
“That I will think on. A son eager for revenge will be more tightly wound to Otakar. But eliminate the family entirely and Otakar may put one of his cronies in place there and we’d never see the city again.”
“Perhaps we should let Calladar live then?”
“No.” Verdane shoved the meat in his mouth and chewed. He washed the morsel down with some wine. “What of Ammodus?”
“Until last week, he’d been calm. Frightfully so. Lately though he’s been ranting about a certain man of cards.”
Verdane spat the wine out. “What?” He lowered his head and gathered his anger to store it away. Tyrion sat with a look of surprise writ on his eyes but otherwise kept from his face. “A man of cards? William said the same thing before I banished him to Metamor. There may be little we can do about it, but it seems both were in league with the Marquis du Tournemire. You remember him.”
“The Pyralian who came through here last Spring? Aye, I recall him. A bit aloof, with the strange black-clad man as a companion. He had a deck of cards he kept with him. It’s possible he could be a sorcerer.”
“It would explain why William and Ammodus allied. There is nothing we can do about Ammodus here. Have him sent to Yesulam. Perhaps they can see to his needs there. I will request that you be named Bishop in his stead.”
Tyrion lowered his eyes gratefully. “If it pleases the Ecclesia that I serve so, I shall serve. But Father, I must serve the Ecclesia first, not you. Do not make this appointment thinking I will turn the Ecclesia to your ends.”
Verdane grunted. “Spare me any false piety you have, Tyrion. I know your devotion to the Ecclesia is true. But your episcopate has great reach, and I do want you to use your influence to extend the arm of the Ecclesia. I am the only one of the three Dukes of the Midlands who is a Follower. Any increase in the Ecclesia benefits me.”
“As you say, Father,” Tyrion replied, his eyes still lowered. “Then you will be very interested to hear some of the news I have.”
“Refugees form Bradanes have been flocking to Metamor, those that have survived that is. They are of the Ecclesia and will swell the population there. The one lowly priest will not be able to handle it all himself. Ammodus was loathe to ever go there to appoint new priests, but I am willing. And there is one other thing. A small group of nuns from Breckaris came requesting that they be allowed to settle at Metamor.”
“Did you grant them permission?”
“Of course. There was no reason not to. If it helps spread the Ecclesia in those lands, then that is more souls that can be saved.” Tyrion frowned. “You do realize that if I am named Bishop, the parishes of the Northern Midlands will petition Yesulam to have a new episcopate created.”
Verdane stared out the window again. Jory was throwing snowballs and the dogs were catching them in their jaws. The snowballs exploded every time. “That will take time. Perhaps we can improve relations with Metamor in the meantime.”
“Exiling a traitor to them will hardly improve their disposition toward us.”
“I have confidence that in the end they will be grateful,” he replied.
“Pardon me, but why?”
Verdane shook his head. He felt the heat of decision coming to him. It was time to act. “Never mind that now. There is some parchment there and a quill. It is time to write my letter to Otakar granting him what he wants. It’s the only way we’ll ever see Jaime again, and that is far more important to me than who is Bishop of Metamor.”
Tyrion nodded, took the quill, dipped it in ink and sat ready to write his father’s words. Verdane leaned back in his chair and pondered just how to begin.
Phil felt wholly inadequate to the task of actually practicing the art of war as opposed to planning it, the boiled leather brigandine over his fire-retardant gambeson making him swelter moreso than the soldiers readying upon the deck below. They, at least, did not have to deal with a coat of fur beneath their weighty armour. Rupert, as opposed to his much smaller charge, seemed as comfortable with his heavier chain over gambeson. Strapped to his hip was a massive iron flanged mace that Phil had only seen him put to use once since being affected by Metamor’s curse. That had been against a door and not flesh, but the results had been dramatic enough.
Woe unto the soldier that came within reach of that unyielding force.
Phil himself held only a buckler and poniard modified with a basket so that he could more brace his palm against the hilt than actually grasp it. The slender thrusting weapon was dangerously sharp but the young prince doubted he could do more than annoy the target he might use it upon. The buckler, a lightweight circle of boiled leather over carefully laminated wooden strips, was chiefly to block arrows and not swords. In Ptomamas’ words, Phil was not capable of direct conflict and had orders to avoid the fight. Very firm orders, it was explained, direct from the King himself.
Though he did not argue with the order, he had no intentions of staying in the dark innards of the ship while his countrymen fought and died crossing swords with their own kith and kin. He stood upon the aft castle and watched the closing skirmish boats, the few that had not been foundered by the unexpected but serendipitous wave, closed with a last burst of speed. Already the young prince’s forewarning of the wave was being whispered about among the crew.
The sky overhead was slashed with dark clouds though which the blue of the sky would peer. A strong wind shredded the tops of the small waves it churned up on the surface of the inky dark sea. The air smelled of eminent lightening strike and a curtain of rain rippled across the ocean to the north. Aft of the Spear, now the trailing most ship in Phil’s group, the enemy fleet had drawn itself into a more orderly battle formation anchored upon the Iron King. Behind them the windships tried diligently to battle the westerly wind, tacking with a definite display of unified command to prevent ships crossing paths or stealing wind from the sails of other vessels, but they were slowly falling behind.
“Birds taking wing again, Captain.” Lon’mar offered blandly from the forward rail where he leaned watching the waters aft of the Spear. Ptomamus looked to him from the plotting table and then nodded.
“Here we go, this is our stand. Gerand, Whiett, where do we stand. Ara?”
“All in line and readied, cap’n. Weapons and armor in good order and the men are prepared, if feeling the pain of three hard days at oar.” Gerand, the marine commander, supplied without turning from the rail where he stood beside Lon’mar looking forward at his men-at-arms below.
“All the boats seem to be in proper formation, Captain.” Whiett seconded, though Ptomamus knew the disposition of his fleet more acutely than the First Crew commander. “We’re ready for the turn, and Pythoreaus will have room to slip between our ships with ease.”
“Hiding behind the rain, Captain.” Aramaes offered with a twitch of his lips. The strain of keeping lines of communication open between the three small fleets was showing at the corners of his eyes but he admitted to none of it. “Perhaps a half hour to our north under the current wind. Judging by the Marzac response I don’t think any of his sails were spied before the rain.”
“Have him put on full canvas.” Ptomamus stroked the basketed hilt of his sheathed cutlass and tapped the plotting table with the tip of one index finger distractedly. “Let us have done, let an end come to this dark villainy.” He turned and looked to Phil, the captain’s unbound hair flowing loose in the stiff breeze cutting across the deck. “At your word, highness, Whales will stand in the face of this darkness.”
“May we all emerge into the light, Captain Ptomamus.” Phil intoned and bowed his head in a slow acknowledgment. “Let us be unmoored.”
Ptomamus copied the nod with a slow smile creeping across his face. “To arms, to arms, to the depths with our foe!!” He called out, his words stripped by the wind but reaching the ears of the men on the decks and at oars below.
“To the depths!” rose a cry from the deck.
“Ara, how long for Pythoreaus to cross our line?”
“He is putting full oar now, Captain, I will let you know when his stern crosses our own.” Aramaes pulled the sleeves of his light shirt up, revealing yet more spidery blue tattoos, and flexed his fingers like a musician preparing for a concert. “The enemy has not attempted to break his concealment, but that does not mean that he has not already been seen.”
“Let us hope their mages are as hard pressed as ours, Ara, or we may be in for a surprise of our own.”
“Have confidence in Chakkarn, the crusty old sea dog can coax amazing things from his powders and quicksilver. If anyone can slide your gaze he would be the man.” Aramaes chuckled as he stepped over to the port railing and watched something that no one else could see. After some long moments his bald, blue etched head nodded slowly to some unseen message, one hand raising up slowly from the railing.
“Now, my Captain, now! They are aft!”
“Oars to port hard in!” Ptomamus ordered, his command echoed by the chief of the deck, “Starboard oars double stroke, hard about on the tiller.” Before his command had even been completed the Burning Spear began to slow and list hard to the port beam, everyone on the deck leaning against the turn while all around them the other ships in Phil’s group copied the maneuver fluidly. “Highness, if you have some way of communicating with those dragons you promised now would be a very good moment to call them. When their handler looses them we’ll have only minutes before they’re among us.”
Helplessly Phil shook his head and looked at the distant Marzac fleet, the slender skirmish boats fanned out ahead of the fleet and putting toward them at full oar, and could only stand rooted to the spot in gnawing fear. Beside him Rupert shifted easily on his thick legs, a massive reassuring shadow close at hand. Aramaes rested a hand lightly upon Phil’s shoulder.
“Master your fear, my prince. You have done well in our battles thus far, this one will be no different.”
Phil looked up at the bald mage and sucked a breath through his teeth. “This battle makes Whales, Aramaes, or breaks us. It is everything for us to win or lose.”
“All across the many kingdoms face the same in war, Phil. You saw yourself Metamor cast its lot and emerge triumphant. Even now wars rage across the Midlands, and the taint of Marzac turns brother against brother, no differently than we face ourselves.” He nodded toward the closing ships. “Our part in this is merely one small stone in the ballast, let us make its weight be felt.”
The days were shorter than the nights, which prevented them from travelling as far as they hoped. But it was the swamp itself that proved the greatest impediment to their progress. The deeper and deeper they journeyed, the thicker and more cloying the trees became, festooned with prickly vines and sickly mushrooms whose mere touch made Jerome break into a vicious red rash on his shoulder. The waterways were covered with algae that clung to their fur and clothes and carried flies and mosquitos which bit their flesh. Swarms of dragonflies descended on them to pick out the flies and other morsels the algae carried. And there were fish that scoured flesh, huge alligators that lay in quiescent ambush, as well as toads so large they could swallow Abafouq whole — one tried , having taken the Binoq in up to his waist before Guernef landed on its back and ripped its piddling brain out the back of its head with his beak.
All these and more stood in their way and made their progress south a slow one. Each evening Jessica, Abafouq, Guernef, and Qan-af-årael used their magical powers to offer what healing they could to tame the rashes, the cuts, the coughs, and the infections. Still, with so many insects making a meal of their flesh, they were each covered in bites that itched all the worse the more they scratched.
Despite the profusion of life in the swamp, there was little that seemed edible. A few birds complemented the supplies they’d taken with them from Breckaris, but these had little meat, and what meat they had tasted grainy. There was no fresh water to be found, though they were sure to boil as much as they could each night. Abafouq placed a few of his spell stones in the pot with the putrid water to help purify it. But even that could only stave off the inevitable for a short time.
Winter may be upon them, but in the swamp it still felt as sweltering as the worst summer day in Metamor. Kayla and Charles panted like dogs, while Jessica and James came close to doing the same. Of the furred Keepers, only Habakkuk seemed able to stand the heat, but the moisture in the air made him miserable too. Rarely did he lift his eyes beyond walking or writing in his tent at night. He spoke even less. Of them all only the Åelf remained stoic, but even their majesty seemed to fade under the air’s cruel oppression.
So it came as a surprise to them all when in the morning after a fitful night sleep in a small grove near a break in the canopy Qan-af-årael smiled and said, “We have made good time through the swamp and even now are within a day’s journey of the Chateau. We will arrive at the proper time. I studied the stars last night. The Solstice is tomorrow.”
“Aren’t we supposed to destroy them by the Solstice?” James asked as he rubbed at his latest series of bites next to his mane.
“Yes. So we will arrive at just the right moment,” Qan-af-årael replied.
“Were the stars telling you how we would fare?” Abafouq asked curiously while fingering his pendant.
“Of that they do not speak,” the Åelf admitted with a slow sigh. “But we are where we must be. The stars are moving back to the place they once knew. They will reach it tomorrow. And so tomorrow we must confront them and destroy them.”
“What do you mean the stars are moving back?” Charles asked. He brushed one of the leaves from his vine across the black hand-print on the right side of his face. As the hand-print covered his eye, he kept the leaf below where he could see it. “Don’t the stars move the same way every night?”
“That they do, apart from the wanderers. But even they follow a course that we can learn.” Qan-af-årael gazed into the pale blue sky. They could only see a small patch, and it was untouched by cloud or bird. “Remember what it is you were told about Jagoduun. The tear to the Underworld was made upon the Winter Solstice. Just as this world and the sun align so as to create a great flux of magic, so too at certain times the stars create their own magical flux. It is this of which I speak. The stars will be in the same place tomorrow night as they were on the night that Yajakali cast his fateful spell.”
The rat frowned and lowered the leaf. “And does that cycle take eleven thousand years?”
Qan-af-årael nodded and favoured them with a weak smile. “It is why we can be certain that this is the time we must destroy them once and for all. Everything else will have led up to this.”
“Well,” Lindsey said as he hefted his pack over his shoulders, “if we have only a day, shouldn’t we be walking? Time won’t stand around like men.”
“No, it won’t,” Charles agreed. The rat was already in his six-limbed form and had most of their supplies — what remained of them — stowed on his lower back. He let the vine settle back against his chest and helped James secure the last of the packs in place while Jerome and Andares checked for the easiest path. When they’d found a long patch of solid ground, they waved everyone forward.
One by one they resumed their places in line and began the day’s journey. Like all days they contended with the insects, the eroding soil, the fugacious lower branches, and the intermittent stretches of marsh that left their legs and paws dripping fuscous slime. Yet now they had to ponder what tomorrow would bring. So long had they journeyed towards the Chateau Marzac that it had seemed a place they would never actually reach. But it now lurked just beyond the veil of a day’s passing. What horrors would they face inside that profane edifice?
It was shortly after noon when Jerome sent the all-stop signal down the line. They were moving through a cluster of mangroves and doing their best to avoid becoming entangled in the dense network of roots shooting into the algae on either side. Despite the hour the thick foliage blocked the sun’s light completely, casting the area into a preternatural gloom. The air carried the ever present stench of death and decay, but as they waited they could all discern a more pungent aroma mixed in. Kayla rubbed her nose and crept closer to where Jerome slipped between the trees ahead.
The Sondecki turned at the skunk’s approach and nodded his head in acquiescence. Kayla put one paw on the hilt of the katana. Clymaethera was restless and pressed back into her palm, eager to be drawn and to spill blood. She took a quick breath and scooted to the trunk next to Jerome, careful not to disturb the shelf mushrooms climbing up the bark.
One by one, the others approached behind them, but they couldn’t see what Jerome and Kayla stared at. At the end of the avenue of mangroves the ground rose upwards twice a man’s height. The hillock bore a ring of mangroves along its edges, but almost none of the fuliginous branches faced toward the slope. The ground on the slope was blackened and the summit smoldered. Despite the trees being denuded on one side, the boughs far above still blocked out the sun.
Kayla frowned as she stared at the steaming hill. There didn’t appear to be any easy way around it, as the mangrove branches all tangled into the water. They had no hope of seeing them. One wrong step and their legs would be trapped. They hadn’t seen any of the flesh-eating fish recently, but they dare not risk being stuck in the water in case they were near. They only had two options. Forward over the hill or back the way they’d come. Going back meant circling around which could cost them hours. Forward was their only real choice.
Kayla gestured with her free paw at the hill and whispered to Jerome, “What do you suppose it is?”
Jerome shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m going to get a closer look. Wait here.”
Kayla crouched down and spread her legs wider so she wouldn’t bump into the tree trunk. The Sondecki cast one glanced back at the rest, motioned for them to be quiet, and then gingerly stepped out past the line of mangroves. He bent against the hillside and ran his hand over the ground. Kayla wondered what he was doing but trusted him to do it. Her fingers wrapped around Clymaethera’s hilt, eyes sharp and fixed on the hillock’s summit. Smoke trailed upwards like an abandoned fire. But who apart from a man totally deranged would live in such a place as this even without the corruption poisoning everything?
Finally, Jerome seemed satisfied with the ground and began climbing up the slope. He kept his body close to the ground and moved so silently that Kayla had to touch her ears to make sure that nothing had clogged them. It then dawned on her that the swamp itself had grown still the nearer this hill they’d come. Where once the incessant buzzing of insects and groaning of frogs could be heard in every direction, now they seemed to be some distance behind them. Kayla licked her nose and pulled her tail in close, trying to still her imagination before it ran away with her.
Jerome eased himself up to the top of the hill, though he kept most of his body below the summit. Inch by inch, he raised himself up, staring down as if over the lip of an escarpment to see what lay below. A sudden flurry of sound, a rasp of scales and a rush of feathers erupted from the hill. Jerome leapt backwards as a scissor-like beak closed over the place where his head had been only moments before. Tumbling down the hillside, the Sondecki slammed his back into the ring of mangroves and then scrambled to his feet to evade the bite of the monster’s beak.
Kayla screamed and Clymaethera leapt into her paw. Her other fumbled for the wakizashi named Trystathalis. The thing rising out of the pit in the hill was some infernal bird larger even than Guernef! It’s feathers were blacker than Jessica’s, and it’s eyes boiled a red like stones tumbling one over another in a forge. The beak, two sharp spears of darkness, closed over the branches above Jerome’s head and the mangroves sizzled and blackened from the touch.
“Demiorygato Pagos!” Jessica shouted, and a bolt of ice erupted form her wings and struck the monster bird just beneath the beak. It screamed a sound so vile and sharp that Kayla nearly dropped the swords in her hurry to cover her ears.
Jerome jumped through the mangroves faster than the skunk thought anyone could move. He rolled to a stop next to Kayla and brushed soot from his shoulders. “I think we made it mad.”
The bird crouched at the edge of the hillside, and then leapt into the air, wings spreading out between the mangrove branches. Against the canopy it was a shadow in flight, a shadow that burned the very air and singed everything it touched. Long claws reached down and yanked at the tangle of branches along the path, ripping them out one by one as they charred and died.
Jessica cried out another spell and a blue nimbus pressed back against the creature’s advance. She glanced wearily at the rest as the beak pecked and prodded at the shield. “I cannot hold him at bay forever!”
“We cannot stay here,” Andares said, gesturing towards the hillside that they could all see. “It will kill us if we stay here. Over its nest. There may be some way we can escape it or kill it over there.”
Kayla sheathed her swords for a moment to help Jessica hold the shield up. Abafouq stood next to her and lent his skill too, muttering hard-edged words under his breath. The blue nimbus grew stronger and almost opaque, but it couldn’t cover them all if they spread out. “Don’t go far!” Kayla shouted. “We have to stay in the middle.”
Jerome nodded as he and Andares chopped aside some of the mangrove roots tossed up in the black bird’s ascent. Together they lifted Qan-af-årael over and up the hillside. James and Charles followed next. The rat had his Sondeshike in his paws, dark eyes casting a determined look at the bird. With them came Jessica, Kayla and Abafouq.
Lindsey, Habakkuk, and Guernef kept the rear guarded, the latter flapping his wings and summoning a bitter wind that clattered twigs and refuse into a maelstrom. With a turn of his wings, he launched those tiny particles at the black bird. The air sizzled and popped with fulgurites that turned to ash as they passed through the bird’s feathers. The beak spread wide and screamed again, nearly knocking them all to their knees.
“What is it!” James shouted as he pulled his long ears down either side of his face.
“It acts like a Shrieker,” Charles cried. “But how could it be this?”
“Corrupted,” Qan-af-årael said, his voice low but somehow still audible through the din. “Corrupted for a very long time.”
Jerome and Andares reached the top of the hill and glanced about. The bird, screamed one last time, then flew higher into the treetops, disappearing amidst the towering sentinels and bounteous foliage. It left a trail of ash, but once past the first boughs they couldn’t see it anymore. They could still hear the ponderous wings frying the air on their way, but the sound echoed around them.
“Hurry!” Jerome shouted. “It looks like the trees are thicker ahead. We might be able to escape.”
The rest of them scrambled up the hillside and followed Jerome down the other bank. The marshland gave way to a broad grove of trees stretching into the canopy. Many bore black scars from the creature’s touch, but all stood solidly on hard earth. The hummock had a faint roll from where rains had washed away the soil, but the Keepers found their footing without trouble. Jessica, Kayla, and Abafouq focussed on turning their blue shield above them to pass through the trees, so James and Charles stayed by them to keep them from stumbling.
They ran for two minutes and the ground gradually rose. Were they leaving the marshes for good to some forgotten promontory? And where had the bird gone? They no longer heard its cries in the air above. All that they heard was the rasp of their breath, the fall of their feet, and the groaning of the trees above.
“Maybe it didn’t follow us,” James suggested as they slowed to catch their breath.
“Was there anything else in the pit?” Lindsey asked.
Jerome shook his head. “Just the bird. I took a quick glance as we ran past. There was nothing else in there.”
“The bird’s enough,” Charles said. The rat twirled his Sondeshike a few times as he scanned the forest canopy overhead. “Let’s keep moving.”
They turned south again, but snapped their heads back up when a loud crack reverberated from above. The canopy exploded with a rain of sticks, branches, and leaves as a massive tree trunk flung itself toward them. The ends of the trunk were bright with flame that roared as it spun end on end downward.
“Watch out!” Jessica shrieked as she and everyone else dived to one side. The blue nimbus flared out just as one end of the tree slammed into the ground. The dirt exploded and sizzled, the air cracked as the trunk splintered down its middle. Flames leapt across the mossy sward as shards of the trunk scattered in every direction. Guernef shrieked in pain as one of the larger chunks drove through his thigh. The Nauh-kaee tried to stand, but slipped on the detritus and collapsed in a heap, blood spilling everywhere.
“Guernef!” Abafouq shouted and scrambled through the wreckage toward his friend.
The others rushed to do the same, but a blood-chilling shriek split the air again. The black bird swept through the canopy leaving a trial of burning leaves in its wake. Its beak hung wide, and its legs, so spindly but so hideously dark, stretched open to grab them.
Jessica stretched her wings and brought the blue nimbus over them again. The bird slammed into that wall of energy and drove it downward several feet. The hawk mage cawed from the strain but managed to keep her talons beneath her. Their enemy spread his wings and slashed with his feet at the shield. It flickered badly but held.
Abafouq was at Guernef’s side a moment later. The Nauh-kaee nodded his thanks and then gave a baleful stare at the others who’d rushed to his aid. Abafouq sucked in his breath and said, “Kayla, help Jessica! I can handle this.”
The skunk ran back to the hawk and added her magic to the shield. Together, the two of them walked to where the gryphon lay crippled. “How is he?” Kayla asked.
“Not good,” Abafouq replied as he inspected the wound. “Guernef, we need to pull the shaft out. Jerome, can you help?”
The Sondecki placed one hand on Guernef’s furry thigh and stroked the flesh there. The Nauh-kaee closed his eyes while Abafouq chanted arcane words. They waited a few short breaths, breaths in which the black bird made one last attempt to break the shield before winging back into the upper branches. Then, Abafouq nodded to Jerome. The Sondecki pulled swiftly and sure. The shaft came free, slick with blood, and as thick as a man’s arm. Whatever spell Abafouq had used kept his friend from bleeding to death, but he still had a gaping hole in his leg.
“We can’t stay here,” Andares warned. “It will just drop another tree on us.”
“We have at least a minute,” Abafouq pointed out. “Qan-af-årael, I need your power for this healing.”
The ancient Åelf bent over their friend’s body and touched the wound. “This will take far too long to heal. We must patch it for now and mend it later.”
“Do what you must,” Guernef said in a soft voice, the softest any of them had ever heard.
Jerome pulled his shirt off and wrapped it tight around the wound. “Charles! More linens!” The rat jumped over, all four of his legs skidding through the ground and scattered twigs until he stood at the Nauh-kaee’s backside. Guernef’s tail for once did not twitch and fret like a cat’s.
Charles and Jerome dug through the packs on the rat’s back until they found more cloths. Moving so quickly that his hands became a blur, Jerome wrapped shirt after shirt around the gryphon’s legs until they no longer discoloured immediately. Abafouq and Qan-af-årael continued their quiet chant, hands pressed to his leg and side leaving just enough room for the Sondecki to work.
Guernef snapped his head up. “Run!” He shrieked. They all turned their heads to the sky as the Nauh-kaee twisted onto its three good legs and limped as quickly as he could. The upper branches parted again with another burning trunk tumbling end over end toward them. They ran after Guernef, with Jessica and Kayla turning their shield behind them.
The tree struck the earth with a thunderclap. Shards scattered everywhere, but they bounced with a million flashing lights off the blue shield. “This is ridiculous!” Lindsey shouted. “We’ll never escape this thing!”
“Then we have to kill it,” Charles shouted back. “Jessica, use your shield to trap it on the ground! Here it comes!”
The hawk blinked and then turned her eyes to the heavens. The black bird dived so quickly through the trees that she could only wince as it struck against her shield. Sparks flew in every direction as the bird was rebuffed once more. It danced back into the air and then shrieked with such rage that the very fire blossomed into a vicious conflagration. The flames spread across the sward from the two trees into a wide swath stretching on every side. The air grew heady with smoke and screams from them and the bird. Jessica and Kayla began to hack as the Keepers realized they’d been trapped within a ring of fire.
Guernef, still limping, spread his wings wide and began to beat them. Abafouq stayed at his flank to support his wounded limb, but even he had to hold tight as the winds turned and twisted around him. The black bird glanced up from its attack on the shield to stare in bewilderment as the air circled and spun in ever increasing anger. The flames, leapt as if in terror, and then with one last surge of air, were snuffed out. Even the smoke was carried away by the winds leaving behind only the charred ash covering everything they saw in every direction.
The bird screamed again, and drove its beak towards the shield. But Jessica, just as it neared, dropped the shield and let the animal bury its beak in the ground. She then reformed the shield at its back, pinning it in place. Surprised, the bird struggled and beat its wings in a frenzy to escape.
Filled with a sudden fury of mountain lairs of old, Kayla felt Clymaethera the katana leap into her paw. With a single downward slice she sent the blade clean through the bird’s wing. The cut was true and severed the limb, which spun away and burst into a bright white flame. A moment later there was nothing left.
The black bird howled in fury, swinging what remained of its wing forward toward Kayla’s face. But Charles was there, striking the limb with his Sondeshike and snapping whatever bones it might have. Then he spun the Sondeshike at its head and knocked it to one side.
James met it there, slicing across its other wing. The blade of his sword grew red hot as soon as it struck the creature’s neck. The bird, dark eyes filled with baleful fire, snatched the sword in its beak and wrenched it from the surprised donkey’s hands. The bird bit down and bent the sword as easily as if it were only wet clay, and then tossed it to the charred earth.
“Only magical swords can touch it!” Andares shouted. He took the donkey’s place and struck at the creature’s wings. The bird howled in agony as it tried to back away but found itself blocked by Jessica’s shield. Finally realizing it had no choice but to move forward into the trio of attackers, it charged with one last scream of rage.
Kayla and Andares both struck at either side of its neck, while Charles brought his Sondeshike directly down on the top of its head. The beast collapsed as the swords sliced through the fiery flesh. The head fell at their feet and burst into flame.
Covering their eyes, the three of them ran back to where Jessica stood as their fur tips singed from the heat. But by the time they reached her, there was nothing left of the beast but a scar on the earth.
“Oh, my eyes,” James moaned as he crawled back up to where they had gathered. The donkey rubbed at them both and kept blinking.
“It’ll pass,” Habakkuk assured him. The kangaroo hopped to his side and helped him climb the rest of the way. “Your sword is ruined though. You can have mine. You’ll use it better than I will.”
“Thank you,” James replied. The donkey blinked a few more times then stared at his still glowing hot sword. It had been bent twice in the middle and the tip now pointed almost perpendicular to the hilt. James shook his head and kept walking.
“Is everyone else okay?” Jessica asked.
“I think so,” Charles replied. He shrunk his Sondeshike down and returned it to its place. The vine pulled tight against his chest but otherwise didn’t move. “Guernef, can you move, or do we need to carry you?”
Lindsey gave the rat an incredulous look for his suggestion, but the Nauh-kaee hobbled up with more dignity than he thought possible. If anything, the white gryphon made his injury look a thing of grace. “I will not be a burden to you. Let us continue.”
Abafouq rubbed his hands together as he trailed after his friend. “Yes, let us be on our way. But first I would be happier if we better healed you.”
“Aye,” Kayla agreed. She slowly sheathed the katana, a faint smile etching her snout as she did so. “With that thing dead, I don’t think we have to worry about anything else attacking us for a while.”
Guernef took one breath and then eased himself down so that his injured leg was up. The bandages were all stained red and barely hanging on his thigh. “Do what you can for me, but do not risk any delay more than is necessary.”
“We shall not miss our appointed hour,” Qan-af-årael assured him with a confidant expression. There was no smile on his pearl-grey face, but there was warmth still. Charles, Lindsey, Habakkuk, Andares, James, and Jerome took up the watch while the rest bent over Geurnef’s form to do what they could for their friend.
One of the cards held deftly between his fingers began to twitch. The Marquis du Tournemire spread the five cards in his hands wide and watched as the Six of Swords bled from an indistinct avian shape into a smear of black. He pursed his lips thoughtfully and ran one nail across the card before lowering his hand and discarding the now dead card and one other.
“Just the two,” he said. His steward Vigoureux dutifully passed him two more cards from the top of his deck. He picked up the Queen and Eight of Hearts and chuckled lightly to himself. Upon the queen was a hawk clad in black. And on the eight stood a skunk brandishing a pair of swords whose design was neither Pyralian nor Midlander. From the far East then, but how she came by them was a mystery that interested him only slightly less than the outcome of this particular hand of cards.
They sat in a small room which had once been decorated with ornate curtains that had long since turned to dust. Narrow windows looked to the mangroves trees in the north, while a single door whose carvings had been eaten away by rot waited open behind them. The walls were fashioned from a queer yellow stone and while the Marquis knew it had once bore paintings and bookshelves, nothing more remained of them. All that was left was the table and chairs.
Arrayed around the table were Vigoureux, his castellan Sir Autrefois, and the black Sondecki Krenek Zagrosek. The rest were all dead, as he had always known they would be. Nine deaths were needed. Nine souls to feed Yajakali’s artifacts. He already had six in hand. A seventh waited in the Two of Hearts should he need to use it, but he doubted the raccoon Kankoran’s soul would be necessary.
“It seems,” the Marquis said as he gazed at the three sharing the table with him, “that they have managed to kill the Old Crow.”
“Then nothing stands between them and us,” Sir Autrefois said in an almost drained voice. His castellan, once hardy and full of brusque life, now seemed more mechanical. His motions were smooth, precise, and regular like a waterwheel. Vigoureux was the same. An unfortunate side-effect of Marzac not needing them as it needed him.
And as it needed Zagrosek. The Sondecki drummed his fingers on the table as he stared without much enthusiasm at his hand. “Good,” he said in his first bit of liveliness since leaving Breckaris. “Then they will be here tomorrow and all can be brought to an end.”
The Marquis smiled and leaned back in the old chair. All of the furnishings at Marzac were old. The Chateau had been built by the Boreaux family from Kitchlande to the south in an attempt to seal over the tear to the Underworld. Marzac allowed them to think they had succeeded long enough to erect this small castle — it had even let them build a short bell-tower — and then took them all. Their deaths unleashed hundreds of Shriekers that took the combined efforts of all mage clans in the Southlands to defeat.
And now it was his. And soon so too would everything be.
“Then this shall be our last hand. Whales has braced our fleets, the war in the Midlands has come to an end, our allies in Yesulam have been exposed, and the Keepers and their allies have reached our doorstep. Everything is going exactly as it must. Now it is our turn to cast the final spells.” The Marquis glanced over the three of them and turned to Vigoureux sitting at his right. “Show your hand.”
“Only King high,” Vigoureux admitted as he spread down four Coins and the Priest of Hearts. The Marquis noted the King, Nine, Five, and Two of Coins. A flush would have beaten his own hand, but he saw only an old story in those cards. Although the presence of the Heart was an irritating surprise.
“And you, Zagrosek?” du Tournemire asked with sullen smirk.
Zagrosek grunted and dropped his cards to the table. “A pair of Kings. It is unsettling playing with these cards, Camille.” The top card was the King of Swords which bore Zagrosek’s likeness. Beneath it they could see the King of Hearts which featured a strange black-haired almost white-skinned man-like creature bearing a pearlescent blade. The other cards were the Knight, Six and Five of Hearts. Interesting that so many of their enemies would show themselves in this final hand.
“They are my cards, Krenek. And these cards that have won me much. Vigoureux?”
“I have but a smaller pair,” Vigoureux declaimed. He laid down the Ten of Spades and of Coins, as well as the Ace, King, and Queen of Spades. Tournemire stared at the Ace, King and Ten of Spades with a sudden disquiet. Those three cards had not shown themselves in months. Why wait until now to be revealed? He noted the King especially, which showed two men each bearing only one arm. The Ten had a brightly dressed youth whose left hand seemed to be burnt depending on how he looked at the card. Hadn’t he been a Driheli squire the last time he’d seem him?
The Marquis regained his composure and spread his cards before him. “This hand belongs to me then. I have two pair.” He gestured to the Ace of Swords and Hearts, and then to the Eights, also of Swords and Hearts. By itself lay the Queen of Hearts. “Our game is done.” He stood and collected the cards one by one. “Vigoureux, Autrefois, go down to Hall of Unearthly Light and wait for me.”
Zagrosek and du Tournemire stared at each other across the table as the other two men rose like obedient beasts and left the room. The Sondecki’s eyes narrowed and he put his fingers under his chin. “And what would you have of me?”
A smile crept across his lips as he ran his fingers over the cards. They were so warm, so near. He could feel the people in them as they struggled. “We have guests coming, Krenek. Extend a gracious welcome to them.” His smile disappeared. “Kill one of them. Just one. Then let the rest through and come down to the Hall.”
Zagrosek nodded and rose. “It will be done, Marquis.”
“I know.” The Marquis relaxed as the day ground on. He listened, but Zagrosek made no noise as he left the chamber. With a flick of his wrist he turned the top card in the deck over. The Queen of Spades stared back at him. A old woman with cloth wrapped over her eyes. “Can you see me now?” he asked. He turned the card back over and shuffled his deck before she could answer.
From the decks of the ships they had alighted upon the beasts took wing, joining the few others already circling low over the ships, trebling their number in moments. As the furlongs of water narrowed swiftly between the two fleets the creatures climbed into the sky in slow circles before turning as one, dropping forward and down to swarm across the water only feet above the waves. The driving wind gave their wings greater lift but slowed their progress, if anyone knew how fast they could fly enough to say that they were slowed at all. Near one hundred meters ahead of Phil’s line one of the creatures stopped abruptly in mid flight, it’s rainbow hued body crumpling like a cast off child’s toy in a spray of feathers and blood before it spun wildly to one side and fell into the water.
The other creatures continued to pour across the waves unheeding of their companion’s fate or the danger it had encountered. As they closed the distance their features became ever more clear; a terrifying cross between a feathered jungle bird and an oversized lizard. A long, narrow head featured a maw of reptilian teeth rather than a beak, the feathers adorning them primitive but effective. As they closed a scream echoed across the water, the hissing wail of a steam kettle left untended overlong.
Another spun abruptly, rolling in the air, its body fletched with a score of long shafts, and slammed into the crest of a wave before tumbling to a halt. The one trailing it surged upward to avoid its tumbling flockmate and also conducted an erratic death spiral into the water, wooden shafts festooning one side of its feathered, reptilian body. Before the strange rainbow hued creatures passed beyond the zone of death ten boat lengths ahead of Phil’s line seven of them were left in the water, reducing their numbers from over thirty to a score plus five. Of those two were in definite distress, their flying ungainly as they made for the ship closest to them.
“Archers to the ready, knock your bows!”
As if realizing that they were under attack from some unknown and unexpected foe the remaining creatures balked before reaching the line of ships that they could see, the two injured flying beasts continuing onward though rapidly loosing their advantage of height. Drawing together the remaining beasts milled about in the air, turning once more toward the safety of their own lines but stayed by some unseen commander or their fear of the unseen foe now between them and safety.
“Steady on, men, single stroke!” Ptomamus ordered from the forward rail of the aftcastle. “Ara, how far forward is Pythoreaus’ line?”
“Three lengths, captain. At our current stroke they will be ten lengths ahead when the two lines cross.”
Ptomamus considered that for a few seconds, “Too far, increase stroke by one quarter. Can they hold that masking once they attack in earnest?”
Aramaes shook his head slowly, “The more they act the more the enemy will have reason to disbelieve what they see, or do not. Even without a mage to counteract the spell the belief that a foe attacks them will focus enough of their attention to pierce it.” The mage stood beside his captain at the rail, hands clasped at the small of his back. “The beasts lack the fortitude of mind to seek their foe. At such a remove even our enemy may think our archers cause the havoc among their forward assault.”
Finally of one mind the flying beasts broke off their charge and began to spiral upward in a loose mob.
“Continue on, increase our stroke to one and a half. No more than seven lengths aft of Pythoreaus. When he begins loosing his fire increase to flank stroke and close with the nearest vessels. Open the fleet to maneuvers of opportunity on engagement.”
“Boarding actions, captain?” asked the marine commander from the deck below.
“Repel only, commander. Aramaes, convey my orders to the fleet. Our primary goal is to cripple our brother ships, but leave them afloat if we possibly can. If need be we’ll play dagger games with them until someone discovers a way to remove this taint upon them. Do not take prisoners, leave foes on their ships once they are foundered.”
“And the Merai?” Aramaes chewed the corners of his lower lip.
“Have we any quicklime in our stores?”
“Some casks, yes, for repairs and spellcraft.”
“Mix a quantity with a cask or two of fire sand. If the Merai seek to board us they will learn the error of that action swiftly.”
Aramaes chuckled darkly, “Ouch.”
“Captain!” one of the deck runners was conveying some information to the marine commander below, “Pythoreaus is letting the skirmishers through, they’ve passed the fall line and increased their stroke by a third!”
Ptomamus had not looked away from the approaching ships closing swiftly on them and had already come to the same conclusion. He nodded briefly, “Do not charge the projectors, they’re closing too swiftly. We’ll rake their decks with arrows and attempt to founder them.” Indeed the smaller ships had both increased their speed and begun to move more evasively. The evasive maneuvers slowed them but the increased tempo of their oars did not limit their closing rate. “Ram them if they’re fool enough to cross our bow.”
“Ah, cap’n.” the steersman coughed to get attention and received his request, all eyes turning toward the whipcord thin old man whose muscles were wrapped as tight as lashcords upon his lean frame. “Sails on th’ ‘orizon, cap’n. Small ‘uns.” He pointed over the aft rail toward the southwest where a speckling of angular shapes was crossing the horizon line. Phil quickly hopped over to his pedestal mounted spyglass and spun it to look at the distant sails.
“What do you see, highness?”
“Small sails, as he says, Captain. Most of them are triangular, but no fixed design.” Phil’s ears twitched and one slowly backed unconsciously, “They look like fishing boats, and they’re moving very, very fast ahead of the storm winds. They’ll be among us in little more than half an hour.”
Ptomamus scowled at that strange bit of news. “Fishing boats, unladen of nets or catch, can ride high enough on the water to… move like wave boards down the face of a breaker.” He shook his head and grunted, “But they’ll be of little use as anything other than an annoyance, to both us and our foe. Aramaes, can you warn them away?”
The mage shook his head, “No. Farspeak magic requires that I know whom I am trying to cast for, or some personal item. Hair or blood, the like.”
Phil re-secured the spyglass. “They’ve suffered as much as any, Captain. Yes, we will take heavy losses among all involved, but it is for the best that even they offer what they can in recompense for this black devilry cast against them.”
A muscle in Ptomams’ jaw twitched but he made a short bow with his head, “As you wish, Highness, though I dislike such a waste of life.”
“All war is a useless waste of life, my Captain.” Aramaes murmured gently.
“Are you nervous?” Nylene asked as they passed through the halls of Metamor.
Elvmere let go of the edge of his acolyte’s robe and took a deep breath. “A little. It has been months since I was last here. I’ve only seen a few familiar faces and I’m grateful that they haven’t noticed me. I want my return to be unheralded and unregarded.” He glanced at the familiar grey walls decorated with tapestries and banners. “Still, Lothanasa Raven will know me. And news of what I’ve done will spread quickly. I try not to but I do fear what others will think. I don’t want to cause them scandal in their faith.”
Nylene nodded and let her eyes wander across the hall. A pair of beastly soldiers walked past, a boar and a bear. Her face warmed at the sight. “I have long hoped to see Metamor, Elvmere. It is with gravest regret that I must leave so soon. This city was once a place of pilgrimage for Lothanasi faithful.”
“Having come of age so close to the most holy of sites it is harder for me to imagine a pilgrimage. Now that option is very nearly closed to me because of this.” He gestured at his animal shape. “If not for your kindness and that of Master Elsevier, I would never have made my way back here.”
“And you may never leave again,” Nylene reminded him.
“Aye,” the raccoon admitted. “I might never see land beyond the Metamor valley again. But would that make me so different from many men who never see beyond the borders of their village or some even their farm?”
“No, it wouldn’t.” Nylene paused briefly to admire a particularly exquisite casement filled with banners and reliquaries. She shook her head. “And these are merely left for any to walk past?”
“Kyia would never let any find them who would steal them. They are perfectly safe in the open.” He glanced at the shelves and noted a small statue fashioned from jade into what he thought was the head of a raccoon. But they turned the corner too soon for him to have a good enough look to be certain.
Somewhere in his things he still had the small stone worked by Murikeer into the visage of Patriarch Akabaieth. His dreams had once shown him a similar stone with his face instead, a face with brilliant eyes of agate that had hinted at his inevitable transformation into a raccoon. The thought was at once bold and frightening like a bolt of lightning splitting the night sky. But now it was difficult to imagine any other way to be.
He idly wondered how much else in his life had prepared him for this or pointed him toward this end.
Nylene however seemed a little unsettled. “Do you know where you’re going?”
“The Keep usually takes you where you want to go. I’ve been trying to think of the Lothanasi Temple. I haven’t been there much but I know we haven’t missed it. Maybe the Keep wanted us to have a little time first before we arrived?”
Nylene nodded and let her eyes wander the walls. “It must be strange for you to think that the walls themselves are alive.”
“After a fashion,” Elvmere said. “Not like we are at least. But I’ve never felt uncomfortable here. Unsettled and frightened, yes. But never uncomfortable.”
“I’m rather taken by the notion,” Nylene admitted with a broad smile. She lifted her arms as if to brush her fingers across the ceiling which she could never hope to reach. “It’s appealing to know that the walls are your friend and ally too. I’m used to the walls having ears but I worry what those ears will do to me. This is different.” She leaned against him for a moment and laughed a light note. “Ah, I feel twenty years younger since leaving Silvassa. I must go back, but if nothing else, you’ve done more for me than I can ever repay.”
Elvmere checked the words that first wished to escape at the back of his throat. All that came out was a warm churr. He glanced up and felt a surge of relief and a new wave of trepidation. Before them stood the doors to the Lothanasi temple.
There were two Keepers standing guard dressed in the blue livery of Thomas’s guards. They crossed their spears at Elvmere and Nylene’s approach. “What business have you in the temple?” the first, an older human man, asked. His voice was kind but laced with a faint suspicion healthy in a guard.
Nylene put one finger to Elvmere’s snout to keep him from speaking. The raccoon blinked in surprise but said nothing. “My name is Priestess Nylene hin’Lofwine of Silvassa. I have just arrived at Metamor after a long voyage over land and sea. I and Acolyte Elvmere seek an audience with Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric.”
The man noted the priestess but gave Elvmere a curious stare. The raccoon kept his eyes lowered. “Very well. You will wait here until summoned.” He opened the door and slipped inside to deliver the message.
Elvmere wondered at the guard. They’d not been there before when last he’d been to the temple. Admittedly, that was over a year ago, but it still seemed odd to him. What had happened in his absence? Surely they were not still reeling from last Winter’s assault. There was much reconstruction still needing to be done from what he’d seen on the way to Metamor, but Master Derygan hadn’t said anything about another attack.
The man returned promptly and held the door open. “You may go in. Lothanasa Raven is in her study. Take the first left after entering the temple hall, and then turn right. You’ll see where. Lothanasa Raven requests that you go directly to her study.”
She bowed her head and smiled. “Thank you.”
The guard grunted but he and his companion uncrossed their spears.
Nylene crossed the threshold first with Elvmere dutifully following behind. The entrance hall to the temple was as he recalled it, plastered from floor to ceiling with ancient Elvish calligraphy. He couldn’t read Elvish, but he recalled the junior priestess Merai telling him that the script detailed the history and lore of the Pantheon that he was only beginning to understand. At the end of the hallway was an apse and from there the doors to the main temple hall stood open.
Elvmere noted Nylene’s delighted smile as she passed into the plain grey stone chamber of the temple hall. The arched ceiling rose high overhead, though not nearly so high as in St. Kephas’s Cathedral in Yesulam. Still, it lifted the mind to thoughts of those heavenly beings that brought their favour to mankind. Elvmere let his eyes wander upwards then down past the altar with its twin cross, then along the floor over the covered fire pit, and then back to Nylene who stood rapt by the site. Several white robed acolytes tended the stone, and a solitary hawk perched in prayer toward the middle of the room.
“We should continue,” Elvmere whispered through the priestess’s greying hair. She only smiled in response and turned to the first door on the left. Beyond was another passage with more Elvish script along the walls. A door stood at the end of the hall and another at it’s left. The passage continued to the right. After turning, they saw an arched entranceway leading into the Lothanasa’s study.
Inside, sitting behind a large oaken desk was the wolf priestess herself. Her face was more humanoid than many Keepers, complete with long back hair that billowed in contrast to her light grey fur. Standing to her side was the feline junior priestess Merai. Merai also bore a shock of hair in addition to her tawny fur, but it was straighter and firmer than a woman’s and seemed to feather at the tips. Both were dressed in white clerical garb and their eyes fixed on Nylene for only a few moments. Raven rose and gestured with a nearly human hand to a seat opposite her own. “Welcome to Metamor, Priestess Nylene. I am Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric. This is Merai hin’Dana, a priestess of the order for just over a year.”
“It is a great honour to meet you both. I am a priestess in Silvassa and have served there many years. It has long been a hope of mine to see Metamor one day.”
Raven’s face was cold and professional. Elvmere remembered it well. Yet still she hadn’t recognized him. Her golden eyes held Nylene fast. “You have journeyed far from Silvassa. You are welcome to stay as long as you must here at the temple. Merai will show you where you can eat, sleep, and pray. Forgive the presence of the guards, they belong to the Duke. We will be celebrating his wedding here in a few days and he is reasonably concerned that foreigners may attempt to intervene.” Unspoken went the implication that Nylene may be such a foreigner.
Nylene took no offence. Her smile was both gracious and grateful. “The timing of my visit is pure serendipity. My real reason was to escort Elvmere back to Metamor.” She gestured to the raccoon.
Both wolf and cat turned their heads and really noted him for the first time. Almost within a breath’s span their eyes widened in recognition. Merai blurted, “Bishop Vinsah! What are you doing here?”
Elvmere sighed and shook his head. “That is no longer my name nor my title. Shortly after my arrival in Yesulam I was excommunicated for heresy and stripped of my ecclesiastical authority.”
Both of them shook with such surprise that it seemed they’d been slapped. Raven let drop her mask of ice and lowered her eyes. “I am truly sorry to hear that. You have friends, Vinsah, friends who will protect you here in Metamor from any who would seek to take the Ecclesia’s punishment farther.”
“That is not what worries me,” Elvmere replied. “And my name is now Elvmere. It is the name given to me to accompany my new body and my new life. And all signs and turns of this life have brought me here to you, Lothanasa. I seek to serve this temple as an acolyte.”
Merai blurted in stupefied wonder, “Why? Just because you were excommunicated?”
“That was but one event among many that led me to this decision. I do not do this lightly. Nor do I expect most will understand. None may understand, but it is still the decision I have made.”
Raven frowned and lowered her snout to her hands crossed before her. “And how did you come to this decision?” She turned back to Nylene and her frown deepened. “Forgive me, priestess, but in this matter I would like to speak to him alone. Merai will show you the temple now.”
Nylene nodded and moved toward the door with only a single backward glance at the raccoon. The feline priestess paused as if torn. She stared at Elvmere with an almost hurt look on her face as she finally followed Nylene out. The door shut behind them like a book slamming.
Raven gestured to the chair. “Sit... Elvmere.” He did so. “You are asking something very difficult of me. You were once a high ranking official in a rival faith. If I allow this, it will engender distrust even amongst my own people here at Metamor.”
“It may,” Elvmere admitted with a nod. “I am not blind to the difficulty I’ve created. But it is where I know I’ve been led.”
“Excommunication, if I remember what Father Hough told me, only means you are not to participate in Patildor services. Why would you, as the Ecclesia will see it, apostize?”
Elvmere frowned. “I do not think I am apostizing but I know most will see it that way. I am not turning my back on Yahshua and his Ecclesia. I am not turning at all. I believe that the Pantheon is real and serves a vital purpose in aiding the Lothanasi in their lives and protecting them from the ravages of darkness. Service in your temple does not conflict because they are not gods in the same sense that Eli, whom you know as Illuvatar, is.”
Raven leaned back in her seat and tapped her snout with one claw. “You present a very thorny theological suggestion. If I let you serve you may be forced to adopt different beliefs or act contrary to the interests of the Lothanasi. Knowing that, why should I let you serve?”
“Because I am offering myself to you.”
“Though your conscience may lead you to betray us?”
Elvmere took a deep breath and shook his head. “I don’t see how it could. If that is your fear, grant me as little leeway as you deem fit to keep such a betrayal at bay.”
Raven pondered that for a short time. The lupine never lifted her eyes from the raccoon but her regard did seem to pass through him to something else. Finally, after many long seconds of introspection, she asked, “How long have you known Priestess Nylene?”
“I met her almost six months ago when Malger, Murikeer and I passed through Silvassa. It is she that taught Malger the Lothanasi ways. After my excommunication in Yesulam, I returned to Silvassa — and at one point was smuggled in a grain casket — and there beseeched her protection. She left Silvassa at considerable personal risk in order to escort me here. It seems that she is not trusted by the Lothanas of Silvassa and had an acolyte spying on her. Since we left Silvassa, she has begun teaching me the Lothanasi ways.”
Raven narrowed her eyes as if debating whether to speak. Eventually she shook her head and rose. “Although I do this with the gravest of concerns, I am going to allow you to serve as an acolyte here, Elvmere. I will take you to the Mistress of Acolytes, Celine, and she will show you where you may sleep and how you will serve. But I make two conditions on your service: you do not leave the temple without my permission, nor do you accept visitors without my permission.”
Elvmere sighed inwardly but nodded. “I agree to your terms, Lothanasa. But would you allow me one boon this night.”
“Allow me to visit Father Hough. Word will reach him soon enough. I’d rather he hear this from my tongue than from any other.”
Raven took a single breath and nodded. “Tonight you may visit him in secret.”
“Thank you, Lothanasa.”
“I will also do what I can to keep news of your return to Metamor from spreading. At least until your faith has finished its celebration of Yahshua’s birth. After that I can make no promises.”
“There is no need. What you offer is more than I would have asked.”
Her eyes narrowed as she stood and set both hands on the table before her. Her presence was very commanding and Elvmere felt a little bit humbled as he sat with tail tucked against his legs. “Acolyte, you will follow me. We will have your oaths taken soon but understand this. You will do all that I command from now on. No questions and no hesitations. Only obedience. Do you understand?”
“Good.” She turned to the door and glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “Now come.”
The new acolyte of the Lothanasi order of Metamor rose to follow his new leader. Elvmere trembled with each step.
Book 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