The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LXVII - To Kill a Sondecki

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

The morning dawned late, grey and for the miasma of the swamp, cool. But the Keepers and their allies had been awake for over an hour by then. Their tents were packed and put away. A meagre meal filled their stomachs. Weapons waited ready at their side. Those from Metamor all bore their spider-silk armour. Despite the length of their journey, not a one of them had a weary eye. Too much was at stake for that on this day, the Winter Solstice, when all was to be decided.

“Everyone ready?” Jerome asked. The Sondecki was dressed in black tunic and breeches with the clan symbol embroidered along the collar and cuffs. Though stained on both legs and across the chest and back from mud and cobwebs they were also the cleanest things he had.

“In a moment,” James said. The donkey draped his tunic over a tall rock and tightened the buckles on his spider silk vest. “Sorry,” he said as he wriggled his shirt back on.

“Wait,” Jessica said and hopped closer to the donkey. She brushed one wing across the stone and gazed at it hard. “This stone looks odd.”

“Let me see,” Charles said. He started to walk toward it when a hand arrested him. Though old it seemed to possess a strength beyond its physical flesh. The rat turned and saw Qan-af-årael shake his head. “What is it?”

The Åelf motioned for Jessica and James to step back and said, “We have reached the boundaries of the ancient city of Jagoduun. This is all that remains of what may have been a way station.”

“You don’t know?” James asked in surprise.

“I was born many generations after the fall of Jagoduun. No one who has ventured this far has ever returned alive, or at least, was not corrupted and a slave to Marzac.” Qan-af-årael sighed heavily and shook his head. “These stones have lived in this desolation for a long time. It is not safe to touch them very long. And it would be unwise to intrude upon them, Matthias. They would not welcome you.”

The rat glanced at the tall stone, swallowed, and pet the vine cris-crossing his chest. “Won’t we see more of these? Don’t we have to go into the Chateau?”

“Yes, we will risk ourselves. But let us not do so until we must.”

“Good point,” the rat admitted.

Jerome drummed his fingers against one leg. “Are we ready then?”

“Let’s get this over with,” Lindsey muttered and hefted his axe over one shoulder. Nobody objected.

After they’d killed the black bird, the swamp had given way to rolling ground thick with trees, vines, ferns, and other assorted plant-life. The stretches of marshy water were almost completely gone. The mugginess still clung to the air, but for the first time since the Rheh had left them they found their path an easy one.

Despite this, all of them felt a growing sense of unease. As the ground hardened, so too did their sense of something ahead of them. It was nebulous at first, but what they first took for a whimsy brought on by anxiety soon grew into something more tangible. Its most salient characteristic at first was its mere presence. Unlike a fantasy, this they could not will away. Even when thinking of other things, when offering prayers, when counting tree limbs they passed, it remained there as certain as a lodestone.

As they walked they noticed more and more stones like the one James had discovered that morning. Some were narrow like obelisks sunk into the earth. Others were broad and flat but they couldn’t tell if they were part of an ancient building, a road, or something else entirely. The stones were at first covered by moss, but as the day wore on and the sun burned away the earlier mist, the moss too dwindled until bare rock was exposed smooth and untouched. Grey with lines of verdigris cavorting over their surface, they beckoned and repulsed with equal intensity.

Charles especially had to steer clear of those wardens. Whenever their path led them past a collection of stones standing like a crown arising out of the earth, he felt his flesh harden into the familiar granite and his toes would dig into the ground. He wrapped his fingers all the tighter about the vine and sniffed the air. Though it stank with a fetid odour he couldn’t name, it reminded him of his flesh and kept the stone at bay. When the temptations grew too severe he grabbed the amulet meant to protect him from corruption and let its corners dig into his palm until they drew blood.

After passing one particularly long stretch of stone, Abafouq broke down in tears and beat his fists against the ground. Everyone turned to see what was wrong, while Guernef nudged the little Binoq with his beak. Kayla knelt down next to him and wrapped one arm around his back. She glared at the Nauh-kaee who backed off a pace. “Are you all right?” she asked.

Abafouq put his hands to his face and shook his head. “So much wrong! So much hate. They... they never listened to me. It... It says they will listen to me if I swear to it. Help me! The fear in me is greater than I know.” He shuddered into Kayla’s arms, even as Jessica approached and lowered one wing to brush across the amulet dangling from Abafouq’s neck.

“What’s happening?” Kayla asked.

“The same thing happening to all of us,” the hawk replied angrily. “The corruption is breaking down our protection.”

“I’ve been feeling terrible temptations,” James admitted. “Maybe Abafouq is talking about his people?”

The Binoq shot the donkey a hideous glare. “Do not speak of them! They...” the anger in his eyes faded to misery again. “Oh Guernef help me!”

“His amulet is weak,” Jessica said. “Help me and we can give it some strength.”

Charles and the other warriors kept a careful watch while Jessica, Guernef, and Qan-af-årael knelt over Abafouq and each touched the amulet with wing, beak, or hand. A few minutes of quiet words and gentle touches brought the struggling Abafouq to stillness and dried his tears. At last, he nodded his head, face grave but clear, and said, “I thank you. I feel ready again. This corruption is terrible. We need to watch each other before it strikes again.”

“Agreed,” Qan-af-årael said with a strange edge of wariness to his voice. “Let us waste no more time. The Chateau is near.”

He didn’t have to say that for them to know it. The presence that loomed ahead of them was now so concrete that they could feel outlines in the sky marking its extent. Charles fancied he could make out a silhouette through the trees, a silhouette formed not by shadows but from pure weight. A parapet there, a long wall there, all of it seemed to grow both in shape and in menace as they walked.

Charles also felt that presence that taunted Abafouq lurking at the edge of his mind. Images flashed through his mind of his triumphal return to Sondeshara. He saw himself wresting the robe of white from the coward Yoenel and donning it himself. And then he would truly put an end to the tragedies begun under the previous White, Brothus, the very man who had driven Charles from the order to begin with. And then... Charles shook his head and banished the thoughts from his mind. The voice wanted him to be the very monster he hated.

He recalled his efforts to think of Kimberly to ward off the corruption, but knew better than to do that. It was best to think of nothing at all. Any thought at all could give their enemy the chance to drive them to evil. Thoughts of his faith were turned against him. Even the Song of the Sondeck availed him nothing. He jumped from one thought to the next, trying only to put one paw before the other on their way.

The weight ahead of them pulsed with a seething anger. Charles felt as if he were about to step over some abrupt edge and fall into a pit without bottom. There was something other than a castle ahead of them. He could sense a crack in the earth, some chasm into which nothing could come out alive. It stretched impossibly far and never reached its end. The mere thought of it sends shivers down the rat’s tail. He closed his eyes and forced himself to take the next step. And then the next one. And the one after that. And walked right into James.

“Sorry about that, I...” the words died on his tongue as soon as he opened his eyes. They had all stopped to stare, not a one of them daring to utter a word. Where James and Jerome stood the mangrove trees stopped. A broad plain bereft of any grass lay before them. The earth was parched and cracked like many places near the Darkündlicht mountains he’d known in his youth.

In the middle of the field stood a rather unimposing castle fashioned from yellow brick. It was replete with squat towers domed with febrile gray tiling like a giant hat. Ivy crawled up the walls, chocking windows and clogging the battlements. What few windows they could see stared at them like empty eyes, dark and open. There were no panes and there was only a solitary door in the base of the castle so unremarkable that it was almost unnoticeable. Charles was reminded of the cities of the Boreaux in Kitchlande. Those had been quaint, humble, but full of zest and good cheer.

This place, despite everything wholesome in its appearance, seemed more a blight on the land than the parched earth. This, the Chateau Marzac, was unutterably evil. And every one of them could feel the malevolence poisoning the air like a virulent haze on a hot summer day.

“It is nearly noon,” Qan-af-årael said and his voice broke the stranglehold the Chateau had over their eyes. One by one they turned to the ancient Åelf and then glanced into the sky. The sun hung to the south over the castle high in the sky. Charles had grown used to the winter skies in Metamor and to see the sun as high as it was made it difficult to truly believe they’d reached the Solstice.

“That’s it then?” Lindsey asked. There was a hint of disappointment in his voice, but Charles knew that the northerner was putting on false bravado. Whether for himself or for the others the rat wasn’t sure.

“That is the Chateau Marzac,” Qan-af-årael replied. “We need to find the entrance to the ancient city of Jagoduun that lays beneath it.”

“The whole city’s down there?” Kayla asked.

“Not according to what I have read,” Abafouq replied. The Binoq appeared much calmer than he’d been only a short while before. He rubbed his fingers over the talisman at his neck. “Only a few places survived the destruction. Those places built by the Åelf prince.”

“By Yajakali,” Charles said. Both Qan-af-årael and Andares lowered their eyes at the mention of the name. Abafouq frowned for a moment and then nodded.

“There is no need to keep waiting,” Habakkuk said softly. The kangaroo kept one hand pressed to his side and generally avoided the looks others gave him. Ever since the night he’d burst into tears after Lindsey had gone to speak with him he’d said very little to any of them. There was a distance in his eyes that refused to go away. But for the moment he appeared to live in the present. “Our enemies certainly won’t wait. Now I don’t think they have left any traps for us on the plain but we should be cautious.”

“I’ll go first,” Jerome offered. Nobody objected. With great care, the Sondecki stepped past the line of trees and gingerly set his foot down on the parched earth. It cracked and crunched beneath his boot, but no trap sprung on him. He stepped over each crack one by one. Once he was a good twelve paces out and nothing had struck him dead, the others followed him, being careful to only step where he stepped. But their eyes ever strayed to the old and crumbling citadel. Its empty windows watched them with a cold, indifferent regard.

Charles held his breath as he hopped one foot at a time over the jagged earth. Even though they’d run short enough on supplies that he could be two footed again, he still felt nervous each time a toe claw clipped a mound of dirt.

Behind him, James cried out in surprise as the dirt spat and a gust of hot air thrust through where his hoof had trod a moment before. All of them stopped as the donkey tottered and windmilled his arms. The gust of air passed leaving a black hoof-shaped hole. Charles reached out an arm and grabbed his friend’s sleeve. “Hold on!” the rat hissed through his teeth. The vine wound around his arm and over the donkey’s to help.

Uncertainly, James set his hoof down in the centre of another patch of earth. It sank with a hissing sigh but did not erupt. “Thank you,” James gasped, his eyes still mesmerized by the simmering effusion.

“What’s happened to this land?” Kayla asked as her gaze went from hole to Chateau.

“A taste of what will happen if we fail, perhaps?” James suggested.

“No,” Habakkuk intoned ruefully. His eyes stared wide at the ground. He perched on the tips of his long feet, a position that made him sway dangerously from side to side. Lindsey stood behind him and kept the kangaroo steady. “That would be much worse.”

Andares hissed. “The door is waiting. Keep moving.” He gestured with the point of his ivory-handled sword. The solitary door in the yellow edifice seemed to disappear into shadow as if it were opening.

Jerome continued leading them through the barren field of cracked earth. Charles made sure James was okay before turning and following his fellow Sondecki. The vine wrapped tighter about his chest as if huddling in for warmth. He gingerly patted it with his fingers and swallowed the lump building in his throat. The walls of the Chateau loomed higher and higher and its abandoned towers glared down at them. Charles lowered his eyes to the ground and tried to keep his focus on his steps and nothing else.

“The door’s open,” Jerome said. Charles looked up and swallowed again. Before the door was a sloping set of nine steps that led down to the ground. The steps showed no signs of wear even after the centuries. On each step was a single symbol inscribed. The first symbol was of a curly line with two slashes through it. Each next symbol grew more and more complex until the final one was a set of curves intersecting and cris-crossing so many times that their eyes hurt just looking at it.

“I’ve seen that before!” Kayla exclaimed gesturing at the first symbol.

“As have I,” Jessica added, folding her wings behind her back. “They were on the censer. Wessex had notes studying them.”

“I saw them in Anef’s journal,” the skunk said softly. “I think he was one of the human wizards who... who...”

“Who aided the sieging army that Yajakali destroyed,” Andares finished for her. “These marks are recent.”

“Is anyone else concerned that the door is open?” Jerome asked, his voice strained and tense. He pulled his hands close and stared past the opening. Charles stepped to his side and James moved in closer behind him. The interior of the entrance huddled in shadow. The rat could discern the faint outlines of furniture, tables and chairs, but no walls.

“They know we’re coming,” Charles said. He rolled his Sondeshike in his paws. “We have to go in. Jerome and I will go first. James, Andares, Lindsey, you cover our backs.”

“We’ll follow,” Jessica said and lifted one talon. “We’ll need magic to survive this place.”

Charles nodded glumly, extended his Sondeshike and blew a prayer into his paws. Jerome put one foot on the steps, leaned onto it, and then when nothing happened breathed a sign of relief. He took the steps one at a time, being careful not to step on the chevrons. Charles followed him up. The donkey stayed so close to him that he nearly stepped on the rat’s tail. Lindsey and Andares came up next, the northerner brandishing his axe, the Åelf his ivory-handled blade.

Jerome paused as he reached the door. Nothing stirred beyond and there was no sound from the swamp. All was in somnolent repose. Charles slid up beside his fellow Sondecki and prodded the shadowy entrance with one of the brass ferules of his Sondeshike. Nothing happened.

The two Sondeckis glanced at each other, nodded, and jumped through. The interior was not as dark as they had supposed. Lamps were lit along the walls bringing a sepulchral gloom into the lightly apportioned chamber. A high vaulted ceiling disappeared into the darkness, while the scattered remnants of tables and chairs that had once been opulent stretched to the walls on all sides. Open doorways stood in each wall.

Behind them, James stepped through the doorway. “Do you see anything?” he asked in a whisper.

“No,” Charles admitted and turned. Something emerged from the shadows behind the open door. A very familiar man dressed in black. “James! Look out!”

The donkey jumped forward on instinct. Lindsey and Andares ran forward but were thrown back when the door slammed shut. The black-clad man spread his fingers across the middle of the door and a dark fire swarmed over the surface. The flame rose and descended, twisting like a churning maelstrom at sea. Crimson and orange, black and yellow, all mixed together and the heat of it seared their flesh. Charles and Jerome backed up while James crawled further into the room even as the tuft of his tail blackened from the heat.

Charles stepped between his friend and the black-clad man who now turned to face them. Dark eyes sunk in shadow peered with faint melancholy back at him. “Krenek!” the rat spat. “What are you doing?”

Krenek Zagrosek let his hands fall to his waist. “I was hoping that someone other than you two would be the first to walk through that door.”

“Open the door, Krenek,” Jerome said as he took a few steps to one side.

Zagrosek watched him out of one eye. He gestured at the door and the wall of flame seemed to reach toward him with a thick protrusion. “The door will open by itself. Your friends outside will not be able to get through. Even if they break down the door the fire will kill them before yielding to their spells.”

“It reminds me,” Charles said as he held his Sondeshike tightly, “of the Shrieker.”

“Yes,” Zagrosek admitted. His face was already slick with sweat from standing so close to the flame. Yet, neither did his hair singe nor did his clothes smoulder. “It is something the Underworld gave me to aid it.”

“Let it go, Krenek.” The rat spun his Sondeshike once. “Any of the Marquis’s allies I would gladly kill. Not you. Please don’t make us do this.”

Zagrosek sighed and tapped his thumbs together. He eyed Jerome who continued to try to circle around behind him. “I would rather not have to kill you either, Charles, Jerome. You have been my friends the whole of my life. I would die for you if it would let me. But... someone has to die. And when someone does this door will disappear. Of course, I won’t be allowing anyone access to the Marquis.”

“Shrieker fire or not,” Jerome spat, “we will stop you.”

“You are forgetting something, Jerome,” Zagrosek said with a faint laugh. “We are both Sondeckis. You know as well as I do that if we kill one another, it will cost us our own life.”

“If it means your death,” Charles replied, “there would be no more fitting way to give our lives.”

Zagrosek laughed. “You are a new father, Charles. Don’t lie to me. I know you won’t sacrifice yourself like this. Even now you’re trying to think of some way around the inevitable.” Charles grunted but didn’t say anything. He knew in his heart that his old friend was right. He didn’t want to give his life. All he wanted was to go back to the Glen to be with Kimberly and his children. He pressed his tongue against the back of his incisors, felt the vine tighten about his chest, and kept a firm grip on his Sondeshike.

“And Jerome, if you die, you know Yoenel will send somebody else to find Charles, somebody less inclined to protect him or his family for his betrayal to the Sondecki. You need to survive to keep them safe.” Zagrosek grinned and let slip his compact Sondeshike from his sleeve. He twirled it between his fingers and shook his head. “Besides,” Zagrosek continued, “like I said, I don’t want to kill you. Either of you.” His eyes slid to the figure crouching behind the rat. “Which is why I let him in. That’s right, donkey. You I can kill.”

Charles spun the Sondeshike faster and interposed himself between James and their enemy. “You will not touch him! James, run! We’ll keep him away from you.”

The donkey nodded, the whites showing in his eyes as he stared at Zagrosek. He scrambled to his hooves, glanced about, and ran through the passage opposite the door of flame.

“That won’t work,” Zagrosek chided without much enthusiasm. “You cannot keep me from him forever.”

“Long enough for our friends to break through,” Jerome said. Step by step he worked his way toward Zagrosek’s back. “You may say they will not get through, but I say you do not know their strength.”

Zagrosek turned toward Jerome and began backing up. “I was there when the Marquis subdued you all with a flick of his wrist. I have no reason to fear the power of any of your friends. Come now. Like old times. Let us fight.” He flicked his wrist and the Sondeshike extended. He spun it once over his shoulders, around his back, then held it before him in a familiar Sondecki fighting stance. Legs spread wide, with one hand gripping the middle of the Sondeshike and the other held to the side, fingers spread wide and palm empty.

Charles ground his teeth together, lifted high his Sondeshike, and with Jerome at his side, charged his old friend.

James gasped for breath as he ran from one empty room to another. He constantly looked for any avenue of escape. He well remembered what Zagrosek did to Rickkter in the Metamor belfry six months ago. Charles, Angus, and even Misha complimented the donkey on his swordsmanship. Just five seconds of watching the raccoon fight had shown him how meagre his skills truly were. He wouldn’t last even that long against Zagrosek.

The Chateau seemed to be a maze of bare interconnected rooms all alike. Somewhere behind him he could hear the clash of metal on metal. He pumped his legs and struck his hooves solidly against the floor. He had to run faster. Surely there had to be a way out of this labyrinth. There had been windows all over the Chateau’s façade.

The many rooms were not completely empty. Remnants of furniture dotted all of them, and a few even bore rugs and tapestries that showed no signs of neglect. Not even dust layered them. Had the Marquis brought these with him, or had the Chateau itself preserved them for its own purposes? The rooms seemed so arbitrary he wondered if it were not also like Metamor with a variable geometry. What if it led him right back to Zagrosek?

James brought himself to a stop and put one hand on the door frame. No door stood there anymore. Even the stone flaked when he put his weight on it. He glanced behind him and shuddered when he saw the trail of hoof-prints through half-shattered gloss. Zagrosek would find him easily even if this place were a maze! He may as well have left a trail in ink.

The donkey took a moment to breath, but failed to slow down his pounding heart. His ears lifted and turned to follow the sounds of the battle. At least there still was a battle. He needed every moment to find an escape. Where were all the windows? And where were the stairs? He’d seen no sets going up or down. Hadn’t Qan-af-årael said they would need to go down into the earth beneath the Chateau?

But first, he needed to do something about his hooves. He slipped his pack from his shoulders and rifled through the contents. Taking his spare tunic and knife, he cut it down the middle. Unsteadily, he balanced on one hoof while tying the cloth over the other. His breath came in ragged gasps and his eyes watered from anxiety, but he managed to cover both hooves.

He took a few careful steps and felt a bit of relief to see the stone hold together. He still wanted to run, but he couldn’t do that just yet. Besides, with as many shadows as there were around him, that evil Sondecki could just emerge from them no matter where he ran.

James grunted under his breath and scouted the room. There were doorways on all four sides leading to rooms that looked much the same. Except for the room on the right. It looked to have once been an exquisite ballroom or church though the upper arches were now hidden by a flat wooden ceiling. Large draperies dominated the far wall, while suits of armour lined the near wall. To his surprise many of them were still in good shape, and a few even looked freshly polished.

The donkey ignored them and made his way to the draperies. A rope on the right led to a pulley system above, while other ropes were fastened taut to the wall nearby. They disappeared into the wooden ceiling. James ignored them and with a heave pulled the drapery rope. The massive curtains parted to reveal a huge shaft of sunlight. The sun spread across the floor so brightly he had to shield his eyes.

In the distance he could still hear the clang of metal on metal. Before him was a huge window, the panes long since worn away. James stared out at the cracked ground beneath the window ledge and the swampy mangroves in the distance. He stuck his head out and glanced to either side but saw none of his friends. They must all still be on the north face of the Chateau.

Glancing down, he saw it was at least a ten foot drop to the ground below. He shuddered at the memory of the geyser that had nearly blasted his leg away. He walked over to the pair of taut ropes attached to the wall and with his sword shore one of them at head height. The room groaned sullenly as he cut the rope free from the wall.

Tying one end of the rope around the metal fixtures that had once held the panes in place, he tossed the other end out the window. Except it fell one foot and collected in a pile in mid-air. Bewildered, James reached out a hand. He could grab the rope, but no matter how hard he pushed, he couldn’t get past it. He didn’t even feel resistance to his efforts. It was like trying to grab the sun. The ground and everything he saw outside was infinitely beyond his reach.

James swore and felt the fear returning to his heart. He tossed the rope to the ground and ran through the one other doorway in the room. A trail of stone chips followed every step of his hooves.

While Abafouq, Andares and the rest did what they could to break down the door, Jessica took to the air to find another entrance to the Chateau. A quick circuit of the Chateau was enough to prove that there were no more doors. But there were numerous windows, most of them too high to be useful. There were a few closer to the ground that with the aid of magic they might climb in. Jessica turned her wings on the still air and glided toward a particularly promising window. Wide and tall, it neared the ground on the eastward side only a short walk from the entrance now closed to them.

Though she could feel the air sliding over her feathers, the nearer to the window she came the slower it approached. Finally, after several minutes of hanging in the air without having to pump her wings, Jessica realized that she couldn’t reach the window at all! She could see beyond a room abandoned and empty, but she couldn’t actually reach it.

Not one to give up, Jessica pumped her wings and circled upwards into the sky. What few clouds there were shoved off to the southeast. There were no other birds in the air for miles. Jessica tried not to think of her isolation as she climbed higher and higher. When she was nothing but a speck in the eyes of her friends, she turned down her head and beheld the Chateau and that single large window on the east face. With a twist of her body she dived.

The air rushed over her feathers as the Chateau, so small to her eyes, grew with every moment’s passing. She kept her gaze fixed firmly on the open window as the air rushed past so quickly she felt as if she were nothing but an ordinary hawk diving for prey. And then, as the world rushed to greet her, she turned her wings outwards and careened right for the open window.

The air continued to rush past with titanic strength, her poise firm and the envy of any falconer. The window was as clear before her as it had been before, but like before, it remained impossibly out of reach. Though she felt as if she were falling at full speed, she hung motionless in the air arrested by whatever power ensnared the windows. With a careful turning of her wings, Jessica slowed herself, or at least, slowed the rush of air past her. The empty window stared at her without interest.

Jessica reached for the sight of magic and watched as the window, once so clear, simply disappeared into an impenetrable and tightly wound mass of dark energy. She pumped her wings and drew away from the wall of force holding her back. Scanning to either side, she saw that the Chateau itself appeared to be an oblong shell of magic whose interior was completely severed from everything that lay outside. A subtle illusion danced across its surface.

She couldn’t reach the window because it didn’t exist!

Jessica screeched in frustration and pumped her wings. She rose above the Chateau, and saw that the roof was the same Where once there had been terraces now she saw only a tightly bound web of magic. Flying to the north she stared at the door and noted the way the shield of magic bent inwards. Did this nebulous force extend inside the Chateau too? What sort of magic was it? She could see what it accomplished but not how it had been cast or how to negate it.

She glided down to where her friends fought against the door and shook her head. She gingerly landed on the parched ground and grew in size. “There’s no other way in. None of the windows are real. The inside of the Chateau connects to our world only through this door.”

“Then we have worse news,” Abafouq grunted. The Binoq wiped sweat from his forehead and glared at the door. The wooden exterior was shattered in several places, revealing a crawling black flame behind it. “This door we can destroy. But the spell behind it will yield only to death.”

“So there’s nothing we can do?” Jessica asked, eyes wide and furious.

“Nothing,” Andares admitted. He sheathed his sword and stepped back from the chiselled door. “We must wait for someone to die.”

“But it’s just three of us against who knows how many in there!” Kayla objected. Her long tail flicked anxiously. “I want to help them!”

“So do we all,” Lindsey grunted. “But you heard them. There’s nothing we can do.”

“We can pray,” Habakkuk breathed. The kangaroo lowered his head and folded his paws before him. The corners of his snout twitched with whispered words. Lindsey grunted, but joined him. Guernef lowered his head while Abafouq buried his face in the Nauh-kaee’s furry flanks. The two Åelf lifted their heads back and sang a haunting melody so thin that it hurt their ears. Kayla and Jessica glanced at each other, grimaced, and then bowed their heads to offer their prayers for their friend’s protection.

Zagrosek danced to the side and struck his Sondeshike against the rat’s. He then spun on his heels and swiped the other end of his staff through Jerome’s legs. Jerome jumped and threw a punch narrowly missing the still moving Zagrosek’s face. Charles slashed his Sondeshike at Zagrosek’s suddenly unprotected back, but the man took one more step and with a flick of his wrist, brought his staff back to connect with the rat’s.

Without a moment’s pause, Zagrosek jumped several feet to the side and turned back to face them both. He spun the Sondeshike so fast that his hands became a blur and the staff became a silvery disc with a golden flare at its end. He stepped back toward the far wall, which didn’t bother Charles any as there were no doors in that wall.

“You can’t keep me from him forever, you know,” Zagrosek said with a smirk. “I will kill him sooner or later.”

“No,” Jerome said with a snarl. “You will have to kill one of us first. And then it’s over.” He straightened and walked straight toward the spinning disc. Charles followed him in, staying to one side to keep Zagrosek pinned between them and the wall. He noted that the lanterns on the wall had banished the shadows to only a few corners none of which were near them.

“You have no power here,” Zagrosek sneered. “There is nothing you can do to make me do other than what I want!”

Jerome snorted, and faster than lightning, pummelled Zagrosek’s chest. Each strike passed through the spinning disc completely missing the Sondeshike. Zagrosek fell backwards and spat blood into the disc. It sprayed into Jerome’s face. With a gasp, Jerome took a few steps back to clear his eyes out, while Charles advanced with his Sondeshike.

Charles spun his staff fast enough to make a disc, and holding it over his head, jammed it between Zagrosek’s own. The impact of their staves knocked them backwards. The rat felt a lancing pain shoot up his wrist, arm, and through his shoulder. Zagrosek spat again, and pulled his left arm close to his chest and worked the tension free. Blood dribbled from his lips and his chest heaved. The rat moved in again and sliding beneath Zagrosek’s swing, smacked the end of his Sondeshike into the side of the man’s ribs.

Zagrosek grunted as a rib cracked, but smacked his elbow between the rat’s eyes. Charles ducked his head to one side but couldn’t dodge his one-time friend’s knee as it connected with his gut. The rat tumbled to one side, flailing his free arm above him. He managed to grab the haft of Zagrosek’s staff, and pulled himself upright.

Zagrosek swore as Jerome bore down on him. He let go of his Sondeshike and ran along the length of the wall. Jerome stayed at his heels, but as soon as Krenek reached one of the pools of shadow, he disappeared. Jerome stopped, scanned, and then turned. “Charles!”

Charles turned just in time to see Zagrosek behind him. The black-clad man drove his fist beneath the rat’s snout. Still holding both Sondeshikes, Charles tumbled head over heels through the air to crash onto one of the old tables. The wood splintered and sank beneath him.

While Jerome rushed to his aid and Zagrosek drew back his leg to kick him, Charles pushed himself up with both Sondeshikes, grabbed the edge of the table with his hind paws and thrust forward. The edge of the table shot out beneath the rat to meet the kick, striking Zagrosek just above his ankle. He shouted in surprise and tried to hop backwards. Charles spun the table to one side taking Zagrosek with it. The Sondeckis lost his balance and caught himself with his hands while his foot tried to kick the tabletop free. Charles jumped onto his hind paws and jabbed with both staves.

Zagrosek dropped beneath them and lifted his snagged foot. The tabletop came with it, and Charles had to scamper to one side to avoid being clobbered in the head. Jerome tried to reach for him but Zagrosek swung his leg around the other way. The tabletop struck the big man in the side. Jerome grunted as it cracked in two, but it did make him miss a step. In the fraction of a second it took for both Charles and Jerome to right themselves, Zagrosek was on his feet again, hands at the ready to face them.

Spinning both Sondeshikes, one in each paw, Charles advanced on him. Zagrosek took several careful steps back, eyes flicking from the rat to Jerome, before grinning and smacking his palms together. The concussion was so loud that the walls trembled, flakes of stone sifted, and the rat nearly smacked himself in the head with both Sondeshikes in his hurry to cover his ears.

Jerome jumped between them, grabbing for Zagrosek’s hands. But Zagrosek spread his arms and kicked. Jerome sidestepped the kick and shoved his palm into Zagrosek’s face. With a twist, Zagrosek slid his back across Jerome’s and pushed off. While Jerome struggled to get his feet back under him, Zagrosek reached out and yanked on the Sondeshikes. Charles, his ears still smarting from the concussion, swept both arms backwards. The Sondeshikes slipped free of Zagrosek’s grip, but so too did they fly from the rat.

As the Sondeshikes clattered in the distance, Charles grappled his old friend about the waist. Zagrosek tried to drive his elbow into the rat’s head, but Charles ducked from side to side. From behind, Jerome wrapped and arm around Zagrosek’s neck and yanked backwards. With a strangled gasp, Zagrosek thrust his head back repeatedly but met only air.

“Give it up, Krenek!” Charles snapped as he dug his claws in at his old friend’s sides. Curious, the rib he thought he’d broke felt whole again. He wrapped his tail about Zagrosek’s leg for good measure and held tight, twisting his legs to force the man to the ground.

Just when Charles felt sure they had a hold of him, Zagrosek twisted around in the middle further than any man should be able to twist and then sprang back like a coiled snake. Jerome lost his grip and fell to one side, tripping over the scattered shards of the table to crash into what remained of a lounge.

Charles barely held on as Zagrosek managed to get his feet underneath him again. He pounded both hands on the rat’s shoulders and Charles slipped down a foot. The rat reached behind Zagrosek’s legs with one paw and jabbed his claws repeatedly behind the man’s knees. Zagrosek shuddered and kicked, and Charles felt his ribs groan with each blow.

“You will let go!” Zagrosek snarled and kicked again. His eyes snapped up as Jerome hurled the lounge at his head. Zagrosek punched the wood with both fists and almost managed to stop it. Together, Charles and Zagrosek went down to the ground, the ancient stone crushing beneath their weight. With another punch the black-clad Sondecki upended the lounge and then managed to free one foot.

With a sadistic grin, he kicked at the rat’s head. Charles rolled to one side, his claws still digging into the flesh behind Zagrosek’s knee, and trembled as he felt the vine across his chest shudder and climb off him. Like an eel it slithered over Zagrosek’s chest and coiled around his neck. Zagrosek’s eyes bulged in horrified surprise and he scrambled backwards on his rump, both hands clawing at the vine which tightened and tightened about his neck.

Charles gasped to catch his breath as he watched his vine draw tighter, first three loops, now four about Krenek’s neck. His whole body ached from the fight, and he could feel a sickness in his Sondeck. It truly did not like being used against a fellow Sondecki! But the vine wasn’t part of him anymore. It could kill Zagrosek.

Zagrosek’s face began purpling as the vine squeezed his neck tighter and tighter. The end drew in closer, making a fifth loop around his neck. Zagrosek kicked with his feet, scooting backwards across the floor. His fingers were locked in between the vine and his neck, but it didn’t seem to do him any good.

Jerome saw it first. “Shadow!” Charles glanced at the dark patch just a few feet beyond Zagrosek’s head and his eyes widened in fear. They ran as fast as they could. Zagrosek’s gaze burned with hatred as he kicked and struggled, eyes reddening as his cheeks purpled. And then, even as the vine continued to strangle him, Zagrosek’s pushed himself into the shadow. His whole body glowed a sullen crimson like a fire coming to life, and smoke billowed from his neck.

The vine uncoiled and slithered away, flopping back and forth, one side covered with blackened tissue. “No!” Charles cried, feeling his chest tighten in agony for the vine that had shared his substance, both stone and flesh, for so many months. What few flowers remained were wilted or burnt to ash. It flopped several times before laying still amidst the shattered remnants of the tabletop.

Zagrosek back-flipped into the shadow and instantly vanished. Charles and Jerome turned about and saw their enemy picking up his Sondeshike. His face and neck showed no signs of his struggle. “I told you that you couldn’t keep me from him.” And with an almost nonchalant air, turned around and ran toward the far doorway.

Charles chittered under his breath, rage flaring in his chest, and felt himself swelling in size. Where once two paws had touched the ground now four stood, long claws digging into the stone and chipping its upper surface. His legs tensed, even as his upper torso bent low, and he leapt forward across the broken furniture. With one quick motion he snatched his discarded Sondeshike and with his third bound struck Zagrosek squarely in the back.

Zagrosek sprawled to the ground, dug a huge path of stone shards, and hopped back to his feet. He held his Sondeshike in both hands and grinned at Matthias’s centaur shape. Jerome was at the rat’s side cracking his knuckles a second later. “Well,” Zagrosek admitted. “I guess we have to do this the hard way.”

All three lunged in for attack.

James quickly found himself in a hallway wide enough for only two people to walk side-by-side that ended in a narrow forbidding doorway. The arched opening seemed to hunch forward like a gargoyle watching travellers approach or a mountain lion readying to pounce its prey. He took a deep breath, stilled the terror in his heart, and stepped through.

Beyond he found a wooden staircase spiralling upward. The wood didn’t smell rotten and held firmly when he set his hoof on the first step. Cautiously, he started up the staircase, ever conscious that there was no handrail to guide him. He swayed with each step as he fought to keep his balance. The wood creaked beneath him the higher he went, but it never did more. Twice around the stairs took him before reaching a landing. The stairs continued upward into uncertain shadow.

James glanced into the darkness and decided to get off at the landing. Shadows abounded in corners and along the walls, but the wooden floor was wide enough that he felt he could take a moment to explore. Cautiously he took the few steps around the corner and stared in both surprise and awe.

Although much of the superstructure appeared rotten and ready to collapse, the wooden landing became a path through a maze of immense clockwork gears that towered overhead. At their base suspended by a wooden lattice held secure by interlocking ropes was a set of nine massive brass carillons. As still as bones in a graveyard, the clockwork gears climbed upward into a darkened tower. James had never seen so many gears in such a complicated array. Surely it did more than manage the face of a clock. But they’d seen no clock from the exterior. So what could it be for? Were they merely to time the ringing of the bells?

James didn’t see any torches nearby so knew he would have to return down the stairs. What little light he saw filtered through the floor. He bent down and pressed the side of his head against a small crack between two planks. While his tail dragged back and forth over the ancient wood, he strained to see between the boards. He could see a large swath of light on the stone floor far below but nothing else.

He sat up, saw another larger hole and crossed to it. Through this he saw the window and drapes he’d pulled aside. So, there was some geometric consistency in the Chateau. Were he at Metamor he would have not been able to depend on the room beneath him being the same one moment to the next.

James grunted as he stood again. He brushed his pants off though there was still no dust to sully them. His curiosity for the immense gear machine had calmed his fears, but with the sudden groaning of wood across the platform, all of his anxiety returned like a blow to the chest. His heart pounded so hard that he felt physical pain grip him. His breathing quickened, and his ears lifted alert. He scanned about, grateful for the wider range of vision the Curse had gifted him. To his left the shadows shifted. He stumbled backward until he saw that one of the carillons swayed gently form side to side.

Far from dispelling his fears, that made him turn around and run back down the stairs with a scream barely held tight in his throat.

Now that Charles had opted to attack in his six-limbed mode he was able to match Zagrosek in height. His paws twirled the Sondeshike back and forth to create a sweeping motion from right to left and back again. His old friend matched him as he danced in an ever tightening circle keeping both the rat and his ally at bay with carefully timed swings of his staff. Jerome stayed behind him to keep him from escaping.

All the while they traded blows, Charles pondered the problem of killing Krenek. As painful as the thought of ending the life of this his oldest and dearest companion, a man who was more like a brother to him than any other alive could claim, it was necessary and so he would do it. Prayer and mourning could come later. But they were both Sondeckis. So he had to find some way to indirectly kill Zagrosek. The furnishings were too old to be effective though they were still useful. But only at delaying him. If their friends were going to find a way into the Chateau, they would have done it by now. Deep in his weary heart the rat knew that they were on their own.

Zagrosek had managed to escape the entrance chamber, but he had not followed James very far before he was cornered again by Charles and Jerome. His once arrogant smirk had begun to disappear under a cloud of anger and frustration. That only gladdened the rat’s heart because it meant their efforts were bearing some fruit. But from the growing soreness in his body and the sullen agony he felt in his Sondeck with each new blow he struck, that fruit was paltry indeed.

A sudden shift in the arc of Zagrosek’s Sondeshike snapped the rat’s focus back to the fight. He twisted his massive bulk to one side and met the blow near his right foreleg. At the same time he whipped his tail around and lashed at Zagrosek’s back. Jerome ducked out of the way as the tail zipped over his head. Zagrosek didn’t duck. Instead he swung his staff backward and knocked the tip of the rat’s tail away. Charles gasped in pain as he felt the bone snap. He swung his tail back and lifting up on his hind paws, clawed at Krenek’s back.

One claw did manage to gouge Zagrosek’s black tunic, but only a trickle of blood rewarded him. With a grunt Zagrosek jumped into the rat’s chest and drove his shoulder beneath Charles’s arms. He squeaked in surprise and danced backward with all four legs. His claws caught on the square carpet in the middle of the room as Zagrosek pressed his attack, jabbing with one end of the Sondeshike at his legs and middle and then up at his head. Stumbling, the rat could only defend himself.

Jerome jumped after, and threw lightning-fast punches, but Zagrosek seemed to know where he’d be before Jerome did. With inhuman grace, Zagrosek danced out of reach of the larger man at the last possible moment. The other end of his Sondeshike would then connect with Jerome’s sides or legs. Cursing in agony, Jerome stumbled back and nearly tripped over the edge of the carpet.

Charles ground his teeth together his flews drawn back in frustration revealing his large incisors. Zagrosek had thrown a few punches at them but had not yet struck either. Still, the punches and blows he had landed brought more than enough pain to the rat. He could feel a sharp pain in his tail tip, at least two broken ribs, one in either torso, and more bruises than he dared to count. He could feel a deep burning sensation from the vine but he knew that injury was not his own. He was weakening, slowing down, and Zagrosek could tell. The intense hatred he saw in those eyes were like nothing he’d ever seen from him before. Truly, this was not his lifelong friend anymore.

Charles continued to back up, being careful not to let his claws stick in the old carpet. The design appeared to have once been the stylized shield, flower and robin that marked the house of Boreaux. But the colours were faded and the carpet had snags along its edges and in the middle. Apart from an old dresser whose drawers were missing and what might have once been a bed but now looked like a quartet of impaling spikes held up by crossbeams, the room was empty.

Zagrosek swung his Sondeshike over his head and then brought it down at the rat’s right. Charles swung his Sondeshike around to intercept, and the metal clanged with the blow. Immediately, Zagrosek spun the other end around at the rat’s left, but Charles met it with a quick flick of his wrist. Steel against steel pounded with such a fierce staccato that the rat’s ears rang with a maddening tone.

And then Zagrosek noticed that Jerome hadn’t attacked him in the last two seconds. Casting a quick glance back, both he and Charles watched Jerome grasp one corner of the carpet. With an upward yank, the entire length of the carpet leapt into the air and fell on top of the black clad Sondecki. Charles danced backward off the carpet’s edge as it fell. With quick precision, he grasped the other free corner and threw it too over top of his old friend.

Zagrosek beat at the inside of the carpet with his Sondeshike and quickly tore holes through it. But not before Jerome and the rat leapt on him and pounded both his front and back. And then the air snapped like the crack of a whip and the carpet fell in on itself. Charles spun around a moment too late to dodge the shadowjumper’s kick. It landed right between his lower and upper torso where the vine had once taken root. The pain felt like a knife jabbed into his mind. With a scream he crumpled to the ground arms spread outward.

He vaguely heard Jerome leap over him and the two of them fought. Charles trembled and pushed himself up with his arms. The pain all existed in his taur half. He closed his eyes and visualized himself with only two legs again. The pain forced him back to the ground and made him want to vomit up the little he’d had to break his fast that morning. But he kept the image in his mind of a two-legged rat. He could feel every inch of stone as it slid over his shifting flesh. Every twist of bone scrapping beneath his skin as it drew upward into his chest felt like shards of glass dragged across his face. He hummed the Song of the Sondeck to still the vile rage that burned inside, a rage that yearned for him to beat his Sondeshike into the ground until all around him was dust and ash.

And then the pain was gone. Charles rolled over on his back, blinked, and watched as Jerome and Zagrosek danced and struck at each other with a fluidity that he well knew. Charles flexed his toes and they moved as he willed. The end of his tail was bent wrong, but other than that changing back had healed his paralysing wounds.

Glancing around the room, Charles took note of the dresser. He slipped the Sondeshike under his armpit and with both paws tore the dresser apart one piece at a time. Most of the pieces were fastened with wooden pegs to keep from disfiguring the façade. But the base and the rear each were anchored by iron nails. He grinned and tossed them to the ground so the nails were facing up. He then turned and rushed to where the two Sondeckis grappled.

Zagrosek turned at his approach and jabbed his Sondeshike at the rat’s face. Charles ducked to one side, grabbed the Sondeshike with one paw, and twisted down with all his strength. He poured his Sondeck into motion, flipping the man into the air. Zagrosek cried in alarm as he flipped head over heels through the air. Charles jumped backward and forced the black-clad man down onto the dismantled dresser bottom. He landed with a solid thunk.

Zagrosek blinked in surprise as he tried to get back up but found himself fixed in place. One of the nails had pierced his left side just below the ribs, while a second impaled his right thigh. Two others narrowly missed his head. Charles grimaced at that, grabbed the dresser back and lifted it high over head. Zagrosek lifted his free leg and kicked as the rat brought it down. The wood slipped from Charles’s grasp, but Jerome jumped on it and forced the nail-side down.

With a strangled shout, Zagrosek thrust both of his forearms up and met the wood right between a row of nails. Jerome grunted and pushed down harder. Charles did the same. He felt sick to his stomach but he had to do this. Zagrosek was pinned by the nails and he didn’t have enough shadow to escape through. It was only a matter of time before they drove in the rest.

“You have not... beaten me!” Zagrosek snarled through clenched teeth. The board tipped to one side, and then Zagrosek’s fist punched through the wood and squeezed Jerome’s throat. Jerome gasped and scrabbled at the wood trying to push off. Charles rolled off the other side and when he hit the stone, swung his Sondeshike across the top of Zagrosek’s head. The blow would kill them both and he knew it the moment he struck.

But Zagrosek wasn’t ready to die yet. He tipped the board down on Charles’s side and caught the staff with the nails. He then kicked with his free leg and flipped the board onto Charles’s back. Jerome landed at the rat’s side still gagging and clawing at his neck. Zagrosek put his elbows in the wood beneath him and pushed upwards. With a sickening pop, the nails slid free from his body. Blood pooled beneath him as he rose to his feet. “That was a mistake.”

Charles jumped to his paws and spun his Sondeshike. “I’ve made a few before. Letting you go last winter was one of my worst.”

Zagrosek laughed, then drove toward the rat with renewed ferocity. Charles met each blow as quickly as he could. Zagrosek spun his Sondeshike so fast that it seemed a disc of light. That light blossomed into a brilliant scarlet. Though there were no shadows in the middle of the room, darkness seemed to cling to his flesh. Charles winced as the heat singed his fur. The hand print over his right eye throbbed.

Charles tried to dance around his old friend so Jerome could get behind him. He needn’t have bothered as Zagrosek did not seem interested in escaping anymore. As he spun his Sondeshike over his shoulders, he ripped the ends through the wall next to the doorway they’d come through. The stone seared and shattered, crumbling with a rumble that nearly knocked the rat from his paws. When Zagrosek was finished, the passage was nothing more than a pile of rubble.

One of the stones battered Charles on the left shoulder. He winced and in that moment with his guard down, Zagrosek swept out his left hand and planted it firmly where once a Shrieker had done the same. The rat screamed in agony as the nullity ripped through his mind. He felt the Sondeshike yanked from his grip and a boot kicking him squarely in the chest. He landed on his broken tail joint while the whole world swam in swirls of yellow and red.

Unlike when he’d been touched by the Shrieker, his disorientation passed quickly enough. Only a few seconds after the pain began, Charles was back on his paws, with Jerome at his side. Zagrosek stood in the archway at the other end of the room with both Sondeshikes in his hands. He had a sad smile on his face. “I told you. You cannot stop me.” And then, even as the two ran to catch him, he spun both Sondeshikes against either side of the doorway. The stone shattered and crumbled, the wall falling in on itself and sealing them behind a pile of cracked and tumbled masonry.

“Damn it!” Jerome swore. Charles could see the bruises along his neck purpling. “It’ll take too long to dig through this.”

Charles stared at it then ran to one side. He grabbed the blocks on top and tossed them behind him. They clattered and rolled across the floor, further shattering the stonework. “All I need is a little hole and I can get through. Hurry!”

Jerome nodded and grabbed the stones out of the rat’s reach.

When James returned to the room with the large window and suits of armour he knew he was in trouble. His ears turned this way and that but he couldn’t hear the scrape and clang of steel. What had happened? Was it over? He breathed quickly and with a shaking hand drew his sword. Glancing about, he saw that the brightest place in the room was in front of the faux window. He made his way there and stood with his back to the window. The cloth over his hooves muffled his steps, but in the silence each hoof-fall sounded like the beat of a drum.

James took several long breaths trying to calm himself. He shifted his thick fingers around the hilt of his sword, testing his grip. The sword fit snugly in his hand. He well remembered Angus the badger’s training all those months ago in the Glen. He gave the sword a couple swings to loosen his muscles. For the first time since setting foot inside the Chateau he felt his confidence return.

And then, lifting his eyes, his confidence fled. Standing in the doorway opposite the window with two metal staves in either hand was the man dressed in black — Krenek Zagrosek. The Sondecki walked stiffly toward him favouring one leg then stopped ten feet into the room. He glanced from side to side and smiled. “With the light reflecting off the armour, I see no shadows at all in this room. Very clever. So long as we are here you have taken away one of my weapons.”

James flecked his lips and his hide shook as if covered by a swarm of flies. He tried to keep the sword steady in front of him, but it took both hands to keep it from trembling. “What did you do to Charles?”

Zagrosek tapped one of his boots with a Sondeshike. “Oh, I trapped them both. It won’t take them long to dig their way through. But I won’t need long to kill you.” He started walking forward again, eyes never leaving the donkey.

Gasping in fright, James glanced to either side, but he knew there was no escape. He lifted the sword higher and yelled, “Stop!” To his surprise, Zagrosek did so, very nearly in the centre of the room. “You... you... you’re forgetting one thing. Sondeckis can’t kill Sondeckis.”

“Oh neither of them are dead. And that certainly won’t stop me from killing you.”

“No,” James said, trying so hard to find his courage. That words even passed his lips surprised him. He could barely think straight. He may be a competent swordsman, but he would never survive a fight against this man! James took another breath and tried to take in the entire room while he spoke. The drapes were too cumbersome to use. The armour was on the other side of Zagrosek which made it as useful as something on the other side of the world. And the rope he’d cut would do him no good either because he couldn’t escape out the window. What else was there?

His eyes returned to Zagrosek who took another step forward. James gasped and shouted, “No! What you’re forgetting is this. I can kill you too.”

Zagrosek blinked, tipped back his head and laughed. “You? Who are you to kill me?” He smiled maliciously and then nodded his head. “You are armed with but a sword, something you have used no more than a year. I am a Sondecki. I have trained for combat all of my life. Even if I let you cut both my arms off I would still kill you. But, as you have been so brave, I would feel undignified cutting you down with such an unfair advantage.” He lifted both Sondeshike before him, then tossed them to either side. They clattered across the stone work before settling at opposite ends of the hall. “There. I am unarmed. I will give you ten seconds to attack me. Ten seconds and then I kill you where you stand.”

James gulped. “Why ten seconds?”

“Because in ten seconds Charles will break free. He’ll be here just in time to see me kill you. Now you have five.”

James blinked at the man. Zagrosek smiled with serene confidence and even let his hands fall behind his back. James looked him up and down, and then looked ever so briefly at the ceiling. It was all the hope he had left. He ground his teeth together, lifted high his sword, and swung it back over his shoulder and through the taut rope fixed to the wall. With a resounding crash the rope disappeared into the ceiling which shattered in a million splinters as the massive carillons fell through the centre. James spun back on his hooves and watched them drive down like a fist from heaven.

Zagrosek snapped his head up and darted forward, the smile gone from his lips. He ran with a ferocity that James had never seen, blood gushing from his leg as all around him wooden planks and beams littered the floor. The nine brass bells rang with a sonorous groan on their way down. James pulled his arms in front of his face as shards of wood clipped and cut his hide. Time seemed to slow as the moment drew into a thousand little experiences and pinpricks of pain. The sun’s rays glinted off each bell with a gleam that banished the darkness of the clockwork tower above.

Zagrosek gave one last push to his legs, jumping and stretching out his arms to catch himself. And then time snapped back into place. The bells crashed into the ground and the throbbing turned into clangour and chaos. The shock knocked James from his hooves. Timbers kept falling, and he cowered as they clattered to the ground around him.

A few seconds more and the ringing faded. James lifted his head and crawled over a broken support beam to see the bells clustered together. They’d sunk several inches into the stonework floor. Next to one of them was Zagrosek. He’d rolled over and was staring at his belly. James felt the contents of his stomach heave up his throat when he realized that Zagrosek’s body stopped there. The falling bells had cleaved him in twain.

Zagrosek turned his head, his chest heaving as he pressed his belly against the side of the bell to keep his intestines from spilling out. The look of hatred was gone. A faint smile graced the edges of his lips. “Well done.” The words were slow, and full of an admiration that the donkey had never heard even from Angus or Charles.

“James!” Charles shouted as he turned the doorway and rushed inside. He stopped short when he saw the carillons.

“I’m over here,” James yelled.

Charles ran around and grabbed him by the arm. “Are you well?”

“A little cut, but I’ll be fine.” James nodded toward Zagrosek.

The rat turned and swallowed. “Krenek!” He let go of James and ran to his friend’s side. He scooped one arm behind Zagrosek’s head and with the other pinned his right arm. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry!” The rat began sobbing, whiskers low and body trembling.

“Charles, it is I who should be sorry.” Zagrosek gagged as blood began spilling from his mouth. “Take my Sondeshike. And please... pray for me.”

“I will,” Charles assured him. “Every day of my life.”

“And Agathe,” Zagrosek said. With his free arm he grabbed the rat’s collar and shook it. “Promise me! Pray for Agathe. And Yonson. They weren’t willing either.”

Charles blinked the tears from his eyes and slowly nodded. “I’ll pray for all of you.” The rat didn’t even try to move when Zagrosek’s entrails began sliding out of his belly and across the floor. He put one paw on his friend’s chest and began to sing. Zagrosek smiled at the sound, though the words were foreign to James’s ears. There was a sense of rightness in the melody as well as an undercurrent of melancholy.

Zagrosek opened his mouth to say something else, but no words came to him. Only the blood that pooled beneath him. As the rat brought the song to a close, Zagrosek fixed him one final stare. Charles made the sign of the yew over his friend’s chest, and then they locked hands together. “I will look for you in Heaven, Krenek. Eli take you and bring you peace.”

“And... you...” Zagrosek breathed faintly before his eyes stared past the rat. His arms fell limp and he sagged in Charles’s embrace. The rat sobbed even louder as he knelt in his friend’s victuals.

James realized that he’d been holding his breath. He lowered his sword to the ground and glanced around the room. He knew that he didn’t need to be afraid anymore, but he couldn’t shake an overwhelming sense of dread. Still, he forced himself to sheath his sword and take several deep breaths. Zagrosek was dead. The door to the Chateau would be open now. Their friends would be with them soon.

James walked over to rouse Charles from his vigil when the rat jumped backward. Through the cracks in the stonework a black mist seeped. It curved and swirled around Zagrosek’s upper torso. Charles waved at it but winced and stumbled away. “What is this! Get away from him!”

But the mist ignored the rat. It shrouded Zagrosek and then parted, revealing nothing beneath. Even the blood and entrails were gone. It paid Charles and James no mind as it crept back through the cracks in the stone. A moment later and there was no sign of either Zagrosek or the mist but for the blood on the rat’s paws and breeches.

Charles brushed the tears from his eyes and lowered his head in prayer. James did the same but couldn’t think of the words to say so he just stood silently until the rat made the sign of the yew over his chest. Glancing up at the donkey, the rat winced at some pain and said, “Grab one Sondeshike and follow me. I don’t think those gears up there are going to stay there for long.”

“Right.” The two of them each grabbed one Sondeshike and then ran back the way they’d come. Just as they turned the corner out of the room they heard the entire structure groan and collapse. They kept running as bits of metal shot out the door and the bells clanged one final time. A billowing cloud of dust chased them through the next room.

Two more rooms and they found a pile of rubble mostly cleared from a collapsed doorway. Jerome was there with the others trying to remove the rest of the stones. “James!” Kayla cried in delight when she saw him. “You’re okay! Jerome told us what Zagrosek said.”

Charles held one Sondeshike close to his chest and lowered his face. “Zagrosek is dead. This was his Sondeshike. I shall carry it in his honour as he carried it in Soud’s.”

“Soud?” Lindsey asked.

“A Sondecki,” Jerome replied. “Who died protecting us when we were younger.” He heaved another stone out of the way and stood out of the way. Charles and James made their way through where the rat collapsed against the stone.

“You’re hurt!” Jessica said. She brushed the rat’s chest with one wing. “But not bad. Abafouq and I can heal this quickly.”

“My vine!” Charles gasped. “Where is my vine?”

Qan-af-årael held it out in his hands like a father cradling an infant. “It will need fresh soil and water, but it will live. When we are free of this place let it nestle in stony flesh while you sleep. That will be enough.”

The rat pulled the vine close and rubbed its blackened sinew against his face. The vine curled weakly over his shoulders.

“Now what?” Lindsey asked. “If Zagrosek is dead, that means the Marquis has no more allies.”

“Now,” Qan-af-årael said with almost a hint of regret, “we find a way down. Now we must find the cleft where Yajakali cast his spell eleven thousand years ago.”

“Mind if I sit down first?” James said. His rump landed hard on the dislodged stones and he sunk his face into his hands. To their surprised eyes, he began to weep and shake. His whole body throbbed with that hideous peal of bells. It sang to him like a promise, a promise now full only of death. Finally, beneath his breath, the donkey found the words of prayer.

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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