The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LXVIII - The Chateau Marzac

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

Malger looked about at the emptiness with startled wonderment and no little unease. Not in many years had he come into Nocturna’s realm to find himself upon the Plain of Shadows. Since accepting his gifts and Nocturna as his goddess he had always come into the Dream Realms in Nocturna’s temple. The gray plain unnerved him considerably.

Short, twisted gorse hugged the pebble strewn gray earth and thin wisps of low mist hung in the still air. The only feature upon the wasted expanse was a circular construct of carven marble pillars topped by heavy capstones of the same material a short distance away. A flickering tongue of impenetrable darkness moved frenetically within the center of the small amphitheatre, a column of black flame that towered several lengths above the height of the capstones. The entire image filled Malger with a heavy weight of expectant doom yet, with nothing else breaking the gorse-speckled wasteland, he felt himself drawn toward it.

As he neared Malger saw that he was not the only thing drawn toward the edifice and its writhing pillar of ink black flame. The thin streamers of long hanging mist bowed toward the circle of stone columns, thinning into insubstantiality at the rim of the structure. Twigs of gnarled gorse rattled against one another as they reached toward the darkness as well making a dry, whispering and clicking like a chorus of the yearning damned. The towering lance of writhing black flame made not a sound and shed no heat. A low, sorrowful moan of air drawn into the darkness caught the lowest range of Malger’s acute hearing.

He paused upon the rim of the small amphitheatre between two of the twenty-seven polished marble pillars that defined its perimeter. At the center, recessed into the gray earth of the plane by tiers of stone risers that served as seats for spectators, was a single broad, shallow brazier upon a frail looking marble plinth. That tower of black flame stood from, and dwarfed, the wide bronze bowl. Malger saw no wood or coals or oil within to provide the dreadful black fire with fuel. Around the sunken floor and lone brazier the many tiers of carved stone risers and flat diazoma were empty of spectators; but for one.

Clad in gossamer black mourning veils Nocturna sat alone within the amphitheatre and watched the fire. Knees drawn up upon which she rested her chin Nocturna was uncharacteristically human. After Malger’s transformation from man to marten she had adopted similarly animalistic forms. Seeing her eschew that habit gripped at Malger’s heart with another fist of dread. Quickly he crossed over to her and tentatively laid his fingers upon her tense shoulders.

“Love?” He asked gently, tearing his gaze away from the silent flames to look to his goddess. “What is this doomful thing that so vexes you?”

Nocturna reached up one hand to her shoulder and laid her fingertips upon Malger’s. Once he had only thought of her as the spirit of a dead mortal girl, Mosha. In that guise she had helped him understand his gift of walking the dream realms while his body slept. She taught him of the strength and power a mortal could exert upon the realms, and from within the dreams of others. As she had done these things Malger had, in turn, unknowingly exerted other gifts he had upon that supposed long-deceased spirit. Gifts of mind, body, and most importantly the rare gift of healing the spirit of the traumas it suffered as keenly as any injury to the flesh. Through their sharing an acquaintance became friendship and that friendship had in due course become love.

In time other events had brought Nocturna to reveal that Mosha, the lie that Malger had come to embrace as the only true love of his heart, was only a veil hiding the Goddess. The revelation had strained their emotions for a time and those wounds were still healing.

“A fulcrum of fate.” She replied with a quiet sigh.

“Fate?” Malger worked the pads of his fingers gently at the tense muscles of her shoulders and did not look up at the black flames. Nocturna rolled one hand to her right, palm up.

“On one side, an evil is extinguished and the world goes on.” She raised her left hand as well, holding it palm up. “On the other, darkness continues to spread its touch and the world falls into chaos.”

Malger let out a slow chuff, his tail and whiskers drooping, and chewed the inside of his lower lip. “That burning… void is the representation of this weight, this balance between one fate and another?” As with anything on the dream realms what Malger saw could be a true vision, or merely a manifestation that his mind could grasp without shattering. He did not look upon it, however, focusing instead on his thumbs as he rubbed them gently along the nape of Nocturna’s neck. He kept his gaze upon the dark brown fur of his thumbs and the stout black hardness of his claws against the smooth pale flesh.

“That,” Nocturna flicked her fingertips toward the writhing flames, “is entropy, a rent in creation through which the taint of un-creation bleeds.”

“What created this evil? Why?”

Nocturna shrugged under Malger’s gentle hands. “Mortals.” She hissed with a shake of her head, “The pride and fury of mortals from days before our own ascendancy. This vile rupture has suppurated its darkness through the millennia of man’s slow rise and the retreat of the Åelfs, a time longer even than the span of a Dragon’s existence.” She rested one hand upon Malger’s own without ever looking away from the dreadful pillar of darkness. “All brought about by those who pass beyond never grasping that their touch lingers.”

“Why not mend this tear?” Malger leaned down close to her ear and ask, his hands failing to ease the uneasy tension in her shoulders. He let the tips of his whiskers touch her ear and cheek. Nocturna’s only reaction was to lean her head slightly and rest her cheek against his muzzle.

“Mortals tore this rent in creation, and thus only mortals can seal it.” She stroked the other side of his muzzle with her fingertips. Malger gave her fingertips a brush with his lips and stood to turn his gaze angrily upon the flames. Reaching to his hip he unsheathed the sword that had not hung there a heartbeat before, summoned by his will. The hilt was the haft of a flute, its slightly curved single-edged blade carven with an intricate orchestral score. The polished silver and steel flashed against the gray and black and white of the amphitheatre and plane like a shard of fallen star.

“If then a mortal’s touch must destroy this abomination, so be it.” He took only one stride before Nocturna’s hand seized his wrist with a grasp as yielding as iron.

“Stay your hand my pretty, pretty moth.” She cautioned, drawing him back. His sword became a flute that he lowered to his side. “That touch would be your undoing, my love. Others already bring their efforts upon the source of this corruption in the mortal realm. Their victory or defeat is the balance resting upon this fulcrum, their actions decide the path of fate beyond which even I cannot see.” Gently she pulled Malger back to his side and he sank down upon the marble riser. “Nay, my love, sit and watch and know that your very existence angers the Aedra and Daedra alike at this crux.” She offered a wan smile.

“Why?” Malger blinked and looked about the amphitheatre but saw no others watching the dark flames.

“This rent transects all realms, mortal and immortal alike, beyond even the edge of Oblivion. Other than those mortals who cast themselves like moths against this all-consuming flame in the waking world you are the only other mortal, in all of creation, who witnesses this tipping of the balance.” She leaned against his shoulder and held his near hand with both of her own. “Only you can step from the mortal realm into the Hells to stand at the side of your goddess and live.”

“Others can walk the dream realms.”

“None are my chosen.”

Malger did not argue that point as he turned his gaze upon the dreadful darkness. “Who are those who face this, in the waking world?”

Nocturna shrugged one shoulder. “Mortals, like yourself.” She said softly turning her head to catch his gaze as he brought his eyes back to her. “One may ask something of you, in due course of time.” She intoned gently, her deep black gaze holding his unwaveringly, “What was once done cannot be done again, my love.”

Malger’s brow furrowed, his dark brown eyes shifting focus from one of her star touched dark eyes to the other. “Riddles, my love? Riddles and omens for me?”

Nocturna laughed once, a brief chortle. “As the future is nebulous with many potentials so too, then, must the warnings of fate be.”

Malger hemmed deep within his throat at the evade knowing that his questions would only engender more riddles. Freeing his arm from her grasp he raised his flute to his lips and let his breath cross the mouth. Nocturna looked to him but did not forestall his musical urge. He began with a soft, gentle melody, a rise and fall of notes that chased the sonorous moan of the wind and death-rattle of gorse twigs into the background. As he played he stared at the dreadful inferno, watching the black flames that danced with furious intensity along the rim of the bronze bowl.

He imagined he saw shapes within the flames, dashing about in tumultuous engagement. Shadowy forms with ink black weapons locked in deadly struggles. Some seemed to have tails or wings, demons or angels dashed against foes enwrapped in shadows and black flame. The low moan of air drawn into the rippling void seemed to moan in the slow oscillations of a doomful chant while the whispering dry rattle of gorse twigs yammered with strange syncopation.

Frowning, his face drawn into a rictus of stern anger, Malger cast his music against the eerie, subtle orchestra, countering the slow movement of the wordless chant with a light, swift waltz. One of the shadows detached itself with a broad flapping shift of dark flames like wings and ascended into the pillar to circle the heights above, darting too and fro. Below it others of no distinguishable type cast themselves against an implacable barrier that took the form of a dark, unmoving wall that Malger could not bring his eyes to focus upon. Among the flames another three forms writhed back and forth in confused congress, flinging weapons against one another while a fourth fled into the depths, lost and then seen again as the flame-shape wandered alone and lost.

No matter how he focused none of the strange animated forms became so distinguished that Malger could say whom was friend and whom foe in the strange macabre spectacle. The wind and death-rattle chatter seemed ever more distinct as he focused upon the flickering black flames. He shifted forward and rose to his paws, transitioning from waltz to a faster strathspey, his breath chuffing each meter of the dance with furious intensity. Malger’s feet found the rhythm of his rapid tune and he stepped into the dance, twirling and leaping as the song drove him, like a dervish around a spring festival fire.

“Malger?” Nocturna stood as well but did not move to stop flute or dance. She knew well the strange power of his music, in itself purely mundane, within her realm.

Malger brought the weight of his focus upon the forms most distinct within the flames, a quartet of shadows in a group of three and that lone wanderer running lost in the darkness. The others were far less distinct, mere vague shapes pushed to the very edges of the broad bronze bowl. Even those that Malger could focus on were hints of form within the fire, clashing and merging and separating again as they engaged in whatever battle moved them. While Malger’s music transitioned from strathspey to reel to jig and then dirge, each slipping smoothly in discord with the thrumming chant of wind and wordless rattling voices of gorse branches he watched as the three became two, one hazy entity joining the lost one.

Reaching the crescendo of a powerful dirge, a simple cascade of powerful notes that rose to the heights of his flute’s range, the pillar shuddered and heaved. The two forms closed and from the heights of the black column shadows crashed down upon the second of the pair, bringing Malger’s tune down its musical range swiftly and powerfully to a sudden breathless halt. Silence claimed the center of the atrium once more with the force of a landslide and Malger pitched to one knee where he stood at the upper rim of the amphitheatre, panting for breath and watching the flames, but the forms were gone.

For seven dusks they perceived the blue star in the North. On the dark side of twilight it emerged to shine with a wary light, like some great eye peering down on them from the heavens. For a minute it would gaze with limpid indifference before fading into the violet gleam of the northern skies. In another day the western sky would brighten with the setting of a waxing crescent moon. Until then, that blue star whose name the Magyars feared to utter ruled the sun’s goodbye.

Nemgas watched that star, that mote of Cenziga each night, hoping for some sign that they neared the mysterious mount. But it appeared no closer to him than it had when they’d first glimpsed it a week ago. And now there would be no hope of seeing it tonight. Shortly after the dawn clouds rolled in from the west and it had snowed ever since. It was a thick wet snow that clung to the horses and every bit of clothing they had. It was nearly impossible to see ahead of them, but the carriage continued its merciless journey northward.

The reason for risking the brutal Steppe winter like this lay bound inside the carriage. In the last seven days Chamag’s skin had grown pale and his face withdrawn. His cheek bones protruded and if possible, his nose seemed more hawk-like than before. What had once been a broad, swarthy countenance was now narrowed and pinched. Even as his flesh whitened his lips reddened like a rose blossoming with fresh dew. His eyes were now sunken and dark like a man who’d lived in shadows all his life. And his teeth, when they could pry back his lips through his hissing and struggling, protruded like a beast’s and were as sharp as a viper’s. Already he had tried to bite each of them. The moments of lucidity when they could be sure they spoke to Chamag and not a monster inexorably reshaping his flesh were more and more confined to the hours of twilight. And even then there were moments when the monster that had taken Berkon and killed Kaspel struggled to break free.

If they didn’t reach Cenziga in another few days, Nemgas knew that they would have to do something to kill the monster. It had already broken one set of ropes. They had only a few left now and Nemgas could see Chamag testing them from time to time. His strength was prodigious to begin with; how much more would the night-time monster be? With only one arm, Nemgas knew he couldn’t stop Chamag if he was wholly corrupted. Would Pelgan, Gamran or Amile do any better? Poor Gelel would only be a mild repast for Chamag’s bloodlust.

Nemgas glanced at the youth sitting next to him. He held the reins tightly in his mittens, face narrowed as he gazed forward into the wintry expanse. All around them stood fields of endless white, no part different from any other. The snow lay only a handspan deep which wasn’t enough to snag the carriage, but if the snow continued to fall into the night, they would have trouble moving anywhere in the morning.

Gelel seemed to understand his responsibilities and paid close attention to the horses. The animals received frequent rests and he took his turn rubbing them down with cloths warmed inside. There was also a hardness in his face that hadn’t been there before. In the six months since they’d left the other Magyars to journey to Yesulam Gelel had gone from a boy barely into his teens to a young man who’d faced death and evil and triumphed over them. He wasn’t afraid anymore. When they finally reunited with Hanaman and the others, Nemgas knew it would be time for Gelel to join them in the bachelor’s wagon.

“What dost that be?” Gelel asked as he peered over the pair of horses.

Nemgas lifted his eyes and brushed the snowflakes from his forehead. The horses plodded into a greyish white landscape that was white above and below. They cast no shadows for there was no sun to shine on them. But as the Magyar stared he began to notice a subtly darker shade in the mist of flakes. His heart leapt in his chest. Moment by moment the image took on greater definition. The air stilled with a familiar pungency. The snowfall ebbed. As did the snow.

Gelel shivered as the horses passed out of the storm and onto ground dry and parched. The air was still cool, but more akin to a summer night than a winter day. But it was not the cold that made Gelel tremble so. Rising up before them was a hauntingly familiar column of grey fog. The storm of snow circled the colossal fog on every side but did not touch it. Nemgas tightened his one hand into a fist. For the first time in a month he didn’t feel fear grip his heart.

“‘Tis Cenziga!” Nemgas crowed. “We hath found it! Alert the others. We must bring Chamag to yonder mount.” Gelel’s lips moved as if he were trying to object, but nothing came forth. Nemgas took him by the shoulder and gently shook him. “Gelel! Tell the others. I shalt take the reins.”

He pried them loose from Gelel’s mittens, and setting them aside, drew the young man to his feet and turned him from the fog. As it was stricken from his sight the Magyar came back to life. He shuddered again and shook the chill from his bones. “I wilt tell them,” he said in a hoarse whisper. He made a sign against evil and then hurried inside the wagon.

Nemgas kept his eyes on the fog. Faint flashes of light permeated its otherwise grey and unmoving surface. The horses shook themselves as they plodded along the ground covered only in splotches by dry grasses and hard earth. It was easier going than through the snow but still he didn’t press them. Along either side he noted the snowstorm continuing. It was as if the very presence of Cenziga repelled it.

Nemgas rubbed the stump of his arm. He could feel a strange energy there. For a moment his right stump throbbed and he could swear the sleeve began to stretch as if his arm were growing back. But the sensation faded as soon as it struck. Nemgas sighed and pulled on the reins. The horses slowed to a meandering trot. They alone did not seem bothered by the tower of fog. All they showed was relief to be out of the snow.

Amile screamed as something crashed inside the carriage. Nemgas bolted up, the reins forgotten as he charged through the door behind the seat. Gelel was crouched on the floor holding his hand to his head. Blood dribbled down his forehead and across his tunic. The gash didn’t look serious so Nemgas stepped past him.

Chamag was half off the bed, legs still wrapped in quilts and tightly bound with rope. He’d freed his arms and was even now trying to pull Gamran’s neck to his face. The little thief dug his feet against the wood panelling beneath the bed with his hands scrambling against Chamag’s chest and arms. Pelgan had one arm around Chamag’s neck and was struggling to drag him back, while Amile fought to pull the burly Magyar’s arms off the little thief.

Chamag’s mouth was open wide and the fangs seemed to reach out eager to dig into Gamran’s flesh. His eyes were dark and ravenous. They seemed to assure him that he would be next. Nemgas snatched Chamag’s axe from the floor and smacked the burly Magyar on top of the head with the flat of the blade. And then he did it again but harder.

It took four blows before Chamag collapsed, black blood oozing from a wound hidden in his hair. Gamran fell to the floor gasping and crawled away. Amile burst into tears and Pelgan put his hand on her arm to try and comfort her. Nemgas turned the axe in his one hand and tried to smile. “‘Tis fortunate he hath lasted so long. We hath reached Cenziga. We shalt bind him with whate’er we can and carry him there.”

“A moment!” Gamran said between gasps as he levered himself into a crouch. “We hath... no more rope.”

Nemgas pointed to the sheets still tangled about the man’s legs. “We couldst use these.”

“I wilt grab another set,” Pelgan said. He put one hand on Amile’s shoulder to steady her. She rubbed the tears from her eyes and nodded to him.

“Ja. I must tend his wound.”

Nemgas kept the axe in hand just in case the monster in Chamag’s skin wasn’t really unconscious. But Amile tended his wound without incident. The black blood carried a foul scent that wrinkled their noses in disgust. Even after three months, first bleeding doomed Berkon several times a day, then Kaspel, and now Chamag, they had not become accustomed to the miasma.

“By the gods!” Gamran swore in awe. Nemgas glanced out of the corner of his eye, not daring to take his gaze from Chamag. The little thief was standing in the carriage doorway with Gelel at his side. He stared at something outside, his face shifting from disbelief to unsurpassed joy. His eyes, bright and full of a good humour the belied his near corrupting attack, turned to Nemgas. “Come and see!”

Nemgas eased over to the doorway and peered out. He scanned the broken land beneath the watchful gaze of the tower of fog. A long, pleased sigh escaped his lips.

Grastalko was grateful when he could think clearly for all the snow. The charred remnants of his left hand vacillated between a fierce ache and a searing anguish. With his good hand he scooped as much snow into his bucket as he could and when the pain grew too great to bear, he shoved his left arm up to the elbow into the snow. For a few minutes he could enjoy peace before all the snow melted.

The other Magyars did not enjoy the storm, keeping their cloaks pulled tightly across their backs, arms, and legs. Grastalko was the only one who bore only his brightly coloured tunic and jerkin. The fire in his arm may bring him horrible pain, but it did keep him warm.

At least whatever Dazheen had done for him helped him sleep at night. He hadn’t needed to see the blind seer since she’d given him the sleeping draught. And her warning had proven true. After taking the draught, only a few moments would pass before the young Magyar sunk into a dreamless sleep that only the dawn could break. With the days so short now, he had thought certain this would irritate Hanaman, but their leader said nothing when Grastalko crawled to the wagon tops after they’d already started on their way. None of the others said anything either, neither on their journey nor when they stopped for the night. They all seemed to understand not to interfere with Dazheen’s medicines.

But with each day they drew nearer and nearer to the very mountain that was the source of all his woe. He had never seen Cenziga, yet with every throbbing pain in his left hand, he felt its immense presence grow closer and closer. And now, despite the snow storm, he knew that something waited for them ahead. His eyes were drawn upward, and as the snow flakes danced across his cheeks, he thought he could see the outline of a dark something piercing the sky.

Dazheen’s cryptic words that he might need to go there bounced back and forth through his mind. Cenziga had given him nothing but pain these last six months. What could he expect from it now? Just thinking about it made his blistered and blackened flesh glow like the centre of a campfire. He shoved his arm into the bucket and listened to the snow sizzle and steam.

“Dost thou see it?” Adlemas asked after Grastalko finally took his arm from the bucket. The large man sat next to him on the wagon and when Grastlako could focus, let the younger Magyar drive the wagon. Those times were becoming fewer and fewer. But the bearded man wasn’t gesturing to the Assingh who plodded through the snow with placid equanimity; instead, his hand wavered at a dark outline in the clouds before them.

Grastalko grunted and scooped fresh snow from the wagon top and dumped it in his bucket. “Aye, the mount. I hath felt it all day.”

“How much farther?” Adlemas asked with a quaver in his voice.

Grastalko closed his eyes but the dark outline remained. Although the pain lanced into his mind every time he pondered the mountain, he could feel something drawing him closer. A hand or a rope, or perhaps even a chain, seemed to grasp him and pull him toward that unnatural crag. It was so close now. He could almost reach out and touch it.

“Nothing,” he replied through tight lips. “We hath arrived.”

He opened his eyes and saw the snow storm part in front of him like a pair of curtains. The half-dozen wagons in front of theirs had drawn a few wagon-lengths into a large field full of dry grass and parched earth. They lined up next to each other but not because of the drivers. The Assingh were so used to their tasks that they did it all themselves. The Magyars all stared at the tower of fog rising in the midst of the storm. Far overhead they saw a dark blue sky between the fog and the storm clouds.

Grastalko winced as the pain lanced up his arm. He shoved it into the snow-filled bucket, but the relief seemed fleeting. An incessant drumming throbbed in his mind. There was something inside that wall of fog, something distinctly other that called to him. He crumbled in his seat and felt tears stream down his cheeks. The throbbing brooked him no mercy.

He turned his eyes away from the fog, hoping to see anything but. And then, toward the south, he saw something amazing. A two-horse carriage stood a short distance outside the boundary of the storm. The carriage must have been highly decorative at one point, but now it seemed more a renegade Magyar wagon. And then he saw somebody standing just behind the seat dressed in a brightly coloured tunic.

“Adlemas! Look!” Grastalko pointed with his good hand, and as one all of the other Magyars turned.

Hanaman stood a few wagons away and shouted with undisguised joy, “‘Tis Gamran! And Nemgas! They hath returned to us!”

As one, the Magyars leapt from their wagons and rushed to meet their lost brethren. Grastalko watched them, blinking away his tears as he kept his hand buried in the bucket to dull his enduring pain.

Hanaman was the first to reach them, and with a tight-lipped smile he clasped both Gamran and Nemgas. His stern eyes noted Nemgas’s missing right arm but he said nothing of it. His first words were full of a warmth not often heard from the grey-haired Magyar’s tongue. “‘Tis good to see thee again. Thou hast returned to us in the strangest of places, though, knowing thee as I dost, ‘tis not a surprising place to find thee either.”

“Or thee,” Nemgas replied with equal warmth. “Thou must bring rope. A foul poison hath made a monster of Chamag.”

Hanaman’s smile died. “What sort of poison?”

“‘Tis one of the blood. It hast already killed Berkon and Kaspel.”

The Magyar leader took a deep breath and nodded. Behind him Adlemas and several other younger Magyars were running toward them with shouts of joy. “Can Chamag be saved?”

“‘Tis my hope,” Nemgas replied, glancing at the tower of fog. It churned to its own rhythm caring not for the whims of wind or snow. He stared at the distant wagons and noted the many and familiar Assingh with their grey pelts and long ears pulling those wagons. His heart stirred with a forgotten passion and he swallowed. “Wilt thee tend to him? Amile and Pelgan wilt show thee what hast happened.”

Hanaman saw his look and nodded. “She remains in the same wagon as before. Ja! We wilt tend to Chamag.”

Gamran nodded and patted his friend on the shoulder. “Let us be off! Thee to thy Kisaiya, and I to my Thelia!” Nemgas laughed at the little thief and the two of them ran across the barren field. They were stopped by every Magyar on the way, hugged and then let go as each knew for whom they ran.

Nemgas could smell the earthy musk of the Assingh before he reached the wagons. With it came a thousand wonderful memories of childhood, youth, and growing up as a Magyar upon the Steppe. His was the freest of lives, full of responsibility, but also of love and a certainty that each day would bring them something new to see and experience. There was more truth to being a Magyar than in any other guise. And that scent was the sweet fragrance of a life well lived.

Only one wagon still had anybody sitting atop it. Grastalko crouched over the seat with his left arm shoved in a bucket that leaked water over the rim. He smiled faintly but clearly in pain at the two as they neared. His eyes fixed on Nemgas’s stump and he swallowed heavily. Gamran bounded up the wagon and wrapped him in a tight hug. “Grastalko! ‘Tis good to see thee again!”

“And thee, Gamran! I hath missed thee.”

Gamran’s eyes twinkled in impish delight. “Ah, thou wilt tell me of all thy adventures and all thy thievings whence I return! But first, I must to Thelia’s side ja!”

Nemgas heard this conversation as he rushed past to find Kisaiya’s wagon. Already many of the young and women were climbing out and delighting in the news of their return. It was the only thing that could make them all forget their fear of the tower of fog and the mountain that lay hidden in its depths. They too greeted Nemgas and delayed him many more seconds.

And then he saw her. Long brown hair that clustered to her neck. Quiet features and eyes that kept to their companion beasts. Hands so gentle and yet so strong. This all he saw dressed in their colourful weave and nothing else mattered. His heart shouted, “Kisaiya!”

She turned and her face blossomed, a brightness coming to her cheeks that the winter had driven away. They danced between the wagons and flung themselves together. She kissed at his neck and chest, while he kissed her forehead, one arm brushing back her hair, before wrapping around her middle and sweeping her into the air. “Ah! I hath found thee again, my love!”

“And I thee, my love!” Her voice rang like the echoing call of swallows across an Autumn plain of grass. She pressed her face close to his, arms nestling between to rest in his warmth. “What happened to thy arm? And to thy hair? Thy lock of white hast gone.”

Nemgas felt an urge to reach up and brush across his single lock of white hair. Before Kashin and he had been split by the touch of the evil Yajakali blade he’d had two locks of white hair. The stump of his right arm twitched and pressed against Kisaiya’s shoulder as if trying to answer her question itself. “‘Twas a battle we fought with the man who sent the Driheli to kill us. He cleaved my arm and the magic in his blade changed my hair.” He noted the look of alarm in her eyes and smiled. “Ne’er fear my love. His own blade turned on him and slew him. His evil hath no power o’er us.”

And then like a thunderclap the very reason he made such an arduous journey returned to him. With a strangled shout, he cried, “Pelurji! Hast he awoken?”

Kisaiya’s look of alarm faded into sadness. “Nay. He still sleeps.”

Nemgas felt his heart curl tight like a dying leaf in his chest. “Take me to him, Kisaiya. I must see him.”

“I know. Ja.” She led him through the maze of wagons as they settled into a cluster just beyond the periphery of the storm. None dared draw close to the tower of fog, and many, as they ran after Hanaman to welcome them back, followed the outskirts of the storm to keep from going too close to the feared mount. Those who saw Nemgas opened their mouths to greet him, then saw Kisaiya with him and let them be. Their turn to welcome him home could wait.

Kisaiya brought him to a familiar wagon festooned with supplies. The windows were shuttered, but still a thin trail of smoke rose from the lantern chimney in the back. Inside the doorway hung a heavy curtain which Nemgas hastily pushed aside. In a solitary bed at the back of the wagon, watched over by a single lamp, lay a boy cloaked in sleep. His face was sunken and stretched but the features were as he knew them when the boy’s cheeks were flush with life.

Nemgas quietly stepped to his side and knelt on one knee. He brushed the black hair back over the boy’s brow and gazed with sorrow at the unmoving eyelids. The blankets rose and fell with the child’s measured breaths just as they had seven months ago when he’d first fallen into this deathless sleep.

“His flesh hast no meat,” he said in a bitter whisper.

“We hath fed him soup everyday since thou didst leave. I hath tended to him myself every day, cleaning him and feeding him. He hast withered without thee.”

Nemgas kissed the boy’s brow gently and felt some solace at the warmth of his skin. “He hath strength left.” A long low sigh escaped his lips. “I had hoped with the Bishop’s death he wouldst awake. The evil that took him from me still lives.”

Kisaiya rested her callused hands on his shoulder, thumbs rubbing up and down his thick neck. “Perhaps now that thou art with us again he wilt wake?”

“The evil must die ere he wilt arise. But ‘tis a great relief to have found thee and to still see that he dost live. Others wilt destroy the evil where it lay, this I wast told. Now we hath only to hope.”

She continued to gently massage his weary muscles as he gazed at the sleeping child. After a moment her voice, very quietly, settled on his ears. “‘Tis good fortune that we didst find thee. When I learned that Dazheen said that we must come here, I feared it would be months more ere we were together again.”

“I the same,” Nemgas admitted. He frowned. “Dazheen told thee to come this way? Why?”

“She didst not say. And why didst thee come here, Nemgas?”

“For Chamag. A foul poison darkens his blood. It killed Berkon and Kaspel. The blade I took up the mount destroyed the monster that it didst make of Berkon, so I hope it will cure Chamag.” He stiffened and felt a strange thrill race through his body. A smile broke across his lips and hope blossomed in his heart. “By the gods! We wert both led here! Perhaps the key to waking Pelurji lay here as well!”

Flush with excitement, he kissed the boy one more time and then rushed out the wagon door. Kisaiya followed him, one hand reaching out to grab his shoulder. “Nemgas! How couldst this place heal him?”

“I know not,” he replied though it did not dampen his enthusiasm. “But I must—” A scream and several men shouting from the direction of the carriage silenced his thought. He jumped to the ground and ran through the thicket of wagon and Assingh to see Chamag running away from the carriage with Hanaman, Pelgan, and others chasing him. Nemgas bolted to intercept him, breaking free of Kisaiya’s warning touch.

To Nemgas’s surprise, Chamag wasn’t running toward the storm. Had he done that, the monster that was growing in him would surely have been able to escape and consume what was left of his fellow Magyar. Instead, Chamag was running straight toward the tower of fog. Could it already be dusk and in those precious few minutes when Chamag was himself? The sky seemed darker, but with the storm and the fog surrounding them, it was impossible to be sure.

He couldn’t take any chances even if Chamag was doing what he wanted. Even as Hanaman, Pelgan, and the others slowed in fear of the ominous fog and the mount it concealed, Nemgas pushed his legs faster. Chamag threw open his arms, eyes lost and wild, dark hair caught by the wind as if some invisible hand were yanking it backward. He didn’t seem to be aware of either those behind him or Nemgas racing toward his side.

At first the fog seemed to recede as they ran closer. Nemgas felt a faint throbbing begin to build in his skull. The last time he’d come here the headaches had nearly crippled him. The mount’s insouciance made him nervous. What was it waiting for?

And then, just as Nemgas reached out his arm to grab Chamag, the fog snapped into place and knocked them backward. Nemgas felt a smashing blow crush into his mind and yet still he stumbled into that choking miasma. Beside him he was dimly aware of Chamag writhing on the ground and screaming.

Nemgas felt the pounding batter at his very sense of self. And for several seconds he ran in his mind seeking some deep recess in which to hide. But the presence of Cenziga allowed him no escape. Its identity could not be avoided.

And in that understanding, Nemgas remembered how he had survived before. Somehow, he moved his tongue and shouted with every drop of air in his lungs, “I hight Nemgas!”

The pain and presence departed like a dead wind. Nemgas blinked and waved at the fog in front of his face, but it didn’t disperse. Still, he could see Chamag laying a few feet to his side writhing lake a man possessed. From both nostrils, his lips, ears, and even the two holes in his neck where Berkon’s fangs had consigned him to undeath, the black blood oozed and sprayed. That ichorous sludge sizzled and burned in the thick fog.

Nemgas crawled closer, but kept himself out of Chamag’s reach as the man screamed and his body expelled the poison. He thrashed about, kicking and lashing with arms and legs. His lips peeled back and he spat out the foul blood. Though he never caught a good look, Nemgas half imagined Chamag’s fangs receding back into his gums.

With a sudden cry, Chamag arched his back a full two feet form the ground, and one last spurt of the black blood exploded from his face. It sizzled into nothing before touching the ground. Chamag collapsed, all his energy spent.

Nemgas crept closer and pushed back his fellow Magyar’s lips. The fangs were still there, though they had lost some of their menace. Instead of jutting out from his gums like a beast eager for the kill, they nestled snugly within his jaw beside his other teeth. Nemgas wondered what that could mean, but he knew deep down that there was no more need to fear his friend. Scooping his arm beneath Chamag’s back, he hoisted him on his left shoulder and carried him out of the fog.

Still standing a good distance away were Hanaman, Pelgan, Gelel, and the rest. They met his gaze with hopeful questioning stares. He nodded and looked to the wagons. “The poison hath left him. I wilt take him to Dazheen. She wilt tend him.”

Hanaman nodded, the worry in his face fading into his ususal cold mask of command. “Aye. We shalt bring thy carriage to the wagons. See to Chamag. Ja!”

Nemgas carried the burly Magyar, his weight a strain but not an unwelcome one. As he bounced up and down on Nemgas’s shoulder, a faint smile seemed to crease his lips. Nemgas sighed with relief. He’d kept his promise to save him from the poison. Now he had to keep his promise to his boy Pelurji. But how?

After an hour of walking from mouldering room to crumbling hall, Lindsey turned to the ancient Åelf and said, “We’ve been everywhere in this damnable place and we’ve yet to see a single stair! How are we supposed to reach this cleft if we cannot go down?”

They had just found the scattered detritus of the clock and bell tower blocking the passageway. Charles had become a normal-sized rat and squeezed through a hole in the rubble but found nothing of note on the other side. Even now he pulled his clothes back on with one paw clutching the coils of his burnt vine to the soft fur on his chest and the two Lothanasi symbols that glowed faintly there like faerie tattoos. Everyone else looked weary from keeping watch for enemies that had yet to show themselves.

“There is a way,” Qan-af-årael insisted with implacable calm. “We merely have to find it.”

“But where are we to look?” Jessica asked. The hawk sounded exasperated. She flicked her wingtips at either side. “I’ve looked at every room magically. There’s no hidden entrances or exits. It’s like the outside of the house; everything is wrapped in an impenetrable weave. The only opening I’ve seen is the main door.”

“Nothing else?” James asked in surprise. “But there’s so much here.”

“And not a bit of it useful,” Lindsey said under his breath. A bit louder he added, “We can’t just keep wandering around like this.”

“No, we can’t,” Andares agreed. The younger Åelf crossed his arms and through lowered eyelids, studied Qan-af-årael. “What do you know, Lord of Colours? No other knows more of what to expect than you.”

But the ancient Åelf shook his head. “Of Yajakali, yes. But of the Chateau, not a man alive can make such a claim.”

“So,” Abafouq said in a quiet voice, “why not close the door.”

Charles brushed his paws over his pants and frowned. “Which door?”

“The main door,” the Binoq replied with a faint smile. “We left it open when we came in. Jessica, you say the inside looks exactly like the outside. What if, what if, we still are outside the Chateau?” He held up one hand to forestall objections. “We Binoq have a saying. ‘If the air bites your cheek, look for bears.’ By this I am meaning that bears often try to push open the doors of lower slope entrances to steal our warmth. To protect ourselves, many exits have two doors. The inner door cannot be opened until closing the outer door.”

Lindsey shrugged. “Worth a try.”

Jessica nodded and jumped back and forth on her talons. “It could work. If we seal ourselves inside, we could change the magical weave.”

The ancient Åelf smiled faintly. “That may be what is needed” He gestured with a very light motion of his fingers. Jerome led the way back to the main door with Andares close behind. The rest followed with Charles and Lindsey taking up the rear. The decrepit and crumbling walls stirred only to disgorge dust in their passage. They swallowed the echoes of their footsteps bringing an oppressive quiet to the once decadent castle.

The entrance room was as barren as the other times they had passed this way. Apart from the ruined furniture which lingered as a testament to the Sondeckis’s recent struggle, the only curious feature was the doorway which stood open onto the blasted plain of cracked earth. Beyond they could see the line of mangroves which grew away from the Chateau. Jerome stepped to the door and put one hand on the frame. “I’m not sure if this will work,” he admitted. “It did nothing when Krenek closed it.”

“But did he really close it?” Abafouq asked. The little man ran his hands along the bolts fastening the wooden door to the stone arch. “Magic of a strange kind.” His eyes brightened as he splayed his short fingers across the frame. “Come see this, Jessica. Follow my finger.”

The hawk hopped in closer. Jerome stepped to one side to let her lean over the Binoq, but he kept one hand on the free end of the door to keep it steady. Jessica folded her wings tight along her back, and her black tail feathers stuck straight out as she bent over. “What am I looking for?”

“The lines of magic are in the grains of wood,” Abafouq replied as he traced out one particular strand. The hawk stared with wide eyes for several seconds before nodding. “Watch the veins move to the braces. Do you see?”

Jessica peered at the lines of magic. Faint at first, from between the grain of the light-toned wood she began to discern the same darkness spread over the walls both inside and outside the Chateau. Focussing her gaze beyond the weave of the door she saw how the magic shield wound through the door’s interior. There it met the hinges set into the stone wall. But the magic drew her eyes in a different direction. There was a subtle flow, like a snake slithering through the grass, up toward the latch at the free end of the door. And there the magic ceased in a faintly throbbing bauble of darkness.

The hawk drew back and nodded to the door. “Close and throw the latch. There is some magic in the latch.”

Jerome took a deep breath and slowly guided the door closed. The interior darkened subtly without the outside light. He lifted one hand and set it on the latch but didn’t move it. A faint smile teased the edge of his lips. “Everyone ready for whatever this will do?”

Habakkuk put one paw on Lindsey’s shoulder and said, “Aye. Do it. We’re running short on time.”

Abafouq and Jessica backed away from the door. The hawk’s gaze never left the weave of magic. The Binoq backed into Guernef who nudged him gently with his beak. Abafouq nodded and took a step forward, rubbing his hands together. Charles unconsciously pet his vine. James shifted back and forth from one hoof to the other. Andares and Qan-af-årael waited with placid forbearance. Kayla kept her paws on the hilts of her dragon blades. All of them watched Jerome lift the latch and slide it into place.

Immediately, Jessica saw the darkness spread to cover the door. With an almost pellucid glamour it joined the magical cocoon covering the walls. For a single moment both outside and inside were one and the same. And then with the snap of a catapult they were ripped from the exterior world. They were now in the belly of the Chateau and its malevolent presence shook the room with titanic furry.

She snapped back from the magic to watch as the very stones of the room spread apart. A dark abyss revealed itself between every block as they scattered like stones tossed into the sky. Jessica cried out in horror as all of her friends were ripped from her. They receded into the abyss until they were nothing more than stars in an empty world.

And then, the one rock upon which she clung spread around her as if she were shrinking. A vast plain of stone underneath a midnight firmament welcomed her. The hawk pulled her wings in tight as she stared at the world around her. Although there was no light of any kind she could see the stone extending forever in either direction without any hint of a horizon or a dimming of its luminescence.

Jessica’s heart fluttered with a fear that she knew all too well. It was the same fear she’d had when trying to reach the triangular platform in the Imbervand with that other chasing her. Only this time, whereas it had once had a direction and sure location, now it felt as if that all-devouring hatred surrounded her. Her body quivered with fear and she hunkered lower until she crouched like a bird nesting on a clutch of eggs.

Even as she imagined them she felt them beneath her. Through her tail feathers she counted three eggs, slightly oblong and as large as one of those melons she’d seen in the marketplace. A vague memory of the pain of laying flitted through her mind, but it passed into the joy of expectancy. But who had given her the eggs?

Then to her right she felt a comforting presence. With a bundle of twigs and leaves in his hooked beak, Weyden approached and then shoved the bramble beneath her to make her nest more comfortable. She could see nothing in his eyes but a certain duty and complete adoration of her. He was her hawk and sire to her eggs. They weren’t husband and wife, but with a startling realization she knew them to be animals.

Jessica stood quickly and Weyden pressed against her shoulders with his beak and wings. He was trying to settle her back on the eggs with the plain insistence of a beast. This wasn’t right! She pecked at him, flapping her wings and squawking. He squawked in return and spread his feathers in a show of dominance. This wasn’t how she wanted to be with her hawk. As she fought to escape the nest, she wondered what had become of her friends.

As soon as Jerome dropped the latch everyone else disappeared. It startled as a bubble that sprouted from the latch and then quickly spread to fill the whole room. As it passed each of his friends they vanished from sight like a curtain being drawn across an open casement. Not even a second had passed before he was completely alone.

With a start he spun, hands at the ready. But there was nothing to attack him. The room appeared as it had before, filled with ruined furniture and high dust-caked walls. He lifted both hands to his lips and shouted, “Charles! Kayla! Anybody!” His cries went unanswered at first. But as he took a few tentative steps into the room he began to hear a faint sound. He stilled his breath and listened carefully.

Understanding came slowly. Down one of the corridors he could hear it moving closer. It wasn’t one something but many somethings, each of which called out in a child’s laugh. Burbling and cascading one over the other, the giddy laughter mocked him and sent a chill up his spine. Jerome took several curious steps toward the passage. He sucked in his breath, closed his eyes, and with his arms trembling, stepped around the corner.

To his surprise what he saw were children. Hundreds of them all with brightly smiling faces climbed one over another as they crept down the hall. They bore no clothing and came in every race, dark-skinned and light-skinned, Galendish, Kitchlandish, and Sonngefildan. Their eyes, blue, brown and green, met him with an impish delight. They couldn’t be any older than five or six, and with outstretched hands, grasped at the air as if clawing at his legs for purchase.

“What the?” Jerome asked, and then as he watched the children boil over each other to reach him, suffered a presentiment of death. He stepped back into the doorway, back against the stone jamb, as the children grinned wide, teeth hardening and sharpening. Their jaws jutted forward, faces sloping into angular proportions. From their forehead horns began to emerge. Their bodies hunched forward, as something also began to press at their backs. The insistent laughter took on a macabre cast as they continued to deform into something from his nightmares.

It was when the tails began sprouting from their backsides and their legs took on beastly proportions that he knew them. Their flesh, once a variety of colours, blended into a uniform scarlet. These were not innocents, but the profane instruments of Hell. Jerome let out a scream as they rushed toward him with clawing hands. He turned and ran, all the sermons of his youth describing these demons who came to claim the souls of the damned hammering through his mind.

Abafouq sucked in his breath when Jerome dropped the latch. And then screamed when the stones twisted beneath his feet. He slipped and fell through a gap in the floor into a darkened chamber. His arms shot out to grab at the stone but it continued to spin beneath him. The darkness surrounded him and it was all he could do to turn his head to look up and see the floor close over him.

Sooner than he expected he landed on his side against a smooth stone shelf. Sitting up, he rubbed his left arm and stared into the impenetrable darkness. Abafouq couldn’t hear anything else around him so he knew he had to be alone. He reached into his pack and fiddled around searching gently with his fingers. He found his mortar and pestle quickly enough and then scrounged through his powders. Having spent all of his life living in caves he was used to working blind. Still, the moments felt as if they would never end. Any moment he felt certain he would hear some fearsome beast growling in some eldritch corner.

But Abafouq found the right powders, and with a quick twist of the pestle, the mortar filled with a faint green light. He lifted the bowl to one side and glanced around. He sat on a broad, flat stone ledge that extended in all directions. Something appeared to stand in the distance. It looked like a monolith of some kind.

Abafouq climbed to his feet and walked toward it. As he neared, even his footsteps making no noise, he felt his heart tighten in his chest. The monolith towered over his head and was scarred with the ancient letters of his people. With each step he recognized name after name, each one chiselled through until it was only barely legible. Tears began sliding down his cheeks as he recognized the monolith as the Sentinel of Forgiveness. The final name chiselled and then effaced into its surface was his own.

“No,” he uttered beneath his breath. He couldn’t be in Qorfuu!

“Unforgiven. Banished. Traitor.”

Abafouq snapped his head around and saw faint shadows lurking at the edge of the green light. He tensed and almost backed into the Sentinel. “Who be there?”

The voices cried again the same three words. “Unforgiven. Banished. Traitor.” Tears clouded his eyes as the voices themselves brought back thousands of memories.

“Inkiqut? Kifqunan? Father?”

But there was no mercy in the voices, no welcoming vivre. Only cold disappointment and anger. Abafouq trembled and bit the back of one hand to still his cries. The shadows were coming closer.

Kayla watched with what magic she had as the violet nimbus shrouded the door and then everything around her fell into darkness. She lifted herself out of the mage sight and found herself still in darkness. The skunk cried out to the others but there was no response. She spread her arms and tail out, feeling around in every direction. James had been right behind her only a moment before but now she couldn’t find him. The donkey and every one of her friends were gone.

To her right she saw a faint pinprick of light. It was the only thing she could see in all the world and so she walked gingerly forward. She swept her arms low to make sure she didn’t stumble into anything. Beneath her paws the floor felt of cool stone. It was smoother and less filthy than what she recalled walking through in the Chateau. She pondered that as the light grew brighter.

She had to shield her eyes for a moment as she neared but the light resolved into something familiar. Before her was a grey-stone room with a devotional altar to Akkala. On it rested a man who looked like a raccoon. Kayla’s heart skipped a beat as she ran to his side and buried her face against his chest. Though sleeping and emaciated, she still recognized her lover Rickkter.

“Oh, Rick! It’s me!” She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook ever so gently. “Oh please, Rick. We’re here at the Chateau. We’ve defeated all the Marquis’s allies. Surely you must be awake by now!”

But his countenance remained flat and lifeless. As she stared through her tears, she began to wonder how it was she’d come back to Metamor. Turning behind her, the darkness from whence she’d come was gone. Everything around her carried the weight of familiarity with it. Except there was something she couldn’t put a claw on that felt missing. Rickkter would have known what it was.

And then she had a sudden certainty that the power to lift the pall of sleep from Rickkter was already within her. Kayla felt herself blossom with that knowledge, and her paws lifted to rest on his chest. A cold fire spread down her black-furred arms and radiated through the raccoon’s bare chest. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw his eyelids flicker.

His head turned and he stared at her with tired eyes. His muzzle opened as if to speak but nothing came out. His whole body, though it moved, seemed drained. His actions more the mechanical workings of a machine than a man. Kayla pressed more firmly on his chest as if she could imbue him with all that he lacked.

Her heart thudded against her rib cage as her eyes watered staring at her unkempt lover trying to stir. His fur was bedraggled and she could see through the pelt to the dark skin beneath. His bleary eyes blinked at her and she could only press more firmly against his chest, willing whatever power she had to make him rise.

And then something changed. It was faint at first, like a subtle shift in the wind. It reminded her of the feeling when a door holding back the draft was opened somewhere nearby in the Keep. But the effects of this change were sudden. Rickkter’s face contracted and his skin sank even tighter against the bones. Kayla felt a flush of energy filling her, and strange ideas and knowledge polluting her mind.

“No!” She tried to take her paws from his chest but some force held them in place. Second by second she watched the raccoon wither like drapes left to mildew. His fur drained to fetid grey and fell off in patches. His jowls drew back like rotten melon rinds to expose his pale fangs. Kayla screamed as this undead thing she had so loved lifted an arm and scraped her chest with desiccated claws.

As soon as Jerome threw the latch, the floor beneath James’s hooves shot upward like a dagger thrust into a pillow. The donkey fell backwards landing on his tail and banging the back of his head against hard wood. Wood? He blinked and rubbed the back of his head as he shifted into a sitting position.

Even before he was able to banish the stars from his eyes his nose told him that he wasn’t in the Chateau anymore. In fact, he knew the place before all the shapes around him resolved into clarity. He sat with hindquarters planted on wood in a room with living wood walls, wood ceiling, and several wood furnishings. Only the hearth built into the far wall and which was crackling with the familiar warmth of a winter fire was not made from wood. The couches, tables, armour tree, and door were all so well known.

Somehow, he found himself in the Matthias home at Glen Avery. He turned when he heard the sound of voices. A bit of feminine laughter followed by the tenor chitter of an amused rat. The donkey climbed to his hooves, his body trembling with an anger he hadn’t known himself capable of. Ears turning toward the sound, he followed it to the tapestry covering the entrance to Charles and Kimberly’s bedroom.

Only it wasn’t Kimberly on the bed with his friend. Instead Charles and Bearle lay entwined on the bed, bodies pressed together in coquetish foreplay. The donkey’s lips frothed and his brows fell forward with an uncontrollable rage. How dare they do this to him! He drew his sword.

Guernef saw only a bright flash of light when the latch fell. Abafouq had stood before him, but as his vision cleared it was a different Binoq that he watched. A monolith rose from the stony floor of the cavernous expanse. Qorfuu. The monolith bore names chiselled into the stone before being scratched out. His heart tightened in his chest as he watched the Binoq lift one hand to the stone and then turn to leave. Misery consumed them both.

It should have taken the Binoq hours, but the city disappeared around them and they were in one of the tunnels leading to the mountain tops. The Binoq shook with tears and crumpled into one corner of the cave. Guernef limped closer and rested a wing on the little man’s back, but the Binoq didn’t seem to feel it. Guernef nudged him with his beak to get him moving again, trying somehow to convey without words that comfort would come. But they stayed there for a very long time.

And then the cave was gone and the Binoq trudged along a small path hugging the side of a slender peak in the snowy wastes of the Tabinoq range. Guernef followed him down the path, eyes staring at the Binoq and wondering things that had not come to him in years. He repeatedly tried to remind himself that he was supposed to be at the Chateau Marzac, but worries of that dark place kept slipping away like a particularly slimy fish.

The Binoq now walked across a hauntingly pellucid field of snow and ice between a circle of crags that watched with the eyes of camouflaged Nauh-kaee. Guernef marvelled at this his only second time seeing the ancient path of the sky. His eyes returned to the Binoq and felt a rush of warm delight as the mystery overcame him. A hatchling Nauh-kaee crawled from his place to be tended by the elders who’d approved of him.

Guernef felt somebody at his side and his whole body burned with desire. Abafouq was there, the tears turned to ice along his cheeks. Despite himself, the Nauh-kaee spread his wing behind his friend and pushed him forward. Abafouq shook his head and in his heart, Guernef knew he could force no one to tread the skyway. Yet still he pushed and forced his friend onto that brilliant plane.

“No!” Abafouq shouted as he fell to all fours. His body swelled with the mystery and his heavy furs stretched and tore. “You will not make me yours!”

Guernef felt a snap in his mind like a great boulder shattering as it clattered to the bottom of a gorge. He drew back a step as Abafouq’s lips sealed behind a black beak. The eyes burned crimson instead of gold. Guernef stumbled as he walked backward, his wounded leg buckling beneath him. What had become of his friend rose up on his swelling hindquarters and slashed with vicious talons.

Guernef screeched in agony and jumped off the plateau and down into the pit. Ice cold air hammered through his feathers as he fell into a cleft between the mountains which had no end.

Andares felt an invisible hand smack him backwards as the bolt slid into place. He flew several feet and then his back crashed into a wooden wall. He fell forward and landed in a chair. The Åelf was sitting as it were at a table in a brightly lit establishment. Food was being served by human women in mercantile dress, while around his table several men he didn’t recognize engaged in simple conversation over plates of stew.

Andares blinked and looked around. He quickly recognized the place as the Lake’s Head Inn in Bozojo where once he’d stayed on his way to deliver a message for Qan-af-årael. There behind a long counter was the short and bald proprietor, a one Benlan Rais. He was cleaning dishes with a well-used rag while listening to some adventurer describe his journey of the past days.

“So what do you think of the arrangement?” one of the three men asked him. He was swarthy with receding black hair and a quivering right eye. “Does it satisfy?”

Andares stared at the man and opened his mouth. “I am not sure I understand you. What is this arrangement of which you speak?”

The man snorted, clearly irritated by Andares’s ignorance. “Why the entire purpose in coming here, Andares! You have wares to trade and so do we!”

It then dawned on him exactly what had come to pass. After his stay here the previous year, Andares had always taken a liking to the Lake’s Head Inn. Far humbler than anything that could be found in Ava-shavåis, it was also more active and appealed to his youthful sense of urgency. And somehow, once inside the Chateau proper, it was giving him that which he’d always secretly harbored a desire for — a normal relationship with humans.

Knowing this, he knew he needed to find some way free of this illusion. Yet despite himself he felt a smile twitch the corners of his lips and a nod come to his head. Words passed over his tongue unbidden. “Ah, of course. Pardon my distraction, but a thought came to me unrelated to our discussion. I fear it prevented me from hearing the last of what you said. Could you repeat it that way we both understand each other?”

Benlan Rais, or the shade masquerading as the Innkeeper, walked over to their table with a hearty grin and a key in his hands. “Pardon my intrusion, Master Andares, but your usual room has been prepared. Here is your key.” It was large and fashioned from iron. Even its cool touch brought no concern to his forcefully placid heart.

The smile brushed his lips again and he took the key and folded it into his tunic. “Thank you, Master Rais. I always enjoy my stays at your fine establishment.”

The Innkeeper strode back to his bar with the gait of an accomplished man. The merchants resumed detailing their arrangement and Andares couldn’t help but think it eminently fair. A band of musicians began to play a rather bawdy tune in the other corner. The scent of meats, ale, and good cheer surrounded him.

Inside, Andares struggled vainly to find a way out of Marzac’s torpor. But on his face was a smile of purest simplicity.

The latch fell and Charles stumbled on his paws as the ground shook with such violence that it took all his training as a Sondeck to stay standing. The entire castle began collapsing around them. He tried to reach out for James but a huge boulder crashed between them. The rat felt his heart tense in his chest, but he saw no blood beneath the stone. And then a rock came hurtling toward his head.

The rat jumped to one side and then crawled between two stones wedged against each other. He could always shrink down even further if he had to. But as soon as he passed between the stones the quake ceased. He lifted his head in surprise and banged it against the rock. He rubbed his head with one paw while crawling out. But he didn’t find the ruins of the Chateau. Instead, he stared at a grassy plain with very familiar mountains rising over a forested valley. His jaw hung agape as he stared at Metamor Valley. He didn’t know quite where in the Valley, but he knew that was where he was.

“How...” he said, and looked around but none of his friends were there. And then a pair of voices cried out for him from down the sward.

“Charles!” his wife Kimberly cried. Their wetnurse Baerle joined their voices in that same name a moment later.

The rat felt his heart leap in his chest. He ran across the grassy knoll — shouldn’t it be covered in snow this time of the year? — and flung his arms about the both of them. Tears streamed from their eyes as they kissed all three and collapsed against the hillside. “Oh how I’ve missed you,” he said and wrapped his arms about Kimberly’s neck and pulled her close. With his other arm he pulled Baerle in for a hug too.

“As have we,” Kimberly said in her soft soprano. “But now we never have to be apart again.”

“I know,” he said with relief.

“We’ll all be one flesh in stone with you,” Baerle replied, sliding her legs against his.

He blinked in surprise at that comment, and then looked down at their legs. All six legs were entwined together and as he watched, Kimberly and Baerle’s foot paws began to slide into his. The familiar coolness of granite crept up from his toes and across his ankles and shin. That same stone began to swallow his Lady Kimberly and also the opossum.

He tried to object and to control the stone, but Kimberly put her fingers over his muzzle, brushing her claw against his incisors. “Hush my sweet. You will be a mountain. We will be a mountain together.”

And even as she spoke he saw their stony legs sinking into the earth and stretching outward. The grass shifted and began to cover their massive frame as the three of them grew ever more one. Charles shook his head repeatedly even as he felt their roots dig deep into the earth. So many other voices and presences came to him, so many things that he didn’t know but felt. The stone covered their faces and he watched as both Baerle and Kimberly’s forms eroded into separate cliff faces adorning his peak. And that peak grew and grew up into the sky until he could see past the mountains to the plains of the Midlands and beyond. The stars in their nightly passage had to veer to avoid striking his summit.

Charles tried to shake all of the stone free, but his growth was done and he could move no more. Even Kimberly and Baerle, though their presence was ever more part of him, were no longer distinct from him. His thoughts ground the ages and crushed minerals to gems. They were not accustomed to being stone and were crushed beneath him into deposits of the finest metals.

Alone, covered by grass, trees, moss, and tens of thousands of animals, the mountain wept.

It was all illusion. Qan-af-årael knew this the moment the latch dropped and he stood in his tower in Ava-shavåis. Knowing and breaking were two different things, and as he strode around the room noting the intricate details from the murals adorning every wall to the position of each chair including the one with only a single arm, he found no flaw in the Chateau’s legerdemain.

He strode with calm grace to the balcony overlooking the mighty Åelfwood and stared up into the sky. It should be night already if he were truly in Ava-shavåis but a blue sky met him. The sun shone behind him and he could see by the length of his tower’s shadow that it was midmorning. And by the shadow’s direction that it was Summer rather than Winter. The middle of August in fact.

Qan-af-årael glanced down the length of his tower and saw something else that didn’t belong. Running through the trees were gossamer ivory roads that he’d never seen. One of them connected to his antechamber below. Curious, he descended the spiralling steps and found an arched portal from his tower shaped like two trees whose branches mingled into the keystone. The road disappeared into the branches adorned with leaves of every shade green. The only support he could see was against his tower.

Nevertheless, he felt no fear in stepping onto the finely wrought road. The ivory, though carved into intricate filigree no thicker than a oak leaf, did not bend under his weight. Qan-af-årael passed into the boughs which grew in and through the road. Behind him his tower vanished in the midst of the arboreal canopy. He felt the air change and grow cooler with each step.

The trees broke before him and he saw a vast endless expanse of forest. It stretched all along the base of the Barrier Range. The varied Midlands he’d known filled with farms and villages were now but part of the great wood. He continued to walk and noted the long lost city of Yerebey standing in the midst of a great confluence of maple and ash. Music rose and the leaves danced with every melancholy note turned triumphant. The road branched with one fork leading into Yerebey and the other further west. He did not pause but took the western path, one ear listening to the music as he walked.

As Qan-af-årael continued on the road perched upon the air, he noted places where the forest canopy broke to reveal cities or rivers. Only the rivers remained in his own time. The cities were Åelvish but unknown to him. The road forked into each, but with each step on the main branch he seemed to traverse leagues. Eventually the road curved northwards through the Metamor Valley. It too was a place of ancient woods and majestic cities of his own people. The castle he had only ever seen in pictures and in dreams sparkled resplendent upon its bluff. Yet he was equally certain that none of the Metamorians that he had accompanied these past three months lived there.

After leaving the valley the road turned east through what were known as the Giantdowns. Even into that barren northern land the forests of his people had invaded, turning the vast tundra into an eternal Spring. Dark mountains sprang up in their midst, but even from that menacing crag towers of finest obsidian had been carved, casting back the pall its otherwise detestable character brought it.

The road carried him over snowy mountains into which small copses of forest had sprung up. More cities, more of his kind, and nothing of any other came with each step. The path turned into the Vysehrad mountains and he saw Carethedor thronged with life that had not existed in a thousand years. And then the road turned west again and crossed a land flat but for the undulating heights of the trees that made it home.

Qan-af-årael walked on ignoring the many cities and rivers and trees that kept all locked in that pristine moment that his city preserved. The road had begun at his tower and had circled over the whole of Galendor. Yet it now led inexorably southwest. With grim certainty, the ancient Åelf began to understand just what this illusion was.

Undeterred, he continued walking toward the infinitely majestic and invincibly powerful city of Yajakali’s dreams — Jagoduun.

Lindsey did not object when Habakkuk put his paw on his shoulder. In truth, the kangaroo’s close presence was comforting. And when Jerome threw the latch and everyone else disappeared, it was the only thing that remained.

“Where did they go?” Lindsey asked, lifting one leg to take a step toward the now shut door.

Habakkuk grabbed him by both shoulders and tugged him back. “Don’t! It’s all illusion.”

Lindsey half-turned and saw a look of blind panic in the Felikaush’s eyes. It was a look he had only seen a few times before, and each time, the northerner knew that his only means of salvation was to trust his friend and former lover. He slowly nodded his head, heart still beating like a war drum in his chest. “Then where are they?”

“Somewhere,” Habakkuk replied, the look in his eyes fading a little. He slid his paws down Lindsey’s arms and tightly clasped his hands. Rough callused fingers met abrasive paw pads, short russet fur, and narrow claws. “Somewhere in the Chateau. We’re all inside now. We are all under its sway. As long as we touch each other it cannot separate us.”

Lindsey threaded his fingers through the kangaroo’s and then narrowed his eyes. “If you knew that, why didn’t you warn everyone else?”

A look of unutterably misery came to Habakkuk’s face. His ears drooped to his neck and his long tail fell to the floor. “I felt like I should touch you, but I didn’t understand why until now.” He snarled and added, “Like so many of my visions, their meaning only becomes clear once it is too late to do anything about it!”

It wasn’t much, but the northerner knew it was all he could expect. “So, where do we go now?”

Habakkuk half turned and pointed to a set of stairs descending beneath the opposite wall. Lindsey almost let go of the kangaroo’s paw so surprised was he by their sudden appearance. “Down. Down to the Chamber of Unearthly Light.”

Lindsey swallowed heavily and the two walked hand in paw toward the dark set of stairs.

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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