Book I |
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue
The staircase leading down from the entrance hall had no lanterns to guide their way. Neither had Habakkuk or Lindsey carried any, and with their friends lost in the Chateau’s illusions, they could only rely on what ambient light came from above and their sense of touch. Habakkuk, who could wear no shoes, took each step first. His feet were long enough that his toes curled over the edge of each step. Gingerly he would lean forward, long tail lifting but still dragging on the steps behind them, and lower one foot until it met the cold stone of the next step.
Lindsey and he kept hand and paw firmly clasped together. The kangaroo’s claws dug lightly against the flesh callused and chapped from his years on the timber crews. With his free hand Lindsey dragged his fingers against the smooth wall to steady them. Although they’d only started down the stairs not even a minute past, already the darkness was too thick for his human eyes to penetrate. And since kangaroos were animals of the sun, Habakkuk’s eyesight was little better in so tenebrous a place.
“Shouldn’t we try to make some sort of light?” Lindsey asked in a voice even quieter than the scrape of Habakkuk’s toe claws.
He could feel more than see his companion and guide turn. Habakkuk was now only a dim shadow in the blackness of the endless stair, a thing of faint lines and denser presence. The soft russet fur on his arm brushed Lindsey’s own and a sigh escaped his long muzzle. “Everything is coming together now. The Hall of Unearthly Light is below. There will be light again. At the very least, the Marquis had to have some light for his passage. Just, trust me now and we’ll get through this.”
“I trust you, Zhypar.”
The kangaroo squeezed his hand a little and then continued into the darkness. Lindsey stared wide-eyed into the abyss. His eyes were adjusting to the darkness and he could still make out the faint line of the next few steps. But with each step they faded more and more from view. In another minute he knew there would be nothing to see at all. Each step already took several seconds to make. How long and how careful would they need to be once all the light went out? Would the stairs disappear completely beneath them? Would they be trapped in some labyrinth with only their hands and paws to guide them? The very notion of it made him squeeze Habakkuk’s paw tighter.
“Do you remember,” Habakkuk said softly and with uncanny warmth, “when Charles told us of his journey beneath Metamor? Last year during the assault the other rats had found a passage that led north to Glen Avery. Do you remember him telling us that?”
Lindsey nodded, carefully setting his right boot on the next step. The left followed more quickly. His mind turned back to one of the many nights on their journey around the fire talking of others things while they ate their evening meal. A slight smile came to him. “I remember. He said the walls were black and smooth as pearl. Kayla said Andwyn had teams explore some of those passages.”
“That’s right. And they were no threat to Metamor because they couldn’t be opened from the passage if locked outside.” Habakkuk took the next step and then added, “I remember Charles saying how long it took to traverse the passage. Just think how much farther we’ve come in these last six months. An entire continent! I daresay there are two or three others at the Keep who can say as much as we can. But this stair reminds me of Charles’s passage. Only we know this will end and end soon.”
Lindsey wasn’t so sure about that. He couldn’t see anything at all anymore. Tentatively he set his foot down on the next step. The wall beneath his right fingers felt smooth apart from places where another mineral had been worked into grooves. That other mineral felt soft but firm like lead. “How do you know it will end soon? Did you foresee it?”
“No, but I remember what Abafouq translated in Qorfuu. The Hall of Unearthly Light was beneath the city. The Chateau was built over top of the city’s ruins. So first we must pass the layer of ruins before we reach the Hall. It cannot be much further.”
Lindsey felt somewhat comforted by that as they walked. The seconds drew into minutes and the darkness persisted. His fingers alternated clawing at the wall and just sliding across it. He rubbed his other fingers across the back of Habakkuk’s paw. But other than the sound of Habakkuk’s claws and tail scraping over the stone stairs, all he could hear was their own breath.
The kangaroo began whispering under his breath. “Lucnos... matraluc... gold, quicksilver, plumbum.” He repeated them again, the first two drawn out as if Habakkuk were savouring the way they rolled off his tongue, the others quick like bolts from a crossbow. “Lucnos... matraluc... gold, quicksilver, plumbum.”
“What are those?” Lindsey whispered.
“Luc... the minerals Yajakali used in his weapons. Lucnos meant light of night. And Matraluc was mother of light. There...” the kangaroo’s voice trailed away and he stood still for a moment. Lindsey glanced where he knew Habakkuk would be but of course he saw nothing. When his friend spoke again, the voice was so quiet that only in that place where no other sound existed could he have heard him. “Light. Look below.”
He stared down the staircase and at first didn’t understand what he was seeing. Somewhere far below he saw thin lines that narrowed even as they brightened. His heart quickened and he knew them at last. The steps! Somewhere below there was light! He took a long slow breath and squeezed Habakkuk’s paw. “At last.”
“I’d rather the stair continue forever. When we reach that light we face the very end.” Nevertheless, Habakkuk resumed climbing down the steps. What enthusiasm for the light Lindsey had died with those forlorn words from the kangaroo. He kept his grip on the paw tight and followed him down.
The light steadily grew and within a minute Lindsey could see Habakkuk’s outline again. Still their guide set one long foot gingerly down on the next step, a step they both could see limned by a warm yellow light. If anything, he seemed to take each step slower than the last. Lindsey sighed and leaned closer to whisper, “We cannot delay the end forever. We have to stop the Marquis and we don’t know what’s become of the others!”
Habakkuk lowered his long ears, eyes narrowing with a look of profoundest sorrow. “You speak true, my love, my northern flame. You speak true. Let us be done with it then.” His manner became resolute so quickly that Lindsey couldn’t help but wonder if some he’d reached some great decision. No longer did he scout out the steps but noted each merely by sight and trusted to what the light revealed.
Within another minute the light grew bright enough that they could see details along the walls that had before been invisible except to Lindsey’s touch. Crisscrossing the walls as if it were ivy were bands of some inlay. It had a dull luster even in the yellow light, though it was subtly brighter than the stone in which it had been set. The design was intricate with the familiar delicacy that they’d seen in the ancient city of Ava-shavåis.
“We must be getting cl...” the words did on his tongue as he saw the stairs reach their end. The yellow light pooled at the bottom and a circular arch led into another hallway. Lindsey swallowed and stared. No longer needing Habakkuk’s help, they descended the last steps together.
Lindsey didn’t know what to expect when they reached the bottom. But the long hall inlaid with the dull metal and interspersed with flaming torches was not it. The hall stretched so long that they couldn’t make out its end despite the light. The northerner let out a sigh of relief and paused, yanking the kangaroo back a pace. “What is it?” Habakkuk asked, still speaking in hushed tones.
“This metal,” Lindsey replied, stroking his fingers over the grey inlay. It felt soft and pliable beneath his fingers. “It’s just common lead. I thought you said it was supposed to glow with an unearthly light?”
Habakkuk sighed and nodded. “It did once. What the Binoq carved in Nafqananok told of how the prince laid lucnos in the walls of his sanctum sanctorum. But it also said how the lucnos could change lead into gold, but eventually the gold all became lead again. It seems that even lucnos shared that fate. Come. We should not marvel. This place is evil.”
Lindsey turned back to the kangaroo and together the two of them walked down the long hall. The end of the hall never revealed itself, but only grew brighter with each passing step. The walls darkened beneath the scowl of such brilliance. Both of them lifted an arm to shield their eyes as the passage dwindled to nothing but that shining golden radiance.
And then they blinked and all the world came into view again. The hall opened into a large chamber festooned with the scrollwork pattern along ceiling, wall and floor. The stone was smooth as glass but firm. Nine columns in the shapes of vast trees rose along the perimeter of the chamber. Their branches crawled together over the ceiling through the leaden inlay and seemed to bear thin fern-like leaves. Set into each tree was one of the nine chevrons also in lead.
Their eyes were drawn not to the feat of artistry to sculpt stone so delicately, but to that which hulked in the centre of the chamber. A circular platform of marbled stone stood on nine legs over a crack in the floor. The crack was not so much a chasm as an emptiness where the floor should have been. Straight but jagged edges spread out like a fist punched into ice and within each nothing existed but a darkness more profound than they had faced even on the staircase.
Resting atop the platform was a golden dias with nine stanchions at each of its nine corners. A nine sided lacuna in its centre waited for something to fill it. Lines of a strange speckled grey mineral led from each stanchion to the central depression. Atop each stanchion was a different coloured gem all dark despite the preternatural glow reflected in the gold. At the base of each stanchion one of the nine chevrons had been inscribed. Along the rest of the dias pictographs of demons and monsters cavorted in every vice imaginable to man, and many beyond even the blackest desires of man.
Before them rested in malevolent regard the Dias of Yajakali. And beneath it so tranquil and menacing, the very crack in existence Yajakali had created.
“Great Eli help us,” Habakkuk stammered, his brown eyes wide and his fur trembling in fright.
“You are quite beyond anyone’s help here, Felikaush.” The mocking tone was unmistakable. Turning their heads, hand and paw still clasped, Lindsey and Habakkuk beheld the Marquis du Tournemire emerge from behind one of the pillars. In one hand he carried his deck of cards, and his fingers methodically moved the top card to the bottom with the nimbleness of a trickster.
Lindsey reached for his axe with his free hand and immediately felt his muscles constrict. The Marquis smiled with supreme amusement. “You do recall what I made you do to that donkey the last time we met. I could have you strangle the Felikaush here just as easily.”
Lindsey’s heart sank. The control in the cards was complete. Beside him Habakkuk glared but also stayed perfectly still. There was nothing either of them could do to the Marquis. Slowly, his arm descended back to his side where it lingered harmlessly. This appeared to satisfy the Marquis. “You do remember. How delightful. And how interesting that it would be the two of you to reach the Hall of Unearthly Light first. Your companions are quite lost and I fear they may not join us in time to watch what I have in mind for you.”
“And what is that?” Habakkuk sneered through his snout. Lindsey tried to move his tongue but found that it remained fixed. Why was the Marquis letting Habakkuk talk and not him?
Tournemire laughed, a sound that grated on their ears. “You, the last of the Felikaush, a race singularly gifted with the art of prophecy, must ask me what will come to pass? Don’t you already know what I intend?”
“I do not know everything,” Habakkuk admitted with disdain.
The Marquis spread his cards between his hands and studied the kangaroo for a moment before continuing his diatribe. “No, you don’t do you. I can feel it in your mind, all the various possibilities coming together now. Everything is leading up to what will happen tonight. Yet still you cling to the hope that you will stop me. You can see that you won’t, but you still hope for it.”
“You see only what you want to see, Marquis,” Habakkuk replied with acid in his voice. “You have no understanding of the future.”
The Marquis moved away from the pillar and walked toward them. Behind him they could see his Castellan and Steward propped against the wall as still as statues. There didn’t appear to be anyone else in the room, but the Marquis was more than enough. Though quite a bit shorter than Lindsey, he still managed to look down his nose at the both of them.
“No understanding? It is I more than anyone in the world who has shaped the future. You, Felikaush, have done nothing but watch what I have set in motion come to pass. Even your precious Åelf has wasted centuries watching the stars move without realizing he could stretch out his hand and shape them. You’ve done nothing for the future.”
The Marquis spread his hands wide and the deck of cards hung in the air between them as if laying upon an invisible table. His smile mocked their paralysis. “It was I who orchestrated moving the Censer to Metamor and turning Loriod against your precious Duke. It was I who arranged the assassination of Patriarch Akabaieth. It was I who drove Breckaris to invade Sathmore. It was I who instigated civil war in the Southern Midlands. It was I who turned Whales’ mighty and unconquerable fleet against itself. And it is I whose actions have created whatever future this world might have. And it is I who pull your strings this night. It is I who decide whether you shall live or die. What can you do? What have you done? Trade messages by carrier pigeon with your equally inept conspirators?”
Habakkuk lowered his eyes and ears. “I have thwarted you.”
“Hah!” The Marquis leaned his head back and crossed his arms. The cards remained before him. “You move your tongue only because I give you leave. You cannot thwart me.”
“But it has already come to pass. I am here. My friends will be here soon. And besides, everything you touch fails. Not a single one of your schemes has succeeded.”
The Marquis lowered his eyes and shook his head. “What delusions are you spouting, Felikaush?”
“I don’t have to change the world to thwart you. That is where you’re mistaken. A touch here or there is all that is needed. Your allies understood this. It was all that Marzac would allow them. A touch unnoticed has undone every one of your plans. Loriod indulged his worst tendencies to turn the Duke against him before your plan to install him on the throne could succeed. Had you succeeded, you could have tied the Censer to Metamor at your leisure instead of sacrificing one of your allies to do it. You didn’t succeed. You barely hung on to what you had.”
The Marquis idly began flipping through his cards. He’d stare at the face then toss them into the air where they floated untended. “Loriod was a fool. His mistakes were not because he sought to undermine me. His mistakes were because he thought himself more important than me. And yet I still tied the Censer. You may remember. You were there with all of your friends. You could do nothing to stop me.”
Habakkuk snorted, ears lifting with renewed liveliness. “Your other allies betrayed you too. Yonson insured that a book revealing the secrets of the hyacinth found its way into my possession. It was a book I translated, which he gave to Jessica, knowing the only one who could translate it at Metamor was me. It led me inexorably to discover the hyacinth you had him place at Metamor to store magical energy. With it destroyed, your plot to turn the Duke into a willing beast of burden failed. And you were forced to come to Metamor yourself to tie the Censer. Yonson betrayed you in the only way he could, sneaking out a critical piece of the puzzle.”
“You are starting to bore me, Felikaush.”
“Agathe betrayed you by keeping Tugal alive and taking her to Breckaris where she could undo our confinement.”
The Marquis studied his nails. “I deliberately left Agathe there so that you could kill her. I knew she’d summon the Pillars. I used you to help me gain their power.”
“But you intended one of us to be struck down in the fight. Tugal took the blow meant for us. And let us not forget the innumerable ways that Zagrosek has undermined you.”
“And he is now dead. Which brings us to you, Zhypar Habakkuk.” The Marquis pulled a card out of the deck and twirled it on the end of one finger. “The last of the Felikaush. A sad pathetic creature. I’ve seen your thoughts and your dreams. You do what you do because you believe you must. And you have shown great fidelity in your quest to thwart me, even if your efforts have been in vain. Yet, deep inside, you still want something. Something very special to you. There is something missing in you, and it stands as a raw wound upon your soul.”
Tournemire laid one hand upon his doublet over his heart and his eyes twinkled with burlesque humour. “But I am not without sympathy. I will help grant you this day that which you’ve always hoped for.”
“And what is that?”
The Marquis pulled a second card out of the deck and glanced at Lindsey. “You were once female. I have seen between you more than just a friendship. Before the curses of Metamor changed you, you were contemplating marriage. The Last Felikaush had found the one person who he could truly love after so long a time running from the pains of his lost family and city. Together, he need not be the Last Felikaush anymore. His line could continue, and his family’s sacred charge would not need be lost.
“But then Metamor made Lindsey a man and you couldn’t be together.” The Marquis pressed the card to his face and lowered his eyelids as if he were crying. “Truly a story that bards would sing of if only they knew your misery.”
“I want no favours from you!”
The Marquis stepped closer and patted the kangaroo on the jowl. “Ah, but I am your host. You as a guest must accept the gift of the host. Is that not the laws of hospitality where you come from?”
Lindsey felt ready to explode inside. All he wanted to do was grasp his axe and cleave this hideous man’s head in twain. But Habakkuk, so strong that he was, kept his voice steely and firm. “You do not give gifts. You give curses.”
“Metamor gave you the curse. I will lift it.” Lindsey immediately wondered how he planned to do that. “You doubt me? Merely because your lackwit mages cannot understand the conflux of spells they live under does not mean that it is a knot that cannot be undone. The curse of Metamor is but a plaything and I can twist it however I will. And I will that this great wound on your heart be made whole.”
The Marquis let the other cards in his deck lazily float around him while he took a single card and spun it so that Lindsey could see the face. Seven hearts surrounded a central figure of a man with braided red beard and axe. The figure was unmistakeably Lindsey. “Now let us see what happens when the curses of Metamor are lifted.”
He pressed his fingers to the side of the card as if he were plucking a bit of hair. Lindsey felt his body tense and a thousand hands jabbed into his flesh. His beard lifted and yanked clean from his face. His hair was pulled down his back. A burning sensation in his groin pressed ever inward like a hook jostling his innards to loosen the blubber. Iron rods pierced his chest and drew it out. All the while, his tongue yearned to scream but the Marquis’s control prevented him from uttering a sound.
The Marquis spun the card on his fingertip. When it stopped, the image was grossly changed. Gone was the beard, the axe, and the man. In its place was a northern woman, broad of shoulder and hip, with ruddy jowls and long red hair. Lindsey recognized the woman who he’d once been before the curses had changed him. And then, he felt a hand reaching up and stroking his smooth cheeks.
The Marquis stepped back a pace and Lindsey found that he could control himself a little bit. He spread his hands over his body, exploring and noting very quickly that the Marquis had spoken true. Lindsey was no longer the man he’d been for the last eight years. She was now the woman she’d been born to be.
“How?” her voice was still rough and uncultured, but unmistakeably feminine. She could see a look of total anguish in Habakkuk’s face.
“The curse is easy to manipulate,” the Marquis replied with an amused sneer. “However, I don’t think the last Felikaush fully appreciates my gift to him. He needs to see more of you. Now, let’s help him.”
Lindsey felt the Marquis’s control guide her hands again. Her tongue kept behind her teeth while she set her axe on the ground, then loosed the straps of her pack and dropped it atop the axe. Habakkuk tried to turn his face away, but the Marquis kept his gaze fixed on Lindsey as she took off her attire one piece at a time. In only moments, Lindsey stood with arms spread wide bearing nothing and revealing all of her once lost femininity.
Habakkuk’s lips opened in a soft moan, “Lhindesaeg.”
Hearing her given name made her flesh tremble. Lindsey had changed it to something easier on Midlander tongues when she’d gone to Metamor and it had remained a secret between her and Habakkuk since. His eyes, brown and soft, vacillated between long denied desire and utter agony.
“Now, Felikaush, your love is before you,” the Marquis said with a sickly warmth. “Can you not find it in yourself to respond to that desire you have long thought lost?” As if a tree finally giving way to the woodsman’s axe, Habakkuk tore at his clothes with feverish passion. He shucked his pack, ripped a pants seam in his haste, and then doffed his tunic in a pile behind him. The black spider-like scar on his side shimmered in the golden light from the dias.
“Lhindesaeg!” His voice, throaty and guttural, nevertheless carried with it a tone of love. Lindsey’s heart nearly broke at the conflict within him. How could there ever be a worse time and place for their love to be rekindled?
But her tongue moved to echo his sultry sentiment. “Zhypar!” She flung herself into his arms at the Marquis’s command, and shuddered against his furry chest. His paws stroked down her smooth skin, playing through her now long hair.
“No, this isn’t quite right,” the Marquis said with mocking regret. “One curse still separates you from true union. Lindsey is human, but you, Felikaush, are part beast. This will not do. There is something else in your mind, a fancy I take delight in. The curse I see upon you can easily be shared. There will be no copulation between man and beast. As I am your master, you shall be my beasts.”
Habakkuk’s arms tightened around her as the Marquis spun the card again. Her body spasmed with sudden pain, as hands grasped every part of her and twisted it afresh. Her ears were tugged upward like hot candlewax; her nose and lips drawn forward by grappling hook. Her feet were crushed and then rolled out long and thin. Something jabbed a hole into her belly. A tickling sensation ran across all her flesh as a scarlet coat of fur grew in. And her back was pushed forward as chains dragged a weighty tail from her rump.
When the card stopped spinning, the Seven of Hearts featured a red-furred female kangaroo. Lindsey could see that same fur on her changed arms. Her new snout obscured the front of her wider vision, and she felt awkward on her legs. The tail kept swaying back and forth and she kept having to shift her ungainly feet back and forth to keep from falling over. All through it Habakkuk held her as best he could, his eyes fighting the beastly passion the Marquis’s whim stirred.
“Much better. Now, onto the dais with you that you might sanctify it with your carnal nature. Go on. Hop on up.” Lindsey stared as Habakkuk fell back a pace, his body shifting into the full animal form. His arms shrank, thumb disappearing, as his hips swelled and posture forced him lower to the ground. He turned to the dias and mechanically hopped onto its golden surface. Lindsey found herself forced into the same beastly shape and followed after him with a gait that matched.
The Marquis sighed and let go of all his cards. They circled him slowly, some face out and some face in. His smile filled them with despair even as his cards filled them with lust. “And now be together as the beasts you are.”
Lindsey found herself leaning forward, unfamiliar tail rising behind her. Habakkuk snuffled along her backside, his paws brushing across her sides and finding purchase, while what emerged between his legs sought that which the curses had taken away from her eight years past. Lindsey warbled an animal’s cry but could do nothing more as Habakkuk and she came together.
Her long ears were filled with the grunting of her lover and the laughter of the vile Marquis du Tournemire.
Kayla jostled her arms but they remained firmly fixed on the decaying chest of the raccoon Rickkter. Her lover’s green eyes, once vibrant, dominant, and a touch mischievous, now glowed a sickly colour that reminded her of the fungus she’d seen growing beneath the Binoq mountains. His claws, grey and long, fumbled at her jerkin but the tough leather kept them from scaping her chest.
Through her arms, what life Rickkter had left, what thoughts, what hopes, what of anything was drawn into Kayla’s body. Of all that she had experienced both in her youth, her days at Metamor, and in the six months travelling to Marzac, she’d never experienced anything so horrifying as stealing a life. Not even the Marquis’s torturous powers frightened her more than this. She experienced all Rickkter’s thoughts of love for her turn into cries of terror and fright.
Yet, as if somehow he was still trying to love her, his thoughts kept turning to the bracer around Kayla’s arm. It had been a gift from Rickkter to her shortly before the events of the Summer Solstice struck him down and forced her to leave Metamor. She’d never given it much thought — the dragon swords had been far more interesting even when they weren’t talking to her — but now it seemed important. She angled her arm to get a good look at the bracer. Fashioned from sturdy metal with runes inscribed along the back, it still appeared to be no more than a decorative work. Though it fit comfortably, there was a gap between her forearm and the metal that she could see through.
And then she stared through it, the shock of what she saw, or didn’t see, snapping her mind out of the numbing terror of the undead Rickkter clawing at her chest. She should have seen his desiccated and mangy fur, but all she saw was the dull, dusty stones of Marzac.
Marzac! She was in Marzac!
As soon as the sight came to her, Rickkter and the walls of Metamor disappeared. She stood alone in the entrance chamber to the Chateau Marzac. The door was closed and latched. Behind her she saw a long set of stairs descending into darkness. Their plan had worked! She could go to the Hall of Unearthly Light. But what had happened to her friends?
Resting one paw on the hilt of Clymaethera, the skunk turned about, monochromatic tail swinging behind her head. Apart from the tenebrous staircase the entrance chamber was completely barren. But was this true or was it merely another aspect of the magic closing the door had summoned?
Kayla peered down at the bracer and wondered. Slowly, she lifted it and peered between the top curve and her upper arm. Turning on one paw, she swept across the room. Brief flashes of colour met her eyes and her leapt in her chest. Her friends were there trapped in their own illusions! How could she free them though?
She settled on the nearest. James the donkey had drawn his sword and was stabbing down into the empty air with dark eyes wild with anger. What could he be seeing? The memory of undead Rickkter assured her it was better if she didn’t know. Gingerly, she reached forward and tried to grab him on one shoulder.
And then he was there. He stared down at the ground and blinked. Turning his head to one side he saw her and he let out a gasp of air. “Kayla! What’s happened? Oh Eli, what have I been doing!” The agony in his voice tore at her heart, but she couldn’t risk letting him fall apart on her now.
“It’s all illusion,” she replied, sliding her paw down over his shoulder blade to comfort the distraught equine. “The Chateau is trying to destroy our resolve.”
James took several deep breaths and then nodded. “Where’s everyone else?”
“In the room. I can see them through this.” She lifted her hand to show the donkey the bracer. But as soon as she broke contact with him he vanished from sight.
With a strangled cry, she stuck out her hand again and he appeared. The donkey shuddered and put his hoof-like hands over his long snout. “Oh, Eli! It came back!”
Kayla frowned and with her other paw grabbed James by the hand. “I think we have to keep touching. Come. We’ll find the others.” James nodded, his face drooping and morose. Whatever he’d seen and done still haunted him. He sheathed his blade and followed after the skunk as she scanned the room.
Just behind them she found the rat. He’d turned to stone again and appeared half-sunk in the floor. She rested her paw on top of his head and the familiar cold granite appeared. His movement was slow and ponderous like the rock he’d become. Behind her, James groaned like a man guilty of some terrible indiscretion.
“What happened?” his voice droned in the steady rhythm they’d grown used to during his time trapped as living stone. He blinked jewel eyes.
“The Chateau is using illusion against us,” Kayla replied. “I can see the others but I have to touch them to free them. James, can you take Charles’s paw and keep him with us?”
Beneath her fingers she felt warmth spreading through his stony flesh. And then, pinpricks of fur prodded her paw pads. Soon, colour returned to the rat and fur replaced the stone. He nodded to them and sliding his paws along Kayla’s arm, moved over to James who appeared hesitant at first to take his paw, but a smile from the rat ended whatever uncertainty lurked in the donkey’s heart.
Kayla peered through the bracer and frowned. “I thought Habakkuk and Lindsey were right over here, but I don’t see them. Ah, there’s Andares.” Together the three of them crossed the room to where the younger Åelf had once stood. Kayla reached out her arm and wrapped her paw around his upper arm. The Åelf appeared and after blinking a few times to clear his eyes, smiled. His high-cheek boned face conveyed both a note of sadness along with his greater relief.
“Thank you, Kayla.”
Kayla gestured with a twitch of her head and tail behind her to where the other two stood. “We have to keep touching or the illusion returns. Grab Charles’s paw.”
“It would be better,” the rat suggested, “if we were to hold each other’s tails. That will give us animal Keepers each a free hand.”
“Good idea,” Kayla agreed. She gave James’s hoof-like hand a quick squeeze before letting him slide it up her arm, down her back, and along her tail until he tightened his grip on its end. It felt very strange to have anyone other than Rick probing her tail, but this was not the time to belabour rules of modesty.
Charles took a few steps around after wrapping one paw around the donkey’s tail and waved his own near to where the Åelf stood. Andares grabbed the scaly end in one hand and nodded to them. “Where are the others?”
“I’m looking,” Kayla replied. She saw both Guernef and Abafouq a short distance ahead and walked toward them. She felt a slight tug on her tail as the others did the same.
Both the Binoq and the Nauh-kaee were grateful for being rescued. Abafouq had tears drying on his cheeks. With a bit of jostling — Andares took James’s tail, Charles took his hand, while with one hand Abafouq held the rat’s tail and his other arm was wrapped about the Nauh-kaee’s neck — they managed to link hand, paws and tails and continue toward the door.
Jerome gasped with relief when freed and took up carrying the Nauh-kaee’s lion-like tail. Jessica was similarly relieved and let Jerome cradle the tips of her wing feathers. But of the ancient Åelf or Habakkuk and Lindsey there was no sign.
“I can’t say Qan-af-årael disappearing really surprises me,” Charles admitted with whiskers atwitter. “It worries me, but doesn’t surprise me. But where did Lindsey and Habakkuk go? You said that the rest of us were still in the same place we’d been when the door was shut.”
Kayla shook her head, ears and whiskers folding back. “I don’t know. They were right behind us but they aren’t there anymore.”
“I saw Habakkuk put his paw on Lindsey’s shoulder before the door was closed,” Andares said softly. “Perhaps they were never consumed by the phantasms of this evil Chateau?”
“Perhaps,” Kayla admitted. She didn’t remember that, but they had been standing behind her. “Do you think they’ve already gone ahead of us?”
“We do have noses,” the rat pointed out as he tugged himself toward the staircase. “Let me sniff and learn.” The line moved as best they could to the top of the stairs. Charles bent over, drawing Andares down with him to keep touching. He brushed his whiskers and nose across the top step and drew in what scents he could. Apart from the mustiness of the place, he could discern the faint earthiness he’d always associated with his kangaroo friend. He straightened. “They did indeed go down before us.”
“Then we need to follow,” Kayla said. She peered into the dark and glanced back. “But we need light.”
“I will tend to that.” Jessica lifted her free wing and three bright globes of light emerged from her wing feathers. They hovered in the air, until two broke away. One flew ahead of Kayla and stopped, while the other danced a few feet over Charles’s head. “It will be easier than lighting and carrying a lantern.”
Kayla nodded and set her paw on the first step. “Then let’s go down. We don’t have much time left.” She kept the bracer before her, but for once it showed her nothing hidden. The stairs were at least real. But how far ahead were their friends?
The ivory road widened some as Qan-af-årael neared the glittering crown of the world. The city of Jagoduun rose from the forest with ziggurat towers and arcades of brilliant marble and chalcedony. Jade spires and golden capstones reflected the sunlight both above and below, while crystals of the most luminous hue sparkled with mellifluous array over those arcades. Precise geometric lines captured every astronomical event in the lay of the city, equinoxes, solstices, eclipses, and every constellation was crafted into the design. Rivers of lucid water poured from the centre and ran in myriad canals throughout the city. Aetherial music of a hundred thousand different voices and instruments, Åelf and other, combined in eternal praise of their city’s immortal prince.
Qan-af-årael continued his stately pace, eyes absorbing the splendour of this imagined metropolis with a resigned awe. The swamp that now infested this land had become a sub-tropical forest of alder, birch, cedar, elm, fig, holly, juniper, locust, oak, and the odd pistachio. These also were interwoven into the lower arcades of the city. Gardens dominated the higher elevations, filled with boisterous flowers in such profusion that there must be millions, yet he knew also that each one was unique.
There could be no comparison between this city and any other city of the world. None was as beautiful, none was as grand, none was as exalted, and from none did flow life as did from Jagoduun.
Qan-af-årael saw a figure waiting for him at the end of the ivory road. Another Åelf with long silvery black hair and ears drawn to perfectly shaped points. He dressed in a simple white garment with wide sleeves and skirt whose hem undulated only an inch above the ivory road. The garment, though plain, bore no seams or stitches. It seemed illumined not by the sun but by the person wearing it.
His eyes were a radiant, but deep blue, the same blue of a clear day’s sky directly overhead. His thin lips bore a smile of supreme pleasure and his bearing told of his unparalleled magnanimous spirit. His skin was smooth but mature. There could be no way to determine this Åelf’s age. With careful deliberation, he inclined respectfully, though the depth of his bow was not so much that he treated Qan-af-årael as a superior. It was not even clear he treated him as an equal.
“Lord of Colours, my city brightens with your very presence.” His voice was like the piping of the finest flutes blended with the melancholy cry of the most delicate violin. “Allow me to welcome you with open arms and great joy to the holy city of Jagoduun.”
“The city as you imagine it to be, my Prince,” Qan-af-årael said without scorn. “For Jagoduun never appeared so.”
The Prince lifted his face and his eyes blossomed with such sublime confidence and serenity that it was difficult not to enjoy his optimism. “It shall. This is how it was always meant to be. That which is meant to be will be. Come, see, I shall show you how your very stars have come to live and make their magnificence known here, Lord of Colours.”
“No, my Prince. That which is, is what was meant to be. This is only what you seek.”
The Prince’s serenity did not waver despite Qan-af-årael’s flat refusal to accept what was shown him. Nevertheless, the Prince did step toward him and guide him with a hand that never touched him beyond the end of the ivory road and onto one of the mid-level arcades. They could see beyond the tops of the many trees for miles in any direction. To either the west and east he could see a blue sea flecked with white at the forest’s edge. Mighty vessels that seemed ready to sail the air as much as the water bobbed up and down in the froth.
“What I seek is the same that lies in the soul of every Åelf. In yours as well. You did see the world as it should be. As it will be. It was humankind which in its foolish reaching beyond that sent the world off course. Come see all corrected and set aright!”
The Prince took Qan-af-årael through the streets of the city, up the sloping towers and along the arcades. To the Lord of Colours he showed every array of life and every note of precision. The streets themselves followed the courses of stars or planets, mapping out the very path of existence. This was no earthly city despite its construction from elements found on the Earth. This was a place of transcendent peace. This was a place where the object of consideration could be set aside and the self could dwell in meditative languor on its own subjective identity. Truly, Qan-af-årael could think of no place more perfect in design or execution.
“If this is how things should be,” Qan-af-årael finally asked after an eternity of quiet observation, “then why is it that we two are the only walking beings here, my Prince?”
“Do you not hear the music? You cannot see them, but they are there, Lord of Colours.” The Prince gestured with a simple wave of his hand. The very air susurrated like a wave of heat passing through a winter day. On the many lower arcades and balconies Qan-af-årael could now see thousands of younger Åelf gathered in musical and meditative worship. Tens of thousands of Keeper-like beings clustered the very lowest arcades, all prostrate and servile. Their tails lay behind them, and those with wings kept them folded close to their backs.
“I know you think ill of me, Lord of Colours,” the Prince said in softer tones, the first to betray a more general sadness. “That which has come to pass in your world is emblematic of the evil that will be avoided in my own. No more will that evil corrupt minds. Nor will humans destroy our world. But I am not cruel as you perceive me to be. They have their place. And you can see they have been reshaped to better fill it.”
Qan-af-årael studied the prostrate figures from the high arcade, able only to note the broad features of their beastly shapes and not any richer details. “You have made them half animal like my companions, my Prince?”
“And your companions will be among them.” This last offer was made with a smile of purest assurance. The blue eyes bled a certainty granted warmth only by the faint supernatural glow of his flesh. “They are the solution to the problem of man. In your world it took far longer to discern, and you yourself can attest to the destruction wrought by its tardiness, Lord of Colours.”
Qan-af-årael peered closer and could see that the Prince spoke the truth. In the central arcade bowed low were a donkey, a rat, a hawk, a skunk, and a pair of kangaroos each blended with the form of man. “And you allow them in your city?”
“They serve in whatever capacities they can in their short lives. It is the way of things. To our race was gifted knowledge of the deepest secrets of the universe. Here in my city, the holy city of Jagoduun, those secrets are laid bare for all to contemplate and celebrate. Arising to each higher arcade can only be accomplished by a greater understanding. Thy companions are uniquely blessed amongst the beastly castes as they can rise nearly to where we stand now.”
“My Prince, why would you bring them to this world?”
“Because they are necessary to bring about what should be and what was meant to be.” The Prince gestured with one hand toward a long ramp leading to the next higher arcade. “Come and learn the greater secrets, Lord of Colours. Another arcade and you shall know things long denied to you. Know the purpose of every race in our world, and know the end for which the world itself was created.”
“It is not for me to know, my Prince.”
“I am offering it to you.”
“If I were to learn what you offer, I would be compelled to aid you in bringing this vision of yours about, my Prince. I cannot do that.”
The Prince kept his arm extended, the long white sleeve billowing in a gentle breeze that carried on it the hymn of all assembled. “It is how things should be.”
“It is how you wish things to be, my Prince. But it is not how things are.”
“How things are is corrupted,” the Prince replied. But he did lower his arm, the invitation Qan-af-årael refused apparently no more.
“As you have corrupted the race of man with that of the beast?”
“They are only a little higher than the beasts. The corruption was to make them appear as Åelf, to place them too high above the beast. The tail, the claw, the fur, feathers and scales; these meaner things were all meant for man. To take them away and give them our visage was a mistake that needed correction.” The Prince’s eyes turned to the lower arcade and his face glowed with beneficent delight as they beheld the tens of thousands of animal men prostrate in worship. “They are beautiful now, set in their proper place, fully in harmony with the universe and its purposes.”
“Your purposes and your universe only, my Prince. What is real is not what is ideal, but only what is real.”
“What is real must tend toward a purpose, Lord of Colours. The purpose of all reality is toward this. It is not my reality, but reality as it will be. I merely fulfill my purpose in reality.”
“To be their god?”
His laughter was soft and practised. “I am not their god in the sense of reality. I am but a creature, created, though my purpose is to understand the deepest of mysteries and make them manifest in the world. They worship only because they are incapable of rising high enough to see me as do you. To them I am a god. But it is not because of any divinity on my part. It is because of the beastliness on theirs. And that is how it should be.”
“No, my Prince. It is not.”
The Prince’s face drew ever so slightly taut. “Perhaps then you are right, Lord of Colours. You are not ready to ascend to the next arcade. You do not understand reality as such. Your mind sees only that which is and is incapable of seeing that which will be.”
“I see only that which you make. And I see it, as beautiful as it is, a horror.”
Qan-af-årael gestured at the mighty edifice that comprised the holy city. “Where is the Hall of Unearthly Light? I see nothing of your precious minerals. Or have you hidden them too from my sight?”
“Their light shines only in darkness. I need it not anymore. But why go there? It is a descent.”
“Because it is where I must go. My purpose is to be there, my Prince.”
“Your purpose, Lord of Colours, is to aid me. Consent to what you see, this vision as you put it, and you will foster reality as it is meant to be. Contest me, and you side yourself with those forces seeking to destroy reality and leave it in the hands of the beasts. They will supplant you and drive you even from that pitiful refuge you’ve sought. Their future lies in the guise of animals one way or another. The future of our kind is only here.”
Qan-af-årael felt a sudden shift as a tremor in the earth far below and like a key fitting into a lock. “And therein is the lie, my Prince. Therein is the deception that undergirds your reality. Your reality is a fundamental denial of what is. You present me with mere phantoms of desire. You tempt me with your gestalt in order to prevent me from seeing the truth. You dangle before me the supremacy of our race in order to gain my aid in subjugating man. This you will never have, my Prince. Never.”
The Prince listened, his pointed ears turning ever so slightly forward to capture each word. When Qan-af-årael had finished, he folded his hands in the white sleeves of his garment and lowered his eyes. The long silvery-black hair coiled down his back. “I will still draw you across the gulf of what is to what should be, Lord of Colours. As I will all whose lives make this possible. But I do not believe you will ever ascend to this arcade again. Go. The stairs back are behind you.”
Qan-af-årael bowed his head as he turned toward the stairs. “Good-bye, my Prince. All the love of my people are to you and to your father.” But the Prince’s mind was as distant as the furthest stars and he paid no more heed to the Lord of Colours. Undeterred, Qan-af-årael started down the dark stairwell.
“It looks like the stairs end just ahead,” Kayla said in a soft voice to her companions. The skunk felt James tighten his grip on her tail, his hooves clopping on the steps behind her. Below the witchlight danced before a circular arch that led into a hallway. The walls were similarly covered in leaden scrollwork.
The air felt heavy and the skunk knew her hackles were raised. The bracer was warm to the touch now, and she knew deep down that something very dangerous lay ahead of them. The palpable sense of evil pervaded every step, but until now it seemed to wait lizard-like for them to approach. What maw readied to snatch them up?
Kayla stepped into the hallway then paused to let the rest finish their descent. Guernef was the slowest of them, his thigh still not healed fully, and the delay preyed on her thoughts. Qan-af-årael had assured them that this was the day when all would be decided. Time was of the essence. But how much time had elapsed while they’d been lost in their nightmares? And how long did they have left? Without either the ancient Åelf or the prophetic Habakkuk there was no way to know and that made her anxious.
The hallway ended in a light too bright to distinguish. Jessica snuffed the witchlights once they’d cleared the stairs, and those that could grasped weapons. Kayla drew Clymaethera from her home and felt the dragon katana throb impatiently in her paw. The serpent yearned to spill the blood of the one who had imprisoned Rickkter’s soul. Though she couldn’t see anything in the light, a presentiment assured the skunk that the Marquis was waiting just ahead.
With every step, the light began to diffuse and shapes became clearer in its brilliance. Something gold stood atop a raised platform. There were pillars along the walls, and stanchions of gold on the platform. A figure crouched on the platform moving back and forth. No, two figures. Kangaroos. Kayla felt her heart tighten as she recognized the russet fur of Habakkuk as well as the black scar spreading over his side like a splash of paint. He was atop a red-furred kangaroo, and she closed her eyes once she realized what it was they were doing.
Her mind screamed why, but then something gripped her body and compelled it forward. All her limbs became stiff, her tongue still, and with mechanistic precision, she walked into the larger chamber as obedient as a docile slave. She felt James let go of her tail and succumb to the Marquis’s control. A few choked voices sounded, and then Kayla heard Jessica cry in horror. A scuffle, and then the hawk squawking as her companions dragged the mage forcibly into the room.
Her eyes dully regarded the golden dais, knowing that it was the companion to the censer they’d seen in the belfry at Metamor six months ago. Standing nearby with a cloud of cards slowly circling his upper body was the Marquis du Tournemire. His eyes were placid and with a wave of one hand he gestured at the two kangaroos. “That is quite enough. Your friends are here. Join them on the ground.”
The two beasts disengaged and without any demonstration of modesty, reverted to morphic forms. Somehow Kayla felt sure the red kangaroo was Lindsey. The fur was the same colour as his — no, her — hair. Somehow the Marquis had changed him into a female kangaroo to match Habakkuk. She wondered why he might have done that, but the magic of the Marquis’s control squelched her thoughts from proceeding any further.
“Now that you are all here, we may begin.” The Marquis crooned and clasped his hands together. “This, as you have no doubt already guessed, is the Dais of Yajakali. The third and final artifact he crafted eleven thousand years ago. With the death of Krenek Zagrosek, it has been tied into the magic flowing into this place. What magic flows here does not return, and so, we have a rich deposit to tap and control. The Censer brings all the magic of Metamor, the sword has taken the reservoir beneath Yesulam and passes through Ahdyojiak. We have enough magical power now to accomplish the greatest casting ever conceived by man.”
He bowed to them and his voice grew mocking. “And I have you to thank for it. As your reward, you may now help me choose which three of you to kill. Yes, I fear three more deaths are necessary. The artifacts must be activated, and for that life must be taken in this place.” He scanned them and noted the combination of Jerome, Charles, Andares, and James all holding the hawk Jessica in place. She struggled but could not break free.
The Marquis smiled with such delight that Kayla felt her stomach attempt a revolt. “Jessica! Long have you through bitter circumstance managed to avoid meeting me. It is a great pleasure to finally make your acquaintance. Now, let us do more and bring you into my deck where you belong.”
He selected a card from the air and walked toward her. “But first, perhaps you can help me decide which of your friends will die. Andares, you can let go of her beak.” The Åelf loosened his grip around her head but still kept one arm around her neck.
“Kill yourself, Marquis!” Jessica squawked. “You’ve caused my friends and I enough pain!”
“No I assure you I have not done that. I can always cause more. Witness.” He took another card and bent it in half. Abafouq screamed as his body buckled over backward. The Marquis straightened the card and pulled at either end. The Binoq’s short arms stretched out on all sides as if he were being drawn and quartered. The agonized wail echoed off the walls. After nearly half a minute, the Marquis finally tossed the card aside and let Abafouq collapse on the floor.
“You’re a monster!”
“I am a man with great power. I am unconcerned with any invective you have to share. Now, to who will die to bring the magnificent artifacts to life. You have two choices for each person I come to. They can either give their lives in my cause, or they can suffer pain until my cause has come to pass. Pain from which they will eventually die anyway. So, to be completely honest, whomever you decide to kill will be those to whom you show mercy, Jessica. Mercy.”
The hawk glared with hard eyes. Her black feathers stood further on end, and she struggled against her friends but with two Sondeckis holding her she couldn’t move even an inch. The only time Kayla could ever remember seeing the hawk angrier was when they hunted Agathe in Breckaris.
Tournemire didn’t appear the slightest concerned with her anger. He walked to where Habakkuk stood, still completely naked and with utterly blank expression. “First, the last of the Felikaush, Zhypar Habakkuk. Shall he have mercy?” Jessica glared at him and said nothing. “Very well, he shall not.” The Marquis took a card from the air and tapped it once in the middle. Habakkuk lurched forward with his chest bruising in the centre. He gasped like a beast as he collapsed into a four-footed stance, long tail thrashing back and forth.
“His pain will grow worse with time. And now for Lindsey. Yes, this beautiful red-furred beast is the same soul you knew as Lindsey. What of her? No? Let there be pain then.” He did the same thing to another card and a moment later both kangaroos were on all fours hacking and crying in agony.
“Stop it!” Jessica shouted, her feathers trembling with rage. “Just stop it, you monster! I won’t give you anything you want, so you may as well do what you want with me.”
“Very well, Jessica. Very well. You will be the first to die.” The Marquis glanced at the two kangaroos and then smoothed their cards over. Habakkuk and Lindsey gasped as they crumpled to the floor, the pain having left their bodies. Slowly, they pushed themselves into standing positions. Lindsey lamely reached for the remnants of her attire, but none of it was sized for her new shape. Still she pulled the shirt on over her head and though it hung on her awkwardly, it still helped cover her somewhat. Habakkuk didn’t bother with his garments, though his eyes stole to his dropped knapsack.
“And Habakkuk,” this he said to the kangaroo. “You are going to live through this, because I want you to watch all of your preparations come to naught. And with your paw, you will kill the third person. Your Lindsey to whom you have just given your love.” He smiled again, and his white teeth gleamed like spires of ice, cold and murderous.
The Marquis turned back to the others. Kayla tried to find someway around his vile control. She tried to twist her arm within the bracer, but whatever magic it held seemed stunted in the Marquis’s presence. Somehow, she knew if she pressed too hard, the Marquis would learn of the bracer and make her remove it. So even as she watched the evil man approach her dear friend Jessica, she eased off and hoped a better chance would come later.
The Marquis lifted a single card, and Kayla could see that it was the Queen of Hearts. On it was a black hawk like Jessica. “And now here at the end, I finally lay claim to you, Jessica,” he said, and there was a hint of irritation in his voice. Jessica struggled this way and that as he lowered the card toward her head.
A sudden gale knocked all of them to the ground and scattered the Marquis’s cards about the vaulted chamber. Kayla shook her head and felt the soreness in her body where it had struck the ground. A few feet away she saw the Marquis shaking his head and climbing to his feet. Clymaethera was only inches from her paw. The katana practically leapt into her hand and she lifted it to strike, but the control clamped down on her and she drew back the swing before it could land.
The Marquis paid her no more mind than to stop her killing blow. His eyes were on the passage way. Standing in white garments was the ancient Åelf. Qan-af-årael met the Marquis’s gaze with an indomitable spirit. His eyes were cold like glass. He held out one hand, palm facing forward, and around him the very air swirled with boisterous energy. His voice rang with the clangour of shattering crystal. “You will harm them no more, Camille du Tournemire. You will face none of them but me.”
With a laugh, the Marquis lifted his arms and his cards swarmed about him. “Come and face me, old man. It’s about time you revealed your true power.”
Qan-af-årael said nothing more as he strode into the Chamber of Unearthly Light to brace the Marquis. Kayla and the others crawled to get out of their way.
Book I |
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue