The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LXXI - The Dance of the Cards

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

Grastalko tightened the fingers of his good hand in the front of his shirt as he watched the aristocratic man who the strange animal-men called Marquis. The cards no longer appeared as heavy sheets of vellum inscribed with metal and ink. The images that paraded before them within their collective heap were as vivid as his fellow Magyars and the ominous mountain flashing a piercing blue behind them. This was no ordinary clairvoyance granted by the arcane powers of the seer. What lay at their feet was a window into another place through which the vilest of sights and sounds issued forth.

The newest of the Magyars had never seen a Keeper before, but there was no question that the strange animal man was just such a one. He even recognized the peculiar species that this Zhypar Habakkuk had been blended with, for one of his wealthier cousins from his time before the wagons had purchased one for his zoological gardens to amuse his guests. The kangaroo and the bearded man with him were apparently helpless before the Marquis because the former only spoke derisively of the nobleman and the latter did nothing at all.

But the awful things that the Marquis said made the fire that burned in his arm flare with a cold blue light. When the Marquis spoke of arranging the Patriarch’s assassination, Grastalko felt his knees buckle and his eyes instinctively rose to Nemgas. The one-armed Magyar’s eyes narrowed and he gripped Caur-Merripen as if he would drive that silver and black blade through the Marquis’s mocking countenance.

Grastalko had come to be a Magyar because of the Patriarch’s murder. The Driheli knights had been sent to the Flatlands in order to hunt down the Yeshuel Kashin of whom Nemgas bore a near perfect resemblance. In the Driheli’s attempt to kill this twin Grastalko had been captured and incorporated into the nomadic life of a Magyar. Neither Dazheen nor Bryone could understand the significance to him to learn that the Marquis had orchestrated their beloved Patriarch’s demise. He felt as if Nemgas had turned and skewered him with that ancient blade.

Grastalko snarled and pulled his shirt taut with his good hand. “That man! There hast to be something we canst do to stop him! He hath killed Eli’s holy servant!”

Dazheen shook her head, cheeks sagging in forlorn resignation. “There be aught we can do, young Grastalko. ‘Tis the selfsame man who turned my cards against me. I canst only watch.”

The young Magyar turned his eyes on Bryone, but the seer-in-training could not meet his gaze. Her hands rested on Dazheen’s shoulders to keep the elderly woman steady, while her eyes remained locked on the horrible scene below them. Nemgas nodded to him but said nothing, his hatred tempered by a sense of justice that weighed on him. Grastalko, feeling impotent, let the fire dwindle in his arm, and returned his eyes to the cards.

And then turned away again as the Marquis forced Habakkuk and the other who he’d transformed into a kangaroo to be intimate atop the foul dais. A peal of thunder raced overhead and he stared up at the mountain. Cenziga’s many spires pierced the sky like so many thorns dragged across bare flesh. The blue light trailed from each spire in faint circles that grew wider then retracted, as if the entire mountain were vibrating. The constellations dancing at the summit took on vivid shapes of faces and animals and other things too strange to name. The tower of fog flashed in answer to each thunderous exultation and seemed to crouch closer.

“I dost know them,” Nemgas murmured. Grastalko turned his gaze back to the cards and saw more animal men appear. The Magyar pointed with the tip of the sword at a man bearing the visage of a rat with a black handprint on the right side of his face who with several others larger than he restrained an enormous hawk. “He hight Charles Matthias. And ‘tis Andares-es-sebashou.” The sword point moved to a man with pearly-grey skin, black hair, long pointed ears, and golden eyes.

Nemgas frowned and shook his head. “Kashin knew them when he wast at Metamor, ere the Patriarch wast killed. Good. They shalt have the vengeance ‘twas denied to Kashin.” His eyes darkened and his voice fell into darkness. “Why dost they do nothing?”

“The cards,” Dazheen intoned with a deepening sadness. “They hath no way to resist him.”

Grastalko leaned closer, flexing his fingers so as not to tear open his shirt. And then jumped back with a cry as the cards scattered into the air. They settled back to the ground after the burst of air passed, all face up. Another pearl-grey skinned creature stood in the passageway dressed in white garments. Grastalko had never seen anything so ancient as this man-like being.

Nemgas’s voice whispered in awe, “Qan-af-årael.”

This Qan-af-årael lifted his hands and a warm green light encased them. Grastalko felt his heart lift as he realized that here was one whom the Marquis could not control. He pumped his fist in the air and watched wide-eyed as the Marquis and the ancient one drew closer.

Once she was against the wall, Kayla turned to watch Qan-af-årael and the Marquis. The others were likewise standing out of the way, each keeping as far as they could both from the Marquis and from the Dais. The golden platform pulsed with a sombre life that made them shudder. The nine gems all throbbed with febrile might.

The Marquis kept his cards spinning around his head, while the Åelf summoned a strange verdant nimbus over his hands. The pale glow spread quickly into a large branch that Qan-af-årael wielded like a sword. The branch had seven fronds in all four cardinal directions like a stylized pine tree. The Åelf swung downwards and all twenty-eight fronds shot green lights that spiralled faster than a bolt from a crossbow toward the Marquis.

Tournemire flexed his fingers and the cards flashed outward to strike each light. The lights spread around each card they struck before vanishing into nothing. The cards continued to spin and intercept the myriad blows while Qan-af-årael continued to fling those bright energies with his mystic tree. His face stayed placid while the corrupted aristocrat smiled his mocking grin.

Lifting one hand, the Marquis rubbed his fingers together. Between them a black vortex swelled until it was as large as a fist. Scattered glimmers of light from Qan-af-årael’s attack were sucked into and lost in that dark maelstrom. The smile fading into concentration, Tournemire pushed the ball past his shield of cards. It moved slowly compared to the green bolts of light but inexorably like a headsman to his axe. Qan-af-årael lifted his branch blade with an effortless flick of his wrist and met the vortex with the tip.

The vortex stopped but so too did the branch. The green light writhed and bent as the vortex shuddered and monstrously gulfed the brilliant energies. Qan-af-årael spread wide his other hand and a spear of pure white appeared. Kayla and the others lifted their arms to shield their eyes so scintillating did it burn. This he thrust into the blackness which squealed like a deluge of water poured into a forge.

The spear vanished into the darkness, but whatever power the vortex had was vanquished along with it. Qan-af-årael resumed swinging his branch and the Marquis resumed blocking the bolts with his cards while each in their free hands conjured more spells. The walls shook as the millennial dust flew toward the pair. That dust coalesced into weapons which jabbed at either combatant only to strike ineffectually against a card or another agglomeration of dust drawn in to defend them.

Kayla swallowed as her thick tail pressed against the wall. To her left she saw Charles staring with slack expression, and on her right was the red-furred kangaroo she knew to be Lindsey. She too stared without emotion at the battle. Kayla felt her heart tighten in her chest and realized that the Marquis must still be exercising some control over them. She tried to reach for the wakizashi Trystathalis. But her paw clenched shut when it neared the blade’s hilt. She ground her fangs together, dark eyes narrowing at the Marquis. How could any one man possess such power?

Beyond Charles she could see that Jerome and Andares continued to restrain Jessica. The hawk met her gaze with serendipitous hope, but Kayla couldn’t even open her muzzle to speak. The spells cast by friend and foe brought little noise and required none. The clash of light fizzled with no more fanfare than their eyes could stand. Any word they uttered would be heard immediately. Little wonder then that the Marquis held Kayla’s tongue.

But her eyes were her own. Could they speak enough for the hawk to understand?

Jessica kept one eye focussed on the battle and one on the skunk. Alone of all of her friends Kayla seemed to have some independence of action. The rest were firmly under the Marquis’s maleficent control. The hawk felt the grip on her wings and back and knew that to move either would mean they’d be broken by Jerome and Andares. But they could not still her golden eyes which missed not a single detail in the infernal chamber.

Qan-af-årael and Tournemire continued to batter each other with weapons of dust. The mystical tree that the Åelf had summoned kept its barrage but not a one of the fronds seemed able to penetrate the shield of cards the Marquis had erected. With his other hand the Åelf brought forth crimson vines that crawled across the floor and wound around the Marquis’s legs. Half a dozen cards broke away from the shield to slice through those vines while Tournemire created more blobs of darkness to thwart the tree.

Jessica turned her attention back to the skunk and noted the way her dark eyes moved around the room. It took several seconds in which myriads of different colours sparkled from her fur to discern that there was a pattern to her movements. First Kayla glanced to the upper left, and then down in a zigzag pattern, before rising straight up the middle and circling around. She would centre her eyes for a second before doing it again.

The hawk felt a thrill of elation when she finally recognized the pattern. A darkness spell! She could blind the Marquis if she was lucky, and then Qan-af-årael’s attacks could strike home. It was innocuous enough that if she were careful the Marquis wouldn’t notice what she intended until it was too late.

She blinked her eyes once and cracked her beak ever so slightly to tell Kayla she understood, then returned her focus to the two combatants. More than a dozen black vortices swirled around Qan-af-årael now. They swallowed the weapons of dust without so much as a consuming flare and then dove toward him like iron shavings to a lodestone. The red vines spat as fire and wrapped themselves around the globes. Some shrivelled as soon as they touched, others engulfed the darkness and spread to stop the others. A precious few slipped past the defences and struck the Åelf’s white garment only to burst into barbells of blue flame and disappear.

Jessica took a deep breath and blinked rapidly. With each new blink more and more of the ambient magic became visible. She did not want to see too much knowing how powerful the nexus they stood within was. Too much and she would blind herself. Even so, both the Marquis and Qan-af-årael pierced her mind with spires of purest diamond. The Dais lay dormant much like the Censer had while Wessex studied it, but she knew that to be a lie. Into the black abyss that seemed to throb with molten energy poured everything else. Jessica had seen small whirlpools while draining the baths at her family’s inn before Nasoj’s first invasion destroyed it and her family. But the whorl of magical energy plunging in that abyss dwarfed her imagination.

Flexing the tip of the outermost claw on one wing, Jessica traced out the sigil to obscure eyesight. It was too small for either Jerome or Andares to notice so they did nothing to stop her. But as soon as the sigil was complete one of the black orbs fired across the room straight for her chest. She cawed in terror even as an arc of white light arrested the vortex and sent it careening harmlessly off the wall.

She felt Andares and Jerome tightened their grip and her wings bent painfully. Any more pressure and they’d break. She slashed out the spell with her claw and they relented. Through it all the Marquis never took his gaze off the Åelf. Yet with every ounce of hatred he poured at Qan-af-årael, she felt an equal measure pounding against her. If the hawk had any hope of acting to stop him, she would have to be even more subtle still.

Jessica let her focus return to the mage sight. Qan-af-årael’s mystic tree blazed just as brightly there and the trail of energies as they pressed against the shield of cards seemed a swarm of fireflies. The vines glowed even more brightly as they spread and shot across the floor like thousands of snakes set loose. The Marquis’s cards flashed brilliantly all around the Marquis though they did nothing to obscure the radiant power of his magic. Within the cards she caught glimpses of strange foreign faces and a crackling blue... thing... in the background. She could find no other word to describe what those brief snatches brought to her, but she felt a vague menace in its countenance. The faces were unfamiliar to her, but they boiled with rage and worry.

But there was more than even what she could see with normal sight. Flashes of energy passed back and forth between the two. Spells to suffocate each other, ignite flames, melt bones within the flesh, rain spires of ice through their flesh, to turn their insides to stone, to make them drowsy, to make them laugh, to spin them on their heels, to spread their arms wide, to slash their flesh with millions of shards of glass, and many others that Jessica didn’t recognize launched from one to the other in such a quick succession that she felt dizzy just watching. By the time she identified a spell that one had cast the other had unravelled or overwhelmed it with a spell of their own.

Jessica had never seen mages like this. She had not even conceived that such alacrity was possible. Even her master Wessex would have balked at the thought of anyone possessing such power and speed. Yet here now were two. And there was no doubt in her mind that these two were equally matched and would fight until the last ounce of their strengths robbed them both of life.

That is, unless she or Kayla could find some way to tip the scales in Qan-af-årael’s favour.

She gave the skunk a meaningful glance. It took several seconds to garner Kayla’s attention, but once she had it she lowered her gaze meaningfully to the bracer on the skunk’s wrist. It had pierced Marzac’s illusions. Could it aid her now?

Kayla caught the hawk’s insistent gaze and let her snout droop as if dejected. Her arms were fixed at her waist, the paws only inches from the dragon hilts but unable to open to clasp them. She noted the bracer on her wrist, but she couldn’t move her arm to angle it enough to see through. But did she have to? This was no illusion to pierce. She had to break the Marquis’s mental control over her. Her mind seemed free to act. Jessica had been stopped the moment she had summoned magic. Would the same happen to her?

Her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden change in the battle between the mages. The Marquis spread his circle of cards wider and wider. Instead of merely using those cards for defence, some broke off and sped toward Qan-af-årael like arrows. The vines emanating from the Åelf’s left hand deflected them with assiduous precision. Even the green tree spared several fronds to wrap about the ancient one’s body to shield it from their cutting edge.

The Marquis balled his hands into fists and beat at the air. A drum reverberated with each blow, pulsing louder and louder. Kayla’s ears folded back as she felt her very bones trembling under the onslaught. Qan-af-årael’s steely gaze tightened further as stomped with one foot in an alternate rhythm. The Marquis beat harder and harder, but the Åelf kept pace. Strangely, the two drums dimmed each other until the sounds felt like the icy caress of the Metamor river in late Summer.

But this did not seem to deter the Marquis who began pounding with alternating rhythms. The impacts crushed and tore at the skunk’s fur, and out of the corner of her eyes she could see it hurting her friends too. But to her amazement, Qan-af-årael began stomping with both feet. On their journeys he’d always been so ancient as to be frail. But now he moved his body and his mind with such agility and fortitude that even she couldn’t match it. Only the Sondeckis could move so fast and with the incessant pounding and counter-pounding trying to cancel each other out, she began to wonder about that too.

Yet the Marquis would not be outdone. He too began stomping his feet until the entire room reverberated with the beating of drums. Kayla felt her insides churning and closed her eyes tight trying to will away the incessant rhythms. But that seemed only to make the noise worse as it cascaded back and forth in her round ears. The skunk glanced at her friends but apart from Jessica they showed no outward signs of distress.

Qan-af-årael saw that he could not match so many beats and so jumped and slammed both feet into the stone. The floor undulated like a rock thrown into pond which tripped up the Marquis’s complicated steps. Tournemire danced to one side as he fought to keep his balance; his cards clustered closer to ward off any attack during his brief moment of vulnerability.

A black sigil flashed from Jessica’s wingtips but it met the wall of cards as surely as every one of the Åelf’s green bolts. Kayla struggled against the control but found it as firm as ever.

The Marquis thrust out one arm and a wall of force slammed them back into the wall. He threw his other arm out at Qan-af-årael and even the Åelf fell back a pace. His cards fluttered in the air around him, alone of all in the room not feeling the gale. His blue eyes glowered. “Do not interfere again.” He turned back to the Åelf and his scowl lightened to a mocking moue. “Do you need your friends to aid you against me? I thought you were powerful.”

Qan-af-årael took the mystic tree with twenty-eight branches in both hands and then split it in two, half in each hand. The red vine spread up his arms and across his back and moving in and out of itself it fashioned a net. “Your magic comes from Marzac. Against that, I will garner all the allies I can.”

With subtle shifts in his eyes, the Marquis noted the change in tactics and swept one hand wide to gesture to Kayla and her friends. “And you’ve done a very good job I see.” His lips split into a frenzied smile as bolts of ice leapt from his finger tips and sizzled in the midst of the tree swords.

The words had no effect on the Åelf whose face betrayed nothing other than his concentration upon their battle. To Kayla’s immense relief, there was no sign of fatigue in his movements either. She couldn’t imagine how anyone could remain standing under such an assault, let alone deliver as many blows as he had. It did make her wonder; if this was the Marquis’s true power, then why hadn’t the Marquis dispatched them when he’d captured them in Breckaris? All he’d done was torture and taunt them and then leave them in a gaol they’d easily escaped. The conclusion horrified her and made her renew her efforts to use the bracer to slip out of his control. Was it possible that the Marquis needed them here for his final spell? Were they just instruments of Marzac’s evil plot?

Even as she focussed on channelling what little magical energy she had through the bracer, her eyes kept straying to the battle. Qan-af-årael spun his green, branched blades before him in a long weave that scorched both air above and stone below. For the first time since their battle began he moved from his place before the passageway and circled around the Marquis. His pace was constant even with the Marquis flinging bolts of ice and spheres of darkness at him from every direction.

But it didn’t seem like he was doing anything more. His tree swords continued their intricate dance while the branches shot their green bolts which struck the cards before fizzling out. The vines continued to crawl across his body like a shield, already fastening a net across his back and chest and now beginning to work its way down his legs and arms. What could he possibly be trying to do?

The Marquis apparently seemed to be wondering the same thing as his eyes narrowed with renewed concentration. His cards spun around him intercepting each shot while he continued his assault. With a sudden shift of his eyes, the globules of ice sped past the Åelf toward Kayla and the others. Kayla tried to lift her arms to shield herself but like the rest of her body they were as inaccessible as Metamor itself.

Qan-af-årael swung one of his tree swords toward them, letting the many green branches intercept the ice. Even so, shards scattered over their flesh as they shattered on touching the green fronds of energy. Most bounced harmlessly off their tunics, but Kayla winced as several pierced her skin. Blood trickled along the side of her cheek and down her right arm. She could see that Lindsey was bleeding in several places along her red-furred chest, and beside her, Habakkuk was also cut. One of them had pieced the dark bruise covering his side and the blood that dripped forth was nearly black.

Still, despite having to protect them, the ancient one managed to continue his strange dance unabated. The floor where he struck glowed red with the anger of a well-fed forge. And just as he returned to the very place he began, Qan-af-årael swept both swords up. The marks on the floor leapt above the cyclone of cards and sped together into an intricate sigil. A fiery torrent rained from that sigil across the Marquis who cried in what Kayla hoped was pain.

The cards scattered away from Tournemire as he clapped his hands together, flesh searing from the tears of flame drenching him. His garments, once pristine blue, were now pockmarked with black scorches. Blisters peppered his face and hands as a white mist erupted from his fingertips. The mist caught each drop of fire as they fell and snuffed them. The mist rose up to meet the sigil and there they stayed, the one spell cancelling the other.

Kayla felt a thrill at seeing the Marquis wounded, but that joy faded into horror as she watched him draw his cards close again and resume his attack. Brilliant bolts leapt from his hands to strike at the Åelf who met them with his twin blades. But now it was Tournemire’s turn to press the attack. One by one the cards broke away from his shield and leapt toward the Åelf like an arrow from a bowstring. But this time when the Åelf swung his tree swords to intercept, the cards passed through them with a flash of light to emerge as fast as ever. Blood dripped from the Åelf’s sides.

“You Åelf,” the Marquis laughed. “Your blood is as red as mine.”

“Mistress Celine!” a familiar reedy voice crooned from across the temple. The head of the acolytes for the Lothanasi temple turned and regarded the obstreperous ibis with mild amusement. For the last week the Keep’s archivist had been overseeing the arrangement of the temple in preparation for the Duke’s wedding. The Keep’s Steward Thalberg would put in an appearance a few hours out of each day to direct and sometimes restrain Malqure’s efforts but he’d already gone to bed. Celine would have liked to do the same — her husband Jonathan was no doubt already asleep — but with the wedding only two days away the ibis insisted on working until he collapsed into a feathery pile.

Everything had to be perfect for the wedding, and there was no one on Duke Thomas’s staff more a stickler for perfection than the blustery bird. Even Thalberg was willing to let some things slide from time to time!

But, as Celine crossed the temple floor to see what it was that had caught the ibis’s regard, she had to admit that she too was excited about the wedding. She’d been too young to remember the last Ducal wedding, and only barely old enough to remember the celebrations for Duke Thomas’s birth. It was ironic that the curses left her with the body of a fourteen year old, as she was already thirty-five years of age. It had been that long since the Keep had celebrated so grand an event for the Ducal house. And judging by the tapestries, vases, statues, carpeting, and everything else that the ibis had his staff bring into the temple, every bit of Ducal history that he could cram in here he would. But, despite his sometimes addle-brained nature, she knew that Malqure could be trusted to call for help only if it would improve the appearance and symbolism of the wedding.

She found the ibis bouncing back and forth on his talons, his long, narrow beak darting from side to side as his intense green eyes considered the stonework beneath a row of recently hung tapestries. The tapestries had been quilted after the Battle of Three Gates and retold the story of the battle that forever after changed the face of Metamor. Celine found her heart fluttering with pride as she watched the newly transformed Keepers throw back Nasoj’s armies.

“Mistress Celine!” Malqure wailed with desperate fright. “Look at this frightful mess! How can anyone expect the Duke to wed with this in plain sight!” He gestured his wings at the ground but Celine saw nothing that should merit his latest outburst over imperfection.

“Malqure, those floors were just cleaned today. There’s not even a hint of shed fur there.”

“It’s the stones!” The ibis pointed with one wing at the stones beneath the tapestries and then over to the stones in the wall beside them. “With the tapestries hanging like so, the lighting has been changed enough that the subtle difference in colour is now plain for everyone to see. The gradual brightening I’m trying to achieve is ruined by this one stretch!”

Celine frowned but lifted her lantern to cast more light on the walls. As she studied the walls she could see that the tapestries had darkened the natural hue of the wall. The rear of the temple, with Malqure’s arranged lighting, would be shrouded in subtle shadows that gradually brightened as one walked toward the altar. Before the altar Duke Thomas and his bride Alberta Artelanoth would be wed in two day’s time, and it was there that the light shone brightest. It was vague and she doubted anybody else would notice it, but the tapestries interrupted that gradual shift of light.

“Why not move the tapestries further back,” she suggested.

This made the ibis hop back and scree in horror. “That would ruin the thematic history of the Hassan family! No, the tapestries must stay here. You need to apply a brightening agent to the walls to better absorb the lighting.”

“Did you have something in mind?” Celine asked. “I suppose I can summon Pascal the Alchemist. She may have something that would work.” And if she were wrong, bring out so many colours the ibis would die from apoplexy.

“Pascal does have what we’ll need.” The ibis lowered his wings and managed to calm himself now that his crisis was recognized and a solution found. “I may need help from your acolytes to apply the agent.”

Celine inwardly groaned. “Can it wait until tomorrow? Most of them have already gone to sleep.” Unsaid was her suggestion that she wanted to get some sleep too. But until the ibis quit she would have to keep a watch on him.

“Aye,” the ibis replied after a moment’s further consideration. He turned his beak away from the wall and stalked on his long legs a few paces. “Thank you, Mistress.”

“I’m going to continue my rounds,” she told him pointedly. “If you need anything, please wait until I return. I won’t be gone long.” The last thing they needed was the ibis screaming for her and waking everyone up so he could point out an oil smear on a lintel.

The ibis nodded and moved along to continue his inspection. Celine gratefully made her way to the rear of the temple and left to examine the private cells. The first she came to was dark and featured the faint snoring of the Silvassan priestess Nylene hin’Lofwine. Celine glanced around the cell, noted that the priestess was indeed sleeping in the meagre bed, and then closed the door.

Nylene had proven cooperative so far, and had kept mostly to herself, spending her days in contemplative prayer and keeping out of the way of Celine and the others serving the Metamoran temple. Celine knew that Raven didn’t trust her, though judging by the woman’s actions there was nothing to suggest she was a foul interloper. The head acolyte had long ago learned to trust her instincts with people, and there was something fundamentally good about this Silvassan priestess. Still, if Lothanasa Raven said to keep her under close watch, Celine would do so.

The one thing that did make Celine wonder was the person who had arrived with Nylene. Elvmere had once been a high ranking member of the Patildor. Celine had made sure to assign him the foulest and least desirable duties as an acolyte. He never complained nor seemed disappointed by them. In fact, he seemed to delight in being given the meanest chores. One of these included tending the birds used in their daily sacrifices. The stench from cleaning their cages clung to the raccoon’s fur now. Yet when he tended the birds he sang little songs and told them little stories.

Truly, Elvmere was a mystery that went ever deeper and deeper.

But, as Celine reached the last cell, she felt her heart grow heavy. There was another raccoon of secrets staying at the temple. The darkest room of all had been given to the care of Rickkter the battle mage. Ever since the terrible confrontation in the Belfry on the Summer Solstice six months ago, Rickkter had lain in near motionless sleep. Only the rise and fall of his chest spoke of life in his body.

Celine lifted her lantern and gazed around the room. On the stone altar lay the raccoon. His body was increasingly emaciated these days despite their best attempts to keep him hale and hearty. The youthful acolyte sighed and ran her hand across one furry arm. She could feel the bones through his skin. If he didn’t wake up soon, he wouldn’t wake up at all in this life.

She nearly screamed when the arm twitched beneath her. The age regressed Keeper jumped back, one hand going to her mouth to stifle her cry. The raccoon’s body twitched this way and that for several seconds then went still again. Celine’s breath came in ragged gasps as she neared him again and peered under his eyelids. His dark eyes rolled back and forth in his head like a man dreaming.

Lothanasa Raven would need to know about this. Celine recalled that she had been spending a well deserved rest alone with that wolf Wanderer. She hated interrupting them but this was too important. It was the first time the raccoon had moved at all in six months. What could it mean?

She did scream when she turned and saw the metal creature sitting on its haunches in the doorway staring up at her. She put both hands over her mouth and stomped one foot. “Madog! Don’t scare me like that!”

“Sorry,” the metal fox replied with its usual aplomb. “It’s tonight. I wanted to see.”

“What’s tonight?” Celine asked, knowing the metal fox’s penchant for cryptic but insightful remarks.

“He wakes or he leaves,” Madog replied, golden eyes fixed upon the altar and the raccoon laying atop it.

Celine definitely didn’t like the sound of that. “Go bring the Lothanasa. Tell her I’m keeping an eye on Rickkter and that she needs to come see for herself.”

“Okay.” Madog rose to all fours and bounded down the hallway. Celine put one hand over her heart, sighed, and turned back to watch Rickkter. His arms and fingers trembled as if he were plunging into the ice-cold water of the river. Celine hoped and prayed that this was a good sign and not the last tremors of a dying man.

The cards bounced on the ground before the Magyars. Grastalko had his knuckles pressed against his teeth as he watched. Nemgas beside him stewed and whispered encouragement to the Åelf whose name he somehow had dragged from the memories of his Cenziga-begot twin Kashin. Dazheen sat placid with a morose expression creasing her aged lips. Bryone trembled behind her, eyes watering with tears as they witnessed the evil aristocrat work his craft.

Along the edges of the cards flecks of blood blossomed like rose petals unfolding in the morning sun. Grastalko shook his head in fury. The fire in his arm throbbed bright and began to smoulder his tunic’s cuff. For a moment it seemed as if the Åelf would find some advantage, but the Marquis had countered his spell with such alacrity that it only seemed to strengthen his malicious resolve. Beyond the lightning speckled mountain rumbled with its faint asymmetrical rhythm.

Feeling frantic, Grastalko gazed with pleading eyes at the seer. “Surely thou canst do something!”

Dazheen lifted her ruined eyes, the red slits in the black orbs noting him as if she could actually see through them. “He hast a greater power o’er the cards than I. Though dost remember what he didst to my eyes with them. I canst do nothing.”

Grastalko sighed and let his gaze return to the scene playing before them. The aristocrat was laughing again. How he hated him.

“Look at him now, the high and mighty Åelf. Seer of stars and wonder of the heavens!” The Marquis laughed as his cards continued to cut Qan-af-årael’s sides. “You have kept yourself aloof over man for so long, yet here you will kneel before me. You are out of tricks.”

The Marquis kept up the assault, while the Åelf frantically erected barrier after barrier to block those cards. Kayla and the others could only watch as their one hope of salvation was cut from a thousand different directions. Jessica squawked in agonized rage, but Jerome and Andares kept their grip firm. The Marquis’s control over the cards and who they held was too firm. The skunk’s claws twitched at the hilt of Trystathalis, but though they could tap the metal, they could not grasp it.

“You have watched from afar and done nothing.” The Marquis said. He took a few steps forward, folding his hands in front of him, content to let his cards do their gruesome work. “You should have stayed in your tower studying your precious stars. What happens on earth is apparently too complicated for you.”

Qan-af-årael’s golden eyes betrayed nothing. With each strike of a card on his shield arcs of golden light would leap over his back and settle on the magical red webbing. It pulsed with a determined glow but seemed incapable of doing anything more. The cards continued unabated, slicing rivets through Qan-af-årael’s white robes and leaving trails of blood in their wake.

The Marquis’s eyes gazed about the room as if what the Åelf did no longer mattered. His voice never lost its mocking self-congratulatory veneer. “I confess, when we met in Breckaris, I was surprised you did nothing. It is now apparent to me that you hoarded your power in the hopes that it could vanquish me. As you can now see, there is no such hope for you. Perhaps you should have worked some charm to defeat me then. I was not standing so close to the source, the very well-spring of my power at the time.”

While the cards continued to pierce Qan-af-årael’s many shields, each of various hues and consistencies, but all apparently no better equipped to stop the cards, the Marquis turned and gestured with a sweep of his arms to the Dais. Its golden sheen sparkled with an inner darkness at each wisp of magic assailing the Åelf. “This Dais is a seat upon which anyone who dares to will it, can make the world tremble and fall to its knees. All of your friends are mine to command. You alone resist me, but you will not last much longer. Marvel now at this, a symbol of the very thing you sought to defeat. Here it rests, unperturbed by your pitiful fluttering in defiance. It does not care for your hopes and dreams. It will crush you beneath its weight as mercilessly as a man might an ant. Only he who sits astride it can command its very essence.”

The Marquis turned to half regard the Åelf. He smiled slowly until the whites of his teeth could be seen behind his ruby lips. “It was I who found the artifacts and turned them to my beck and call. Those three wizards you dispatched were nothing compared to this. With them I tapped the greatest places of power in the world, and soon I will draw them all together to remake this world. I only need three more deaths.”

The brilliant gleams of light reflected off the Marquis’s teeth and face, giving him more than ever the appearance of a devil. “You, Qan-af-årael, Lord of Colours, shall be the first. And the time has come to consummate that promise.” The Marquis lifted his hands and every card in his deck shot into the air like a bird readying to swoop down on its prey. And then, accompanied by a laugh from Tournemire, they dived straight and sure for the Åelf’s heart.

Qan-af-årael turned his hands downward, the blood sluicing across his arms and beginning to pool beneath him. He dropped the twin tree swords and reached behind him for the weave of red net that lay across his back. With a sudden yank it sprang loose, stretching out like a sail of crimson. The cards smacked into the net and bounced backward. The Marquis’s laugh died and came back as a snarl of rage. The Åelf, face placid despite its many cuts, yanked back on the net, sealing it off at the other end. The cards furiously cavorted inside desperate to find an escape.

A handful still lingered around the Marquis’s head, but the majority were now safely ensconced within that magical net. Qan-af-årael straightened and discarded the net behind him. “I am not finished living.”

The Marquis spun the remaining dozen cards around his head while the others sought an exit from the net. Tournemire glared but his voice was now subdued and calculating. “You have trapped some of my cards. Why not destroy them and free your friends?”

“I told you, I lack the fire to burn your cards.” He seemed to stare at the cards still rotating about the Marquis’s head. “As do all here with me.”

“They can do nothing for you.” The Marquis’s frown grew into a smile. “But they can still aid me.”

To her horror, Kayla’s muscles moved beyond her will. All of them, excepting Jerome and Andares who kept Jessica prisoner, advanced with murderous intent on Qan-af-årael. Abafouq and Guernef diverted to the side where the Åelf had set down the red net confining the cards. Charles took his Sondeshike out and spun it in his paws. James brandished his sword. Lindsey bent over, long tail rising behind her, and grasped the axe she’d dropped. Habakkuk flexed his claws as he neared, the wound in his side draining even more of the black mucus mixed with his blood. Kayla did the same with her claws.

Qan-af-årael waved his hands before him and a sudden wind drove them all back against the wall. Guernef spread his wings and pumped them hard, fighting wind for wind. The Nauh-kaee’s golden eyes had never before seemed so monstrous. A deep sadness filled the Åelf’s eyes as his gusts of wind faded under the Kakikagiget’s onslaught. Step by step they neared him, paws held out to rip him apart like so much meat amongst beasts.

“You see,” the Marquis said with a snort, “though you trapped some of my cards, you did not cut me off from them. I still control your friend’s every movement. You will not strike them dead to defend yourself, because that would fulfill my purposes. Thus, in the end, you will fall. There are two possibilities. Either the Binoq undoes your net and you die from my cards. Or your friends kill you and the magic of your net fades. Either way, you have lost.”

Qan-af-årael turned his gaze to the net and with a twist of his hands, ripped it open. The cards flew out like so many butterflies and returned to the Marquis. “No, I will not let you have the pleasure of using them to kill me.”

The Marquis stroked a finger over one of the cards and shrugged. “Very well. By my cards it is.” Kayla and the others felt their motion arrested and once more they could only watch as the cards sliced through Qan-af-årael’s flesh. He bled from every limb and stood in an ever-widening pool of blood. One of his ears exploded in a crimson burst as a card sliced through its middle. Back to his knees he dropped, gasping from the pain, but ever dignified.

His eyes lifted ever so briefly and caught Kayla’s own. It was quick and sure, like a fly alighting upon a horse before being swatted aside by a lustrous tail. The Åelf’s gaze fell to the floor and he made only a feeble effort to block the cards as they cut his flesh to the bone.

Kayla blinked and then flexed her fingers. And her fingers moved. She glanced down, and saw the bracer resting on her arm. The paw beyond moved of her own accord, but nothing else. With every winsome hope inside her chest, every dream of snowy skies, gabled rooves and granite towers, and every memory of a handsome rogue named Rickkter, the skunk poured what magic she had into that bracer, that channel through which her love had given her freedom.

The Marquis’s face, limned by a strange fire in the cards, did not turn away from the dying Åelf. Kayla could almost feel the swords leaping into her paw. Whatever Qan-af-årael had done to them had given her enough leeway to do this, but with a sickening realization, she knew it was not going to be enough. She may yet free herself, but it wouldn’t be in time to save him.

“You certainly have a lot of blood in you,” Tournemire noted. “Well, let’s get it all out, shall we? I...” his eyes lifted to the cards which sped away from the Åelf to hover before him again. An orange brilliance lit his cheeks. “The ten!”

Grastalko beat his fist against his thigh as he watched the cards flutter at their edges, each streaming with blood. Not an edge was untouched; all of them were stained crimson from what the aristocrat did to the ancient one Nemgas had named Qan-af-årael. That figure crouched low, beaten and sliced so grievously that now the Magyar understood the pain that Yahshua had felt during His scourging. He’d always wished he could have grabbed the Suielman soldiers who’d whipped his Lord and tossed them aside like so many rags.

Yet Dazheen said that there was nothing that could be done. Even Nemgas appeared stricken and indecisive. He kept waving Caur-Merripen about as if looking for something to strike down. The mountain crackled above them.

Grastalko cried in frustration, flinging his left arm over his head. The stump of his hand burst into flame which engulfed his cuff. The pain shot down his arm and through his chest, feeding off his anger. Why wouldn’t any of them do something!

And then he blinked, the words he’d heard from Dazheen and from the ancient one bouncing to the front of his mind. Dazheen had only said she could do nothing. She hadn’t spoken of anyone else. The aristocrat could reach through the cards. Why not another? And the ancient one had plainly told the aristocrat that he lacked the fire to burn the cards. Grastalko lowered his arm and peered at the flame leaping from his flesh. The flame had come to him when he’d touched the sword from Cenziga. That same sword had been the only thing that could thwart their enemies. What if he had the fire?

Grastalko looked back down at the cards and saw the aristocrat mocking the ancient one and the huge pool of blood he now knelt in. His garments, once pristine, were now stained red so thoroughly that Grastalko couldn’t see a single glimmer of white. His heart grew in fury, knowing that the ancient one would die at the aristocrat’s hands if they did nothing. And if he died, then all those others who the aristocrat controlled would die too.

This was the man who had sent the Driheli to die in the Steppe. This was the man who had cost Grastlako the life he’d known. This was the man who was ultimately responsible for the death of Hanaman’s son. This was the man who had the Patriarch murdered. There was no other man on earth more deserving of death than he. Indignation swelled in his chest into rage, a rage against this man’s unrighteousness acts.

Grastalko screamed with that rage, his entire arm bursting into brilliant orange flame. His shirt caught fire, each tongue lapping across his face and chest as he drove his arm into and through the cards below him at the image of the Marquis’s face. The Marquis stared back, a look of surprise erasing his hubris.

All of them were knocked to the ground by a hammering fist when the flaming arm reached out of the wall of cards and grasped the Marquis by his neck. Tournemire’s face blistered and blackened, his eyes orbs of vilest white in the midst of the conflagration consuming him. Yet still he struggled to break free from the arm coming through the cards from that other place they could all see reflected inside. The visage of the lightning streaked mountain thrummed.

Though her friends rose to their feet to stand slack and lifeless like statues, except Habakkuk who’d crumpled against the Dais, Kayla still felt the flickering of independence in her arm as she rose. She poured every once of her will into the bracer, trying to flex the fingers that lay beyond. A subtle motion of claws, twitching with freedom, and then her fingers balling into a fist. She flexed, and found to her delight that they moved with her thoughts. She reached for the blade nearest, the dagger-like Trystathalis. Her paw wrapped about the hilt. Her arm fought her as it drew, but the ring of the steel, slow and strident, was the hiss of the dragon’s ravenous hunger.

The cards all gathered into a single wall in front of the Marquis. The orange light flashed wildly over the cavorting demons inscribed into the Dais’s forged surface. Tournemire’s brilliant blue garments were engulfed by the flame, charring to ash against his body. His naked flesh sizzled and caked off black and ruined. Yet still he strove against the arm which licked across his cards one by one. The cards glowed bright inside the flame, stubborn in their resistance to the fire’s allure.

Kayla pulled on her legs. Her feet seemed rooted to the floor. Even when that swamp flower had tried to make plants of them she’d been able to push away from its vines and tendrils. How she longed to cry out her frustration but her tongue was silent by the will of the cards.

An idea struck her as she watched the Marquis writhe while Qan-af-årael levered his bloodied and broken body against one wall. Her arm she could move some, and this she lowered to her leg. The bracer brushed against her breeches, and her foot lurched forward once more again her own to command. She did likewise with the other and then turned her attention back to the Marquis.

Where once had stood a man beautiful in his bearing and terrible in his cruelty, now there was only the shape of a man blackened by flame that still coursed over his body. Only his eyes, deep blue irises amidst a sea of starkest white, were untouched. His arms, mere stumps, pressed at the fiery arm which bound him. He paid no heed to the skunk as he endeavoured to save whatever remained of his infernal life.

Kayla took a deep breath, summoning her courage to her. Though her tongue still did not heed her, she thought the words deep inside. “For Rickkter.” She leapt, arm flashing high above her, and drove Trsyathalis the dragon bound inside the eastern dagger through the Marquis’s back. Hot red blood shot from the wound only to sizzle and steam in the fire. The Marquis flung his arms wide, head tilted back and screamed his death agony. One of his cards scattered across the room and fell face down in a far corner.

The flames from the arm singed her fur, blackening the bands of white on her face. She shied back from it, but as Tournemire’s body crumpled, the dagger carried her with it, drawing her ever closer to the fiery arm.

And then the hand let go, hanging in the air in the midst of the wall of cards. Kayla yanked Trystathalis from the blackened corpse, and felt an immense surge of energy well in her. The blade had never been more satisfied than it was now. At long last, it had tasted the flesh and ended the life of the man who’d beaten its wielder. At long last, Marquis Camille du Tournemire was dead.

Her breath was ragged, but it was her own. She stared at the fiery arm in the cards, and watched in utter astonishment as those cards gave into the flames. One by one they blackened and charred until at long last the arm was drawn back through and nothing remained of that mysterious deck but a pile of odious ash.

“Oh Rickkter,” she said, her voice ragged but hers again. “You’re free!”

Grastalko’s scream echoed in his ears as he felt the flesh on his face give in to the fire. Distantly he heard Bryone screaming his name. Something grabbed him from behind and yanked him back. Beneath them the cards turned to ash but for one. The Magyar, his rage spent well, fell into Bryone’s arms. The last thing he saw before darkness snuffed him out was the face of that slender and beautiful girl calling his name in love.

Raven pressed her hands gently across the dying raccoon’s chest. Celine watched her and stood ready to assist her should the need become so dire. Only moments after Raven had arrived the trembling had subsisted, and then seconds later Rickkter’s entire body spasmed and arched as if he were in great pain. The muscles, what few were left, pulled taut and his back stood a full handspan above the altar. His muzzle gaped in a silent scream. His fur, scraggly and threadbare, stood on end. But through it all his eyes remained closed.

Madog sat placidly behind them watching. Raven prayed but could see little else that she could do. Akkala had assured her that nothing could be done for him while his soul was still in the hands of the Marquis. But Raven was not one to give up so easily. Still, her heart wearied for there was nothing she could think to do except try to comfort his worn body.

And then, Rickkter’s eyes popped open and he let out an ear piercing shriek and bolted up off the altar. Raven barely managed to catch him before his unsteady legs gave out and he collapsed to the floor.

Celine gasped and Madog yipped in satisfaction. Raven struggled to keep the very panicked raccoon upright as he struggled vainly against her. “Rickkter, are you all right? Rickkter, can you hear me?”

Panting heavily, his green eyes wide and darting around the room, Rickkter’s body eventually gave out and he was forced to cling to the wolf for support. “Raven? What... what in the hells...”

“Celine, fetch him wine to wet his throat,” Raven ordered as Rickkter degraded into a series of dry coughs. The age regressed Keeper nodded and dashed out of the room. The wolf priestess turned them both back toward the altar and helped Rickkter lie upon it once more. “You are weak Rickkter. Please don’t fight this.”

“The... the Censer... it’s,” Rickkter gasped and tried to sit up again. His eyes lowered and he winced in pain. “What happened?”

Raven backed away from him and sighed deeply. “It has been six months since the Marquis du Tournemire struck you down and took your soul from your body. You are in the Lothanasi Temple where you have been cared for all this time. You are very weak and it will take you a long time to recover your strength. Your body needs rest and food. I will have some brought. You cannot eat much and I will not let you.”

Rickkter laid his head back down, eyes closed. His claws flexed and trembled with palsy as they felt over his belly and chest. His ribs were visible beneath the grey fur. He growled, seemingly in disgust at the situation, and pressed his paws against his forehead. “What about the rest? What about Kayla?”

“Yonson is dead; killed by the dragon Saroth who was one of those who came to your aid. The Marquis was too powerful, though, and managed to escape.” Her tail flicked about. “I’m sorry to say that you received the worst of it. Once Yonson had been dealt with, it was over. Kayla was not hurt by the ordeal.”

“I need to see her.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible She left with the others to slay the Marquis and defeat the evil of Marzac some months ago.” Raven continued on, her heart swelling with such joy that she missed the look of horror on the raccoon’s face as he lifted his hands and turned toward her. “That you are with us now means that they have killed him and destroyed his deck. Oh praise the gods but it is true!”

Celine returned with the wine and held a small bottle over the raccoon’s snout. “Just swallow this.” Rickkter kept his muzzle open and let Celine pour a small dose of wine down his throat. He swallowed heavily and then gasped, his throat clearer.

“Thank you.” His eyes still had a worried look from the last bit of news. “Kayla went to Marzac? How could you send her there?”

“It is a long story, Rickkter. And I will tell you. But first, let us get you something to eat and something to wear. I will stay by your side for now. Others will come soon. To tell you the rest. Your friends have missed you and will all want to see you.”

Rickkter’s green eyes stared down his snout at his emaciated body. “Six months?” His voice wondered. “That means it’s Winter again.” He let his head fall back with a thump. “Damn. I was looking forward to Summer.”

Despite herself, Raven laughed. Behind them Madog wagged his tail and disappeared out the door, his work done.

Charles breathed a sigh of relief, and realized immediately that he had done it of his own will. He turned and laughed excited, glancing at his friends and noting with delight that each of them were free to act on their own again too. “He’s dead! The power of the cards has been broken!”

“How did you do it?” James asked as he stared at the skunk, hoof-like hands fretting over the few cuts he’d suffered.

Kayla cleaned the wakizashi against her thigh but did not sheathe it. “The bracer. A gift from Rickkter. I could still feel myself through it.”

“Qan-af-årael!” Abafouq shouted. The Binoq ran across the room and knelt at the Åelf’s side. Andares was there a moment later, and surrounding them the rest. Only Habakkuk and Lindsey did not come to them. The Felikaush had to be helped off the Dais where blood both black and red had spread. The blood drained off and was swallowed by the black crevice beneath the golden artifact. Lindsey slipped a shoulder under his arm and walked him toward the others.

So they were the only ones to see what happened next. “By Eli!” Lindsey cried, her newly feminine voice surprising them all.

Turning their heads, they saw a black mist reach up from the crevice and coat the charred remains of the Marquis’s flesh. Particle by particle they lifted and carried the body back into that darkness until there was nothing left. Charles felt his heart clutch in his chest. The same thing had happened to Zagrosek after he’d died.

The Dais, though it had always glowed a somnolent gold, now flared into awareness. They could feel disgusting thoughts slipping into their minds as it had so often in the swamp. Charles put his paws on either side of his head and shook as if to make them fall out his ears. Each of the nine stanchions swelled and cast weird shadows across the room. Their darkness angled until they found one of the Marquis’s two servants still propped against the wall as helpless as marionettes with cut strings.

“What is it doing?” Jessica asked. Charles felt renewed terror. If any of them should understand magic it should be her!

The shadow fell upon the older portly man the Marquis had called Vigoreaux. It rose from his feet and then climbed up legs, waist, chest, and then finally covered his head. No light, no matter how bent penetrated. Obscured, the man vanished from their sight. And then the shadows retreated back into the cleft. Vigoreaux was gone.

“What just happened?” James asked, his voice small and afraid.

“The Marquis said he only needed three more deaths,” Charles said as a sick feeling grew in the pit of his stomach. His tail curled around his legs and he flinched from the glowing Dais. “His death was the first.”

“Qan-af-årael!” Abafouq shouted, griping blood-stained garments to help the Åelf lay down. “You have to let us save you. That thing wants to claim you too.”

But the Åelf only smiled and shook his head. “I knew when I stepped into this room that I would die here. I have lived longer than any ever should. I have seen much and leave this world knowing that I have played my role to its utmost.”

“But we can still heal you!” Jessica shrieked. “Abafouq, Guernef and I have the talent.”

His face betrayed a slight fatherly smile, one that loved them but one that still knew better. “In this place? No, there can be no healing. There is no life that this place can give. All life given in this place is corrupt and evil. Were you to heal me, you would make me into a monster worse than the one that just died. You must let me go.”

“But you can’t die!” Abafouq wailed. Tears streamed down the Binoq’s face. “We need you.”

“Not anymore,” Qan-af-årael intoned calm and peaceful folding his hands over his chest in a posture of prayer.

Andares stood apart from the others and lifted his head in song. The words were lost on the Keepers, but Qan-af-årael’s eyes lifted heavenward and he breathed out a long sigh that moved with the melancholy tune. The Keepers all felt tears in their eyes as they watched this ancient creature let himself fade into death. Abafouq bawled, but not a one of them could think of a word to say.

Charles whispered a prayer to Eli for the Åelf’s soul. How well he remembered the words Qan-af-årael had taught him to say on the day he returned to Ava-shavåis. Now he understood the sorrow the other Åelf had felt when he’d uttered those words. He had not been announcing the Lord of Colour’s departure. He’d announced his death.

Charles rubbed his cheeks with his paws and dried his fur. When he opened his eyes again, staring past his twitching whiskers, he saw that Qan-af-årael’s eyes were closed, and the black mist was crawling over his body and taking it where it had taken the others. He cried and backed out of its way, turning to stare at the Dais to see what new evil it intended.

But the Dais was not alone anymore. A blurry image coalesced in its centre, like a man walking into the baths at Metamor who gained definition the nearer they came to the waters. Through this haze something hideously familiar began to emerge. Festooned on all sides by images of demons cavorting and raping innocents, jewels bedecking its contours from its nine sided base to its wide brimmed bowl in which nestled a hole for a nine-sided pommel, a solitary black candle burned at the apex. From nothingness it appeared, one with the Dais in its evil purpose.

The walls inscribed with lead seemed to fade into a vista of night-time air. Charles and the others stared in anxious wonder at that vista of distant snow-peaked mountains and bright moonless sky. In the midst of the sky stood gray walls whose arches led to a circular ceiling from which suspended four brass bells of immense stature. With a start, they realized that they saw both the Hall of Unearthly Light and the belfry at Metamor.

“What magic is this?” Jerome breathed with terror. “Where are we?”

Charles shook his head in disbelief and turned his gaze upon the artifacts. “We’re at Metamor and Marzac. It looks like both places are standing atop one another.” And atop the Dais, perfectly nestled in its centre was the Censer of Yajakali. Glancing at the floor he could see that the ancient stone work of Jagoduun was complimented by the larger blocks of the Keep. To one side he noted the wooden doorway that lead down the tower’s many steps. But how could this be?

And then the Censer cast its own shadow. Black hands stretched across the floor, and the rat danced out of their way. Again they bent toward the wall where propped the other of the Marquis’s servants. The Castellan, a burly man named Sir Autrefois, regarded the creeping darkness as placidly as a horse might note a fly. He neither flinched nor cried when the darkness climbed his legs and subsumed his body. And when it drew back, nothing remained of him except his bootprints in the ancient dust.

“What’s happening?” James asked.

Andares finally lifted his eyes from the spot where Qan-af-årael had once lain dying. Nothing remained there now, not even his spilt blood. “Marzac is awakening and calling its weapons. The magic laid down is coming to life.”

Guernef turned his head to one side much like a cat noting a curiosity. Great golden eyes scanned them one by one before coming to rest on Habakkuk. The kangaroo had one paw over his side and his muzzle creased in pain. “One more death,” the Nauh-kaee’s alien voice intoned, “and it will all awake.”

As if sensing his meaning, all eyes turned to the pair of kangaroos. Lindsey kept her paws on Habakkuk’s side. The black bruise was disappearing from his flesh, oozing out the wound that had ripped through his side. But instead of leaving behind flesh that could heal, it was collapsing his body. The tendrils of the bruise caved inwards as if there was no meat left beneath. His brown eyes were narrowed and all his paws trembled in what Charles knew had to be excruciating pain. His long tail seemed thinner than before, and his ears pressed to the back of his head.

“No,” Kayla breathed, echoing all of their sentiments. But it was Charles who was first to the Felikaush’s side. The red-furred kangaroo that was Lindsey sobbed loudly as she vainly tried to hold in his life-blood.

Charles put one paw on Habakkuk’s shoulder and with the other lifted his snout. “Zhypar. Can you hear me?”

Habakkuk nodded, the flesh on his face sinking inward with each breath. “Aye, Charles. I hear you.”

“Are you going to die too?”

With a long sigh he nodded. Lindsey’s sobs grew and she flung her arms around his neck, nuzzling him with her snout. “No, Zhypar! You can’t leave me now!”

“I must,” he replied, his voice weak and strained. Every syllable pushed past his teeth brought visible tremors of pain. “I’m the last of the Felikaush. We... we were only meant... to take us to the next age.” He coughed and more blood spurted from the gash in his side.

“We could try to carry you out of this unholy place,” Charles suggested.

Habakkuk shook his head and blinked the weariness from his eyes. “No. I’ve known since we set foot in this room that I would die here. In that... I am like Qan-af-årael. I hoped I would survive this to see the new age to come. I knew the prophets of old would need to pass away before, but still I hoped.” He looked at Lindsey and his face softened. Tears brimmed from his eyes. “I’d always hoped we would share love again.”

“You are strong!” Lindsey objected. “Please!”

Habakkuk turned to the rat and said, “Charles, do you forgive me for all I’ve done to you over the years?”

The rat thought back on all the pestering and prodding the kangaroo had done to make the rat reveal his past allegiances. He recalled the time Habakkuk had broken his arm when Charles refused to give up the Sondeshike. And he dwelled on the way the kangaroo had defended him during his trial. At every point the rat knew he’d misjudged this man, his friend. With a long sigh he nodded. “There is nothing that I can forgive. Every time you were right. It is I who need your forgiveness for the way I have pushed you away, Zhypar.”

“Given,” the kangaroo said with a weak smile. “See that I am given a proper stone befitting a Follower.”

At that Charles felt the sob break into his voice. He hacked twice and then controlled himself, gripping Zhypar’s shoulder all the tighter. “I will, Zhypar. I promise you this.”

“And... for the rest of you. Don’t give in to despair. There is yet... hope.”

None said a word, and the kangaroo’s eyes turned not to Lindsey as they expected, but to the walls and the empty spaces where the valley of Metamor was visible beneath a winter sky. He gestured with one hand toward that sky. “I am grateful... that I can see Metamor one last time. Please... take me.”

Charles and Lindsey scooped their arms beneath Habakkuk while James and Jerome lifted his legs and tail. Together, they carried their friend toward the edge of the wall and the edge of the opening. Charles leaned out and to his surprise discovered that he could pass through the walls of stone and peer down the spire of Metamor at the town. Below thousands of homes were lit by torches and lamps. The Inns especially were brightly lit and if he wasn’t mistaken, his ears detected boisterous singing echoing from the city.

He gasped. “It’s real!”

Habakkuk smiled through the pain and nodded, his eyes gazing across the city with its snow-topped rooves and cobblestone streets. His eyes strayed to the forests in the north, the river to the west, and the plains to the south. He sighed. “It is such a beautiful city. Home for so short a time.”

“You don’t have to die,” Lindsey sobbed quietly. “If it’s real we can take you there now.” She gestured to the wooden door in the floor. “Surely it can’t reach you if we go through there.”

“It is real,” Andares said, his voice so distant. The Åelf still knelt before the spot where his master had died and disappeared. “It is real because the Hall of Unearthly Light and this belltower are in one and the same place. If you can go from here into Metamor, anything here can follow you.”

“He is right,” Habakkuk said, coughing and sending another spurt of blood from his side. His chest had caved in so thoroughly that his left lung could take in no more air. “And even... if you did... I will not last long eno... enough to rea... reach a healer.” Habakkuk’s arms trembled and drew taut against his chest. One paw clasped Lindsey’s arm. Tears dripped across his dust-coloured cheeks. “I will... will see my family again. They’ve been... wait... waiting seven... teen years. Do not weep. Pray for me, but weep not. And stay strong. The worst... is coming.” He lifted those wet eyes to meet Lindsey’s. “You... are beautiful, even now. I will always, always love you. Lhindesaeg.”

She threw her other arm around his chest and pulled his head against her own. Her snout whispered into his ear. “And I love you, my Zhypar.”

He smiled. And then closed his eyes; his tears rolled steadily down his cheek ruff. He sighed and then his body slackened in the red kangaroo’s arms. Charles felt sick to his stomach and put one paw on the wall to steady himself. Lindsey’s sobs grew into abject wailing as she held the now dead body of the last of the Felikaush to her chest.

“The Sword,” Andares said, his voice firm and clear amidst Lindsey’s sorrow. “It is coming.”

Charles lifted his gaze and swallowed heavily. A haze surmounted the vile Censer and in it a single shaft of gold coalesced into the form of an upthrust blade. The pommel fit perfectly into the recess in the Censer’s basin. The flat edge of the sword faced them, and though it appeared to be a ceremonial weapon, the light that shone from its surface gleamed with a malevolent fire.

Lindsey screamed and the rat looked down. The black mist had surrounded Habakkuk’s body and took it from her. She tried to hold on, but his flesh vanished beneath her fingers like smoke. Kayla put a paw on Lindsey’s shoulder to steady her, but the kangaroo paid her no heed.

Around them the walls blurred as yet another scene blended with their own. A vast underground chamber much larger in scope than Marzac’s Hall swelled into existence. Distant walls were shorn from clay, and nine columns radiated toward the domed ceiling. Fulgurite lines led from the columns toward the Dais, Censer and Sword. Each column was inscribed by one of the nine chevrons.

But another scene joined it, one that cycled in and out of view depending on how they peered outward. Crumbling stonework bespoke an ancient and abandoned city, with three towering pillars at the vertices of a vast triangle. Beyond where Metamor’s mountains also lay they saw a jungle with low lying trees and carnivorous shadows. The sky was full of bright stars, though the northern stars were at a nadir only Charles had ever seen on the horizon.

“Where are these places?” James asked.

“This one with the jungle is Ahdyojiak,” Jessica murmured.

The donkey’s long ears fell behind his head in confusion. “Ahdyojiwhat?”

“Ahdyojiak, an ancient Åelf city on the Isle of Manzona. It is far to the southeast. I saw it after killing Agathe. The stars are from there too.”

“And this other place?” Jerome ventured, gesturing to one of the nine pillars inlaid with a brilliant fulgurite.

“It is ancient,” Andares said, his voice sing-song and soft. “Far beneath your holy city of Yesulam. Doubtless they do not even know it is there.”

“The sword! It’s shadow!” Abafouq cried. All of them spun from marvelling at a place that existed in four places simultaneously. Even Lindsey lifted her eyes at the Binoq’s alarm. The golden blade stretched out a black hand that crept along the floor toward the cluster of Keepers. All of them scattered away, running to the other side of the Hall. But the shadow flew across the room as quickly as only light can move. The end snared a single claw on the nearest of Jessica’s talons, and that was all that it needed.

“Help!” Jessica squawked in horror as the darkness held her fast and ascended her scaled leg and then across her feathery thighs. Jerome wrapped his arms under her wings and pulled, while Guernef beat at it with his wings. But a shadow feels no force other than light and continued its absorption of the hawk without regard to their efforts. Jessica screed in paralysing fear, and then she was covered by it and a moment later gone. The shadow drew back into the sword and all four places were illumined by golden light.

The black chasm beneath the three artifacts of Yajakali began to brighten with an infernal red light as of a lantern first seen down a distant corridor throws its light ahead of itself. All of them, even grief-struck Lindsey, backed away from that precipice. The light swelled, brightening from the outside inward, until only a thin vein of black coursed through the centre of the abyss.

And then, the stars in the night sky shifted. It was slow at first, a subtle turning here as the night sky bent. Andares turned his gaze toward the southern stars which were clearly visible and utterly foreign to all but Charles who’d known them most of his life. The others did likewise, watching as the southern most star navigated a ponderous and wide circle in the night sky. It came to rest back at the same place it began.

And with its rest the veins of lead in the Hall of Unearthly Light began to glow a sickly blue. It wavered as if through a haze, but those lines carved into the walls described a beautiful ivy forest that crept up over the nine pillars at the hall’s corners and circumscribing the chevrons also glowing with that same light.

“Lucnos,” Abafouq whispered with dread. “Yajakali’s lucnos!”

The ground beneath them trembled. The bells of Metamor throbbed and the Pillars of Ahdyojiak swayed. Dust from the vault beneath Yesulam rained down all around them and coated them with ancient sand. The three artifacts stood as one, and a dark fluid filled the Censer’s basin. It climbed the sword. At its apex, thin tendrils stretched to the nine gems standing on the nine stanchions of the Dais. They glistened with the same blue light of the lucnos.

“What’s happening?” James asked softly.

“I do not know,” Andares said, fingers curling around the hilt of his ivory-handled sword.

Charles spun his Sondeshike as he watched tendrils stretching from gem to adjacent gem until the whole Dais was surrounded. Three sections were cordoned off inside by those tendrils, and the dark light spilled from the rim of the Censer into each. Each stream coagulated on top of the Dais’s broad platform into lumpy shapes. They held their breath, each trying to calm their hearts as those shapes took on definition.

The darkness left them. Bound immobile by nothing they could see lay the Marquis’s servants Vigoreaux and Autrefois, and their friend Jessica. She lay on her back with wings pinned beneath her. Her eyes were locked upon the tip of the sword, and her talons curled tight like fists. Charles could see the outline of a pendant resting in her black feathers and her gear pack pressed behind her head like a makeshift pillow. But he saw nothing holding her down.

“Jessica!” He shouted and took a step forward. Jerome caught his elbow and pulled him back. The rat scowled at his friend, then followed his frightened eyes to the top of the sword.

Standing above the sword on nothing was an image contradicted. He appeared like an Åelf, with long pointed ears, angular face, high cheek bones, and silken hair. But everything about him was reversed. Where his flesh should be bright it was dark, and where dark it was bright. His garment, rich and simple was of purest black. His eyes were black beneath bright brows with a shining centre. His flesh too was dark, outlined by white light. It was as if light itself had been negated for him.

“Prince Yajakali.” For the first time Charles could remember, Andares-es-sebashou sounded frightened out of his mind.

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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