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 dawn sun warmed Sir Czestadt’s unshaven face as he knelt before the altar in one of the side chapels in the basilica in Stuthgansk. The light glinted through stained windows and cascaded a rainbow of hues across the church’s interior. An icon of Holy Mother Yanlin reposed between flickering candles above the golden tabernacle on the altar. Sir Czestadt’s eyes occasionally rose to meet the gaze of her soft eyes beneath a blue cowl, but each time he’d quickly look away. Her gaze was kind and gentle, and normally his heart warmed at the sight of her, but never since the Driheli had returned last week from their ill-fated sojourn in Galendor.
How could he look into her eyes when he didn’t know what to do with his own? The one surety he’d always felt, the complete obedience to the Bishops who possessed knowledge of the will of Eli, had been stripped from him. How could he lead if he couldn’t follow?
After the Driheli knights had returned last week they’d spent one night together in their barracks in Stuthgansk before Czestadt sent each to their homes and some, like Sir Guthven who he’d promoted to Knight Commander of Bydbrüszin, to their new assignments. His squire Hevsky had long noticed his soul sickness and now readied suitable attire for appearing in the basilica each morning. All Czestadt wanted to do anymore was pray and hope that there would be guidance.
His eyes trailed up to Yanlin’s simple beauty and lowered again, studying the gold thread dangling off the altar’s surface. He’d been praying his beads, but his lips had long stopped moving. With a heavy sigh, the knight said, “How can I obey if I have lost my trust?”
The icon could not reply, but he listened anyway, hoping that there would be words murmuring in his heart. Yet always he heard only his own thoughts repeated back to him. In the many long days since they had set sail from Yesulam, he’d had time alone with his thoughts. He pondered when this unease had settled over him. While chasing Kashin through the Steppe, and even after being cut by that invisible blade, he’d lost none of his certainty and purpose. The answer had finally come to him a few days before. As soon as he’d seen Bishop Jothay’s golden blade the doubts and their agony had entered him like a plague.
He scowled as he recalled its presence. It had looked like a sword, swung like a sword, and sung like a sword. But it was not a sword. The powers of the Blademaster that he’d learned while still a Kankoran had reached out to touch and learn that blade’s unique signature, but there was nothing for him to learn. A vast emptiness existed where the blade ought to be, an emptiness that for all its enigmas had possessed a tangible malice that he could still feel lingering like an ache from a bone that hadn’t been properly set.
Sir Czestadt took another long breath, trying to drive the image of that blade from his thoughts but it grew instead. He lifted his eyes first to the yew emblazoned on the tabernacle, and then to the icon of the Holy Mother Yanlin. But those images receded from view as he felt the blade’s awareness grow ever closer.
Something muttered at the edge of his consciousness. They were words, but they were not words he knew. Behind him the light of dawn faded to a burnt bronze glow. Czestadt felt his body tense and his limbs tighten. The sword, that golden sword, was awake again. Just at the edge of his vision it mocked him with its diseased life.
“No,” Czestadt murmured, all alone in the side chapel, everything around him so impossibly distant. “What are you doing?”
The sword’s murmuring shifted as if it amused it to answer his question. The voice slithered through his mind until the words coalesced like ships rowing in through the fog. I am of Yajakali. The Sunderer of worlds has struck time widdershins!
Sir Czestadt tried to scream, but found everything arrested in that one moment. The light outside spun like a child’s toy. He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t even turn his head to look at the golden sword that hovered at the edge of his vision. But he knew that it was turning the world inside out, its long-held plans finally come to fruition.
He tried to find the icon, the one his eyes had long avoided, but even that was denied to him. The Knight Templar of the Driheli felt the crush of despair overflow his heart. He did the only thing he could do. He wept.
It was two days until he wed Dame Alberta Bryonoth. Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor, after enjoying the subdued revelry of the Solstice festivities, found that they had done nothing to distract him from that reality. In two days time he would be a husband. How could he get any sleep with that preying on his mind?
The midnight hour was upon them, and Duke Thomas stirred restlessly from his chambers to find somebody he could talk to. He’d already spent most of the last week discussing details with Thalberg and Malisa. While Andwyn would certainly be awake at this late hour, the bat was never amiable company even in the best of times. All of his vassals had arrived and were staying at the Keep, but he’d already had enough advice from Lords Avery, Barnhardt, Christopher and the rest. In truth, he wasn’t sure who he wished to speak with. Not a single soul sprang to mind.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to see a boy of about fourteen who was really a man of forty strolling down the hall toward him. The boy was also surprised, but the shock gave way to a pleased smile. The four guards trailing at Thomas’s back relaxed when he knelt. “Good evening, your grace. Are you having trouble sleeping too?”
“Master Lidaman,” Thomas said with a bemused grin. “How can I sleep with the weight of a kingdom on my shoulders?”
The man mostly responsible for keeping Metamor financially afloat in those first few years after the Battle of Three Gates laughed with the austerity of a man past his prime. “The weight of a wedding is more likely I think.”
“You have the right of it there.”
Lidaman smiled affectionately. Thomas had never been close to the moneylender as he eschewed living in the Keep. He and his family had been spared from the assault last Winter Solstice as they’d been in the Lothanasi temple when the attack came. But he was no stranger to sorrow, having lost his brother’s family during Three Gates. And he had been friendly with Thomas’s father while the horse had been just a boy. Odd how the curses had reversed their respective ages. Now it was Thomas who seemed the adult to the childish Lidaman.
The horse lord smiled as he regarded the simply dressed moneylender. “The kitchens shouldn’t be far. Care to join me there for a drink or two? I’m sure we can scare up something to chase away the hours.”
“That would be most agreeable, your grace. In fact, I just passed the kitchen coming this way.”
Together they went back the way Lidaman had come and found the Keep’s Kitchens off the passage. The wide room smelled of bread, fish, fruit, and a variety of vegetables and meats. Underneath it all was the familiar dry musk of his crocodilian steward and the various scents of his staff. None of them were about, and so while two guards stood position outside and the other two took to lighting lamps, Thomas and Lidaman scoured the counters and cupboards for something to drink.
“Aha,” Thomas declared as he opened a door and a wine rack within. He bent to study the labels. “So what brought you to Metamor tonight, Master Lidaman?”
“My soon to be son-in-law,” Lidaman replied. “He had some ideas he wanted to share with me that might improve our business.”
“Will they work?” Thomas wrapped his hoof-like fingers around the neck of a bottle containing a particularly tempting vintage and drew it forth. The bottle swung from his fingers until he set it on one of the preparation tables. Covered in lacquered wood, they nevertheless showed dent from knife and claw. Stools lined either side and Lidaman climbed into one carrying a pair of glasses.
While Thomas and two of his guards scoured for a corkscrew, Lidaman took the time to read the wine bottle. Absently, he replied, “They might. I’ll be giving them some serious consideration. And what of your coffers? Has the sale of the mithril you captured helped offset the costs of rebuilding the Keep?”
Thomas nickered as he rifled through drawers. “Some. I may issue a new levy next year to recover our losses, but it wouldn’t last long.” While true, it was not the whole story. The mithril had not been captured from Nasoj but found at a mine in the Valley by the now dead Long Scout Llyn ‘Joy’ Wanderer. While construction at the mine continued quietly, it would be a few more years before they could refine any significant amount of mithril. Until then, the mine remained a secret known to as few as possible. The moneylender, though an old friend of the Hassan family, was not one of those who knew the truth.
Lidaman frowned. “The merchants won’t like that.”
“Nor will the Keepers,” Thomas admitted as he shoved another drawer shut.
“Here it is, your grace,” one of his guards, a young one only recently become a woman, said as she held out a corkscrew.
“Thank you,” Thomas said, smiled, and returned with it to the preparation table. Lidaman waited patiently. “It won’t be much and it won’t be long. But with threats building to the South, we’ll need every copper penny we can get.” Thomas popped the cork and poured the wine. “I’d rather not rely on the help of creditors unless I must.”
“I understand,” the boy replied with a twitch in his lips. “Nor do I blame you. Most in my profession are seen as greedy sharks who will tear their homes away and send them to debtor’s prison if they do not pay exorbitant interest.”
“Nor do I think you that, not after all you did for my father and for me.”
Lidaman sipped his wine. “Very true. Enough talk of money. I’ve attended too many weddings to not know what you are going through. Three of my boys and soon my daughter all went through the same thing. Your life is going to change forever in a couple days and the prospect is both frightening and wonderful. And you can’t tell which at any moment.”
Thomas laughed and set his large lips to the goblet. He downed the entire cup in one long swallow. “You speak true. Tell me, you were there when my parents wed. What was it like?”
“I was only a boy at the time,” Lidaman admitted. “More so than I am now certainly, but yes, I do remember it. A grand celebration. I remember my father set me in his lap so...” his voice trailed off as he stared at something beyond the Duke. His flesh whitened.
Thomas turned in his seat as did his guards. Next to the stoves knelt trembling a woman he had seen before. Her face was rich in grace and power, long silvery hair encircling her body like a den of adders huddling together for warmth. Light glistened across her pale flesh and gossamer evening dress. Her eyes, deep pools that spoke of ages not years, wept silvery tears.
The majesty of this being could only be reckoned surpassed by the gods. And yet, in all history that he had ever read of the Keep, never once had it spoke of Kyia crying and shivering in fright.
“Kyia!” Thomas gasped, stumbling from his seat onto his hooves. They clattered noisily across the masonry as he tried to reach out for the ancient spirit of the castle. The guards held their spears tightly, eyes wide and mouth’s agape. Master Lidaman stared for a moment before clumsily following the horse lord.
Kyia looked up at him, her eyes full of abject sorrow. “Thomas.”
“What’s happened to you?” Thomas asked, bending close and holding out his hands but afraid to touch her.
“The Censer is...” Kyia said, her body wracked by a spasm of alien pain. “Taking everything.”
Thomas shuddered and swallowed heavily, the taste of wine on his tongue turned to bitterest ash. He turned to one of the guards and shouted, “Fetch the Lothanasa! Now!”
The new woman nodded and ran for the doorway to the kitchen. Kyia extended one arm towards her and cried, “No! You can’t!” But the woman kept running, and then as soon as she tried to pass through the door, bounced off the air and fell back into the room. She shook her head, dazed. The other guard, a young warthog, rushed to her side to help her to her feet.
Kyia shook her head. “There is no time.”
“No time?” Lidaman asked, looking from the spirit of the Keep to the guards and to the strange doorway. The hallway outside looked just the same as it had a moment ago.
“The Censer has taken it all,” Kyia replied as she shuddered anew. “There is no time outside this room. I cannot keep the time here for very much longer. It is... too strong.”
The air in the doorway, Thomas noted, appeared increasingly still. And so too did the air inside the door. The motes of dust, glinting in the lamplight, hung in the air, shining with a constant and unwavering light. Was that what a world without time looked like? Frozen more securely than a block of ice?
“Andhun! Gaspar!” He shouted the names of the guards who stood watch outside. But they did not respond.
His throat tightening, Thomas lowered his hands to and resting them against the spirit’s back which surprised him with its substantiality. His heart ached with a fear he couldn’t even comprehend. How could time itself be disappearing? What could that evil Censer want with time? His thick lips found enough words for one last question. “What can we do?”
Kyia’s voice was empty and lost. “Nothing. It is... it is up to those we sent.”
“They will succeed,” Thomas assured her. He shared a quick glance with Lidaman who also came and put his hands on the spirit’s back. The two guards followed suit, each doing what little they could to assuage Kyia’s fear and pain. Her celestial flesh trembled with agony. “They must.”
And quietly, he prayed for his bride Alberta, his adoptive daughter Malisa, Kyia herself, Andhun and Gaspar just outside, and all the others in the Keep. And he prayed for Charles, Jessica, James, Kayla, Lindsey, and Habakkuk. They had to succeed. The wall of motionless dust closed in around them.
Elizabeth, struggling in her dreams with a dreadful presentiment, strolled through the World Bell gardens in those bleak hours beyond midnight before the new day began. The gardens were warmed with both magic and braziers burning a sombre orange around the octagonal fountain. The waters burbled merrily, cascading over sheets of marble amidst beds of bright flowers.
In the centre of the fountain hung the World Bell. Bright gleaming brass fashioned into a long cone without any means to ring it hung from a marble arch directly over the spot where the pathways of magical energy crossing through Marigund came closest to intersecting. Usually silent, it rang only in the presence of great magic.
Elizabeth’s eyes were drawn to that bell. It had rung far too many times in this last year. The entire guild was in an uproar over its frequent ululations. Twice now the Pillars of Ahdyojiak had been summoned; once in Ellcaran and the second time in Breckaris. She’d learned from Misha that the Censer of Yajakali had been fixed into Metamor’s belfry on the Summer Solstice, and a similar ring had occurred at the Autumnal Equinox; the guild suspected that the Sword of Yajakali had been fixed in Yesulam.
The exact astronomical moment of the Winter Solstice would be upon them in minutes. Elizabeth wasn’t the only one who had come to the gardens dreading what might happen. Demarest, the head of their order, paced back and forth scowling at the bell. Elizabeth’s eyes met his for a moment, but he was too distracted to do more than nod to her and resume wearing a ditch into the stone. None of the other wizards spared her a glance. It had been her vulpine brother who’d brought her into the circle that had revealed the workings of evil that had struck the World Bell so many times this year. Though irrational, they could not help but to some extent blame her for the bell’s discommoding behaviour.
Elizabeth sighed and rested one hand against a marble pillar. The garden ceiling disappeared overhead into a dark series of arches and vaults that wended upward, giving the chamber the heavenly space of an Ecclesiast Cathedral. The last time she’d spoken with her brother the fox, he’d told her that Jessica, her one time pupil, had been seen in Breckaris near Daedra’kema. It had been she who had killed the Runecaster who’d summoned the Pillars; one mystery solved. But they’d learned nothing concrete about what had happened in Yesulam. The guild was now contemplating something unthinkable; requesting an official envoy from Yesulam to enlighten them.
She rather looked forward to that fight. It would be the first time in over a hundred years that an official from Yesulam would be allowed in Marigund other than the paltry parish priests that they suffered for the sake of peace. That is if the noble houses didn’t squabble the idea to death like they often did. Even her brother Brian, the head of the Brightleaf house, was struggling with the notion.
The air in the chamber, though isolated from the outside, always had a gentle breeze which kept everything fresh. The breeze, like the warmth, was generated by a simple cantrip. Yet now, Elizabeth could feel that breeze build into a strong wind that pulled her long hair and gown. She gripped one of the marble sconces to steady herself and snapped her eyes to centre of the fountain. She, and everyone else, gasped.
The World Bell swung like a lodestone from its fulcrum, the bottom flaring toward the southwest. It thrummed firmly and consistently. The water in the fountain froze into an intricate pattern of ripples and troughs. The artisans who were always nearby began madly scribing what they saw.
But Elizabeth had no eyes for the water, nor did any of the mages. All stares in awestruck fear at the bell. Over the centuries since it’s construction it had rung many times, but never, not once in all those years, had it swung away from its perch.
They had expected something to happen, but never this. What in all the stars could it mean?
“Grastalko!” Bryone shouted as the younger Magyar collapsed to the ground. His entire left arm had been wreathed in flame, but that subsided as soon as he crumpled into the girl’s arms. She lowered him to the jagged ground, cradling his head in her lap as she knelt. His left arm was blackened up to the shoulder, with angry red blotches showing through where the flesh had sundered.
But the boy did not respond. His eyes were closed and his mouth hung open. His body lay limp in her arms. Nemgas bent down and frowned. He sheathed Caur-Merripen and then wrapped his hand about Grastalko’s throat. It throbbed with life, slow and weak but sure. “He wilt live, Bryone. Fear not. The pain has grown too much for him.”
“But his arm!” Bryone cried, one hand reaching toward the charred flesh but shying away.
“‘Tis nothing thee canst do.” Nemgas shifted the stump of his right arm to emphasize the point. “He wilt endure with but one arm if he must.”
Bryone sobbed quietly as she brushed Grastalko’s hair from his brow. His face, though lost in exhaustion, still twitched with pain. Nemgas turned his gaze to Dazheen. The seer sat unmoving as she had since they arrived at this spot beneath the thundering glare of Cenziga. Before her lay a single card — the others were nothing but ash swallowed by the wind. They could see nothing in the card except an indistinct darkness. But the voices and cries of the Keepers still rose to tickle their ears.
“The Marquis’s master,” Dazheen said softly, her voice still resigned to death. “He hath arrived.”
Nemgas turned back to the card and drew Caur-Merripen, every muscle in his arm taut. Overhead Cenziga cracked with an angry peal of brilliant blue.
Everyone held their breath as they stared in abject fear at the Åelf who was light where he should be dark and dark where he should be light. Eyes limned with unearthly radiance regarded them with sullen pleasure. Compared to the Marquis, the gaze of this strange being was not malicious. His consideration appeared beyond base emotions. Those eyes and the turn of the lips and posture of the back and arms all spoke of a being too high in stature to indulge in contempt for creatures so obviously inferior. Instead they each felt a warm regard as of a master to a beloved pet who’d just performed an amusing trick.
It was Abafouq who was the first to act. The Binoq reached into his pouch and flung a dart which sailed true through the charged air to strike the Åelf Prince in the thigh. A second joined it as Yajakali turned and glanced at the darts protruding from his thigh with nothing more than curiosity. But the third and fourth darts stopped in midair. Abafouq gasped and jerked upright four feet into the air. Nothing held him. His eyes bulged and his cheeks swelled red, before he flew backward into the wall glowing with lucnos as if flung by a giant dismissing a doll. Yajakali leisurely removed the darts and tossed them aside.
Charles spun his Sondeshike and then froze in place as every particle of his body reverted to unmoving stone. The Sondeshike clattered away from his paws toward the obsidian crack in the floor. Jerome dove forward and snatched it back before he, like the Binoq, was flung against the far wall. He fell through the illusion and nearly toppled over the edge of Metamor’s belfry, but the same force that had propelled him drew him back and dropped him on the ground, the Sondeckis fighting staff nestled safely beneath him.
Guernef spread his wings to summon wind again but whatever power Yajakali had struck even faster. His wingtips fell to the floor and fastened themselves in place. The Nauh-kaee squawked angrily, all four of his legs digging and pushing at the ancient stone floor, but his wings could no longer move.
Kayla had both dragon blades in her paws and even managed to jump toward Yajakali’s negated corpus before she was flung against the wall, the tips of both blades biting into the veins of lucnos and firmly imbedding themselves. The metal tang vibrated as the dragons struggled to free themselves. Kayla’s head banged back into the fluff of her tail but she still felt the sharp smack of the wall against her skull.
James reached for his sword but stopped and fell back two paces, the whites of his eyes showing and his long ears folded back in equine fright. Lindsey stared with disconsolate anguish but likewise seemed incapable of doing anything. Andares kept his ivory handled blade before him, but he made no move to advance on the artifacts and their master towering above.
Yajakali lowered his black eyes and stared with beneficent regard at the three figures bound upon the Dais. He stretched out one leg and descended from atop the Sword until he stood beside the corpulent steward Vigoreaux. His bright lips parted to reveal black teeth. “Thank you.” His voice was like the sweet song of flutes blended with the harmonious warmth of horns. His angular eyes did not leave Vigoreaux’s terrified face. “With you we will unlatch.”
He turned and walked through the black barrier separating the Dais’s three captives. He stood over the grizzled castellan Sir Autrefois and favoured him with the same smile. “Thank you. With you we shall loop.” They could see his flesh and muscles strain, but he could move no more than could any who’d tried to strike the Prince.
Yajakali stepped through the next barrier and folded his hands over his waist. His smile did not falter. “Thank you. With you we shall loose. All will be set right again.”
James took advantage of Yajakali’s distraction to try and shake Charles loose from his prison of stone. The burned vine was still cradled around his neck and twisted to brush across the donkey’s hoof, but neither of them could make the rat move. “Come on, Charles,” James whispered into his saucer-shaped ear. “Come on!”
The donkey felt his heart nearly stop when he looked toward the three artifacts glowing their vile hue. Yajakali stepped through the black nimbus intersecting the nine stanchions at the Dais’s corners and looked at him. His gaze did not rest on the donkey for long, but swept over them with that same austere majesty. “Thank you all. Your places in my world are assured. I do not forget those who aid me.”
Lindsey snapped, hopping a step forward, spittle flinging from her muzzle. “Aid you? Aid you! You killed Zhypar! Damn you! Damn you to Hell!”
Yajakali turned toward the red-furred kangaroo and walked forward with arms outstretched. Not as a man coming to comfort a woman, but as a master come to inspect the wound on a faithful hunting dog. “Do not be afraid. Together we will undo what has gone wrong.”
But the northerner reached for her axe. Yajakali did not flinch when she swung, but let the weapon burrow itself into his side. He smiled, teeth black behind bright lips. Lindsey drew back her axe and swung again. Yajakali stood and received the blow, and another. Lindsey’s eyes blurred with hatred, and still she drove that axe home into his side and chest. Yet the Prince of Jagoduun suffered no harm. His smile remained serene and infinitely patient.
If Lindsey was aware that her efforts were in vain, she gave no sign. James watched for several seconds before his ears lifted curiously. He took a step backward, careful his hooves didn’t clop. But Yajakali did not turn, his strange eyes watching the red-furred kangaroo drive the axe into his flesh time after time. James took several more steps back until he was completely out of the Prince’s field of vision, lifted his sword gingerly, and moved around to the other side of the Dais.
Through the black film that flowed back and forth between the stanchions, the donkey could make out Jessica lying with her wings pinned beneath her. Her talons stuck out, the black claws tensing in the air. James glanced at Yajakali who remained as placid as ever. Sucking in his breath, the donkey lifted his sword and stabbed through the black film.
The blade sizzled red hot as it passed through, the metal tip melting into brilliant slag. James cried and jumped back, and while still in the air, was caught by an invisible hand and flung into the wall behind him. He seemed to strike one of the Pillars of Ahdyojiak before falling forward in a heap.
Lindsey paused a moment in her swinging to cry, “James!” The hand clutched her and drove her to the ground, the axe clattering and fixing itself in place before her. Her thick tail, long feet, and even her arms, all planted themselves on the stone and stayed there. She gasped for breath, the tears of rage still steaming her cheek fur.
Yajakali calmly walked to the only left who had not been frozen by his power. The Åelf Andares-es-sebashou trembled as he approached, and his grip on the ivory-handled blade weakened. The tip wavered wildly but Andares was able to keep it aloft. Yajakali stepped into the blade, pinning it in his odd black flesh. He didn’t even sound irritated when he spoke. “You belong to the Lord of Colours. I have allowed this one to strike me because her sorrow is great and to show that nothing you do can balk me.”
Andares narrowed his eyes and took several deep breaths. His golden eyes met Yajakali’s impassive gaze, and the fear in them slowly kindled into fire. He gingerly pushed on the sword, the point sinking further into Yajakali’s flesh. The silver tip emerged from his left shoulder blade without a drop of blood on it.
“Tell your beasts to cease fighting this,” Yajakali said in his sing-song voice.
Andares shook his head. “No.” He pulled the blade down, and it moved slowly through Yajakali’s chest toward his spine.
“I am your Prince, Andares-es-sebashou.” The air of majesty and authority around him swelled. Those flung against the walls felt a compulsion to prostrate their unworthy bodies. Even Charles, locked in unmoving stone, knew deep down that it was a travesty that he could not abase himself before this blessed incarnation that turned all light upon itself. “I can hold them indefinitely. I will subsume their will if I must. Aid me as you are, and your star shall never fade.”
The younger Åelf’s knees buckled as if he were ready to fall to them. His eyes closed and he shook from head to toe. His chest heaved with a sob forcing its way up his throat. His head lowered to stifle that sob. The sword sliced back and forth through Yajakali’s permeable flesh and did him no harm. Yajakali’s skin seemed to shine with an unearthly radiance, all the colour around him being drawn into nothing.
The sob turned into defiant roar and Andares tossed his head back like a fierce stallion throwing off an ostler. He yanked the sword clean through Yajakali’s side, and then swung it through the Prince’s neck. The head did not stir. Still Andares scowled and with bitten words, snarled, “Never! You are not my Prince! You are dead. A dead Åelf clinging to a life that is gone. You cannot have it back.”
Yajakali’s eminence flared even brighter. He nodded his head once and the invisible hand yanked Andares back into one of the columns. A bit of blood smeared his black hair as his head smacked into the basalt and lucnos. Andares stumbled forward, taut face clenched in pain. His blade clattered to the floor.
The Åelf Prince betrayed no regret at being rejected by the only one of his race among them. He turned toward his three artifacts and slid his fingers through the black film. It eddied and climbed his arms like salmon spawning. A look of purest ecstasy limned his colourless, angular features. Though his skin was already black like jade, the darkness seemed to suck away even the little light that did lay there where shadows should have been. With the long sigh of a philosopher contemplating an esoteric question, Yajakali turned from the triumphant artifacts and regarded them one by one.
He walked toward James first, bent low and with the tip of one finger, drew the donkey to his hooves. James stood, dark eyes meeting the Åelf almost empty of intelligence. They had never seen the whites so large in the donkey’s eyes. Yajakali drew a finger down to the charm hanging around his neck and tapped it once. A bit of the darkness left his arm and circled around the charm and the string from which it hung. The black smoke curled around the string like a snake about a tree, circling round and round the yew-shaped charm. And then both vanished.
“You no longer need those,” Yajakali said with supreme resplendence. James’s eyes shut and his hands gripped either side of his head as if he suffered a pounding headache. As Yajakali watched, the donkey jerked this way and that, before he crumpled to his knees breathing heavily. The lines of strain left his features as a tangible peace spread over him. His eyes opened, no longer subsumed by fear but with uniformity of purpose. He looked up at Yajakali, and then with obeisance did him homage as a supplicant to their god.
Yajakali walked to where Abafouq lay sprawled in front of the stone wall. The Binoq’s body trembled as the monochrome Åelf let a tendril of darkness rise from his arms and coruscate across his charm. Moments later, he too was wrapped in utter adoration of the Prince.
Charles wanted so very badly to avert his eyes from the spectacle of seeing his friends turned into slaves by the corrupting power of Marzac. What had Zagrosek said of it? He tried to fight, wanted so very much to fight, but there was nothing there to fight. What Marzac wanted he would do. It was only in the little things, those little moments, and those brief times when he was let loose, that he could act as he wished to, but even then, he knew he was a dog on a leash.
And from the way James, Abafouq, and now Kayla, Jerome and Guernef, abased themselves before the Åelf, he could not help but wonder if the force of Marzac hadn’t been the will of Yajakali all along. His demeanour may be that of a benevolent emperor from a house of unassailable lineage, but he’d forced his servants to do the vilest of things. They were nothing but beasts to him. Andares was granted a modicum of respect solely because they were the same race. And even that sliver was not enough to keep Yajakali from destroying his charm against Marzac. A moment later and the pearl-grey skinned Åelf was on his knees before Yajakali, face rapt in ecstatic devotion.
Yajakali passed behind Charles and the sobbing of Lindsey came to an end a second later. The rat trembled inside his stone skin, offering what prayers he could to Eli for strength. He beseeched Blessed Yahshua, pleaded with Holy Mother Yanlin, and begged every one of the Saints amongst the Sondeckis for protection. Yet in this darkest and foulest place on earth, he felt nothing in reply. If they were here for him, he could not feel them.
And then the Åelf Prince stood before him. The darkness along his arms was mostly spent, but a thin tendril still curled around his wrist. Before that tendril even leapt to disable his charm, Charles felt the stone give way to flesh. Even in the nearly two months since he’d been freed from stone at Agathe’s death, he still hadn’t grown accustomed to the sensation of stone softening into flesh. Every fibre of his being relaxed with one great sigh. The vine on his shoulders curled a little closer, it’s sinews blackened from Zagrosek’s fire, but it seemed to understand the rat needed protection.
Yajakali lowered his strange backward eyes to stare at the vine. A strangely pleased smile creased his bright lips. “You have no need to fear. I bring no harm to your root.” The black tendril uncurled from the Åelf’s arm and coursed toward the rat. Charles tried to stumble backward, holding out his paws to ward it away. Like a viper it darted through the air and latched onto his paw. He shook his arm and squeaked his fright as it slithered up his arm and down his chest to the yew charm.
The vine feebly moved to intercept it, but the darkness was swifter than thought. Charles gasped and put his paws on his chest and found the talisman protecting him gone. For a split second fear overwhelmed him, and he leapt backward several more paces. A terrible presence, carrying with it whispers of dark deeds and promises of fulfilling every desire that should pass through his heart, pressed into his mind. He fell to his knees and grabbed the fur on either side of his head, ears folded back, tail lashing behind him.
Something, like a knife, slid through the cracks in his thoughts and settled into him. The invasion made all his muscles twitch and spasm. His Sondeck fought against it, but could find nothing against which to gain purchase. The presence settled into his power too, corralling it with a twitch of whim. Charles tried to think, but found he couldn’t think at all. This other would do that and everything else for him.
His eyes popped open and before him standing in resplendent majesty was his god. The beast that he was, so low and undeserving, fell to his knees and then lowered his muzzle to the ground. His body quivered with the joy of showing his god the homage due him. His ears turned upward to hear the command of his master, that he might cooperate in the doing of his will. Charles felt a surge of elation at the very prospect that such a command might come.
“Rise each of you,” Yajakali’s voice beckoned. They stood and stared with love at the Åelf who bore shadow where he should have light, and light where he should have shadow. He turned and faced them one by one. “Only eight of you? Perfect. Together, we will be nine. As they who fought were nine. And they who died are nine. I have chosen your sigils for the spell. Now I shall draw them.”
He stepped first to the younger Åelf. Andares’s golden eyes were rapt with love for his Prince. Yajakali drew a quick squiggle across his chest with one finger, and then two downward slashes through it. The three lines together flared a deep red like burnished brass reflecting the chasm’s fire. Andares nodded and walked toward the pillar with the same chevron. He put his back to the pillar and stood waiting for all to be complete.
Next he came to Lindsey, and his fingers danced in so complicated a pattern that the chevron appeared to pass through her chest in its quest to swallow itself. The sigil glowed like the one upon Andares, burning into their eyes with sweet promise. Lindsey hopped toward the pillar to the left of Andares and stood in front of it facing the blessed artifacts. Charles’s whiskers twitched with eagerness. He hoped he would be next.
But their god went to James instead. The donkey lifted his long snout higher as Yajakali’s finger inscribed a rune fashioned from six lines like a crosshatch in three directions. The donkey clopped humbly to the pillar at Andares’s right. And then Yajakali stepped before the skunk. Kayla’s tail thrashed behind her and the deep crimson symbol fashioned with a complex weave of curves and slashes glowed with august fire. She took position before the pillar at Lindsey’s left.
And then finally, the rat felt his heart exude triumph as his god on this earth stepped before him and inscribed a swirl over his chest with many lines connected the edges, and a zigzag through the middle like a star bent in on itself. He could feel every line and curve like a brilliant warmth that nevertheless left his body cold. It felt as if the chevron glowed not with its own life, but reflected the life of he upon whom it had been drawn. Charles could see the bronze aura shining on his arms and was delighted that he had so much life to give to his god.
And then his legs lifted, an understanding dawning in his mind. He bore the third chevron, and it was his place to stand before the pillar bearing the same mark. He walked to it, noted the way the lucnos glowing its bright blue complemented his sombre red, and turned his back to the pillar. Before him rose one of the stanchions on the Dais. He lifted his eyes past it and stared in wonder at the Censer brimming with darkness in gaseous form, and the brilliant golden blade rising like an indomitable spire out of a black lake.
With his wider field of vision, he could watch the light of the artifacts and Yajakali. Their beautiful god continued to mark them. Next he came to Jerome, and upon his fellow Sondecki he drew the seventh chevron, which seemed to be two spider webs intersecting. Jerome crossed to the opposite side of the artifacts and found his place at Kayla’s left. Abafouq received the fourth chevron, a mixture of a four pointed star with lines curving around it like a whirlpool. He found his place at Charles’s right. Guernef, the last of them, was given the sixth chevron upon the front of his chest, a thing of mazes and cul-de-sacs that nevertheless appeared easier to follow than any of the higher-order chevrons. The massive Nauh-kaee stood on his hind legs to keep the chevron visible and he hunched to the pillar at Jerome’s left.
Yajakali was the only one left, and he took the fifth pillar between Abafouq and Guernef. He spread his arms wide and the last of the chevrons emerged through his mismatched flesh. It almost seemed to the rat to be a series of five five-sided stars with each point touching another, being sucked inward to a central point. It was so beautiful he couldn’t help but breathe faster.
“The nine who will be are!” Yajakali intoned with the flutes in his voice sounding like brass trumpets. “I bring forth the nine who are dead.” And then he began to sing. The words were unknown to the rat, steeped in the archaic and glorious words of the Åelf. The melody wended to both melancholy and majesty. One by one, and in reverse order to the way he’d drawn their sigils, they each took up that melody. But they did not merely join their living deity; they started the song over, setting up a contrapuntal dialogue that created both moments of clattering dissonance and delicate consonance.
Charles lifted his snout high as the words trilled from his tongue into the air. His eyes gazed upward to the vault of the heavens over Ahdyojiak that he could glimpse through the ceilings of the Metamor belfry, the cavern beneath Yesulam, and the Hall of Unearthly Light. The stars continued their slow dance through the black moonless sky, hopping back and forth as if they couldn’t quite decide where they should be. What power his god had if he could control the stars!
Yajakali’s voice dwindled to a quiet whisper. A dark shadowy wisp curled over the Censer’s rim and danced over the air. It circled the stanchion closest to the Åelf Prince, and then spiralled down its length. From the cleft just beneath the Dais a dark vapour lifted like a gossamer veil caught in the wind. The two emanations flowed together and settled on the ground a few feet in front of Yajakali.
The darkness spun and swelled, the wisp drawing the mist upward into a large shape. Two arms, two legs, a head, with wide girth and distinctly human visage. The wisp spun around the figure faster and faster until it finally changed from a deep black into a blinding red streak that drew colour from the silhouette.
Standing with arms hanging at his sides and fat cheeks sagging in a lifeless scowl was a man they had long thought dead. Piggish eyes gazed at the three artifacts, but did not look back at the Keepers who had all heard of his traitorous acts. He was still dressed in his garish doublet and hose marred by a gewgaw of colours that clashed almost painfully. Upon his chest glowed the same brilliant symbol as Yajakali bore.
It was Lord Altera Loriod come back from the dead. Their god must know what he was doing to bring such a loathsome example of humanity back.
As soon as Loriod appeared, Abafouq’s voiced descended like Yajakali’s, and from the censer and the cleft came the wisp of darkness and a new crimson hued veil. They came together, dancing to the seven-toned melody, and blended into a much smaller shape, one about the same size as the diminutive Binoq. Once Abafouq’s voice completely died, another whom they knew to be dead appeared before him. The hawk on the altar struggled for a moment as her master Wessex took shape with the fourth chevron glowing on his chest. Unmoving eyes remained fixed on the artifacts as Guernef, balanced precariously on his hind paws, brought his song to a conclusion too.
Before the Nauh-kaee materialized another form with material from the Censer and from the otherworldly cleft. This shape had two arms but its legs were concealed within a wide robe. A long tail curled up behind its back through a part in the robe. The robe, when colour came to it, was a bright purple with lightning bolts inscribed along the collar and sleeves. A grey-furred face with large golden eyes emerged from the robe, while the black and white striped tail danced behind his tufted ears.
Charles nodded in understanding. All whose deaths had been bought by his god’s artifacts were now being brought forth. Their lives belong to the Sword, Censer, and Dais. They were, as much as he was, beholden to Yajakali. For even as Ambassador Yonson took his place before the Nauh-kaee, the rat’s voice reached the conclusion of the song and the mist and veil floated toward him.
The figure mostly blocking his view of the blessed artifacts was that of a Bishop of the Ecclesia. Charles didn’t recognize him, but what he could see of him was a cherubic face, portly middle, and the dark hair and white face typical of men from the forests surrounding the Sonngefilde city of Eavey. Could this be the Bishop of Eavey? How had he died in furthering Yajakali’s plans?
The questions seemed inconsequential to the rat. As long as it furthered his god’s goals, he would exult in it. He stared past the Bishop toward Jerome before whom another figure came to life. Dressed in a purple cloak with cowl drawn over her face, was the Runecaster Agathe. Her right eye still burned with that sombre flame, and it’s luminescence was matched by the seventh chevron smelting on her chest. Her good eye, though still bloodshot, bore none of the malice he was accustomed to seeing in it.
Yajakali spread out his arms, black face exultant, the white shadow under his chin spreading wider. His fingers parted as they rose inch by inch into the air. Bitterly cold wind whipped from Metamor blended with the humid warmth of Ahdyojiak and the stifling dustiness beneath Yesulam and Marzac. And with it, their arms also spread outward, rising with his.
Before James coalesced the figure of Zagrosek, dead only hours. His body, once shorn in two, was whole again. His eyes never left the artifacts. And then in front of Kayla the Marquis materialized from the darkness of the cleft and Censer. His face, once arrogant, and his eyes, once delighting in their torment, were now empty just like the others. All of them, Charles knew, were vessels waiting to be filled.
As the rat’s arms stretched out fully to his sides, he saw the ancient one, Qan-af-årael take shape in front of the much younger Åelf who had been his student for centuries. A part of him wished it could ache at seeing a face once filled with such austere kindness now filled with nothing. But that was not Yajakali’s will for him, and so he turned to where Lindsey stood, waiting to see the last of the dead return.
The last of the mist seeped from the Censer’s rim and coiled down the stanchion like a snake. The aetherial veil rising out of the cleft settled on the ground a few feet before the red-furred kangaroo’s toes and spread out in a very similar shape, circled endlessly by that wisp of black smoke. A moment later, the dust-coloured kangaroo known as Zhypar Habakkuk stood before them all once more.
Yajakali’s hands reached far above his head and so too did theirs. Even Guernef with his quadruped body managed the feat. The song ended, but his voice echoed so strongly that the bells in the Metamor belfry began rocking back and forth. “The nine who are dead have been raised! Now bring forth the nine who fought!”
As one, the nine who died stepped toward the artifacts. Even though Wessex’s legs were shorter than all the rest, they still managed to walk in unison and reach the artifacts at the same moment. The bells swung inward, the ringers tugging magnetically toward the Sword. The golden blade swelled and radiated images of its malevolent self into the air. The nine climbed onto the stone platform above the cleft and rested their palms on the gems surmounting the golden stanchions at the Dais’s corners.
Charles’s eyes widened as each of the nine who’d died began glowing. A faint red nimbus swelled from their flesh, like forge-blown glass cooling under the blower’s careful touch. The energy passed out of their bodies and into the gems like water drawn up a stalk. They stepped back and down from the platform, eyes and arms wide, with Habakkuk and Yonson keeping their ears folded back and tails low.
The light sank into the gems, cascading from facet to facet. A veritable hum filled the air and every mote of dust vibrated until they shone like a desert haze. A single beam of light burst from each of the gems and struck the Sword’s tip in a blinding sunburst of pure energy. Charles and the other animal-morphed squinted to watch. Yajakali’s face grew even darker.
The Sword thrummed with a thunderous ostinato. It’s voice reverberated in their minds and was echoed by the Prince’s lips. “The Sunderer of Worlds break forth the seals! Complete the nine that we might sunder this world!”
Another tattoo of clamorous drums and the Sword’s light shot back through the nine gems and all of their eyes stung as if jabbed with a pin. Charles and the rest blinked several times before they could see that their company had been increased by yet another nine. The newcomers had dark-toned skin like many Southlanders, each dressed in extravagant robes that curled from the left to the right with a sash tied about the middle and around the back. The ends of the sashes lifted over the shoulders and ended at the collarbone. Jewels of many colours — citrine, chalcedony, agate, onyx, jasper, aventurine, amethyst, carnelion, and tiger’s eye — dangled from the sashes and the edges of the robes, while tassels flashed with gold and black thread from their sleeves. Slippers sparkled with jade stones covering their top. The toes turned up in a decorative point like a jongleur and on their heads they bore turbans wrapped about diadems whose hue matched the gemstones for each of the Dais’s nine stanchions.
Each of the nine standing closest to the artifacts had a large beard coming down to the middle of their chest. They bore on the back of their robes the chevron, though these were fashioned from thread and not magical quickening. On their chests the red sigils burned with an even brighter hue than they did on Charles and the others. They clasped their hands in a circle and their voices sang with a language none now living knew.
“What was, what is, and what shall be have met,” Yajakali crowed from where he stood. Thin lines began circling through the air between them, wisps of blue and green that teased his sight, like strands of hair caught in a wind he could not feel. The strands flowed clockwise between each circle of nine, and they flitted past all the faster the closer they neared the cleft. Charles marvelled as he realized that what he witnessed was magic itself, bound so tightly and so profusely that it was now visible to his untrained eyes. What must Kayla and the others see?
Their god at the very least did not appear alarmed, but his face continued to darken with the increasing light surrounding the Dais, Censer and Sword. His head tilted back and his words began to murmur across all their tongues. “Now, unlatch us from this moment. Sunderer of Worlds! Take the first that has been prepared for thee!”
The Sword, gleaming with gold and also shining with an inner luminescence that matched the blue nimbus from the lucnos fashioned into the Hall of Unearthly Light, swelled in size, the tip growing wider than the rest. After a moment of fascination, Charles realized that the sword was not growing, but distorting. The tip bent downward, flexing of its own accord like no blade had ever flexed, until it pointed directly over the body of the Marquis’s Steward, the hapless Vigoreaux. His eyes, already filled with terror, whitened further, as the artifacts limned his body bronze. The tip of the blade twisted as it bent down, quivering with a need long denied.
Charles held his breath as he gazed past the Bishop and the ancient mage standing between him and the artifacts. Everyone peered closer; even the Pillars of Ahdyojiak stretching endlessly into the sky bent toward the artifacts. The flashes of magical force sparkled brighter and sped faster toward the cleft beneath the Dais.
And then the sword struck like a viper, plunging straight into Vigoreaux’s head. The Steward twitched once and then his body fell still in death. But only for a moment. Every mote of his flesh began to quiver, oscillating back and forth, up and down, wider and wider until the whole of his form was a haze of light and colour. Through it all the sword remained bent into that mass, absorbing those particles with deliberate calm. When there was nothing left, the sword straightened, aglow even more brilliantly than before.
That glow settled into the Censer’s basin, until what had once been dark was now a vibrant yellow flame. The flame coruscated down the sides of the Censer, along the base of the Dais, and up through each of the stanchions. Rays of energy shot out, striking the circle of nine mages where the chevrons were inscribed in their chest. The light passed through them and struck the nine who died in the same place. And then, it came even through them and reached Charles and the rest in the outermost circle of this epoch-spanning Symphony. Their arms still outstretched, the energy radiated out with an explosion that made every chamber they stood in shudder.
Beyond the Pillars and the Belfry, the stars, once wobbly and indistinct, spun across the celestial vault until the sky was nothing more than a stream of white concentric circles that moved north and south through the heavens. The rat’s eyes marvelled at this for several seconds before noting that the Bishop’s greying hair seemed white one moment, then grey, and then black, before returning to grey. He glanced to his right and watched as Abafouq’s face lined and his hair whitened, before resuming its dark complexion again. To his left he watched James’s muzzle grey and his cheeks sag, before returning to his usual vivacity. All of the others seemed to wobble in their ages, even Wessex who one moment looked a child and the next a young man.
Yajakali spoke, and their tongues moved with his words. “Unhitched now, Sunderer of Worlds, the second shall be to loop what has become unmoored.”
The Sword bent again, this time toward the burly Castellan, Sir Autrefois. All of them held their breath this time as the tip of that golden blade neared the quivering heap of frightened man-flesh. Yajakali’s eyes beamed shadow as he watched. Autrefois opened his mouth to scream but was cut short as the Sword pierced his skull. His flesh, like that of Vigoreaux before him, began to dissolve into a bluish haze through which they could see the golden blade and the cavorting demons inscribed on the Dais’s broad surface.
Those particles of Autrefois were swallowed by the Sword and channelled once more into the Censer. The basin, once filled with golden light, now sparkled with pinpricks of azure dust. They crawled over the rim, across the rapes and murders carved into the Censer’s bowl and column, and then over to the stanchions to power the mystic gems. Charles tensed with excitement as the light, no less brilliant and piercing for being blue, passed through the nine mages, the nine dead, and then into him and his friends.
With another deafening concussion, the rooms smacked as if settling into a new place. The stars, spinning so fast, ground to a sudden halt and found their place in the sky. The world they watched o’er was no longer the world that Charles knew. The white-peaked mountains still lay beyond Metamor’s belfry, but there was no more sign of the city, only of an endless expanse of forest cloaking a forgotten castle. The cavern beneath Yesulam now let in starlight through several doorways once choked with rubble. The fulgurites stretching beneath them gleamed like polished tiger’s eye. Even Ahdyojiak was a land transformed. The jungle receded behind a city of ivory and marble that glowed silver in the starlight.
Only the Hall of Unearthly Light seemed the same as it had been before. But to their eyes, the greatest of changes came not to the world beyond, but to their god so close at hand. Yajakali, his flesh once twisted so that light seemed shadow and shadow light, blossomed with renewed colour. His cheeks were flush with a silvery-grey sheen, his ears tipped with white, and his eyes a blue with golden highlights. His garments were purest white, a white no ivory, no matter how clean, could boast. Shadows settled where they should. And the fifth chevron decorating his chest appeared to dance with glee in the confines of its shape.
The strands of magic that had become visible to the rat now deepened and lengthened. No longer were they wisps of hair caught on an unfelt wind, but they were the torrents of a river being swallowed by whirlpool. Eddies and whorls drove past as they fell into the funnel down into the cleft so empty but for its crimson stain. The hem of his tunic and the tip of his tail felt the tug of that whirlpool and began pulling to his left. The rat cared not. He was with his god who was only moments away from setting the world aright.
“Looped we have become,” Yajakali cried, his voice rising an octave to gleam with all the bombast of trumpeters. “Now, Sunderer of Worlds, loose the mistake and take it with you into eternal darkness where it belongs!”
Charles’s heart beat anxiously. This was what his god had worked toward over millennia. How privileged a beast must he be to aid him in this! His eyes gleamed as the golden blade bent toward the last of the three bound on the Dais. The black hawk, Jessica, twitched to get out of the way of the blade, but could not move from where she was pinned on her back. Her chest rose with each gasped breath, and nestled in those dark feathers, something reflected the golden light of the Sword.
The golden blade bent and lowered itself, the tip wavering as if smelling Jessica’s flesh and deciding which was the most succulent part. Golden eyes watched the blade, tongue struggling to move to find the words to some incantation that could save her. But there was nothing that could be done. Yajakali’s will could not be resisted. The artifacts he’d forged brought a link between this world and the Underworld, and that brought it a power no force from this world could ever balk. The Sword tensed and the hawk’s eyes widened. Charles ground his incisors together and held his breath one last time. He would never need to again.
The Sword plunged. Yajakali’s face shone brighter than the sun. All of them watched with eager eyes for the final death. The whirlpool of energy sucked and swallowed everything down into the ravenous cleft.
And then the Sword, just shy of Jessica’s head, stopped. From her chest emanated a crystal blue light that arrested the blade. It quivered with fury, but could approach no closer. Charles blinked, his breath passing out of his chest, and felt something drawing slowly out of his mind. The Sword stabbed and stabbed but Jessica remained untouched. Yajakali’s face blossomed in fury.
“What is this that dares to thwart me!” Yajakali bellowed with a rage that turned their bones to dust. “No power can stand between me and my will!”
“This one can,” another voice said. It was so familiar, yet through the haze of Yajakali’s will — how had Charles ever thought of that Åelf as his god? — it took him until the speaker said more that he knew it to be the now dead kangaroo, Zhypar Habakkuk. “Like all that thwarts you, it did so in a small way. An enemy you once thought slain has reached out his hand and saved Jessica and all that is from you.”
Yajakali did not break the circle of nine, but his gaze, imperious and maniacal, swept down on the kangaroo. Habakkuk trembled under its power, but did not buckle. “What enemy is this? I left my enemies no place on earth from which to strike!”
“From no place on earth,” Qan-af-årael said. “From the place between places this one strikes. From between moments and between all places he has waited ever since slaying the dragon you took.”
Yajakali looked from the Åelf back to Jessica who could no more move now than she could before. The Sword continued to stab but made no progress. “Pelain of Cheskych? The wolf knight? He slayed a dragon and died in Carethedor, defiling one of our cities. He cannot reach us here.”
Zagrosek smiled with a half-sarcastic twitch to his lips that the rat had long known. It occurred to Charles that neither he nor his friends still living were able to move; their minds may have been freed from Yajakali, but not their bodies. The nine Southlands mages of antiquity also remained immobile. Why were the nine who died free to speak?
The question percolated at the back of his mind as his fellow Sondecki scoffed, “Carethedor is entwined with Ahdyojiak. The Pillars are theirs, and Pelain died in the midst of their counterparts in Carethedor. Of course he is in the Imbervand. And you brought him here with the Pillars themselves.”
But Yajakali would have none of it. “If Pelain or any others were here I would know of it.” Spectral arms emanated from the Åelf Prince’s chest and reached across the two inner circles. The flow of magic tugged them relentlessly to the left and down toward the cleft, but he had strength enough to resist. They reached toward Jessica, unfurling to snatch at the talisman that kept the golden Sword at bay.
“That will not work either,” the Bishop declared with piping voice. “The talisman you seek was granted by Pelain, but its power comes from something far older than he.”
Yajakali’s eyes burned with a fire that made the portly priest flinch. “I am the oldest power on this earth! This will not harm me!” His spectral hand stretched over Jessica and passed the boundary his Sword could not break. It settled over her chest and grasped what lay there nestled safely in her black feathers.
A howl resounded through the chamber, but not a one of them could say what had made it. The raging torrent of magical force ripped Yajakali’s spectral arms apart, they sank deep into the abyss, and were no more.
“This force is as old as you, Prince,” Wessex intoned in his youthful soprano. “This force is your equal.”
Yajakali stared at the hawk, and a smile crept over his lips. “There is no force that is my equal. It may thwart me for a time, but I will undo this binding on the hawk and have her life. Whatever force this is will be thrust into nonexistence along with the mistake of time.”
“Hah!” Loriod sneered in a way that still repulsed Charles and the other Metamorians. “I thought I had time too. We all saw how idiotic a mistake that was.”
Yajakali closed his eyes and the whirlpool of magic began to eddy around him, creating a secondary vortex. “We are in the loop. I have all the time I need. And all the magic too. I will find a way. My will shall set things aright!”
Yonson shook his head, even as his robe, and the clothes of everyone in the chamber, began to tear at the seams and pull toward the Åelf Prince. “Your will cannot touch this. It is the one thing you cannot touch.” The lemur’s tail danced a jig behind his head and his golden eyes brimmed with amusement. “And while you would have time against anything anywhere else, you have not the time against that which is in the loop with you.”
Yajakali’s lips curled in vexation. All of their clothes ripped from their bodies and flew together around him in the eddy of magic. The cloth stitched together piece by piece into massive arms that blocked out the sky. “You can speak, nine who are dead. But you are still dead. Those who fought me cannot act and those who will be are yet to be and can do nothing. There is none in this loop to stop me.”
With the cowl over her head now joined to Yajakali’s newest magical artifice, Agathe’s empty eye-socket brought her entire face aglow with crimson fire. “We already know Pelain could reach through this veil to stop you. Yet you will not accept that truth. Nor this one: you have already failed, Yajakali.”
“Failed?” Yajakali laughed as the clothes spread over Jessica’s form, undoing layers upon layers of protection, scouting through her feathers for whatever they might find. And then, with exquisite gentleness, they slipped between the talisman and her chest. “I am about to succeed!”
The Marquis du Tournemire smiled in his contemptuous way. “No. Like Habakkuk said, it is in the small ways that you have been thwarted. My own was in keeping one card from the flame. Now say hello to my dear friend Dazheen!”
Yajaklali ignored him, yanking back on the assembled cloth. The talisman ripped free and sailed through the air. Something else, in that single moment when the Sword lifted to strike unimpeded, burst from a pile of dust in one corner of the room to spin through the air toward the artifacts. The Sword thrust at Jessica’s exposed face, just as the lowly Queen of Spades passed between them.
Nemgas and Dazheen heard every word of the Åelf Prince as he cast his magnum opus. Cenziga throbbed with frenetic energy, the faces dancing in the air coming together to a colossal syzygy. Through the card they saw only darkness and could only ponder what they might do.
And then, Dazheen gasped as she heard the aristocrat speak her name. “Nemgas! Strike!” The old woman croaked, her hands shaking with palsy. “Strike now!”
The Magyar’s grip on Caur-Merripen tightened, the silver and black blade quivering against his palm. The darkness in the card vanished into a swirl of lights, gold, blue, silver, and red. A vault of starry sky spun above a ceiling with four bells and one with crisscrossing blue veins and the familiar dome of that horrid place beneath Yesulam where he’d fought against Bishop Jothay.
And then he too screamed as he saw the golden blade that Jothay had wielded and that had in the end turned on him, driving toward him. Caur-Merripen leapt in his hand, through the card, and met that golden blade, driving it back. The world in the card ceased its spin, as the card stretched outward in size. He thrust again, driving that blade back from its target. The squeal of hot metal quenched in oil resounded with each blow.
Overhead, the syzygy completed, and the great towering spire of Cenziga bent down from the mountain top until its life-ending tip nearly brushed Nemgas across the shoulders.
“No!” Yajakali screamed as a black and silver blade thrust through the card and deflected the Sword. The room shook with each blow, the stars in their places trembling and faltering. The artifacts hissed like a beast in agony. The stanchions twisted and twined, the light linking them with the three circles of nine broken. With each blow from the silver and black blade, the Sword of Yajakali fell back and up until it straightened and stood unmoving atop the Censer. The card followed it, guiding the unseen swordsman upward, until the card turned and spread inexorably across the ceiling.
“This Symphony will not be broken!” Yajakali declared, but neither he nor the artifacts seemed to have a hold on any of them anymore. The creation of clothes tore asunder in the magical whirlpool. The ancient human mages drew their hands to their chests and chanted a different incantation, their faces dark and sombre with enmity.
Wessex, Yonson and Agathe rushed through them and together helped Jessica off the Dais. The Agathe drew her finger over the bindings on her wings, and Wessex did the same to her legs. Jessica gasped and pumped her wings, jumping into the air to land nearby. She bent low and snatched the talisman that had fallen to the ground. Apart from the nine in the centre chanting furiously, all eyes turned toward Yajakali who stared at the two swords trading blows with undisguised fury. This was the anger of a vengeful god who’d been defied.
“Not a one of you will have a place in my world now,” Yajakali’s voice boomed from the walls. He stepped into the maelstrom of magic and gathered it about himself. Guernef tried to buffet him with his wings, but a flick of his wrist and Yajakali sent him sprawling against the wall. He grabbed Loriod by the shoulders and flung the fat noble aside. Charles, Jerome and Zagrosek rushed him from three sides. Yajakali swept his left arm out, and the waves of magic grabbed their naked flesh and dashed them against the lucnos infested wall.
And then the room shook and the stars overhead began to spin in great circles. Streams of blue dust spewed from the gemstones to coalesce into the prone figure of Sir Autrefois. Andares, Lindsey, and Habakkuk rushed forward and hoisted him from the Dais. Lindsey then seemed to realize that Habakkuk was beside her and wrapped her arms about him, holding to his neck, while the younger Åelf undid the bindings on the Castellan’s hands and feet.
“You may undo what I have done for now,” Yajakali snarled at the nine mages after flinging the lemur aside. He then smacked Wessex and Abafouq together in the magical vortex and then spewed them back out again. “But once I have destroyed this card I will do it all again. Your resistance will be for naught!”
The room lurched once more and the stars settled into their familiar places. The last of the light drained from the artifacts and the Steward Vigoreaux reappeared on the Dais. James, Qan-af-årael, and the foreign Bishop helped him down.
Yajakali glowered at them all and with a flick of his wrist knocked each of them to the floor. Even the nine ancient mages collapsed, beards pressed back into their faces. The magical vortex spun faster around them, sucking every fibre into its malignant whirlpool. Charles’s tail spun to the left and began pulling at his rear. He grabbed the vine in one paw and held it tight as it clutched at his neck for whatever purchase it could find. A violent roar accompanied every twist and turn. No longer did the magic appear as a river, but as a million cords of light of every hue all bundled tightly together and twisting and twisting until their shape was drawn so narrow that they threatened to snap.
Yajakali stepped onto the Dais and lifted his defiant white face heavenward. All the magic sucked into the abyss beneath him turned around his arms until they glowed so bright not a one of them could do aught but look at the card to keep from going blind. Through the card they could see a man with only one arm, his left, with which he swung and thrust that black and silver sword that drove Yajakali’s blade into retreat. Charles thought he recognized him, and for a moment considered Kashin the Yeshuel, but Kashin had lost his left arm, not his right. Beyond the familiar swordsman was a sky turbulent with twilight blue vapours and a spire that angled toward them the colour of lightning. It stretched back into what could only be described as a mountain that was not a mountain.
The rage fled from Yajakali’s face and his eyes widened in a glimmer of fright. A laugh burst through his lips, and a name bounced from his tongue. “Cenziga!” The artifacts trembled and fell back at the mention of the name. Charles and the rest covered their ears as a pounding rhythm drove through the card and into the chamber. The man with the sword dove out of sight as the lightning spire pierced the card.
Yajakali shook his head. “Never will I give up my world!” He threw his arms up to send all the magic he had at the spire. And the mountain, this strange Cenziga, drove down, the spire piercing Yajakali through the chest, and then through the Censer and Dais. With the force of a thousand thunderclaps Yajakali’s body and the spire broke through the Dais and the platform it rested upon to sink into the limitless depths of the crimson abyss below.
Everything shook with the titanic quake as the spire passed through the card, followed by the pinnacle of the mountain and every crevice and tower. The world around them flashed with every colour of night, stars winking in and out of existence. The Pillars of Ahdyojiak straightened and after a brilliant flame of white, vanished from sight. The bells of Metamor flew back away from the mountain and the valley outside also disappeared. Even the vault beneath Yesulam was dispersed into the reality of the Hall of Unearthly Light.
One of the ancient wizards grabbed Kayla by the arm and shook her. “You have to run!” he shouted. “All of you! Kayla, listen to me! Run!”
How they could hear his voice over the roar of the mountain they would never know. Kayla shook her head, blinking as she stared at the chevron still glowing red in the man’s chest. Her eyes widened in sudden recognition. “Anef the First?”
His smile was faint. He nodded. “Our mistake is done. Do not repeat it! Now run!”
A single hand reached up from the cleft and grasped the edge of the broken Dais. Yajakali’s head emerged through the gap even as the mountain continued to push deeper and deeper into the abyss. Blue eyes flamed gold and his other arm stretched up against the mountain that had smote his chest.
Anef the First shook Kayla again and waved to them. His scream was desperate. “Run! Now!” The ceiling and walls of the Hall of Unearthly Light winked out as the lucnos returned to lead. Cracks speared through every pillar and every vault. Yajakali screamed his heart’s last breath of hatred and the ancient chamber began to collapse.
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