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 roar of the mountain ripping from the card and through the artifacts only grew in their ears. But it was the pounding ostinato in their minds that threatened to drown out everything else. Even as Anef the First shook the skunk and gestured to the seemingly endless stairs, a name, singular and dominating, beat through every synapse of their brain, “CENZIGA!”
Yajakali clawed at the mountain as its scabrous surface sliced through him and the artifacts. The gems at each stanchion radiated fire as they glowed. His eyes reflected them and the whirlpool of magic flowed into him and sustained him in his final struggle. “You have not yet won!”
Anef snapped back at him, “But you have certainly lost! Your war against man is over!”
Yajakali pushed more of himself up through the crack in the Dais, even as the mountain widened and pressed the golden artifacts further and further apart. “It can never be over!”
“You are dead!” Anef shouted. “And so are we! The dead must move on for the living!”
“I am the purpose!” Yajakali screamed and flung out one arm.
Anef sprawled with the blow of magic crushing in the side of his face. But his flesh filled back in and he was whole. Kayla sprung to his side and helped him to his feet. Anef sighed and grabbed her arm. “Leave this to us, Kayla. We are dead. You are alive. Go! All of you now!”
They locked eyes for one moment, and then the skunk nodded. She let go of the ancient magician and rushed toward the entrance to the stairs. She waved to the others and pointed. “Our work is done! We have to go!” As if echoing her, one of the pillars at the rear of the room collapsed, the stones falling through Qan-af-årael’s form. The ancient Åelf smiled sadly, and motioned for Andares and the others to follow her.
Charles, James and Jerome grabbed their packs where they’d fallen against one wall and ran toward the stairs. The rat looked once at Zagrosek, but his friend only shook his head and made the sign of the yew. The rat sighed, made the sign of the yew, and turned his eyes from his lifelong friend for the last time.
Abafouq and Guernef were right behind them. Lindsey tugged on Habakkuk’s arm but the dust-coloured kangaroo shook his head too. His eyes bore tears as he gazed at his love. “I am dead, Lindsey. Weep for me, but do not linger and do not look for me.”
Lindsey slapped her tail against the ground. “But I just found you again!”
Habakkuk ignored and pointed to his sack flung against the pillar nearest the stairs. “Take my things with you. Read and you will win your way to me for eternity. Go! You must survive for me!”
Lindsey tugged his arm one last time, but this time, her paw slipped through his flesh and she stumbled backwards. A rock crashed through the ceiling and landed between them. Lindsey took a step toward him, but more and more stones came crashing down. With a cry of anguish, she turned and hopped as fast as she could to the stairs, stopping only to grab his things. Andares put one hand on her shoulder and guided her to the others.
Jessica and the Marquis’s two servants, still weak from their ordeal on the Dais were the last to meet them at the base. The hawk turned at the entrance, and watched as the nine mages linked their hands again and walked toward Yajakali who had nearly freed himself from the descending mountain.
One by one the others turned, gaze rapt as the nine who died all faded into insubstantiality as they stepped backward into the walls once filled with the disquieting radiance of lucnos. The card had stretched to encompass nearly the entire ceiling as the mountain, stretched taut like taffy, plunged ever deeper into the abyss. Yajakali swung one leg through the hole, his whole body aglow with power.
Anef’s voice resounded like the ringing of church bells. “Eleven thousands years ago our lives were struck down. Now at least we ten will go to what lays beyond death’s curtain. Come, Yajakali. It is time.”
“Time is mine!” Yajakali roared and raised one hand high, the visible torrent of magic shifting and flowing into his fist.
“Not anymore.” And the nine mages all jumped onto the broken Dais, and then onto Yajakali. He screamed beneath them as the mountain bore down. Slowly, the Dais angled further, and the ten figures slipped down into the crack. Yajakali shook his fist, face flashing once through the twisting bodies and the writhing chevrons, and then all of them were gone into the darkness below.
The nine gems shattered. Several more pillars collapsed as the entire room shook itself apart. The stanchions glowed and the gold melted away revealing a grey interior like a bone beneath flesh. The Sword and Censer also, once too frightening for words, began to melt away like so much wax in a blaze. The matraluc beneath the gold lingered only moments more before it too bubbled and slid away down the slide of the mountain. The chevrons flashed one last time before running like mud in the rain down into the crimson abyss.
And when the last of those three artifacts of Yajakali disappeared, the base of the mountain slammed into the cleft and sealed it whole. Falling rocks tore the card to shreds and the room fell inward in a choke of rubble and thousand year dust.
All eleven of them ran down the hall and up the stairs as the collapse followed nipping at their heels.
One moment Duke Thomas lay his arms over the weeping form of Kyia, the feeling in his hooves and legs gone as the timelessness washed over them, and then next the spirit of the Keep bolted upright through the protective ring of arms, his, Lidaman’s, and the two guards’. Her long silvery hair danced around her faintly glowing hips.
“It is finished!” She declared with verve. The look of exultant triumph in her eyes faded to kind pleasure as she looked down at the horse lord and three others still kneeling in front of her. “Thomas, it has been done. Those you sent six months ago have succeeded in destroying the power of Marzac.”
Thomas put one hoof to the ground and stood, as Andhun the bull and Gaspar a child that would never be a teenager ran into the room brandishing spears. “Your grace?” the bull shouted the question as he stared with wide-eyed fear at the silvery woman.
Thomas laughed at the sight of them, even as the warthog and woman moved to calm their friends. “It is all right, Andhun,” Thomas said and waved one hand. “This is Kyia. And she has wonderful news.” He turned back to the spirit of the Keep and asked, “And the Censer; has it been destroyed?”
“Yes,” she replied and her face filled with euphoric delight. “The Belfry is free of that evil taint. It has been a knife-wound in my side these six months, but now it is gone.”
“And what of those I sent?”
Lidaman moved his eyes from Thomas to Kyia and back again as he tried to understand what was going on. But even he breathed a sigh of relief when the spirit of the Keep said, “I felt them within me for a short time, but they have returned to Marzac. I am not certain, but I believe they are well.”
“That will please many. I must wake them and let them know. If nothing else, we can ring the bells for the wedding!” The horse lord realized that he didn’t quite know what he was saying. The heart rending terror was past, and he still didn’t understand it.
The guards rushed to take position between Thomas and something at the other side of the room. Kyia turned her gaze and the delight faded to polite scorn. Lidaman and Thomas turned, and beheld a man long dead stepping out of the wall and staring straight at Thomas. Andhun thrust his spear into the man’s corpulent gut but met no substance. The ghost passed through them to stand before the horse lord. Lidaman’s choked tongue found the name first, “Loriod!”
Altera Loriod scowled as he looked up into the horse lord’s long face. “I always detested you,” Loriod said. “I detested Alvarez for taking me from my warm country and bringing me here to this wretchedly cold backwater so we could raise carrots. Carrots! You all made me miserable, and I loathe that my last act was to defend you.”
“You are dead,” Thomas declared, stomping one hoof. “Go to your end in Hell, Altera.”
Loriod sneered. “I am leaving. I just wanted you to know, that you have me to thank for your continued life. I know it will grate you for all time to think that I was responsible for saving this world.”
“It would,” Thomas replied, crossing his arms. “But I don’t believe it.”
Loriod’s face screwed into anger. “You insufferable beast! Somebody should bridle you and break you like the beast you are.”
Thomas laughed at that, well remembering those few months when he’d been more horse than man and called Toumoth. “Already done. I’m marrying her too. Now be off with you.”
But Loriod’s tirade was not over. He wagged one finger and began to shout, when something dark grabbed him by his legs and pulled him down. He screamed in freakish agony, so much so that Thomas, Lidaman and all four guards flinched away. Loriod sank from sight, his face bent into a rictus of hate before it disappeared into the floor. His scream echoed away a few seconds later.
“What by all the gods is going on?” Lidaman asked, fighting back a childish tremble.
“I have no idea. Kyia?”
The spirit of the Keep stared at the spot Loriod had disappeared and sighed. “The Censer killed him, but kept his soul from moving beyond. You were the one person in the world he wanted to spit at one last time before his final end claimed him. You do not need to fear seeing him again, Thomas. He is gone to his place.”
“Hmm,” Thomas mused and scratched his chin with a heavy hoof-like nail. “I need to speak with my advisors and discuss this news. Is there anything else you can tell me, Kyia?”
“Only this,” she replied, “Marzac is no more. The magic it has stolen is now rolling back. I must leave to do what I can to prevent it from causing any more damage.” And with that, she stepped toward the nearest wall and vanished within.
Lidaman looked from the wall to Thomas. “Well, your grace, all I can say is that you had best include me in on this little meeting so you can tell me what by the gods just happened!”
Thomas laughed because he couldn’t think of anything else to do.
Jessica wasn’t very good at running up stairs with her talons and avian body. So she shifted into her hawk form and took to wing, flapping and carefully guiding herself up that endless staircase as they collapsed behind her friends. They charged up behind her, pounding paws and boots almost as loudly as the quake.
“Hurry!” The voice of her master, Wessex, resounded in her mind. “The Chateau is collapsing!”
She twitched at Wessex’s voice, quickly casting a glance to either side and then to the small light far above. She didn’t see her diminutive master, but she did see the ceiling and walls begin to crack under the constant beat of the quake. She knew that she could reach the top of the stairs in time, but what of the others who couldn’t fly?
“You saw how much magic is gathered here,” Wessex repeated, his voice gently admonishing her as he had so often done while he’d been alive and she his apprentice. “Use it to hold the walls together.”
Jessica pumped her wings fiercely and turned her thoughts to controlling the exorbitant power surrounding her. The waves of magic were pummelling the Chateau’s stone foundations like a snake beating itself against a cage. She’d never even imagined she would touch a fraction of the magic surrounding her. What would it do to her if she touched it?
“There isn’t much time, Jessica. You cannot save others if you try to save yourself.”
She nodded and with each thrust of her wings, she angled her toes to corral that energy and pull it back from the walls. She felt it dragging her backward, but she steeled her fear and pulled harder. The waves of energy no longer buffeted the walls, folding in over her. The energy permeated her body, and she began glowing with it, a beacon of brilliant ember leading her friends upward.
But there was an anger in the magic, a torrent ready to break forth that she knew she couldn’t hold back forever. With each beat of her wings she tried to cast the floodwaters back. The waves of energy throbbed and rippled beneath her touch, stronger and stronger each time. What would happen when that dam broke?
“It is not for you to fear,” Wessex said. “Look, you are almost out of the stairs.”
She turned her eyes away from the magic bracing the walls, her friends now several dozen steps behind her in the darkness, and toward the bright light ahead. She could see the grey arch of the entrance room’s ceiling, drab and mildewed. It trembled from the quake, ancient dust drifting down, tiles breaking free and crashing to the floor. Jessica reached out with her magic and held that in place too.
And then she burst free from the staircase and angled her wings to settle her toward the closed door. The purple magic that had kept the interior of the Chateau separate from the rest of the world was now full of holes and tearing apart like a bit of parchment in a gale. The walls still stood, and even with the magical envelope ripped asunder, it did them little good in escaping the Chateau. She had to get the door open again and it was still covered by that foul reality distorting magic.
As she settled to the stone floor and shifted into her morphic form, Jessica’s golden eyes widened in disbelief as her former master Wessex walked through the purple curtain in front of the door and smiled to her. “Thank you for your prayers for me, Jessica. You were right about the gods and I was wrong to ever doubt them. I have called to them in my distress and they showed me what to do to save you here.”
“Wessex!” Jessica cried, reaching out with her wings to grasp him. “You’re not dead!”
“Yes, I am,” Wessex replied. The man who looked only a child gestured to a hole in the purple veil near the doorway. “Send the rivers of magic you used to keep the stairs from collapsing through here. You will break open the door.”
“But my friends!” Jessica exclaimed, glancing back over her shoulder. They were running up the stairs, gasping for breath, but still had many more to go. “I can’t keep the tunnel open too!”
“Yes you can, Jessica. You are a Master now. You will never touch more magic than this.” Wessex nodded to her and pointed at the hole. “Do both. Now, or you will all die when the magic bursts from below.”
Jessica took a deep breath, turned to the side, and stretched her wings as far as they could go. One wing reached for the stairs to corral the magical waves as they bounced from wall to wall knocking stones loose. The other wing she pointed toward the hole in the veil. The magical current poured out, tearing as it went through the purple fabric just like a seamstress stretching a rip. Her black feathers glowed with a golden sheen that matched her eyes, and she felt a loud scree echo from her beak. She felt as if she’d been cast into a forge and bound with red hot shackles.
“There!” Wessex cried. “It’s working! Just a moment longer!”
Jessica’s wings trembled and yearned to fold over her back. The long feathers at the end trembled and tore, several of them fluttering to the ground or caught on the magical weave to be sucked out through the veil and dashed against the stone. Silt fell from the ceiling and landed on her head, some pouring into an eye and stinging. A loose tile sliced across her left wing and she felt the blood drain over her feathers. Still she held her wings as steady as she could. The tear widened, and she could see the first glimpse of the door at long last. And then, as if it were giving up, the purple veil shredded and the magical wind blew the Chateau’s only door off its hinges. The blasted plain outside was dark with the moonless night.
Wessex smiled and nodded even as her wings collapsed to her back. “I am so proud of you, Jessica. Take care of your Weyden.”
“Master, don’t go!” Jessica cried, stumbling on her talons toward the boy.
But Wessex shook his head and stepped back toward the crumbling wall. His body faded and she could see the wall through him. “I am dead, Jessica. My time is up. Good bye. May the gods smile upon you always.” And he was gone.
Jessica gasped a sob, even as she heard the pounding of boots and hooves behind her. She half-turned and saw the Marquis’s two servants rushing up the stairs. On their heels came James and Kayla.. Guernef the Nauh-kaee charged behind him with Abafouq riding between his wings with arms wrapped about his feathery neck. She gestured with her wing toward the door. “Go! I’ll hold everything open!”
Andares had one hand upon Lindsey’s back as he guided the sobbing kangaroo forward. She carried Habakkuk’s things in one paw and her own in the other. Her hopping gait was awkward but sure. Behind them Charles and Jerome ran. The rat span both Sondeshikes in his paws to keep the falling stones at bay. His eyes were wild, and he gestured with a turn of his head toward the hawk. Jerome rushed her, grabbed her about the middle, and carried her squawking out the door. The rat went last, slamming the ancient Sondeckis staves through either side of the door as he rushed past. The arch collapsed behind him as the front of the Chateau caved in.
“This way!” Sir Autrefois shouted in a gruff voice. “There’s a safe path through the plain. Follow us.”
Jessica wondered at the wisdom of following the Marquis’s servants, but there was no time to argue. She could feel the magical dam deep within the Chateau giving way. Already the rivers of magic poured out of every crevice in the magical shield surrounding the Chateau. What would happen when all the magic Yajakali had gathered gave way?
Sir Autrefois bounced back and forth across several smaller patches of dried earth, never faltering despite the darkness. Vigoreaux followed him, and so too did the others. The chalky ground held beneath them. Behind them they could hear fissures of steam rise as the walls of the Chateau fell. Rocks tumbled everywhere and the horrific roaring rivalled the mountain that Charles had detonated in the Barrier range. James pulled his ears down to block the sound, and even Charles retracted both Sondeshikes to safely wrap his arms over his head to hide his saucer-shaped ears.
As the Castellan assured them, they reached the line of the jungle safely. Jessica sent up several witchlights which preceded and followed them giving them all sufficient light to see. Vigoreaux turned to look back, but Andares grabbed him by the arm and shouted. “Keep running!”
Charles chanced a quick look over his shoulder as he ran. The yellow-brick Chateau continued its inward collapse. The scorched ground around it sank into the steam pits as whatever magic Yajakali had summoned drew everything down inside. Beneath them the ground undulated like waves on the open sea. Tree limbs clacked and leaves fell around them in a profusion of chocking green.
They ran, Jessica taking to wing and perching on Andares’s shoulder. Kayla kept both swords in paw and sliced away falling ivy and limbs that collapsed before them. Guernef kept his wings tucked in tight, but the Seer of Winds still used his magic to blast clear their path. Abafouq kept his head buried in the Nauh-kaee’s feathers. James fell back with Charles and Jerome; the rat tossed Jerome one of the Sondeshikes and let him use it to keep any brush from falling on their heads. The Marquis’s servants kept pace with them, even the somewhat corpulent steward.
They must have ran for almost ten straight minutes when Andares shouted, “It’s coming! Jessica, a shield!” Andares jumped into a small depression between mangroves and waved the rest to do the same. It was large enough for all of them, but only just. Jessica jumped off the Åelf’s shoulder and spread her wings, though the left couldn’t quite extend all the way. A blue nimbus covered the depression. Kayla put her paws on Jessica’s back, and the blue glowed brighter. Abafouq climbed off the Nauh-kaee, and the both of them also lent the hawk their strength.
And then the earth shook with such force that all of them were knocked to the ground. The shield stayed in place, as their eyes cast back through the choking jungle. Where once had stood the Chateau Marzac now exploded a white-hot fireball that shot in a tower of energy toward the empty sky. The jungle sizzled and every tree, leaf, vine, and bits of flotsam caught flame. The shield cracked and buckled under the powerful blow, but held firm. Every one of them covered their eyes to keep from going blind. The roar did not hurt their ears; it utterly destroyed them.
Golden eyes blinked open to the darkness inside the barracks outside Lord Barnhardt’s castle where they’d been stationed. Weyden turned his head from side to side, noting the outline of his friends all still asleep. The giraffe Larssen snored where he laid in two bunks fitted together to accommodate his nine foot height. The youthful Van slept soundlessly nearby, while Maud lay on her back with one arm dangling out of the bed. Weyden’s beak cracked a bit as he saw them, but as they were asleep, it couldn’t have been they who called his name.
He looked to the other side where Sergeant Dallar the ram slept with the other grunts in their unit. Dallar had been one of the guards watching over them while they had lingered forgotten in prison for four months. When the Duke granted them clemency and inducted them into the Metamor army Dallar, who had been one of the few who would talk with them and bring them things, had been given command of the unit they were to serve in. Weyden, once Captain of Ambassador Yonson’s guards, no longer could claim any such distinction. His uniform bore a single arrowhead to show his new humble station in life.
But as long as his friends were with him, and the pipe smoking ram was now counted amongst them, then he would not complain. His heart yearned for Jessica, his lovely hawk who had promised to wed him on her return, but after four months in a dank cell, he’d grown used to waiting.
Dallar and the other soldiers were all asleep as well. Weyden sighed and closed his eyes, shifted back and forth on his perch until he was comfortable enough to sleep again.
“Weyden. I’m sorry.”
The hawk definitely heard something this time. He turned his head back and forth, but all of his friends still lay asleep. Toward the door of the barracks he saw a subtle light pass through and a figure emerged from the wood. His heart pounded harder in his chest, for the purple robe, long black and white stripped tail, and wide golden eyes set in a short-snouted face were very familiar. And he thought he was dead.
“Yonson,” Weyden whispered as quietly as he could. “But what are you...”
Yonson shook his head and floated across the bunks to settle before his one-time Captain. “Yes, I am dead, Weyden. The one who compelled me, and destroyed your friends Humphrey and London, is now gone. Your Jessica escaped and will return to you.”
Weyden felt the tremor in his heart lift. The hawk breathed a long satisfied sigh of relief. His wings drooped as if he’d just dropped a heavy weight. “But, how are you here?”
“I have only a moment, and there was no other I wished to see than you, my faithful Captain. You have suffered much because of me, and for that I am sorry.”
“What was it, Ambassador?” Weyden asked, feeling uncertain what else to do. How did one accost a dead man apologizing?
“Marzac took me and all who ventured there. You were innocent, and yet you suffered because of me. If the choice were mine, I would never have done any of it to you. Please forgive me for that.”
Weyden nodded slowly. The rigour of martial life had helped work out the misery of the dungeons. In truth he’d never really blamed Yonson for it. His tears had never been for himself, but for his lost friends. “I forgive you. What of London and Humphrey?”
“I hope to see them on the other side,” Yonson replied with a faint smile. His flesh began to fade and he glanced down at his paws. His long tail curled around his legs. “I do hope I’ll still be this.” He glanced at the hawk and favoured him with a short bow. “Good bye, my dear friend. Tell the others I said good bye.” And then he was gone.
Weyden stared at that spot for several long seconds. And then he settled back, beak cracked in an avian grin. Jessica would be coming home. His exultant heart was freed from prison once again.
The mocking presence vanished, swallowed by some shadow that his skills could not presence. Where once the sword that was not a sword had transfixed him, now Czestadt collapsed before the altar in the side chapel in Stuthgansk. The dawn’s golden light brought a faint glow to the gold thread. His eyes rose to the icon of Holy Mother Yanlin, and he felt a strange peace in her eyes. His gaze stayed on her for several seconds, and a smile curled the tears from his eyes.
Czestadt didn’t know what had happened, but a part of him felt whole again. There was still a twinge of distrust inside, but instinctively he knew it would be overcome. Still, what could he do? His lips found words again. “What has happened, Mother? The sword is gone. I know it, but I don’t understand. What should I do?”
He didn’t expect an answer, and certainly not in the voice of the fat-cheeked Bishop he’d seen impaled beneath Yesulam by the absent blade. “The answer has been before you for some time, Sir Czestadt.”
Czestadt turned his head and beheld the jolly face of Bishop Jothay staring at him with a look of admiration. He was dressed in a white smock with only the barest of accoutrements to mark his station as a Bishop. The red cap covered his light-coloured hair, and the ruby ring adorning a fat finger, but nothing else. His eyes, once filled with a feverish hunger, were now placid and almost melancholy. “You’re dead,” Czestadt said, voice slow. “But so did others think I was dead.” The scar Kashin had made in his face was still tender and would never completely heal, but it no longer pained him.
“I am dead,” Jothay replied. “Forgive me for doing what I did to you and to all those children. The blade took many lives while in my hands. But I am here for you, to I hope do one good thing before I go.”
“And what is that?” Czestadt asked, suspicious. Although this was the Bishop that had led him astray, his heart yearned to believe him.
“You no longer feel you can serve as you do now. So change.”
“To what?” Czestadt snapped. “I want only to serve the Ecclesia and to have no question about my service. You destroyed that.”
Jothay nodded, and the melancholy distance in his eyes increased. “Then serve those you know can be trusted until your faith in the Ecclesia is restored.”
Czestadt sneered. “And who might that be?”
“Whose tomb did you take refuge in after I died?”
Czestadt licked his lips. “Sir Bearn’s.”
Jothay nodded and smiled. “You know of whom I speak, Sir Czestadt. And thank Kashin for me when you see him when you return to Yesulam.” The Bishop’s body slowly faded from sight.
Before he had completely disappeared, Czestadt reached out one hand, his prayer beads still draped over his fingers. “Wait! Thank him for what?”
The dead Bishop’s smile bore a look of cherubic amusement as it spread across his ruddy cheeks. “For staying faithful to his vocation. As will you...” the voice trailed away as the last of his substance vanished. Only the golden light of the new morning shone where once he’d stood. Czestadt took a long breath, nodded to himself, and resumed his prayers, eyes never leaving the Holy Mother’s face as his fingers counted off the decades.
According to the stars overhead, it was now past midnight. Captain Becket pulled his cloak tighter about his neck as his breath misted in the air. To the east and west loomed snow-covered mountains, and to the north the plains and scattered forests at the southern end of Metamor Valley. They had arrived at the southern reaches of the cursed lands that evening and after finding a place near the main northern road shielded from the wind, they’d made their camp.
A finger of stones jutting from the earth blocked the wind, though they’d had to dig through nearly a foot of snow before they could build a fire. They’d passed a small caravansary at the valley’s mouth, but Becket preferred staying well away from anyplace that might hear William’s wild screaming. Until an hour past, William Dupré vacillated between boldly proclaimed threats and frightened gasping all at the top of his lungs with longer periods of brooding silence.
Becket had taken two wagons for their journey from Mallow Horn. One carried their supplies and offered a place to sleep when the night grew frigid. The other was barred to keep Dupré from attacking them, and those bars were concealed to all. The young captain would check on their prisoner regularly, and he would see a man with dark eyes gazing at him as if wondering which part of his flesh he should eat first. It pained Becket to see the man who he’d been proud to call his lord reduced to this. What foul magic had the man with cards used against him?
An hour ago, Dupré had stopped ranting about his master’s triumph and fell into a fit of weeping for all that he’d lost with his exile. Jory and his other children, and even his wife Anya who had handed him over to her father the Duke. Becket and the two other soldiers standing watch with him listened for a long time before the captain could stand it no longer. He unlocked the wagon and let William warm himself by the fire. For a long time William said nothing, his hard face staring into the snapping flames as empty as a thrice-checked bottle. Becket wondered if he would ever say anything or if this wasn’t some new ploy. The other four soldiers were all roused from their sleep and together the seven of them kept watch over their exiled lord.
Becket pulled his cloak tighter around his neck as he peered at the northern forests and abundant snow. He wondered what William would do for himself in this land. He hated the thought of leaving him here, but those were his orders. With a sigh, he rose and slipped a hand beneath Dupré’s arm. He’d put the madman back in his wagon to sleep.
But William grabbed his arm with his free hand and shook his head. “There’s no need, Captain. I’m myself again.”
“I’m myself, Becket. I haven’t been myself in months. Not since the Marquis forced me to play with his deck. Whatever control he had over me... it’s gone. Just gone. For the first time I can think clearly. That bastard stole everything from me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Becket took a deep breath, eyes glancing at the other soldiers. They were tense and ready to restrain their lord should he prove duplicitous. But the captain wanted to believe him. The firmness of the general was back in his voice, and it felt reassuring to hear. Becket let go of his arm and settled cross-legged next to him. “You still have your life, milord.”
William snorted, eyes never straying from the fire. “My life. I’m to be cursed, Becket. Cursed and trapped here in this valley. I’ll never see my children again. Verdane will make them his so he can have his heir. I hope Otakar kills Jaime just so Verdane knows what I feel like.” He spat and the fire sizzled.
“You won’t be alone here, milord,” Becket assured him, though he didn’t know what he was saying. “I will remain with you to serve you in whatever way I can.” He couldn’t believe the words that came from his lips. Without thinking it through, he’d just committed himself to suffering Metamor’s curses out of sheer loyalty.
William snorted, but his lips did twitch. “Thank you, Captain. But his grace ordered you to return and tell him what I become.”
“There are seven of us here,” Becket said, eyes glancing at the soldiers. All of them nodded, hands moving to the ram-head heraldry they bore on their cloaks. He almost laughed when he realized that the trouble would not be in finding men willing to stay with William but finding one willing to leave him. “The weather here is frightful. A group of travellers could be trapped without warning.”
William turned his head and stared at him with queer eyes. “But Verdane ordered you back.”
“Stuff Verdane,” Becket snapped, feeling a different heat fill him. “It is to you I swore my hand, milord. It is under your banner I have fought and bled. And it is under your banner I would like to die. Not his.”
William smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “Good man, Becket. If that is your wish...” The words were sucked out of his throat as a sudden wind extinguished their fire. William stood, legs solid under the sudden gale and stared toward the south. His eyes widened and his cheeks drew taut. “What the hell is that?”
Becket rose, braced himself, and then made the sign of the yew over his chest. All the grasses bent under the shimmering wall of light rushing toward them from the south. The light was faint, like a thin series of cobwebs stretched taut and then left dangling. They wove in and out of each other as they passed through tree, rock, and mountain in their relentless push north. Becket couldn’t even turn to find a place to hide. There was nothing they could do to avoid whatever this was.
It passed through them and continued on its way. The wind failed and the night resumed its chill. Only he felt a fire building inside him. His hands and legs cramped, his face throbbing with every second. He stared past his nose which stretched and pulled down at his hand where his fingers were blending together. Sharp bristles spread over the back and across his wrists. The same bristles sprouted along his emerging snout. His lower eye teeth protruded from his lips as he squealed.
He looked at William whose clothes stretched around his misshapen body. White curly wool poked between the seams, and covered all but his face. Two spiralling horns emerged above tapered ears, while his face distended into a black arrow-nosed snout. Where once had been a man now stood a creature more reminiscent of a ram.
Becket stared at the soldiers, and saw that one had become some sort of dog-like creature with mostly black fur, but rusty orange on his chin, neck, and hands. Three of the others had shrunk until they looked no better than boys ready to begin training as squires. And the other two sported much longer hair and obvious breasts pushing beneath their tunics.
William bleated in surprise as he looked at himself, Becket, and his men. And then with an long exhalation, the fur receded, the horns melted away, and all of them returned to how they had been a moment before. Becket gasped and flexed his fingers before rubbing them over his face.
“What was that?” one of the soldiers asked as he shifted about in his clothing. As he’d grown back to his normal age his arm had become tangled in the sleeve.
“Did whatever that was show us what the curses will do to us?” William pondered. A subtle smile played at his lips. “Becket, did I become what I think I did?”
Becket nodded. “You were a ram, milord.”
“A ram.” His smile broadened and he straightened his doublet. “Ironic, but it is some consolation.”
“Milord,” one of the other soldiers said in a rather strangled voice. “I don’t want to become a woman.”
“Neither do I, milord.”
William nodded. “I do not blame either of you. Well, return to Midtown and wait there for word on what I do become. You can then return to Mallow Horn and make sure that my children are safe.”
They both nodded, their faces a mix of horror and apology. “We shall, milord.”
William looked over the rest. “Do any of you wish to leave me now?”
Becket shook his head. He had a fairly good notion about what he’d become, but he would not let that change his mind. He’d already committed to staying at William’s side, and he’d never go back on his word. “I speak only for myself, but I will stay with you, milord.” The other four soldiers all assured William that they were his men first.
William smiled and sat back down. “Good. Let us get this fire burning again.” He glanced at the two who had for a few seconds been women. “Get your sleep. Tomorrow, take two horses and return to Midtown.” They apologized once more and did as instructed.
While the other soldiers started on the fire again, Becket stared at his hand. For a moment he’d only had two thick fingers and a thumb. How much longer before that was always what he would be like? He lifted his eyes to William whose hard features were set and focussed on the north. And just what would they do now that they would become Metamorians too?
Those questions would be for another day. Becket helped sweep away the snow that had blown over their wood and put his trust in his returned liege. William Dupré, even in exile and set to be turned into a strange amalgam of man and ram, was himself again. It was the first happy thought he’d had in weeks.
Tugal could not remember the last time she’d slept through the night. Even after Kurt Schanalein had rescued her from the brothel and brought her to the nuns who’d cared for and revealed to her a world she’d never known, one of kindness, love, and faith, the nightmares of rape kept coming back to her. They had begun to fade with time and with the long journey to Metamor. She hoped that with her arrival at Metamor they would soon disappear altogether.
She lay in a soft bed with warm quilts covering her body. She couldn’t feel anything lower than her hips, but the pain of her wound was still there. Her head turned from the ceiling to look at the others in the room. The fire in the hearth was long reduced to meagre coals, but it was enough to show a faint outline of the other nuns. Kurt slept in the room next door and she could hear him snoring. A faint smile tickled the edge of her lips. He was just a boy in so many ways, but she’d never met a man more worthy of being called such than he. Certainly Tugal, while still male, could never have compared.
As she stared at the nuns, her thoughts went back to what the Prime Minister had told them that evening. Duke Thomas would make a final decision three days hence, which was the day after their wedding. If the horse lord waited much longer, all of the nuns would be taken by the curses and would have to stay anyway. Kurt had interpreted that to mean he was leaning toward letting them stay and all that remained was finding a place for them.
Not that the nuns worried. On their journey through the city, they had seen a number of buildings that still needed repairing after last winter’s assault from the north. They would claim one of those if they could. Father Hough, the parish priest at Metamor, had assured them that the Keep would make a place for them, he only had to ask it of Madog, but they preferred being out in the city where they could more easily enter seclusion and see those in need.
Tugal closed her eyes, feeling ready to face the terrors of the night, when she heard a quiet sobbing to her left. She rolled her head over and stared at a cloaked figure huddled next to her bed, hands pressed to her face. Tears ran through her fingers. Tugal opened her mouth to speak, but her tongue caught in her throat when she recognized the insignia on the robe’s front. An outstretched hand with a finger pointing downward as if it were writing.
“Nay,” Tugal whimpered, fear grasping round her heart. “You’re dead!”
The face turned, and before her she saw Agathe. Her right eye socket was empty and dark, but the fire no longer burned within. A look of agony gripped her face as her one eye studied Tugal. “Yes. I’m dead. Oh Tugal, please forgive me! I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” And she thrust her arms toward the bed, resting her hands on the mattress and burying her face into their crook. She sobbed anew, chest heaving and legs trembling where they knelt on the stone.
“Sorry? You!” Tugal whimpered, and then her breathing began to slow. Agathe looked at her and closed her bloodshot eye in misery. The former man couldn’t believe what she saw. Before, Agathe had always had a steely countenance, distant and remorseless. It was as if the woman kneeling and begging her forgiveness was an entirely different person than the one who’d led them on the chase through the mountains.
“I did evil things to you, and to everyone. I’ve done so much evil, I want to tear my flesh off! I’m so dirty!” Agathe beat her fists against her head and sobbed anew. Not a one of the nuns seemed to hear their exchange, but Kurt did. The heir to the Breckarin Duchy stirred in the other room, and then slipped out his door to see what was amiss. When he saw Agathe, he had his sword in his hand and drove the point into her back.
The sword passed through Agathe’s body as if she were nothing but mist and chipped into the bed’s wooden frame. “What the?” Kurt stammered. “What is she doing here?”
Agathe looked at the sword passing through her middle and shook her head, still sobbing. “Oh I am so low! I hurt you, Tugal. I wanted to stop them. I wanted to save you. I wanted them all dead for what they did to you, but it wouldn’t let me!”
Tugal’s teeth clenched tightly. This foul Runecaster was the reason she was now a woman and a cripple too. Her heart burned with a hatred she hadn’t felt since the nuns had taken her in.
“How could I ever forgive you!” Tugal snapped. Kurt, on seeing that Agathe wasn’t doing anything but weep, snatched back his sword. He breathed anxiously and kept his blade ready despite its uselessness.
“I don’t know,” Agathe sobbed. Her one eye lifted and stared deeply at Tugal. “If I could, I would heal your wound.”
Tugal winced, her teeth grinding tighter. “I don’t believe you.” And yet, she felt something else tugging at her heart. All those stories the nuns had told her of Yahshua and His Mother Yanlin, of the many Saints, and of Eli and His love, came rushing back to her as she stared at this sobbing woman who’d done so much wrong. All Agathe was asking, like so many who’d come before Yahshua, was to be forgiven.
Tugal took a deep breath and lifted one hand to rub at her face. “You hurt more than just my legs. You destroyed the man I was. And you almost destroyed the woman I am. But... I will try to forgive you. I am not there yet. But I will try.”
Agathe lowered her one eye, and gasped another sob. “That’s more than I could expect. I’m sorry.”
A quick flash of light rushed past them, and Tugal blinked in confusion. Kurt grunted and his body began to shrink until he looked as if he’d lost a few years. He blinked in confusion, and then his eyes widened as he stared past Tugal at the nuns. Tugal turned over, and saw that they too had been reshaped by Metamor’s curses. The eldest, Mother Brigita, had a broad duck bill protruding from her darkened and smoothed face. Of the other seven sisters, three sported beastly snouts, while four looked to be children again. None of them appeared to have become men.
And then, just as quickly as the changes had overtaken them, they faded away. Mother Brigita bore her wrinkled face again, and the sisters returned to their old selves. Kurt regained what few years he’d lost and pointed his sword at Agathe again. “What did you just do?”
Agathe shook her head. “Nothing. What happened at Marzac would always be felt over the world. So much magic would make Metamor’s curses strike, but without that magic, they cannot hold on.”
Kurt narrowed his eyes, clearly not understanding. “You mean the curse tried to make me a boy again?”
Agathe nodded and sighed, her sobbing fading into sniffling. “And if you stay here it may still do so. Forgive me for what I’ve done to you. If you can, then I know Eli will too.”
Tugal let out a long breath and felt herself relax. “I will try, Agathe.”
Her last were soft and echoed as if they were carried on her final breath “Thank you.” Agathe’s form faded until nothing but shadows remained where she’d knelt. Even the stones where her tears had fallen were dry again.
Kurt waved one hand through the spot and shook his head. “She’s gone.”
Tugal laid her head back down. “I know. I think my nightmares will be too.”
The boy frowned and lowered his sword. “Do you need me to stay up with you?”
She shook her head. “No, but thank you, Kurt. Get your sleep.” He muttered something more then returned to his room. Tugal stared at the ceiling for a handful of breaths before a warm dream wrapped her in sleep’s arms. Her heart, so weary, felt a taste of peace.
The World Bell remained pointed to the southwest for only a few minutes before it and the wind clawing them in the secluded garden died away. The massive brass bell swung back to its resting place, quiet and still. Elizabeth sighed and straightened, glancing at the waters in the fountain to see what she might recognize from the spells. Only they showed nothing but the gentle rippling of a brook.
“This was not a spell as we know it,” Elizabeth said, turning to catch the attention of the guild master, Demarest. “Magic itself was drawn to the southwest. I’ve never seen — never heard! — the like of it.”
Demarest shook his head. “Neither have I, and that...” His eyes widened as he stared past her toward the southwest. Elizabeth turned , putting one hand back on the sconce to steady herself. Though massive walls kept them from seeing more than twenty paces to the southwest, through it they saw something else unheard of. A long wall of magical energy, wrapped and bound tight, spread across the plain and through everything as it thundered to the northeast. And far, far away, beyond the horizon, a brilliant light shattered the heavens.
“Eli preserve us,” Elizabeth prayed, too frightened to do anything more.
The magical wall drove through Marigund and through the garden where they all stood gaping and helpless as infants. It felt no different than a burst of wind, extinguishing candles and popping witchlights as if they were soap bubbles.
The World Bell did not ring. It made no sound at all. Instead, it shattered into a billion fragments too small to see, a brass vapour that pulverized the trees and stone wall behind it. Elizabeth gasped as the shredded branches collapsed, and the wall groaned, blocks falling in the magic’s wake. She could only be grateful that none of them had been standing there, or they’d be no more than a red smear.
Demarest sucked in his breath and stared with unbelieving eyes at the empty arch where the World Bell had hung for hundreds of years. His voice utterly failed to sound reassuring. “I really hope that was a good sign.”
Elizabeth looked to the southwest. The spire of light was gone, and so too was any sign of magic in that direction. To the northeast the wall continued until it vanished beyond the horizon. She summoned a witchlight and the gardens reclaimed their soft illumination. “We’re still here,” she pointed out. “From what we’ve learned, had things gone poorly at Marzac, we would not be here.”
Demarest and the others could not take their eyes off the absent World Bell. “Well let’s find out. And now. I want people from Metamor and from Yesulam to tell me what in all the hells they’ve been doing.”
Elizabeth took a deep breath and stared at the empty arch. Once the others saw this, there would be no more arguments. She collapsed against the pillar with a heavy sigh, all her energy suddenly spent.
Above them the world burned. The blue nimbus protected them from the worst of the heat and ash, but from time to time the wind would seep through a crack and scorch their throats. Jessica, already exhausted from holding the Chateau together long enough for them to escape, slouched against one side of the depression and breathed slowly. Andares tended to the cut on her wing, pronounced it minor, and after cleaning it let it dry in the air.
Abafouq built a magical construct much like a scaffold of crossed bars beneath the blue shield that gave it strength. This he tended with meticulous care while the others watched him and the devastation above.
The fireball quickly turned into a dark cloud that towered over the plain as it disappeared into the sky. The inferno beneath limned that cloud with red shadows as if it too were burning. After the fireball and cloud dissipated, all that remained was the fire consuming the swamp in every direction they looked. Choking smoke obscured the sky and blotted out the stars. The earth still trembled like a whipped man shivering after the blows.
Inside the depression, they huddled and waited for the chaos to burn itself out. Once the afterimage of the fireball had faded from their eyes, Guernef had drawn his wings in tight and squawked with one long exhalation. At first they heard nothing. But the magic in his voice loosened their ears, healing the wound the roar inflicted. By the squawk’s end they could hear not only his voice, but the ravenous hunger of the fire outside. He then erected a spell by tugging at the air in the middle of the depression with his claws that would keep the air inside pure for however long they needed to hide. It didn’t stop the foul miasma from seeping through, but it did stop it from doing more than burning their throats.
Charles, sensing that the immediate danger was past, resumed his stony flesh and coaxed his vine to nestle within where it had first taken root above the base of his tail. He felt it sinking inside, but slowly, and with less warmth than before. It would be a long time before his vine was fully recovered, but at least it would heal.
He then turned his impassive attention on the Marquis’s two servants. The steward Vigoreaux panted heavily and painfully clutched his stomach, completely worn from the run. The castellan Sir Autrefois was stoic and eyed the devastation above with some measure of grim satisfaction. Nearby, Lindsey and Kayla huddled together, the skunk whispering soft words into the newly-made kangaroo’s long ears. The kangaroo’s dark eyes occasionally turned to the skunk, and her boxy muzzle would twitch out of its rictus of despair. As stone, Charles already felt his empathy settling into a dispassionate regard, but still he wished he could do something more for the northerner.
Instead, he returned his attention to the Marquis’s men and said, “From the look of things, you were being controlled as much as Zagrosek was. What did they do to you?”
“The Marquis or the Prince?” Autrefois asked in a grumbling whisper.
“We’ve served the house du Tournemire our whole lives. My father was a member of his father’s guard, and I joined them when I was of age. During the civil war fifteen years ago, I distinguished myself and Camille conferred upon me the title Sir. I was made his Castellan a few years later. Vigoreaux’s father was Steward before him. The Marquis never went anywhere without us at his side. Even into evil.”
“And what did he hope to get out of an alliance with Yajakali?”
“Alliance?” Autrefois snorted and shook his head. Beside him Vigoreaux closed his eyes and murmured miserably. “Camille was always power hungry, and he enjoyed making people dance on the end of a string, but he was never evil. He took his responsibilities over the land very seriously. He risked going into Marzac because he hoped he could cultivate the swampland and find new sources of food. We’d been suffering a drought that year and very poor crops. Many were dying. But once we went there, all of it was over.” Autrefois sighed and lowered his head between his knees. A limb cracked overhead and bounced off the shield sending sparks everywhere.
The others listened in, but they all let Charles ask the questions. “And Yajakali? What did he want?”
“I never knew,” Autrefois replied. “He shut down my mind and made me do only what he wanted me to do, but I never understood why. The same with all of us. It’s like I was a different person all those years.” He shrugged and leaned back in the dirt. A tremor sifted more down on all their backs. “All I know is Yajakali killed me and now I’m alive again. I have no idea why.”
“He did something,” Andares mused just loud enough for the others to hear over the conflagration, “that no one thought possible. And now we see why. Even if he succeeded, the magical blowback may have still destroyed him.”
“What was he doing?” James asked. The donkey lay on the ground near Charles, hooves crossed at the pastern.
Andares’s angular face folded into a moue. “To undo a mistake. Or at least, to undo what he sees as his mistake. He would have taken Metamor’s curse and made all of mankind into talking beasts. To him, you are only a little above the brutes of this earth, and should better reflect that in your shape. But he is gone now. The world can continue for the first time in millennia without the threat of Marzac hanging like a spectre over their shoulder.”
“But what of us?” Lindsey said, chocking back her sobs to glare at the Åelf. “Do you know how many years I wished I could have become this? And now I have it and he’s gone!”
Kayla put a restraining paw on the kangaroo’s shoulder. “He will be someplace better, Lindsey. He didn’t want this to happen to you either.”
Lindsey wrapped her paw around the strap of Habakkuk’s satchel and shook it. “All he left us were letters! I want him!”
“You cannot,” Abafouq said softly. The Binoq’s eyes were on the magical lattice he’d erected, but he turned so that he mostly faced the kangaroo. “You cannot have him back. Just as I cannot have my home back. Yajakali wanted his world back, but he could not be having that either. Habakkuk gave his life to make sure Yajakali could not get it back.”
“Shut up,” Lindsey snapped at him, tail thumping against the dirt.
“You cannot undo what is done. Not without becoming a monster.”
“Shut—” Lindsey’ snarl was swallowed by the earth shaking and throwing them all down.
Jerome bounced to his feet and stared across the burning plain once they quake settled. “The land’s gone.” He peered a moment more when his eyes widened in fright and he dived back into the depression. “I hope this shield will block water!”
Charles scrambled up the incline and saw immediately what his fellow Sondeckis had seen. The land around the Chateau had collapsed until there was nothing but a huge pit. The jungle on every side was nothing but smoldering ash. Except the jungle to the south, which had collapsed into a valley leading straight out to the sea.
And with the last quake, the sea came rushing in.
The rat’s jewelled eyes widened as he watched the waves bear down that valley, consuming the flames and rising in geysers of steam as they swallowed the hottest coals. The land washed away, mud and filth, all of it, born along and driving like a thousand anvils toward them.
“Water nothing,” the stone rat scowled. “We’re about to be buried alive! Jessica, Abafouq! The shield!”
Andares helped stir the hawk, while Abafouq and Guernef used their strength to keep the shield steady. Kayla squeezed Lindsey’s shoulder one last time before leaving her to lend her powers to the shield. Charles stayed where he was, granite claws digging into the earth as the water, mud, and detritus poured into the vast pit where once the Chateau stood. The waves crashed and sizzled as they sank into the crater. For a moment, the rat hoped the crater would be enough. But far quicker than he could have imagined, the torrent spilled over the crater’s edge like a tongue licking voluptuous red lips as it readied to strike its next meal.
“Here it comes,” the rat said, his voice steady, but his tail tip twitched erratically.
The sea crushed the blackened trees and brush, shouldering them aside like the Rheh did the Flatlands grasses. Charles half imagined Yajakali’s face screaming at them one last time as the muck drove over their shield. The earth shook with the force of it, knocking the rat backward into the depression. The shield buckled, Abafouq’s magical lattice bent, but it held.
Charles shook his head, put one paw on James’s shoulder who stared with whitened eyes at the chaos surging overhead, and then settled himself in to watch. A bit of water squirted through a crack in the shield; Sir Autrefois scrambled to get out of its way. It sizzled where it struck the earth.
“What do we do now?” James asked, staring in befuddled stupor as the mud coated the shield, covering it in layer after layer of debris.
“I don’t know,” Charles admitted. “But we have to get of here and soon.”
Nemgas blinked open his eyes to a clear night sky. The faces and lights that had danced in conjunction above Cenziga were gone. The tower of fog that had kept them isolated from the rest of the world lingered still, but the uppermost reaches were drawing away, torn free by nothing stranger than wind. Where once the strange mountain had stood was a barren plain of dirt from which rose a thin stream of starry blue light. Nemgas blinked again, marvelling at its beauty.
“It hath fulfilled its purpose,” an unfamiliar voice said behind him. Nemgas rolled over, brushing tattered remnants of vellum from his tunic. Four figures whose flesh were tainted by that blue light hovered over the body of Grastalko. The young man lay in the arms of a man who did not appear much older. Two others, one ruddy and the other thin with a discerning eye, worked their hands over his body, pushing and massaging his flesh, especially his left arm which was still blackened from fire. All three were dressed like Midlanders.
The fourth Nemgas knew the moment he saw him. He was dressed in gleaming silver armour, with a breastplate stylized to look like fur, gauntlets tipped with black claws, and helm crafted to appear as the snarling jaws of a wolf. The Magyar exhaled in awe. “Pelain!”
The armoured man nodded. “Thou dost know me, as I thought thee wouldst. Good. I thank thee for finding my blade and striking the evil from Jagoduun with it one last time.”
Nemgas looked down at his feet and saw Caur-Merripen laying there, the silver gleaming like a hound dog satisfied with its latest catch. A few feet further and he saw Dazheen slumped on her knees and Bryone at her side cleaning her face with a cloth damp from her tears.
“Why art thee here?” Nemgas asked.
“We hath been freed. The artifacts art gone, and so nothing more dost bind us.” Pelain gestured to the three Midlanders. The youngest smiled and nodded to him. “Both of thee didst suffer much to aid us. Thou hast not suffered in vain.”
Nemgas managed to stand and licked his lips. “Then ‘tis over? The evil hath died?”
Pelain nodded, the ruby eyes of the wolf gleaming brighter. “Aye, ‘tis over. A tale of eleven thousand years hath come to a close.”
“Where didst Cenziga go?” Nemgas gestured to the empty plain. The mountain’s disappearance seemed to rip something out of his own heart. He had always been connected to it. How could it be gone?
“It hath filled the cleft made by Yajakali. ‘Twas its purpose.” Pelain turned to the Midlanders and asked, “How art the boy?”
The ruddy one leaned back and nodded. “He’s well. He’ll sleep for a little longer, but the fire won’t kill him anymore.”
“And the pain?”
The youngest smiled peaceably. “The pain is gone too.”
The last of the three stretched his arms behind his back and nodded. “But he will still have the fire. It is all we could do for him.”
Pelain favoured them with a faint but proud smile. “I thank thee all, Kaleas, Marin, and Thulin. Thy tasks are done. Go beyond. Thy Eli is waiting to receive thee.”
Marin lowered Grastalko’s head to the ground ever so gently, and brushed his hair back from his face. The boy’s visage was so peaceful and still that had they not said otherwise, Nemgas would have thought him lost to death. “Shall we see you there, Pelain?”
“I pray that it wouldst be so,” Pelain replied without a trace of anxiety. The Midlanders saluted him, and then their forms fell back into the gently ascending spire of light and were lost to sight. Pelain watched them for several seconds before turning back to Nemgas. “Cenziga wast born in the moment that Yajakali sundered the veil to the Underworld. It wast placed here, where it could wait unbeknownst to the forces of Marzac. Those few like us permitted to climb to its summit, wert uniquely prepared to strike that evil. Thou hast observed this.”
“Aye,” Nemgas agreed as he remembered all that he’d seen in the ten months since he’d scaled the bizarre peak. “The invisible blade that burned Grastalko and cut Czestadt. Thy sword Caur-Merripen which alone could repel Yajakali’s. E’en this fog which didst burn the evil out of Chamag and brought the peace of death to Berkon and Kaspel. I hath seen it.”
“That evil will ne’er strike this world again,” Pelain said. “And all that it hath wrought hath been undone.”
Nemgas frowned and ran his fingers along the stump of his right arm. “But what of me? Didst Cenziga create me? I remember being born amongst the Magyars, but I didst come from Kashin of the Yeshuel. Wilt I be undone?”
The long dead hero in wolf armour rested a gauntlet on his shoulder and smiled. “Memory be but one more thing that man dost create. E’en so, that thou art, be it the fault of Cenziga, hath been foreordained. Thou art as real as Kashin. And thy life belongs to thee.”
Nemgas took a deep breath. He would have to trust in Pelain’s word. “Thou hast brought healing to Grastalko. What of my boy, Pelurji? And what of Dazheen?”
“Another wilt tend to Dazheen. As for thy boy, didst thee not hear? The evil that smote him hath been undone. What thy fellows hath done for him wilt tend to the rest.” Pelain glanced at the blue embers. So much thinner than they had been, soon they would gone. Even the fog was breaking apart. “I must leave thee soon. But I wilt give thee one last word ere I go. The boys, Pelurji and Pelaeth wilt become leaders of their peoples. Thou hast seen true in this. I only wish that I couldst tell thee of the legends that thy progeny wilt speak of them.”
Nemgas reached his arm out, and the words biding Pelain to speak more tumbled from his tongue, but the blue limned hero of Cheskych fell into the spire just as the three Midlanders had. The light lifted from the ground and vanished into the starry night above.
For several seconds Nemgas stared upward, until a vast wave tore the fog around them, a wall of light pushing it aside as it thrust its way across the Steppe. Nemgas spun on his heels and saw the distant wagons. His heart leapt in his chest. No more did this spot need to be hidden from mortal eyes.
He turned to Bryone who gazed at him with questioning eyes. “I wilt send the others for thee. Stay with them. I must harken to my son.” Bryone nodded and wiped tears from her eyes.
“I will try to climb through,” Charles suggested. They saw only by the cool light of the witchlights Jessica had summoned, and now submerged beneath the carnage brought by the sea, they realized how little light that was. Tired and worn from their exertions, they had been able to do little but lay in the muck and rest.
“That’s mud over our heads, not stone,” Jerome pointed out. “You can’t pass through that.”
“I’m a rodent, I can dig through it,” the rat replied. “I’ll have to leave my vine for a moment, but we need to see what’s out there. We haven’t felt a quake since this happened. I think it will be safe.”
Jessica stretched her wings and lifted her head to stare at the faint shield. “I’ll open a patch for you. Good luck.”
None of the others objected, so Charles gently coaxed his vine from the small of his back and planted it in the soil. The end curled around his paw to thank him and then let go. The rat glanced at Jerome. “Do you mind lifting me up once I shrink?” At Jerome’s nod, the rat allowed himself to change into a normal sized rat, albeit one still made from stone. His friend held out his palm and Charles climbed into it. A queer smile graced Jerome’s lips as he hoisted the rat as high as he could reach. Jessica concentrated on the patch beside his head and a small bit of the nimbus withdrew. Charles dug his claws into the hard packed dirt and quickly wedged himself inside.
As soon as his entire body forced itself inside, digging a new tunnel with stone claws, he was reminded of the time Misha and he had played predator and prey through the halls of Metamor. He’d escaped down a crack in the wall and had nearly gone feral in his panic. Now, as stone, he could see past that fear and dig, always going forward and always going up. Alone of his friends he could survive without food, water, or even air. He would risk the desolation above for their sakes because he alone could take that risk.
The mud was hard packed but it gave to his claws. Minutes dragged past, but he kept digging. When finally he broke through to the surface he had lost track of time. The world around was dark apart from a crimson line to the north where the jungle still smoldered. Above the smoke still blotted the stars. Everything around him was muck and filth. Where once stood the Chateau now lingered an inland lake and a channel to the sea. The air was pleasantly cool against his stony flesh.
He willed the granite to soften and in moments he was flesh and blood again. He took several deep breaths; the air was riddled with foul scents but it was breathable. He smiled to himself, returned to stone, and then assumed his six-legged form. With all six limbs he clawed at the muck, tossing it aside with the alacrity of a dog searching for a buried bone.
And that’s when he heard the voice of his closest friend. “Thank you, Charles.”
He spun and there standing on the desolate plain only feet from him was Krenek Zagrosek. He bore the black robe of the Sondeckis and his smile brightened the air around him. “Krenek! I thought you were dead.”
“I am,” he replied without remorse. “Truly, I was dead the moment the Marquis took me to Marzac. I could never have survived such a corruption. I’m just here to say goodbye. And to thank you for believing in me even when no one else would. I’m sorry you had to suffer so much on my account.”
“I would gladly suffer it again for you,” Charles replied, the words spoken before his mind could ponder them. “And I will keep my promise to pray for you, Agathe, and Yonson.”
“I know.” Zagrosek looked past him and clasped his hands before his waist. “And promise me that you will bring Garigan to Sondeshara one day. He deserves to know his heritage as a Sondecki.”
The rat frowned but nodded. “I will. With all that has happened, perhaps it is time to heal that wound too. I’ll want to bring Ladero there as well. My youngest child is also a Sondecki. I hope he hasn’t broken anything while I’ve been gone!”
Krenek laughed warmly and then his eyes lifted to the sky. “I am being called away, Charles. Walk with Yahshua all thy days, and you will never be afraid. Sondlatharos!”
“Sondlatharos, Krenek.” If stone could cry, Charles would have shed crystals from his eyes. Zagrosek smiled all the while he faded into the shadowy night. The rat stared a moment more, but his friend did not reappear.
He said a silent prayer for his friend and the others destroyed by Marzac, then returned his six limbs to digging in the close-packed mud and debris. It took him several minutes of ripping dirt with granite claws to dislodge enough earth to open a way to his friends. Once he had a small hole, he shouted, “Everything’s clear up here. I think it’s safe to come out.”
“Do you need any help?” James shouted back up.
“Give me a few more minutes and I’ll have this wide enough for us all.” And he was right. Jessica and Abafouq stayed behind to keep the earth from collapsing in on them, while Charles and Jerome helped the rest climb up to the surface. Andares carried the rat’s vine with him, which Charles gratefully returned to the small of his back. Jerome then passed Abafouq up even as the Binoq chanted his spells. The Sondecki grabbed the hawk around the middle and leapt up the hole. A moment after they were all free, the earth sank into the depression with a disconsolate whump.
“Now what?” Lindsey asked, her tone sharp, but beginning to soften.
“Now we have to find some way out of here.” Charles gestured to the northern jungle. “The sea didn’t put all of the fire out.”
“We don’t have enough supplies to trek through the swamp again,” Kayla pointed out. “We don’t have enough supplies to last more than a few days.”
“I think I know a way,” a rather timid voice said. They all turned to the Marquis’s portly steward. Vigoreaux flinched under the scrutiny, but marshalled himself to speak again. “The day before you arrived, the Marquis spoke of the Whalish fleet defeating his forces. Their ships can’t be more than a day away.”
“Where would they be?” Guernef squawked.
“To the south,” Vigoreaux turned to point, but turned back to the Nauh-kaee instead. “If what his grace said about your kind is true, you should reach them half a day at most.”
But Guernef shook his head. “They’ll need to see somebody they recognize. I would be just another monster to them.”
“I’ll go with you,” Charles said. “I’ve been to Whales before and have met several of their Captains. We should be able to find one that will listen.”
Guernef look him up and down and suggested, “Only if you assume a smaller form.”
The rat returned to his two legged stance, and then climbed onto the offered back. Jerome stood at his side and patted him on his granite back. “We’ll keep a signal light so you can find your back to us. Eli go with you.”
“And with you, my friend.”
Charles buried his face in feathers as the Nauh-kaee leapt into the smoky air and beat his wings, angling toward the distant southern sea.
The Magyars all stared in gaped-faced wonder as the fog was blown away and no ominous mountain stood anymore. Nemgas saw Hanaman rush toward him with Pelgan and Gamran on his heels. “Tend to Dazheen!” he shouted, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “All art well! The mountain hath fulfilled its purpose! Thou hast no need to fear!”
They each appeared to understand and while they still hesitated, they ran toward the unconscious seer. Nemgas, heart trembling anxiously, ran to the wagons. He darted amongst them until he found the one he wanted, jumped to the door, and barged inside.
He found Kisaiya kneeling next to the bed in which lay the emaciated Pelurji. She snapped her head around, long hair flinging over the sheets, and then let out a long breath. It seemed to go on forever, as if she hadn’t let it go since Nemgas had left her side earlier that night. Nemgas crossed to her and knelt next to her. Pelurji did not stir.
He ran his one hand down her back to comfort her. “The evil hath been lifted, Kisaiya. All art well.”
She rested her head against his and trembled. “I didst hear shouting.”
“The mountain be gone,” he replied, kissing her forehead softly. “The evil hast been defeated and can no longer return.” He glanced at the boy and felt his heart tighten in his chest. “Pelurji shouldst awake. Oh my boy, please wake!”
Kisaiya sniffled and shook her head. “It hath been so long now. Who couldst survive asleep for so many months?”
Nemgas ignored her fear, and with gentle hand stroked across the boy’s face. “Come, my Pelurji. My son. Come back to me.” He leaned in closer and brushed the back of his fingers along the boy’s cheek. Pale and withdrawn, they nevertheless warmed to his touch. Nemgas closed his eyes in quiet prayer to any god who would listen. His last was said to Kashin’s god, Eli. Eli’s son Yahshua came back from the dead. Could but a similar miracle be worked for his boy?
“Nemgas!” Kisaiya gasped in sudden fright.
He felt it before he saw it. Against his knuckles Pelurji’s cheek moved of its own accord. He smiled, his heart slowing, finally content. Pelurji blinked at the light, and weakly tried to lift one arm beneath the sheets before giving up and letting it fall back down. Those eyes looked down and saw Nemgas, and a smile came to his lips. “Father Nemgas,” Pelurji said, voice young and full of delight. “I killed a dragon!”
Nemgas choked back a laugh and nodded. “Aye, thou didst that. That and more, Pelurji. I doubt that wilt be the greatest feat that wilt be laid at thy hands in the years to come, my son.”
Pelurji frowned as he tried to move his arm again. “Why canst I lift my arm?”
Kisaiya hugged Nemgas tight, her eyes wet with tears as she stared at the boy woken from an eight month slumber. Nemgas stroked his forehead and sighed. “Thou art very weak. The battle didst put thee into a deep sleep from which thee has only just arisen. I wilt help thee regain thy strength, my son. Thou shouldst not fear that. Nor anything else. I hath won thee back. Ah, praise be the gods I hath my son back!”
And with a shout of joy, Nemgas wrapped his arm around Pelurji’s back and pulled him to his chest. Kisaiya wrapped her arms about them both as best she could. All their hearts beat together in joy.
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