Zagrosek was there of course; it just would not have been a true nightmare for Wessex without that black-clad Sondeckis mocking him with his arrogant complexion. Cast against the sickly, corpuscular red glow filling the cavernous chamber, it was no longer the face of a man, but that of a dæmon. Yet, his ghostly companion was not gracing his subconscious just then as he had those many months ago. Ever since he had confided in Phil about his nightly wanderings, he'd been free of the nightmare, locking himself in the dungeon, where the magical wards prevented such interference.
Yet, as he stood in a circle of nine figures, hand to hand as they framed a large red crack in the earth, he knew that he was sleeping in the dungeons that night.
Though in the late December air outside he knew that a blizzard was raging, in his dream, he was locked in a blaze of heat and damp air. Sweat trickled down every side of his face, soaking his clothes as he traversed the hard rock about that stygian crack. He could not peer within it very far, as the crimson stain turned to black, swallowing all light that ventured within. Though it was impossible to discern, he was certain that those fissures went down far longer than the world could contain.
Though Matthias was not there, Wessex recognized many of the other figures dancing in that circle, and it gave his heart a great deal of uncertainty as he recognized them. Standing of course two to his left was Zagrosek, and on either side of him were people he did not know. Immediately to the boy's left was some sort of priest, and on the Sondeckis's left was somebody who did not even appear to be a man, with pointed ears and an angular face.
Much to his disgust, Wessex saw the foul Loriod to his right. In fact, the boy and he were holding hands! How he wished to throw that flabby appendage from him, but for some reason, he could not move, except to dance in the circle. Something terrible was controlling this nightmare, something that he feared was beyond even Zagrosek. He could not see the person to Loriod's immediate right as the fat lord was a bit too large. But beyond whoever it was, was that woman who had bound him and prevented him from saving the Patriarch's life. That Runecaster who'd controlled Loriod himself!
The figure to her right was of some nobleman, but Wessex did not know who. However, the most shocking among them was who stood in that ninth position, bearing the mark of the ninth chevron from the censer that had brought about his student Dorson's death. He was a Keeper, one that had been to Wessex's aide numerous times in the course of his investigations into Zagrosek's nefarious deeds. Yet, as he gazed at that strange shape, the narrow shoulders, to the wide hips, and long, thick tail flowing behind him, and the large feet he rested upon, there could be no mistaking who it was. It was Zhypar Habakkuk, Head of the Writer's Guild.
Wessex stared in bafflement at him for a moment, trying to discern why he would be in this nightmarish rendition of an unholy abyss, when he noticed the figure laid out between them. Bound by some unseen means to a thick slab of charcoal obsidian, flecks of red streaming from its sides like curdled blood, lay yet another one of his students, her avian form battered and torn. It was none other than Jessica, the only other living soul he had confided his fears to.
He yearned to shout out to her, to break free of Loriod and the priest's grip, yet he was bound fast, his feet dancing while his shoes tightened and crushed the bones at any attempt to make them do anything else. He'd already lost one of his students to this madness, he would not lose another. With a pang of regret, he knew he should never have told her of his nightmares. It was a wonder that Phil was not here as well, being tortured and forced back into his rabbity self.
Yet even as he gazed forlornly at Jessica's supine form, he saw something that very nearly made him gasp in terror. Coalescing about her frame was that same black ooze that had crept off the censer, crawling over and under her feathers, smouldering her flesh as it rose above her. Yet, in that blackness, there resided two sickly rubies, gleaming twilight scarlet into the already infernal confines of the subterranean tomb. They burned with a malevolence that made what he felt for Zagrosek wither like grass on parched earth.
Something in the blackness opened up, revealing an even greater darkness, as if he were staring into the heart of all evil. Yet, the voice that sounded was raspy and sibilant, though it carried a depth that shook his bones. "You are mine," was all that he said, but it was enough to shatter Wessex's mind. Starting suddenly from his bed in the dungeons, Wessex let out an ear-piercing squeal, but of course it was lost in the shriek of the raging winds out in the night.
Though it was early afternoon, one could never know it from peering out the windows. Gusts of wind brought bushels of snow with each moment, hammering the walls of the Keep and shrieking in their ears. The world outside the warm confines of those ancient walls was an indiscriminate white, where all scents and sounds were drowned by the overpowering gale. Matthias could not help but feel sorry for those who stood on the watchtowers and the castle walls in this mess.
As it was, he was enjoying the pleasant warmth of the Long House, with Lady Kimberly upon his freshly healed arm, surrounded by his fellow Long Scouts, their friends and family in the joyous Christmas celebration. The outdoor events at the Winter Festival were of course cancelled in the face of such a powerful blizzard, but that did not mean that the merrymaking was going to stop. On the contrary, it only intensified as the Keepers were forced close together.
Along both sides of the Long House were arrayed treats of all sorts and varieties, as well as punches, ales and other assorted drink. Kimberly and Charles both selected a small breaded delicacy, with cheese mixed through the middle, and a single cherry adorning the top. With grins on their muzzles, they each ate the treat in silent communion. Of course, their tongues could be held back for only so long, as such a sensation had to be reported.
"Oh, that is delicious!" Kimberly exclaimed in earnest, her paws searching for another to appease her newfound desire.
Charles nodded emphatically, gazing across the table for other treats. The party was just beginning, and so most of the plates were still full. "Definitely, I wonder if that was Gregor's."
"Actually, Brennar made that batch," a voice said from behind them. Turning about, the two rats saw Misha and Caroline standing arm in arm, while the fox held a mazer in his other paw. His muzzle was wet with the mead, the ends of the fur on his chin dripping with the amber froth. "How are they, I've not yet had one."
"They're marvellous!" Kimberly announced in a clear, bright voice. Reaching back, she grabbed two more from the platter and handed them to Caroline. "Here, give them a try."
Caroline gazed curiously at the treat in her fingers. The damage that the Lutins had done to them appeared to be healed of course, and her flute lessons with Dream had certainly helped. Bringing the pastry to her muzzle, she bit it in half a bit of the cheese sticking to her whiskers. She breathed deeply, her eyes closing at the richness of flavour captured within such a tiny morsel. Opening her eyes again, she chewed a few times before swallowing, and then with a single motion, popped the rest into her mouth and finished it off. "Oh my, that is marvellous!"
Grinning, she turned to Misha, and pressed the second towards his narrow snout. "Here, now you give it a try." Misha grinned, his narrow grey eyes alighting upon her, full of his own mischief, and the wine. He bit into the proffered treat, snagging most of it in one bite. However, he too was forced to slow down a bit, chewing only slightly, letting the taste descend the length of his tongue. Then, he swallowed that portion, and reached out for the rest.
A smirk upon her lips, even as she tried to lick the cheese from her whiskers, she pulled the last remnants of the morsel away from the fox's muzzle, making him bend over further. He nearly spilled the wine in fact, but did manage to get his muzzle to her paw, licking the last bits from her soft fur. The two rats and Caroline both laughed merrily at that, watching the fox right himself and get the last few crumbs from his muzzle. "It appears that Gregor is doing a wonderful job teaching Brennar there. You are both right, that was marvellous!"
Matthias nodded and grinned, casting his eyes about the room a moment to see who else was there. Mostly it was just Long Scouts and their families. He did see Rickkter drinking with Kershaw in one corner though. He quickly averted his gaze, lest the raccoon notice him. He was here at the party to enjoy himself, and did not fancy that Kankoran's ability to anger him.
However, Misha did notice the sudden glance, and, while still smiles, looked to his love and Kimberly, "Caroline, do you mind showing Kimberly about, I think this is her first time in the Long House."
Lady Kimberly nodded at that. "Oh yes, I've never seen this place before. It is quite magnificent. I'd love to have a tour."
Caroline of course was smiling quite wide, though she did give Misha a curious glance. Charles did his best to appear amiable as the otter led his fiancée off down through the mass of Keepers. However, the expression on Misha's face was hardly favourable. "How is your arm?" the fox asked softly, his voice sardonic.
Charles flexed his right paw a few times. "Much better, I think I'm ready to go back on duty."
"Oh, you do, do you?" Misha's voice began to grow darker, as if he were slowly opening the door to anger.
The rat nodded, keeping his fingers open, desperately hoping he would not curl them into a fist. In the month since he broke his arm, Misha had him scrubbing and cleaning the armour in the Long House, as well as any number of other mundane tasks designed to humiliate him. It had not been a pleasant December so far.
"My arm is fine. So there is no reason to keep me couped up in here all winter," Charles reiterated, trying not to sound annoyed.
Misha however appeared dubious, running a single claw along the bottom of his chin. "You escaped from a whole army of Lutins while you were at Arabarb. Your help at Glen Avery is well known to me. And what you did at Stepping Rock will long be remembered. As will the fact that the person who broke your arm was none other than Zhypar Habakkuk, a simple scribe. Now tell me, why should I believe you are ready for duty if such a man as he can render you impaired?"
The rat simmered at that. "He caught me off guard, and used my own weapon against me. I won't make that mistake again."
"Oh, I imagine you won't," Misha murmured quietly as he kept his back to the other guests. Charles found himself backed up against one of the party tables. His tail curled about one of the table legs, rubbing the sturdy oak with its fleshy length.=20
"You don't tend to make the same mistake more than once," the fox continued, his eyes piercing into Matthias's. "At least once you realize it is a mistake. Which brings me to my point. Why do you and Rickkter persist in this stupid feud of yours? You both know that it is only causing frustration among those who know you, and you are denying the Keep a potent force. Andre has told me of what you two did at Stepping Rock. That is the kind of fighting force we need if we ever will have any hope of defeating Nasoj and his ilk."
Charles shook his head though, "It would take too long to explain."
However, that answer appeared to be the wrong one. Misha growled low and sullen, though with his back to his guests, none of them knew, or at least, pretended not to notice. "You both have said that many times now over the last six months. I am tired of being treated like an ignorant country bumpkin by two people I consider to be reasonably intelligent. I know you are both from warring clans. Are those past allegiances so important to you both?"
"No, at least, I hadn't thought that they were. But his people have been killing my own for thousands of years, and hurting countless others in the process. I know what Rickkter's clan have done over the millennia, and it is not a pleasant story."
The fox glowered, the fur on his muzzle bristling slightly. "And he left them, just as you left your own. And just why have you taken his fighting staff? I know that's what Rickkter came to get from you the day Habakkuk broke your arm."
Charles glanced at the other people in the Long House, hoping that one would come over and deliver him from this inquisition. Kimberly and Caroline were admiring the stained-glass windows. Kimberly saw his gaze, smiled, and gave him a little wave with her paw. He waved back, but then found his eyes drawn irresolutely towards Misha yet again. "That staff belongs to my clan. It is an abomination for Rickkter to possess it."
The fox's cold grey eyes filled all of the rat's vision. "He gave it to you in the thick of battle. You had no right to keep it."
"Nor did he ever have a right to possess it in the first place! I'm restoring it to it's rightful owners."
Misha's face then went slack, the anger melting from the visage in an instant. "Then, you ought to take it back to Sondeshara. That is the name of your order's home city is it not?"
"I'm not going back there. I fled that place years ago, you know that."
Misha thumbed Charles's shirt a moment, and then glanced back to the other guests, smiling to a few who noticed him. His eyes however, stayed on the rat. "It is your choice. Where do your loyalties lie? With Sondeshara or with the Longs? I will give you one month to decide. If by February, you have not returned the staff to Rickkter, then I will have you ejected from the Longs."
Charles nearly spluttered at that, his mouth dropping open wide. "You wouldn't!"
"I would," the fox's voice was harsh, and the rat knew in his heart that his friend would not hesitate to follow through on his word. "One month, Charles. Don't make me regret inviting you to join the Longs. I care about you deeply, but at present, I don't know you. I serve Metamor and the Long Scouts. Who do you serve?" With that, the fox turned to the rest of the guests, smiled, wagged his long, thick, red tail, and set to merry-making. Matthias clenched and unclenched his fists in frustration, scanning for the ale. He needed a stiff drink.
The forest was lined with fresh snow, layered softly on the dead grasses and golden leaves that had fallen only weeks before. Large trees towered about them on all sides, their trunks as wide as a horse, and sometimes wider, clustered closely and guiding them deeper into the ancestral wood. Sunlight glinted down in visible shafts; bright, golden beams resplendent on the white of the snow. Every now and then, Kashin would notice a green chiselled rock poking up through the cold blanket, smooth and shorn by hands older than any of the human kingdoms.
"We're on the ancient Yume-tåi road," Andares said, pointing along the path that winded through the colossal trees. His finger traced out a slender arc, and with it, Kashin found himself staring at what should have been obvious to him before. The path followed a gentle rise into the hills south of the Barrier Mountains, deep into the Åelfwood, having begun at some old ruins forty leagues or so north of Salinon.
Kashin pulled his black cloak closer about himself with his one good arm. The stump of his left hung uselessly inside the thick wool, pressed tightly to his chest to hold in the warmth. It was a cold day, and the sensation of having his teeth chatter together was a new one to him, one that he found most displeasing. He'd purchased the travelling gear he would need for a winter's journey in the Midlands while at Bozojo. Benlan Rais, the proprietor of the Lake's Head Inn that Andares was so fond of, gave him directions to find all that he needed, and at very good prices. The information had been well worth the gold that the innkeeper had demanded.
Stomping his thick sheepskin boots through the soft carpet of snow, dead leaves, and grass, and the occasional tile that remained of the old Yume-tåi road, he found himself quite glad that he did, for the boots that he had worn on his journey to Metamor would have long since been soaked through. The journey had only taken a fortnight to reach this far, and most of that had just been in reaching the forest itself. The plains of the Outer Midlands were mostly empty except for farms and small villages that clustered along the banks of the small rivers crisscrossing the rolling landscape. They would often spend their nights in the hayloft of barns, paying for their food and keep by helping the farmer's with their livestock for a few hours of the night.
However, once they reached the woods, Andares no longer hid his face beneath the thick black cowl of his cloak. The Åelfwood was the domain of his kind, and the fair skin and voices would not be unknown or considered remarkable by those that also made their dwelling here. Of course, Kashin had trouble seeing anybody else in these woods aside form the occasional deer or fox that would dart back beneath the underbrush as soon as they came near. While the Åelf wandered openly, the former Yeshuel found himself wrapping tighter and tighter in his cloak, even drawing up the hood to hide his face from the winds whistling through the tree trunks.
Glancing at his mysterious friend, he asked in a soft whisper, "The Yume-tåi road?" He was afraid to speak loudly, as if it would destroy the solemnity of the forest. The trees themselves appeared to have ears, carrying his words to all corners of the wood, closing tightly behind them, and opening only along this forgotten path. "I've never heard of it."
Andares nodded slowly, his long pointed ears neatly slicing the air. "I would have been surprised if you had. Hundreds of years ago, before man had driven us into these woods from our cities in the plains, this was one of the major thoroughfares that we used to move between Ava-shavåis and Yerebey. Those ruins that you saw several days ago are all that is left of Yerebey when Herouc's armies marched upon it, scattering the last remnants of our folk. It was once a beautiful city, with great towers of ivory and jade dominating the plains for leagues. Each night, you could hear their people sing and celebrate. Even the animals stopped to listen to their nightly chorus, for they were among our greatest musicians, creating ballades and sonnets the likes of which no mortal has ever heard.
"And not even our own people know all of their songs, for most of them were lost in the sacking those centuries ago. Now, it is just a memory, and the songs of their days on the open fields are all that remains of their once proud city. Now, only its foundations persist, all of the valuable stones carted off to the human lands. It is the home of wild beasts and birds, picking among stones and dried fountains, with no idea who had once tread those ways. Yume-tåi has since fallen into disuse, and the forest is reclaiming her. We have allowed this because we do not wish the humans to use it to find our last few cities in this wood."
Kashin pursed his lips thoughtfully, lifting his foot so as not to stub his toe on an errant stone. "Do you know of any of their songs? I would like to hear one if you do."
Andares gave him a suddenly angered look, the angular lines of his face contorted into a wound. And then, they faded, slipping back into his usual passive calm. "I do know a few, but they are not for your ears. They are now songs of sorrow, and of days past. We do not share them with those who cannot understand our loss."
"You mean with humans."
"Yes, with humans we will not share them, for it was humans who destroyed Yerebey. Humans we once shepherded and guided from barbarism thousands of years ago. That betrayal is not one that we will soon forget." Andares turned away from Kashin, walking further into the cluster of trees ahead. The path was winding into a small enclave of hills. They continued to slope upwards to the north, disappearing behind the thick trunks, while to the south, they slowly levelled out, descending to the plains of the Flatlands. High above him, golden leaves swirled on the branches still, casting a small clump of snow to the ground.
"Are there any songs that you could sing? It is interminably quiet here, and I was hoping perhaps for something to cheer our way. I'm rather cold, and would like something to warm my spirits." Kashin had grown up hearing the sound of priests and monks singing in the cathedral's of Yesulam, and so to be away from the sound of voices joined in harmony for over a month was quite a trial. He truly missed the chanting of hymns beneath those vaulted ceilings, a fact that was only now becoming clear to him. Had Andares not mentioned that the Åelf of Yerebey were musicians, he might never had identified the longing within his chest.
Andares snorted then, casting his eyes about the tree trunks. The path led up a small rise, and the trees about it were bound so tightly together, that Kashin could not see beyond it. A small gust of wind blew past his face, and with his only hand, he pulled the cloak tighter about him. The scabbard of the Sathmoran blade slapped against his thick leggings, a reminder of his sole purpose. "I believe you will find enough to warm your heart in a moment. Just over this rise, we should see the first spires of Ava-shavåis."
"But we've seen no other Åelf," Kashin admonished, scanning the tree trunks, wondering if the fair folk were watching them secretly. "Wouldn't there be sentries?"
The laugh that came from Andares's lips was a pleasant one, almost human in expression. Yet still it carried with it that sense of timelessness that often made Kashin grasp to plumb its depth of meaning. "My brethren have known of our presence and our destination as soon as we entered the wood. In fact, they've been expecting us, as my master has told them of our coming."
"So what should I do?" Kashin asked as he began to start along the rise.
Andares smiled favourably. "Be respectful at all times, and try not to ask too many questions, at least not yet. There will be a feast awaiting us I suspect, and it may be many hours still before you meet my master. You have waited more than two moons already, another few hours will hardly matter."
The man grunted, but said nothing else, his eyes trailing across the trunks of the trees, and over that rise, into the lofty boughs, filled with snow and a few more leaves. Every once in a while, the wind would dislodge one or the other, then carry them off gently to the forest floor. However, Kashin watched them not, for he wished to see this fabled city of the Åelf, and understand why Andares would not sing of Yerebey.
Having seen both Yesulam and Metamor, as well as many other cities on his travels of late, he felt that he was accustomed to splendour untold. The crenellated onion domes, with their frescoes and murals in Yesulam, to the broad spires and mountainous background of Metamor, he doubted that there was any place on Earth that could parallel such beauty. He was wrong, and he knew it in an instant as soon as they came abreast of the ridge.
Before him, amidst the very trees themselves, were wavy lines that spiralled upwards, towers of slender proportion, reaching up to pierce the very treetops, perhaps the sky itself. Ivory wrapped itself about the green shafts, each bound fresh with snow, like some white gossamer staircase winding about the spires. Even the cluster of smaller buildings that nestled about the base of each tower like the roots of a tree were marked by spectacularly intricate designs on each window pane and tile of their rooftop. They were coloured with hundreds of shades of green and blue, a rippling river that flowed beside and between the houses barely distinguishable against the bright homes, their own surfaces at times appearing to flow like the waters between them.
A slender bridge was perched over the river, spanning the two banks. It was white with ivory and every stoup along its rim was decorated by intricate arrays of flowers and tightly bound fronds that swayed in the gentle winds. In the centre of the bridge was engraved the image of what appeared to be a deer of some sort, with its twisting antlers protruding from rail itself. As Kashin's eyes gazed up from the pristine bridge, he spotted another just a short ways beyond it along the river's course, decorated in much the same way, only the visage of a bear gazed out with sombre eyes from its midway.
Almost as an afterthought, he noticed the figures striding those bridges, and the green covered walkways between the buildings, and standing upon porcelain balconies overhanging the lower buildings. Their gentle faces, with high cheek bones and long narrow ears, inhabited the city, dressed in lace so thin that Kashin wondered how they could bear the cold. Their clothes however, appeared to suit them, being a bright many colours, but more often than not in some hue of green and blue. The ladies' dresses came to their ankles, and were thick with design and inscription, as if they too were a work of art. Most of the men were clad in ornate robes, but there were a few who were dressed in subtle yellows and whites, the tailoring more suited to moving about the forest then on gossamer streets and bridges.
He quickly realized that his mouth was hanging open, and so shut it as soon as he saw that Andares was smiling whimsically at him. The Åelf waved one hand at him, and began to descend the hill into the valley that nurtured their city. "Come now, they are waiting for us past the first gate."
Stumbling on his barbaric feet, like a donkey standing amidst well-bred stallions, Kashin followed after Andares, finding that his jaw betrayed him once more. He could not help but gawk in amazement at the splendours before him. Suddenly, he looked up into the high bows of the trees, at a parapet far above leaning out over the forest itself. A gentle voice cascaded down through the snow strewn air, singing a melody in a mode that he'd never heard beneath the domed roof of the Great Cathedral in Yesulam. It was sick with bittersweet memories, and even as he stood there, affixed to the well-trodden path, tears began to creep from his eyes.
Andares turned to stare at him a moment, but said nothing, until the lady who had been singing, returned inside, her voice dwindling to silence once again. "And now you know why my kind has abandoned any love for your own."
Kashin could do nothing but nod as he stumbled past the first of the homes, his eyes unable to meet any of the curious stares of the other Åelf. They looked at him like a man might gaze upon a neighbour's dog. Strangely enough, he could almost feel himself tuck a tail that was not there between his legs as he trod where no man had been in thousands of years.