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
Charles had changed into his four-legged rat-like centaur form and leaned against the walls of the small building they had been lent while waiting for Abafouq to return from his judgement. It was surprising to the rat to realize that after spending most of the last two months putting four paws on the ground instead of two he was oddly more comfortable this way. He could not explain it, but he felt insufficient when he stood on only two feet.
The others were also relaxing in various states of comfort. Habakkuk sat on his bed poring over the parchments he’d transcribed at the Nafqananok walls. The kangaroo promised to speak of what he found when he could better understand its implications. He had muttered something about alchemical experiments and metals that glowed of their own, but the rat did not understand what any of it had to do with stopping the Marquis du Tournemire from using the weapons of Yajakali.
On her bed nearby lay the skunk Kayla. Her knees were lifted, and her long black-and-white tail was curled up between them. In her arms she held the silver katana and wakizashi that had once belonged to Rickkter. She ran the edge of the katana across her short snout; gently so as not to cut herself. Deep blue eyes peered upwards at the domed ceiling, though if she saw the stone overhead, Charles would have been surprised. It was clear her mind was elsewhere, as it often was when she was holding the swords.
The rest were clustered in the middle of the floor. James and Lindsey had begun playing a small game of dice an hour ago. Charles had joined them for a bit, but his heart had not been in it. Now he watched as they showed Andares the Åelf how to play. Their newest companion proved a quick study, for his deft wrist was able to conjure up just the right toss almost every time. Hovering above them and watching with faint amusement was Jessica, though the hawk’s golden gaze ever strayed towards the entrance.
And it was she who saw the Binoq’s return first. Jessica squawked, “He’s coming back!”
All heads turned, and there climbing up the slope towards their unusual lodgings was Abafouq. His head hung limply, and he slumped as if he’d been lashed. Charles scrambled to his four paws, and took a step forward. “Abafouq. Are you all right?”
The Binoq did not look up until he was standing just outside the doorway. His voice was hollow. “We will leave tomorrow. How are our supplies?”
Andares was at the rat’s side, his voice soft like the gentle caressing of an autumn breeze. “Our supplies will need to be freshened before we journey tomorrow. Come, my friend, you have had a wearisome day. Rest now and let the surcease of dream comfort you.”
Abafouq allowed the Åelf to lead him to his bed. Charles blinked and watched them move. All eyes were on the pair, until finally Abafouq had settled down and curled beneath his blankets. “Are you all right?” Jessica asked.
“Leave me be,” Abafouq replied after several empty seconds.
Andares turned to regard them, his pearl-grey skin drawn taut across his angular face. “Let us journey down and find the supplies we need. I know the road that lays ahead, but each of you knows what you will need for food and drink.”
Lindsey nodded and grabbed an empty burlap sack. “Of course.” One by one, the rest of them did the same. Each of them cast one more look at the desolated Binoq before they left.
It took perhaps two hours to find everything they needed. By the time they returned to the Åelven house set against the cavern wall, they were exhausted. Charles did not even bother shifting into his two-legged form to sleep. Beneath him the bed creaked ominously, but it held throughout the night.
Abafouq remained untalkative that morning. He dressed and stored his belongings without a word, and ignored any attempts at conversation. His eyes were puffy as if he’d been crying, but never did any of his companions see him shed a tear. Neither Charles nor anyone else was quite sure what to do for him, so most gave him whatever space he needed. Not a one of them needed to ask if his judgement went well. It was plain that it had not.
Once everything was packed – and most of it on Charles’s lower torso – Andares led them down the slope and through a different passage than the one they had followed to reach Nafqananok. The cavern beyond was filled with more homes, and looked much the same as the first. A larger lake dominated the right side of the cavern, and there somewhat green pastures thrived. They were replete with fungi and moss, treats that the herd of blind ruminants enjoyed.
The Binoq continued to give them a wide berth. Hushed whispers greeted their passage, and Charles felt certain that many more eyes fell upon Abafouq than the rest of them. The rat could not help but wonder anew what had happened to their friend yesterday. He had only known this little man for two months, but already the thought of anyone hurting him was more than he could stomach.
They passed through another passage into a smaller cavern than the two they had just left. It was still massive, but barely half the size of Metamor city. At the far end a large gatehouse had been constructed, complete with double portcullis and killing towers. There were no homes here, only buildings that appeared to be barracks and storehouses. Several guards stood watch at the gates.
“And this is where we leave Qorfuu,” Andares announced, his voice soft and sure. “Before us begins the Dwema-tåi road. In my tongue that means Way of Stone. Ages ago it was constructed, as a bridge between my people and the Binoq. It is how I came here, and it is how I will bring you to my master.”
“How long is it?” James asked. He shifted the weight of the pack on his back again. It was the first time in two weeks that he had to carry much of anything, and it was clear that the donkey was having trouble getting it comfortable again.
“It should take us no more than ten days to traverse it.” Andares began to walk faster. “Best we waste no time. We must reach my master soon.”
“Who’s your master?” James asked, but the Åelf would only smile as he made his way towards the gatehouse. The donkey glanced at Charles, but the rat merely shrugged. Both Habakkuk and Abafouq had known this strange, graceful creature, and even the rat had to admit he was oddly familiar. If he wished to keep silent a bit longer, then so be it.
The Binoq guards gave them no trouble at the gate. They stood with spears held high, their eyes never meeting the travellers. Both the inner and outer portcullis remained raised, and Charles could not help but marvel at the finely chiselled masonry. This was one of the very few structures that appeared to have been built deliberately in Qorfuu. Most everything else had been carved out of natural rock.
The passage beyond was dark. Jessica summoned a handful of witchlights that danced faintly above their heads. They shone against smooth walls and a mostly even floor. The passage twisted downwards, and even with the illumination they could only see a short ways ahead. Andares walked unafraid upon the beginning of the Dwema-tåi road, and the rest followed him after only a moment’s hesitation.
Ten paces in, Abafouq stopped and gazed backwards at the halo of light that was the end of Qorfuu. Chalres and Jessica were closest to the Binoq, and they both turned to watch him. Tears began to form in his eyes, and his mouth opened as if he wished to say something. The rat felt numb, and could only watch as Jessica hopped to his side to cradle him with one wing.
“Abafouq, are you well?”
The Binoq sucked in his breath and pushed at her wing with both hands. He turned from his home and stalked off down the tunnel, quickly outpacing the others. Jessica’s beak cracked wide as if to call after him, but the Åelf was before her. Andares slowly shook his head, eyes lowered unhappily. “Leave him be,” he whispered. “When he is ready he will speak.”
The hawk let out a sigh and nodded her head. “I don’t like seeing him hurt so.”
“Nor do I,” Andares replied. He smiled knowingly, and then turned to follow the fast disappearing Binoq. Charles exchanged a quick glance with the hawk and then resumed his plodding gait.
Within a few minutes the light from Qorfuu was gone. The witchlights Jessica summoned were able to bring a soft glow into the tunnel. It was enough, and the eight of them were able to make their way along the uneven ground without difficulty. Surprisingly, the narrow tunnel muffled the sounds of their passage. The ceiling was only seven feet high in most places, but Lindsey was the only one so tall that he needed to duck his head from time to time.
After they had walked nearly a half-hour in silence, Charles looked back over his shoulder at the kangaroo who was right behind him and asked, “What did you discover at the walls? Have you had time enough to figure it out?”
Habakkuk waved one paw from side to side. “A little. I confess I should not have been surprised that the Binoq would have chosen to focus on the alchemical aspects of Yajakali’s pursuits. I had heard from other sources that the Åelf prince was something of a metallurgist, but I had not until yesterday realized to what extent.”
“So what did he do?” James asked, one ear turned to listen.
“He refined a mineral that had been unknown to that time. He called it lucnos. It means ‘Light of Night’ in our tongue. What we read indicates it is a very heavy ore. At night it would glow of its own accord.”
“Lucnos,” Charles mused. “I’ve never heard of it.”
“Neither had I,” Habakkuk admitted. “Which leads me to believe that no one has replicated Yajakali’s discovery in the thousands of years since then.”
Andares nodded slowly. “You speak truly. Whatever magicks Yajakali used to isolate and purify lucnos remain unknown to my people.”
“Had you ever heard of lucnos before?” Jessica asked. One golden eye kept gazing to the melancholy Binoq who led them through the dark passage, but the other stayed upon the road before her.
“I have,” Andares admitted. “Amongst my people it is regarded as a mythical substance capable of granting remarkable power, but at a terrible cost.”
“What power?” Charles pressed. “What cost?”
Andares slowed his pace until he was abreast of the rat and kangaroo. The corridor was slowly widening, but otherwise it remained mostly featureless. “The only one of our kind to have ever harnessed its powers was Yajakali. He gained the ability to manipulate the substance of the universe, to turn it into a weapon. And in so doing he was able to pierce the veil to the Underworld. The power of lucnos allows one to go beyond what this world makes possible. It is thought that it could make it possible to touch the moon and all that circles our world. But the cost... the cost might make it impossible too.”
The Åelf said nothing for a time, his face lost in deep contemplation. It was Habakkuk who broke the silence. “What cost is there in using lucnos?”
“Madness,” Andares smiled faintly. “The more one uses it, the more it drives you mad. Or so at least it is what happened with Yajakali. In the end, all his hopes of what lucnos might do for his people fell into schemes of hate and destruction. Just as he reached into lucnos to feel its power, it reached back into him and disturbed his mind.” He took a deep breath. “And it is why we needed to learn what was written upon the walls of Nafqananok. For in those ancient words lies the clue we need to protect ourselves from its insidious grip.”
Andares fell silent again, and this time, none of them could think of anything more to say.
The next few hours proceeded slowly. The tunnel was snaking downwards, and Charles was often reminded of the serpentine beast as his eyes scanned the walls. Hints of long washed away columns remained etched into the walls; and his imagination replaced them with the constricting ribcage of a gargantuan python.
This was not the first time that the rat had been faced with a long, dark tunnel that did not seem to have an end. A month after joining the Long Scouts, Misha had put him to a test that could have taken place nowhere but Metamor. Misha had assumed the shape of a normal fox, and likewise Charles made himself appear a normal rat. It was a hunt, and Charles had only to evade Misha until sundown, all while staying inside the Keep. At one point, to escape from his mentor, Charles had ducked down a small crack in the wall, and for a time, he had not thought he would ever escape that twisting passage through stone. And ever so briefly, he’d lost his mind to the rat.
And then, when Nasoj’s army had attacked Metamor during the Winter Solstice, he’d been forced to find a passage under ground that would bring them to Glen Avery. That corridor had been black, featureless, and very nearly unending. If not for his companions, he might have gone a little crazy then too.
Now he was faced with a ten day march through a tube of solid rock that gave no indication it would bear anything but the most paltry of features. He felt a small measure of relief that being stone diminished most of his emotions, because if he were still flesh he knew he would be starting to panic.
In the two months that they had been travelling together, they had all learned how to feel each other’s presence without actually speaking. Even so, Charles felt a small need to feel something more just then. Though he was stone, there was still a hint of claustrophobia in the recess of his mind. But as he was made from granite, perhaps there was a way he could feel out to something larger, some great expanse that would comfort him.
Guernef had warned him about merging with stone, and he knew he would have to be cautious, but perhaps just this once he could stretch his mind across the mountains and feel the cool glacial air brushing across his consciousness. It would be a great relief to transform the oppressive weight of the mountain into a comforting cloak.
Stretching out his limbs, he felt them slip within the floor. The smooth sensation of his body passing into the granite was almost sensual. In Qorfuu, the stone would not let him enter, but here, it was only too happy for his company. Quickly, the rat realized it was starved for companionship. He blinked open his eyes and saw his forelegs slipping deeper and deeper into the stone. Try as he might, he could not pull them back out, there was nothing with which he could gain any purchase.
“Help!” he called, struggling to stay afloat. The cave had become as porous as molasses, and if he didn’t get out now, he’d probably sink into it forever. No wonder Guernef had warned him against this! “Help, I’m sinking!”
“Quick, get something under him and the floor,” Lindsey shouted as he yanked his pack from his back and shoved it between the rat’s hind legs. James and Habakkuk were at his side a second later doing the same with their bags.
“That’s not going to hold me up,” the rat shouted,. Already, he could feel his hindquarters crushing the woodcutter’s supplies. “Hurry!”
Andares grabbed his forelegs and pulled up as best he could. “Can you lift your legs any?”
Charles tried to lift his forelegs, and found that he could slide them up some, but not enough to bring his paws up out of the cave floor. “Yes, but you need to lift me more.”
“Let me help,” Lindsey said. The northerner slid in next to the Åelf and the two of them hoisted the rat’s forequarters up. James and Habakkuk grabbed his hind legs and tried to keep them from sinking any further in the stone. Jessica hopped back and forth on her talons, wishing she could help. Abafouq stared at them thoughtfully, but said nothing. He couldn’t see Kayla the skunk anywhere.
“Okay,” Charles declared. “I have one of my forelegs up.” He tried to set it back down on the ground, hoping that it would be solid to him, but his toes disappeared inside the rock again. “No, that won’t work. I need something to stand on.”
“Ice shoes,” the Binoq said softly. “Put his ice shoes on.”
“Yes, that might work. They’re metal not stone,” Lindsey agreed. “James, can you get them out?”
“I’ve got them,” Habakkuk said, as he undid the lacings of one pack that rested on the rat’s flanks. “Just hold him up for a few more seconds.”
James brayed in shock as he found himself hoisting up the full weight of the rat’s hindquarters. Something in Lindsey’s pack cracked, and Charles kicked out with his hind paws. They met nothing. He could feel them moving through stone, but it may as well have been empty air for all it supported him.
“I’ve got them!” Habakkuk declared. He hopped once and then turned, holding out the two shoes before the rat. “Try to step into them,” the kangaroo said as he set them on the floor before his half-missing forequarters. Charles focussed on lifting his left leg. Andares and Lindsey both grunted as they tried to keep his massive weight aloft.
It took him a few seconds, but the rat managed to raise his left foreleg high enough that he could slide his toes into the iron shoe. The metal was even colder than his stone flesh. He put some weight upon it, and though the metal groaned, it held him. “It’s working!”
“Good!” Lindsey snapped. “Now do the other one!”
Habakkuk went back into his pack to get the second pair of shoes for his hindquarters while the rat pulled his other forelimb from the cave floor. It was much easier this time, and soon both his forepaws were supported. Andares and Lindsey helped James out with his rear. Habakkuk had to help direct his hind paws into the shoes, but barely a minute after the rat had begun to slip into the cave floor, he was freed.
James fell back on his rump and brayed in exhaustion. “You’re heavy!”
Lindsey inspected his pack and drew out a small hand axe whose haft had shattered. “Well, I suppose I’ll have to replace this.”
“Thank you, all,” Charles said. It was awkward walking on the iron shoes, but it was better than drowning in the stone. “I shouldn’t have any trouble now.”
“Good,” Lindsey rubbed his arms. “I don’t ever want to have to do that again.”
Jessica squawked. “Where’s Kayla?”
“She had been walking behind me,” Abafouq muttered.
“I’m right here!” the skunk called. From the darkness ahead of them she emerged, one paw resting on the pommel of her katana. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you cry out and just kept going. I must have been distracted.”
“Well,” Charles said, testing out the shoes. He’d need to tighten them a bit. “Let’s keep going. We still have a long ways to go.” They each agreed and after everyone had their packs in place and the rat was satisfied with his iron shoes, they continued down the endless passage.
Little else happened that day. The passage widened in a few places, but otherwise remained a tight snaking corridor that wound steadily downwards. At some point they were all too tired to continue and then bedded down for the night after a meal of cold, hard bread. They had no idea what time it was, and Charles was not about to risk touching the mountain again to find out.
Charles stayed on watch throughout the night, and he used an hourglass to mark off six hours of sleep before he woke his friends. They slept peacefully, and after a short breakfast resumed following the cave. The passage began to lead upwards, though not steeply. After a few hours the cave walls began to show cracks and fissures that led into other cramped caverns. Though a few of them were large enough for even the rat in his centaur-like form to climb into, the main passage was never in doubt.
They saw nothing else that day, and slept just as peacefully. The third day was much like the second, though in a few places there were veins of silver or gems. For a brief moment Charles thought he might be able to pry loose some of the crystal to give to Kimberly when he returned, but the risk of being drawn into the mountain was too great.
Despite the beautiful gems and shining silver, it was not until the fourth day that they saw anything that took their breath away. It began as a faint glow at the end of a turn. They had spoken little that entire day, but as they neared the bend, Kayla lifted her snout into the air and exclaimed, “I smell trees!”
James lifted his snout and nodded. “Me too!”
Jessica and Habakkuk confirmed it a second later. The whole group began to move more quickly, and soon the glow blossomed into daylight piercing through a wide crack in one side of the passage. Beyond the blue sky was piercingly bright, and clutching the hillside were several pines. They lifted hands to their eyes to view the sight, their faces brimming with delight. Each of them stopped and stared in awe.
“I never thought I’d be so happy to see a tree,” Lindsey murmured softly.
“No!” Abafouq cried, covering his eyes with one hand. “Keep moving! Don’t look at the light! We have to hurry!”
“What?” James asked in surprise. The donkey’s tail was swishing back and forth in contentment. It was the first time in days the rat had seen him so pleased. “Why?”
Abafouq grabbed Kayla by the arm and yanked at her. “Please, we have to hurry! The light is too bright!”
“He’s right,” Andares said. Even the Åelf had a hand over his golden eyes. “We should move past this quickly.”
Reluctantly, James and the others continued down the passage. It twisted away from the outside of the mountain, and quickly became dark. Charles lingered a moment longer at the opening in the tunnel. It was nice to see trees again, even if they were still deep in the Barrier Range. The horizon held nothing but more mountains. With a flick of his tail, he followed after the rest.
“Why couldn’t we stop there? It was lovely!” James asked. Charles could not help but note that the donkey’s tail lay still between his legs.
“Do you want to go blind?” Abafouq snapped. “You’ve been living in a dark cave for a week now. Your eyes cannot handle broad daylight yet! If we stayed there for even a few seconds you could have damaged your eyes. Binoq have gone blind just from admiring the sky before!”
James blinked for a moment, and then slumped his shoulders. “I’m so tired of being underground.”
“Aye,” Lindsey agreed. “I’ll be happy when we can leave these caves behind.” The woodcutter’s face was downcast. Jessica looked particularly miserable. Even the Åelf seemed weary as they plodded on down the endless Dwema-tåi road.
Andares said it would take ten days to cross, and each day passed as interminably as the last. On their sixth day the bare rock of the cave gave way to intricate carvings and delicate splendour. It came so suddenly that it was several minutes before they were able to grasp the significance of the change in their surroundings. The walls were no longer bare stone, but brilliant facades carved into the rock. As the witchlights danced around them, they caught fleeting glimpses of ancient figures gliding across gossamer balconies and dancing upon wide terraces.
“What is this place?” Jessica asked, her voice hushed with awe.
Andares smiled slowly as his slanted eyes took in the strange and marvellous vista. “This is the work of my people. Long ago, when the Dwema-tåi road was built, my people lived in the mountains in which they worked. The tunnel was their home and their purpose. When they were finished, they stayed for a time, but soon they all returned to the world above the earth.”
“Why did they stop here?” James asked, his dark eyes wide.
Andares chuckled lightly. “This was as far as they dug. The rest of the tunnel was sculpted by the Binoq from one cave to another.”
“But Qorfuu was, almost magical,” Jessica replied, one golden eye straying to the quiet Abafouq. The Binoq was busying himself with inspecting one of the carvings of an Åelf woman dressed in a flowing gown of ivy.
“The Dwema-tåi road was made by two people who saw it in two different ways. The Åelves treated it as they treat everything they touch, a chance to bring beauty and life. The Binoq saw it as a tunnel, a way for one to travel between our two lands. They saw no need for decoration. It is not a shortcoming on their parts in the least. Their contribution to the Dwema-tåi road is honoured amongst my kind. So honoured that we would not change a mote of it; not even to make it more attractive to the eye.”
Lindsey’s voice was sarcastic. “That sounds nice, but which way do we go? I see no less than three roads to follow. Which one takes us out of here?”
“I know the route,” Andares assured him. “Follow me and you will not be led astray. But I must warn you. Since my people left, other creatures have made these caves their home.”
“Like bears or wolves?” James asked.
Andares turned to the donkey, his slanted eyes narrowing. “They do not like the dark places of the earth. Much fouler things than bears or wolves is what we must worry about in here. We must be cautious and be on our guard. If we are fortunate, none will be so stupid as to attack such a large group. Let us continue.”
“Where’s Kayla?” Habakkuk asked. “I think she’s wandered off again.”
Jessica sent her witchlights in each direction. They sped off, bringing the distant sculptures to light. Vague hints of shapes leapt from the darkness, but each was only a statue. “Oh wonderful, now where’d she go?” Lindsey snarled as he began to step away form the group.
“Do not move,” Andares snapped. “We can find one who is lost, but two would prove more difficult.”
“No need, I found her,” Jessica squawked. And indeed, her witchlights had found the skunk crouching beside one of the ancient edifices. She leaned against a variegated pillar festooned with what appeared to be ivy and lace layered one above the other. In her paws was the katana, and her dark eyes stared transfixed at the blade.
“Kayla, what are you doing?” Jessica snapped.
The skunk’s head lifted, and she blinked the daze from her eyes. Unconsciously she sheathed the blade and stood up. “I’m sorry. I thought I heard something. It’s nothing.”
“I think you should stay where we can see you,” Lindsey suggested none too mildly. “If you wander off again I’m going to tie you up with the rope.”
Kayla’s muzzle opened in surprise, but then she shut it. “I’m sorry everyone, I don’t know what came over me.”
“Keep your sword sheathed,” Andares suggested. “It reflects far too well in the light. Now let us continue. There will be time to stop later.”
Andares set out on the middle path, and Jessica drew her witchlights back in to follow after the Åelf. Kayla fell into line next to Charles and looked at him half apologetically. “I’m sorry I got distracted again.” She had apologized several times already for failing to be there when Charles had needed help. The iron shoes clanked loudly against the stone, but the rat was used to the sound by now. Still, he found that he could not hold a grudge, nor did he really want to. He had forgiven her completely. Now he was just worried about her.
“Grab my tail if you must, Kayla. If you let go I’ll call out.”
She laughed lightly. “That sounds so odd. Okay, thank you, Charles.” She fell back behind him and wrapped one of her paws around the tip of his granite tail. Charles did his best to keep it steady for her too. It felt strange to have somebody touching his tail like that, but he was used to far stranger things already.
He preferred not to dwell on it. Instead, he let his eyes take in the remarkable buildings that the Åelf left behind. It was like stepping backwards in time; he doubted there was even mildew on any of the designs.
Kayla had read reports of entire villages being abandoned in the wake of plague or war. She had seen her own home Metamor Keep laid barren by the ravages of an invading army. Where homes had once stood were charred cinders and piles of rubble. Sometimes one wall would be left standing, like a man’s face turned to the heavens in supplication. Even with other Keepers about to help clean up the stench of the dead bodies, it had felt empty and lifeless.
In the day and a half since they had begun walking through the old city that the Åelf had carved into the Dwema-tåi road, Kayla realized she had never seen true emptiness. So many buildings adorned each side of the caverns, and all of them abandoned. High vaulted arches loomed overhead, and beneath their paws passed broad staircases and intricately carved terrazzo. When her mind wasn’t wrapped up in the soft whispering of Rickkter’s swords, she would marvel at the various shapes she stepped on; leaves, trees, animals and people, as well as lutes and lyres and other instruments of song. Never once did she see a weapon apart from the ones that she clutched in her paws.
But for a day and a half, they saw all this and more, but never saw any signs of recent habitation. As the path led steadily downwards through the mountains, they saw more and more signs of animal inhabitation. Some of the carvings had been defaced by the scratching of a wild beast, and odoriferous spore assaulted their noses when they passed by certain dark passages. Statuary of Åelf sometimes seemed to leap into view within one of the terraced balconies, and for a time, it appeared they were moving towards them, but always it was merely a trick of the light.
Despite all of these things to keep her eyes upon, her mind inevitably returned to the two blades she had taken from Rickkter. She knew that they were calling to her mind more and more firmly, and that it was preventing her from focussing on her friends as she should. Whenever she caught herself staring into the unending silver of the blades she would slide them back in their sheaths and hope none saw her chagrin. Yet now, they stood in her paws, and she could not uncurl her fingers from the pommels.
What was more, she knew that only a few hours ago she had laid her head down to sleep. Yet what was before her was as clear and vivid as day.
Beneath her she felt her legs moving, and strange passages bent and twisted around her. The walls of stone were amorphous, blending in variegated colours around her field of vision. The tip of the katana drew her relentlessly forward through her demented dreamscape. The Wakizashi was held up to her muzzle in a defensive posture.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked, a note of desperation in her voice.
The swords said nothing for a time, but she could feel a deep trembling, like the chuckle of a great beast. It vaguely reminded her of the blue dragon Cerulean who lived in the mountains of Metamor, but came into the city to help with its defence. His laugh, when kept inside his massive chest, had sounded something like that.
The strange colours that occupied her world began to spread out to either side and above her, creating a domed plaza that seemed nearly as large as one of the caverns of Qorfuu. Kayla was drawn into the centre. The ground appeared to twist and pull downwards like a whirlpool. Kayla tried to stop her feet from entering that deadly spiral, but she had no more control over them than she did before. “Please, no!”
Beneath her, the ground began to swirl, and a splash of colour erupted from the whirlpool. Kayla fell on her tail and the world began to spin madly about her. She closed her eyes, the swords clattering to the ground, the laughing sound building around her. Her foot paws were sucked into the whirlpool’s deathly embrace, and then, everything simply stopped. Blinking in confusion, Kayla looked up.
The chamber of colour was gone, replaced by a vast cellar. Everywhere was grey stone, and Kayla could not help but note that it looked vaguely like the stone that was used in Metamor. The ceiling was domed, and in the walls there appeared to be exits, but darkness consumed their interior, a darkness that seemed far more frightening than the corridor of colour she had just come through.
Kayla herself was resting against the floor. The whirlpool was not evident anywhere, and in fact, all of the ground seemed level apart from the indentation between each stone block. The katana was not in sight, but the wakizashi was on the ground before her. Even as her fingers wrapped around the woven grip, her eyes saw a pair of large golden paws with long fingers and sharp claws resting upon the stone not ten feet from her. Slowly, Kayla lifted her eyes. Beyond those two paws was another set a good distance off and a long spaded tail. The paws were connected to long scaled legs, and to a large torso that bore a set of heavy leathery wings. A long serpentine neck that ended in a horned head was there to greet her. Dark amber eyes larger than Kayla’s head glowed brightly and stared at her.
Kayla backed up, holding the wakizashi out before her, not knowing what good if any it would do. The golden dragon’s lips cracked in an amused smile as its head tilted to one side. “Now, really, what do you expect to do against me with that.” The dragon’s tail flicked side to side. “Even if this was not in your mind, that weapon would do very little against me.”
“In my mind?” Kayla stuttered, her paws shaking the wakizashi unsteadily.
The dragon moved lithely, almost like a cat. With a few careful steps that made no noise, it approached the muscles flowing under the golden scales like waves beneath the surface of the ocean. Coming near, the dragon lowered its head and sniffed over the skunk for several moments. Kayla fought her natural inclinations at this point and held very still, not wanting to make the giant creature reconsider the whole matter of eating. Or worse.
The dragon let its massive snout brush past the fur of Kayla's left ear and whispered, “You have a very strange magic about you. I have not seen its uniqueness in many long years.” The voice when not booming had a smoldering, distinctly feminine quality about it. A small part of her mind noted it was the perfect voice for a dragon, both powerful and elegant.
Kayla sucked in her breath, and forced the blade to come down. She could not get her paw to sheathe the wakizashi, but no longer did she hold it before her. If this dragon wanted to kill her, it could do so at any time, no matter what Kayla did. But it had claimed that this was all in her mind. Still what happened if something in your head managed to eat you? Kayla shuddered at the thought.
She realized that she'd closed her eyes and made herself open them again. The dragon had withdrawn several paces, though her head was still almost level with Kayla’s. The dragon’s deep amber eyes gazed deeply into her own. “What is your name, wielder of swords?” The dragon made a small lunge forward, her wings opening slightly and mouth opening to reveal rows of teeth. “Who are you that you would presume to call yourself our master?”
Kayla had squeaked and jumped back in turn, the wakizashi once more held before her for protection. “My name… my name is Kayla. And I – don’t understand what you mean.”
The dragon let out a slow, deep hiss at her. “We have been close for
now. We have watched you, studied you, and tried to discern what you mean to do with us. You are not a fighter, and your magic is not that of a wizard. Yet you cling to us for protection even now.”
It finally dawned on Kayla and she looked down at the wakizashi again, seeing the serpentine dragon inlaid in the blade’s surface. “You’re the swords…. So that would mean…”
“My mate is at your hip, seeing that we are not disturbed while you answer what we want to know.” The dragon took another step towards Kayla. “You are not our previous master, and we have not sensed his death. There was a great and terrible evil, but he is not yet dead. So again, how did you come to possess us and who are you to presume to wield us?”
Kayla swallowed and looked up into the eyes of the fearsome dragon. “I loved your last master. No other has ever made me feel wanted or desired for myself. Others have wanted me for my mind, and others have wanted me for the novelty of a skunk, but Rickkter...” She swallowed again as she thought of her handsome raccoon scoundrel. He may have been rough around others, and she had seen him kill Lutins with a savagery equaled only by Misha Brightleaf, but when he was with her, he was gentleness itself. That one man could possess such antipodes had always startled her, and yet his eye found no other to hold, his heart no other but her. “He is the man I love. And he has been struck by a terrible curse. I claimed you because it seemed right to. I go to restore Rickkter's soul to his body. An evil man stole it from him after that last fight. And I need your help to kill him.”
The dragon seemed to have calmed during Kayla’s brief account. She once more had her wings folded against her body and her mouth no longer displayed its rows of razor sharp teeth. She regarded Kayla with her head held higher and a more quizzical expression upon it. “Our last master, he was the first true mage that had held us for many centuries. In his hands we had many great fights.” A note of sadness crept into her voice. “But that last was the only one that we could not win for him. If your quest is true….” Her voice trailed off and her lips twisted into a grin Kayla had seen on soldiers many times before. “We would be honoured to help you in your vengeance for our master.”
Kayla let out a long sigh and finally relaxed. “Thank you…. You know, I don’t even know your name.”
“My name is Clymaethera. My mate, Trystathalis.” Clymaethera turned around and strode over to another part of the cavernous room, coming around once more and laying down upon the ground to make herself more comfortable. Kayla was again struck by the almost feline qualities of the dragon’s movement, how all the parts of her body seemed to flow from one position to another, as her hind legs curled under her and tail came around them. “Your love for our last wielder is plain. It reminds me of my own feelings for Trystathalis.” That aggressive grin once more crept over her features. “It seems it’s always us ladies who have to get their men out of trouble.”
“I never realized that you were a mated pair before.”
“It was a choice, made long ago. He could have gone on for a few more centuries without me before he, too, faced death. Or we could be together forever in a form different than what we were. We chose each other.” The dragon waved a paw. “Now tell us what you know of this enemy you wish us to kill.”
Kayla strode closer to Clymaethera, still a little apprehensive about the dragon but not afraid as before. That indeed Clymaethera was female there was no doubt in Kayla’s mind. She possessed a sultry charisma and an eager aggression. The image of some of the aggressive and power hungry women she had encountered in her younger days struck Kayla as she got close. “There is a man Rickkter fought, an evil Sondecki called Zagrosek. Yet he is but a servant of the Marquis du Tournemire who wields the power of Marzac against us. That is the man who finally struck Rickkter down.”
“Marzac?” Clymaethera hissed loudly at that, amber eyes alert and full of alarm. “So that is the evil we sensed.”
“You know of it?”
“It is a cursed place.” Clymaethera’s eyes turned away from Kayla and she looked as through she were trying very hard to call up memories almost lost by time. “Even in our lifetimes, its evil was legend and dragons avoid it. When we were young, however, the wisest and strongest of our kind, Vissarion the Jade, sought to quell that evil. It is a sad tale amongst dragons because he was well loved. When he ventured to Marzac, he cast his spells hoping to destroy and seal away the evil forever. But the ancient powers of our kin were no match for the evil that lay waiting in that forsaken land. It consumed him and drove him mad.”
Kayla found herself leaning forward in anticipation. “What happened to him?”
Clymaethera looked back at her. “Vissarion the Mad sought to destroy the places of power in this world. He flew to Carethedor, an ancient Åelf city in the eastern mountains now called Vysehrad. The Åelf had already abandoned the city many years before. Vissarion was unable to break their enchantments, and soon a human warrior came to the city fortified with powerful magic and slew him, to the salvation of all. Even poor, mad, Vissarion.”
She lowered her head respectfully. “If our enemy is Marzac, then for all of my kind, we go with you to avenge the downfall of our beloved Vissarion.”
“Thank you, Clymaethera,” Kayla said. She smiled, glad to have this dragon as her ally. “But what must we do now?”
The dragon regarded her whimsically. “Now? Now you must leave this dream. I hope you will leave these caves soon, they are far too cramped for my liking. Wake now, my wielder.”
And with that final word, everything around her went black. Kayla struggled against the darkness, and threw her arms about her. Her elbow struck against rock and she winced loudly. She blinked her eyes, but there was no light to be had. She knew she was awake now, but where was she? Jessica’s witchlights should have illuminated their camp. And her cry ought to have alerted Lindsey and Charles who were standing watch.
Luckily, Jessica had taught Kayla how to summon a witchlight. It was a simple incantation, even somebody of her limited talents could handle it with ease. She remained where she sat as she called out the soft words. Slowly, a faint glow began to form in the air before her. It was a soft hue of green at first, before brightening to a faint white light. She willed it to rise and illumine the cavern.
Looking about she saw that she was in a narrow passage full of uncertain crags and wet to the touch. Her friends were nowhere in sight. The cave was completely natural, and she guessed no hands had ever touched it before.
Beneath her lay the dragon blades. Gingerly, Kayla picked them up, one in each paw. She no longer felt the mind-numbing draw that they had bewitched her with. Now they seemed sated, satisfied and filling her with assurance that they would help. The dragons seemed to glow softly in the faint light. Slowly, she returned each to their scabbards and looked around.
The cave continued into darkness in three different directions. None of them appeared to have been carved. “Okay, so how did I get here?” she asked herself softly. The swords probably didn’t teleport her, so she must have walked here in her sleep. Her friends must have noticed her absence by now. They would be looking for her.
No, the skunk realized with an ironic grin, they’d be scenting her. She could probably do the same thing and follow her trail back. Bending down she sniffed at the stone. It was wet, and took her longer than she would have liked, but one of the tunnels definitely bore her distinctive musk. With a sigh, she willed the witchlight forward and began to smell her way back.
“Wake up,” Lindsey growled as he shook Abafouq’s shoulders. “Come on you, wake up. Kayla’s missing.”
Abafouq’s dreams had been merciful that night. For the first time since they had left Qorfuu a week ago he had not been forced to watch his name crossed off the Sentinel of Forgiveness. Just thinking about it brought his melancholy back. Sighing, he crawled from his blankets. “Where has she gone?”
Charles was busy waking the others. James was bent down around the ground inhaling deeply. It took the Binoq a moment to realize that he was trying to find her scent.
“James will tell us in a moment.” Lindsey grabbed him under one shoulder and lifted him up. “Come on. We don’t want to get any further separated.”
Abafouq pushed his arm away and watched the donkey. James was moving further away from the camp towards one of the arches that led down a side passage. Suddenly, his ears lifted in excitement and he turned his head back. “I think I have her trail.”
“You’ll make a great scout yet,” Charles said with a wide grin. He then nudged Habakkuk with one paw. “Come on, get up, Zhypar. We have to go find Kayla.”
“I hope she’s okay,” Jessica cawed softly. “Where does that passage lead?”
Andares shook his head. “I do not know. Let us follow it and see.”
Abafouq trailed along at the rear after all the rest had followed the donkey into the dark passage. For several minutes the passage was a series of forks, and at each one it took the donkey a moment to find the right path. Abafouq half wondered if perhaps they shouldn’t be doing something to mark their own trail, and then answered his own question. If they could smell Kayla’s trail now, they could certainly smell their own on the way back.
“Wait,” James called, a note of worry in his voice. “There’s something else here. Something really foul. I don’t know what it is.”
“There are marks of an animal along the wall,” Andares observed. “Abafouq, come see these. You may recognize them.”
Sullenly, the Binoq walked past his companions to see what the Åelf spoke of. As he drew near, a scent like decay hit his nose and wrinkled it in an unpleasantly familiar way. His eyes widened as he stared at the scrape marks that cluttered the wall like a trapped Binoq trying to claw his way out of a collapsed tunnel. His heart began to pound and his ears strained to hear the staccato rasping of hundreds of legs against stone. The cave was mercifully silent.
“A Taktabeti!” he swore as he took a step back. “Those are the marks of a Taktabeti.”
“A Taktabeti?” Charles asked.
Abafouq nodded. “Yes. In your tongue, the name means Scuttleclaw. It’s a monster. From time to time my people have had to kill a nest that was built too close to Qorfuu. If one of them is tracking Kayla, she is in great danger!”
Charles drew his Sondeshike out of his belt pouch. “Then let’s keep going. If we’re lucky we’ll catch it before it catches her.”
Abafouq nodded. He really hoped nothing bad would happen to the skunk.
The witchlight danced happily before the skunk. When the path would fork, Kayla bent down and smelled at the ground until she could find her trail again. She’d been walking for a half hour, and still the caves were cramped and natural. How far had she gone in her dream? And why did the dragon blades take her so far?
Though her witchlight seemed pleased, she felt her world begin to sink as she found her scent following both passages out of the latest intersection. In her sleepwalking, she’d crossed over her own trail. A trained scout could have told which scent was the older, but she was not a trained scout. She didn’t know which way to go. Defeated, Kayla sat down against the rock and clutched her arms over her chest.
She was not despondent for long though. Her heart lifted in delight when her ears picked up a faint noise emanating from the left passage. It was approaching her quickly, and she leaned forward to better hear her friends arrive. She floated the witchlight down the passage so that they might see where she waited.
Kayla watched as the passage came into relief, still jagged and untouched. A shadow came into view, following the wall. The rasping sound was louder now, and she felt a bit of trepidation; it did not sound like footfalls. And then, the shadow passed beyond her witchlight and she saw two giant claws before a black eyeless head, with antennae dancing across the rock. Vicious mandibles clicked and clacked against each other. It ignored the witchlight and continued straight towards Kayla.
The skunk could not stop her scream. Nor could she stop her paws as she ran back down the passage, keeping the witchlight in close tow so she could see where she ran. Her chest heaved, and her paws thrust before her trembled. The thing behind her continued, its claws snapping and its body rasping against the cave wall as it scuttled after her.
Something seemed to warm in her mind, and she felt one hand lowering to the pommel of the katana. She couldn’t fight this thing! It would carve her in two and begin eating her flesh while she was still alive.
The sword could fight for her. Dragons knew how to strike.
Abruptly, the cave tunnel disappeared before her, and she frantically looked around for another place to run. Her heart tightened in her chest and her tail lifted unhappily. She’d run right into a dead end. She would have to face the beast.
For a moment she considered using her spray, but somehow she didn't think it would stop this thing. Her right paw found the katana and drew it free, clasping it in both paws as a talisman before her. The silver sword sang softly as it tasted the air and she could feel the throaty rumble echoing in her mind. She turned, her arms trembling and faced the beast.
It continued to approach, and in the light she could now see that it was a huge centipede with hundreds of little legs clutching to the cave wall. Kayla breathed erratically, her tail flitting back and forth in fear. The sword held steady before her as the monster lunged. Its claws tried to grab her, but the katana lifted to meet them. The creature snapped back its claw instead.
Kayla thrust out the blade, but the centipede was too clever for that. It danced backwards before lunging in, trying to pin Kayla's arm with its other pincer. Kayla swung the katana to meet it even as she drew her arm back. The pincer brushed against her arm, but the serrated edges did not pass beyond her fur.
Seconds passed so slowly, and within the next three Kayla had to deflect no less than five different swipes from the centipede's pincers. The sword moved her arms better than she did and she let them strike, but they seemed not to be able to pierce through the chitinous armour. She knew, she had seen, that these weapons were capable of so much more, but she had no idea how to make them behave that way. All she could do for the moment was hold on and fend off the attacks, stepping back and back, further each time. Another few steps and she would be pinned against the wall and it would be over. She could see the creature’s mandibles rubbing greedily together, eager to taste her warm flesh.
The creature swung at her and she caught the blow on the sword. Despite holding on with both paws and expecting the blow, it still rocked her back against the wall of the cavern. Clearly something more was needed. The swords were magic, and since her own magical talent had been awakened it had started coming to her aid in these situations. Calling upon what power she could quickly scramble up, she poured that into the katana. The silver seemed to shine more brightly, and a faint nimbus hovered along their edge. The centipede jabbed, and Kayla brought the katana across to block. This time her sword kept going and a piece of chitinous armour smacked against the wall.
The beast squealed in rage and thrust again with its other pincer, but Kayla swung the katana to catch that one, too. The sharp edge cleaved through the other claw. The monster's rage was palpable, and every instinct Kayla had told her to cower and hope it would go away. But then the urge to fight back, to show this bug who was master, welled up in her. Letting out a snarl, Kayla took her first offensive swing, the blade of her sword erupting with a thin radiance of blue fire as the creature reared just out of range.
The beast drew up, pulling more and more segments of its body into view. Kayla spread her legs and gritted her fangs tight. It sprang, and she met it with the glowing katana; another slash and she felt something hot spit across her face. The thing cried, its legs scattering around and crushing stones against the walls in its fury. Kayla did not hesitate, but slashed deeply, and felt more of the hot fluid spray across her face.
And then she saw the creature flee. It raced back down the cave, all its hundred legs hurrying to move it along as fast as it could. Kayla lifted one arm and wiped something sticky from her snout. It was a foul mucus. She could see a trail of it on the ground after the beast. Kayla stared at it, and the retreating beast, and then began to laugh. The ichor clung to the end of the silver katana, a blade that seemed to purr in delight, its blue fire having vanished for the moment.
The skunk smiled to the blade. “Thank you Clymaethera,” she said softly and added a pat to the still sheathed wakizashi. “Thank you Trystathalis.” The remaining glow began to fade from the blades, but they continued to purr in a deep rumble in her mind.
“I guess the creature must have followed my scent. I should just be able to follow it back until my scent goes another way.” The witchlight, by some miracle, still hovered above her in the cramped passage. She gestured it forward along the trail of slime. She followed the gore for several minutes, pausing at each intersection to check for her scent. It was hard to detect over the pungent aroma of the centipede's ichor, but she could tell she was improving. Maybe she did have it in her to be a scout like Misha and his friends.
Eventually, the cave walls became smooth and carved. It was a great relief to see the Åelf-cut stone, for it meant she was nearing their camp. The trail of ichor veered off at the first intersection, but her trail mercifully went the other way. The stone here was not as wet, and it was easier to follow her scent. Another minute of walking and light began to grow from the passage ahead of her. With a laugh, she ran forward to greet her friends.
“Kayla!” James cried. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m sorry I was lost, but I’m fine now. It won’t happen again.” And as she said it, she knew that it was true. The swords had accepted her, and they would be her ally for as long as she wielded them.
“You’re covered in slime,” Charles noted. “Did you kill the Scuttleclaw?”
“No,” Kayla admitted. “But these scared it off.” She held the katana and wakizashi up for all to see. Their silvery sheen caught the light, and for a moment she thought she saw Clymaethera’s eyes sparkle.
Andares’s smile was one of pleasant discovery. “Those are ancient and powerful swords you wield, Kayla.”
She churred, her whole body filled with elation. “Yes, I know. I know.”
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