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
“In summary, all my reports indicate that Nasoj continues to turn inward in his attempts to hold onto what little power he has left in the Giantdowns.” The fruit bat whom Thomas had named Intelligence Chief less than a year ago scratched behind one of his large ears with a wing claw. Andwyn did not grin as he spoke, as it often made even his friends uncomfortable. Instead he chuckled lightly at the good news. “Further, the division in the Giantdowns continues to work to our advantage. With luck, by this time next year, we may be able to dislodge Calephas from Arabarb. With the northern coasts free, we could neuter Nasoj or his successors for decades.”
Thomas nodded, smiling at the latest reports. Beside the bat, both Malisa the Prime Minister, and Thalberg the crocodilian Steward also grinned in approval. “Do you have any plans to deal with Arabarb?”
Andwyn shook his head. “Not as of yet. Calephas is crafty and it is hard to keep spies safe in that country, let alone close to him. But we are developing several strategies. I fear anything we intend will have to wait until the new year. Winter has already arrived in the North, and that will limit our ability to act.”
“And given the unrest to the south,” Malisa pointed out, her lips pinched, “we can ill afford to be bogged down in a campaign in the Winter.”
Thomas nodded grimly. “Very true, very true. Have we any news of what happens in the Southern Midlands?”
“Ironically, Lord Jaran Calephas arrived this morning at my request.” Malisa spread her hands wide. “I asked him to speak with you about what news he has heard. He is ready when you are ready to receive him.”
“Of course. Let us finish first and then I will see him. Was there anything else you needed to report, Andwyn?”
The bat shook his head, “No, your grace. Nothing at this time.”
“Then let us move on, Thalberg?”
Nearly every day Thomas had his three closest advisors brief him on the state of affairs in their lands and the lands of their neighbours. He liked to keep it fairly informal by holding the meetings in his personal study with as few of the trappings of state as possible. A long table sat between him and his advisors, and more often than not plates of food were set before them to enjoy while they spoke. On this occasion, they merely had some bread and a glass of wine, and that had barely been drunk.
The alligator leaned forward across the table, massive green-scaled hands folding together. “Preparations continue for your wedding. Lothanasa Raven has been most gracious and helpful in allowing us to suggest changes to the seating arrangements in the Temple to better accommodate all of the guests. And she has been very understanding of Malqure’s intent on redecorating with numerous Hassan family heirlooms.”
Thomas chuckled lightly. “Make sure our dear archivist does not overdo it.”
“He won’t,” Thalberg replied with a grunt. “I have not seen him so happy in years. The way he bobs his head in delight when he talks or walks, I would expect his beak to shatter the priceless treasures he carries on about. But he is very particular about what symbol of the Hassan family or artifact of ancient Metamor should go where. I will keep him in check, but I don’t think I will have much to do.”
“Good, good. I will have him walk me through all his preparations sometime next week. That should please Malqure to no end.”
Malisa grinned. “And you will learn more about the family history than you really wanted to know.” They laughed fondly, each knowing how true those words were.
Still grinning, Thalberg continued. “I’ll be meeting with the Tailor’s Guild tomorrow to check on the status of the quilts they are weaving for your wedding night.” Thomas nodded and listened as the alligator rather quickly ticked off items relating to the household that had been achieved or he was still attending to. Judging by the list, Thomas had to remind himself that while he felt awkward putting on such a show for his wedding, the citizens of Metamor would demand nothing less. It had been a very long time since a Hassan had been married.
When Thalberg finished his report, Thomas turned to Malisa. His adoptive daughter frowned slightly. “Most of what I had will be discussed shortly when Lord Calephas joins us. There is one matter I would like to bring up. Something that I have been meaning to bring to a conclusion for some time now.”
Malisa did not immediately elaborate. Normally, Thomas was irritated by such showmanship, but with his Prime Minister he knew it came from reluctance to speak rather than ego. “Is it something that needs to be discussed in private?”
“No,” Malisa admitted. “It is merely a sensitive subject. I refer to Yonson’s guards.” Thalberg grunted unhappily, while Andwyn gave no outward sign of his feelings. “They have been in prison for four months now. Both Raven and I have scanned them thoroughly, as well as every competent mage we can trust living at Metamor. There is no sign of Marzac taint on any of them. I think it is time we gave them a chance to be free.”
“And what do you suggest for them to do to attain that freedom?” Thomas asked, his voice reserved. He knew precisely what he wished to do with them, but he would not say it just yet. Originally he had planned to keep them in prison until the threat from Marzac was eliminated, but if they were truly free of any taint, then he would have been imprisoning innocent men. That was something he could not in good conscience do.
“For their freedom, they must swear fealty to the House of Hassan and to Metamor. Also, I would recommend a minimum term of service in the armies, either as scouts or infantryman. No less than five years.”
Thomas rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And you are absolutely certain that there is no taint?”
Malisa nodded fervently. “I have checked them several times myself. Raven has used her abilities to study them. I firmly believe that if there was any taint on any of them, we would have caught a glimpse of it by now.”
The horse lord turned to the other two. “What do you think of her suggestion?”
Andwyn lowered his head. “Your grace, I am not a mage and thus cannot speak to this matter. If you do free them, they must be watched at all times, at least until we are certain that the power of Marzac is no more.”
“And you, Thalberg?”
The alligator shook his head and leaned back. “I am not keen on the idea. But if Malisa is right, then they should not be kept prisoner.”
“Excellent, we are agreed then. Malisa, see that all four of them have the choice laid before them today. The sooner we can free them the happier I will be.”
Malisa smiled sipped her wine. “Thank you, Father. Shall I see Lord Calephas in now?”
“Aye. Thalberg, please see to your errands. Andwyn, remain here, but somewhere out of sight.”
Thalberg rose, bowed and left as instructed, while the bat shrunk to his animal form and found a dark spot on the ceiling in which to hide. Malisa then went to the door and beckoned the Lord of Giftum enter.
Jaran Calephas was a broad-shouldered man with light hair and a crafty look to his eyes. Thomas was not completely certain he could be trusted, but there could be no doubt that Jaran was better off siding with Thomas than with anyone else. That would have to be enough.
Thomas stood and smiled. “Welcome to Metamor, Lord Calephas. Please, sit and enjoy some bread and wine. I hope your journey was not unpleasant.”
Jaran smiled and bowed. “Thank you, your grace. My journey was pleasant. I would like to offer a word of congratulations to you and your lovely bride. I look forward to attending the wedding in two months time.” When Thomas sat, both he and Malisa sat down. Jaran’s words sounded sincere at least.
“Thank you. I understand you will need to return to Giftum soon, so I will not keep you long. Prime Minister Malisa informs me that you have heard many interesting stories regarding the fighting in the Southern Midlands.”
Jaran nodded. “Yes, there have been many strange things.” He sipped at the wine glass before him. “As you predicted, Ellcaran has remained neutral, though they have been patrolling their territory extensively. I am told that many merchants have felt harassed by soldiers in the city of late.”
“We’ve heard that the bridges over the Southbourne River have been taken by troops from Llarth,” Malisa said. “Is that so?”
“It is,” Jaran replied. He set the wine down and ran one finger along the rim of the glass. “Several prominent guild members in Giftum have been complaining to me about the injustice of the blockade. Many of them have had their wares seized. I suspect some of them may have been killed as well, but I have no proof.”
Thomas grunted unhappily at that news. The situation was even worse than they had thought if merchants were now being killed.
“There are several other things we have heard,” Malisa stated, spreading her hands across the map set between them on the table. “If you would be so kind as to add what you know, or confirm what we have heard, we would greatly appreciate it.”
Jaran seemed amused by the request, but nodded. “Of course, Prime Minister. Tell me what you know.”
And Malisa did at great length. To each point, Jaran added a few words, and only in a few instances did he sound surprised by the news. Much of the information that the Lord of Giftum provided was already known to them, but there were also many new details that helped them gain a clearer understanding of events in the Midlands. It was over an hour before Malisa was finished presenting, and by then all the bread and wine were gone.
“Well,” Jaran confessed with a slight twist to his lips, “I think we have escaped the immediate danger. It sounds like Duke Verdane will be able to quell these warring families very soon. It has been very bad for the merchants, though I am sure they will reap great profit in the aftermath.”
“As they always do,” Thomas said without much pleasure. “Do you have any more news to add, Lord Calephas?”
Jaran stared at the map for several seconds before a slow smile played across his lips. “There is one thing that I have heard rumours of. They may just be rumours, but it seems important to mention. There have been reports that several nobles from the Outer Midlands have been paying court to Lord Calladar of Bozojo. I do not know if this is true or not, but I do know that Bozojo has sent no troops to aid any of the three sides in this little war.”
Thomas and Malisa exchanged glances. That was interesting news. “Do you know who?” Malisa asked.
“No, I am afraid I do not. If there is nothing else, your grace, I fear that I must start back. It is a long ride to Giftum, and I do not want to delay my return for any reason.”
Thomas rose and forced a smile onto his muzzle. “Ride safely, Lord Calephas. I will see you again at the wedding.”
“I look forward to it, your grace.” And with that, Lord Jaran Calephas excused himself.
Once he was gone, Andwyn returned to his larger size and perched at the table. “I will send spies to Bozojo to ascertain the truth of this rumour.”
“Aye, but there is little we can do if it is true,” Thomas mused. “I fear Duke Otakar may have played us for fools. I want you to send more spies to keep watch on Lord Calephas. If what is about to come to pass is what I fear, then we will need a presence on the Marchbourne.”
Malisa nodded, her face gone sour at this last bit of news. “We won’t be able to do anything to stop them if you are right, Father.”
Thomas nodded. “No, but we have a few secrets of our own that should tip the balance in the years ahead. Now I think that will be all for today. I am going to need some time to think these things over.” Quietly, both Malisa and Andwyn left the Duke of Metamor to ponder the chaos of the Midlands. The worst part was that Malisa was right; there was literally nothing that they could do to stop it.
But they could keep their portion of the Midlands intact. As long as they were vigilant, war would not return to their lands for many years to come. For many long minutes more, Thomas stared at the map and wondered just how he was going to maintain the fragile peace they held. Nothing else, not even his wedding, was as important as that.
Over the course of a little more than two weeks, Charles and his companions made their way across most of the east-west extent of Pyralis. Soon they would cross the Breckarin River and begin heading south towards Marzac. It was strange to consider that only two months ago they were in the freezing heights of the Barrier Range. If not for the Nauh-kaee and the amazing Åelven dirigible they would still be there. And if not for the Rheh Talaran, they would still be lost somewhere in the Flatlands.
Moving across Pyralis was proving easier than they had anticipated. Once they left the river-side forest, they discovered only isolated farms throughout most of the country. These they decided posed no threat, as the Rheh could outrun any talk a sighting would engender. By the time the Pyralian soldiers learned of the monsters riding the flying golden horses, they would be several days to the west.
Crossing rivers and major roads they were more careful about. When it was convenient, they waited for nightfall, but each delay was more painful than the last. They were keenly aware that the Rheh would leave them once they reached Marzac, which meant they had to reach the swamp as soon as they could. Even so, with the Breckarin river on the horizon, they felt a wary confidence that their steeds would see them safely across Pyralis with enough time to reach the Chateau by Winter’s Solstice.
“Jessica’s returning,” James announced, pointing to the western sky. All eyes rose from their morning meal to gaze where the donkey pointed. Charles did not see anything at first, but after a few seconds he caught sight of the familiar hawk moving against a cloud bank.
“She’ll be here in a few minutes,” the rat judged. He then turned his attention back to the vine growing along his stony flesh. The vine had curled over one shoulder and was now crossing over his chest, anchoring itself in slight imperfections in his granite skin. The glowing Lothanasi symbols remained visible on the one side, but he wondered how much longer that would last. Already broad leaves spread from the vine to conceal most of his back. There were even a few small bluish flowers blooming there.
Like everything else associated with his body, this oddity became less and less strange to him every day. In a bit of whimsy he realized that if they were ever to build a monument to him, they would already have the perfect statue. Of course, if they succeeded in their quest – which they must – he would return to flesh again. After being stone so long, a part of him didn’t want to let go of the granite; as he was now every rock and boulder he passed could be a new friend, but would that still be the case if he were flesh?
A smile crept over his face as he traced his fingers along the lavender symbol of Velena that glowed warmly on his breast. When he became flesh, he would be able to be husband to his beautiful Kimberly and father to his five sweet children. He wondered how big they had grown.
His thoughts snapped back to the present when Kayla spread her map of Pyralis atop a wide flat table of rock. They had made camp the previous night in a field riddled with long low stones that gave them a good view of the land in every direction. There was a gentle downslope towards the river, and to both north and south they could see farms stretching into the hills.
Charles did not know if the stones were friendly here, as Guernef watched him intently to make sure he did not attempt merging with them. The rat did his best to ignore the Nauh-kaee’s piercing gaze, turning his attention to the skunk and her map. Kayla was tracing one finger along a thick blue line cutting across the middle of the country. Out of the sky, Jessica descended, gently circling downwards until she touched down upon one of the taller stones. She grew back to her full height and leapt gracefully to the ground. “You were right,” she squawked, delight in her voice, “the forest is straight ahead, and there are no villages on either side of the river.”
“Good, good!” Kayla grinned, long tail lifting as she bent over the map. “Then we are precisely where I think we are. This is the safest place to cross the Breckarin river. There are towns and cities along the rest of it. We could go around Eldwater to the north, but that could take an extra week. Or more.”
“Is there anything wrong with crossing here?” Lindsey asked. The woodcutter had donned his spider silk armour, and was pulling a brown tunic overtop of it so that its bright yellow hue was less conspicuous.
Kayla grimaced. “We’re only a two day ride from Breckaris. Duke Schanalein is known to hunt in the woods along the river, which is why there are no towns or settlements nearby. We may encounter a patrol while in the woods.”
“Should we do so,” Qan-af-årael said softly, “remember that they are not the enemy. Do not strike to kill those without Marzac’s taint.”
“And if they try to kill us?” Lindsey asked, arms crossed over his chest. “The Rheh won’t be able to run through the woods any faster than a normal horse.”
“Then we do as we must,” Zhypar replied. The kangaroo busily put his writing tools away as eyes turned on him. Of late, he’d begun writing what he called letters, but he would not say to whom or what they were about. “As we have always known we would. Ever since the mountains, we have been lucky. Whether today, tomorrow, or when we reach Marzac, our luck will fail. Be prepared, but as Qan-af-årael said, if we encounter a patrol, we should not kill them if we can help it. Metamor has enough enemies already.”
Lindsey grunted at that while Kayla nodded firmly. Abafouq reached into the pouch at his side and produced a small grey pellet. “I am carrying a few things to help us escape, do not forget. And there is always magic to aid us against common soldiers.”
“Quite right. I know a few spells that might help.” Jessica nodded and cracked her beak in an avian grin. “The land between us and the forest is empty. We should reach it this afternoon.”
Jerome got to his feet and grinned infectiously. “Then let’s get going!” Several Rheh reared in agreement.
As Jessica reported, the land sloping towards the river was bereft of all but stones and grass. The Rheh traversed it with ease, bringing them sometime in the early afternoon to the edge of a heavy wood. The trees were mostly walnut, hickory and oak, and appeared to be routinely tended. There could be no mistaking the edge of this forest; on one side was grass, and the other sturdy trees.
The Rheh returned to the ground and slowed to a measured walk as they brought them beneath the broad boughs. The leaves were beginning to change colours, though many of them were still green. A dash of yellow was all that they could glimpse in the canopy overhead. The undergrowth varied, but much of it was sparse. They had no trouble settling into a small path winding downwards.
“The trees are too thick,” Lindsey observed. “How are we going to find the river?”
“I suggest we head downhill,” Andares quipped softly. “That is the place we will most likely find a river.”
No one could argue with that, so Jerome who was in the lead, turned them towards whatever downslopes he could find. The others kept quiet as was now their custom while travelling. Even the Rheh seemed to step more delicately. Rarely did they hear any leaf crack or twig snap beneath those obsidian hooves. Their greens eyes burned intently as they cast piercing glances to the forest looming on either side.
The woods were alive with the sounds of birds, squirrels, and deer. They never came close, but the Keepers could hear them clearly through the soughing branches. The wind blew from the east, driving from behind them towards the river. The air was warm with a fresh scent that brought them all a strange sense of peace.
The more the ground descended, the wider the trees spread apart. For a time Charles was reminded of the woods in Metamor Valley. Not nearly as tall as the redwoods in Glen Avery, but there was a familiar sort of charm to them. It was clear why Duke Schanalein kept these woods preserved for his own uses. They were idyllic, inviting, and with few well-beaten paths. Even the Rheh appeared to relax.
The warning came far too late. The path Jerome chose led them between two large trees, which turned into hills that rose up to twice their height on either side. The hills rejoined a short distance ahead, but the path was long enough for all of them to be inside before everything went wrong.
Habakkuk let out a gasp and a shout, “No!” seconds before soldiers materialized from behind the trees, bows drawn. Charles turned in shock, reaching for his Sondeshike when his entire body tightened and he was as immovable as a real statue. The Rheh reared in alarm and began to run towards the end of the cleft, when more soldiers moved to block their way.
Abafouq shouted and flung one of his stones at the hill. The dark gas erupted and spread outwards to cover them. “Back! Back!” Habakkuk shouted frantically, as the Rheh pivoted in unison. Charles watched the world spin around, and was surprised that he actually stayed on the mare, as he could not move his legs to steady himself. The witch who’d cursed him was out there, and he couldn’t warn them at all!
More soldiers appeared behind them, brandishing spears. Guernef let out a frightening shriek and raked at the air inches from their faces with his talons. The soldiers fell back a pace at the sight of such a monster, at which point he deftly avoided the spears and barrelled head-first into them. The opening was short-lived, as more soldiers poured in behind the Nauh-kaee. Abafouq threw another pellet at roughly the same time one of the soldiers tossed a net.
The net fell atop Abafouq and his Rheh. The Binoq grabbed at the fabric and yanked, but could not move it. “Help!” he shouted, voice an octave higher.
Andares was there a moment later. He drew two long, curved, ivory-handled blades and deftly sliced through the net in one quick motion. He then lopped off the points of several spears, and gave one soldier a quick kick to the shoulder with the heel of his boot. A moment later he, Qan-af-årael, Abafouq and Guernef all broke free and the Rheh raced back up the incline.
Habakkuk tried to follow when the fog the Binoq created finally began to part. A soldier leapt from the hillside and tackled the kangaroo, sending both to the ground. Habakkuk banged his head against a tree root and stared dazedly upwards at the ring of soldiers bearing swords. His Rheh screamed and sidestepped, battering the soldiers against the sides of the ridge.
The distraction was enough for more soldiers to fill the gap, leaving the Keepers trapped. Jessica lifted her wing tips and bolts of energy leapt towards the soldiers above them. Those few she struck twitched and fell to the ground. They would not die, but they were not going to be a threat anymore either. Jerome flung his fists at the soldiers, and the force of air he projected sent them spinning and collapsing.
Kayla drew the katana and wakizashi, and could feel the ancient dragons within swell in delight. It was time for a fight! The first soldier that tried to jump her smacked his head into the katana’s pommel, while the second skewered his leg on the wakizashi. The third to descend grabbed her about the neck and yanked her backwards. She thrust both blades behind her, and the felt the arms release. When she swung the swords back, they were streaked with blood. So much for not killing anyone.
It was James who first noticed that the rat wasn’t moving. James had drawn his sword and tried to keep the soldiers from pulling him down like they had poor Habakkuk. It seemed a hopeless fight, they were trapped on all sides and it was only a matter of time before the soldiers captured or killed them. After giving one soldier who’d missed a good solid kick with his hoof, another grabbed hold of him from behind and James shouted to the rat for help. But Charles sat unmoving, face frozen in an expression of shock. “Charles?” James called in a worried voice while his Rheh smashed the soldier against the rocks.
“Charles is frozen!” James shouted, his voice jumping in pitch.
Jessica and Kayla snapped their heads around, eyes wide. “It’s her...” the skunk said in a chocking shout. “Lindsey, get Habakkuk! We need to run!”
The woodcutter shouted something, but he was choked off when one of the soldiers looped his neck and shoulder with a noose. He was yanked upwards into the air, struggling to keep from choking. He grabbed his knife to cut the rope, but had already been dragged over the rim of the ledge. He gave out one more cry, and then nothing.
“No!” Jessica squawked in horror. She threw several bolts towards the spot their friend had disappeared, but they sizzled against a radiant purple barrier. A cloaked figure stepped forward into the hole the soldiers made, a woman whose faced was hidden beneath the cowl of her purple robe. “You!”
The woman lifted her hands, fingers tracing out intricate runes as effortlessly as an artisan. From beneath them barbed iron spikes shot up from the earth. There were only a few, but they were enough to trap the Rheh in place. They squealed in agony as that foul metal brushed and pierced their flanks. James brushed his shin against one of the seven foot spires and felt a cold burning sensation race up his limb. He flinched reflexively and struck the iron with his sword. Nothing. Not even a dent.
Jerome clapped his hands together against one of the spires and it snapped in half with a loud crack. He gripped the shaft and flung it straight towards the woman, his face contorted in a rictus of pain from the object’s unnatural chill. The shaft flew faster than an arrow, but it merely shattered into millions of fragments when it struck magical shield this foul enchanter had erected.
Habakkuk struggled to his feet, his breath ragged, and his face streaked with a bit of blood from where his head struck the rock. He waved his hands at the hawk frantically. “Jessica! Fly! Get away!”
Kayla nodded emphatically. “Do it, before it’s too late!”
Jessica hesitated only a moment, and in that time, the witch drew another series of runes; a strange shimmering net began to descend from the air above. With a horrified shriek, Jessica leapt from the back of her Rheh and shrank to her animal form. She pumped her wings hard, and bolted upwards like a dart through the holes in the net, singing the tips of her wings as she passed through.
Kayla spread her paws wide, still clutching Rickkter’s swords, and shouted, “Lux!” A bright light flared above them, and they could hear many of the soldiers shout in alarm. And then a burning sensation coated them, and the Metamorian squirmed as the witch’s net fell across them. It did not singe their flesh, but it certainly felt as if they were being raked with hot coals.
“Take them,” her voice, so dead and lifeless, echoed as the flare of light faded. Jessica was nowhere to be seen.
“We have to go back for them!” Abafouq cried as they rushed through the woods back the way they came. “We cannot do this without them!”
“We will,” Andares assured him, still brandishing his curved swords. The woods had grown quiet as soon as they left the ambuscade behind. “How did they surprise us? I saw nothing!”
“A clever illusion,” Qan-af-årael said softly. “One that was slowly drawn over our minds until we became complacent. They knew we would come this way and have been waiting for us.”
Abafouq scowled. “Well, we better be rescuing them soon. They will not last against an army.”
“If we rush back we will be captured too,” Andares pointed out, his body trembling with barely contained anger. His eyes focussed on the road behind them while Guernef bounded ahead.
They turned a bend in the path and standing in the middle was an ominously familiar man in black. He held a grey metal staff in his hands before him. His gaunt face was expressionless, but his voice was mocking. “You will not escape me, nor will you defeat me. Surrender now. Your friends are already our captives.”
Guernef shrieked in rage and spread his wings wide, flapping them as he reared on his hind paws. The man whom they knew to be Zagrosek spun the Sondeshike in his hands, eyes only casually watching the Nauh-kaee. Guernef lunged forward with a wing lash, and a bolt of air streamed from the tips of his feathers. Zagrosek deflected it with a flick of his wrist, and continued to spin the staff. “Surely you can do better than that!” he said, a smile beginning to pierce his face.
Abafouq threw another of his pellets to the ground and they were enveloped in a grey fog. Andares leapt from the back of his Rheh and darted around Zagrosek’s rear. The Sondecki turned and spun his staff to meet those two blades, and then back over his shoulder to keep Guernef’s talons and beak at bay.
Andares spun and twirled, his curved swords arcing around his body like a dancer’s veils. It was a style of fighting known only to a few, and not a one of them were human. Zagrosek danced and darted in and out of the shadows between the trees, and each time he passed into a shadow, narrowly dodging one of the blades, a nimbus of black fire would coat his staff, and the strike of metal on metal would singe the very air. Each time Guernef would crouch low and unleash a torrent of wind that rattled the branches above, sending a shower of leaves, twigs, and acorns everywhere. But that whirlwind would also suck away the Underworld fire the Sondecki used.
Zagrosek pivoted and caught one of Andares’s blades along the guard and spun the Åelf’s arm upwards. Andares did not even blink, changing the direction of his dance to bring the other blade around in a sinuous arc that ended less than an inch from Zagrosek’s throat. Seeing the coming blade, Zagrosek ducked and swept his Sondeshike through his opponents legs, but Andares jumped and kicked, his boot connecting with the side of Zagrosek’s face.
He fell backwards, right into the waiting arms of Guernef. The Nauh-kaee raked down his talons, but Zagrosek was faster. He fell even further than Guernef anticipated, landed on his back beneath the Nauh-kaee, and kicked upwards into Guernef’s chest. Guernef let out a squawk of pain as he was launched a good five feet into the air. He collapsed on his side gasping for breath, talons digging into the earth.
“No!!!” Abafouq screamed in horror. He leapt down and ran to his friend’s side, feeling along the chest even as Zagrosek and Andares continued their battle. “Nothing feels broken,” Abafouq said softly after a quick inspection, but then found his voice caught in his throat when a spear point settled there.
The soldier holding it grinned. Another dozen stood behind him. “Don’t even think about it, shorty.”
Qan-af-årael had not moved. The shorter Rheh upon which he sat watched the fight and stamped his hooves eagerly. But the elderly Åelf rested a soothing hand upon the stallion’s ears to calm him. There was nothing to be done here that was not already being done. This was not the battle for which he was meant.
Unflinching, Andares leapt after Zagrosek, moving his blades in careful and precise arcs, dancing around the spinning Sondeshike with frightening ease. Zagrosek fell backwards with each new blow, stepping in between the trees until he was once more in the shadow. “You have some skill,” the Sondeckis admitted. “But not enough.”
He ducked low into the shadow and flung himself forward with a hideous shriek, one that no human should have been able to produce, with his entire body saturated by that black fire. Andares crossed his blades and sliced them together at the man, but they bounced backwards from Zagrosek’s flesh, leaving him open to the Sondeshike. Zagrosek spun twice into Andares’s gut, burning his outer layer of clothing, and leaving the Åelf gasping for breath. A quick jab to the face sent Andares to the ground.
The flame fading from his body, Zagrosek turned on the guards who stared at him, fear in their eyes. “Bind them.” He then looked at the ancient Åelf who had not moved. Both Abafouq and Andares’s Rheh snorted but did not make any move to run. “And you will do nothing?”
“I have no need,” Qan-af-årael said softly. “You who channels the Shrieker, you cannot touch me.”
Zagrosek snorted. “Perhaps not, but they can. Take him and the horses. Agathe has the rest.”
The soldiers did as instructed, binding Andares and taking both of his swords. Abafouq was already bound hand and foot and was slung over a soldier’s shoulder. Upon Guernef a metal collar had been placed, and rods fixed between his legs. Soldiers approached the ancient Åelf cautiously, before one of them laughed and pushed him out of the saddle. Qan-af-årael fell to the ground, and his Rheh cried in alarm. But the Åelf rose and offered his hands to the soldiers. They yanked his arms behind his back where they were bound.
“Let us go. The others are waiting.” Zagrosek gestured down the hill. With angry faces, the prisoners were marched back the way they’d come.
The Keepers were bound hand and foot, and in several other interesting ways. Kayla’s tail was fastened to her chest so that she could not use her skunk’s spray, and James’s was wearing a makeshift halter including bit. He kept trying to spit the bit out, unsuccessfully. Charles was still frozen as a statue, so the soldiers left him on the mare, with ropes lashed around his middle in front and behind.
Lindsey had not choked as the others feared, but his arms were bound around his chest as well as his hands behind his back. A nasty burn raced across his neck, and part of his bright red beard had been singed. Jerome was beside him, and he wore manacles that the witch had fashioned. He appeared drained and lifeless, as those manacles continuously sapped his Sondeck.
Of the Rheh, the soldiers did their best to keep them moving along with the army. They would not let any ride them, and they fought all attempts to bridle or harness them. But so long as the soldiers left them be, they followed the Keepers as they were marched southwards.
Zagrosek joined them shortly thereafter with his own compliment of Breckarin soldiers. His four prisoners were placed with the others, but he frowned when he saw the Keepers. “Agathe, where is the hawk?”
The woman spat. “She escaped my net. She is unimportant. If she tries to rescue them, she will join them.”
The Sondecki appeared ready to say something more, but did not. He walked to the prisoners, studying them one by one. He stopped when he saw Charles’s statue. “Can he hear us?”
“Yes,” Agathe replied. “But as long as he is in my sight, he will not be able to move.”
“Good.” Zagrosek walked beside the mare and stared at the rat statue. In a soft voice he whispered, “I am sorry, Charles.” He turned and walked back towards the outer ranks of soldiers. His gaunt face grew expressionless once again.
Jessica perched high in the trees to watch the army move. How could they have not seen so many soldiers? It boggled her imagination to contemplate the power of the illusion that had masked them. And now she was on her own, while her friends were being marched southwards.
She said a soft prayer knowing there was nothing more she could do for them now. She would follow them, and when the right opportunity came, she would try to free them. With renewed determination, she ground her beak together and kept watch. Her moment would come. It had to.
Night had long since fallen in the eastern regions of the Flatlands. The moon had set, and dark clouds spread over the sky, leaving all the Steppe in a deep darkness. Though no human could have discerned the upturned earth, the jackals could see, and they knew what such a thing meant. If the earth was recent enough, good flesh would lay hidden beneath. And so the pack, hungry after a week of lean hunting, greedily dug into the ground with their forepaws, their tongues, already coated with spittle, dangled between yellowed fangs.
There were five of them, three adults and two kits only six months old. Their paws flung the soft dirt behind them, never fearing what lay beneath them. That is until something burst through the earth and gripped the older male’s neck. The jackal yelped, and tried to pull away, his packmates darting backwards in surprise before lunging to bite at the strange thing. But the hand pulled downwards, dragging the struggling jackal into the earth.
His packmates barked, whined and snapped at the earth, unable to find anything to attack. The captured male kicked and clawed with his legs, but steadily sank downwards, head lost underneath the shifting ground. His body stiffened in alarm, and then fell limp. The others continued to whine and backed off, tails tucked between their legs. The two pups began to howl mournfully. The body of the male was slowly swallowed by the earth, shoulders, forelegs, midsection, hindlegs and tail all vanishing beneath the soil.
The grave churned for a moment, and the jackals all backed away, eyes wary. The ground parted, and something else emerged. A human head, shoulder and arms, pressed itself upwards. A colourful tunic smeared by earth, with a shaft of wood wrapped over one shoulder. One leg emerged, and then something that was not a leg followed. It was the other jackal, its body warped and affixed where the man’s leg ended; head limp, three limbs writhing like an insect’s antennae, while the fourth pressed to the ground to give this thing its second leg.
What was once Berkon smiled, revealing a pair of fangs beneath its pale flesh. “Come to me, pups,” it called, voice enticing, almost sensual. “Come to me and give yourselves.”
The jackals whined, compelled by some unearthly force to hearken to his voice. The sire strode forward first, while the mother vainly tried to interpose herself between this thing and the pups. Berkon bent downwards, cupped one hand around the male’s ears and smiled. The pitiful creature whined, tail tucked tightly between his legs. He only yelped once as the thing’s fangs struck its neck.
The dam and pups howled. But not for much longer.
When it was finished, Berkon stood and gazed with baleful eyes at the tread of wagon wheels heading northeast. The swordbearer lay that way. Without any sense of the distance it had to cover, the thing began to follow the tracks, sated and ruddy for a time. It would feed again soon enough.
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