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
She felt the moment the wards upon the mysterious Åelf were broken. It shook her like an earthquake, violent and impersonal. After falling to the floor and enduring the stares of the Marquis’s idiotic playthings, she announced she was retiring for the night.
“But what of our plans?” Schanalein asked contemptuously. “The Marquis was explicit in his promise that you would stay and aid us in war.”
Agathe was used to men thinking they could give her orders. “Your men will not be marching to Silvassa on the morrow. They will need a few day’s rest before they can leave. There is plenty of time to plan.”
Bishop Hockmann nodded and pushed his spectacles up with one finger. “Agathe is right, your grace. I see neither any reason why she cannot retire, nor any necessity for haste in drawing our plans.” He offered the detached smile of a scholar to a servant and added, “Take your rest, Agathe. There is much work still ahead of us.”
Seething at the pompous bishop’s pretension, Agathe stiffly marched from the Duke’s study. As she closed the door behind, she heard Schanalein mutter, “It’s just as well. War is the province of men. I don’t like relying on women for anything.”
The two guards standing outside the Duke’s chambers heard as well; one of them snickered. Agathe spun on her heels and fixed his gaze with her single eye. The humour died and his face bled of colour. He feebly gripped his halberd as if that could protect him from the Runecaster’s wrath.
He was not worth even an insult. Agathe left the hall with imperious stride. She had long ago come to the conclusion that men were for the most part useless blowhards, more concerned with their own aggrandizement than they were with achieving the noble goals they loudly proclaimed. She would not trust a man for any duty save mindless slaughter, as men were very nearly beasts themselves and thus suited to the tasks of beasts. Even the Marquis, were it not for his cards, would have been a tower of crumbling rock – perhaps once fair to look upon, but now ready to topple.
But he did have the cards, and so Agathe could do nothing against him.
And then there was Zagrosek, the one man that she felt even a passing degree of compassion for. He thought himself chivalrous by trying to shield her from the Marquis’s machinations, but he too was only a fool. A fool she wished well, but still a fool.
Night had already fallen when she left the main part of the castle and crossed the bridge to the Tower of Theodoric; he’d been the last pagan ruler of Breckaris and had leapt to his death in a fit of madness from the tower’s high windows. It had remained little used in the centuries of Ecclesiast rulers, but Schanalein had been quite content to offer it to the Marquis and his servants.
Agathe paused on the bridge and stared into the sky. It was a clear night, and the stars shone brightly. They moved but slowly, inexorably, returning to the very places they once knew. But tonight was not yet the night when the Marquis’s plan would come to fruition. And then it became clear to her. For the first time, Agathe finally understood the outlines of that plan and her place in it: he meant for her to die at the hands of the Keepers. It was why she’d been sent to harass them in the mountains, why she had to goal them, why they were allowed to live at all, and why her one avenue of escape now lay in the Tower of Theodoric.
Turning to the squat white-washed tower whose base was suffused with ivy, Agathe stilled the rage in her heart. She did have a way to escape, even from the Marquis. She knew a magic through which he had no influence. The Tower of Theodoric tapped into and drew up into its high room the flow of magic passing through Breckaris. It was why Theodoric had succumbed to madness, and why it had remained unused since. Now she would turn it to her ends.
But this spell could only be consummated at midnight. The Keepers would come for her, and she had to keep them at bay long enough to succeed. Her fingers drew sigils upon the bridge, the tower door, and along the stairs leading up. Most were simple and would delay the Keepers only a minute or two. But enough of these and she would have the time she needed.
The upper chamber was circular with windows on three sides to follow the sun. Agathe drew sigils to block all light through the windows, then drew a warding spell upon the door in the northern wall. This one would was more powerful than the others, and would keep them occupied for a much longer time; she hoped it would hold past midnight.
Satisfied with her precautions, Agathe produced several pieces of coloured chalk and a timepiece. Along with these was her prized possession, a black onyx scroll-case that no man could open. She pressed her fingers in a delicate order, twisting and moving the case like a puzzle box. A soft glow enveloped the onyx, and it slid free from her hands. Agathe let it rise until it was at head height, when she stretched out all ten of her fingers and touched the case with each of them. A dull clicking sounded.
Agathe twisted the case, and slowly pulled it apart. The case grew to twice its length before another clicking sounded and a tightly wound piece of old parchment was revealed. Agathe took the parchment and set the scroll-case aside. The spell described on the parchment was ancient and very complicated. The first time she’d made this casting she’d needed to sleep for half a day afterwards to recover. It would be no less dangerous this time.
Finally, Agathe set the parchment aside and began to draw. She used the white chalk first, drawing a perfect equilateral triangle. Singing under her breath, she traced the triangle with the green chalk, and watched as a faint light began to shine from the lines. This was just the first of many steps. In three hours when she was finished, she would once again summon the Pillars of Ahdyojiak!
Charles and Kurt stood side by side, peering out along the broad tiled courtyard that separated the barracks from the castle. Night had fallen, which provided them some cover, but torches were lit from every battlement, and streetlamps dotted the gardens to the right. Patrols marched between the barracks and the castle, but the rat was pleased to note that they carried torches too, blinding them to all but the other torches. If they were careful, the guards could stare straight at them and never see them.
Kurt leaned down and whispered into the rat’s ear, “Do you see the cathedral? Off to the left?” It was strange speaking into what looked like solid stone, but Charles nodded. He then turned his snout up to whisper into Kurt’s ear.
“Is there a way into the castle from there?”
“Aye. An old underground passage. It allows the duke to reach the cathedral without being seen.”
“Won’t it be guarded?”
“It might, but not likely. The castle side starts from the secret passages.”
The rat nodded thoughtfully at that and then gestured at the cathedral. It was warmly lit, but still a thing of shadow. “What of the bishop? Won’t he have his own guards?”
“At this hour,” Kurt replied, gesturing to a dark tower on one end of the cathedral, “Bishop Hockmann would have finished Vespers and normally would be in his quarters reading. There’s no light there, so he must be in the castle.”
The rat took another moment to study the grounds between them and the cathedral. After a minute he turned away from the door and gestured for Kurt to follow him back down. Kurt guided the heavy door almost shut, and followed him back down the stairs. They carefully tiptoed down the hallway until they were safely behind the main gaol doors, and under the protection of Jessica’s silence spell.
The others were there waiting for them, some not so patiently. Jessica was stalking back and forth, wings folded behind her, with a predatory glare in her eyes. “Well?” She asked after they returned. “Can we go now?”
“Aye,” Charles replied, glancing over his friends studiously, until his eyes came to the Nauh-kaee. He grimaced. “I’m afraid you aren’t going to fit up the staircase, Guernef. You’ll have to stay here until we can think of a way to get you out.”
Abafouq offered him a lop-sided grin, “You will be surprised at how small a place Guernef can fit.”
“The guard changes at midnight,” Kayla added. “If they come and find Guernef while all the soldiers are locked up and we’re gone, what do you imagine they’ll do?”
“True. All right, we’ll get you out somehow.” Charles gestured back out the door. “But we can see the way out, and I think, if we’re careful, we can cross the courtyard without being seen. Kurt says there is a way into the castle beneath the cathedral, and it does sound like our best hope.”
“We must hurry,” Qan-af-årael intoned, his voice faint as if shouted from a great distance. “A spell of great power is being cast. We must reach them before it is finished.”
“Agathe?” Jessica snapped.
“Most likely,” Kayla replied. The skunk spread her paws wide. “I cannot think of who else might be casting anything that powerful.”
The hawk pointed towards the door with one wing. “Well, shall we go? We cannot stop her here.”
Kurt and Tugal led the way, with Charles close behind. Guernef waited at the rear while the others filed through the small serving door and up the stairs to the courtyard. The Nauh-kaee expelled all his breath, folded his wings tight against his back, and squeezed through the door, his body surprisingly malleable. His flesh scraped the walls, and a few feathers came free, but he did make it through.
Kurt kept them flat against the wall until they were all outside. Once under the starry sky, they moved into the courtyard proper, carefully staying in the large patches of shadow. The moon was brighter than they would have liked, but the rat’s hope about the guards being blinded by their torches proved true. Still, they felt small and vulnerable as they crossed the wide expanse between the barracks and the cathedral. To their right, the shadowy castle loomed oppressively above them. Many of the upper windows were dark, and any moment they expected to hear shouts of alarm.
But they neared the massive cathedral without alerting any of the guards. Kurt led them between the two buildings to a small wooden door set betwixt two flying buttresses. Gingerly, he opened it, but all he saw inside was darkness. The moon was hidden behind the cathedral now, and there was almost no light at all for them to see by. Kurt let the animal morph Keepers, whose eye sight was better, enter first. Kayla summoned a witch light, but kept it very low, almost to the point of flickering out of existence. But it was enough to help them find their way.
Guernef had little difficulty in passing through this door either, and with a flick of his tail, brought it shut behind him more quietly than even Abafouq would have thought possible. The room they had crammed themselves into was stacked with candles, incense, and several cleaning supplies. “To get to the tunnel, we have to pass through the sanctuary,” Kurt informed them. “It should be mostly empty at this hour.”
And so it was. They emerged through a side door into a cathedral even larger than the one at Metamor. A column of pillars and pews shielded them from the view of the parishioners kneeling in prayer in the main aisles. Torches lit the finely crafted interior, but the stained glass windows were dark and offered no details. Statuary lined the outer wall, as well as several votive stations for prayer. The scent of burned wax and pungent incense was everywhere.
Kurt led them along the outer wall towards the altar. Where the columns ended stood a larger door. The Keepers kept low and quiet so as not to disturb those praying, and to their delight not a one looked up. When they reached the door, Kurt, Tugal, Charles, Lindsey, Habakkuk, James, and both Åelf knelt towards the altar, most making the sign of the yew, before heading through the door.
Once it was closed behind them, Jessica said, “I did not think there were any Patildor among your kind.” Neither Andares nor Qan-af-årael said anything, but the younger smiled enigmatically.
“The tunnel will be down here,” Kurt whispered. They followed him to a door which opened to reveal a descending staircase. The walls were made of the same masonry they’d seen everywhere else in the courtyard, a fact that made the stone rat grimace. He’d hoped there would be some real stone along the way he could feel through, but that would have to wait it seemed.
The tunnel led straight beneath the courtyard. There were no sconces along either side, so anyone using it would need their own torch; the witchlight Kayla had summoned was enough to guide their steps. When they reached the tunnel’s end a minute later, it opened into a dark and musty staircase. Wood timbers mixed with the castle’s stone to form a very cramped passage.
“We’ll need to be especially quiet now,” Kurt said in a firm whisper. “Some of the walls are very thin.” He glanced at the Nauh-kaee, who appeared to have sucked his sides in a good six inches. “And some of the passages are very tight. Are you sure you can make it?” The Nauh-kaee gave him a firm stare, at which the young man swallowed, nodded dumbly and began climbing the stairs.
The Keepers followed him silently. The stairs turned back and forth three times before coming to a landing and a passage that headed in either direction. Kurt took the left fork, slowing his pace as he went. After perhaps fifteen seconds he waved them to a stop, and pressed his face against part of the wall. He stood there for several seconds before turning and shaking his head. “He’s not in his bedroom.”
“The throne room?” James suggested.
“Not so late. His study perhaps. This way.” He continued down the passage, following its twists and turns. The Keepers followed him without speaking, each of them waiting, anxious to face their gaoler again. Agathe had chased them in the mountains and nearly killed them many times. How could they hope to face her? And what was this terrible spell Qan-af-årael had sensed? These questions flitted through their minds as the confining passage reached another staircase.
Up another level, and a short walk brought them to their next location. Kurt waved them to silence, and they heard a soft murmuring of voices. Kurt crept up to the eye hole, already recognizing his father’s voice. Peering inside, he saw both his father and Bishop Hockmann sitting around a table. Notably, his father sat facing both the main door to his study, and the entrance to the secret passage. They would have no chance of surprise, unless...
He stepped back from the eye hole and nodded to them. The Keepers tensed, but all of them ready for a fight. He leaned over the rat’s ear and whispered. “I can only see my father and the bishop. I will go in first, and attempt to draw their eye away from the passage. Give me ten seconds at least before following me in.”
The rat nodded and motioned for the others to wait. Tugal grimaced, hands resting on her knives, but said nothing. Kurt took a deep breath, walked a few more paces down the hall, and then pushed open the secret door. The Duke’s study was warmly lit, but not so bright as to blind him as he came through. He blinked once, and said, “Hello, Father.”
Duke Schanalein rose to his feet, imperious and angry. “Kurt! I told you you were never to use the secret passages again! What are you doing here? Get back to your barracks. You don’t belong here anymore!”
Kurt turned and shook his head, stepping around the room, drawing both his father and the bishop’s attention away from the secret door. He crossed to the mantle and began to run his fingers over the ornate clock that sat astride it. “I wish that I could, Father, but the news I’ve been hearing is far too disturbing. I needed to see you and find out if it was true.”
“There is nothing for you to ask of me! And besides, we all know you’ve been spying on me for nearly a month! Because you are my son, you will not be executed, but know that once I have another heir, you can no longer expect any such leniency!”
Kurt couldn’t believe the words coming from his father’s mouth. It was just the Marquis’s spell, he reminded himself. This wasn’t really his father speaking! Kurt turned on him with gritted teeth, “I will free you!” At that, the Keepers entered. Charles ran to the main door, shifting in mid-stride to the massive four-legged form and pressing his entire body against the door. The others grabbed the two men and restrained them, wrapping bits of cloth over their mouths to keep them from screaming. It all happened so quickly, that the duke had only been able to snarl angrily. This stopped when Tugal brandished her knives, though she did not threaten either of them with them; at least not yet.
Jessica jumped onto Charles’s back and spread her wings, pressing her feathers against the door. A blue sigil glowed for a brief moment, then disappeared into the decorative oak. The hawk turned and squawked, “No one outside this room will hear us now. Remove their gags. It is not them whom we want.”
Though James and Habakkuk took the cloth from their faces, Jerome and Lindsey kept their hands pinned behind their backs. Duke Schanalein wasted no time in shouting, “Guards! Guards!” For that, Jerome shook him hard enough to grind his teeth.
“Keep your tongue behind your teeth or you’ll lose it,” the Sondecki snapped.
Kurt snarled, “Don’t you touch my father like that! You promised you would free them from the Marquis’s evil magic!”
Jessica leapt from the rat’s back and nodded. “Aye, we did. And then we find and kill Agathe.” She stared at the duke and the bishop, focussing on the lines of magic surrounding them. Several lines radiated from their bodies in multiple directions, all coming together inside to form a convoluted knot whose roots dug deep into their spirits. They pulsed with a life of their own, but blended with the hue of their spirits so well that Jessica had no idea what lines belonged to the Marquis.
“Which do I cut?” she asked, not expecting an answer.
Beside her stepped Qan-af-årael. The Åelf surveyed them with calm eyes, then shook his head. “You may cut none of them. They are all connected, not just to the Marquis, but also to each of you.”
Jessica tried to follow the lines binding Schanalein and Hockmann, but lost them once they left the room. And even when she gazed at her friends, she couldn’t see any such lines binding their spirits. As if sensing her question, Qan-af-årael said, “The power of the cards expresses in different ways. Du Tournemire has employed two distinct magical conceits to gain his power. The deck with which he inflicts pain and controls your bodies is the one you already know – and one that I cannot sever. The other requires the victim to play a game in which, knowingly or not, he relinquishes himself to du Tournemire’s control.”
“That’s what Krenek said happened to him,” Charles pointed out.
“And it is the power binding Duke Schanalein and Bishop Hockmann. It permits du Tournemire to subvert their wills to his own. They do his bidding as if it were their own.” The two men sneered and struggled, but could not free themselves. “And yes, I do know how they can be freed.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Kurt piped up, eyes filled with relief.
“This will fare most easily if you can lay them flat. The table there.”
Kurt and Kayla proceeded to clean the table of used dinnerware, a set of wooden markers bearing the emblems of various noble houses, and a large map of western Galendor. These they set in a corner where they wouldn’t be in the way. Then the others helped Jerome and Lindsey lift Schanalein and Hockmann and stretch them out on the table. They kept the Breckarins’ arms extended past their heads, while Andares and James kept them from moving their legs. Tugal and Kurt rushed to aid them after Hockmann slipped his foot from its boot and tried to kick the donkey.
“Jessica, Kayla, Abafouq, Guernef, open your eyes to the currents of magic. See what is hidden to the light. Focus your awareness only on this. Let everything else fade from your minds.” Qan-af-årael’s words were almost a chant, and Jessica felt their edge disturb her feathers. Doing what she could, she drove out all awareness of the room. The colours faded to grey, slowly attaining translucence. Her body receded, and she realized she no longer knew if it was warm or cold, dry or humid. Even the bite of salt that pervaded the air of Breckaris was gone.
Many times her master Wessex had guided her into this state where she was only aware of the magic. Each time, he’d aided her with unguents and magical circles; she had never been able to attain this consciousness on her own. The Åelf must have guided them; there was no other explanation for it.
Before them she saw the outline of two men, each twisted and bound in their middle by a knot formed by a thousand threads. Faint hands felt along the threads, tracing them in and through the knot in their centre. With a dizzying rapidity, threads were pulled taut and held aloft. Jessica took those held close and kept them taut, not knowing what else she could do. Nor did she understand why he choose the ones he did, as they appeared no different than the rest.
All the world empty but for the discursive forces of magic, Jessica allowed herself to sink into those few strands the ancient Åelven sorcerer had given her. Images flickered in and out of existence. She knew bright warm days filled with the cries of gulls. Cool winters, where the trees were empty skeletons, but no raiment of white hid their nakedness. The aching harmony of monks in chant to Yahshua. The self-assured countenance of a man with aquiline nose and empty blue eyes. And then there was a dark thing that lurked behind every memory, living in the cracks of existence. Whatever it was she saw she wished never to see again.
Jessica gasped and nearly lost her connection with the magic. Another magical strand was held out before her. The hawk grasped it, tightened her talons about them, and bored her gaze into the knots at the centre of each man. They appeared no smaller than they had before, but now at least, all of the threads of magic had been drawn aside.
The strange nebulous hands that she knew must be the Åelf’s took up a single thread and with a twist, broke it in two. The knots churned and Jessica felt the threads in her hands yanked and slither like so many snakes come to life. She held tight, and for a moment she could feel her beak clenched shut.
Even as the knots writhed, the hands sunk into their depths, and pulled them apart, rending and tearing. The threads pulled back, seeking to draw them all in closer, but it was too late, Jessica could sense it. Moment by moment passed, and the knots finally gave way, disintegrating into a tangled skein. This the hands swept away, leaving the spirits of the two men unadorned and free.
And then, just as suddenly, the world exploded with colour, vibrant and rich, sensation of air upon her feathers, scent of salt, and of every other dimension she could imagine. Jessica squawked in surprise, blinking her eyes, seeing the men in the flesh again, all trace of the magic underlying reality gone from her awareness. She turned just in time to watch Qan-af-årael topple over.
Andares moved quickly, grabbing him under his shoulders before he crashed to the floor. His chest heaved and the ancient Åelf blearily opened his eyes. “Thank you, Andares-es-sebashou. This was far worse than I expected.”
“Will you be well?” Abafouq asked. The Binoq rubbed his hands together nervously.
Qan-af-årael nodded. “Aye. I must rest.”
“What about Agathe?” Jessica demanded.
“You must find her and stop her. I...” Qan-af-årael slumped in Andares’s arms and said nothing more.
The younger Åelf placed one hand on Qan-af’s chest and then took a deep breath. “He is sleeping. I will remain here and keep a watch on him.”
Kurt could wait no longer. His father and the bishop had both passed out along with the ancient sorcerer, and nobody was checking to see if they were okay! He grabbed his father’s arms from Jerome and gave them a quick shake. “Father? Father, can you hear me?”
Abafouq nodded to Lindsey and the other still holding them down. “I am thinking it is safe to let go now. Qan-af-årael has freed them from du Tournemire’s grasp.”
The Keepers did as instructed, but they kept an eye on the two. It only took a minute before Duke Schanalein managed to wake up. He blinked bleary eyes, and then sat upright, nearly yanking Kurt, who still held his arms, from his feet. “He’s gone!” Friedrich Schanalein exclaimed, his face filling with delight. He turned and saw his son and tears blossomed there. “Kurt! My son!” He threw his arms around the young man’s neck and held him tight.
“Father!” Kurt cried, hugging back. “You’re back!”
Duke Schanalein nodded and squeezed his son tight. “Aye, I’m back. Thank you for not giving up on me.” He let Kurt go, smiled at him fondly, and then turned to stare at the Keepers. Hockmann still lay unconscious beside him. “And thank you all for your help. Forgive me for what I’ve done to you. I will make amends any way I can.”
“You can start by telling us where Agathe is,” Jessica said, her voice sharp, talons scratching impatiently at the floor.
“And where our gear is,” Lindsey added.
“Your weapons and supplies are in the barracks where you were held prisoner.,” the duke replied.
“We’ll never get those in time,” Jessica squawked unpleasantly. “And Agathe? Where is she?”
“The Tower of Theodoric.” Friedrich tried to slide his feet off the table, but a wave of dizziness forced him back down. “Kurt can show you where it is.”
“But what of the guards?” Charles asked. He eyed the door warily, though the silence spell was still in place. “Those in the prison claimed that you told them to capture him.”
Friedrich grimaced, brow furrowing in disgust. “There won’t be anyone in the tower but that witch. But there will be Breckarin soldiers along the way, and they will try to stop you. Tell the two outside to come in.”
The rat nodded uncertainly, stepped back from the door, and opened it. “His grace wishes to speak with you!” he called, keeping behind the door to hide his form.
The two guards shuffled in, eyes wary. As soon as they saw the menagerie of creatures in the room they lowered their halberds, teeth grit. “Fear not, your grace! We shall lay down our lives for you!” one of them shouted heroically.
The duke sat back up and shook his head. “Thank you, but my life is not in any danger. In fact, those you see here have rescued me from evil magic. I want the both of you to escort them to the Tower of Theodoric. Now!”
The guards blinked uncertainly, and the same one managed to ask, “Your grace? But they’re demons from the cursed Keep of the north!”
Duke Friedrich Schanalein sat up further, his face filling with indignant rage. “You would question me to my face? These are my friends! You will do as I order. Take them to the Tower of Theodoric and let them do what they must! Return posthaste and if you do not persist in contumacy, I will reward you for your obedience!”
At last both guards nodded, lowering their halberds. They regarded the Keepers warily, but this was an order from their sovereign. “Follow us, Keepers,” the first said. The both of them left the chamber quickly, eager to be done with their chore. Father and son exchanged warm smiles before Kurt rushed to follow the Keepers.
Agathe had finished tracing the green chalk over the designs just outside the third circle when she felt the first of her warding spells activate. As the magic of Ahdyojiak came to life, rising upwards in a wall of green light, she turned her eyes to the timepiece in the corner. If it was to be believed, there was a little less than two hours until midnight. The Keepers had just reached the bridge, so there was little chance they could ascend the tower, much less stop her.
Being careful not to mar any of her lines, Agathe stepped away from the spell and considered what had to be done next. Already shimmering walls of green energy rose from the triangle and the three circles at the triangle’s vertices. The pillars shone brightest of all; her eyes hurt just looking at them. A wide black warding circle encompassed the spell, and kept its power contained and focussed. She’d already drawn the paths for the doors, now she needed to draw the parabolic doors themselves. And then she’d need to do something to give power to the Pillars; no human sacrifice would be needed this time, but a little something had to be given.
Before returning to her spell, she wound the timepiece again. All she could do was hope her protections had been enough.
The two guards gestured to the double doors at the end of the hall. “There, the Tower of Theodoric,” the one groused. “There are no soldiers there.”
“Just Agathe,” Lindsey added sourly.
“That’s enough,” James agreed.
Kurt nodded to both guards and smiled. “Thank you. Return to my father and keep watch over him and his grace, the bishop.” Both of them gave a quick bow and rushed back the way they came. Sensing their time was short, Kurt hurried to the doors and threw them open. The night air was cool, but something else made him shudder. For the first time, he could feel the creeping unease so many of the servants had said clutched them every time they entered Theodoric’s tower. He swallowed, gathered his courage, and waved them forward. “It’s across the bridge. The stairs only go up.”
The Keepers, hardened by their journey and training, said nothing as they followed him out onto the bridge. Tugal stayed close at his side, and likely saved his life. When Kurt reached the middle of the bridge, a flash of light erupted from either side, arcing for his head. Tugal saw it first, grabbed his shoulders, and yanked him backwards.
Those sentinels, now awakened, lifted and formed into a mass at the other end of the bridge. They appeared as nothing more than common witchlights, but these hurled botls of lightning at their feet, forcing them back.
“A trap!” Kurt exclaimed once his breath returned. “How do we get past it?”
Jessica peered at them, trying to find their origin, and then felt her heart sink. “They’re bound elementals! We will have to free them if we want to pass, but that will take far too long!”
“Nae,” the harsh voice of the Nauh-kaee echoed. “They are subservient to the wind. And I can hear a wind to shake them to the sky.”
“What does that mean?” Kayla asked, tail lashing nervously back and forth.
“It means that Guernef will distract them for us, I think,” Abafouq said, even as he pushed his way to the front to see. Already a breeze tugged at their hair, fur, and feathers. The sentinels bobbed and wove to stay before the door. The Binoq grinned, “I will open the door. When I say you best start running to it!”
Behind them, Guernef lowered his beak to the ground and closed his eyes. The breeze gained strength, tugging their clothes, forcing them to shift their balance. The Kakikagiget of the Nauh-kaee spread white wings, every speck of dust and debris blasted from beneath them by the gale. Across the bridge the sentinels struggled, but one by one scattered away. By the time the last finally fled, the gale was so strong they had to bend over and hold each other up for support. The roar was deafening, and none of them heard Abafouq’s command.
But they saw the Binoq start forward, and followed as fast as they could in the windstorm. Guernef remained where he was, beak against stone, all effort consumed by summoning the wind. The sentinels tried vainly to return, but could not even draw near the tower. Finally, Abafouq reached the door and let loose his spell. The door snapped open inwards, and the wind suddenly struck their backs, pushing them through. Once they were inside, the door slammed shut behind them.
“Guernef!” Kayla cried. “He’s still out there.”
“He has no choice,” Jessica reasoned, dark and determined. “Someone had to keep those things distracted. We have to go on without him.”
“Jessica’s right,” Abafouq pointed out. “Guernef will be fine. Let us continue, but with caution!”
Kurt gestured at the stairs on the right. The rest of the room was bare. “Agathe must be up there.”
“How many rooms are there?” Lindsey asked as he straightened his tunic and beard.
“Just the tower room at the top.”
Abafouq approached the stairs and help up one hand. The others waited while he squinted and studied the whitewashed masonry. Old cracks marred the surface, and even a few cobwebs could be seen in corners. But that was not what the Binoq saw, nor Jessica when she focussed on the magic. “More traps,” the hawk squawked in irritation. “Everywhere there are traps!”
Charles, who had returned to his bipedal form, was quick to advise. “Do no trip any, even those that appear harmless. You don’t want to become stone too.”
“We’ll have to break them,” Kayla suggested. “Unless we can avoid them...”
“The spells are on the steps and walls. Touch either and they activate.” Abafouq rubbed his hands together in thought. “Removing every trap will take time, something Qan-af-årael warned we are lacking.”
“I can fly,” Jessica pointed out.
“Not up a flight of stairs,” Habakkuk said in a quiet voice.
“We have to do something!” the hawk protested, stamping her talons in frustration.
The kangaroo laid a calming paw on her shoulder. “We will. Have faith. But also think clearly. A solution exists.”
“Aye,” Abafouq replied with a grin. “I think I have it.” They all turned to listen. “When we faced these evil wizards in the Metamor belfry, I created a tunnel through the Weathermonger Yonson’s wind wall. I can create another to take us up these stairs much faster than undoing Agathe’s traps.”
“Then do it!” Lindsey growled impatiently.
“Gather behind me, and wait for me to begin climbing. The first step should be the most difficult, I hope.” They did as the Binoq instructed, each waiting and growing weary from it. Abafouq conjured first one bone and then a second, fixing them at right angles. With a third and a fourth he did likewise, crafting a rectangular portal framing the bottom of the staircase. Eight more were brought forth, until the Binoq had constructed a magical cube. This he squeezed into the curving stairwell, creating the first part of the tunnel that would protect them from Agathe’s spells.
Only the mages could see these bones; to the rest it appeared as though nothing were different. They is until Abafouq stepped into the stairwell and a glossy gray light kept his feet aloft and secure. Some of them gasped, but the Binoq waved them back. “Wait but a moment more, then follow slowly.” He returned to his work, building another link in his tunnel, stretching it up the stairwell as far as he dared. His progress would be slow, but it would be steady and safe.
The Keepers followed him tentatively, but with increasing confidence when they saw that the gray force held them aloft and kept them from slipping. The staircase turned counter clockwise as it ascended and the white-washing became more and more spotted. And though there were no other visible signs of their ascent, Abafouq continued to build his tunnel.
Eventually, the strain of maintaining it became unbearable. Abafouq let the beginning of the tunnel collapse, half afraid the whole edifice would slide back down the steps. And for a moment, it seemed likely to do just that. The tunnel shifted to one side, knocking the donkey from his hooves. Charles caught his friend, and the tunnel steeled, but like a defile of rocks, it was ready at any moment to crumble.
“Kayla,” Abafouq shouted, “come here and hold this!” The Binoq had wrapped his hand about empty air, but once she could feel it, the skunk saw it was a long spike imbedded in the stairs.
“How long must I hold it?” she asked as the little man set about extending the tunnel again.
“Until I need you to hold another!”
And so they continued, their progress slow but certain. Minutes trickled past, and in each of them gnawed the fear that they were too late. Four times Abafouq planted spikes for the skunk to secure with her meagre talent. Four times he was forced to let the tunnel behind them dissolve. But for the cramped, translucent gray passage, they were trapped by Agathe’s spells. Each of them grew exhausted from the endless waiting.
But the stairs did end. When they saw the sharp left turn at the top of the stairs they rejoiced quietly. With renewed determination, Abafouq set his mystical bones in place, drawing them up step by step. Finally, he brought them to a small antechamber with a single southwards facing door. Complex spells bound the door shut, but the room itself was clean. An ætherial green light pierced the door jamb.
“It’s safe, but for the door,” he said, and the Keepers slipped past. “Kayla, I’m holding this in place. Leave the stairs.” The skunk hurried past him, at which point, he realized he had a problem. How was he to get out of the stairs? He licked his lips and called out, “Lindsey, I would be most pleased if you would hold me while I let go.”
The woodcutter did as asked, gripping him beneath his arms. Abafouq released the tunnel and felt it disintegrate around him. Lindsey set him down on the floor and the Binoq smiled. “I think we have only a little time left.” And then, the weariness of his spellcasting caught up with him. The world spun wildly as Abafouq fainted to the tower floor.
All of the lines were drawn. Agathe blinked as she studied the outskirts of the summoning, unable to look at the central tower of light, so bright was it now. Everything appeared to be in order, and she had only to provide the pillars items to give it enough power to transport her anywhere in the world she wished.
Carefully, Agathe stepped over the black line that kept it’s power contained. Only a tiny amount of space was left for her to work, and she slumped against the wall as she bent down into it. With trembling hands, she drew free her boots, and spread out her toes. The small toes on each foot were missing, severed when she’d cast the spell to bring herself and that newly-made woman from the Barrier Range mountains to Breckaris two months ago. A few more would suffice.
She removed her knife from her belt and drew a sigil over its surface. The blade began to glow, and the air sizzled from the sudden heat. Agathe sucked in her breath, chest aching from exertion. She gripped the hem of her robe in her free hand and shoved it between her teeth. Spreading her toes out, she neatly sliced the knife through the knuckle of her smallest remaining toe. The digit came off cleanly, the wound cauterized behind it.
But one digit would not do. She needed three, one for each pillar. Taking another deep breath, Agathe sliced off the remainder of that toe. The pain was bearable, but only because of her great need. She switched foots and then sliced off that toe at the knuckle too. Now she had three toe fragments. She drew another sigil above the knife, and the metal cooled. Once it was cool enough she returned it to her belt. Gingerly she pulled her boots back on, and the gathered the three severed bits of flesh.
The only places that did not shine brightly were the doors she’d drawn, and the small paths that led into the pillars. The warding spells and the summoning spells intermixed between the doors and paths were a glow with verdant flame. In each of the three paths, Agathe set down one of the offerings. She then stood inside one of the parabolic doors she’d drawn. When midnight struck, all that lay within this door would go to the Imbervand, that place between places, that time between times. From there, she could go wherever she wished in the world. She would journey to one of the far continents across the ocean. Even the Marquis’s magic could not reach her there.
Just as she felt a bit of confidence returning, she felt the Keepers reach the atrium outside the tower room. How had they ascended the stairs? Not a one of her warding spells had been activated! She shot a glance at the timepiece, saw that only a few minutes remained. She stared at the oaken door and hoped her spell was enough to keep them out. Only a few more minutes; it was all she needed to escape.
“Is he all right?” Charles asked as Lindsey carefully examined the fallen Binoq.
“Looks like exhaustion to me,” Lindsey replied. “He should be fine.” The northerner leaned the little man against one wall and then turned to the oaken door. “Now how do we get through this?”
Jessica studied the spell, noting the way the sigils curled and bound the door shut. They even gave the door superior durability, making it extraordinarily difficult to break through. Not to mention the shocking spell that would knock anyone who dared touch the door backwards. She shut her beak tight and swore to herself. She couldn’t break this alone. If Qan-af-årael, Guernef, and Abafouq were aiding her, perhaps. But with only Kayla, it couldn’t be done. Unless...
“Charles, Jerome, can your Sodneckis abilities strike this door without you touching it?”
Both of them nodded, stretching their arms out. “Of course,” the rat replied. “What do you need?”
“There are three separate spells on this door. Let me weaken the one, and then I want you to hit this as hard as you can without touching it.”
“Then do so!” Jerome urged. He rubbed his hands together and concentrated on building up his energy. A faint song emerged from his lips, and Charles was quick to join him.
Jessica motioned for Kayla to help, though the skunk appeared weary from aiding Abafouq on the stairs. “All I need is for you to lend strength to my spell, Kayla,” Jessica said, trying her best to sound reassuring. But inside she felt a seething anger, and a worry that they’d be too late. She had no idea what Agathe was doing on the other side of this door, but she was determined to stop it; and then to kill her.
“Of course. My strength is yours,” Kayla replied, her tail lashing back and forth. She put her paws to the hawk’s back, right between her wings, and Jessica could feel a comforting warmth fill her there.
Undoing the spells would take too long. But weakening one of them was just a matter of casting another spell on the door. Quickly, she traced out the runes she would need with her wing tips, and then used her talons to bring them together. One by one, she laid them atop the fortitude spell. Seven runes gathered on key pieces of the spell, and then once all were lain, the runes drew nearer each other, until they combined. They pulled at the edges of the fortitude runes, pulling them away from the door, as a starfish opening a clam.
Jessica nodded to the Sondeckis. “Have at it.”
“You’ll want to step aside,” Jerome cautioned. Jessica and Kayla did that, and then watched as the two Sondeckis threw their arms forward. The centre of the door buckled and splintered, as if struck by a battering ram. Seeing their first blow was not enough, the Sondeckis began throwing punches and kicks, anything they could to try and shatter that door. It was splintering, and it was weakening, but still it held in place.
And then, one figure strode forward, not caring a whit for the power the Sondeckis were unleashing. “Tugal!” Kurt cried, “Don’t get in their way!”
The woman snapped, “If there is but one thing I can do, I will do it! Stand aside!” Charles and Jerome, looked confused, but did pause their attacks. Jessica could see that they had weakened the spells on the door, but it still was not budging. If they had another five minutes, they would certainly get through, but did they have five minutes?
Tugal drew her daggers, and shoved them into the jamb opposite the handle. With a quick upwards thrust, she jarred the door so violently that the ricochet of metal could clearly be heard. She’d undone the pins on the latch.
Kayla screamed when she saw the warding spell activate. Tugal tried to duck to the side, but the blast of energy clipped her and sent her spinning to the floor. Kurt ran to her side and dragged her back. A moment later, with a cry of agony, he pressed his cloak against her side to staunch the sudden flow of blood.
“Tugal!” Charles cried, but Jerome grabbed him and shook his head. The rat grimaced, turned back to the door, and the two Sondeckis threw their arms once again. The force of the blow smacked the door through, sending it spinning off its hinges to one side. The brilliant light blinded them, and a horrible shriek echoed from within.
Jessica saw a single silhouette of darkness within that chamber of scintillating green light. With a shriek of beastly rage, the hawk jumped through the doorway straight for the shadow. A thunderclap sounded the moment she struck, and for a single moment, all the world fell into darkness.
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