Lineaments of Coming Night

Part V

The castle gate was not the sort of place that many people lingered. Especially not on a festival day. Hundreds were coming and going, but few were just waiting there apart from the larger than normal complement of guards. The gates were tall but only wide enough for two wagons to pass through at the same time. The passage between the gates extended a good twenty feet, and except at night, the portcullises were raised at both ends.

Lindsey watched it with growing impatience. They had been here for only a half hour waiting for the arrival of Habakkuk’s friends, friends that the kangaroo admitted that he had never before seen. But, Zhypar had assured him, he would recognize them on sight, because they would be very distinctive.

It was hard to imagine how even the oddest foreigner could be more distinctive than the usual zoological phantasmagoria that they witnessed on a daily basis in Metamor Keep. Though Lindsey had not become an animal and had often wondered what sort of animal he would have become – he would still have been a she in that case and things might not have become so awkward between him and the kangaroo – he nevertheless took the appearance of strange creatures with blasé indifference.

So Lindsey satisfied himself with leaning against the gatehouse wall next to Habakkuk and watching the kangaroo. There was no doubt that Zhypar would recognize his friends. And there was no use in trying to guess which of the many people coming through the gates with gaiety writ large upon their faces were the ones that they were waiting for. They would not be them, no matter how odd they looked.

The Northerner had become so accustomed to just watching the stillness of the kangaroo who watched with wide eyes and uplifted ears that he was actually taken aback when Habakkuk shifted his stance some. Looking up, he saw a rather unlikely group of people passing underneath the gate. There appeared to be something quite large moving behind them. When Habakkuk took a step forward, Lindsey felt a sigh escape his lips. It was about time! Any longer and he’d fall through the gatehouse wall!

But it was not the group that Habakkuk moved towards, but the large creature that passed underneath the portcullis behind them. There was a small child moving in front of the avian being. The large bird was white, though it strangely had feathered ears. And it’s hindquarters were rather feline he thought. Deep black eyes struck him and he felt like an arrow had pierced his chest. There was no denying it. This was one of the two they had been waiting for.

The figure that moved before it, and that smiled when his eyes lit up Habakkuk, was not a child as Lindsey first suspected. He looked like a man, but only three feet tall. There was a heartiness to his rounded cheeks, and both his arms and legs were a little thicker than he might suspect. But this was no child, and this was no midget. This was an adult, but not a man either.

“Zhypar Habakkuk?” the small man asked as he approached the kangaroo. He was dressed in thick furs and his boots were also thick bear pelt. It looked like they were actual bear paws too, as the claws were still attached. He had a small pack slung over his back, and there was a metal pick looped through his belt as well as several iron stakes.

“Abafouq,” Habakkuk said to the little man. “And Guernef. It is good to have you both here finally. This is Lindsey, and he is one of those who will be joining us.”

Lindsey nodded his head to them both and smiled. He towered over the little man that Zhypar had called Abafouq. But the bird thing, it looked rather like a white gryphon he thought, that had been called Guernef, was still taller than him by at least a foot. Its black eyes were unsettling and showed nothing but an avian intensity. “It is good to meet you both.”

Guernef opened his jet black beak and squawked then. Though it sounded like a hawk’s cry, it was more forceful and certainly louder. Habakkuk nodded at that. “I know I said that, but this is Lindsey. Now, things are set in motion and we have to move quickly.”

“Where are the others?” Abafouq asked. His eyes were big as he stared at the city. “This is... more amazing than you suggested.”

“And I wish we had time to enjoy it,” Zhypar replied, his smile fading. “But we must remember why we came. Duke Thomas is holding council chamber right now. But he will admit us. All of the others are already here at Metamor. When we have the Duke’s attention, we will have the rest summoned.”

Guernef squawked again. Several people nearby cast them furtive looks, but then went back to their merry-making. Lindsey wondered why it was that both Habakkuk and the little man Abafouq were nodding as if they had understood.

Lindsey nodded his head too after a moment, and joined them as they began to walk down the main road towards the castle. At least, he consoled himself, the waiting was finally over.

{There’s Sean!} Saroth thought as he spied the golden eagle throwing a small ball at a red and white bullseye a short distance away. The bullseye was fashioned from metal, and the centre was connected to a lever that led to a small platform upon which sat a rather drenched age regressed Keeper with a wry expression on his face. Beneath him was a vast pool of water that waited eagerly to swallow the boy up once more.

Electra tried to peer past the throng of bodies, but there were still too many people filling the courtyards for her to see much apart from where she was going, and then not even that very well. “Which direction?”

{There to your left.} Saroth also sent along what he was seeing to his mentor. She nodded and began to push her way through the crowd, apologizing when she accidentally stepped on one poor frog’s foot. It only took them another minute before they reached the group that surrounded the dunking booth and could see Sean draw back his arm for one last throw. The ball sailed through the air, struck the bullseye dead in the centre, and the platform gave out underneath the AR. He let out a gasp as he fell legs kicking into the vat. Water sloshed up over the sides and spilled across as the people let out a merry laugh.

“Saroth! Electra!” Sean gasped, his beak wide as he turned to see them. “Glad you finally made it. Did you see that throw?”

“A very fine throw indeed,” Electra surmised. “Poor Duncan there was aptly named.”

Saroth glanced over at the AR as he climbed up over the side and shook the water from his boyish blonde curls. The boy was clearly enjoying himself, and why not? It looked rather fun, although Saroth would need a much larger tub were he to try.

“So,” Sean asked, rubbing his taloned hands together. Behind him his wings stretched outwards some, a reflection of his excitement. “Any place you want to see first? You should see some of the stuff they are doing over at the magic exhibition. Pascal’s handing out potions that turn people al sorts of colours and textures.”

“Not permanently I hope!” Electra exclaimed with a laugh. They had all seen what had happened to the porcupine’s on-again off-again suitor, the beaver Michael.

“Somebody asked her that and she just grinned and winked at them.” Sean’s eyes caught Saroth and their avian intensity softened somewhat. “I took a look at the magic when they were being changed, and it looked too weak to be permanent to me. I thought about trying it, but thought it best to wait for you two first.”

“Well, you may have to wait a bit longer,” Electra said, grimacing slightly and gesturing up to the bronze-skinned Saroth. “Weather dragon here wants to talk to the clouds.”

Sean’s eyes widened at that. [Something’s wrong with them,} Saroth protested. {Even you admitted that. I just want to fly up and if there’s anything wrong that we should know about.}

“I made him promise to wait until we met with you, Sean.”

{If it had been safe for me to change, I would have,} Saroth pointed out impulsively. He’d been able to put them out of his mind briefly, but now that he was thinking of them again, he could feel their pull, their nervous uncertainty. He yearned to fly amongst them and soothe their concerns, and perhaps, help solve whatever it was that disturbed them so. It was the Summer Solstice after all. Even a little bit of magic would go a long way today.

Sean gestured to the west. “The western half of the Killing Field is not in use right now. You can probably change there.” The golden eagle then looked up into the sky himself. His eyes narrowed as they scanned the clouds, noting minute details that were lost even to Saroth’s dragon eyes. “You’re right though, there’s something strange going on. I can see tendrils of magic up there that shouldn’t be. They’re very faint though. I can’t see where they lead from here.”

“You can’t see where they lead?” Electra asked in surprise. “Hmmm, this could be more serious that we thought.”

Saroth grunted and started walking around the booth towards the western edge of the field. {Well, what are we waiting for?} he thought back to them irritably. He certainly was not going to wait any longer. He had to speak to those clouds.

“Hey, hold on!” Sean called. “I want to come too.”

“And you certainly aren’t leaving me behind!” Electra added in, chasing after him.

{Then hurry up. And when we get there, hold on tight.}

Both golden eagle and girl ran after him to catch up with his long stride.

“So this,” Lord Barnhardt gestured to the small pile of silverish ore that Malisa had deposited on the table before them with a webbed hand, “is mithril captured in the Giantdowns?”

“Yes,” Malisa said with a quick nod. Of all the nobility assembled, only Mayor Tabit of Mycransburg knew the truth. Joy’s Legacy was in the mountains east of Mycransburg, and so Tabit – a serving woman before the curses in the ard’Kapler household – had been told, but informed that he needed to maintain complete secrecy. He sat stone-faced as the other lords pondered the find.

“We believe,” Andwyn added, his wings folded over his chest. “that Nasoj has found mithril deposits in the Death Mountains. We are presently trying to confirm this, but the existence of the mithril cannot be denied.”

Thomas hated having to lie to his own vassals over this issue. But if all went well, in a few years, they would have strengthened their position in the valley both through force of arm and through force of alliances, none would dare contest their claim to the mine. When that day came about, they would openly reveal the mine’s existence, though not its location. That they would keep a secret for as long as they could.

“And this is just a small sample of the shipment we intercepted and captured two months ago,” Malisa continued. “It is unrefined, which leads us to believe that it was meant to be used as payment to bring other peoples in the Giantdowns to Nasoj’s banner.”

“If Nasoj has so much,” Lord Donel asked, “then what can we do about it?”

“His position is very weak after his last assault failed,” Malisa pointed out. “He’s lost what little hold he had left over the Lutin tribes. Both Politzen and Starven have already forsworn their allegiance to him. We are making diplomatic overtures to them already. Perhaps we can sway Caralore as well. What we must all do is make sure that they stay allied with us, even in the face of this flow of mithril.”

“But how...” Lord Donel pressed, but he was interrupted by the doors opening and one of the guards stepping through.

“Pardon the intrusion, your grace, but the headmaster of the Writer’s Guild, Zhypar Habakkuk requests an immediate audience with you.”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “Tell him I will speak with him later.”

“But your grace, he was most insistent.” The guard had a rather pallid look to his face, as if he was trying to decide who he was afraid of more, Duke Thomas or whatever it was that lurked on the other side of the door. The other side of the door won. “He has three companions with him. And he told me to tell you that he wants to speak to you about the events of this last year. He says that he has important information about Loriod’s rebellion, the Patriarch’s assassination, Wessex’s murder, and the hyacinth.”

Thomas flinched at that and rose to his hind hooves. He stilled the trembling that threatened to consume his body. Glancing over the assembled nobility, he cursed the kangaroo’s bad timing. If Habakkuk had information regarding those events, he had to hear it. He had never heard of a time when the kangaroo had been forthcoming about anything after all.

“Very well, do let him and his companions in. I am sorry my friends, but we must pause here. We can continue these discussions shortly.”

“If it is not too much trouble,” Lord Donel asked again, some of the flush that had crept into his cheeks gone, “I would like to hear what he has to say. The Patriarch was murdered only a day’s north of Midtown. I’ve never known much more than that.”

Thomas nodded and cast a slow glance across his vassals. “Very well. Whatever message he has for me, he will share with you as well.”

When the guard opened the doors, they saw a strange grouping of creatures, strange even by the standards of Metamor. Thomas recognized Habakkuk of course, and the Northerner that walked along side of him looked vaguely familiar, though he did not know his name. The other two figures were not familiar at all, a small man, though not a midget, and a large white gryphon followed in after the pair of Keepers.

“Thank you, your grace for receiving us on such short notice,” Habakkuk said as the doors were closed behind him. He glanced over the men and beasts that sat around the table and smiled a bit. “I had not realized we would have so much company, but it is good that more bear witness to what we shall tell you today. But first, allow me to introduce my companions. I am Zhypar Habakkuk as most of you know, Headmaster for the Writer’s Guild, though I shall be leaving that post today for reasons that I will explain later. This man is Lindsey of the timbercrews who has been my only confidant here at Metamor these last few months as I prepared for this day. The two behind me have travelled from deep in the Great Barrier Range to be with us today. They are Abafouq of the Binoq, and Guernef, Kakikagiget of the Nauh-Kaee.”

“A Binoq!” Baron Christopher exclaimed wide-eyed. “But aren’t they myth?”

Abafouq bore a wry smile. “I assure you, a myth I am not.”

Thomas raised out his ands to still the murmuring that had begun. “Quiet. You said you brought news, tidings of the many events that have confounded us this last year. So speak!”

“Forgive me your grace, but there are others who must hear of these things. Fortunately, all of them are here in Metamor, so I ask only that you summon them.” Habakkuk held his paws out before him plaintively.

“Who do you seek?”

“Charles Matthias and his friend James the donkey. You will find them both at the Deaf Mule. Jessica, once the student of Wessex, who is presently in her chambers studying, and Kayla the skunk, who is at the Shoeshine Inn supping with Rickkter. Those four need to be here.”

“Send messengers to retrieve them at once,” Thomas boomed. The messengers, who were standing at the doorways awaiting an order from the Duke, were off immediately at a run. “Now, while we wait for them to arrive, you may begin to tell us what this is about.”

Habakkuk nodded. The three with him fanned out to face the Duke and his vassals. “Certainly. It is about the Chateau Marzac, and how very soon that evil place shall bring about the end of the world.”

The pair of cloaked strangers kept their faces hidden in their cowls as they passed underneath Metamor’s main gate. The guards looked at them closely, but no more than that. Had it been any other day, they would have merited closer scrutiny. But it was a festival day. Hundreds passed through the gates on those days. And even though the guard was double and in some cases tripled, there was not enough to watch every person who passed beneath the heavy iron portcullises.

And so, with only a few second glances, the pair continued on their way to the streets of Metamor. Their eyes lifted heavenward, taking in the alabaster spires that rose before them. In turn, they both smiled.

After Charles finished telling his embarrassing story, most of them had finished their meals. Many had in fact left to go to other events at the festival, including many of the Long Scouts and knights. The rats had stayed a little bit longer, but had also left to go about the festival openly. That fact alone pleased Matthias enough that he didn’t mind them leaving. It was nice to see the rats that he had coaxed for so long finally coming out into the open and not being ashamed of what they had become.

So that left Misha, Caroline, Finbar, Danielle, Sir Saulius, Sir Maugnard, Jenn and James. Charles stretched his arms and looked over at the fox who had shifted to a closer seat after the rest had left. “So, how did Fadger Clocks do this year?”

“Oh, quite well,” Misha grinned widely. He had manned the Fadger clocks stall a good bit of the festival for Will Hardy. Together, they were the team behind some of the best clocks sold in all of the Northern Midlands. “I even sold a few to some of the nobles from outside the valley! So we made a tidy profit this year.”

“The one you made for Kimberly and me still works very well,” Charles said with a wide grin. “You should try selling them in the Glen. I think you’d make a good profit there too.”

“With the prices my father charges?” the otter Caroline snorted and held back a laugh. “Can anybody in the Glen afford one is the question!”

“Jurmas the Innkeeper certainly could,” James pointed out. “He makes enough money housing the merchants who come to the Glen that he could afford a few of them.”

“Then he needs to pay you more!” declared the rat.

James looked wistful for a moment and then shook his head. “He pays me as much as he pays anybody else. I’ll make more once I become a scout for the Glen.”

Misha nodded his head in approval at that. “How long before that happens?”

“A few months I guess. Maybe next year.” James shrugged and his ears drooped some.

The fox leaned over and patted the donkey on the shoulder. “You’ll do fine! Tell you what. Next time I’m up at the Glen I’ll spend some time giving you a few extra pointers, how does that sound?”

“Really?” James asked, his ears lifting again. “You’d do that for me?”

“Why not?” Misha laughed loudly, and the rest of the table did so as well. “We always could use some more good scouts.”

Sir Saulius bore a pinched look at that comment and then stood up form the table. “We hath run out of good mead. I shalt fetch us some more. Charles, wouldst thee join me? Thou art still my squire today!”

He could not help but laugh and nod his head. Misha gave him a long look, but he shrugged to the fox. May as well help him after all. Sir Saulius was the Protector of the Realm after all!

Charles followed the knight to the bar. Saulius smiled to him and beckoned him closer. “Donny, another round of thy finest mead!” He called out to the lumbering bovine who was tending to other patrons. Donny nodded, but it was clear that it was going to take a minute.

Saulius then turned to Charles and whispered. “Charles, I hath seen thee as my squire these last two months, and it hast warmed my heart. I know that thou dost enjoy being a scout, but I wish to ask thee to consider accepting thy place as my squire, and then thy place as a knight. I hath seen the pleasure thee takes in tending to thy horse and my own. I hath seen the longing in thy eye when thou hast watched the joust. Please, Charles. Wilt thee be my squire and in a few years time join me in the ranks of the knighthood?”

Charles felt his whole body shiver. He knew this had to be coming, but he had wished it would not come so soon. “That’s a hard thing you ask me, Erick. You are right, I do enjoy doing all of those things. But I love being a scout too. And it would break Misha’s heart if I gave up being a scout. And I know it would break your heart if I said no to being a knight. Can you give me some time to think about this at least?”

Sir Saulius’s face was a little disappointed, but he forced himself to smile and pat his friend on the shoulder. “Thou shalt hath thy time. I shouldst not hath asked thee so soon. Forgive me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive, Erick. I’ve been thinking about this a little bit myself, but I’m still no closer to a decision. I wish I could do both, but as I’ve found these last two months, that is impossible.”

“Aye.” Sir Saulius said, looking up as Donny began to approach them, several more tankards in his heavy hands.

“Charles!” Misha called out to him. “There’s a messenger here for you!”

Charles swivelled in his seat and saw Kee bouncing back and forth from paw to paw. “Ah, Kee, what is it?”

Kee looked over at James for a moment, and then back to Charles. “Duke Thomas needs to see you immediately. You and James.”

Both of James’s ears went erect in that moment, and his eyes were full of surprise. “Me? Why me?”

“I don’t know. That kangaroo said you were one of the four people we had to bring.”

“Habakkuk?” Charles asked, feeling irritated suddenly. Wonderful. What was that meddlesome roo up to now?

Misha grimaced. “Well, if you don’t mind, I’d like to accompany you.”

“You’ve had enough mead as it is,” Caroline pointed out poking the fox in his side. “The last round of the archery tournament starts soon, so you’ll have to go without me.”

“I’ll just stay here and drink some more with Sir Saulius, if that is fine,” Sir Maugnard said, rumbling a bit. His wife Jenn looked at him askance, but did not object. Both Finbar and Danielle seemed to be too interested in each other to comment.

“Well, that settles it then,” Charles said. “Where is Duke Thomas?”

“His Council Chambers,” Kee replied. “Now I have to go fetch one other. Don’t delay. Whatever it was, it sounded very important.”

James and Misha were climbing up from the table and making their way to the door. Charles just rolled his eyes.

Rickkter loved to eat during festival time. They always served the most delectable of foods. Here at the Shoeshine Inn, an establishment that catered more towards travellers than Keepers, though they certainly had enough of them too, he could dine on roast duck, succulent ham, or even roasted venison. He had chosen the ham for his lunch meal, while Kayla was enjoying the duck. The savoury red meat had been sliced into thin layers that practically melted when he put his fork to them. The sauce was rich in lemon and butter and it could not help but tingle his tongue with every bite.

It was almost a shame then when he looked down at his plate and saw only one more bite left waiting for his consumption. He skewered the hunk of meat upon his fork, slid it around the edges of the plate where the lemon sauce had pooled, and then lifted it with obvious delight to his snout where it disappeared. A pleasant churr escaped his muzzle as he breathed deeply in contentment.

“That good, huh?” Kayla asked him, smiling widely. Her monochromatic features seemed to shine even brighter in the light of the swaying candelabras above them. Upon her plate she had left a few bones. The last wing was in her paws, the juices staining her snout.

Rickkter nodded and patted his belly with one paw. “A sumptuous feast! Now, what shall we have for dinner?”

The skunk laughed merrily at that, her long tail twirling behind her. “Maybe a potato.”

“A potato!” Rickkter shook his head. “As part of our dinner, certainly, but there must be more!”

“A strawberry or two?” Kayla suggested, even as she took another bite of her duck. She tore the meat clean and left a hunk of bone visible.

Rickkter smiled and licked a bit of the lemon sauce from his whiskers. “I said dinner, not dessert!” But Kayla just shook her head mirthfully and continued to finish off the last of her duck. Rickkter belched and grinned as he felt the taste of the sauce once more drawn up over his tongue. He slid his plate forward over the black lacquered table and drained his goblet of the rich red wine he’d selected. A Marigund vintage, quite expensive in these parts.

The doors to the Inn were constantly opening and closing, this being festival time, and so Rickkter had, apart from a quick glance to see who it was, mostly stopped paying attention to it. This time, he was surprised to see that it was one of the court messengers. Kee the coyote in fact, the most trusted. Whenever Kee came bearing a message, then the raccoon knew it to be important.

The coyote was scanning the patrons, and when their eyes met, his tail wagged slightly and he came bounding over, sliding between several groups of patrons who were nearly sitting back to back, but nevertheless, the message was for him.

He sat up straighter and rolled his fingers across the tabletop, his claws making a staccato tick-tick-tick. When Kee reached their table he nodded to them both, but turned not to the raccoon mage, but to the skunk Kayla! Rickkter’s eyes went wide in surprise at this.

“Kayla, his grace Duke Thomas requests your presence in his Council Chambers immediately to discuss matters of grave importance.”

Even Kayla was surprised at that. “Me?”

“And what about me?” Rickkter demanded, feeling slighted. “Was I summoned?”

Kee shook his head. “Habakkuk didn’t mention you I’m afraid, master Rickkter.”

“Habakkuk?” What did the mysterious kangaroo have to do with any of this? He asked the coyote that very question.

“It was Habakkuk who named those who needed to be summoned,” Kee explained slowly. There was obvious uncertainty in his eyes, as if he was afraid he was speaking of things he should not. “

”And since when does the kangaroo give orders to Duke Thomas?”

Kee shook his head. “Habakkuk requested an audience with Duke Thomas so that he might speak to him about several things. And he said that there were certain folk who needed to hear them too.”

Rickter could well remember his last encounter with Habakkuk. The kangaroo had asked him a very particular favour, which had turned out to be quite important. “He didn’t mention anything about a hyacinth did he?”

Kee blinked, obviously surprised. “Yes he did actually. How did you know?”

Rickkter grunted and stood up. “Kayla, if you don’t mind, I’m going to go with you.”

“What is going on, Rick?” she asked, clearly confused about all of this. “And why does he want me there? I don’t know anything about a flower.”

“I’m sure the kangaroo will just confuse us more when we get there.” He turned to look for Kee, but the coyote was already heading back out the front door, probably to deliver another message. Instead, he saw the lynx Kurt Pavlik, one of the many sons of the owners of the Shoeshine Inn approaching their table with wide green eyes.

“Leaving so soon?” he asked.

“I’m afraid so.” Rickkter pulled out his money pouch and put two gold coins in the lynx’s outstretched paw. “For the meal and wine.” Kurt smiled at that and slipped past them to clean up the dishes.

Rickkter and Kayla wasted no time in following after the coyote. The day outside was not as bright as he recalled it being when they had settled down for their meal, but that may have just been a reflection of the raccoon’s new found sullen mood.

The streets were filled with people both Keepers and others from the rest of the valley, and probably quite a few that were not from the valley. Kayla bounded down the steps, and Rickkter followed her until his eye caught the sight of two cloaked figures at the edge of the crowd. They seemed to float between the people, as if they were an island of calm in a sea of eddying change. There was something naggingly familiar about them too, though he could not see their faces.

His heart trembled a bit as he let the forces of magic swirl into view. Most of the land was blanketed with magic, the ever present black ink-like smear that was the curse suffusing almost everybody who walked past them on the streets. But those two were not affected. Even so, there was an incalculably powerful force present with in them. The woman seemed to simply draw at every line of magic that she passed through. The man however; his magic seemed to be wound inwards upon itself tightly like a snake devouring its own tail.

Both silhouettes were familiar, though the man’s more so than the woman’s. They were both Southern mages. The woman was a Runecaster. And the man, a Sondeckis. The edge of the man’s cowl turned towards him slightly, and he caught the profile of the face. He gasped and grabbed at Kayla’s shoulder. “Zag...”

But he had no more begun to say the name than the woman had also turned to look in his direction. For a brief instant, he saw the gouges in her face, and the ruin of her right eye -- a gaping hole that burned a smouldering red like wood in a fire left too long unattended.

And then the cords of magic wound about his heart like a vice. He let out a wail of agony as he felt them constricting and squeezing his heart so much that it could no longer beat within his chest. He clawed at those cords, grappling with them, trying to squeeze his fingers between them and his heart.

He was only dimly aware that he had fallen onto his back and that Kayla was kneeling beside him frantically calling out and asking him what was wrong. All Rickkter knew were those serpentine lines of magic that if he spared a moment for any other thought, would crush his heart completely and kill him.

{Are you ready back there?} Saroth craned his neck back so that he could take a quick look at his passengers. He had wasted little time in removing his robes and shifting into his fifty foot full dragon form. He could not help but thrill in that feeling of size and power, and of imminent and expansive potentiality that being a dragon gave him. His scales were a deep rich bronze, as well were the ridges that grew down his back along his spine. It was to those ridges that both Electra and Sean now clung.

“We’re ready,” Sean called back, his beak broken into an avian grin. Despite the seriousness of what they intended to investigate, Sean shared with him the joy of flying. He seemed even more excited by the fact that this time he’d be flying not of his own power but that of Saroth’s, so he could enjoy the experience just like the first time he had back on Magdalain Island.

Saroth nodded his head and stared up into the sky. He lifted his wings high, and tensed his legs. The clouds, which most of the time were so inviting, were worried, nervous, and quiet. With one powerful thrust of his wings and legs, he pushed himself into the freedom of the air. He beat his wings several times, to the awe and consternation of the Keepers close by who had gathered to watch the dragon leap into the air and take flight. Quite a few of them had been knocked backwards by the sudden gust of air.

The air welcomed the man who had become a dragon, but it took several more wing beats before he could feel the air itself lifting him higher. Saroth stretched out his wings as he circled up on those currents of air, flapping from time to time until he could get higher into the sky. He could feel the grip of both Electra nd Sean as they held on tightly to the ridges between his wings. There was no safer place to be on his back though. Unless he did something drastic like flip over, they’d have no trouble staying aloft.

{Lets talk to the clouds, shall we?} Saroth felt the rush of joy at being in the sky once more, and was for a moment secretly glad that the clouds had become disturbed. He had not relished the thought of a day spent completely on the ground. It just did not seem natural to him at all.

But the seriousness of the matter was brought back quickly to his mind as they rose higher and higher into the sky. That morning, the clouds had been very high indeed, only stray whisps at the very edge of where Saroth could even fly. Now they had begun to collect at comfortable altitudes, so it only took him a few minutes to be amongst them.

He stared at them from below and saw that they were slowly connecting together bit by bit, the pieces forming one continuous whole. The surface of the clouds looked like waves rolling gently in the sea, with long horizontal cross sections. Their uneasiness brought another image to mind as he gazed up into their white embrace. They also reminded him of long rib bones stretched endlessly together. The image was so horrifying, that he closed his eyes for a moment to rid his mind of its stony embrace.

Saroth angled between a break in the clouds, noting their unhappiness immediately. He could feel it in every change of contour, and most especially when the dragon slid his wings through their soft substance. And that disquiet filled him too. Still, though he was amongst them as he had hoped to be, he could not yet hear all that they were saying to each other. He had never heard the clouds whispering so softly before.

“So what’s the verdict?” Electra called out.

{I don’t know,} Saroth replied morosely. {They are very unhappy about something though. I just don’t know what yet. Can you see anything Sean?}

The golden eagle’s talons dug a little deeper into his bony ridge, but he could only feel it as an increase in pressure. “No, not here in the clouds. I see subtle traces of magic along them, but nothing I can make sense of. It doesn’t really look like the sort of spells I’ve seen you both use to manipulate the weather before.”

“It isn’t what we would use,” Electra confirmed. Saroth did not dare angle his head back to see what they were looking at specifically. His own magic sight was not terribly strong, so he concentrated on flying instead. The clouds seemed thicker the further South they went, so Saroth began to head in that direction.

{So what sort of magic is it?}

“I’m not sure. I don’t think it is an active spell at all,” Electra shouted over the whipping of the wind across the dragon’s body. He had no trouble hearing her though.

“It’s very faint, almost fuzzy in places,” Sean added, clearly confused. “It’s like it’s a reflection of a spell rather than a spell itself.”

{A reflection? Is that possible?}

“All magic leaves a residue on anything nearby when it was cast. It’s not really magic itself, just an imprint of magic. You can’t do anything with it except study it. I’ve read that some scholars in Marigund have used that method to uncover the secrets of ancient wizards, or at least, some of them. But almost nobody can actually see the reside unless the magic is particularly strong.”

{So whatever spell these clouds saw was very strong.} Saroth replied thoughtfully. He certainly did not like the sound of that. They were now flying South of the Keep down the valley. The castle was left behind them and below them now sloped away rolling green hills, forests and farmlands. A steady line of travellers along the road seemed a river of reds, golds, and blues.

“Yes.” Electra paused, and Saroth could feel something different. The clouds coming up the valley were no longer so unhappy. They were more curious and had not yet been stilled into silent trepidation. “The residue’s gone.”

“I can still see it,” Sean added. “But it is fading quickly.”

{What does that mean?}

“That means that the spell is at Metamor,” Electra’s voice was becoming increasingly worried. “And I’d say being cast right now.”

{Is it dangerous?} Saroth asked, rising a little bit higher so he could bank and make the turn back North to the Keep.

“It might be. Hurry back, we have to find the source of this spell.”

The bronze dragon did not need any more motivation.

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