Lineaments of Coming Night

Part VI

So now you understand the reason why I could not risk speaking to the Duke,” the Marquis said after the moment’s silence had begun to stretch into several long seconds. Faces were taut and frightened, and bodies trembled from a chill wind. The salt air was no longer a pleasant blanket rolling across their flesh, but a rasp that dug into their skin.

“No,” Phil replied, his eyes narrowing as if in great concentration. “No, I do not understand. You could still have secretly sent a message to Duke Thomas. There were ways you could have spoken to him without Yonson discovering this.”

But Camille du Tournemire shook his head. “Perhaps if Thomas had been himself. But doubtless you have heard the rumours from Metamor about the strange things surrounding Duke Thomas. From what I can tell, there was a magical ensorcelement placed upon him, one that was slowly eating away at his mind. I was given to understand that this enchantment was broken not long before I arrived at Metamor, but nevertheless, it gave me pause.

“Further, should my identity be discovered, even whispered in the right ears, I knew my life was at risk, and my message to you, which could be of more importance, would be at risk. I knew that you could send word to Duke Thomas and our enemy Yonson would not suspect that you had heard from me. Then, they could deal with the ambassador and hopefully put an end to his part in this evil.”

The Marquis paused and spread his hands helplessly. “And it is why I have had to hide at every turn and deny that I have ever been to Metamor to everyone now until I have come into your presence.” He glanced back over his shoulder at the uniformed man who waited back by the door with a stony expression on his face. “I am sorry that I lied about where I had come from, Commodore, but I could not risk that the corruption had already infected the Whalish forces.”

“The corruption?” Phil asked, leaning forward. “And why did you need to lie to my man?”

The Marquis turned back, his face full of regret. “I did not want to, but were I to admit that I had been to Metamor, than any who have been corrupted by Marzac would know that I had uncovered its treachery. Had Commodore Pythoreas been corrupted, I and my men would never have seen the inside of this castle. Not even my own servants in Tournemire truly know where I have gone.”

The Marquis laughed mirthlessly and shook his head. His eyes cast to the South once more and out over the wide balcony. The sun was shining now and cast firm shadows. The seas glittered as if they were littered with thousands of jewels. “It is truly a horrible thing to know the destruction that awaits the world. You know that it will take all of our effort to forestall this doom, but you also know that a word into the wrong ear, and your life is already over, and your mission a failure.” He closed his eyes and took a deep pained breath. When he opened them at last, he once more was staring at the rabbit. Phil regarded him sympathetically, but also with some measure of distance. “I have had to be very, very cautious about speaking to any at all. You are the first to whom I have addressed these concerns.

“I choose you for several reasons. I know that you are closely allied with Metamor, and had served in that duchy for some many years. I have also heard it said that you keep good and wise council. But I also know, that when you returned here to Whales from Metamor, your vessel sailed around the western edge of the isle, and not it’s eastern shore. And that, I am afraid, may have decided matters for me. There is one other reason, but it may be mere coincidence. That you did not, but sailed to the west is what gives me the most confidence.”

“Why would that matter?” Lycias asked, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Still, it was clear that neither Lycias nor Prince Phil yet understood the importance of his words.

“Because of the corrupting influence of Marzac.” The Marquis frowned. “I told you that I never again saw any of my men who ventured into the swamps. The only ones who I have ever see return have been Cardinal Geshter and Bishop Jothay. And after Patriarch Akabaieth’s assassination and Geshter’s elevation to succeed him, I think it should be very clear what power was behind Akabaieth’s murder.”

“It was Zagrosek who killed him,” Phil said, a visceral snarl upon his muzzle. Or at least as much as could be seen on a rabbit.

Camille nodded at that. “Is that so? I was afraid it may have been him.” The Marquis narrowed his eyes, and then shook his head. “That is just one more of Marzac’s crimes. And one more thing to blame myself for, and to seek redemption for now. One day I will have repaid all the mistakes I have made. I hope that today is the beginning of that journey.”

He took a deep breath, and let the bitter breath flow from his mouth. “But it is the corruption that Marzac brings to all who enter its demesnes. There is one thing more that I did not tell you. I have sent not only men into the jungle, but once I become certain that the jungle itself was not safe, I also sent a few ships along the shore. They were instructed never to land, but only to watch.

“None of them returned either.”

For a few seconds, they were all quiet. Only the sound of the breeze coming in across the balcony and the subtle, mechanical sounds of the town met their ears. At last, Lycias shifted in his seat and crossed his legs. “So you are saying that the coast of Marzac is unsafe for any navigation?”

“And perhaps even further upon the sea. Remember, the Coral Basin used to be dry land five hundred years ago. The sea clearly mitigates some of the power of Marzac to corrupt, elsewise every ship that sailed through the Coral Basin would have already become agents of darkness. But Marzac’s power seems to be growing. The water alone may not be enough. I have been studying the books that I have acquired over the last five years, searching for some protection one might employ that could forestall the corruption for a time. But I have seen little that works. And without any such protection, one would have no way of knowing if they were risking their crew and themselves.

“This brings me to my request. My plea.” The Marquis looked Prince Phil in the face, and he held out his hands. “Whatever you do, you must keep the Whalish Fleet away from Marzac. Not only away from its shores, but I also recommend out of the Coral Basin altogether. Marzac is growing in power. The appearance of the censer proves this. I do not think it long before the dias and the sword of Yajakali will also be seen.”

“You want me to draw the Whalish fleet back so greatly?” Phil was clearly shocked to hear this. His ears were up right, and his whole body was agitation. “We have trade agreements with Marylith, Yesulam, Eavey and Stuthgansk. The Coral Basin is the quickest route between them. You would have me divert all of my vessels around the Cape of Lavelock? It takes nearly a year to sail completely around the Southlands!”

“I know,” The Marquis nodded his head regretfully. “And it would be difficult to abide by those agreements. But consider what could happen if the crew of one of your ships were indeed corrupted. Can you imagine what Marzac might do if it were to gain control of a vessel equipped with Whalish fire? If you continue to send ships through the pass, you will be fighting a war with your own fleet very, very quickly.”

Phil lowered his head and considered those words. After a long moment, he nodded slowly and took a deep breath. Disquieted, he answered, “If the danger is as you say, then you are right. I dare not risk any of my ships, and certainly not those equipped with Whalish Fire. But I have much to consider. If you do not mind, I would like to confer privately with my councilors before we continue any further.”

“There is still some left to tell,” the Marquis pointed out.

“And you will be able to tell it. But for now I must think and ponder and discuss with those I know well. I will have Commodore Pythoreas see you and your men to one of the guest suites until we are finished. I’ll have something delivered for the noon meal as well.”

He waited a moment, measuring the dark eyes amidst the white fur, and then nodded slowly. “Very well, your highness. What you say is wise. I will leave you for a time, enjoy my repast, and when you are ready to hear more of what I have to say, I shall return and speak it.” He rose stiffly from having sat down too long, and then bowed deeply. “Again, I wish I had better news to bring to you.”

“The news you bring is very important, Camille. I just hope that things are already not too late.”

“As do I,” the Marquis replied. He then turned and followed after the Commodore who regarded him with dour abstraction. Vigoureux and Sir Autrefois followed along behind. His steward still carried the mahogany case. The Marquis did not even glance at it as he passed them both. After all, it could wait for when he returned. It could wait.

Weyden had been expecting them, but the two strangers who approached the round room at the base of the tower steps were still a surprise. Both kept their faces cowled. At least until they had stepped into the doorway. The man drew back his cowl and showed a narrow but well-fleshed face with a head of black hair. His eyes were discerning, but not threatening. The woman did not draw back her cowl.

The man was vaguely familiar to Weyden, as Yonson had promised he would be. The hawk tried to remember when he might have seen him. It had to have been in Tournemire, since Weyden had never been in any of the Marquis’s other holdings. Regardless, he stood up a little straighter as did the rest of the guards. “State your business, stranger.” Both London and Humphrey, who were the closest to the entrance, drew their swords.

“We come in the service of Marquis Camille du Tournemire and are expected.” The man’s voice was firm and brooked no argument.

Weyden nodded his head and gestured with the end of one wing. “Ambassador Yonson is awaiting you in the Belfry.”

The man smiled, even as the two guards sheathed their swords. The two cloaked figures walked past and began to ascend the stairs. Weyden could not help but feel a tingle race up his spine. He felt distinctly uncomfortable then, and his crest began to lift to show his agitation. His Dokorath pendant began to feel very warm indeed.

He narrowed his golden eyes and turned to stare at the staircase, but both strangers were already gone. All that echoed down were the quiet tread of their footsteps on stone.

{See anything?} Saroth asked as he flew back over top of the towers of Metamor. The city lay below them like one of those dioramas he had seen in the castle. The people and roads were all small, and they moved about like workers ants swarming around the nest. And there sure were an awful lot of them today. Normally he could pick out a few people down there. But today they all blended together.

“The castle is covered in magic,” Electra replied. “It will take more than a few seconds you know.”

{Oh, sorry.}

“We just have to look for something unusual,” Electra replied, even as she shifted about on his back to get a better vantage of the castle.

The bronze dragon began to glide around the castle in a slow lazy circle. He could still feel the trepidation from the clouds and it put him on edge. His eyes stole to his own tower, but it was just as he had left it that morning. The wide balcony was empty and waiting for him to return. It held his eyes for only a short time though. With the clouds overhead in such a curious state, he could not contemplate doing anything else until this mystery was solved.

“Look there,” Sean said, and Saroth could feel one of the eagle’s taloned hands lifting free of his ridge to point. “There’s something really strange around that tower.”

“The Belfry?” Electra asked.

Saroth turned his head to look at the Belfry. The bell tower had four open sections of wall from out of which the bells could be heard. He was up too high to see inside, but even so, there seemed to be a haze of some sort within them. Curious, he began to glide down and around so that he could see. Of course, at that height, he had to draw a bit further in and keep a closer watch on where he was flying so that he did not fly into one of the other towers.

“Yeah,” replied Sean as his hand grabbed at the dragon’s ridge once more. “There’s definitely something there. It looks like there’s some sort of air controlling spell surrounding the entire belfry. See? Someone has set up a clockwise barrier of wind all around the inside of the belfry.”

{That’s weather magic!} Saroth chimed in. Even he could see it and feel it now. Instinctively, he reached his thoughts towards the flow of magic. There was an electric tang to them, as if he were flying into a storm cloud. Suddenly alarmed, he drew back his will, and flapped heavily. It took only a moment to draw them up away from the Belfry tower and that spell.

“Hey,” objected Sean loudly. “Why did you fly away? I was just figuring it out.”

{There’s something wrong with that spell,} Saroth replied, his thoughts very heavy in their minds. He was not going to let Sean hurt himself, or heaven forbid, accidentally amplify that spell.

“Saroth’s right,” chimed in Electra. Her breath seemed ragged as if from exertion. “It is not just a wall of wind, but a shield of air and magic. I tried to see through it, but it blocked me. But one thing is certain. That’s weather magic.”

“But if both of you are here, then who cast that spell?” Sean asked.

There really was only one other person in all of Metamor who was competent enough in using magic to manipulate the weather. They had never really spoken much, despite their commonality. Saroth considered it his duty to jealously guard the secret of the location of the weather control spells that by and large kept the valley’s weather hospitable to farmers. Sure, there had been times in the last year when other spells had interfered with them, such as Loriod’s own spell, or Nasoj’s during the assault six months ago, but by and large things had been relatively normal.

And even though Ambassador Yonson was from the Southern mage clan known as the Weathermongers, he had deliberately stayed out of the way of the Keep’s own weather mages. In fact, he had not cast any weather spells at all. But the fact remained, there was no one else in all of Metamor that could have cast the spell that now curled and swirled around the Belfry like a tornado.

Yonson was there, and he was responsible.

{It was Yonson,} Saroth thought to them both at last. {I don’t know why, but it’s him.}

“The Ambassador from Pyralia?”

“That’s him,” Electra agreed. “But there is one problem.”

{What’s that?}

Electra seemed to sigh. “The residues we saw on the clouds? They are not remotely similar to that air spell.”

Saroth narrowed his eyes, but of course, he could not see the residues the way that Electra and Sean could. But his disappointment lasted only moments as Sean let out a gasp. “It’s hiding them! The air spell is hiding the real spells, the ones that left the residue. You can just barely see it at the edges. I’m trying to get through to get a better look, but I’ve never seen a better magical shield than this. If that air spell would just falter, I could do it.”

{I could bring us in closer,} Saroth suggested.

“Yes,” Electra replied. “But let’s be careful. I want to get a look before we do anything foolish.”

Saroth could not help but ruminate that he thought involving themselves in any sort of spellcasting that had cowed the clouds was already pretty foolish.

“I heard that,” Electra chided him, though not without a bit of nervousness in her voice.

Despite the foolishness, Saroth definitely wanted to know more. If Yonson was deliberately antagonizing the clouds, then he truly must be doing something awful. And Saroth certainly wasn’t going to stand for that! He slowly turned back and neared the Belfry once more so that Electra and Sean could get a closer look at that spell.

The pain thundered into his head like a stampeding herd of horses out in the Steppes. There was a weight pining his chest to the ground as if he’d been crushed beneath the foundation of Metamor itself. Despite his best efforts, he could draw no breath into his lungs, and his heart was pumping ineffectually at best. There was a haze in his mind, pinpricks of needles and light that seemed to snatch at his concentration as if it were a cat’s claws batting through a ball of yarn.

In some corner of his assaulted mind he recalled that he was lying upon the ground outside the Shoeshine Inn, and that Kayla was perched over him trying to help him in whatever way she could imagine. And that woman, that Runecaster, had somehow tied the cords of magic about his heart like a knot. The only thing that was keeping him alive was his own hold on those cords of magic, which allowed his heart to beat some, though it was erratic and not enough to save him if he did not find some way to untie these cords of magic.

But as the pressure had intensified, Rickkter had been forced to let other bits of his awareness slip away. He focussed all of his thoughts and energies on undoing the bindings that were wound as tight as a sailor’s knot. And slowly, the world about him had faded away. Even the cries of Kayla and the startled calls of onlookers vanished. They had slowly slipped away, as if the entire universe were receding from him. The last he had remembered of them, their voices had come from across a great gulf as wide as the oceans themselves. And then, there was nothing but the dark, the quiet, and the agony.

The cords of magic were taut about his heart, and tightening further. His fingers, which had once been slipped into the cracks to hold it apart were slowly being edged out by the pulsing bands of energy. He continued to try to wedge them back inside. He knew that should he lose his grip, he was going to die. Rickkter had fought far too long and hard to die, not here, and not like this.

His awareness of his body began to fade as he pushed harder, focussing his will like a living needle into those threads. He pushed and prodded, trying to work even one loose from this mesmerizing knot. But it pulsed and tightened, squeezing at the pinprick of his will, pushing at it with vile certainty.

As less and less blood made its way to his mind, he began to see the world populated with stars. The dancing array of lights swirled above him, settling for brief moments in strange configurations, though he thought some of the apparent constellations were familiar. Long lost memories bubbled up through the haze of pain and confusion, and he could almost compare them, but a surprising sense of other, of something not capable of being, had twisted them oddly.

He shuddered when he felt that presence, that strange thought that flickered amongst his own rather balefully. It pressed down on him as well, and for a moment, Rickkter felt his will bend. And then, he slipped free from that oppressive weight, that crushing force that would blot out his very identity. He allowed it to have everything, everything but his will and those cords about his heart. There was a sense of channelling as the needle grew, thickened between the cords, of burning, smouldering, and there seemed to be a brief memory of charred flesh.

The cords writhed against the red hot poker of his will, the only thing that was left. Infused with magic of its own, it drove deeper into the cords, sliding them away from his heart. Mightily they struggled to remain coiled, but one by one, they squirmed free. At last, the knot collapsed and dispersed into the empty nothingness around, leaving only the will and the unmoving bit of flesh.

That will widened and surrounded the heart, gripping it tightly and forcing it to move once more. It was becoming difficult to remain focussed, the stars were growing in profusion, the blackness filling with austere colours washed out by lime. There remained only one thing that could be done. He pushed. And pushed. The will against the heart, infusing each and every effort with a deepening urgency.

And then it began to move.

At first it was slow, unsteady and uncertain. But then the bit of flesh, corpuscular at last, once more began to beat with renewed vitality. Accomplished, the will began to falter, as the stars one by one began to blink out of existence as if they were being blown out by a heavenly breath.

His will finally dissipated when the last one winked out into the night. That sensation of another presence went with it. He was quiet again, whoever he was.

Rickkter sat up slowly, rubbing at his chest with one paw. Kayla sat next to him, her face flush with worry. The sweet scent of meat and mead surrounded him, as well as the scents of the Keepers who crowded about him. Blinking open his eyes, he saw that he was in some building with black lacquered tables. It was familiar. Though he was sitting, everyone else was standing around him, and looking at him eye to eye with worried and frightened faces.

The Shoeshine Inn. They’d taken him inside and laid him out on one of the tables.

“Rick!” Kayla cried as he sat up. He turned to face her, his flesh trembling visibly.

“What happened?” he asked, his voice raw as if he’d been screaming. Had he been?

“We stepped outside to go to the Duke’s Council chambers, and then you just screamed and fell to the ground clutching your chest. Rick, what happened?” Kayla was clearly frightened, and he could see that tears had stained her monochromatic cheeks.

They’d been going to see the Duke. Something about a flower hadn’t it? No, the kangaroo. He blinked and felt his chest, and he could tell it was sore as if everybody had taken turns sitting on him and then bouncing up and down with all their weight.

The hyacinth. It’s name came back to his mind unbidden, and so too with it, it’s elusive natrue. Habakkuk had asked him to burn the hyacinth. And now Habakkuk wanted Kayla to meet with Thomas, but not Rickkter. They’d been going to see Thomas when...

“Zag!” Rickkter shouted, jumping to his hind paws. “I... saw him. That...” Rickkter stared around the room. All faces were turned to him now, and even the conversations had hushed to quiet whispers. He half expected to find that damnable Sondecki in the Inn, but of course, there were only Keepers and other innocent travellers.

“Zag?” Kayla asked, frowning. Her long tail lashed behind her in confusion and strife. “Who is he?”

“Never mind now,” Rickkter said, gesturing to some of the onlookers to step aside. When they had done so, he jumped down from the table and held out his paw to her. “We have to warn the Duke.” Kayla placed her paw in his, and he lead her once more outside. He did not wait on the steps, but proceeded towards the castle amongst the throng. When they were a good ten paces from the Shoeshine Inn’s steps, he pulled her by the wrist to his side. “Zagrosek is the one who did this to me. Him and his companion. They took me by surprise, but I think they hoped to kill me. Well, they failed. And now I’m going to find them and kill them both.”

Kayla blinked and nodded her head. “But who is he?”

“Zagrosek?” He thought briefly of telling her about his encounter with the Sondecki in the stables on the night they rescued Duke Thomas from a simple equine life. But he had never told Kayla of that night, and so she would not understand now. Still, there was one thing that all at Metamor knew and recalled with sickening horror.

“Why,” Rickkter snarled through his teeth, “he is the very man who slew the Patriarch.”

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