Lineaments of Coming Night
he stairs were wide enough for three of them to climb abreast, though they generally stayed in their two by two formation most of the way up. The steps were made of the same gray stone as most of the castle, though there did not appear to be nearly as much wear on them as elsewhere in the Keep. The edges of the step were still sharp and had not been rounded by years of use. Flambeaux burned in sconces along every turn, casting a warm yellow glow to the curving passage. Periodically, a small window would let in a shaft of soft light to further illuminate their way.
Charles wondered idly whether the torches were lit on a regular basis, or only when somebody was going to go up to the Belfry far above. He did not wonder long though. There were far more important things for the rat to be worried about now.
When he’d first heard the summons, he had thought that Habakkuk was intent on making some scene that would further complicate life for Matthias and others. Though he was by all reckoning right, he had never expected that it would be about Marzac and all that had happened in the last year. Even so, there was a great deal he did not understand. He suspected that part of it was explained before he had arrived with Misha and James. He felt sorry for his friend the donkey. James was probably more confused than any of them. And that bothered Charles some. Why had Habakkuk wanted James there anyway?
It was also gratingly clear that in the last five months the rat had missed quite a lot that had happened at Metamor. He had heard some of it from Misha when the fox had come out with the other Longs when his children had been born. But of this hyacinth? That was completely new to him. Whatever it had been must have been powerful. It made them all forget things. It had probably been why they had forgotten that Yonson was from Marzac too. If not, then this censer’s connection to the place would surely have been uncovered before this.
Still, after hearing Habakkuk’s tale of his own life, he could not help but feel some renewed sympathy for the man. How many horrors was he carrying around in his head? Charles could not imagine the strength it took to hide those pains away and continue laughing and drinking with friends. The rat felt ashamed suddenly at his own behaviour. He’d rolled his eyes at the thought of having to talk with the kangaroo! Maybe all this time Zhypar had merely been trying to do the right thing given what he knew. Was Charles just being too stubborn and not giving him enough credit?
He grumbled under his breath and looked ahead at Misha’s back. They were taking the stairs quickly, but not at a run. There were a lot of stairs to climb, and the last thing they needed to do was exhaust themselves before they grappled with Yonson and the two others. Charles felt his heart tighten. Zagrosek was supposed to be one of the other two. His closest childhood friend was supposed to be up there and be their enemy. That he would believe only when he saw it himself. Zagrosek had aided Metamor during the assault! He was not their enemy. It had to be a ruse. He just knew it.
But even so, he wondered just what they thought they were going to do. He had heard about the censer through Thomas, Phil and Wessex. Though Phil had left for Whales and Wessex was dead, he could still recall what they had said had happened last Spring when that evil device was brought to Metamor from Lorland. That was when ‘Zagrosek’ was supposed to have first appeared.
And of course, he remembered what had happened when Wessex had opened the section of hallway that the censer had been taken too. He suppressed a shudder. In his mind he could still hear that soul shattering wail as the Shrieker had first clawed its way through the poor wizard’s chest. His ears began to ache just from the memory of it, and he could not help but keep his paws from grasping each other, claws digging into the soft pink flesh. Would they face another now? Ah, Eli, he hoped not.
Quite suddenly, the rat relished the comparably petty concern over whether he should continue life as a scout or a knight.
“Madog?” Misha’s voice carried back around the bend of the stairs. Charles took the steps two at a time and nearly stepped on Rickkter’s striped tail. The main landing below the Belfry was just ahead, where the staircase divided into two. Sitting before the curved wall around which the pulley system for the bells was contained was the mechanical fox. Madog had a worried look in his eyes, and he held up one brass paw plaintively towards the leader of the Long Scouts.
“Some thing bad here, Poppa,” Madog whined like a puppy who’d lost his mother.
Misha knelt down for a moment beside the automaton, his one good ear perked upright. Rickkter slid over to the right staircase and sniffed at the air. He grimaced, and then moved to the left and sniffed again. “They went this way,” he said, looking down at the pair impatiently. “Bring him along. He did good against Zag last time.”
“We need your help, Madog. The man who hurt you is in the Belfry above.”
Madog lowered his head, and his tail tucked against his haunches. The others were beginning to spill onto the landing. Charles found himself pressed up near the raccoon, but did not object when he felt the fuliginous stain of the Kankoran touch his own power.
“I can’t go up there, Poppa,” Madog whined once more.
Misha frowned, his grip tightening on the haft of Whisper. “Why not, Madog?”
“There is a great deal of power here,” Abafouq said in nervous awe. “It’s like a blanket of energy just wrapping tighter and tighter.”
“Something’s blocking me, Poppa,” the automaton said pitifully. There was shame in that voice, and Charles felt a momentary pang. He had never had the fortune of spending much time with Madog, but he treasured what time he had. Never had he seen the mechanical fox so downcast as he did now.
Malisa was standing back next to the Binoq and she nodded her head gravely. “Yes, something’s clearly happening. We need to move quickly if we even want to be able to get through this.”
“What is it?” Rickkter shot back, opening his own eyes widely, as if he were seeing something not there.
“A protection field,” Abafouq replied. “They are casting pelts over everything.”
“Pelts?” James asked in confusion, looking up at the trembling roof over their head, and back down at the automaton, his face a perpetual state of amazement. Soot was beginning to drift down from the masonry as if massive detonations were taking place only yards above them.
“Nets,” Jessica supplied, “I think that’s the analogy.”
“Yes,” Rickkter said with a sullen nod. “They’re casting nets around the Belfry and drawing them tighter. If we don’t get up there in the next few minutes, we won’t be able to at all. And once they are drawn tight, we won’t be able to leave either.”
“Unless we kill them,”Charles declared, gripping the hilt of the sword at his side.
Rickkter looked down and saw that, and then fished into his robes. He withdrew a small metallic cylinder that was very familiar. Rolling it in his palm, the racoon held it out to Charles. “Here. And do give it back this time.”
Charles snorted but took the Sondeshike. “I will.”
“But why can’t Madog come?” Misha asked, a snarl in his voice. The automaton’s head was hung low against the fox’s chest.
“He’s too big for the holes in the net,” Abafouq explained. “As a magical creature, he cannot get through them. In another moment neither will we.”
Misha nodded slowly then, patted Madog once more on the top of his head and then straightened up. “Wait here, Madog. I’ll be back.” Madog nuzzled his hand once with one more whine. He then lowered his head to his paws and looked after his master with soulful eyes. To the rest, Misha just nodded his head, climbing up the left hand stairs. “Let’s go!”
Charles slipped the sword out of his buckler and passed the hilt to James. “Just remember everything you’ve learned and you’ll do fine.”
“I’ve never done this for real,” James stuttered, true fright beginning to fill his eyes. He gripped the sword hesitantly, as if it were a snake.
“You will do fine,” Charles assured him, and then started up the steps, following Rickkter and Misha. “Just remember what you learned. Remember that you aren’t going to be alone, and you’ll do fine.”
James offered him a weak smile, but he did grip the sword more tightly as he followed after the rat up the stairs. These stairs were narrower, and in fact they narrowed even further very quickly so that they could climb only in single file. And there was a strange sense of energy about them, something that clung to their fur for a moment, and dragged through them like thin fish wire. For a moment, Charles felt his entire body sizzling as if he’d sat upon the surface of a forge, and then it passed, and even the memory of that brief pain left him.
Thankfully, this set of stairs was shorter than the one they climbed a moment ago. It seemed only moments after he left Madog’s presence before he could feel his chest tighten in anticipation, listening as the wood creaked over his head. Rickkter had reached the Belfry and stepped through. There was a sharp intake of breath – it might have been his own – and then a very familiar voice seemed to purr.
“Ah, you survived.”
The tone was amused but caustic, and there was a trace of the sense of understatement that he was so very familiar with. The accent, the emphasis, all of it was too clear for him to deny. If this was an imitation, it touched his heart and mind in a way no illusion could ever accomplish. He’d seen some of Murikeer the skunk’s illusions, and while remarkable, they did not bring back seventeen years of memory.
That voice did.
Charles was up the stairs and into the Belfry a moment later, crowding in behind Misha and Rickkter who had both only take a few short steps away before stopping and standing their ground. But he did not need to see the dark-haired man dressed in the black robes of a Sondeckis to know that he was Krenek Zagrosek.
“Krenek!” Charles called out as he stepped between the fox and raccoon. Dimly, he was aware of his friends coming up out of the stairs behind them and fanning out, drawing what weapons they had. He thought he heard that Binoq begin to chant something. The very details of the place escaped him in that moment as he stared into the dark eyes of his childhood friend. There, behind the corneas, was a soul that he recognized immediately. What little hope he had left that this was a ruse died like the last smouldering ashes of a firepit when kicked and doused with water.
The man turned his regard upon the rat, and he felt stress clutch at his heart. There was a familiarity there, a comradely smile gracing those supple lips. “Charles. I wish I could say that it is good to see you. I had hoped that with your exile you would never again be called to fight against us. I do not wish to kill you.”
“You don’t have to,” Rickkter said with a snarl, levelling the point of his katana at the man. With his other paw he drew out the smaller blade, the wakizashi. “I am here to kill you.”
Zagrosek raised an eyebrow from curiosity. From the sleeve of his robe he withdrew his own Sondeshike and nimbly spun it through his fingers. He had not even extended it yet and already the metal whistled in the air. “Truly? You will not find me an easy victim.”
Misha brought the obsidian axe to bear, and he spun it once in his paws. “You and the rest will die,” the fox snarled, and for the first time, Charles was capable of seeing what lay in the rest of the room. The massive brass bells suspended in the middle occupied the centre of the chamber, and obscuring their vision of what lay at the opposite end. But it was clear that somebody or something was there. There were four quadrants of the outside walls that were carved out and left open to the air. But outside of them, a wall of wind moved rapidly, bleaching the sky an opaque gray. To their left, a lemur stood gripping a tall staff fashioned from ash and fulgurites. His blue eyes gleamed powerfully, and light seemed to coruscate at the ends of his paws.
“You have no chance of defeating us,” Zagrosek said, his grin wry. “You are hopelessly outnumbered.” He then stepped back a few paces, his free hand inviting them closer. “Of course, you are certainly welcome to stay. Agathe, would you provide some entertainment for our guests?”
Rickkter advanced on him, as did Charles, although Misha kept a close eye on Yonson, his eyes as dark as the axe he held in his paws. The rat did not see what anyone else was doing, nor could he really hear them either. Although the colossal sonority of the massive brass bells that hung suspended in the centre of the chamber seemed to be generating a sort of subsonic hum, the throbbing in his muscles was not coming from them. There was something more, some strange thing beyond, something other that was drawing at them, feeling them and pressing against them.
And when his eyes fell upon it, he knew that he had found the source of his discomfort, and of the evil that had come to Metamor. It was a golden censer with a multifaceted base. Into the base had been scrawled a strange symbol, different for each face. The main body was riddled with designs of demons and humans as their playthings. Erotic or merely sadistic, the poses were all horrifying and the rat could half feel sulfurous hands upon his chest, and an even weightier presence upon his back living out those brutal images.
At the top of the censer a black candle burned, creating a hazy mist that seemed to hover in the air directly above the censer. A strange distortion existed there, if anything could be said to exist, and what he saw through that haze did not precisely resemble that which surely lurked behind it. There were strange shapes in that haze, indistinct and dark, that flashed back and forth like the flickering of lightning in storm clouds.
Beside them stood a third figure, this one dressed in the purple robes of a Runecaster. He recognized the pointing figure heraldry inscribed in the robe. With a flick of her shoulders, she tossed back the hood and turned her gaze to meet them. Her cheeks were gouged by fire, revealing muscle, sinew, and bone beneath, each exposed and parched white. Her right eye socket was a vast red pit that seemed to dig deeper than her skull as it vanished into her mind. It glowed balefully, and made the rat pause in his approach.
“Men,” she said derisively, though it was not clear for whom the comment was meant. Lifting her hands, she began to draw out intricate designs in the air, each alighting for a moment in blue flame. As she drew, her hands moving as quickly as a weaver’s, the distortion seemed to grow more clear, though no less dark.
Charles took a step back, and he bumped into James who had come up behind him. “Be careful,” the rat stuttered, feeling his heart clench tight. Before him, Zagrosek had gripped his Sondeshike in both hands and was waiting on the raccoon’s advance. Both of them seemed oblivious to what the Runecaster was doing.
“What’s happening?” the donkey asked, ears lowered to each side.
Charles never found the breath to answer. For even as James was still speaking, the air split in two, and a sound that brought every cell in his body to a stop erupted from the haze above the censer. Something black and awful careened forth, colliding with one of the bells. It split then, and rolled away in three separate piles. The bell itself sizzled and thrummed in agony, and a bit of molted slag dripped down the end that had been struck. Each of the three black balls of sizzling energy began to rise up, a lanky form that was vaguely humanoid, though upon their faces Charles could see but one thing, a mouth.
“By Eli!” Charles cried out. “Shriekers!”
As if their name had summoned them, the three advanced like the wind.
Rickkter’s grip on his blades was loose but firm. His advance on the black robed Sondeckis that stood before him almost casually gripping his Sondeshike was sure though. One foot paw after another, he neared the man who was slowly backing up, but not nearly as quickly. His lean, almost skeletal face regarded the raccoon carefully. Despite his confidence, he did not seem to be a foe who would ever underestimate any he faced.
There was something incongruous about the way he held the Sondeshike though. He gripped it in both hands as if it were a normal stave. His hands were far apart, whereas most Sondeckis preferred to grip the metal shaft in the centre, where the could more easily spin it on its axis. But even that did not seem to be what tickled the raccoon’s memory. Rickkter narrowed his eyes and spun the katana once around his paw, trying to keep himself between the man and the shadows that lined the edges of the walls.
His arm had crawled away and into a shadow when they had last faced each other.
Rickkter smiled slightly then as the memory came rushing back. They had all been forced into full animal state by the magic of the halter while Madog had assaulted this man. Though he had used the shadows to burn the mechanical fox, it had not been before Madog had bitten clean through this man’s left arm.
The left arm had apparently come back.
“Didn’t you lose that arm?” Rickkter asked, taking another step forward.
Zagrosek smiled lightly and took a step back. Behind him, something dark and foul rushed past, but Rickkter paid it only a moment’s notice. It did not seem interested in him, at least not then.
“It was just a flesh wound.”
“Then perhaps you need a few more.” Rickkter snarled, before thrusting out the katana. He expected it to be blocked, and Zagrosek did with a quick shift of his elbows. The blade and staff metal in a metallic ring, the very first crossing of their weapons. Both raccoon and man smiled a secret thirsty smile. It had been a long time for both of them since they had killed one of their clan’s traditional enemies.
Rickkter slid his blade down along the Sondeshike, the grate of steel upon steel piercing enough that it irritated his own ears. But he knew it was coming, and so bore it without undue discomfort. Zagrosek twisted his elbow again and took another step back and to the left. Out of the corner of his eye, Rickkter could see the Runecaster that had nearly killed him an hour or so ago. Zagrosek seemed intent to force the raccoon’s back to her. That was not something he would allow happen either.
With a step of his own to the left, he thrust again at the Sondecki’s chest. But he twisted at the last moment and angled for the shoulder. Zagrosek brought the Sondeshike to deflect the blow, and Rickkter could feel his own arm spasm with the force of the impact. The dark man’s eyes narrowed perceptibly, and he then began to press his own attack, wheeling the Sondesike in a side to side sweep. Rickkter kept his blades between himself and those powerful ferrules, gritting his teeth in frustration.
He would see this man dead. It was time to really start fighting.
It was amazing how a day could begin one way and change completely several times during its course. That morning, staring down from the mountain’s height at the castle of Metamor, Abafouq had felt boundless enthusiasm and anticipation. Finally, after the five years of solitude in the crags of the Barrier Range with only his avian keeper for company, he would finally be amongst kindred spirits. And the task that they had been preparing for all those years was finally at hand. It was a heady time to be alive, and he had meant to enjoy it to the full.
And then, when they had actually arrived at Metamor and seen the carnival of shapes and profusion of activity, he had felt quite intimidated by it, and had briefly longed for the solemnity of that mountain cave that he had so desperately wanted out of. The people were so large and abundant, the noises they made with their throats at once familiar, but also barbaric and uncouth. He despised the curious looks that his attire and childish stature engendered, but much more so the fact that Guernef the Nauh-kaee was receiving far more attention than he.
Thankfully, Habakkuk and Lindsey had proven to be fine companions on the trek through the crowded streets of Metamor. Although he had not known the man that was there with the kangaroo, he was pleasant and polite enough in what little he said. He had apparently been studious in seeing that all of the arrangements were properly made, and that all of the gear was already assembled. The Felikaush of course, was an honour to meet, and he returned that honour in equal measure. Truly, they were amongst brethren and colleagues.
But when they had arrived at the Ducal chambers and met the rather noisome band of effete nobles, his enthusiasm turned sour once more. He was an object of amusement and curious, almost quaint regard by these people. Abafouq did not take being mocked lightly. These were serious matters, but judging by the blank stares he had received, he doubted that any of them present had believed either himself or the kangaroo. He could not believe the audacity of the nobles to ask Habakkuk for predictions about their own future.
Thankfully, some of them, and especially those that Habakkuk had summoned, seemed to take what was being said seriously. But his momentary relief had turned to excitement when the raccoon man Rickkter had come barging in declaring that their enemy was amongst them. Even the brief fight in the circular room that was now many stories below them had held that excitement. Finally, they were to come face to face with their enemy, and with their forces arrayed, they would defeat it.
But that excitement had quickly turned to terror. Abafouq kept his voice just quiet enough that he could hear what was going on around him, but loud enough so that the magical constructions he recited would have their desired effect. The very walls of the Belfry were suffused with living energy of a type he had never before seen. They pulsed and throbbed like flesh shorn open, and at all times it seemed as if it were on the verge of dying. But it was in negative energy that it seemed to exult. It was a force that existed merely to absorb power from all life around it. And if Abafouq could not keep it from closing in on them, they too would be destroyed, no matter what else might happen.
And so, the Binoq continued his chanting, crafting his own architecture of sound and magical force. His words did not reach the air and vanish into insignificance. Their essence caught upon the tiniest of motes that floated through the air, and with each new mote so ensnared, formed a lattice of energy that was slowly growing with each new syllable. The lace structure was not visible to any save the Binoq and those who could see the tiniest details of magic, but still he hurried, for he could not know whether their enemies could see it or not.
Around him he could hear frightened shouting, and he could see those three menacing black shapes approaching. Their very presence sent a shiver down his spine, for he knew precisely what they were. He had only ever read about them, but there could be no doubt that the creatures who bore no face apart from a mouth were Shriekers. Abafouq frowned around his chanting for a moment, but then intensified his words. There was nothing he could do to counter them. The others would have to handle it.
His structure began to grow around him like a building. It resembled a tower, drawing further and further above him. Yet this tower was unlike any made by man, for it was growing upwards, each new level added at the bottom instead of at the top. He added layer upon layer, populating the structure with triangle after triangle. When he felt that it was stable enough, Abafouq tilted it outwards towards the nearest break in the Belfry wall. The currents of air that blocked everything outside eddied around the end. He felt their buffeting winds nearly tear the tower from his grasp, but Abafouq held it firmly in his grip.
He smiled, though it was not a very certain smile. Abafouq still felt the terror sinking into his bones, and he knew that this fight was far from over. But he had put a small hole in the net that their enemies, this Yonson, Zagrosek, and Agathe had made. Now, he just had to hope that somebody might be able to exploit it.
The Sondeshike came alive in his paws, and Charles spun it before him to protect himself. The Shriekers, masses of black lava, hurled themselves forward. Two went around the bells, while the third went underneath them. Charles took a dancing step backwards, and noted to his surprise that these creatures appeared smaller than the one that he had faced six months ago. They were very nearly as short as him in fact. Perhaps this meant that they were weaker than that enemy had been.
Even if that were true, there were still three of them.
“What are they?” Misha asked quickly, even as he swung out his axe, catching the first in the middle. The creature fell backwards, and Misha himself bounced back, digging his paws underneath him. The fox grunted in both pain and surprise. Whisper seemed to be whistling in the air.
“Shriekers,” Charles grunted, even as the second reached him. He spun the Sondeshike out, catching it in the side of the head. He felt the force he struck the creature with project backwards through the staff and into his arms. He shuddered, and the mail armour rung with a low thrum. The creature fell back a few paces, but did not appear daunted. He could feel the heat flowing from its body in waves, rolling across him mercilessly.
“Don’t let them touch you! Aim for their necks.” Charles could see that Lindsey had interposed himself between the women and the third Shrieker. The Northerner swung his axe heavily as if the creature were a sapling, but the beast put out an arm and the blade merely slid across its length, crying out in protest. “It’s their only weakness!”
The rat grit his teeth hard as he kept spinning the Sondeshike, backing up in slow circles to avoid that baleful creature’s touch. He could hear the ring of steel on steel, hear the words chanted in several different language son all sides of him, and even the stirring of wind and crackling of air. Yet his eyes did not dare leave the black mass that he did his best to keep in front of him. It pursued him relentlessly, meeting his blows with unpitying determination. And nothing he was able to do would do more than slow it down.
By Eli, how were they to kill them?
It had taken only seconds after she had forced her way past the top of the stairs and into the Belfry itself before the whole world turned to madness. A shrill cry escaped from the far side of the bell tower, and then three black shape shad begun their maddening scrawl towards their group. Rickkter and the black clad man who had been at the centre of so many terrible events were locked in battle, while the lemur with whom she had spent many hours in negotiation was smiling lightly as his paws clasped his ashen rod. A pale blue nimbus circled the staff and arcs of lightning were cascading back and forth between the rod and Yonson.
Malisa watched as the men met the black abominations in battle, and wished them all the luck that they could have. She was no fighter. Even when she had been a man, her fighting skills were mediocre. But her magic... that had always been where her talent lay. Although it was true that she would never be as powerful as a Wessex, she had shown herself capable and when in the company of others, she could turn their power to achieve great things. Now, such a time was necessary.
“Jessica, Kayla, I need you!” Malisa shouted to her sides. The hawk and skunk did not immediately respond. Both were awestruck by the chaos before them, but when she called their names again, both turned their heads towards the Prime Minister. “Focus on your magic. Just give power to what I am doing. Trust me.”
Jessica nodded her head, her eyes taking on that distant look that ,many students possessed when they began to look at the weave of magic that existed about them. But Kayla’s expression was more dubious. “I’m not very good,” she pointed out, her eyes full of terror.
“You are good enough,” Malisa replied sharply. “Now help me!”
Malisa did not wait to hear any more response, for the time for waiting had come to an end. Yonson, who had been building up his own charge of power as soon as the group had burst into the Belfry, was extending his arms forward towards the group. The staff was held out before him with its tapered end dragging through the air heavily, as if the air were a thickening morass around it.
Breathlessly, Malisa focussed her will upon the cords of magic before her. They stretched and flattened out, toughening like steel. The malleable veins of magic began to resemble isinglass as her energies, and that of Jessica and Kayla continued to pour into it. Slipping her will underneath the lens that she had fashioned, she hefted it before them, and continued to spread it in a wide arc between themselves and the Weathermonger.
And none too late either. For just a Malisa could see the lemur through the thin material that they had fashioned, than a bolt of lightning erupted from the end of the staff, striking the centre of that lens. The light was a brilliant blue, so bright that for a moment Malisa was blinded by its power. The lens itself drew as much of the power in the strike as it could away, but still, she was knocked backwards a few paces.
The edge of her boot caught at the first stair, and for a heart-stopping moment she was afraid that she would tumble down those stairs, but then she felt another sort of energy propping her up. Beyond the first step was an invisible webbing that while it did have some give, it forced Malisa back into the Belfry. She could not even use her magic sight beyond it, so tightly was it spun. So it was true. They were trapped here with these evil men until they could defeat them or they themselves were killed.
“Malisa, are you all right?” Kayla asked, hoisting one paw under her shoulder and helping her back to her feet.
“Fine,” Malisa muttered, feeling a sullen ache in her bones. The lightning had not struck her with anything but the force of a fist. Even so, the lens they had fashioned appeared cracked and distorted oddly from the power. Bubbles of energy had embedded themselves in the lens, distorting everything that she could see beyond.
But despite the distortion, she could clearly tell that Yonson was readying another bolt of lightning for them.
|Talk to me!|