Lineaments of Coming Night

Part X

Well,” Electra opined after they had circled the bell tower for some minutes with no better luck than before, “it is definitely a weather spell, but there’s something else interlaced in the interstices that I cannot quite identify. Whatever it is, is definitely not a weather spell.”

{So Yonson can cast more than just weather magic?} Saroth usually enjoyed flying, but in the past two minutes, the clouds had taken on an even darker pall. His heart ached at the sight of it. Though the airy banks collected high overhead to watch whatever it was that was going on, they were also quivering in whispered fear and anxiety. A few had even begun to sprinkle briefly, a frightened weeping that all threatened soon to share in.

“Or, there could be another mage in there,” Electra replied. Although he could not see it with her perched between his wings, Saroth could feel in her mind the grimace that she bore. “I have read a little on our friend’s clan in the library, although there are very few books there. But from what I read, mages in the Southlands are taught only one kind of magic, and that’s it. I think there must be another mage in that tower with him.”

“But what are they doing?” Sean asked plaintively. He’d been quite upset when Electra had scolded him not to so much as even brush his mind against the spell, for fear that he would make it stronger. But that disappointment was now turning to helpless fear.

{Keeping us out,} the dragon rumbled distastefully. He’d never particularly cared for the Weathermonger. But to do something so horrid that it upset the clouds themselves? That was unforgivable.

“Sean, did you see anything unusual on the last pass?” Electra called back behind her. Saroth felt her form pull taut against his scaled neck, even as the wind whipped through her hair.

The golden eagle gripped tighter. “Nothing that I could see. That wind’s a pretty heavy blanket. It’s like trying to see what’s in the bottom of a pond you’ve been throwing rocks into.”

Saroth felt something tickling at the edge of his mind just then. The presence of both Electra and Sean at the edge of his consciousness was familiar and welcome. But this presence was one that was not within range of his voice. It felt like a purposeful intrusion, and it made him immediately uncomfortable. {Who are you?} Saroth asked quickly, projecting his thoughts in every direction.

“Saroth?” Electra called, her head snapping back towards the back of his own immediately. “What is it?”

{There’s somebody else here!} Saroth cried in distress. {I can feel him!} In fact, the presence was growing stronger, but as it did, it was also becoming more localized. Whoever it was, they were flying up around the tower, but at that moment, he could tell that they were on the opposite side. Saroth beat once with his wings and drew himself a bit further away from the tower. His head glanced backwards and slowly, he saw a form emerge from around the pearl spike.

He was confused by the sight of the white gryphon at first because he did not think there were any such creatures at Metamor. But he reminded himself, new people were coming to Metamor rather frequently, and with them, strange new forms were being added to the menagerie. Clearly this creature was just one such addition. Albeit a powerful one.

{Who are you?} Saroth called out again, this time narrowing his gaze as the gryphon continued to circle the tower up to their altitude.

The gryphon turned a black beat toward him but did not say anything. He could feel the prodding of its will, but so far, no words came from it. Strangely, Saroth felt the thoughts of this creature rolling about at the edge of his mind, but they were in language that was unknown to him.

“Who’s that?” Sean asked, glancing back at where Saroth was fixing his attention.

“Watch where you’re going!” Electra cried out, and the dragon snapped his eyes back before him. He pumped his wings once more to avoid brushing against a nearby tower – his own he realized a moment later. When he looked back, the gryphon had once more slid behind the bell tower.

But it was not long before the gryphon was once more flying along on their side, and this time, he was also very nearly at the same height as they. {You are mages?} a voice seemed to screech into their minds. It was not all together unpleasant, but it was done with such a facility that Saroth felt his own telepathy crude by comparison.

“Yes,” Electra called back. “Who are you?”

{I am Guernef, Kakikagiget of the Nauh-Kaee. We must destroy this ward over the Belfry. Will you assist me?} The gryphon’s voice was mostly without inflection. There was an air of master seeking the assistance of students in it, though if it was meant to insult, Saroth could not tell. The gryphon did not seem to care enough to insult them. There was such an intensity in its question, that the dragon felt sure that it was solely focussed on its task, and they were merely incidental.

{We were here first, Guernef,} Saroth thought back. {Will you help us?}

The gryphon’s avian eyes turned on him as they continued to circle the tower. There was a strange regard in them. Despite the fact that he was thirty times larger than the gryphon, Saroth nevertheless felt that this Guernef was looking at him as a predator regards a bit of prey that it is too sated to bother chasing.

{Tell me what you have seen} Guernef replied after only a brief silence. The gryphon had finally reached their same height, and was flying along side of the dragon. He banked inwards as did they, keeping that tower with it’s strange curtain of air as the centre of their focus.

Sean, whose magic sight was the strongest of them all, did his best to quickly report all that they had seen and thought regarding this terrible magic. Saroth was still annoyed at this interloper, but if he was here to help, then much the better.

Still, there was a part of his mind trying to recall just exactly what a Nauh-kaee was. He seemed to recall hearing that word before, but he could not place where. But there was one thing he felt absolutely certain about. This was not a Metamorian. This gryphon had been born that way, and had never been human. No human could ever have gazed or thought the way that this creature did. Even though Saroth himself now acted more like a dragon than a man, or at least, so said Cerulean to Electra on those few occasion when he was eavesdropping, he still had begun his time here in the world as a man, and that was something that could never be taken away.

Guernef, Kakikagiget – whatever that meant – of the Nauh-kaee had never been a man, nor had he ever had a single human-like thought. Whatever their ally in this fight was, Saroth could never forget that one ascertainable fact. Nor did he trust him. He wished there were some way he could privately warn Electra of this, but his telepathy would be heard by them all.

Frustrated anew, Saroth ground his fangs together as they flew.

The stairs were long, but the patrolmaster took them two, sometimes three at a time as he raced after his friends who had already gone above. In his wake, the few Longs he’d been able to find on short notice were matching his pace, each eager for the fight to come. The message he’d received from Duke Thomas had been as short as it could be, and still told him all that he needed to know. Yonson was their enemy, his guards were to be arrested, and if they resisted killed, and all of it was coming to a culmination in the Belfry.

George could not ever recall being in Metamor’s bell tower before, and so he had no sense for how many stairs he had climbed, nor did he bother to count. They continued for several minutes until at long last they spilled out onto a landing, where they split into two and continued on up. Sitting in the middle of the landing was a familiar grey mechanical fox.

“Madog!” George called out, his fist already clenched about his sword. “Where are they?”

The automaton looked utterly miserable, but he had no time to ponder why. Tilting its head, it pointed forlornly at the left staircase, and then resumed resting its snout upon its forepaws like a dog scolded.

George nodded once and then charged up the staircase. The air was palpably thick, and he could both feel and smell an overwhelming sense of magic. And after only a few steps, he realized that the thickness in the air was not just an illusion brought on by the pounding of his heart or the fear that dwelled hidden in his bones. It was a tangible thing, and it grew in proportion with each step.

“What the?” George snarled, or at least, tried to snarl as he found he couldn’t even lift his head any higher. The latch to the Belfry was still out of sight around the curve of the stairs, but it was like pushing through a wall of solid stone.

“What is it?” Arla called from below, but even the familiar rasp of her canine tongue seemed muffled, as if the air was not only stilling motion, but sound too.

George tried to lift his leg higher, but hands clung to it, pressing him backwards. He pushed as best he could, but to even lift it that next step left him more exhausted than running up the entire length of the stairs had done.

Instead, George took a step backwards, which seemed ridiculously easy by comparison. He nearly fell atop Arla who was at his back.

“Can’t go further,” he managed to mutter, finding that he could once more make his jaws work. At their rear, Meredith took back another pace, followed by Kershaw, and then Arla. George found each successive step easier to take until they were all once more on the landing with Madog.

“What’s going on?” Kershaw asked, the red panda’s paw rubbing over the hilt of his blade.

“Magic of some kind. I can’t climb any higher,” George replied through heavy breaths. The jackal turned his gaze on Madog. “Have you tried it?”

The metal fox lifted his head and nodded. “Bad men make air hard. I can’t go up to help Poppa.”

“So Misha and the others made it through?” Meredith asked. The large bear rubbed his paws together and looked up at the ceiling which seemed to be sifting debris slowly.

Madog rose to all fours and turned about in a circle. “They can’t get back. Air too thick!” The note of desolation in that voice made the fear in George’s bones blossom unpleasantly. What were they facing in that belltower?

“Is there any other way into the Belfry?” Kershaw asked, now stroking his chin.

“Only if you can fly.”

“I cannot fly,” Kershaw admitted, glancing at the staircase that led down. “But maybe we can climb. There was a window not too far down. Let’s see if it is possible.”

“No,” Arla shook her head. “If you fall, you’ll die!”

“If we don’t get in there,” Kershaw pointed out, “then so too may Misha and all the rest, now let’s go.” The red panda did not wait for the others to object, turning directly and moving swiftly back down the staircase.

Arla followed after him with a frown etched into her jowls, while George and Meredith came after a second later. Meredith leaned over to whisper into George’s ear, his voice sour, “I do not think he means for me to climb.”

“No,” George agreed in silent frustration, looking the massive bear over once. “I’m sure he doesn’t. Now come.”

Rickkter spun the katana in his right paw and brought it down hard against the Sondeshike. Zagrosek pushed back with equal strength and for a moment the two combatants were locked face to face. Rickkter snarled like a beast, and drove the wakizashi up underneath the black clad man’s other arm. But his opponent was expecting something like this, and twisted the Sondeshike down to parry the blow. But he did not stop there, he continued twisting until Rickkter had to step back to keep his right arm from being drawn too far off his guard.

There was no doubt about it in his mind anymore. Zagrosek was just as skilled as his fight in the stables with Madog had shown him to be. It was time, the raccoon decided, to use his runic blades to more dangerous effect.

Rickkter worked the blades in his paws, parrying a few blows from the Sondeckis in a forceful if not all together attentive manner. His mind was focussed on channelling his will, forcing the spells he knew not through his body, but into the blades themselves. The energy grew with each moment, and felt his vigour renewed as the rasp of steel on steel intensified. Rickkter allowed himself a smile then, as he danced back from Zagrosek a moment, and then slid the two blades against each other, skirling the energy free.

When the blades ceased to touch each other – it did not even take a second – a gout of fire burst into the air heading straight for the Sondeckis. It was a brilliant orange ball, bright yellow at its head and angry, so angry that it roared in its brief moments of existence. Zagrosek spun the Sondeshike before him, his hands sliding in a moment to the centre of the staff and moving quickly, over and over each other as the staff began to turn into a simple silver blur.

The ball of flame was headed directly for the centre of the spinning staff, but just as it neared, Zagrosek turned ever so slightly to the side, and the flame struck one of the edges. There was a sharp hiss, and the flame was scattered by the swirling ferrules. Rickkter grimaced, but consoled himself that just one fireball would not be enough. He would have to use more than this to tackle this enemy.

The raccoon did not delay in preparing more spells. His second he launched only a few seconds later, just as Zagrosek was slowing his staff and preparing to attack again. A cool wind sped from his paws, and across the blades, sliding down their length quickly, before erupting into the air as a pointed wedge of hard ice. This was more solid than the flame, and did not immediately shatter when Zagrosek struck it with his Sondeshike. The tip slid past and would have imbedded itself in the black man’s chest had he not stepped nimbly to the side. Instead it hurtled beyond and cracked when it struck the large brass bell behind them.

Zagrosek grinned just then and spun his Sondeshike forward, pitting itself between Rickkter’s two blades. He favoured the raccoon with a mirthless leer and nodded his head. “Impressive.” Rickkter twisted his blades forward, and then thrust both of them up at the same time, neatly pinching the end of the Sondeshike and if not for Zagrosek’s quick reflexes, would have yanked it from the man’s hands. “Most impressive!” he amended and then swept his freed staff under the raccoon’s legs.

Rickkter jumped over the staff, and drove the katana at the man’s unprotected chest. Zagrosek twisted backwards with a heave and then tried to bring his staff back around for another blow. Rickkter ducked that and chortled, “You’ll find I’m full of surprises.” This time he cracked his blades against each other, sending a burst of brilliant blue energy out in a coruscating arc.

Spinning his Sondeshike once more, Zagrosek pushed the disc into the path of the energy, and absorbed it as if it were nothing. The man grinned more widely then, a superior grin that seemed to ask whether there were any more surprises waiting for him.

Gritting his teeth, Rickkter danced in closer with his swords, raining them hard down upon the man’s staff. It was clear he wasn’t going to be able to put him down with his powerful spells. This was going to be a death by thousand cuts. It was time he started making some.

Charles could feel the scorching heat emanating from the black mass that continued to swipe its gangly arms at him. The closest he dared near the creature was with the end of his Sondeshike which spun from side to side to parry each of those blows. Though the heat he could feel from the proximity of the beast was not nearly as great as the one that he faced during the Winter Solstice – that had been enough to blacken the ends of his fur when he was only five feet away – it was still intense and he had no wish to feel it any closer to his skin.

Thankfully, he did not have to simply run away from this creature as he had the one he’d faced before. It was small enough that his blows were enough to keep it at bay while he pondered what he might do that could kill it. He’d already tried striking it in the neck. Whatever energy he put into the Sondeshike was reflected back at him. The more effort he gave to it, the more likely he was to throw himself off his foot paws.

Twirling his Sondeshike, Charles took a step back, circling slowly so that he could keep the beast from the rest of his companions. He wasn’t altogether sure what it was the women were doing, but he was going to keep this creature from interfering in it if he could. In those brief moments when he could snatch a glance at the others, he could see that Misha was keeping the second of the Shriekers occupied – it had to duck the axe on several occasions he noted with some satisfaction – and both Lindsey and James seemed to be holding their own against the third. Rickkter and Zagrosek were moving too fast for Charles to see any of what they were doing, but it was clearly intense.

The rat sucked in his breath as he could feel the heat from another swipe come around towards his shoulder. He twitched backwards and knocked the hand aside. He dug in his opposite foot paw, even as the force jolted back into his arm and then down his leg. But he held his place, and brought the other end of the Sondeshike around, striking the creature solidly in the side of its chest. It stumbled backwards a moment, but so too did Charles.

And that’s when he saw it. To his right, Lindsey was occupying the Shrieker’s attention with his axe while James circled around behind the creature. A clever plan certainly, but James did not take advantage of the opening he possessed. Charles felt his heart tighten in his chest suddenly, and that moment of time simply came to a stop.

The donkey stood, with his arm outstretched, the sword point lifting up towards the black abomination’s neck. The ring of steel on steel was muted, as if the combatants were a league away. The very air seemed to trickle past, the wind holding them in the tower so slow that individual strains of particles could be seen born along it that tumult. And bit by bit, that creature turned, its eyeless face coming to regard the equine with its ever present demonic gape.

“No!” Charles cried, spinning on his heels, the Shrieker he had fought forgotten then. He was running, crossing those few ells between them as fast as he could, but time seemed so lugubrious. James’s eyes widened as he realized his own danger, backing up towards the massive brass bell behind him, his hooves wobbling uncertainly. The Shrieker was reaching out with its right arm in a long swing. The donkey thrust his sword to the side to meet it, and a hiss emanated as the blade began to steam from the heat.

Lindsey tried to strike the creature from behind with his axe, aiming for the neck, but it lunged forward then, forcing James back against the bell’s rim, and the rim of the depression. He tottered backwards, left with nowhere else to go. Charles was moving fast, as fast as he could in that split moment of time. But then, before he quite realized it, even as the Shrieker was swinging out its left arm at the poor donkey, he was there.

Striking his shoulder into the donkey’s chest, Charles pushed him out of the way. James, wide-eyed, tumbled backwards once more, sliding back across the bell. As the bell swung inwards, James crumpled and fell down into the depression, his hooves and sword making a clatter against the stone.

Charles tried to swing his Sondeshike back around, but he could see from his right eye that he wouldn’t have the time. That black hand was blocking out all else from the world, nearing and searing at his flesh. He thanked Eli that he had enough time to close his eye before the blow came.

And then the world went black.

His mind was for a moment a complete nullity, as if a giant bell had been rung within it blocking out all other potential expressions. And then, Charles felt perception roll back across him like a grinding wheel. The right side of his face was a blossom of agony, and he could feel the burning dig deep into his flesh. He cried out in anguish, and only then realized that he’d been knocked away several feet, as no second blow came to kill him.

Charles tried to open his eyes, but his right simply refused to do so, and his left could make no sense of the whirligig of forms that danced about him. All he could understand was that he had been touched by a Shrieker.

Whisper was more than capable of keeping the lanky black form from reaching any closer to Misha. The fox folded back his one remaining ear as he kept the dark blade spinning, striking against the underworld creature as it tried to get around him to attack from the side. He could feel the heat rising from it in waves, and the air above it was distorted, as if he were staring into a forge. He could hear the hammer blows in fact, though he was dimly aware it was from another fight happening only a few feet away.

In all his many years of fighting opponents who seemed next to impossible to kill, never before had he met one that simply brushed off the blade of Whisper as the Kkartic weapon were no more than a bit of parchment. The abomination did reel from the attacks, and did avoid the blows, but when they landed, they did no more good than if Misha had spat upon it.

But Charles had said that the one place that they were weak was in the neck. Why the neck? Why not the chest, or the head? Misha didn’t know, and had little time to even consider why it was so. Instead, he merely had to aim for the neck and hope that his friend the rat was right. With each swing, Misha aimed Whisper for that ghastly neck, and each time, the Shrieker either dodged to the side, or raised a hand to stop the blade completely.

The din of battle was always thick, and the fox had long grown used to it. But there were moments when words and even exclamations broke through and caught at his attention. After his long years serving as a siege engineer, he knew those telltale signs, knew when he had to move quickly to salvage a crumbling tower, or to save men from being trapped beneath its spars. In that moment when the rat screamed a horrid blood-curdling wail of agony, he knew that he had to do something to save his friend.

Misha turned Whisper in his paws and caught the Shrieker in the arms with the flat of the blade, knocking it and himself back a few paces. But the fox was expecting this, and used the momentum to turn and see what had happened to his friend. Battle was chaos, and the scene before him was no less. Lindsey was frantically trying to beat back the assault of one of the Shriekers, though the creature was wearing the much larger man down, nearly driving him into the huddled forms of the women. James had disappeared from sight, though one of the bells was swinging heavily as if something had been knocked into it. The second Shrieker was chasing after the last figure that had danced backwards and fallen to the ground.

Running now, Misha lifted high Whisper as his eyes fell upon the rat. Smoke was rising from the right side of his face, a face that had been blackened in the clear mark of a hand. Dark fingers stretched around Charles’s cheek, while the palm had sizzled the whiskers on his right jowl into a clotted black mass. His right eye was closed, and Misha wondered if it had even survived the blow that had been struck.

And now, the Shrieker was advancing to finish the kill.

Misha lifted high Whisper, intent on driving the beast away, and he was just there when something else happened that he couldn’t explain. All of his limbs tightened, as a jolt of power coursed through him. The black axe burned his paws, and he let out his own whimper of agony as he crumpled forward, some deep wound boring into his back like a deranged mole.

Misha fell to his knees, his paws shaking with palsy. His breath was ragged and he found it hard to even move his legs beneath him. Lifting his head, eyes staring at the scene he found himself powerless to prevent, something then happened which completely surprised him.

Abafouq’s tower still pierced the veil of the air, though it was beginning to buckle under the stress of the Weathermonger’s spell. Turning his mind upon his construction, the Binoq added layer upon reinforcing layer to the structure, helping it survive the crippling winds that were tearing at it and trying to subsume it. The tip floundered in the outside air like a man struggling to stay above the snow as it cascaded down a mountainside.

What was the worst thing about it was that his own spell required constant effort while that of the beastial Weathermonger’s had already been cast and would sustain itself until dismissed or dissolved. Abafouq could only hope that his Nauh-kaee companion was able to make use of the hole he’d poked into the shield protecting the Belfry. If and when that happened, they should be able to destroy that wall of air, and hopefully bring even more forces to bear upon this trio of Marzac slaves.

But there was something amiss, something that bothered him even as he kept his focus steady upon shoring up his tower. The Sondecki was facing the raccoon Rickkter, and was thoroughly occupied with him. The Weathermonger Yonson seemed to be trying to destroy what defences the Metamorian mages had erected. And the rest of the fighters had occupied themselves with the Shriekers. But the Runecaster standing behind the censer of Yajakali had done nothing so far. She was continuing to cast elaborate incantations whose very nature mystified him. She did not appear to be attacking them at all.

So the question was, what was she doing?

For a moment, Abafouq pondered taking his knife and throwing it between the bells to hit that woman. He had a very good aim, and it was a stone knife. Stone was so familiar to him, it was almost a part of his very flesh. But as he reached down to his side, he discovered something rather startling.

His knife was gone.

Steel rang against steel as Rickkter swept his blades in from every direction against the black Sondecki. Zagrosek countered each blow with a spin and a flick of his wrist. The Sondeshike met his blades and then pushed them back. They had been circling each other it seemed forever, the battle taking on new urgency with every passing moment. Rickkter could feel the familiar cyclone of air holding them tight in the Belfry nearing his back one moment, and then he’d dance, nearly walking along the walla s he did so to get back around the Sondecki. Zagrosek would not miss a bit, pivoting on his heel as effortlessly as any dancer. And they would meet steel with steel once more.

Rickkter had managed to drive his blades into the fabric of Zagrosek’s robes several times now, and in a few places he could see the blossoming stain of blood. But his victories, small as they were, had not come without a cost. He already sported a swelling bruise on his hip and another on his shin. And the blow he’d just received to his left arm was definitely going to swell.

They had all been glancing blows, but so too had all of his against Zagrosek. Their bodies moved fluidly, slicing and dancing about each other, striking hard with their weapons, but always they only brushed past each other. But with the force behind each blow, even a brief touch was enough to elicit pain.

Rickkter twisted and drove his blades downwards, meeting the beginnings of Zagrosek’s next thrust. He slid his blades along one side of the Sondeshike, before it began to spin, sending his thrust out to the right. The raccoon wasted no time in pivoting to the left, bringing both blades back in a deadly horizontal arc just beneath where the Sondecki held his staff. Zagrosek grinned wryly and danced a step to the side, continuing his swing, until the ferrules came crashing down against the tip of the blade.

But Rickkter did not simply let the dark clad man push him aside again. He continued his arc, letting the tip of his runic weapon course down the length of the Sondeshike. He released a bit of energy into that weapon, making the metal stick to each other. Zagrosek’s eyes widened momentarily before he yanked his arms back before the blade could sever his fingers.

Sucking in his breath, Zagrosek twirled the Sondeshike between his fingers several more times and then struck rapidly from side to side, pressing the attack back at the raccoon. Rickkter grimaced and parried each blow as deftly as he could, looking for that next opportunity. There was no doubt that Zagrosek was exceptionally well skilled, and he seemed to exert almost no effort in keeping the Kankoran off his guard.

Rickkter danced back a pace and slid his swords against each other, sending a jolt of energy at Zagrosek. The Sondecki dispersed the field much as he expected, but he used that moment to drive his blades forward right after the blast in a relentless attack, mercilessly beating from every direction. His katana would duck in and then he’d parry the expected counterattack with his wakizashi, only to once again slide his katana between the spinning ends of the staff.

Zagrosek backed up, spinning his Sondeshike back and forth to meet those suddenly ferocious blades. Rickkter felt an animal fury build up in him, and he found himself growling quite unexpectedly. His arms and chest moved as if they had a mind of their own, and he gave Zagrosek no purchase from which to strike back. The man’s face began to blanche, and the smile that had pervaded his lips began to wane. For one moment, Rickkter felt as if he had finally gained the upper hand.

And then it happened.

It was all the rat’s fault of course. He started screaming horridly, horridly enough to distract Rickkter for just that one moment necessary for Zagrosek to step in and smack the end of his Sondeshike firmly against the base of Rickkter’s blade. The reverberations stung his wrist, and he nearly lost his grip on the katana. Stumbling backwards, Rickkter heard Misha give out a cry, and he could not help but wish there was something he could do for his friend. But Zagrosek was pressing his attack now, and there was nothing that he could do.

And it was the rat’s fault. Naturally.

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