Lineaments of Coming Night

Part XI

Hold it tight!” Malisa shouted, tightening her grip on the thread of magic that was beginning to crumble under the Weathermonger’s constant assault. Kayla and Jessica were huddled close next to her, each lending their strength where they could. The lens that they had erected was cracking along the middle and sides, and now had a cobweb of fissures lining its nimbus blue surface.

The lemur did not give them a moment’s rest to restore it, instead launching bolts from his finger tips every couple of seconds. Yonson’s golden eyes seemed to glow balefully, and there was a malicious tint to his smile. The long striped tail lashed back and forth, and even it seemed alive with the thunder of the sky.

But it was clear that the ash staff he held before him first in one paw and then the other as he alternated hands to release his lightning was the focus of is power. It glowed a brilliant steel blue, and the antipodes of its aura were a calm susurration at sea and a jagged splintering thornbush. Each time the staff changed paws, he struck it against the masonry with a sharp thunderclap.

“He’s so strong!” Jessica screeched as she pressed one of her wings into the back of the lens to brace it. Her talons scrapped across the masonry, and there was obvious strain upon her face.

Kayla was not any better off, as there was a barely contained look of panic in her eyes. It was as if all her thoughts were bent on surviving instead of pondering what sort of mess she’d involved herself in. Still, the skunk did her best to keep the lens spell together.

The strain of keeping the lens together was beginning to take its toll on Malisa. The cracks were growing with each successive blast, and she was forced to admit that it would not last much longer. But what else were they going to be capable of doing? Once the lens failed, they would all be vulnerable to Yonson’s attacks. The lemur seemed to have an infinite reserve of energy, whereas Malisa’s was quickly wearing down.

She tried to consider what she could do, and if there was anything she could prepare when that happened, when something changed about the battle. The three Shriekers had been somewhat kept at bay by the rest, but now she could see Charles ducking away form the one he’d kept cornered and was now racing between the donkey and another of the lanky black horrors. Malisa sucked in her breath as she saw the donkey disappear over the edge of the depression and the Shrieker strike the rat on the side of the face. His scream was agonized and his face seared instantly, dark smoke curling in that one instant.

Malisa stared, unsure if there was anything she could do. But Misha acted first, knocking aside the Shrieker he’d been facing and charging to save the rat from a death that was looking increasingly certain. And then, in that single moment, Yonson allowed them a moment’s rest. The lemur’s gaze was focussed and hateful, and he twisted his body ever so slightly, pointing his paws not at the women, but at the back of the fox. Malisa cried out, but the bolt had already left the tips of his claws.

The fox gave out a cry of his own before crumpling to his knees on the ground, Whisper fallen before him. Misha’s body convulsed form the shock, and the back of his tunic was scorched black. But he still moved, and still struggled to return to his foot paws.

“Heal and hold the lens,” Malisa commanded, even as she summoned her own strength for one last blast to keep the Shrieker from touching the rat again. Even then the rodent’s cries seemed manic and almost feral in quality. Had his mind been seared by the unearthly heat too?

And then, something out of the corner of her eye snapped across and right into the Shrieker’s neck. The beast let out a scream as it’s head folded back over it’s back, attached only by a few threads of darkness.

Stunned, Malisa let her gaze slide to the right to see who had done that, and found herself even more surprised than before.

Habakkuk considered that his role in the fight was probably the safest of anyone’s. There was no doubt, that in the chaos that had quickly erupted after they had finally ascended to the Belfry, that he had, as usual, been completely forgotten. This suited the kangaroo fine, as it was essential to his own purposes that he remain as unobtrusive as possible. Yet there came a time when he had to act, and such a time was fast approaching.

He remained near the rear of the battle, hidden back behind one of the walls that led out to the long drop. There, he could watch as the three Shriekers were kept for a time at bay, as well as Yonson firing bolts of lighting at Malisa and the other mages. He felt a pang of regret as he saw the lemur casting such spells. Ten years ago when he’d made his crossing of the Algra Hook only to be captured by the Weather mongers, it had been Yonson who had brought him food and spoken kindly with him. And since the ambassador had arrived at Metamor, they had shared many an enjoyable afternoon in pleasant conversation. Even for a prophet steeped in history, the ironies of fate never ceased to pain.

The kangaroo berated himself for his momentary distraction, and turned his eyes once more to what remained of his trousers. He’d taken them off immediately after hopping back into the alcove, and had already used Abafouq’s stone knife to saw the hips into three pieces, two for the legs and one for the tail. Bending down, he took the ends of the legs and secured them both together with square knots. He did the same for the tail sleeve. When finished, he tugged at both ends firmly to make sure that the knots were secure. It pleased him to see that they were.

He looked up briefly and saw that the battle was continuing as he expected. Rickkter and Zagrosek were trading blows so fast he could barely follow their motions. The four fighters were doing everything they could to keep the Shriekers occupied. Abafouq was doing... something – he wasn’t sure what. Malisa, Jessica, and Kayla were all occupied with Yonson. And that other woman was just drawing runes all around the censer. His moment was fast approaching.

Bending over once more, Habakkuk secured the stone knife to the end of the tail sleeve and tested its grip. Unsatisfied, he lashed it around once more until he felt sure it wouldn’t slip. With a grimace, Habakkuk stood up and taking the other end of the makeshift rope, he spun the knife out at the far end. It did not whistle through the air as a smoother blade might, but it still made a satisfying hum.

Habakkuk stepped out just as the cries bean. Charles jumped away from the beast he was fighting to save James, and a scene of horror played out as the Shrieker managed to strike the rat solidly upon the face. Habakkuk spun the knife over his head, gaining speed and force behind it’s jagged blade.

Misha leaped forward to save Matthias, but Yonson saw him, heard him moving, and let fly a bolt of lightning to pin the fox to the ground. All eyes seemed to turn to that one moment when the Shrieker was bearing down on the rat. Lindsey himself struggled to get past another of the foul beasts to save him, but the Northerner could not get free.

The black beast leaned forward, is eager soundless delight apparent to all who could feel the waves of heat that coursed from its body. The gangly almost skeletal mass lurched forward, bending over the supine rat, intent to smoulder his body until it was ashes. And in that moment, Habakkuk thrust his arm forward, the knife skating out through the air.

It caught the creature at the side of its neck, and went clean through. The Shrieker leapt backwards in horror, its head dangling over its back, the mouth opening in a wordless scream as the last few strands of its neck held it together. There was no blood, nor was there any apparent muscle or bone in that severed obsidian flesh. Only a deep nightmarish gash that was testament that these creatures indeed could be killed.

Habakkuk swung the blade out a second time, and the last of the cords snapped. The head fell free, but it never struck the ground. In that moment, the creature’s form simply evaporated, dissolved into the air before it was sucked back into that wall of distortion that still hung over the top of the censer.

Even as the body continued its dissolution, Habakkuk had already drew in the knife and was bending over Charles’s balled form and dragging the rat back from the battle. His Sondeshike was clutched tightly in his paw and rapped against the stones.

“You’re safe, Charles. Just stay here for a moment and don’t touch your face. Don’t touch it,” Habakkuk said patting him on the shoulder.

The rat opened his left eye, the one that had not been seared shut, and offered a weak smile. Already, it seemed that the Sondecki was mastering his pain. “Thank you, Zhypar. You saved my life.” He then closed it and curled tighter into the ball.

After all the animosity that the rat had displayed to him over the last year, the kangaroo could not help but smile at those words.

Misha still looked rather stunned from the blast that the lemur Yonson had given him, and so Lindsey backpedalled until he was standing just next to the fox. Though Habakkuk had slain one of the Shriekers, there were still two of them left, not to mention that Weathermonger with a love for bolts from the blue.

One of those two was chasing after him, its hollow, gaping face sending a shiver down his spine. Already the ends of his beard braids had been singed simply by a few close swipes. A black spectral arm swung at him from the left, but his axe was there to meet it, the metal hissing in protest from the heat. He then swung to the right to stop the blow that was coming. The muscles of his arms and back were already strained, as with every blow, he felt his own attack sent back at him. How much longer could he keep this up? Charles and Misha both appeared out of the fight, and the monsters wouldn’t fall for Habakkuk’s trick again. And that donkey had simply disappeared!

“Come on, Misha, get up!” Lindsey shouted, fear beginning to climb back into his voice.

{So just who is in Belfry with Yonson?} Saroth asked the gryphon who seemed to know a great deal about what was going on, though, irritatingly, he described them only in snatches, and even then only when necessary.

{Enemies from Marzac. There should be three mages in there.} Geurnef replied as he circled in so close to the tower that his wings nearly brushed through that swirl of opaque wind. {This spell has the mark of two talons upon it.}

{That we knew.} Saroth grunted unhappily as he flew in a bit closer. Electra and Sean were both once more staring at that fog of wind trying to find any variation in the spell’s net. So far, they had no success in it. It’s surface was like a storm tossed sea, continuously eddying and shifting, but never once giving them purchase.

His wings were beginning to tire from constantly circling the belltower. When in flight, he normally soared and let the thermals of air keep him aloft. But to circle this spire he had to constantly readjust his wings and beat them from time to time to maintain his altitude. If this went on for too much longer he’d wear himself out and wouldn’t be good for anything for the rest of the day. The act of flying was always exhilarating for its own sake, but rarely was he forced into the air to stop some inscrutable trio of mages who had sealed themselves in a tower, or any other enemy for that matter.

“I’ve never heard of your race before,” Electra shouted then, her voice barely carrying on the heavy winds. “Where are you from?”

{What you would call the Barrier Range.} Guernef’s reply was hesitant, but unflinching. {There, what is that?}

Saroth glanced at one side of the wall of wind, but could see nothing but the ever shifting air, gray lines drawn tightly about each other like spider’s silk. Electra and Sean both stared though, and he could feel their concentration tightening. Finally, Sean’s voice erupted fervently. “There! Something’s poking through the wind! Look, do you see it? It looks like a watchtower or something. See the supports holding it together?”

“Yes, I see it,” Electra said, and Saroth could feel her grip on his back fins tighten. “What can we do with it?”

{Widen it.} Saroth suggested brusquely. {Widen it until we can get a good size hole in that spell.}

{The dragon is correct. Take hold of the spell and strengthen it.} Guernef’s mind did not off any praise in its tones, though there was the faintest hint of approval in them.

“I can do that,” Sean declared. Saroth could feel his mind and will reaching out towards that tower.

“Be careful now,” Electra cautioned. “Don’t put all your thought into it at once or it could come apart. That structure looks terribly weak as it is. Let me help you with that.”

Saroth could only continue to fly as his two friends attempted to work on that tower they had seen. When he glanced at the Belfry, all he could see was the wall of wind again churning and turning over itself. He hoped that whatever they were doing worked.

“Hmmm,” Kershaw pondered as he leaned his head out the small window. Staring straight up he could see the top of the belltower, but before the arching dome was reached, there was a strange bulge that covered the belfry itself. It was a churning pea soup of air that ran clockwise around and around. With a sullen emptiness in his heart, he doubted he would be able to get through it.. But he was a Long Scout by the gods, he’d try even if it killed him.

“Do you think you can climb it?” George asked as he stood next to him, tapping one foot paw impatiently.

“Yes, but we’ll want to secure ourselves with rope. Meredith, do you still have yours?”

The bear nodded and pulled his knapsack off his shoulder. They’d brought the rope in the event that they had to tie Yonson’s guards down, but now it was going to serve a completely different purpose. “Will this be enough?” Meredith asked as he held out the long coils.

It looked to be about fifty feet worth. Judging by the distance, it should just do and leave them some room to spare. “Secure the end to me. Arla, can you feed the rope out the window as I climb. Meredith, I want you to hold the other end tight in case I slip.”

Even as the red panda began to slip the one end around his waist and tying it into a firm knot with Arla’s assistance, George unwound about a third of the coil and then began to fasten it around his waist as well.

“Arla and Meredith can hold both our weights,” George said in response to the red panda’s questioning look. “They will need all the help they can get up there.”

“Are you sure you can handle this climb?” Kershaw asked dubiously. “There are some hand holds, but not many. It’s going to be difficult even for me, and I’m built for climbing.”

“I didn’t get to be patrolmaster because of my charm,” George shot back as he pulled the knot’s taut. He looked over to Meredith. “Are you ready?”

The bear had grabbed the other end of the rope and had wrapped it firmly around his shoulders and wrists, securing it firmly with several knots. “I am.”

“Good, then hand me your crossbow.” The bear blinked once, but handed the weapon over. George slung it over his back, making sure it was secure. “Don’t worry, I won’t drop it.”

Kershaw nodded approvingly and checked his own knots with a few swift tugs. “Then let’s go. Wait until I’ve cleared the window before you follow after me.” Kershaw took his knife from out of his belt and put it between his fangs. He winked once to Arla and Meredith and then stepped out onto the sill, his upper half lost to them.

Grabbing the top of the window frame, Kershaw pulled himself up, bracing his hind paws on a few stones that were slightly protruding. His claws dug into the masonry tightly, and he felt his muscles tense. The air was cool up so high, and he could feel the wind already trying to pick him free from the tower wall. He looked above, refusing to acknowledge the vast emptiness below him. The tower stretched away above him, curving and disappearing into the grey sky on either side.

He lifted his paws once more and searched for that next grip. Below him he could hear George utter an epithet. Kershaw repeated it as well under his breath.

Rickkter grunted and parried yet another blow that made his teeth clench tightly together. He could taste blood on his tongue, and he could feel aches in nearly every joint of his body. Zagrosek was not giving him any quarter, any chance to withdraw and regain his strength. The Sondeshike was spinning faster than he had ever seen one used. Not even Charles had ever been able to move so quickly. It was as if he were not fighting against a man, but a force of nature sprung to life.

There was no more smile upon Zagrosek’s face. There was a violent intensity, one determined solely to crush him beneath the avalanche of blows. The ferrules whistled as they moved through the air, and sometimes all that Rickkter could even see of that magical staff was the golden afterimage of the caps before he felt the jarring thud of the blow through his arms or legs.

Rickkter knew he couldn’t keep fighting like this forever. He just hoped that Zagrosek couldn’t either.

Lindsey smacked the flat of his axe against the Shrieker’s face to keep it once more at bay. But the second was fast approaching him, and he knew he could not survive the onslaught of two of those vile beasts.

At his feet, Misha was trying to rise, but the fox was still stunned hard, and his paws shook with palsy. Where had everyone else gone, he could not help but wonder. One of the Shriekers was dead, yes, but at what cost? Both Charles and the fox seemed incapable of acting, and James had fallen into that depression. Why wasn’t the donkey trying to climb back out? Was he hurt?

But the northerner had no time to consider those unpleasant possibilities. The black mass was coming for him again, its arms outstretched. Lindsey leaned back and swiped both arms to the side with a quick motion of his axe. He then tried to plant the blade at the creature’s neck, but it slipped to the side and drew its arms back in close, grabbing for his beard. Lindsey let out a cry of alarm, vaguely aware that somebody had moved in just behind him.

And then, a large black shape passed between them, sweeping the Shrieker from its feet. It tumbled back several paces to land just before one of the large brass bells. It seemed to teeter on the edge of the pit for a moment before righting itself.

Lindsey had only a moment to see that Habakkuk had grasped Whisper, his hands still covered by the bits of cloth that had once been his trousers. The kangaroo had turned once more to face the second Shrieker that was rushing towards them in that space.

“Watch out,” Lindsey shouted, even as he stepped around Misha. Habakkuk saw the creature coming, and hefted Whisper rather clumsily. It was clear that he was not very comfortable with the heavy axe, but he parried well enough, blocking the beast and sending it sprawling back towards Yonson’s paws.

“The bell!” Habakkuk called out. Lindsey turned just in time to see the Shrieker stand fully, its back to him. It was gazing down greedily into the pit. The bell before it was swinging backwards. Gritting his teeth, Lindsey jumped and swung his axe at the unprotected neck.

James felt bruised, and he was certain that his ankle was twisted judging from the pain that he felt in it. He was able to draw himself up on his hooves, but he had to lean to the left to keep from feeling the pain.

The depression beneath the bells was bowl-shaped, and at its centre was a massive column that stretched up to the ceiling. From here, the donkey could easily see the levers and pulleys that worked the massive brass bells. He could in fact reach up and grab the one that towered over him like a massive boulder threatening to come loose from its perch and crush him.

The shouts and cries from above the rim were filling his ears, and he looked about trying to find a way he could climb back up without hurting himself. The bowl looked to be perfectly spherical, and there were no steps or rungs or anything to assist him in escaping. And until his right hoof stopped hurting, he wouldn’t be able to make that climb.

Bending down, James retrieved his sword, and looked about, wondering if there was anything that he could do from there. His heart pounded hard in his chest. He’d heard Charles scream in agony, and he’d seen the Shrieker strike him just before he’d fallen. Was his friend all right? He couldn’t imagine what he’d do if Charles were dead. But he heard no further cries from the rat, but he did see a black vacuous mist race back across the air towards the other side of the Belfry. It had looked vaguely like the Shrieker, but he did not know for certain.

How could this have all happened so suddenly. He’d gone with Charles and the rest because it had seemed the best thing to do. Charles had warned him to be careful, and because of his mistake, Charles might now in fact be dead! He trembled at that though, unable to bear it. Charles had gone out of his way to be nice to him, and to befriend somebody he had never before met, somebody of no consequence. And now, his inexperience may have cost him that truest friend.

Please, he prayed to Eli, please let Charles be all right!

A horrible flash of black brought his eyes up and his thoughts away from his terrible guilt. There, rising up on the edge of the depression was one of the Shriekers. Its black skin seemed to scorch the masonry, and indeed, it was black where it touched, burned and charred to ash. The form turned around then, so that James could see the vacant stare of its gaping mouth. He felt a cold chill fill his spine and he knew that it was looking at him.

There was nothing he could do with his sword. If it came down after him, he’d be dead in less than a minute. Without truly thinking, he reached his arms up to the edge of the bell, lifted it up as high as he could reach. His ankle protested, filling him with an agonizing moment of pain, but still he reached higher and higher, lifting that bell until his body could strain no more. And then he pushed it hard, pushed it right at the Shrieker.

Ponderously, the bell swung forward, even as the Shrieker bent over the pit, arms stretching out to burn his flesh to soot. For a moment as the bell swung, he lost sight of the creature. But as the brass bell swung upwards, he saw it again, or at least its legs and chest. There was a flash behind it, and then the bell sounded loudly, ringing and reverberating sharp and deep. James had to cover his ears as his head felt as if it were going to rupture down the middle.

But it was only a single deep tone that sounded. When he looked up again, the slack form of the Shrieker began to disperse, shattered into a million pieces. Behind it, Lindsey stood blinking his eyes, the axe still held out. The bell continued to swing, briefly obscuring him from view.

“I got it!” Lindsey crowed as he stared fixedly at the cracked remains of his axe.

Abafouq felt a great burst of relief as he watched not one but two of the Shrieker’s die. That left just the one and the three mages. Perhaps they could win this fight after all. The Binoq’s hope blossomed even further when he felt something touching the other end of the tower that he’d created. Even though his eyes had stolen glances at the battle, his mind had remained focussed on adding layer after layer to his tower to strengthen it against the wind’s fury. He’d seen his structure buckle several times, but he had never let it fail completely.

And now, somebody was on the other side at last! Stretching his will along the structure, he touched that mind, though it was not one that he recognized. It must be one of the Metamorians. {Don’t let go! I need you to hold on tight!}

{Who are you?} the voice, which seemed rather strangely avian as well, though certainly not Guernef, called back in reply.

{I am a friend of Metamor. Please, help me strengthen this tower. We need to pry this wind shield from the Belfry.}

He could feel a sense of compliance in the other mind. In fact, he realized that there were two other minds there as well. One of them had to be another Metamorian, because he did not recognize it. But the third was definitely Guernef. He felt a surge of relief at that. He knew his keeper for these last five years would not have left without a plan in mind.

Abafouq felt the power in his structure begin to swell. Those two Metamorians seemed quite adept at this sort of magic, and he felt thankful for their presence. But then, his heart began to tighten in his chest. There was a tang to the air that he did not like at all. Turning his gaze, he could see that the blue nimbus about the lemur was darkening in hue. There was a richer crispness to it, and he could see the fur on some of the Keepers begin to stand on end. His own hair started to lift from his head. Yonson himself was beginning to look twice his normal girth.

Frightened, he looked around and saw the three females standing only a few feet away. They were trying to repair a magical lens that they had position between themselves and the lemur. It was his best hope he knew. What had their names been again?

“Malisa!” he called out. “I need your protection, now!”

The middle female, the human one, turned, blinked, and then looked over at the lemur who was continuing his impersonation of a spectral blowfish. And then, an arc of dark blue light raced across the room from the end of the ash staff towards Abafouq. Malisa yanked her arms across her body, and the lens slid along with it, gliding through the air until it struck that bolt solidly.

“Get behind me! I need you!” Abafouq called out, his voice high and shrill.

The three women all rushed quickly to his side, where the lens would protect them from another of the lemur’s assaults. Already, the lens had a sharp crack in it again, right along the middle. This one was deeper than any he had thrown before.

“He’s using more powerful spells,” the hawk said, even as she pressed her wing into the lens to try and keep it steady. Another dark blue bolt hammered into the magical wall, pushing them back a few inches. The hawk’s talons screeched when they dug through the stone.

“Just hold him back. If this works, we can destroy the shield keeping us trapped here.” Abafouq turned his attention back to the tower. Layers were being added bit by bit. They were stronger now that he had the help of the Metamorians outside the tower. He just hoped that they could hold out long enough to actually break the spell. He shuddered as another bolt thundered into the lens. It was cracked in several places and took all of their attention to keep it solid.

They did not have much time, he realized.

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