Lineaments of Coming Night


A feeling of intense relief washed over Misha as he saw first the rat Matthias, and then the skunk Kayla intervene to save Rickkter’s life. When Kayla sprayed Zagrosek in the face, Misha nearly burst into a barking laugh. Zagrosek stumbled backwards, tearing into his face with his hands, his Sondeshike clattering to the ground and rolling backwards away from the coon. It would have been better had the weapon rolled the other way, as they could have taken it and deprived an enemy of one of his greatest assets. But he was content with seeing that man effectively taken out of the melee.

Turning back, he smiled wickedly at the lemur who crackled with blue energy. “It’s your turn, Yonson.” Misha snarled and leapt forward, brandishing Whisper high over his head. He still clutched it with Habakkuk’s pants, but the Weathermonger regarded him coolly, as if he found it all a mere distraction.

Yonson lifted the ash staff he carried in his paws, and began to twirl it hand over hand before him. While he could not move it nearly as quickly as the Sondeckis were capable of, he nevertheless spun it faster than Misha would have expected. The blue light lingered there, and crackled back and forth, giving the air before the lemur a silvery sheen.

And then, it blazed into a brilliant light, and Misha found himself flung backwards, wind tugging at his limbs, clothes, and fur. Misha drove the point of Whisper down into the masonry, watching it dig down all the way to the haft. But the pants he clutched had no purchase on the axe, and he found himself sliding off in short order.

Misha gave out a cry as he was flung backwards, crashing against the floor solidly. His head rung from the impact, but at least he no longer felt the wind. Beside him, he saw that both Lindsey and Habakkuk had also been knocked aside. Lindsey was rubbing at is forehead where a small gash was already bleeding. Habakkuk had a dazed look on his face, and his eyes swam before him. He sat up woozily, and then fell back down again.

Getting back on his paws, Misha stared across the Belfry at the Weathermonger, who had ceased spinning his staff. The white ash was still glowing with that silvery texture, and Misha knew that the man could summon forth that wind again if need be.

“It’s too late for you anyway,” a new voice called out. Misha looked to his right and stared in befuddlement at the third of the mages. The woman with the missing eye was smiling in a manner that sent cold shivers racing up the fox’s spine. Behind her, strange lights were lifting in the air, each of them taking for a moment the shape of a rune. The runes were, if possible, even more complicated than the ones that he had found inscribed on the inside of Madog’s body. They hovered around that evil censer for a moment before resting upon its surface like speckled butterflies.

Malisa had cried after the skunk when Kayla had turned to Rickkter’s aid. But Yonson’s attention was no longer truly directed at them, and so they were able to repair the lens protecting themselves and the Binoq. Already, his structure was growing and a perceptible hole had been wedged into the shield of air that surrounded the tower. Once, she’d seen a flash of bronze draconic scales in that hole, and she knew instantly who was out there coming to their aid.

For a moment, he heart began to lift with the hopeful thought that their fight was not doomed.

And then, that woman spoke.

Malisa and Jessica both turned their attention to the Runecaster who had crossed her arms before her. Behind her lights had begun to rise around the censer. Few of the runes were ones that Malisa could recognize. The few that she did think familiar had been so twisted out of shape that they could not signify what she was accustomed to. But there was no doubt, that they could not be good.

At first, they had risen slowly, and only a few at a time. But as the moments turned into seconds, they began to rise with increasing velocity and frequency. Just how many runes had been cast? They seemed to cover the censer completely in patches like falling leaves layering a forest floor.

“You have already lost,” the woman continued, even as she traced out a new rune upon the air. It glowed a frightful red, and seemed to sear the sky with its touch. The aura of distortion above the censer began to grow wider, encompassing the entire eastern wall of the Belfry.

The censer pulsed as its golden surface began to glow brightly.

It took Charles several seconds before he was able to breathe properly again. He had only been given a whiff of the skunk spray, but it had been enough to make him momentarily forget about the pain in his face. But now that he could breathe normally once more, the pain returned as if it were a demon tasked to torment him.

By the time he’d regained his breath, the Runecaster had already spoken, though what she said he did not know. Looking up and blinking his left eye, he watched her draw out a strange red rune in the air. Charles spun the Sondeshike in his paws and rushed towards her.

She saw his approach and just laughed at him, negligently curling one finger in the air. A green flame appeared for one moment and then vanished. Charles did not cease his approach, at least not intentionally. His foot sunk down to the ankle into the stone, and then held him firmly in place. He gave out a cry, and pulled at his leg, but it was as if he had been merged with the Keep itself, because he could not move it even a little. The cool of the stone seemed to suffuse him, and he felt it creeping slowly along his leg.

“Help!” Charles cried, pulling at his pants, which he saw were slowly stiffening. He felt at the leather, but was horrified when his fingers met stone too.

“Matt!” he heard Misha shout from behind him. “Help him!” the fox’s voice was frantic, but it died in a sudden gust of wind that rushed behind him, pulling at the rat’s fur.

But Charles couldn’t move, as the stone continued its upward creep. He breathed heavily and fast, feeling his flesh grow cold, and then hard. He watched in horror as his tail, curled about the leg, stuck in place, the flesh darkening to a granite grey. He tried to make it move, but even his Sondeck was retreating in his body from the petrification. Both his legs were gone to rock, and he felt a tingling in his middle as it began to travel up his belly and chest.

Charles pulled the Sondeck tightly inside of him, holding it as close together as he possibly could. Time itself seemed to slow then, though his body continued its metamorphosis into stone. For a moment he closed his left eye, seeing nothing but the darkness.

In that moment he built his fortress. The Sondeck was the power to control great amounts of force. Stone too could be a force. Time itself crushed it to dust. And enough force pressed against a rock would do the same. It could be held back by a thousand nails. But a thousand nails all striking that rock from different sides would do nothing. If all the nails were bound together tightly, fused into one, it could indeed destroy or at least hold back the stone.

And so too, Charles focussed his Sondeck into his mind, pulling back from his body. He was dimly aware of his paws starting to solidify, pink flesh giving over to speckled grey granite. He let them rest before him, even as they hardened into stone. In his mind though, his Sondeck wound tighter and tighter. That core that was himself wound along with it, until it was a solid mass so dense that it would hold all else back.

He opened his eye once more and looked down at himself. He was nearly a statue now, his shirt and flesh fused into one substance. There was no more beat of his heart, nor breath passing into his lungs. His form was still, and soon, all of it would be too. He would have shivered at the thought, except that stone could not do that either.

The rat looked upwards and glared at the woman, but then let his sight slide over to the censer, and that strange distortion that was beginning to ripple into a shape. The wide field folded over itself, wrapping tighter and tighter like some strange bit of origami. It was at first a cylinder that then split at the bottom, and found two protrusions near the top. Slowly, it slimmed as it wound tighter and tighter, until it was clearly taking on a human form.

The cold creep of the stone reached his neck and the back of his head. Charles held his gaze at the censer until he could no more have moved it if he wanted to. His eye was fixed, and even when the chill met his face itself, when it all became cold hard rock, still he stared. He knew that his eye became an obsidian jewel, but still, he could see. The petrification met his mind, met his Sondeck, and then he felt that chill double and triple with each passing moment.

Charles wound his Sondeck tighter at even the hint that the stone was creeping in on him further. He would have closed his eye to seal himself in darkness, but that was no longer left to him. He could still hear the cries of anguish over his petrification, and the loud snarling of a fox caught on the air, but it was not essential for him now. All that remained was protecting what was left.

And then, the woman turned to face that form that was spun from air, and the approach of the stone stopped. Charles was tucked tight inside his mind, filled with the Sondeck, fused together as he had never before been. That force was his own – he was nothing but force.

The figure of air finally began to take on human appearance, flesh lightening into bright tones, and his face taking on a subtly familiar cast. In one final flourish, air swirled up around him, and he stepped forward, running a finger along the edge of the censer. His smile was satisfied, and his countenance even more menacing than that of Agathe’s.

Charles knew who it was, knew it deeply because he’d met him before. It was none other than the Marquis Camille du Tournemire.

With Yonson’s attention divided between them and Misha, the lens was beginning to hold up very well. Jessica both marvelled and trembled at the power of the spells that were being cast with such ease. But at the same time, she both raged and quailed inside. Raged because she knew that one of the mages must be the one who had killed Wessex, and that they were all responsible for it to some degree. Quailed because she could not help but think of her poor Weyden, his entire world destroyed before his eyes, nd now being carted off to the dungeons for a crime that he never committed.

Ultimately, all she could think was that these mages needed to pay for their crimes, but she no idea how that might be possible. So she just did as Malisa instructed, helping to protect them and this little Binoq, Abafouq, from the Weathermonger’s attacks.

That is, until she felt a paw on her shoulder. “Jessica!” Habakkuk said sternly, and with a bit of worry in his voice. “Come with me, now!”

“What is it?” she asked. Malisa looked at the kangaroo unhappily for a moment but did not say anything.

Habakkuk pointed at the open stairs. “Hide down there. As far as you can. Do it now before he gets here. And don’t come out for any reason. No matter what!”

“Before who gets here?”Malisa asked. “I need her to hold this spell.”

“It won’t matter in a minute,” Habakkuk replied dourly. His expression became frantic and pleading, “Please, Jessica! Just do this now! We’ve only a few more seconds!”

Jessica stared up across to the bells and what lay beyond them. Strange lights were circling the censer, and she could see some terrible spell being cast. That distortion had grown and was changing shape even now. She watched for a second and felt a horrible fear clutch her heart as the shape began to resemble a man.

“Now, Jessica, please!” Habakkuk begged in the most frightened voice she had ever heard from him.

Turning, the hawk jumped down through the open staircase, and she shifted into her hawk form so that she could nestle around the bend in the curve. She tried to fly down further, but the air simply became a thick wall before her. She stood upon it as far back as she could, and looked back upwards. She could not see the opening anymore, and so nobody could see her unless they started down the stairs.

But she could hear somebody screaming.

“Matt!” Misha cried out, even as he did his best to stay upright. The winds from Yonson were throwing them about in the air. If it were not for the shielding outside, he suspected that the lemur would have just whisked them off into the sky to let them plummet down the side of the tower to their deaths.

But the fox’s eyes were on his friend. Matthias had run up past where Zagrosek and Rickkter had been fighting, attempting to strike at that woman – what had Zagrosek called her? Agathe? – when she had drawn a green rune in the air. The rat’s leg sunk into the stone, and soon, the rest of him was beginning to take on that rocky quality. It happened so fast, that Misha had only managed to get his paws beneath him when he saw that it had already finished. Where once his friend had stood now a rodent statue remained. The burn from the Shrieker was still there too as a vein of obsidian that shone through on the right side of his face.

Growling, Misha stumbled back along the ground to where Whisper lay imbedded in the stone. And then he felt a hammer blow inside his mind, and all he could do was collapse where he stood as the entire world distorted and came unfocussed. Every piece swam around him, and all scents for a single moment were ripped from his nose. His ears rang with the peal of bells, but he knew that the bells themselves had not been rung.

It took a moment for everything to come back into focus, and when it did, he looked up and saw somebody who had not been there before smiling. He was a human man with a rather aristocratic bearing despite his nakedness. In one of his hands he clutched a deck of cards. Misha blinked in surprise, fighting the nauseousness that kept him from getting up. Who was this man and where had he come from.

“That’s much better,” the man said in a soft purr. “I like this place.” His eyes turned around the room, settling for a moment on Misha, and the Matthias’s statue, and then the rest of them. Misha noted that they had all been knocked to the ground by whatever force had struck them. Only Yonson and Agathe were also standing. Zagrosek was on his knees frantically rubbing his face with the hem of his robe.

The man seemed to notice Zagrosek and eyed him curiously. “You need a bath.” He then glanced over the assembled Keepers, and his lips turned in a deprecating grin. “It seems I am underdressed.” A rather expensive blue doublet and hose began to simply come into existence over his body. A silver brooch stood at his collar, while the silhouette of a unicorn’s head was emblazoned across one breast. Leather boots were heavy and expensively tailored, with lacings of silver thread through all the stitching. He brushed back light golden hair with his free hand, and nodded. “Much better again.”

He strode forward into the group, noting the rat’s stony form for one moment, before looking over the rest. “Most are here. How pleasant.” He spread open his deck of cards, and Misha could feel something terrible happening. There was a weight that was slowly pressing down against his mind. He felt his limbs jerk in confusion, and it was all he could do to keep himself from pushing himself to bended knee before this man. What was happening to him? His body struggled, each of his limbs eager to obey, but there was something not quite right. Even as that weight lay atop his mind, suffocating his thoughts, he knew that there was something important missing.

Rickkter hated broken bones. These were not his first by any stretch of the imagination, but they were always a nuisance. But they were a loving touch compared to the thought that his life was saved by that rat Sondecki. He’d still blame Charles for the scream that landed him in his current predicament, though. It was true that he no longer hated the rat on general principle. He just wanted nothing to do with the rat. And now the rat had come to his rescue. Rickkter really hoped this did not become a bad habit on his part.

He owed Kayla his life, but that was something he enjoyed far more. He could not help but admire her strength, something that she doubtlessly didn’t recognize in herself. Kayla had spent so much time hating that she had become a skunk. And now, it had been the very thing that had saved the life of the one who loved her. Rickkter felt fairly certain that she would no longer lament at being a skunk.

Kayla herself, after bringing him into the alcove and making sure that he was all right, had rushed back out to see what other ways she might be helpful. He missed her company already, and now, from the sound of things, he wished she’d stayed in hiding too.

Grunting, Rickkter laid his katana next to his broken leg. Thankfully, the break was clean he could feel that in his probing. He’d torn off that portion of his trousers and even then began to tie his leg against the cool blade. It was difficult to do one handed, but his left arm was broken, and so there wasn’t much he could do with that.

While he was not very good at casting healing spells on others, he certainly was competent enough to heal himself. However, he was having a hard time just marshalling enough breath and there were subtle fatiguing pains in nearly every corner of his body. The best he could do now would be to soothe and hopefully fix the break in his leg, but only after he’d put it in a proper splint and pressed the bones back together. That was the part he wasn’t looking forward to.

But, it was necessary. Once the splint was finished, he took some of the left over cloth and put it between his teeth. Grimacing from the musky flavour, Rickkter took a long deep breath and pushed at his right leg hard. He felt a jarring searing pain course through him, and he beat the back of his head against the wall, his teeth digging into the cloth.

When the pain subsided, he looked down at his leg, felt along the tender flesh to the bone, and then cast the runes. He could feel the bone begin to mend inside of him. After a moment’s inspection, he let out a sigh, knowing that it had worked, but also knowing that it was still weak.

He would have done the same for his arm, but then he felt a jarring sideways motion. Everything in the room shifted suddenly, and there was a thunderclap in his mind that made all his muscles spasm. He felt a digging pain in his left arm, but there was nothing he could do about that. Pushed with his legs back against the wall, Rickkter slid further into the recess and away from whatever it was that had arrived.

Malisa stared at the newcomer, but she did not recognize him at all. He stood about where Zagrosek and Rickkter had been fighting, just in front of the statue that Charles had become. In one hand he held a deck of cards that he had spread open before him like a fan. The back of the cards were finely engraved with a unicorn. His other finger was brushing along the hidden faces of those cards, and the agonized whelping of her companions filled her mind.

Apart form Abafouq, everyone who had come into the Belfry with her was writhing on the ground, beset upon by unseen forces. Even Habakkuk was on his side, long tail lashing out behind him. She could see that Rickkter was crouched back in one of the recesses out of the newcomer’s view, and he seemed not to be affected either. But she wondered whether that was because the man could not see him or for whatever reason it was that Malisa herself was not affected.

Regardless, she turned the lens towards this man, and stared at him through the veins of magic. She regretted that instantly. Where the man stood was a pillar of intense burning light that scorched at her eyes, but the cards he held in his hand were each an incandescent beacon that seemed to stretch out spectral fingers throughout the room. Beyond the bells was a black emptiness that seemed to draw all things into it, something even darker than the magic of the curse. Light did not reflect from it, it was just absorbed and became a part of its emptiness.

Yet, strangely enough, the pillar of white and that vast nebulous hole were connected. The pillar bent as it rose upwards, as if there were no more sky or universe for it to exist in. The light did not in the least dim, it simply entered into a nullity that merged with the blackness at its centre. Malisa felt faint and nauseous and quickly averted her gaze.

“You aren’t in my deck,” the man said as he stared at Malisa in surprise, as if he were seeing the sun rise in the west. He then tightened his grip on the cards, and took a deep inhalation. Malisa watched as her friends rose to their feet, and turned vacant eyes towards her and Abafouq. Only Misha seemed to be able to fight it, as he lay curled on the ground, beating his fists against the stone.

The man noted the fox with some derision, but then returned his focus to Malisa and the Binoq. “Ah, but you are in my deck. Come little one. You should see yourself.” The man smiled as Malisa’s friends all walked towards them, arms outstretched. Habakkuk was the first to reach them, and he gripped her arm roughly.

“No!” Malisa shouted, pushing back at him, but his grip was like iron, and their was a malicious glint that she had never before seen in his eyes. “Habakkuk, what are you doing?”

The kangaroo did not respond, but pulled relentlessly at her arm. And then Lindsey grabbed her other arm, and she was drug past the lens screaming horridly. Their was an unnatural strength and resolve in their grips, one that she doubt she could have broken even in the bygone days when she’d been a man. Behind her, she heard Abafouq crying out as well, struggling against the grasping hands of her companions.

Malisa was forced to her knees before the man. He smiled serenely down at her. Her heart pounded heavily in her chest, and all she could do was hope that Saroth and the rest broke that barrier of wind. It may be their only hope now.

The first spasm of pain came and passed, but another different kind of agony suffused the raccoon next. He felt something, something like a hand reaching into his mind and both pulling and pushing at the same time. It was not a very insistent hand, just one that was there because it had to be. Rickkter pushed back against it, using whatever magical means he had available to distract himself from its touch.

Thankfully, whatever intrusion it was, it did not seem to be paying any attention to him. Rickkter felt the hand disappear after he erected a shield inside his mind. He took a long deep breath, pulling his legs up underneath of him as he remained flush against the wall.

Looking to his right, he could see that his friends were getting to their feet and were all grabbing at Malisa. She was crying out, but they still clutched her and drug her forward. They did the same with that Binoq. Rickkter blinked as he stared in horror. There could be no doubt about it, whatever had been touching and trying to get into his mind had completely overtaken his friends.

Rickkter slid the katana out of the splint. His leg would mend naturally as long as he did not exert it too much. His left arm still hung limply at his side. He’d have to prepare a sling for it to keep it from being any further injured, but there was no time. He poked the katana forward and tilted the edge. In the blade he could see a sliver of the brass bells reflected, and an occasional face. He tilted it a bit more to the right, and a figure came into view. It was strange though, because it looked more like rock than a man. As he tilted the katana up slowly, he felt his breath quicken. It was Charles. The rat had been turned to stone!

He felt a strange bit of regret at that. Petrification spells were not easy to cast, and even more difficult to undo. Usually, a person petrified was completely dead. Restoring them to flesh usually left them a soulless husk. If Charles was fully stone and not just contained in a statue, then he was gone. Rickkter had no debt to repay to him. Even so, he felt more annoyed than upset. Misha would be devastated by this, just as he had been the last time a Long had been killed.

Turning the katana some more, he could now see Malisa brought to her knees before another man. It was hard to make out the details, but he edged the blade just slightly, until he could see the man’s face. It was long with aquiline nose and aristocratic brow. There was something familiar in his face too, and for a moment, Rickkter felt a snatch of memory, but it was fleeting and vanished. This man had not been in the Belfry a moment ago. With the entire place sealed off from the outside, he had to wonder how he had arrived.

Of course, this man’s power was no doubt magical in some way. Nevertheless, years of training had taught Rickkter to see what weapons a man possessed. He tilted the blade forward, slowly lowering the reflection until he reached the man’s chest. There he stopped for he saw something so strange, and yet, achingly familiar. In his hands was a deck of cards, the backs ornate with the emblem of a unicorn standing upon them.

The flash of memory returned then, of a merchant selling cards. He had a special deck, one that he wanted both Kayla and him to touch. They had done something to Kayla, attached themselves some way. And when Rickkter refused to touch, they had fought with him and forced the card – the two of Spades, yes that was it – forced the two of Spades into his paw. And then all had gone dark as if some veil were bound about his eyes.

Rickkter stared, feeling those memories come to him, though he could not now recall if he’d ever had them before. This was a man who walked through other people’s minds the way most walked through a garden. And those cards, that deck of cards he held in his hands, they were the key to the whole thing.

Grimacing, Rickkter pulled the katana back and gently set it down in his lap. He took the last bit of cloth he had and laid his left arm in the widest portion. He pressed one end up behind his shoulder and pinned it against the wall. He did his best to tie the two ends together so he could have his improvised sling. He was going to have to act, and act soon.

But first, he needed to shield his mind even more. That man had obviously not seen Rickkter, and so did not yet know he was here. As soon as he saw him, that questing hand would be back in his mind, and it would take all his strength to resist it.

Rickkter closed his eyes and built the wall he needed. Built, brick by brick. He would be ready.

“He let go!” Sean disclaimed in astonishment. “Why did he let go?”

{Who let go?} Saroth asked in surprise as they continued their tiring circle of the belltower. The bronze dragon had already lost count of how many times they had circled it. His mind felt dizzy, and his wings were beginning to grow sore. He could feel a dull pain forming all along one wing where the Lutin blade had cut him and it went right into the bone where the blade had lodged. He did not want to have to keep flying for too much longer. Not like this.

{My companion.} Guernef said, his voice set hard. There was an edge of anger in it now, but it was not directed at them, or at his friend inside the Belfry. But at something else altogether, though Saroth had no idea what that might be.

{Something has happened inside that is keeping Abafouq from strengthening his spell. We must continue it ourselves.}

“I can see the structure,” Electra pronounced. “I think I know the pattern now. I can add to it. I just need to be able to feel it constantly. Sean, can you hold onto both that spell and myself? I can use you as a conduit.”

Saroth felt the eagle morph shift about on his back. “Of course!” He chanced a quick look over his shoulder and he saw his two riders huddling closer together so that they could touch. The fourteen year old Electra was nearly buried under the larger eagle morph by the time they were settled.

Grimly, he flew on, wings moving to keep himself around the Belfry. He just hoped that they could pry it open soon. Quite suddenly, a day without flying seemed like a good thing after all.

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