Lineaments of Coming Night

Part XIV

Misha put both his paws on top of his head, as if it that would drive out the force that kept pushing inside of him. Whoever this man was, he was their true enemy. That he could not doubt. There was a eerie familiarity about him, but it was not one that he could place. The noble smiled as both Malisa and Abafouq were dragged towards him. Lindsey and Habakkuk had grabbed Malisa, while Kayla and James were dragging the small man forward.

Misha looked for the rest of his friends, even as he felt that horrid weight pressing against the back of his eyes. Charles was a stone statue locked in that last moment of fear as his now sightless opal eyes stared at where the censer lay pulsing in incomprehensible glee. Rickkter had still not emerged from the recess that Kayla had dragged him into, so the fox had no idea whether the raccoon was all right or not. At least he had not come out to join the rest in this spectacle of obedience. And Jessica. Well, she was just missing completely. He had no idea where she had gone.

Yonson had his paws folded over the ash staff, his golden eyes upon the noble. He still stood where he had been nearly the entire time they had been in that Belfry. It had been what, five ten minutes now? It seemed like so long that Misha could no longer discern if it was even still daytime. It felt as if an entire age had come and gone while they were locked in the struggle.

Turning his head about, the fox could see Agathe applying runes to Zagrosek’s face. The man was clearly in pain, and his hands twitched some as the woman worked over him. Misha bit down the taste of contempt he felt in his throat. What victory they had claimed in defeating the Shriekers and incapacitating this man were quickly being swept away.

Misha’s grey eyes slid back to the noble who was silently stroking his cards as he watched the woman and Binoq forced to the knee before him. His smile was existent on his face no out of job, but merely because it was supposed to be there. It was an artificial creation, one that presaged dark and terrible things. The fox felt his will beginning to soften under that relentless assault on his mind. Whatever it was about himself that was keeping this man from taking control of him completely would only last a little while longer. Misha’s eyes flowed to the one last refuge that he could think of.

Still imbedded in the stone, the black axe throbbed with power. It was only a few feet from him, but it could have been miles away for all it mattered. It was their last hope. The last time he had done this, an army had scattered to the snow and winds. He had watched her drain the life from a wolverine, reducing the creature to a withered husk that even crows could not feast from. The tide of this battle had turned irrevocably against them. But she would turn it back.

Misha pushed out with all his strength, bringing his voice out in as much force as he could muster. It was barely a whisper under that suffocating weight, that pervasive alien will that threatened to gobble him whole, but it was enough. “Tchau Uae!” The words caught on the air, and the ever present throb of the bells ceased in that one moment.

The noble’s manner shifted subtly, that smile gone slowly as his face turned to note the fox and the axe that was beginning to change the very light that surrounded it. One eye lifted in surprised amusement, even as the very lights that kept the Belfry illuminated were sucked of their energy. Even the ambient light that was allowed through the walls of wind that continued their rushing journey seemed to be sucked into darkness. But around the axe, the air glowed a sultry red that began to rise up into the air above.

Though it was summer, a cold wind shifted through them all, and no voices were uttered to break that silence. Misha could feel the weight against his mind lessen for a moment, and then it dug in harder, as if his head were being ground into the dirt under that man’s boot. He put his paws to his head again, and kept his eyes on the shape that was slowly coming into focus. With that hope, he could hold back the commands that were trying to break his will.

Her head came into view first, an immense thing with dark empty sockets that reached back beyond the length of her head. Then the torso developed, deep and broad, with long ghastly wings that hung in the air behind her. Arms tipped with claws spread wide, and small legs held under her, five talons tipping each. She hung in the air a good foot above the axe, casting all about her in that crimson light.

In that hue, the noble, if it were possible, seemed to have changed into a demon. “Go away,” he said as if he were dismissing a troublesome servant.

Tchau, for that was her name, did not do that. Its blood red arm reached out and slashed through the man’s neck. Misha felt a moment of exultation at the mortal blow, but then felt his heart still as the man just chuckled drily. No gash appeared frothing with blood. Nothing at all seemed to have happened.

“You cannot hurt me,” the man said, still regarding it with disdain. “And while I cannot hurt you directly, I can still take you.” Even as he said this, the red wraith had already tried to strangle him as she had done to the wolverine, and had even attempted to do so to Eldrid. But no life was drawn from this man. It was if she were trying to grasp at the very air.

“This is pointless you know,” the man added after the wraith had given up on attempting to strangle him. It turned away from him and set its sights on Agathe and Zagrosek. Misha felt a gust of chill air as its wing beat above him.

The noble’s eyes widened then, even as the creature began to fly straight for those two mages. “Stop!” his voice was so loud that Misha felt his mind beginning to break. He folded back his one ear and gave out the cry of agony that he had been holding back. “Stop, or I will do what I can. No Kkartic weapon has ever been sent to the Underworld. Another inch and your friend here will take you there.”

The wraith turned in the air and gazed balefully at the noble that she could not strike. Misha had seen Tchau scatter an entire army and desicate living flesh with just her touch. How could she not save them from this menace? How far beyond them in power was this man that he could just ignore the touch of Kkart?

Casting a curious glance down at Misha, and then at the cards in his hands, the noble smiled. “Ah,” he said, as if some bit of understanding came over him. Misha felt his body attacked anew, but this time, it was not attempting to fulfill the noble’s command. It was just trying to change, to flow into the foxtaur shape that he so loved. It was something that he liked to do, it was nothing that he thought could help this man, and it seemed no danger to his friends, and so it just happened. One moment he was on the ground with only two feet. The next he stood upon four.

It was not that he himself had willed the change. It was just not something he had been prepared to fight against, and so it had come about as naturally as if he had wanted it. Misha felt that weight press down on his mind again, but this time, it was as if his own will were an immaterial thing. That force pressed down and squeezed him until he was no longer there. He couldn’t feel his body. Powerful cords bound his mind tight into one corner, while something else took control of his form.

Misha felt horror as he saw himself bend down and wrest the axe free from the floor. And he felt an even greater horror when his own voice rang out to the wraith, summoning her back to the axe, taking away their last bit of hope against this man. What could they hope to do now? It was over. They had lost.

Tchau looked at him in agony. The wraith floated back through the air. Along her face a look of desolation came. She saw into his eyes and knew that this was not a command that she should follow, but she could not disobey either. Slowly, and regretfully, the wraith melted back into Whisper. Misha was faintly aware of a mournful cry that sounded as the last of her red substance was absorbed once more into the Kkartic blade.

And then the world spun once more.

Rickkter felt his body tremble once again as he watched the wraith rise up from the axe. He had seen her before, and remembered her cryptic words to him before she had disappeared the last time. For a moment, hope had blossomed in his chest, but then her hand had just passed through the card dealer, and all hope was gone.

Strangely, Misha took on his foxtaur form. From the look in his eyes when it was over, Rickkter knew that he had not done so willingly, and that somehow by doing it, the noble had managed to take full control over him as well. There were no allies left that he could count on. It had to be up to him.

But attacking that noble would do him no good if he couldn’t also injure him somehow. If the wraith was incapable of it, then surely he was not physically present. Zagrosek and the rest had been here in the flesh. They had opened a portal for this man to project himself through. So what could he do to stop the projection?

The raccoon tried to clear his mind to think. If this were simply a projection of his astral self, then surely there would be a connecting cord that would bind him to his body. Using magic sight would probably be a mistake considering how powerful he knew that deck of cards was. Even so, it was a risk that he had to take. He could only let in a little at a time after all.

Turning his head, he looked out and saw that the man had his back to him. That was convenient at least. Yonson would be able to see him if the lemur were looking in his direction, but his gaze was focussed on the noble. That was good. Slowly, Rickkter pushed his mind towards the magic in the room. Instantly, the whole area brightened. The noble himself rather quickly became a pillar of light, as if he were a hole in the fabric of reality that had been cut with a knife. There did not appear to be any sort of line binding him anywhere. But there was a connection between himself and that censer.

Rickkter let his gaze flow towards that cursed artifact. It was an emptiness that drew all else towards it. The auras of both Agathe and Zagrosek, who were nearest it, were clearly bending and distorting under its pull. Rickkter was startled to see that there was still a tightly bound aura about the statue of the rat. So Charles had survived the petrification after all. That was somewhat of a relief.

But the area surrounding the censer was littered with trap spells. Rickkter frowned as he studied them. It appeared that the rat had inadvertently set one off, and was now a solid lump of rock in testament to it. Rickkter could not possibly approach them, but somehow, he had to strike at the connection. Yet he could see no way to do it.

And so on an impulse, Rickkter closed his eyes and just felt the magic. It was something he had always been gifted with, but since becoming a raccoon, his ability had grown phenomenally. Magic was not just a part of sight, but there was also a texture, and even scent and sound to it. Sometimes, a complicated problem could become clearer to him if he just closed his eyes and felt it for a moment.

Slowly, the soft vibrations of the censer and the responding echo from the noble’s body made it all plain. They were almost a mirror, as if they were constantly speaking to each other, reacting to each other. It was low and subtle, but only they could hear it. And now, as his paw felt out the sonic susurrations, he too could hear it. But what would happen if they could no longer hear each other?

Rickkter drew up his katana and managed to rise to his feet. His leg still hurt terribly, but he could walk on it, nay run, for that is what it would take. Sound could be made to reverberate magically after all, if one just had sufficient resonance. The raccoon’s eyes slid to the four brass bells that hung in midair like sentinels.

He felt the magic flow from him into the runic blade he carried, and then he ran. Pain lanced up his leg, but he ignored it, running forward, ignoring the sight of the noble bending over, one card in his hand as it reached out towards the diminutive Binoq. He ignored the look of surprise on Yonson’s face who was the first to notice him. And he ignored the shriek and agony that was gripping his mind as that pressure returned, trying to destroy the protection he had put into place to keep the card dealer’s presence out.

Leaping into the air in front of the nearest of the bells, Rickkter swung his blade.

Overhead, the air spun wildly, continuing in its unending course around the Belfry. The cold iron of the blade was between his fangs, and his claws were digging firmly into the grey stone of the tower. Beneath him, the red panda knew that George the patrolmaster was climbing the last few feet. Kershaw glanced up at the cavalcade of air. He could climb no higher while that still existed.

Saroth and that strange white gryphon circled once more. He knew that they were doing what they could to break this shield of wind. And he was grateful also that there was no real wind anywhere else around the tower, at least not as close as he and his friend were. With only a rope to save them should they slip, he did not want to chance any more wind.

Still, he was here, and there was nothing more he could do. Kershaw bit down into the knife, tasting the sharp metal. When that shield fell, he’d be ready. Oh yes, he’d be ready.

Charles did not have much choice of what he got to look at. The stone was no longer attacking his little cache inside his mind. He was safe to try and focus on what was going on around him. But though he could see out of the jewel that was his eye, and he could even hear, though the sounds were strangely muted as if a warm blanket had been wrapped several times around his head, he could not feel anything in the rest of his body. It may as well not even be there for all the good it did him in this state.

What was worse was that he could only see out of his left eye. Thankfully, being a rat, he had a wider range of vision than he’d possessed as a man. He was able to see Misha summon the wraith, and then watched in dismay as the Marquis forced it back into the axe. He could watch Agathe tending to Zagrosek, for whom the rat could find no emotion that he could properly describe.

Charles wanted to throttle the man at times, and then he just wanted to force him to sit and explain why he’d done all that he’d done. And then there were moments when he wished he could go back and think of the man only as his lifelong friend. The thought of Krenek, Jerome, Ladero and himself all sharing a good drink in some tavern filled him with nostalgic pleasure.

But the pleasure, like every other emotion, could not last long. He remembered that Ladero was dead, and that Jerome was wandering the Midlands aimlessly while he decided what his own future held, and Krenek... Krenek was apparently lost to them forever for reasons even more inexplicable than death. Just the knowledge of that filled him with a dull throb, an emptiness where the ache in his heart would have been if his heart had not become granite.

Zagrosek looked at him as Agathe finished clearing the skunk spray from one side of his face with her runes. His eyes were speculative, and Matthias met that gaze as best he could. The black clad man regarded him with sympathy, but also with a measure of regret. What could he possibly be thinking? He just didn’t know what it might possibly be.

And then his attention was distracted by the shape that flew past him on his left heading straight for the nearest of the brass bells.

Jessica hated having to be put away from the action, but after everything that the kangaroo had said turned out to be true, she could not risk this not being true either. She closed her eyes and pulled her wings tightly about herself as she craned an ear to listen to what happened around the curve of the stair above.

The light had gone terribly dark, and she felt a cold shiver race along her back from tail tip to both wing tips. And then, only moments after it had begun, the sensation left her, and the light began to return. Jessica breathed heavily, listening, straining her ear.

And then her mind rang with all the bells on Earth.

After Misha had changed back into a foxtaur, the noble attired in saffron blue doublet and hose smiled to him and once more held out a card. Abafouq stared at it in horror, struggling against the hands and paws that grasped him tightly. It was the nine of hearts, and it was his own face that peered back at him from the card. His eyes were wild in terrible fright. Though he was not familiar with the magic that cards themselves possessed, he knew enough what this man was capable of doing with them.

And that’s when it happened, and he was spared yet again from the fate of the unholy deck. Behind the noble streaked the form of Rickkter, brandishing his katana high in the air. The blade came straight down, striking the side of the nearest bell like a hammer. The air suddenly shimmered as the resounding paean obliterated all thought from his mind. Even his companions, still controlled by that man, were forced to put their hands to their ears to keep the sound from turning their minds to mush.

Abafouq bent over double and cried out from the pain, though his own voice was lost in that deep toll. His bones shook, and his flesh quivered as he went to his knees. If this was meant to create a moment in which the Binoq could strike at the noble with some magical exorcism, then he was utterly unable to fulfill his obligation. All that he could do was hold his hands over his ears and cry his silent scream.

Even their enemies put their hands to their head to cover the sound. All but one. The noble reacted the most oddly, for when the sound struck him, his body seemed to dissolve for a moment, losing all consistency, as if he were made from flimsy paper at best, driven to shreds in a strong wind. The cards also shattered into infinitesimal pieces, spinning around the column of colour smears that had once been their enemy.

Abafouq felt his heart lift, even as the ringing continued to pound his skull. Rickkter himself, who must have cast some sort of protection spell on himself as he did not have his ears covered, looked pleased with what he had done. But his face fell a moment later as those smears began to gain definition once more, growing in solidity and dimension with each blink of an eye.

It was only a few seconds before the man was once more whole, though the smile appeared irrevocably erased from his face. In its place was a moue filled with such malevolence that Abafouq pressed back against his friends, who now once more under this man’s control, grappled with him to keep still.

The noble turned on the raccoon, and Abafouq screamed, though the bell still throbbed, the fundamental so low that their bones shook.

Rickkter’s moment of elation passed quickly as he saw the noble’s form reconstituted so quickly. He struck out with his katana, hoping that his spell upon it would still be enough to break the man’s connection. But the man just slapped the blade away with his hand, and then brought up a familiar card. It was the two of hearts, and upon it stood Rickkter himself.

“You have closed your mind to me,” the man mused, his eyes darkening with such hatred that Rickkter felt the first stab of fear. He had faced many a powerful wizard, mages whose abilities were beyond compare, and those whose very names would be recalled throughout history for their achievements. Some, merely for the raw power that they could hold in their hands. Rickkter had been in awe of them, but even as he grew in his own power, he had never truly feared them deep in his bones.

This man frightened him.

“But you cannot close yourself,” the man finished, and then twisted the card between his fingers.

Rickkter felt a pain come into existence in his middle, and he was sure that his spine had been snapped in two in that single moment. He fell to the floor screaming in an agony that he had only ever imagined reserved for the darkest pits of Hell. The katana fell from his paws, even as this torturer twisted the card once more, snapping yet another bone. The pain was so great, the raccoon did not even know which it was.

“You will trouble me no more.” The man looked up for a moment, and Rickkter was only vaguely aware that the man had gazed at the censer itself. A sort of sneer crossed his lips. “I cannot kill you here though. Not now. Which is unfortunate.” He dug one thumb into the middle of the card, and Rickkter felt as if a sword were being dug through his guts. He vomited, the stench coating his muzzle, though not penetrating the veil of pain that clouded his mind.

The man held the card out, bending down over the raccoon, nearing his face. Rickkter tried to summon the will to move away, or even to strike out with his paws, but he couldn’t even move them anymore, any motion at all just brought on tear-wrenching agony. He was without vicissitude – his only true awareness was that unending agony.

And then, at last, something did change. His eyes stared into the card, and past the card, into the man’s eyes. The man took a long deep breath, sucking at the card itself. There was both a soothing sensation then, and something else altogether that he could not quite describe. It was as if somebody had put a sword into his mind and was busy sawing it in half. With each inhalation, the world retreated from the raccoon, the pain leaving with it, and a sense of solidity and permanence began to fill him. He was surrounded and suffused with magic. But he was also contained by it.

There was nothing left to see or feel, only the edges of his prison. They formed a perfect rectangle, as if they were a window whose drapes had been pulled closed. Darkness crept on him, lulling him into a dreamless slumber.

He had no strength left to resist. His body was gone, his mind all that remained. And even that was succumbing rapidly to the magic that bound it. There wasn’t anything more to do. He merely had to wait until he woke once more.

Dimly, before that black sleep claimed him, he realized that his spirit had been taken into the card itself.

{What was that?} Saroth boomed as the reverberations made the wall of air ripple. He could hear a dull sound aching in his mind. There could be no doubting that something had just happened.

“I think somebody rang one of the bells,” Electra suggested. “Sean, keep focussing! We are almost there!”

“I’m trying!” Sean declared in a screech. “Just widen it a little bit more and I think I can grab the support just on the other side.”

{Be ready,} the gryphon cautioned. {It comes.}

{What comes?} Saroth demanded irritably. He was truly beginning to regret his limited magical sight. That and the fact that he couldn’t breathe flame. That would feel really good to do just then.

“Sean, can you grab that piece?” Electra asked, excitement rising in her voice.

Saroth looked to the wall of air. It was still settling back down after that sonic burst. But the hole they had bored into the wall was wide enough that he could poke his snout through now. The images beyond all passed by too quickly for him to make any sense of though.

“I have it!” Sean cried in delight. “Everybody hang on.”

{That goes for you too, Sean.} Saroth reminded his friend. But only a moment after the thought had left his mind, then he saw that hole expand suddenly, pushing the shield outwards dramatically. And then it snapped in two, the spells dissipating on the air. Wild winds buffeted them from all sides, and Saroth did his best to keep control. His eye saw the red panda jump up onto the ledge, the knife in his muzzle going into his hand, and then leaving that too, straight into the heart of the Belfry.

And then something else happened, something that he would never have expected.

Abafouq had to avert his eyes from watching that evil man suck the raccoon’s soul right from his body. He’d never before witnessed anything so horrifying, and he hoped that he never had to again. The raccoon’s body was a broken shell that they might not even be able to save. It looked as if it had been bent maliciously in several distinct places. Had the raccoon been taller, the man could have tied him into a knot.

The noble held the cards before him, his smile one of supreme satisfaction. He leaned forward and placed his lips upon the card.

“You bastard!” Malisa shouted, her voice both angry and horrified. “You bastard!”

“I assure you that my birth was completely legitimate. Unlike your own,” the noble sneered at her, and then returned his gaze to the Binoq. “Now, where were we?” He drew out the nine of Hearts and smiled once more. “Ah yes. It is time.”

“We will stop you,” Malisa snarled, struggling against Habakkuk and Lindey, but they only held her tighter.

“Misha, cut out her tongue should she speak again,” the noble said to the foxtaur, who nodded slowly, the vacant stare in his eyes a terrible thing to behold. Slowly, Misha trotted over to where Malisa was bent to her knees. He drew the knife at his side and held his other paw out towards her head. Malisa’s eyes went wide as she gazed at her friend, totally under this man’s control.

Abafouq felt his whole being ache at the sight, and sent up a prayer to Tequ with his last voluntary thoughts. The card bearer returned and lowered the nine of hearts, touching it gently against the Binoq’s forehead. Immediately, Abafouq felt a heavy weight descend on his mind, drowning out his own thoughts. His will was pressed back, and he quickly found himself a passenger in his own body. Both James and Kayla let him go, but could do nothing. His body stayed on its knees before the noble, the very one who controlled him.

“There, isn’t that much better?” the man asked wit a oddly jocular smile. Abafouq felt his head nod, at which the man chuckled to himself for a moment. Afterwards, his gaze slid slowly back to Malisa, though Abafouq could not even follow it to see what she wanted.

Clearly he was going to say something more, but a loud detonation knocked him from his feet then. He sprawled heavily to the ground, the stone rushing at him and striking him hard in several places. The whole room spun for a moment, and through the fog of the noble’s will, Abafouq was certain that the walls of wind were no more.

He just wished he could enjoy that moment of elation.

Before Kershaw’s startled eyes, the wall of wind bulged outwards until fractures cris-crossed the ever folding air. A moment later, it all dissolved in a loud thunderclap which left his ears ringing. The Belfry stood open to him now, and he felt his heart thrill in that small victory. He reached up his paw and practically jumped the last few feet to the landing. He could feel the jackal morph nearly grabbing his tail in his own efforts to scale the tower.

Putting one paw on the edge of the landing, Kershaw pulled himself up and over, rolling into a crouch, dagger already in his paw. The scene before him seemed a mad one. He saw his fellow Keepers nearby, most of them thrown to the ground and struggling to get back up. A short distance away he saw Rickkter’s body twisted into an obviously horrific position. He was not moving either, which gave Kershaw a sudden fear. And then his eyes spotted the statue. At first he dismissed it, but then he recognized in the lines of stone his fellow Long Scout Matthias.

What had happened in here?

Kerhsaw felt dazed as he slowly rose to his hind paws. All of this to absorb so soon, and who was responsible for it? It was hard to ponder what it all meant, but to find an answer, that was easy enough, for all eyes seemed to lead to a man dressed in a exquisite blue doublet and hose. There was a deck of cards spread like an eastern fan in one of his hands.

He threw the dagger. He wasn’t quite sure why he decided to aim for the deck of cards, but that’s where he aimed, and that was where the blade went. The man’s eyes flicked to him just as the blade penetrated the nearest card.

Kershaw could not quite believe what he saw. The cards simply evaporated into the air and the man stumbled backwards, his hands melting back and forth into each other before they regained their solidity. His dagger continued to sail through the air before colliding into the opposite wall and bouncing harmlessly back to the floor.

Misha spun on all four of his feet, brandishing Whisper. His eyes shown with devilish fury, and he struck out at the noble with the blade. Kershaw blinked when the black edge of Whisper passed through the man without so much as touching him. The noble regarded the foxtaur sourly. “I told you...” he began, his tones both lecturing and filled with silent fury.

But he was interrupted by another scream. Kershaw lifted his head just in time to see the kangaroo Habakkuk rush at the traitorous Yonson. The purple clad lemur tried to bring up an ash staff between them, but Habakkuk hopped right into the man, bowling them both over. Gripping his arms about the man, Habakkuk rolled forwards with him, until the both of them disappeared out of sight over the edge of the landing.

For a second, all anybody could do was stare at the empty space where the two of them had been a moment before.

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