Lineaments of Coming Night

Part XVI

Whether by choice or common consent, none of them said much of anything as they made their way back down the tower steps. When they found Arla and Meredith, the two Longs joined in their descent with only a few questions that were answered as quickly as possible. What victory could they have had when they knew that thing still lurked in the Belfry, that Rickkter was likely dead, and that Charles was a walking statue?

It took the better part of ten minutes before they reached the bottom of the stairs. None of Yonson’s guards remained in the circular chamber below, and even the bodies of London and Humphrey had been removed. There was still the stain of blood in patches on the floor. Two Metamorian guards remained at the entrance, but they merely saluted to Malisa, George, and Misha, they said nothing. However, they did gawk when they saw the stone rat walked past.

The halls were empty as they made their way to the Healer’s quarters. Their silence seemed a tangible thing that they trod upon as much as they trod upon stone and carpet. A somnolent weariness was upon them, resting heavily on their hearts and minds. For each of them, there was some event that they had seen that continued to replay before their eyes. And they knew it would haunt them in their dreams from now until the day they went into the next life.

When the silent procession reached the infirmary, there were several guards already standing outside. The first nodded to Malisa who was leading the group. “His grace and the Lothanasa are already waiting inside.” Just the sound of his voice seemed like a strange violation to them. How could any speak at a time such as this?

“Good,” Malisa replied, and when the guard had opened the door for them, stepped through.

Duke Thomas was pacing back and forth with his hands held just over where his tail was similarly flicking from side to side dislodging imaginary flies from his flanks. The raccoon Brian Coe was inspecting some bruise that the kangaroo had sustained on his side. The flesh beneath the fur had purpled already, and the fur itself was singed. Jessica stood near Raven and the feline Merai watching from one side and waiting. Next to them stood a very tall bronze skinned man who sported a draconic muzzle, an eagle morph, and a young teenager – Saroth, Sean, and Electra.

When Malisa stepped through, both Raven and Thomas met her gaze immediately. “Bring all the wounded in first,” Raven instructed in the icy tones of determination.

Coe looked over his shoulder and grimaced. “How many more are there?”

“Mostly they are just some cuts and bruises, a few sprains I think. But both Rickkter and Charles are in need of drastic aid.” The Prime Minister gravely said.

{What’s going on?} Saroth demanded rather impatiently. {I know Yonson was up to no good, and he certainly didn’t taste all that good either. But why was he doing this?}

“The explanation for that,” Habakkuk said from where he sat on a small table while Coe looked over the bruise, “will take far longer time for you than it will for everyone else. Before we had to fight these enemies, I was telling most of those here the history of this fight.”

{What are you trying to say?} Saroth turned and glared at the kangaroo. {I deserve to know what’s going on.}

“And you will,” Duke Thomas said brusquely. “But not right now. The injured need to be attended to, and we are fast running out of room. If you do not need medical attention, then I need you to wait outside. There will be time to tell all of you what has happened later.”

“Misha, George,” Raven called, and gestured to one of the unoccupied tables. “Bring Rickkter over here.” The wolf priestess waited while they carried the stretched bearing the Kankoran to the cold stone table. Slowly, the four of them lowered the makeshift stretcher, and let the body rest upon the cloths. Misha quickly began undoing the knots around Whisper so that he might reclaim it.

“Can you save him?” Misha asked, his voice full of anger, but also full of fear.

“We first need to see what is wrong with him, Misha,” Raven assured him. “Merai, would you see if any others need Lightbringer healing? I shall attend to this one.”

“Yes, Lothanasa,” the feline replied with a quick bow of her head before she waded amongst the rest gathered.

She stopped when she saw Charles enter the room, his footsteps a loud clunking noise that was utterly strange to hear any mortal make. She stared at him wide-eyed for a long moment, her ears fully erect. “Lothanasa....”

Charles took a few more steps forward while those uninjured begrudgingly left the room behind him. He had to turn his head to the right just to make eye contact with the new priestess, and he regarded her solemnly.

“What in all the hells?” Thomas barked as he saw the rat turned to stone. “I know you said... but...”

“If it is not too much a burden,” Abafouq said as he came around the rat and looked up at all the rest, “I would like to be allowed to stay.”

Thomas gave a curt nod of his head. “Please do.” The horse lord looked over at where Raven stood inspecting Rickkter’s body. Kayla was standing over him with her eyes watering. “Kayla, I suppose you can stay as well, as long as you don’t get in the Lothanasa’s way.”

“She isn’t,” Raven replied as she straightened out one of Rickkter’s arms and felt along the flesh with the pads of her fingers. “Not at all.”

“Now,” Thomas said after a long breath. “Does any one have any idea what just happened up in the Belfry? So far all I’ve heard is that our enemy is very powerful, and that there is one less of them. And Metamor is down one ambassador too. What was the censer doing up there and what were they doing with it?”

“The answer to that question is quite simple,” Habakkuk replied, even as Coe left his side to attend to James’s bruised ankle. “I don’t know.”

Raven stared down at the battered body of the raccoon. Her heart trembled anxiously. She knew that this man had a destiny with the gods and the world. They could not afford to lose him, not so soon. At the very least, his body was still alive, if not likely for long.

She could feel the healing working through her, and some of the bones that had snapped were repaired. It was apparent that Rickkter had already attempted to mend the break in his leg, though with Raven’s power, it was fully restored. His arm was also set right, and the bones fused as they were meant to be. All over his body she could feel the swelling of bruises, but at the touch of her fingers and a few words whispered under her muzzle they too began to recede.

“Who did this to him?” Raven asked the skunk that stood opposite her.

Kayla looked up with tears beginning to stain her cheeks. “There were two men. A man dressed in black. I think he was called Zagrosek. He fought with one of those magic staffs – Sondeshikes I think Rickkter called them.” She paused a moment and took a deep breath. “I do not know who the second one was, he looked like a noble. And he spoke with a Pyralian accent. He had a deck of cards that he used to control us. And he used it to hurt Rickkter. I don’t really understand how.”

Raven’s brow narrowed and her ears lifted straight up. A deck of cards that he used to control them? That certainly couldn’t be good. Cards could be enchanted for all sorts of purposes, but to control other people? That was magic of a dark sort that she did not deal in. Perhaps Wessex, were he still alive, might know something of it. But he was dead, and so too one of their greatest fonts of knowledge on dark magic.

“Well, it appears that most of these injuries are easily treatable.” Raven tried to sound confidant, but there was something palpably wrong about Rickkter that was becoming increasingly clear. Often, when a person went into shock, they retreated within themselves, causing it to appear that their very soul had fled their body at first. However, it was always possible to find their soul buried inside them. No matter how far the priestess burrowed within the raccoon, there was nothing to be found.

Further, as she strove to find some remnant of his soul, she discovered that there were injuries she herself could not fix. Even if his soul returned to him, he’d be an invalid, a fact that she knew Rickkter would find very hard to live with. In two places, his spine had been broken, the bones crushed as if some hand had throttled them. Raven sighed deeply and then nodded. “But I do have some bad news, Kayla.”

The skunk looked up sharply, her paws trembling before her. She didn’t say anything.

“First, his spine has been broken in two places. I myself cannot heal that wound. I will petition Akkala to heal him, for it is within her power to do so. He will owe a deb to the goddess, though I believe for reasons I do not wish to state that any such debt will me small. The second is that I do not believe his soul is anywhere in his body anymore. He is not dead, but his spirit has been stolen from him. Even with Akkala’s healing, he will not wake up until his soul can be restored to him.”

Kayla stared open-mouthed before shaking her head, stuttering, “No! No, no, no, no!” The skunk turned and fled the room, burying her face in her paws to staunch the flow of tears.

Raven gaped, feeling her own heart ache in sorrow for the distraught lover.

Merai stared at the rat statue in a manner that he must have considered rude, for he stared back rather pointedly with his one eye, arms crossed. Merai did not know Charles nearly as well as the Lothanasa did, but she could remember seeing him in the temple helping others sing the night that the Patriarch had been killed. And now he was almost unrecognizable locked into granite, with strange veins of obsidian blackening the right side of his face in the shape of a demonic hand.

“I am sorry,” she said, feeling a bit uncertain. “But my spells can’t restore you to flesh. And I don’t know anything about healing stone.” She felt ashamed to have to say it, but it was the truth. “If you like, we can petition the gods to restore you, but I don’t think anything less than that will suffice.”

Charles crossed his arms and looked down at the small man was rummaging around in his knapsack for something. Merai had a hard enough time accepting that the statue before her, which was always perfectly still until he moved, was Charles Matthias, one of the Long Scouts, but now it seemed that the one who had imparted the ability to move to him was a creature that had been thought lost to legend, a Binoq! Not that the Binoq’s had ever had more than a folklore place in the legends. They were not great heroes who had accomplished remarkable feats. Nor were they renowned as wizards capable of splitting seas. They were just little people who had a love for stone, and, the folktales suggested mischief against humans.

“I will have the spell to let you speak ready soon,” the Binoq – he had said his name was Abafouq – said as he examined a small scroll that was slick with grease. He then cast Merai a meaningful glance. “But I take his expression to mean that he is dubious about what the gods help might entail.”

The feline priestess nodded her head slowly. “If you fear that they would have you worship them, Charles, then do not. They will never tell you that you need to start worshipping them, and cease your worship of Eli.” Still, the stone rat looked dubious and uncertain. Was he willing to stay stone just to stay faithful to his god? Merai found that sort of resolve impressive. “You will owe them a debt, it is true, but all they require is for you to admit that it was they who healed you, and a task to complete. Once complete, the debt is repaid and you may go on with your life.”

Charles uncrossed his arms and then flexed his fingers for a moment. When they had been flesh, they had been rather pinkish in hue. Now, they were the same speckled grey as most of the rest of his body. Merai wasn’t sure what the stone rat was trying to do, but she let him do it. It looked as if he really wanted to be able to speak, but that was going to need more magic, and a magic of the sort that Merai was not familiar with.

“I know,” the Binoq said as he rolled the scroll back up and tied a bit of string around it to keep it closed. “I will be ready to cast the spell in just a moment. I have almost figured it out.”

Merai nodded and waited on Abafouq. She hoped Charles would not prove to be stubborn as he was famous for and accept the gods’ help. She knew his wife would be much happier that way.

“I can’t believe it” Meredith said in his rumbling manner. “Did you really catch Yonson in your mouth?”

Saroth nodded, looking slightly proud about that, though there was still a veneer of impatience in his draconic face. {Habakkuk suggested it. I’m sure he’s glad I was still able to catch him after taking a bite of the Weathermonger.}

“I still don’t understand why Yonson was doing any of that,” Electra pointed out as she leaned against the wall of the hallway outside the Healer’s quarters. “The magical barrier of wind, the spells that scared the clouds so much... why would he do any of that? I never knew him well, despite also being a weather magician, but he always struck me as very reasonable.”

“You aren’t the only one who is waiting for an explanation,” George said gruffly. The jackal was leaning against the opposite wall, his muzzle turned down thoughtfully, nose nearly touching his crossed arms. “But I was told that Yonson was corrupted by the powers of Marzac.”

“Marzac?” Electra asked, narrowing her eyes. “That sounds familiar, but I don’t know it.”

“I’ve never heard of it,” Sean admitted as he danced back and forth on his feet. Unlike Jessica, the eagle could still stand comfortably on the ground. The hawk was standing though, but her face was clearly distracted.

“It’s at the southern end of the Pyralian Kingdoms,” she said at last. “It’s in a swamp, and it is cursed by a tear to the Underworld.”

“The Underworld?” Electra gasped, her eyes gone wide. “That’s foolish, nobody is stupid enough to interfere with that.”

“This somebody was,” George grunted and tapped his claws together. “But more than that, I don’t really know. I’m sure you can ask Jessica about their history of it. She knows more than I.”

“I know of it,” Lindsey announced, though his eyes were upon the guarded doorway, and not on the other Keepers gathered in the hall waiting for some word on either Rickkter or Charles. Having seen Kayla run out in tears did not give them much confidence for the raccoon, but there was still hope.

“Then you can tell them,” Jessica said as she turned her golden stare on the jackal. “George, what did you do with Weyden?”

“I had him and the other three put in the dungeons. They are not to be allowed out of their cells until we can determine whether they have been touched by Marzac’s corruption. If not, they will be released after they swear fealty to Metamor and Duke Thomas.”

“May I see him?” There could be no doubting the plea in her voice. It was a raw need. Her whole body was on edge, filled with anxiety both from the battle and from the jailing of her love. Most who saw it would have felt compassion for her.

George was not like most people. “You may speak, but you may not enter the cell with him.”

Aghast: “We cannot touch each other?”

“No.” There was no remorse in that voice, no quarter to be offered at all. “I am being generous in allowing you to speak with him at all. Until we are sure he can be trusted, he will stay in that cell. As will his friends.”

Jessica stared for a moment more in disbelief. She then turned and nearly fled down the hallway in much the same direction that Kayla had just disappeared.

They watched her for a moment before Saroth turned his head back to the Northerner and asked {So, how did this Marzac become cursed?}

“Well,” Lindsey said gruffly, one eye following the disappearing hawk, “it all started about eleven thousand years ago...”

“You have a very bad burn here on your back,” Coe announced as he examined Misha. The fox was laying face down on one of the cold tables. His tunic was folded up and resting under his head while the racoon bent over him. His breeches had only barely survived his changing into a taur, though the backs of each pant leg were simply torn to shreds and the front only provided him the necessary modesty.

“How bad?” Misha asked, even as Duke Thomas stood a few feet away, eyes locked on Misha’s face and not what the Healer was doing with the rest of it.

“You will have some scar tissue, but I think the fur will all grow back. Your shirt absorbed the worst of the blow. I’ll put a poultice on this and you should be fine in a few days.”

“Good,” Misha said. “Now what did you say happened to Yonson?”

The kangaroo’s bruise had not been healed completely, and since Coe had promised him he would look at it once the other more serious wounds were tended, he had not yet bothered to put his tunic back on, so all of his dusty red chest fur could be seen. “After we fell off the side of the tower, Saroth flew down to catch us before we died. That’s when Yonson struck me with his staff and gave me this bruise. I told Saroth to bite Yonson, and that he did. This killed Yonson immediately. However, a few moments later, his body was turned to a black mist, and he was sucked up back towards the Belfry. I did not see whether it went inside or not, but it looked like it was going to.”

Misha nodded, even as he felt the racoon poking at the wound. He sucked in his breath when claws probed a particularly painful spot. “I know that just before Zagrosek and the others left, I saw a black mist come into the Belfry and then sink into the censer. That might be what happened then.”

“And what might that be?” Thomas asked, his head lowered in contemplation.

“I don’t know, ow!”

Coe snorted. “Stop being a big baby. That hardly hurt at all.”

“Next time you can get struck by lightning then,” Misha shot back, and was rewarded with another poke to his wound. “Ow! Fine, fine!” He made a sullen face towards Thomas and Habakkuk. “What I want to know,” he said after a moment’s breath, “is what they were doing up there with the censer. Are you sure you’ve never seen those sorts of spells before, Zhypar?”

The kangaroo sadly shook his head. “I am familiar with a great many forms of spellcasting. But I have never seen anything quite like what was being cast there upon the censer.”

“Nor have I seen anything like it,” Malisa admitted. “But they left the censer there. Which leads me to believe that they want the censer here at Metamor. They have gone to a great deal of trouble to place it here. Why?”

“I think Madog knows,” Misha added thoughtfully. “He was already up there when we arrived, but they put some shield into place that he couldn’t pass through. Once the shield went down, he came up and begged me to leave. He really didn’t like it up there. Kept saying that it was a bad place.”

“Well,” Thomas said, “why don’t we ask him?”

Misha looked around the room. Madog had come with them down the tower stairs, but now, he was nowhere to be seen. “I’m not sure where he is at the moment. He’ll be back with us when he’s ready. It’s his way.”

Thomas nodded slowly eve as his hoof-like hands rubbed at his nose. “Nevertheless, I’ll have my guards keep an eye out for him.” He gave a significant glance to one of the guards who stood in the doorway. The boar nodded and stepped outside to pass the message along. “What we need to know is why they did this. If we understand their motives, then we can probably discern what their plan might be.”

“If indeed they are enthralled to the Underworld,” Malisa replied, “then they are going to want to pursue the Underworld’s own ends. Generally, that means allowing Underworld creatures into this world. So it is possible that they may want to open up more tears to the Underworld like the one that exists at Marzac.”

“Just putting the censer here shouldn’t accomplish that,” Habakkuk pointed out even as he stretched his back muscles experimentally. “By itself, it is only capable of making small openings, and even then, only on the Solstices.”

“I have a feeling,” Thomas said, and it sounded as if his voice was bubbling up from some deep well. “I feel that whatever their real plan is, we are only seeing the edges of it. We need to know more, and fast.”

Misha nodded his head in agreement. “The next time we face them, we must not blunder into things. We must fight and know what it is we are fighting.”

“Precisely.” Thomas said, lifting his snout a bit higher. “Now, tell me everything that happened in that Belfry. Maybe there is some clue there that will tell us more. Misha, you first.”

The fox took a deep breath, brought back every detail he could remember, and began.

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