Lineaments of Coming Night
his has been,” Raven said after the long silence that had consumed them in the wake of Duke Thomas’s departure, “a harrowing day. But it is not yet over, and there is still much to be done. Rickkter’s injuries require the intervention of Akkala. We will need to move him to the Temple. And Charles...”
“Yes?” the stone rat regarded the lupine priestess uncertainly. Merai’s reddish brown eyes had continued their inspection of the living statue, though what thoughts lurked behind them were hard to discern.
“I do not think that you can be restored to flesh apart from the power of the gods as well.”
Charles narrowed his one eye. “No.”
Almost everyone in the room looked at him in surprise. All but Habakkuk, who shook his head and sighed. Raven blinked several times as she took another beseeching step towards him. “They can truly help you, Charles. You cannot live your life as stone. The power of the spell laid upon you is too great for any of us to remove.”
“She is right,” Abafouq said, shifting his knapsack around on his shoulders. “I have done all that I can in just letting you move and giving you a voice once more. Even if you do kill the Runecaster who has cursed you like this, the spell would remain. It has bonded to you, and no magician can break that bond without killing you.”
“I am not going to become a Lothanasi just to be flesh,” Charles said stubbornly. His voice was sharp like wind cutting through a valley.
Raven nodded and seemed to smile ever so slightly. “Nor would you be asked to. The gods know your devotion and cherish it, even if it is not directed at them. They do not ask for your worship for the healing they perform. They merely ask for you to complete some task for them, and to give them the thanks for your healing. That is all. You may stay true to your Yahshua throughout it all.”
He was dubious to be sure, and looked to the others to see what they thought. Misha still appeared sullen from the news that he would remain behind. He frowned to Charles and shrugged his shoulders. “You can’t live as stone, Matt. Kimberly certainly won’t want you to stay this way.”
“And your children need a father who is flesh,” Merai pointed out as her tail twitched back and forth behind her head.
Habakkuk cleared his throat loudly enough that Charles turned not just his head, but his whole body towards the kangaroo. He had slid both his legs and long feet off the table and was tentatively touching the ground with both. “Have you truly given much thought to how one who is stone even lives, Matthias? You may not need to breathe or eat, but you also feel no warmth. You cannot cry. You cannot even be with your wife in that most intimate embrace. And you will not be able to partake of the host. Is that truly what you want?”
He balled his paws into fists and shook them. “So to do all of those things I should compromise my faith and take the easy path? Is that not the one that leads to destruction?”
The kangaroo smiled. “The easy path? You are being asked to trust the gods of the Lightbringers for healing. That is hardly easy for you. The easy path for you is to be stubborn and unwilling to admit that this universe is not made in shades of black and white. You may not worship the gods, but that does not mean that they aren’t there. Although Raven will likely dispute my theology, I too am a Follower, and believe Eli to be the creator of all. The gods are His servants, whether they like it or not. You do no sin by asking for their help, unless the price they ask would make you compromise your faith.
“You do not know what price they will ask, do you?”
Charles ruminated on that for a moment. He did not want to listen of course. The kangaroo was always poking around in places he shouldn’t meddling to make things come out the way he wanted. This just seemed to be one more instance of it. It was not difficult to be hard-hearted when one had become stone.
But there was another small voice in his head that had one simple message. Everything that Habakkuk had sought was right. He was a prophet. Perhaps he was seeing something more that Charles did not yet know.
Lowering his head, Charles nodded at long last. “You are right. I do not know.” Slowly, he lifted his gaze and looked to the wolf priestess. “I will seek healing from your gods, Lothanasa. I do not promise I will accept their help, but I will seek it.”
“I am very glad to hear that, Charles.” Raven smiled to him, though it was a tightly controlled smile. She looked over at Misha and James. “Are you both well enough to help carry Rickkter?”
Misha nodded, as did the donkey. “Just let us get the stretcher built again and we’ll bring him to the temple.”
“I’ll help too,” Habakkuk announced. “I think we are done here.”
“I will go find Guernef,” Abafouq said with a small nod. “I think he may be waiting for me.”
“Well,” Coe broke in, his plain voice surprising after all that had been said, “when you go, can you tell that group waiting outside my door to go with you. They’re blocking the hallway in either direction!”
Suddenly, Charles could not help but let out a short laugh.
A solitary white gryphon regarded the slowly shivering bells. Beyond them, simmering in its satisfaction, was the censer. It radiated nothing, for it had no more need to do anything just then. It simply was, a chalice of unimaginable power, resting placidly. The one creature that shared the belfry with it for the moment came no closer to it than the opposite side of the bells.
Guernef felt and listened to the flow of air for many long minutes. Upon each gust of wind, the songs of spells woven filtered through his ears. Many he knew, and there were many that he did not. For each, the wind changed subtly, and so too did Guernef change the wind subtly.
But by bit, the air, once more clear, began to fill with fog. The fog slowly circumscribed the Belfry, and once more it began to circle the structure. Guernef watched, feeling the power tighten about the room, holding everything in it fast. The winds grew, their breath a thunderbolt that broke through trees like a mighty fist. Satisfied, the Nauh-kaee turned and leapt through that rush of air before it finished tightening completely.
The noose wound fast, and Guernef could hear it strangle all that lay within.
What little could be done to protect Metamor from the censer was done. Now, they had to look elsewhere for answers.
Guernef continued to circle the tower for some minutes before he gracefully glided down to the gardens.
The first thing they discovered as they left Coe’s and began their way towards the Lightbringer temple, there was a huge crowd waiting outside still wanting to know what was happening. Misha, somewhat reluctantly, ordered George to have them all disperse. The jackal displayed no hesitation in fulfilling those orders. He was not however, without a few recommendations of his own, and he suggested that the Longs hold a meeting soon so that they might discuss what these events meant for the security of the valley. There was wisdom in that idea, and Misha asked George to round up the Long Scouts for a gathering in an hour’s time. Satisfied, the jackal also left the hall, leaving it empty but for the procession to the temple.
It did not take it long for them to reach the temple either. Its exquisitely wrought entrance appeared before them after a quick flight up several stairs. The doors stood open for them, and Raven led them through the frescoed corridor beyond. At the hall’s end, another set of double doors opened out into the main temple hall. Standing in the doorway, they could see the light of the altar framed in the tympan window set at the back. The twin cross surmounting the altar glowed subtly, lining up with the window’s arch as they passed beneath the transom.
Charles always felt a strange disquiet when he was within the Lothanasi temple. He had come here on more than one occasion in the past, but still, he felt slightly uncomfortable in the vaulted chamber. Before, this manifested itself as a twitching in his skin or a raising of his hackles. Lacking both now, he just felt a sort of growing chill that concentrated itself at his stony extremities. He wrapped his tail around one leg for warmth, but as all was stone, all that happened was an unpleasant rasping sound.
“Merai,” Raven said as she stood before the altar in the large open hall. Unlike the Ecclesia cathedral, there were no pews here to seat the congregation. Everything was very simply laid out. “Gather all that I need for the summoning. Velena will be needed as much as Akkala.”
The younger priestess’s russet eyes narrowed, but the feline nodded, cast a quick glance at Habakkuk, and then walked towards the frescoed hall.
Raven pointed towards a spot on the floor just slightly off centre. “Lay Rickkter down and place him gently there on the floor. You will need to take him off the stretcher.”
All four of them had helped carry Rickkter’s broken body to the temple, as it was easier that way. Still, as they were all of radically different heights, lowering him to the ground was a clumsy and awkward proposition. But, first by bending their knees, and then as one lowering their arms, they were all able to gently deposit the raccoon on the ground.
“Charles and I will grab his shoulders if you two grab his legs.” Misha said. Both Habakkuk and James nodded, gripping one of the legs firmly in their paws. Sliding his paws under the Kankoran’s shoulders, Charles was surprised and unsettled to discover that the sick film he usually encountered when he touched Rickkter was gone. There was simply nothing there to interfere with his Sondeck. Again, he would have shuddered if he could, but stone was capable of so little.
“Now we are going to lift him and slide him onto the floor. On the count of three.” Misha locked eyes with each of them in turn to make sure they all understood. Beyond them, Raven was clearing the hall of curious acolytes and penitents. Merai was still off on her errand. “One. Two. Three.” Charles lifted along with the rest of them – the raccoon was surprisingly light – and then slid him to one side. It took only a moment’s effort and Rickkter was lying on his back, closed eyes motionless as if in death.
Raven, who had tasked one of the acolytes with making sure that all had left the temple, returned and nodded her approval, though no smile shown on her snout. “Good. Keep his arms at his sides. The three of you need to take the stretcher and wait outside. Charles, you will need to lie down there opposite Rickkter.”
The rat slowly nodded his head and looked at his friends. Misha patted his back tentatively. There was a hesitation in the fox’s gesture. Charles understood it well though. He had become living stone. That was not something any would find easy to accept let alone be comfortable with. He tried to give the fox a reassuring smile, but he was not sure how well it came across in the granite creases of his muzzle.
“Good luck, Matt,” Misha said at last. “I’m going to the Long House now. I have a lot of things I have to do. You will stop by once more before you leave won’t you?”
“Of course,” Charles assured him. “Once this is done, I will come one more time to Long House. You have my word on that.”
Misha smiled slightly, but it vanished quickly. “Until then.” The fox looked at Raven one last time, his expression strangely unreadable. He turned then, his long tail flicking behind him energetically, and walked briskly to the main doors.
Thankfully, Habakkuk chose not to make some cryptic or pithy remark as he hopped towards the narthex. But the donkey who had become a good friend in the last six months did stop to look at him meekly. “I wish...” James began, but then his voice failed him. “I’m sorry, Charles.”
Charles found that an odd thing to say. “I have no idea why. You fought bravely and better than all the Glen. I’ll see you shortly.”
“I’ll wait for you,” James said, his long ears rising up over his head in a manner that Charles knew to mean his friend was encouraged, though still uncertain. “I hope they can help.”
“As do I.” Charles patted him once on the arm, and the feel of the donkey’s soft fur under stone fingers was too subtle. No longer did he detect the rough variation that he knew to be there. It was just a smooth surface that gave slightly under his touch. Shocked, and feeling peculiarly guilty of some transgression, Charles drew his arm back and frowned. “I so hope they can.”
James grimaced but nodded once before turning to leave as well. Charles heaved a long sigh, one that expended no air, and then looked back to the wolf priestess. Merai had still not returned. “Where did I need to lie down again?”
Raven gestured to the floor, a good ten feet from where Rickkter lay. “Right there if you would. Have your feet pointing towards the altar, just like Rickkter.”
He grimaced, took the few steps to the spot and bent down. Raven put one of her paws on his shoulder to stop him. “I know you do not like having to do this, Charles, but you need not fear them. They will not ask anything of you that you cannot do.”
“As all have said. I just... I do not want to be this way. It is... it is horrible.”
“They will be able to heal you. Just let your soul be at peace.” She took her paw from his shoulder and stepped back once to give him room. “Soon you will be flesh again.”
He smiled slowly, finding Raven’s words somewhat comforting. Slowly, he lowered himself to the floor. It was cool, but there was a strange relaxing warmth held in it too. Before, when he had lain upon stone floors, he had felt it in every joint of his body. Now, it was comfortable, and he felt himself sinking pleasantly into granitic torpor.
“Charles!” Raven’s voice caught him sharply. He blinked open his one eye, and tried to lift his arm. It was strangely sluggish, and as he pushed himself up, he could see why. He’d actually begun to sink into the floor just as his leg had sunk in the Belfry.
“That,” he said, feeling an icy chill all over, “was unexpected. Do I need to lie down?”
Raven nodded her head, her momentary fright now gone, replaced by her ever present reserve. “What happened?”
“I just felt very comfortable lying there. The next thing I knew, you had shouted my name. What did you see?”
Raven rubbed her paws together. “You closed your eye, and then you slowly began to sink into the floor. Do not let yourself relax. There is more to your curse than I had even thought.”
He took a deep breath, and then lowered himself once more to the floor. “I hope they can fix this.” The floor was still very comfortable, but he did not allow himself to dwell on it. He focussed instead on every thought he could conjure, every fear, every uncertainty. These next few minutes were going to be very unpleasant, but it was the only way it could be, or so it seemed.
True to his word, Misha had left the temple immediately upon leaving the main hall where Raven would summon the goddesses. One of the acolytes approached James and Habakkuk and asked if they required anything, but the kangaroo assured him that they did not. James felt differently, but could think of nothing to ask for, so he just numbly nodded his head, hands clasped behind his back right over top of his long tail.
“What is it that you fear?” Habakkuk asked the donkey. His eyes were the colour of fresh loam, full of concern and worry.
James sighed and stared at those massive doors. “What if they can’t heal Charles? Will he be stone forever?”
Slowly, the kangaroo began to smile. “You are a rare person indeed, James. I find myself constantly amazed at this. No, do not look so surprised to hear that from me. I may be a prophet, yes, but my visions of people only hint at the barest aspects of personality.” James blinked and turned his head back to Habakkuk, befuddled. “Pardon me, I did not mean to confuse you by that, it is merely how I speak. More plainly then? What I see of you in the future, does not tell me enough to truly know you. Only through being with you over long periods of time will I begin to understand why you will do what you will do.”
James pondered that for a moment. It was hard for him to imagine what it must be like to see future events the way that the kangaroo did. But at least he did not seem to know all. For some reason, that fact comforted him. Still, he did not think he was anything special, no matter how much this man assured him of that. If Charles hadn’t found him crying in the snow that morning in January, none of this would have ever happened.
And then it dawned on him that Habakkuk had not answered his question at all. “But what about Charles? Is he going to be okay?”
“He will live, you need not fear that.” The kangaroo frowned then and leaned back on his tail. It looked rather painful for him to do that, James thought. “If you are wondering whether he will be flesh again, well, it is in the hands of the gods now, or will be shortly. Tell me, do you believe in their power?”
“Yes, I suppose. I have not been here in so long though.”
“Well, I am a Follower, and I have never been in these halls before. But I have no doubt that Charles will receive the healing that he needs. Let that knowledge console you.” He turned his head as one of the doors along the hall opened and out stepped Merai carrying a large satchel over her shoulder. “Ah, here is priestess Merai again. Pardon us for but one moment if you would.”
The feline turned her head and offered a small smile, stepping a bit closer. All in all, she was fairly human in general outline, though covered in the soft tawny fur of the cat, with triangular ears atop her head, and slitted eyes. Short claws tipped her fingers, though her hands and feet appeared to be of human shape, and not pawlike as so many animal Keepers now possessed. “You must be quick, the Lothanasa needs this.”
“It will not take long,” Habakkuk assured her. “I just wished to know how long the summoning would take. We do have a journey to begin.”
Merai shook her head. “I do not know. It varies. With two healings, it may take as long as an hour. You do not have to wait here if there is more you need to do to prepare.”
At this, Habakkuk chuckled. “I have known this day was coming for some time. I am prepared. Sadly, for all to happen as it must, I could not tell any of the other participants of what was to come. I did not understand it yet. I merely wait for them to be ready as well. And when they are, they will come here. So I shall wait.”
James blinked, his ears upright. “I want to see Charles when he is restored.”
“Of course,” Merai nodded uncertainly. “Habakkuk, you are a prophet yes?”
“A Felikaush. Do not ask me to tell you your future though. I do genuinely tire of that question.”
“There was something else I wanted to ask though,” said Merai, but after a moment she bit her lip. Whatever it was, James could tell it bothered her a great deal. “I will ask once I have given this to Raven. I will be back out momentarily.”
“And I shall still be here,” the kangaroo replied. Merai did not wait any longer then, but pushed through the double doors at the end of the hall. Habakkuk took a long breath and then sighed heavily, shaking his head. James looked at him curiously, but the kangaroo did not elaborate.
If it were to take an hour, then it would be a long wait indeed. James leaned against the wall, and then slowly let himself sink down to the floor. His hooves slid out in front of him along the stone for a moment, but then he folded his legs beneath him as best he could. His hooves stuck out at either side, but there was nothing he could do about that.
As promised, Merai returned quickly. She glanced quickly up and down the corridor, but they were the only ones in it at present. James lifted his muzzle from his chest to regard her, but she seemed not to notice him. “Zhypar, have you ever heard of the Starchild Prophecies?”
“There is no prophecy of any import in this age that I have not heard at least once. Fellos was a city of prophets after all. There are a few minor prophecies that I am sure I am unaware of, but the Starchild is not one of them. You want to know whether I have seen them? The originals? No, not the originals. But Fellos did have a copy of them. It is destroyed now, along with so much learning and scholarship. But I did read them.”
“You did? What did they say?” Merai’s face was flush with excitement.
“Merai, this path you pursue... do you know anything of Yahshua?”
James was not quite sure what to make of this exchange, but it seemed terribly important to the priestess. Her face was now bent into an uncomfortable rictus. “I know that he had great power, and could perform miracles in the Holy Land where magic normally does not work. My people say he was a great wizard of some kind. I know he was killed by the Sueilmans, but the Followers say that Eli raised him from the dead. And I know that every Sunday, Followers are supposed to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and that somehow that means they are worshipping him.”
“There is much more to Him than that,” Habakkuk said with a gentle smile. “Yahshua was both wholly human and wholly divine. Do not ask me how that works, I am no theologian. I simply know it to be true. And no, not because of my prophetic ability. When I lived in Fellos, there was still a Lothanasi temple there, and many of my own siblings were among its congregation. It is my faith, and my choice. But when you ask me of the Starchild, then I must tell you that the path of the Starchild is similar to the path of Yahshua, without the divinity.” His smile began to fade then, although one of his eyelids twitched slightly before he spoke again. “It is a harrowing path of pain, rejection, betrayal, and suffering. And ultimately, at it worst moments, it is a path that can only be walked alone.”
Merai stared in horror at him for several moments, and then turned her head when she saw another enter the hall from the far end. “Jessica,” she called, her hands trembling slightly. She pressed them to her chest to keep them from shaking. “Are you all right?”
James and Habakkuk both looked down the hall to the approaching hawk. She was moving at a brisk gait, made awkward by her manner of hopping from one taloned foot to the other. The intentness of her gaze was unsettling though. “I am well enough, Mistress Merai. I have just come from the dungeons. Weyden hopes that either you or Lothanasa Raven will be able to come see him soon. He needs your guidance and comfort.”
“It may not be easy, but time will be made.”
“Thank you.” Jessica turned then to regard Habakkuk. “I hoped to find Misha here, because I’m sure he will be involved. But you seem to know everything, so I will tell you instead.”
“What is it, Jessica?”
“Marzac has taken so much from me that I cherish. It has killed my master Wessex, and now it has destroyed three good men. I knew Yonson, London and Humphrey. They were all good people corrupted by that power. I am going to go with whoever is sent to destroy that place. I am going to make right all that has gone wrong because of Marzac.”
Habakkuk smiled at her then, and breathed a long sigh. “You are wrong about one thing, Jessica. Misha will not be accompanying us on this journey. But I am the one you should speak to, since I am gathering all those to go. And you will go. Do you know where Lindsey lives?”
If the hawk was relieved by this news, she certainly did not appear to be. In fact, James thought, she looked more tightly wound than before. “No, I barely know him.”
“I’m sure you have things you wish to do before we leave, but you must prepare quickly. We want to leave today. In perhaps two or three hours in fact.”
“So soon?” Jessica was clearly surprised by this. Her wings extended some though she brought them under control.
“We have little choice. When you have all that you need, come to Lindsey’s home. This is how you will find it.”
James stopped listening then, but turned his head towards the double doors, beyond which, he could hear Raven’s voice chanting. It was too low to make out the words, but he knew that the summoning had begun. Feeble as they may be, the donkey offered up his own prayers that his truest friend in all the world might be healed. It was all he could care about just then.
|Talk to me!|