Lineaments of Coming Night

Part XIX

Raven waited until Merai had left the temple before she began to unpack the satchel and sort through its contents. Lying upon his back, conjuring every fretful thought he could to stave off the comforting grip of the stone beneath him, Charles wished he could do more than hear the priestess’s actions. She was sitting between Rickkter and he, but she was on his right side. He had made several attempts to open his right eye, but the injury that had sealed it, the touch of the Shrieker upon his face, had been transferred to his stony body. Only through the jewel of his left eye did he have sight.

“Charles, as you have never done this or seen it performed, I want you to know what I am about to do,” Raven’s voice came to him from his right. He nodded his head as best he could lying upon the ground, and waited for her to continue. “You must remain quiet and still, as there are several prayers and incantations that I must say. I will also need to put ceremonial powder upon your chest. Do not in any way disturb the powder, or it could interfere with the summoning. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I understand,” said he in his hollow tones.

“Good.” He heard Raven pull several things from the satchel and set them on the plain grey stones before her. “I will say this only once. Once I begin, you must say nothing until Akkala and Velena address you directly. Do be respectful to them and listen to what they ask with an open heart and mind. But after this you may not speak. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Raven. I understand, and I will say nothing more.” And at that he shut his muzzle, feeling the stony incisors rub together. There was no impulse to gnaw in those teeth though, a vacancy that jarred him anew. It was strange to think how much a rat he had become, when he now missed needing to chew.

“Then let the ceremony begin now.” Raven herself said nothing more for several moments as she moved around on his right. It sounded to him that she was walking from near the altar backwards on his blind side. Every few steps she would stop for a moment, but then she would move on again. It was only after she had come around from behind him that he saw what it was she was doing. In one arm she carried a small bundle of narrow white candles. She was setting them down each in a large circle that encompassed Charles and presumably Rickkter too.

When she was finished, Raven stepped up to the altar and took down an already-lit torch. It appeared to be fashioned from ivory, with gold inlay depicting Lothanasi symbols. Charles recognized a few of them as representing the gods. He did not know all of them though. Raven’s muzzle parted as she bent and lit the first of the candles, intoning a prayer in words that while somewhat familiar to the rat’s ears, were nevertheless incomprehensible.

Even so, as she disappeared to the right once more, he listened to those words and began to feel a rhythm in them. Her voice rose and fell with them, guided it seemed not by her own will, but by the will of the very words themselves. They knew how they should be chanted, and nothing the lupine priest could do would alter that. Charles felt the subtle warmth of the air and the floor beneath beginning to soothe him once more, lulled by that beseeching chant. He tightened his paws into fists, reminding himself that he was seeking the intervention of gods not his own. This was not the time to be soothed. He had no desire to join the floor.

Raven eventually worked her way around him again. Her face was bent in concentration, all focus upon her task. There was a reverence there that he thought familiar. He had seen it several times in the cherubic expression of Father Hough while leading the Follower service. Was it possible, he wondered as he lay there, that all service to the divine brought with it some measure of sanctifying peace?

When Raven had completed lighting the circle of candles, she returned the ivory torch to its cherished place next to the altar, and then stepped once more to the centre of the circle. Charles heard her pick something up, step closer to where the raccoon lay, and then she began to pour something that sounded fine and ground like sand. A moment later, she stopped and crossed over to his chest. She knelt over top of him, and bent a small vial of red powder over him. Out poured the powder he’d been warned about. She drew some diagram with it on his chest, though he could not quite see what it was. The powder felt very warm, as if it had been taken from a hearth whose fire had gone out only recently.

Before turning away, she offered him a comforting smile, though it was very slight. Charles tried to smile in return, but in truth, he was beginning to grow nervous. How many times this day was the course of his life to change? How long was this venture with Habakkuk to take? Would his children remember him when he returned? What sort of debt would he owe these goddesses, and how long would it take him to repay that debt? The rat had no answers, only endless questions.

Though he could not see it, Charles felt sure he knew what Raven was doing. He could hear the sound of the powder being poured slowly from flasks, and he could hear the sound of her clawed feet stepping around the circle she had created. And he could most certainly hear the soft words she murmured as she moved. Raven was drawing other lines with the powders, crafting the spells of summoning with the same care and precision he had seen many magicians employ in their own art.

It seemed to the rat to take quite a long time before all of the lines were laid out to the Lothanasa’s satisfaction. Eventually though, she set the empty bottles outside of the circle, along with the satchel, and then knelt down before the altar. Charles twisted his head ever so slightly so that he could see her. The very first candle that she had lit was before her, and in her hands she clasped the twin cross of the Lothanasi to her chest. The chant swelled in volume, and yet at the same time, it seemed more intimately personal. Charles let his paws unclasp, allowing himself only then to relax and accept the course he had set.

And in that moment, that moment when he knew what it was he was doing, the room suddenly flared into brilliance, the altar obscured by a pinkish-white so radiant that he nearly lifted his arms to shield his eye. But some reserve, some bit of reverence he had learned in his youth kept him still.

The pink was joined by a crimson that seemed to twine into the air, but it was no less bright. His one eye did not flinch, whether because it was only a jewel or because the light of goddesses was not harmful, he did not know. But he stared and trembled, feeling suddenly, quite smaller than his four feet of height.

It took a moment for the radiance of light to coalesce into two distinct, but still majestic, human forms. Out of the pinkish light came a blonde-haired woman full of grace and with an air of peace. Charles felt relieved at the sight of her, his worries simply ceasing at the sight of her face. There was a reassurance in them, as of a mother to a babe frightened of the dark. Father Hough often spoke of all Followers being children of Eli. As the rat stared up into the face of that goddess, he truly felt once more like a child greeting his mother.

The other figure was still cloaked in that crimson light. Her body was nubile and curved in all the proper places so as to excite a man’s passions. But she did not seem to carry herself for that purpose, and as he stared into the radiant eyes, he saw something deeper and fuller than just a physical form. There was no sensation of lust in the heart, only of a purity in love, the yearning to care for another and to give oneself completely over to that other person’s happiness. Charles ached, and for a moment he thought of his wife Kimberly, then of Baerle, and then of his children. All seemed to fall into one in those eyes, and he could not help but let his muzzle draw into a peaceful smile.

Yet neither goddess looked to him, but instead let their gaze sink downwards to the priestess still kneeling before them in their splendour. Raven spoke then in a familiar tongue, but for some reason, the words were incomprehensible to him. The goddesses glided down from the altar until they were standing only a few feet from where Raven knelt. “Arise my daughter,” the one clothed in pinkish light said, her voice comforting and full of peace. “You have called us this day, and we see two bearing our cross in the circle with you. Tell me, what is it that you seek for them.”

Charles was certain that he would stammer and stutter in response to their powerful presence. He could barely form a coherent thought that was not swayed to reverie at the lilt and curve of their words, not to mention the depths of their eyes and the glamour of their radiance. But Raven was poised and even, reserved but reverent. “Lady Akkala; Lady Velena, you honour me with your presence. I seek your healing touch, and the breaking of a curse that is beyond my power to cancel. These two have no hope from you.”

“Are they prepared to owe their debt?” the more sensual of the two – Velena he now knew – asked with an almost effervescent fervour.

“They know the price of what they ask. Rickkter is unable to ask it on his own behalf, but he knows. Charles seeks your help because he knows it is the only way, and is both willing and prepared.”

Akkala did not nod, but Charles could see some affirmation in her eyes. “And what has happened to both that they need our help?”

“My Lady, Rickkter has suffered injuries to his spine that will make him an invalid should he ever wake. And I believe his spirit has been taken from his body by a wizard aligned with the Underworld.”

“We know of this Underworld wizard and what it is that he has done. We cannot restore Rickkter’s soul while it is in that man’s possession. But once his spirit is freed, we can guide it and reunite it with his body. His body we will heal.”

Raven kept the twin cross clutched to her chest, though she did gesture with one arm down at the rat. “Charles has been turned to stone by a curse. Magic has restored to him the ability to move and to speak, but no magic we know can restore him to flesh. He seeks your aid in breaking this curse and giving him back his flesh.”

Velena actually turned her face towards Charles and he felt a flush of images pass through his mind, some quite intimate, though he could not see with whom they were shared. “He too has been touched by the Underworld, but there may be something that can be done.” She then smiled, a slow secret smile that nevertheless brought great hope to him. “I will offer what help I may to him freely, though he must always remember love and serve it wholly.”

Charles blinked his one eye feeling himself flush, as if he had been lifted into warm hands. And he felt that way even though both Akkala and Velena turned from him towards where the raccoon lay. And though he could no longer see them, he nevertheless felt their presence. They were not a weight that pressed in upon them. The magnificence of their being was instead an airy exuberance, a heady excitement that left him feeling both peaceful and energetic. Were it not for the fact that he had been admonished to remain laying down, he would have leapt into the air and given a shout of joy.

And even then, he wondered what was so wrong with the Lothanasi that he had feared this intervention? They were gods, and they were dedicated to the well-being of their followers. True, they may ask for boons, for good deeds to be performed, and they called all who kept to their ways to do them faithfully. But how was that different from his own faith? Was there an appreciable difference? He felt a tightness in his mind that nevertheless evaporated as it came. In that moment, in the presence of the goddesses, he could be Lothanasi too.

But then, a single question sprang to his mind. If this was the way their presence felt, then how much greater must that of Yahshua be? Peace was his, and with it, he felt the floor reaching up at him. He began to sink again, knew that he was sinking, but he did not go far. Not with that effusiveness holding him aloft too.

Dimly, he heard the goddesses speak as they studied the raccoon. He did not truly listen though, for merely the sound of their voices was enough to keep him in his granitic dream. They spoke for some minutes though, their words becoming more and more remote as his mind slipped back, feeling at the stone. He felt no fear, for stone was solid, a foundation that only time itself could undo. And here amongst the stone, he knew he was not alone.

There was another comforting presence waiting for him there, something apart from himself that dwelt in the stones of the Keep. He could see no face in that moment, nor was he truly aware of his own body. It did not seem to be in the shape of a rat then. He was not a physical entity in that moment, which stretched out around him as endlessly as the starry night.

“You cannot stay,” a woman’s voice said, a voice that reverberated through his consciousness with a solemnity that did not stir him to action, but merely reassured him. “You are vulnerable, but I will not let you falter here. But when you leave this place, you must be cautious. Stone is jealous and does not give up its treasures easily. Take care that you do not forget that, even for a moment.”

The words burned into him, but he felt no more pain than he might standing for long hours beneath the sun’s fierce gaze. The voice faded, withdrawing once more. But it was not leaving him, he was leaving her. Charles opened his eye once more, and he watched as the floor slid away above him, and the vaulted ceiling of the temple come into view once more. The words of the goddesses returned, their voices sundering him and any conscious consideration of what had just transpired from each other.

“It is done,” Akkala announced. “Rickkter’s wounds are healed, and when his soul is freed, it will return to his body. But he must be tended to until that day. He must be cared for like any other who will not wake. Raven, keep him here under our watchful gaze until he is restored.”

“I will, my Lady,” Raven replied, her voice a discordant wailing amidst Akkala’s lush sonorous tones.

“And now, Charles,” Velena’s voice called out. The crimson woman swept into his view, her smile warm and enticing. He felt as if he was held aloft once more. “Be still and be comforted. We will do you no harm.”

Charles stared into her face, and that of Akkala as they both bent over the top of him, their scrutiny almost an act of pleasure. His own thoughts were merely faint echoes within his mind, so subsumed beneath the aura of peaceful regard that he lay under. For several long moments neither said anything, but they did not have to. Though they grew concerned as they examined him, he never felt fear. Whatever was to come, he was prepared, and he knew that he would pay whatever price they asked, short of abandoning his own faith. And in between moments, he could not help but think that he would do that too.

“You have become a creature of living stone,” Akkala said at last, and Charles realized after a moment that she was speaking directly to him. He nodded his head slightly, acknowledging her words. “You can move and speak, though you remain stone by a curse that clings to you. Do not be disheartened by what we say. For we do bring hope.”

Velena knelt at his side and placed one delicate hand on his chest. “The spell that makes you stone has been built upon by the spells that let you move and speak, and by your own volition to control that stone. Your Sondeck has become a part of the stone as well. All of these are difficulties that can be overcome, and I will overcome them for you. You have proven yourself faithful in the course of love despite the difficulty of the situation that surrounds you. Few have stood so honestly and true in similar circumstances. But there are things that cannot be undone.”

Charles blinked his one eye, and surprised himself when he asked, “What things, my Lady?”

“A mortal soul cannot live in stone without power being expended. You saved yourself from death by sacrificing a part of your Sondeck, though you do not realize it. It was a small part, but it was enough to keep you alive. What keeps you stone is the spell cast by the woman whom you met earlier this day.”

“The Runecaster?”

“Yes. She is in the thrall of the Underworld, and that place protects her from our touch. We cannot remove this curse from you while she is still alive. If you accept our help this day, Charles, then when she dies you shall be restored to flesh. If you do not accept our help, then even if she were to die tomorrow, you shall be stone for all the remainder of your days.”

Akkala spoke then, her voice was comforting, despite the disappointing news that she bore. “Charles, even if you accept our help this day, you will leave here as stone. And all your days until the death of this woman will be as stone. We cannot change that. What we can do is to heal your eye, and to restore to you some of those things that you have lost. You will be able to take the shape of a common rat, and that of your other four-legged form that you are fond of. But in all you will still be stone. Do you understand this?”

For some reason, this did not bother him nearly so much as he thought it might. To remain stone until that Runecaster died struck him as being an almost natural thing to expect. Further, they were to journey to defeat the power of Marzac. Clearly, defeating her was also involved in this. When he next saw his family, he would be flesh. And in the end, that was what mattered most.

“Yes, my Lady. I understand. What debt must I owe to you for your help?”

“You are already set on ending the threat from the Underworld. That is the only task I place upon your shoulders. Upon your body you will bear our marks, and any who see them will know that you are under our geas. Never lie about this, nor seek to have them removed. That and your honest gratitude is all that we shall ask of you. Your own faith need not be changed. Remain true always to what you believe, and faithfully discharge the tasks you have been given.”

Charles felt that he should take a deep breath, but could do no such thing. Instead, he simply nodded once as he lay on the ground beneath their gaze. “I agree to all that you ask. I only ask that you do not lift the mark that has been put upon my face. That should be seen.”

“Of course,” Velena assured him, brushing her hand up across his snout. “Now close your eye and wait. We are ready.”

He could do nothing else but what he was instructed. After closing his eye, he felt a suffusion of that divine presence. It stirred through his body, and brought him again to that comfortable place where it did not matter any longer that he was a moving statue. Every piece of him, every mote of granite was touched by their dual essence. Time itself slowed until it no longer moved. Yet, all of the Earth moved beneath him.

Hills rose and became mountains; he thrust upward, their snow-topped summit. Cloaked in chill, he nevertheless surveyed all around, felt the presence and life of countless animals creep across the sweep of his immensity. Eagles, rams, all manner of creatures made their home upon him. The snows melted and water coursed down his body, slowly winnowing him apart. Pieces of him broke off, and he shuddered with each such sundering. Ages thundered against him, and the sky began to retreat. The snows no longer came. Feet pounded him back down into the earth below. Grass and trees weighed him down, drawing their life from him. Rivers ate him apart. Men tunnelled through him, and he felt the hollowness within exposed.

And then time resumed. He felt a newness and warmth in his body, not one born of flesh, but of some molten interior. His eyes came open, and the world swam into focus. Before him were the reddish auras of the two goddesses, each smiling peacefully and with fullness of life down upon him. “It is done,” Akkala said, cupping one side of his face in her hand. “You are as whole as you can be made now, Charles. Your flesh will return to you, do not fear.”

“I...” he said, blinking both his eyes. His right eye, certainly another jewel like his left, did not even feel sore. “Thank you, my Ladies. I cannot repay you as I feel I should.”

“If you do as we have asked,” Velena replied with exuberance, “then you will have done just that. Be true to those you love, and do not let your heart be burdened by acting upon that love. Love is a precious gift that needs to be shared. True love does not harm, no matter how widely it is spread. Never forget that, Charles. You may now stand.”

Charles nodded, and put his arms beneath him, drawing his legs close. He shifted up just enough to let his tail, which had been nestled between his legs, to slide behind him. Slowly, he then rose, his granite toes spreading widely to bear his weight. Looking down, he saw that upon his chest glowing subtly were the symbols of each goddess. On the right breast was a pair of spirals entwined with one another glowing a spectral pink. Velena’s symbol, a circle affixed atop a cross to represent a stylized looking glass glowed a sultry crimson on his left breast. He lifted one gray paw to touch each, but they felt no different than the rest of his hard smooth skin.

He turned his head to the right and saw that Raven was standing watching with a peaceful gratitude. Rickkter still lay on the ground, but his body was no longer cruelly twisted. Soft light seemed to diffuse through the temple.

“What I have come for is done,” Velena announced as she stepped back towards the altar. “Farewell, and do as you are doing.”

Even as Velena dissolved first into a sheath of crimson light, and then evaporated into nothing at all, Akkala strode back towards Raven. “There is one more thing that I need to do this day. You must summon Kayla so that I might speak with her. She needs healing of a different sort. You may not have sought it, but it is needed still.”

Raven bowed deeply. “She will be summoned at once, my Lady,” the lupine priestess declared. She waited though until it was clear that the goddess had nothing more to add. Then she walked briskly towards the double doors and the narthex beyond.

“Do not venture yet, Charles,” Akkala said. “Wait at Rickkter’s side until his love should come. You are not as different as you have thought.”

What else could he do but obey? Slowly, Charles walked over to the raccoon’s side where he knelt. Rickkter lay peacefully. His body breathed, but there was a slackness to his face that should not be there. It made him distinctly uncomfortable. “I am beginning to understand that, my Lady. I wish I had seen it sooner.”

“There is still time, should you succeed.”

“And if we don’t?”

For a moment, Charles felt once more a child being pulled into his mother’s lap and rocked quietly to sleep. “Failure will destroy all that you know and cherish. But remember your vows, your love, your dedication, and your faith, and you will have no need to fear what is to come.”

Silently, Charles offered up a prayer of thanks. Even in the very real presence of Akkala, it was still directed to Eli.

The clouds above had broken. The grey line that had formed in the sky was now gone, those few clouds that had come to watch and wonder at the evil in the Belfry had fled to the north, as if to wipe the memory of that sight from every bit of their substance. Saroth stared unhappily into the sky, wishing that at least one had stayed so that he might learn what they knew. Yet the sky was an empty blue, clear, but unwelcoming.

{Eleven thousand years ago. All this because some elf city was destroyed eleven thousand years ago?}

“I had heard of Marzac,” Electra mused as they continued their slow progress through the Keep’s royal gardens. They were quiet as most were still at the festivities which continued uninterrupted. “But I had never heard of the history behind it. It is astonishing.”

Sean bobbed his head up and down energetically. “And we played a part in its history! Think of it!”

{I wish somebody had told me about it before,} Saroth grumbled mentally. He was still in his humanoid shape. He felt like using his real vocal chords to let out a draconic screech in frustration.

“Well, we know now,” Electra pointed out. “Who knows what may happen next.”

{We’re going to have to spend several months just undoing anything that Weathermonger did here! I’m sure he’s left a few spells lying around to interfere with the valley’s weather!}

“Well,” Sean said with a crooked avian grin, “it is something to do at least!”

{More work. Wonderful} Saroth narrowed his eyes and looked at the eagle morph unpleasantly. {You can help Electra look for them.}

Sean was about to say something when he stared past Saroth at something in the sky. Electra saw it too and pointed. Turning his head, the humanoid dragon looked back and saw a large form moving through the air towards them. It took only a moment before he recognized it as the strange white gryphon that had come to their aid against the forces of Marzac. The creature descended slowly through the air until he gently set down upon the terrazzo walkway, his wings brushing the tops of the flower blossoms on either side.

{I come to impart my thanks to you three,} Guernef said, his voice still strange and alien in their minds. But there was gratefulness to it, a deep sensation that seemed to go beyond what words were capable of expressing. Saroth felt immeasurably relieved all of a sudden.

{Who are you?} he asked brazenly. {We know your name but not who you are.}

{I am of the Nauh-kaee. The word you would use is gryphon, but that is not correct. We do look the same yes, but we are not of them. My kind are the Nauh-kaee. You will likely never see another of my kind in the whole of your life, though you should live as long as the most ancient of wyrms. But should you choose, you are welcome to come to the peaks of my kind and see us once more.} His eyes swept past Saroth and took in Sean and Electra. {All of you. For the thanks of my entire people rets with you. You did not need to join in this fight, yet you did. Though your part in this story may be over, it will never be forgotten. The winds will speak your names for generations to come.}

Saroth suddenly felt intensely honoured. He knew he was broadcasting thoughts of both embarrassed relief and gratitude, but also of pleasure. It was Electra who spoke though. “Thank you, Guernef. We shall remember you as well.”

{I must prepare for my own journey,} Guernef said after nodding politely to the youthful weather mage. {If the winds should bring us together again, I shall bless them.} He then spread his wings, and lifted himself into the air with the grace of one born in the sky.

Saroth watched the Nauh-kaee rise up into the air, circling up and then out over the town itself before disappearing beyond gambled rooves. He shook his head and snorted. {Will we ever understand what happened today?}

“Maybe,” Electra said, still watching where Guernef had disappeared. “Maybe not. Either way, we will remember it.”

“It’s not yet over,” Sean pointed out, looking off in another direction. They could hear the distant clamour, the sounds of merrymaking carrying over the rooves and filling the air with pleasant aplomb. “There is still time to have some fun this day too.”

{If we can.}

“We can,” Electra assured him. She reached up and grabbed his heavy hand in her own and smiled up at his face that towered over her own. “Come on. We can spend the rest of our lives worrying about what it all means. We don’t have to spend the rest of today.”

Once more Saroth snorted. He cast his gaze back to the empty blue sky. But it wasn’t completely empty anymore. There, high in the heavens, a single puffy white cloud was slowly sliding along, cheerful that he had the sky to himself. Saroth’s muzzle cracked open then, a smile emerging on the bronze flesh.

{Right you are. Sean, you seem to know where everything is. Lead on.}

The eagle morph gave out a boisterous whoop and did so.

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