Lineaments of Coming Night

Part XX

Kayla wondered how many other Keepers could say that they had been summoned by a goddess.

After she had run from Healer Coe’s, she had found her way to her own quarters. Upon her bed she’d lain for some time merely crying into the crook of her arm. Images of Rickkter’s mangled body, and of what she had seen that man with the cards doing to him, had waited for her behind her eyelids, but she couldn’t look away.

She had no idea how long it had been before one of the acolytes had knocked softly upon her door. The boy had been so quiet, that she had not heard him at first. After his third knock, the skunk had risen from the bed and crossed slowly to the door to see who it might be. The message had surprised her, and even as she wiped the tears out of her snout fur, her eyes had widened in shock.

The acolyte had left only after she assured him that she would be right along. Kayla had felt unsteady on her legs and had needed to sit down for a moment to regain her composure. Akkala herself had wished to see her. She could hardly refuse the summons, nor could she keep the goddess waiting. Taking the edge of her bedsheet, she did her best to dry the tears staining the sides of her cheek ruff, and then she walked briskly to the temple.

The temple was closer than she expected, but Kyia always knew when she needed to be someplace quickly. That the goddess of healing had summoned her was the one fact that she was able to fill her mind with to keep herself from breaking into a fresh bout of tears over Rickkter. The one man who had ever cared for her ever since she had become a skunk may now be gone forever. If she didn’t think of something else, she would sob once more.

Inside the central hall she saw a few of the acolytes as well as both Habakkuk and that donkey James. Both regarded her with comforting eyes, but she could only nod to them both as she passed.

Even as Kayla put her paw to the door in front of her, she felt an incredible warmth radiating through it. She tried to smile to herself, but her muzzle would not yet move that way. But whatever was beyond helped her to stand a bit taller. The skunk did not sag from weariness when she passed through those wide doors.

Beyond, her eyes were filled with the rose splendour of Akkala, standing before the altar scintillating and matronly beautiful. Kayla took a long deep breath as that calming face regarded her, beckoning her forward, inviting her into this house of worship like a child that had long been away. Her steps bore no hesitation, though they were still uncertain.

“Come closer, my daughter,” Akkala’s voice rang out, carrying even to the highest vaults of the temple. “You have no more reason for sorrow.”

Kayla could not stop a sudden burst of tears as she ran up the aisle before throwing herself to the ground in the midst of a circle of white candles. “Oh, goddess! I have lost him! I have lost he who loved me! I don’t know what to do!”

“Quiet child,” Akkala said, her voice warm and soothing like a heavy blanket wrapped tight about her neck on a cold winter’s day. “Your love is not gone. See, he is here lying beside you.”

Kayla lifted her eyes, and looked to her right. A bemused stone rat stood just a short ways off, next to an equally hesitant lupine priestess. But they were only motes at the edge of her vision. Laying in serene vicissitude, unmoving and perfect in form, was her warrior raccoon. She let out a loud gasp. It was clear that his wounds had been mended, for his body no longer twisted unnaturally. She threw herself on his chest, and clung to his warm flesh, feeling her fingers dig in through the soft fur of his chest and arms.

“Raven, Charles, both of you should leave us now. You have done your part.” Akkala spoke in a soft pleasant tone, one that left her feeling subtly at ease, despite the rage of her emotions. Here was the man she had thought lost restored. All he needed to do was wake and all would be well again.

Dimly, she was aware of the two others rising and walking back out the main entrance together. But all she wanted to listen to was the steady beat of Rickkter’s heart. She pressed her ear against his chest, and let out a long sigh of relief when she heard it pounding strongly beneath her.

“He lives child,” Akkala repeated when the doors had closed, “but he is not whole. You saw what the man of the Underworld did to him?”

Kayla nodded, biting her lip for a moment. “He took Rickkter’s spirit, didn’t he, my Lady?”

“I am afraid so.” There was genuine sympathy in that voice, an aching of the soul that could not be faked. Though the news was hard, she nevertheless felt comforted. “While Rickkter’s soul remains in that man’s possession, I cannot restore him. But when Rickkter is freed from his prison, I will guide his spirit safely and gently back to his body. On that day, he will awake, and be waiting for your return.”

“My return?” Kayla asked, shifting her weight so that she was now crouched next to Rickkter and not on top of him. She turned her head up to stare at the goddess, feeling overwhelmed at the sight. Even so, she knew she had to see Akkala fully just then. She needed to see her purity and healing as they were.

“Yes child. Your return.” Akkala knelt down and sat next to Rickkter as well, smiling to her. She cupped Kayla’s chin in her own hand, and then slid it across her shoulder. “The man who took Rickkter’s spirit is allied with the Underworld. I cannot touch him, for there are laws that govern the Great Powers, rules of engagement that even I dare not disregrard. Were I to oppose him directly, the Underworld would respond in kind, and this world should not see what would then happen.”

Akkala leaned a bit closer and then pressed her hand to the skunk’s chest. “But I can send others to go in my stead. And I am sending you. Go with the kangaroo and the rat. Go with them as they journey to the demesnes of our enemy.”

“But, I know nothing of fighting, and I can barely cast any spells.” The thought of accompanying the rat, a person that she had heard Rickkter make many deprecations about, was not pleasant. If he was half as sanctimonious as her raccoon had suggested, then she knew she would not get along with him either, no matter how earnest a warrior he was.

“Greater things than spells or fighting are needed on this journey,” Akkala assured her, smiling and still pressing her palm to the skunk’s chest. After a moment though, she lifted her hand and then rested it on the sunburst pewter bracelet about Kayla’s wrist. “You shall be protected in those moments that are most dire. Rickkter shall always go with you as long as you keep him in your heart.”

Even though the words were terrible to hear, she felt peaceful. It was the sort of peace that was unattainable outside of the divine presence. But it was nevertheless welcome just then, for she needed that very thing. If this was what it took to restore her raccoon to life, then she would be a part of it. “When do I have to go, my Lady?” Kayla asked, letting her lips turn from sorrow to determination.

“This very day, my child. When you speak to Habakkuk, he will tell you what you need to do. Do not fear for Rickkter. His body shall be kept safe here in the temple. I will make sure that no harm comes to him.”

Kayla nodded and then lowered the top of her head until it rested on Akkala’s hand. “Thank you, Lady Akkala, most high. I will do this for him, and for you.”

“You are stronger than you know child.” Akkala assured her, and she could hear the smile in those warm words. Akkala drew away from her then, stepping backwards towards the altar. “Please ask my priestess to return, for there are a few words I must speak to her alone as well. You have much now to prepare for.”

Kayla nodded her head slowly. She looked once more at the quiet face of her beloved raccoon. His eyes were closed, completing the mask over the bridge of his snout. She slid her fingers through the fur over her cheek, around to his ear. Leaning close, she whispered to him. “I love you, Rickkter. I will be back. Wait for me. Wait for me here just as peacefully as you are now. I love you. I miss you, but I will go loving you...” She then leaned down and placed a kiss on his cheek. Then a second on the side of his muzzle. And a final kiss on the tip. “Soon enough, this will all be over.”

Slowly, Kayla rose to her paws and stepped uncertainly away. She looked back once at Akkala, but the goddess merely nodded to her, that radiant pink glow soothing all it touched. Kayla let her smile free once more, though it was small. It took her several seconds to finally turn and walk back down the main aisle towards the hall beyond. She could hear the soft thrumming of bells as she left.

Raven, Merai, Habakkuk James, and Charles were all waiting in the corridor beyond. All eyes turned towards her curiously as she emerged. Kayla smiled to them each in turn. But it was to Raven that she first turned. “Lady Akkala asked me to tell you that she wishes to speak with you a short while more.”

The wolf nodded and moved back to the door. “Are you all right?” she asked first, setting one paw on the skunk’s shoulder.

“I will be, thank you, Lothanasa.”

The priestess said nothing more, but offered her a small smile before slipping back within the main temple hall to hear whatever words her goddess had for her. Kayla wasted no time in looking over at the kangaroo. “I need to go with you. I know you are journeying to destroy the evil we faced in the Belfry. I am going to come with you. I have to. Do not try to argue me out of it. I must come.”

Habakkuk returned her intent gaze, but instead of objecting as she half feared him too, he just nodded slowly. “Of course you must. But we are leaving soon. I have provisions made ready at Lindsey’s house. I will give you directions in a moment, because he does not live in the Keep itself. Anything personal that you wish to bring, you should gather now. Any good byes you want to say, you should say now. We will leave in a little over two hours from now.”

“That is not much time,” Charles pointed out. His voice was grating on her ears, like two stones rubbing against each other. She looked at the rat, studying the way his body was fashioned entirely from stone. She chided herself then for disparaging him. How could his voice sound any other way?

“No, but we have a very long journey ahead of us.” Habakkuk’s ears folded back along his head for a moment, and then lifted to attention once more. “We will not travel far today, just into the mountains, but every hour matters. We should all be gathered at Lindsey’s in an hour’s time. Bring very warm clothes with you, but nothing too fine. Whatever you bring on this journey is likely to be ruined by it.”

“I know where Lindsey’s place is,” Charles announced as he narrowed his speckled eyes. They had the appearance of black obsidian. “I must stop by Long House before I go. I have a few letters to write. Is there anything anyone needs from the Long House?”

Before any could answer the rat’s question, the door to the temple was drawn open by Raven. The hall was empty, and even the candles that had lain in a circle on the floor were snuffed out. Raven’s head was hung low for a moment, a sign of weariness in her otherwise composed exterior. And then she returned to her usual firm self.

“Akkala has told me of the dangers of your voyage,” Raven announced in hard tones. “The power of Marzac should not be taken lightly. The gods have done all they can to aid us in this fight. It is now in your hands, and only you can stop this threat. We here at Metamor, can only wait, hope, and pray that you will succeed.”

Habakkuk bowed his head low towards the Lothanasa. “You have your own affairs to tend to, Raven hin’Elric. Worry not for our venture, for it is guided by a gentler hand than you could know.” A sly expression crossed the roo’s face then, after which he smiled warmly to the priestess. “Another will yet join our company in time. Ask your newest acolyte about the Lord of Colours.”

Raven blinked, as did Merai. “Our newest acolyte?” Meria blurted, confused for a moment.

“The one you say, was it, suffered the gender curse?” Habakkuk continued to smile, as if he knew some great secret, one that seemed clear to Merai and Raven, though the wolf did a far better job of concealing her surprise than did the feline.

“I shall ask as you say,” Raven said, nodding her head. “Are you truly the last descendant of Felix of Lee?”

Habakkuk’s smile faded completely. He became almost melancholy then as he nodded. Kayla herself wondered anew at what this might mean. The others all seemed to know, but she still did not. Why was he important? Wasn’t he just a scribe?

“I am. I carry the foreknowledge of our time with me. It will be kept safe. Now we must hurry. Thank you for the healings you have performed, Lothanasa. We shall ever remain in your debt.”

There was a softness to Raven’s smile just then as she stared at the four of them gathered together. Was it a fondness, a simple sorrow at seeing them leave? Or was there something deeper in that moment that passed between them, some font of respect and certainty that only two who dwelt in the future might understand? Kayla doubted she would ever know. “Go with all the hopes of Metamor Keep, and all those that live here,” Raven said.

Habakkuk nodded and took several steps away. Kayla felt compelled to follow after him, as did both Charles and James. “We shall go with that and far more. Farewell.”

Kayla looked back over her shoulder one last time and caught a glimpse of Raven reaching up to the side of her snout with one paw. Startled, the skunk turned back around and hurried to catch up with the others. It was time to go. Rickkter would still be there when she got back.

“And so,” Malisa said a little louder. It looked like Baron Linnell of Menth was beginning to lose interest. “Ambassador Yonson was killed in the battle, but Tournemire and his other servants were able to escape. The censer remains in the Belfry, and it will stay there until the power of Marzac is broken.”

“And this has,” Lord Calephas of Giftum drawled, “precisely what to do with us? What can we do about this looming threat that you describe?”

“We have done all that we can already to silence the threat from Marzac at its source. But here, we must do whatever we can not to further upset the balance of power. The last thing we want is full scale war. It could only benefit our enemies.”

“In fact,” Andwyn said, his voice so sudden and surprising that not only did eyes shift towards him, but entire postures. The bat had remained quiet apart from a punctilious greeting when Thomas and Malisa returned. Malisa had given up trying to guess what might be going on inside the bat’s head, as his eyes rarely revealed what lied beneath. He always seemed to be listening, but never did it look as if he were putting the pieces together – at least not until he spoke.

“In fact,” Andwyn repeated, his wings puffed up a little bit more as they clutched around his front like a cape, “I believe that we can lay the recently erupted civil war in the Southern Midlands at the feet of this man, Tournemire.”

Several of the assembled lords snorted in amusement at this, but none were as jocose as Lord Donel of Midtown. “Perhaps he’s the one who ruined my crops last year as well.”

Andwyn’s muzzle was turned into a smile then, and his red eyes bore upon the noble. “Earlier this Spring, when we first learned of the trouble in the Southern Midlands, we also learned that there had been a Pyralian noble travelling in that land just days before the fighting started. Accompanying him had been a man of Southlands heritage, dressed all in black. For some time, I have been labouring to uncover the identity of this man. Surprisingly few could remember his name, but enough were able to describe a part of him that we were able to form a clear picture of his appearance. The man that my fellow Keepers did contest in the Belfry shared that appearance. Either it is an exceptional coincidence, or they are one in the same.”

“And you say he was travelling through the Southern Midlands before the fighting began?” Mayor Wiclaf asked. The Sorin farmer had throughout the discourse appeared to take the threat more seriously than did the gentry. Malisa briefly ruminated on the wisdom of having a ruling class dictated by birth.

“That is correct,” Malisa replied, offering Andwyn a gracious stare. She had forgotten about that report as well. It made some sort of sense though. “I think it is best for us to assume that he wants war, and wants it to occupy all of our attention. So we must do our best to avoid being drawn into this conflict.”

“This is all silly,” Baron Christopher said gruffly. The badger morph narrowed his already small eyes as he stared at the Prime Minister. “Why did we have to listen to all this history and fairy tale if in the end we’re going to do exactly the same thing we were discussing before?”

Malisa was rather surprised to hear the sovereign of the Iron Mines question her like that. She had expected that they would always have the support of the other lords who lived under the curse’s touch. Before she could reply though, Lord Barnhardt cut in. The newt’s blue-green skin glistened, with the water he’d just freshly wiped across his face. “We may not be able to do anything about this Tournemire, but we ought to know the reasons why things are happening in the world. If this man is behind much of the conflict, knowing it gives us a better chance of thwarting him, even if only in smaller matters.”

Barnhardt then turned to Malisa, and there was a crooked smile upon his amphibian face. “I for one greatly enjoyed hearing this. Yes, it did sound like a fairy tale told to children, but I think it encouraging to know that in our own world we can still have fairy tales. We need to see that there are things beyond our control. It keeps us humble and respectful. And that is something we all need.”

Baron Pedain of Komley shrugged his shoulders and leaned back in his seat. “Well, I will confess, I too enjoyed hearing your tale, though it does not change my decision in any way. I do not want war on my lands. And I do not want to send my people off to die in some other land. I believe we must find a way to keep the war in the Southern Midlands from spreading.”

Lord Avery nodded his head thoughtfully, his long tail pulled closely behind him. “I have an advantage over most here, because I personally know some of the participants in the battle just described to us. But I do not think that any of the other Lords and Barons should have to believe all that you said for us to do the right thing. And the right thing is clearly to affirm our support for you, your grace, and to keep the war from spreading. Some have suggested an alliance with the Outer Midlands, and that is probably wise. But we will also need to be ready in case an army from the south should try to march upon our lands.”

Duke Thomas turned his head towards Lord Calephas, who was leaning back in his chair, eyes lifted to the ceiling in thought. “Jaran?” Thomas called. “Your land lies upon the boundary of our land. What have you to say to protecting it?”

“Why?” Lord Calephas asked then, causing not a few gasps. “Not to protecting the land, but to something else. Forgive me, but I am still pondering this Tournemire. You have told us what he has done in the last few months, or at least, what you believe he has done. You have even told us how he has done it, or at least as much as you know. But not once, have I heard why. Why did this man, come here to Metamor to do the things he has done? Why did this man start a civil war in the Southern Midlands? And why did he not try to do the same thing here?”

Lord Calephas sat straighter in his chair, and looked directly into the horse lord’s eyes. “Why has he done all that he is done. What is it that he wants to accomplish? If we understand that, then we will know how to counter him. Otherwise, we have no idea if what we are doing is right.”

Both Malisa and Thomas stiffened in that moment. Malisa knew there was a reason for it of course, something that should have been obvious. But she could not help but feel slighted at the sudden murmuring of agreement working their way amongst the nobles. “Tournemire is a servant of the Underworld,” Malisa replied slowly, emphasizing her words carefully. “The Underworld seeks to dominate this world, and to destroy it. However, they have only a very limited ability to pass into our world. The only known tear is at Marzac. It is said that death weakens the boundaries between worlds. Perhaps Tournemire’s hope in starting wars is to kill hundreds and thousands of people, thereby weakening the boundary between worlds, allowing the Underworld to open the tear wider.”

“Do you know that?” Lord Calephas asked pointedly. “Or is that something you are just guessing?”

“With matters such as these, nothing is ever fully certain, “ she admitted with a moue. “But I feel that when in doubt, we must do what we believe to be right. We have to trust in our judgement. And that means, we do not let this war spread. If my guess is correct, the spreading of the war will precipitate the opening of that tear. Even a little bit of the Underworld unleashed is a horrid thing to behold. An army unleashed would be unstoppable. I do not think we should take that risk. I do not think we should even think about doing so.”

“And if we learn otherwise?” Calephas asked once again. Some of his intensity was already beginning to wane.

“Then we will alter our plans accordingly. But if we do not make ready now, it may well be too late later.”

Calephas nodded, and then offered her a small smile. “Very well, Prime Minister. Your grace,” his gaze turned to Thomas now, “you will have my support in this. Now I believe we were discussing how best to keep the Northern Midlands secure.”

Duke Thomas leaned forward in his seat, ears swivelled forward. “This is no easy matter. For years we have lived with the threat from the North, and have placed our forces in anticipation of that. And we are still threatened from the North. We are trying to ally with if not reach accord with Starven and Politzen. If we are successful, that may in fact reduce some of the threat. But I do not believe we can bring our men out of the North for many years to come. Especially not with Nasoj’s potential to produce mithril. But we must mobilize in the south now as well. We cannot ask Lord Calephas to do this alone. Baron Linnell, you had a suggestion yesterday that I thought might work. Could you please tell us again what it was?”

Malisa could not help but feel a sense of great relief as well as agony. She was tired and all she wanted to do was fall onto her bed and sleep for days and days. Her mind and soul were strained by everything that had happened in the last few days, but most especially in the last few hours. She would never forget the sight of the Shriekers, or the victory she had seen in Tournemire’s gloating face. They would haunt her nightmares for years to come.

But at the same time, for the first time she could ever remember, all of her adoptive father’s vassals were in agreement about something. They had come together, and for the first time in long years, they were working together to make the Northern Midlands stronger – to make Metamor stronger. Though it was not much hope that those cursed would one day be accepted in all parts of the world, it was still hope.

And in the end, hope was about the only thing that was keeping her from passing out from exhaustion. With patient ear and reserved demeanour, Malisa dove into the real work of negotiation that had at long last begun.

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