Liturgy of Blood - Part XVI

Wessex pushed his way past a startled ibis carrying something that appeared to be extremely delicate. The grey-liveried bird gave a strangled cry as the pottery toppled out of his wing tips to crash to the floor, splintering into thousands of shards. The boy mage was highly unconcerned with such a temporal matter though, intent on only one thing, the Duke's personal chambers.

The guards standing outside the Duke's room lowered the ir staves at his running approach, eyes intent on preventing him from causing any harm. Wessex shouted in anger at them as he came to a stop before them. "Get out of my way! I need to speak to his grace immediately!"

One of the guards, a broad chested man, grimaced and knocked on the door. "Who is it?" the Duke's voice called back.

"The Magician Wessex, here to speak with you. He claims it is urgent."

"Send him in at once," Thomas called back, though there was a hint of worry in the tone, most of it was still light hearted.

Wessex did not give the two guards any more attention as soon as he was past the door. The Duke's private chambers were well furnished, with a large table in the middle. Prince Phil stood on a small stool before it, his paws splayed out over a map of the valley. The rabbit nodded his head to the boy, though there was concern in his eyes at Wessex's bedraggled condition. The wizard had not bothered o scrub the coloured dusts from his hands, and so a rainbow of hues was smeared across both his pants and shirt.

"What could be so important that you have to nearly batter down my guards just after dinner?" Thomas asked, his voice jocular as usual to help set his guests at ease.

However, the boy mage had no time for such small talk. "Zagrosek intends to kill the Patriarch tonight."

Phil nearly fell from his chair as his arms gave out before him, sprawling him further across the table, his massive weight almost upending the chair for a moment before he regained his balance. Thomas spun about, his long tail lashing furiously at one colonnade. The horse lord's eyes began to flood with white, though not nearly to the extent that Macaban's had when Wessex had shown him the Sondeckis symbol.

"That evil mage who was controlling Loriod?" Thomas asked again, just to be sure. When the boy nodded, the equine duke clopped his hooves on the floor in agitation. "How do you know that? I thought you couldn't find any trace of him to use?"

Wessex grimaced, "Your grace, we don't have time to discuss that right now. If we don't hurry, then the Patriarch will die tonight. Just trust me when I say this, we need to somehow reach him before Zagrosek does."

Phil looked back at the map, his eyes overcome their momentary shock, now focussed entirely on the battle. "I have enough scouts combing the southern woods that if we can get word to them, it will take some of them less than an hour to reach the Patriarch's encampment, maybe less. Our best men I've stationed as close as possible. So all we have to worry about now is getting word to them. Wessex, there are a few mages out in those groups, Murikeer Khannas for one, is one of the southernmost groups. Do you think that you could communicate with him magically?"

The boy nodded thoughtfully. "It would not be easy, the distance is great, and I'd need to procure some of my materials, but I think that I should be able to warn him. That is assuming of course that Zagrosek wouldn't expect that. I don't know the full extent of his powers yet, so we need to take every contingency into consideration."

Thomas walked over to the table, and beat one hoof-like fist upon the map. "Dragons! We can have them fly south to warn the rest, if they can find them, and if not, then to help defend the Patriarch's caravan. They should be able to make the flight in about an hour or two at most."

"We have only a handful of dragons here at the Keep right now," Phil pointed out, his voice bereft of anything but the heat of tactics. "It's past nightfall, so Cerulean won't be able to help us. Saroth is still recovering from his injuries, and with the storm to the south, I wouldn't want to have him risk himself like that."

"What of the others?" Thomas asked.

Phil peered thoughtfully at the map, tapping the place where the Keep had been drawn in. "There is one other thing to consider. Zagrosek would notice a large dragon flying in the sky, even at night and with this storm. They are hard to miss. I think we should send Gornul to warn the others, and have the larger dragons follow closely behind him, but up over the clouds. He can communicate between them to coordinate the defence."

Wessex paced slowly about the room, still shaking from what he'd seen. "Zagrosek could have an ally, though I have no idea how powerful she might be."

The horse lord grimaced and walked back over to the door, and opened it wide. The two guards appeared startled, especially considering the vehemence of their master's voice. "Wake the Knights of the Red Stallion now, and have them gallop south along the road. Also, bring me Gornul and ready all of the dragons that we have. Send to the commander of the stallion this note."

He held out an empty hand, and then swore privately to himself, before snatching at a pen and sheaf of paper from the desk to one side, scribbling something quickly. He stamped his seal in wax, and then folded it in two. Pushing that into the guards hand, knees trembling, he barked, "Now go, come back here with Gornul immediately after you deliver this. Spread the word, we are on an alert, I want the guard doubled instantly at the Keep."

The guard nodded quickly, before darting off down the hallway, while the second shouted something down the hallway. Thomas closed the door, his face grim. "Now, we have a few minutes until Gornul arrives, what else do we need to do to stop this?"

Wessex shrugged, "I need a few things from my workroom. I cannot perform the ritual in there, as I already have a spell cast into the floor, it would take too long to clean up. Other than my magical observation, I'm not sure what can be done that you haven't already set in motion."

Phil hopped off the stool, and gazed into a corner of the room. Suddenly, the great ape Rupert emerged from the shadows, where Wessex had never seen him. "Rupert, take Wessex back to his quarters and help him bring back what he needs for the spell."

The ape look frightened and pointed to Phil with one finger, himself, and then at the floor. Phil shook his head. "No, I need you to do this now. I will be safe here, Thomas's guards are quite competent. Go now, that is a direct order from your Prince. We do not have any time we can afford to waste."

Rupert nodded reluctantly, lumbering over to the door, and gazing at Wessex with fierce eyes. The boy, having finally caught his breath, strode over next to the large silent caretaker, and began to make his way to his room. The ape's legs were much longer, and so he soon realized that he was slowing him down with his own short ones. Any other day, he would have turned red from embarrassment at the thought of it, but tonight was different.

"Rupert, you need to carry me. I'm just slowing you down." Wessex stood there as the ape turned to regard him for a brief moment, before his thick grey hands reached down and lifted the child onto his back. Wrapping his arms around the thick neck, Wessex buried his head into the thick hard fur before him, ignoring the stares of guards as they tried to figure out what could be wrong.

Closing his eyes, Wessex tried not to think about that single image he had seen, of Zagrosek stabbing the Patriarch. Though he had no love for the man, if Zagrosek wanted it, he would oppose it with his last breath. And he had many more yet to breath. Besides, with a seething hatred boiling in his heart, he had watched this man murder too many already. He would enjoy bringing his nightmares to an end.

Gornul blinked the rain from his eyes as he plunged through the inky blackness of night. It was dangerous enough for a dragon to fly at night, but in the midst of an intense thunderstorm, it was nearly suicide. And considering Gornul's small frame, he was constantly being tossed about by sudden gusts, and hammered by the sheets of icy rain that the clouds flung forth.

Yet, he persevered; having heard what the Duke wanted, and knowing the rightness of the cause, he could do little else. Pumping his wings against each chaotic blow of the winds, he soared over the treetops, always keeping the road in sight. Though he could only see it clearly when a flash of lightning would illume the sky briefly. At first, he'd been able to watch the roaring progress of the knights as they pounded along the muddy slopes, exerting their horses as they charged. They'd have to rest their steeds at some point, the dragonnette knew, a fact that made their effort only one of show.

Casting his mind into the darkness below, he searched for other minds, other thoughts. At this distance, only the vaguest of generalities could he even discern, but it would be enough. Once he found others, he had been instructed to swoop in lower and deliver the message, and then continue on further south. So far, he had found few Metamorian minds to talk with, and so he continued towards the dark thick skies to the south.

Thinking upwards, he could feel the comforting presence of his fellow dragons overhead. They were not many, but against one man, it should be enough. Still, without him to guide them, they would be lost. All of that responsibility weighed heavily on Gornul's little shoulders, even more so then the tonnes of rain that had already saturated his scaly hide.

Blinking all of it away, he focussed instead on the winds and the currents. He would be strong, and he would do his very best to save that good man.

Rupert and Wessex returned shortly to Thomas's private chambers. The Duke was pacing, while Phil studied the map nervously. There were six guards outside his door now, and they immediately let the ape carrying both the child and several casks and bags in his paws and over his back into the room. They did not even say a word as they passed, their faces all creased with sudden worry. They did not know what had caused their liege such alarm, but they would give their lives to defend him from whatever it was.

Wessex slid down to the ground, tumbling slightly as he did so, and then clapped his hands together, looking about the floor. Finally, he pointed to a wide open section before a bookcase that was covered with a carpet. "There, roll the carpet away, and set my materials down there. That should be enough space."

"What exactly is it that you are going to be doing, Wessex?" Thomas asked even as the great ape set about organizing all of the implements that the boy had requested he bring. "Will it be dangerous to you?"

The boy nodded emphatically as he watched Rupert handle the materials. "Very dangerous, Zagrosek could kill me if I am not careful. But, I have sufficient cause to believe that he wouldn't do that."

"What about to us?" Phil asked pointedly, his blue eyes knowing far more than anyone else aside from Wessex did about this man. It was to the rabbit that the boy had gone when he could trust no one else. Even now, they had kept their knowledge secret, only saying what was needed. Now, both recognized that some of these secrets would have to be shed.

Wessex grimly nodded. "If Zagrosek can use me in my dreams, it is entirely possible he may use me here. You ought to have guards in here to protect you in case I am not myself when I rise from the spell." The boy began to examine the casks that Rupert had brought, checking each one to make sure it was still intact. He found nothing wrong with any of them, and so began to study the floor where the great ape had rolled the carpet away.

Thomas turned to the door, and barked a few more orders. There was no question that he was nervous as his equine tail was flicking from side to side in agitation, and his ears swivelled to catch every noise, no matter how minute. Pacing, his hooves clopping on the tile floor, he peered at all of the dusts and chalk that the boy had brought with him. "What do you mean use you in your dreams? And just how do you know that Zagrosek is going to kill the Patriarch?"

"I studied the leaves that Phil and I collected in the woods outside of Lorland," Wessex added quickly, pouring out a bit of the sand into a funnel, rotating it in a perfect circle from long practice. The bright yellow sand traced out a narrow curve upon the ground, sparkling in the ambient lamplight. "I am afraid that I cannot take the time to explain the particulars just now. Phil knows most of it anyway, he can tell you while you wait for me to do my part in stopping this madness. This will only take me a moment more to prepare, and then I want you to pour out the contents of this ewer onto my chest." He indicated a small earthenware pitcher with single handle. "After that, you will not be able to speak to me until I break the spell."

Thomas nodded, bending down to lift the ewer clumsily in one hand. Wessex placed several chalk lines in a radial pattern around the circle, sprinkling more of the coloured dusts along each line. He fought with his shirt a moment, before discarding it to one side, revealing his hairless ten year old chest. Stepping inside of the circle, he then took a small jar in his hands. Twisting off the cap, he dipped his finger into the white paste inside, and rubbed it across his forehead, and down both sides of his chest, and around the base of his sternum.

Setting the jar outside of the circle, Wessex lay down upon his back on the cold slate. He shivered for a moment as his skin met the stone, but otherwise he remained calm. "Pour the ewer please. And do watch my body. You will know when I have found him."

Phil watched the soldiers file in the door, each armed with spear and sword, all of them nervous. He then returned his gaze to the horse lord who stood precariously leaning over the incantation drawn on the floor, gently upending the contents of the ewer upon the boy's chest. It was a rather viscous blue liquid, the like of which he had never seen before. It had the consistency of paint, only it gleamed in the torchlight like something living.

Wessex shuddered as the fluid struck his chest, soaking into the paste he had drawn across his flesh. The marks swelled, burning through him, and causing him to nearly bite his tongue in half. Closing his eyes shut, he could feel it soak into his flesh, burning as it was caught in the spell. He did not need to open his eyes to know that the outer circle had begun to glow baleful red flame, like molten lava as it churned in the heart of a volcano. The paste on his chest would be glowing that same colour, though the one on his forehead would remain dormant for now. And then, once all of the fluid had been poured, they would go silently black.

The moment was hard to miss, as suddenly, every sensation he could feel through his body vanished. Staring, he could see from inside of the circle all of the Keepers in the room, each one glowing with the ever present magic of the curses. Letting his incorporeal presence rise, he flew through layers and layers of stone intangibly, until he was perched atop the highest parapet at the Keep, gazing over the dark landscape, all of it burning brightly with the Valley's magic. The clouds overhead were a sombre black as the storm raged. In the distance to the south, pinpricks of light shone the way.

Intrinsically, he was drawn to the brightest of the lights to the south, approaching them at remarkable speed, despite the distance. He saw four Keepers nestled beneath a copse of trees trying to keep from getting wet. He recognized one of them as that skunk that had been living up in the north for several years. Muri, for that had been his name, was a mage of some talent, and was the perfect person to impart the news to.

Yet, just as he tried to speak to the skunk's mind, another presence formed before him. He started in shock, his arms rising up to ward off the apparition that had materialized as if from nowhere. Wessex recoiled, summoning all the magic he could garner in this in-between realm, uncertain what he could possibly do now. Yet, the realization that he had been right, and how he wished that he had not been, was full in his mind.

Before him, grinning sardonically, was a woman dressed in fine purple robes, with the insignia of the drawing finger upon each sleeve. Though her smile was tight, almost forced, her bloodshot eyes told him a story of contempt and victory. Her long black hair twisted like a writhing den of snakes in the air, as she held out one of her hands. When she spoke though, her voice plunged wintry ice into his heart. "I am afraid that you are too late, Wessex ard'Kapler. Too late by far."

Over the fabled city of Ava-shavåis, there were few clouds, the night sky clear, the stars shining brightly in the vault of the heavens. Standing alone in his solitary tower, Qan-af-årael studied those stars. He could not help but wonder where Andares was now, as it had been two weeks since he had sent him on his errand. The stars were not very forthcoming either on the intervening nights, as they never even showed him anything. Too many clouds in the sky to see.

That could of course mean several things, and he had gone over every one of them many times already. Running his slender fingers across his angular features, he listened o the quiet of the woods about him. The grip of Autumn was upon the Åelfwood, leaves exchanging green for yellow or orange, while the towering pines at the foot of the Barrier Range stubbornly kept their colours so that all might admire their tenacity.

Yet, the moment when the story of the stars would be told was nearly upon him, and the clouds were only beginning to move in over the night sky. As he watched, his eyes trailed to the constellation of the Master and Servant. They were whole for the moment, the first time he had seen that occur at any time of the night since he'd sent Andares to the lands of the West. He wondered what that could portend as he let his focus trail over to the other major constellation of the Autumn season, the Hunter. The eye appeared to be dimmer than the rest, though with his own orbs, he could note tell why just then.

Taking a deep breath, he counted the moments that were left, an ancient ritual as old as himself. After so many centuries, he did not need to look at the stars to know the hour. Opening again, he watched as the story of the stars unfolded before him. The clouds of the sky continued their motion, passing in front of the Master, all in that moment. They even covered the Servant's left arm as before. And there they stopped, collecting into an agglomeration for a moment while the story was told.

Qan-af sucked in his breath, his ancient frame shaking with fear at the sight of such an omen. A sudden glimmer in the rest of the sky caught his attention though. The Eye of the hunter had flared, and shone even more brightly than any other star in the constellation. Peering into the bright blue intensity, the Åelf glared back, trying to see what was reflected in that oculus. Yet, the telling of the story was past, and nothing more could be gleaned from the stars.

Lowering his head, he leaned against the sill, running his fingers over the intricately carved ivory of the railing. With a shudder, he did his best to push the thoughts from his mind. The Master was going to die this very night. Unsettled, he journeyed back into the tower, and descended the stairs. Qan-af would watch his people's festival this evening, for he did not wish to think of what he had just witnessed.

He did not know how long he had been fighting the wind, but Gornul continued on as he had not yet seen the Patriarch's caravan. The dragonnette knew that it had to lie farther to the south as the forest had thinned to the point that only the occasional copse along the ridge of a hill afforded any place to hide. So, until he saw the caravan, he would continue to fly.

Cringing from the beating rain, Gornul tried not to think about how tired his wings felt. Sullen pain lanced through his back every time he flapped them to stay aloft in the wind-racked air. Occasionally he would catch an upward thermal and would have the chance to relax them for a few moments as he soared upwards, yet they were often disrupted by a sudden gale that would cause him to lose altitude, struggling to carry the winds again.

Nor did the storm show any signs of abating. In fact, the further south he went, the stronger it felt. Pounding harder, a soft squeal escaping his muzzle, though was instantly drowned by the rain, he continued onwards, feeling something at the edge of his mind as he worked along the length of the road. Off to one side, there were a few presences, though he could tell little of them. Diverting slightly, he began to make a slow descent, hoping that his small shape was not silhouetted by the lightning flashing all around.

Casting his thoughts about, he could feel four minds nestled within that small grove of trees. At first he did not recognize any of them, but then suddenly, one of them sparked a familiar image inside of him! It was that rat, Charles down there among them! Feeling suddenly giddy, Gornul circled in low, trying to flash the warning to them as he had done for a few of the scouts that he'd passed on his way down.

Yet, a grunt from his back convinced him otherwise. His wings simply stopped pumping, too sore to continue despite his best efforts. Gliding in, he tried to keep his eyes set on the dark cluster of tree tops, doing his best to slow himself down as he plummeted. The world spun about him at times as the wind blew his wings this way and that, his thin tail swinging back and forth as they grew closer, the minds of his friends nearer.

Crying out mentally, he warned them of his impending crash. Startled thoughts returned, but Charles knew to listen, and Gornul saw the rat dart out from the trees, gazing up into the rain to find the helpless dragonnette. The other three scouts joined Matthias out on the knoll, looking about warily. Gornul could not help but smile as he watched his friends assemble there before him. Flapping his tired wings once more, he gave out a shriek at the pain that lanced through his shoulders, and then crashed into the arms of the skunk and rat, who had nearly run into each other as they tried to catch him.

The damp grass beneath him, Gornul breathed slowly, his whole body in agony over that intense flight. The cold stinging rain filled his eyes, but he did his best to wipe them away with one paw. Matthias crouched next to him, while the skunk leaned over top of the rat. The other two gazed about the hill, scanning for signs of anyone else.

"What are you doing here, Gornul?" Charles asked as he gently ran his finger across the blue sales of the dragonnette's tummy.

Gornul breathed in again, and then sent all four of them the image of a bad man killing the Patriarch. They all were visibly shocked.

"Somebody is going to kill the Patriarch?" the skunk exclaimed quietly, though the surprise was plain in his voice.

The dragonnette nodded his weak head, and then showed them an image of dragons flying over the clouds, and then diving through and attacking the bad man. He then pointed to himself with one claw as he lay there. "You need to warn the other dragons?" Matthias asked, and Gornul nodded once more.

"Could you do that?" Llyn asked as she approached, gently resting her palm on the skunk's shoulder.

Murikeer shook his head firmly. "I could never send thoughts that far away. Perhaps if I cajoled a few spirits of the air, but that would take too long."

Charles continued to gently rub Gornul's belly as he thought. "Gornul, can you send your thoughts that high from the ground?" The return image was a shrug, and so the rat considered further. However, he only took a moment for such things. "We need to get to the Patriarch as soon as possible. Murikeer, do you think you could give Gornul enough power to send his thoughts that high?"

The skunk nodded, "I believe so."

"Good, then you will carry Gornul while we make our way South. As soon as we can see the camp, you send your thoughts to the dragons over the clouds. Whoever it is that intends to do misdeed to our Patriarch will find himself facing a much larger force than he expected!"

Finbar started then, "But we're an hour north of their camp. We might not make it in time, and we dare not sprint."

Murikeer cast a glance toward the ferret, then at the soaking wall of dark water in the forest beyond the shelter of the large tree. "We will run as fast as our legs will carry us." He muttered, throwing out one hand, fingers splayed. He lidded his eyes as he looked down to the earth past his hand, the rumbling hiss of the rain fading from his hearing. Fervently he sent his desires into the very earth as his feet, letting his wishes be known to the spirits of the world around them. After several long seconds he suddenly clenched his hand into a fist and looked up, his jaw set, eyes hard and cold. "I will lead, you three keep up as best you can, I am not going to keep my pace to yours."

Scowling in confusion, Finbar stepped forward to brace the skunk, halting him before he had made two steps, "Who put you in charge?" he asked, his voice pitched above the howling of the wind. Llyn quickly stepped over and grasped his shoulder, but he would not move. "We'll kill ourselves if we charge through this mess in the dark."

Muri sidestepped him, pausing momentarily to let the Charles put the obviously exhausted dragonnette on the top of his small pack. "The spirits guide our path." He assured as he ducked into the rain, his fur suddenly going flat with the weight of the cold, pounding water. He glanced back over his shoulder as his white stripe began to fade, a sudden flare of yellow-white light appearing in the air a few feet away. Finbar hissed, leaning away as Charles took a step back, throwing up a hand to ward off the brightness. Only Llyn seemed unfazed by the sudden flare of light. "Follow the light!" the skunk yelled, then turned and plunged into the darkness.

Watching the bobbing witchlight warily, Finbar hastened to follow, ducking his shoulders as the heavy rain crashed down upon him. Charles was already out before him, Llyn close at his heels. "What the hell did he do?" the ferret called back to the mink, the one member of their foursome who seemed perfectly at ease in the chill rain.

She stepped past him, shaking her broad head slowly, "Don't ask, Finbar." She responded in a muffled yell, jerking her head toward the two fading forms in the rain ahead. The light did not recede with them, hovering a few paces ahead and several feet above Finbar, to whom it had been anchored. The ferret shook his head with another glance at the fiercely glowing orb and fell into step behind Llyn.

Charles, however, sped past the light, and kept pace only a few metres behind his friend the skunk. His heart beat rapidly in his chest, his mind racing over how such disaster could have come about. And how had Metamor come to know of such a thing before they? Trying not to dwell on those questions, he focussed on the path before him. Tears welled behind his eyes, ready to be shed should they arrive late.

Duke Thomas paced endlessly before the circles of power that Wessex had inscribed, and in which he now lay, completely comatose. That is, except for the occasional jerking of his body to one side or the other, and the terribly contorted expressions he bore. He never once cried out though, in the midst of whatever struggle he was engaged. To be able only to watch, and knowing that to disturb or try to help could only kill him, was a terrible burden that the Duke wished not to wear.

Phil was not much better, his rabbity nervousness preventing him from giving any aid to his lord in that time. Instead, his mind drew itself over the many possibilities that lay before them now, most of them bad. With a grimace he realized that he should never have agreed to hold Wessex's secrets this long. Had they all worked together instead of being distracted, they might have been able to flush Zagrosek out by now. The paltry scouts he could send to investigate had only demonstrated the need of such an act. Yet he'd done nothing in order to protect the secret that Wessex jealously guarded.

With a sour sense of irony, Phil wondered just who was controlling who in this terrible mind game.

The guards standing in the room wore unpleasant moues, each and every one of them. They had long since learned what was going on, as neither Phil nor Thomas were apt to keep their mouth's shut at this time. They warily watched their charge Wessex though, knowing that at any moment, he might rise and be a completely different person. The thought of a malignant being hiding behind those boyish eyes was most unsettling. Even Rupert, who stayed towards the shadows for when he would be needed, could not help shift about slightly on his hand-like feet to relieve the tension.

Thomas turned on the rabbit suddenly, his eyes gleaming, "How long has it been since we sent the dragons?"

Phil looked over at the clock resting on the bookshelf. "It's been two hours, your grace." Sighing he watched the minute hand move a tick. "And Misha has been gone with his troupe for just a few minutes less than that." The leader of the Long Scouts had been horrified when he'd heard the news, and insisted that he take out a group of his own men that had remained behind. Though, from the look in his eyes, he knew that they were going to be cleaning up what was left.

The horse lord glared down at Wessex's prone body and grunted. "Dammit, this is taking too long. The dragons should be there by now."

"Maybe they will arrive at any moment," Phil offered.

The Duke pointed with one thick finger at the boy. "Look at him! He's been that way ever since he went into that trance. I cannot imagine he hasn't found something! The Patriarch could have died hours ago for all that we know. And there is nothing we can do about it!" He ran his hand along his chin then, trying to calm himself. "And do you realize just what will happen should the Patriarch die on Metamor's holdings?"

Phil nodded his head sadly. "There will be war. Maybe not today, but someday. The tensions are high, have always been high towards Pyralis an Sathmore. I have no doubt that hostilities will be renewed along their borders. I am not sure how the Midlands will react to this news. The Ecclesia and Lothanasi have always managed to get along tolerably well in those lands, though not quite as nicely as here. No matter the result, Akabaieth's dream for peace will die with him."

Thomas turned about in obvious frustration, glaring once more at Wessex's tiny frame. "If so, we will need to be even more vigilant. For if Nasoj could ever defeat us, then with a war to the south, he'd have no trouble conquering and levelling them all."

The chilling image of Lutin armies marching over the cities of Sathmore and Pyralis was enough to make Phil glance again at the clock, wondering how long they would have to wait to know.

"Who are you?" Wessex demanded as he stared at the slender figure before him. The woman laughed a crisp merry laugh, her bloodshot eyes peering over his ghostly self. She had done naught but block him every time he tried to approach one of the Keepers through his magic. No matter how he tried to slide past her, she always was suddenly there, interposing herself between him and his goal.

She tilted her head to one side, gazing in amusement at his streaked face. "You don't really think I had planned to tell you?"

Wessex tried to gather the threads of magic into his hands, but she always snatched them away before he could get a firm grip. Whoever she was, the boy knew that she had at her disposal more power than any one human being was ever supposed to. Obviously, she was tapping into a true source, drawing her energy from that. Yet the child wizard knew that if he could discover that source's identity and location, he might just have the key to destroying both her and Zagrosek as well.

"Your friend Zagrosek did, even though he doubted me too." Wessex reached out at an errant strand of the magical thread flowing about them. It was too small to be of import, but at least it would be something. The woman either did not notice, or did not care.

She idly pressed down her robe, as if wiping some bit of dirt away. "Oh, Zag, he's such a trifle boor. Prone to silly melodramatics, and pompous posturing. I'm not surprised even you could get his name."

Wessex wrapped the strand about his arm, feeling the generous flow of energy along its conduit. Racing his thoughts for a moment to its tip, he tied it off to another series of threads, and followed them away before repeating the process. Very quickly, he'd amassed quite a bit of the magical flow in the area around them, though none of them directly near the woman.

"And I will have yours as well," the boy hotly declared as he began to draw the noose closed around the woman. She still did not appear to notice what he'd been doing.

Her eyelids raised curiously. "Oh, not another boorish male! Are you all the same, trying to save the world with bold declarations?" She chuckled then and grabbed one of the threads that Wessex had tied off. "Stop posturing and just do what you came do to. That's why women have always held the true power in this world. You men are too busy looking important to do anything."

Wessex grimaced as he found his noose so expertly restrained, even as he tried to pull it tighter, it only tugged back at him. With a sudden shriek of horror, he found it closing about himself, wrapping tightly around his chest and legs, pinning them together. He held out his arms as long as possible, trying to untangle the weave, but they were inevitably drawn close to his chest.

She gazed uninterested in his direction for a few moments more as he struggled to move, crying out against the tight bonds of the magic. "Aren't you going to cry out, little one? Maybe your mother will hear you and come to your rescue?"

Wessex grimaced, but did not give her the satisfaction of screaming again. It would hardly have mattered if he did, as he was alone in this landscape with her. He watched as Murikeer and the others darted off into the woods, having been warned by one of the dragons. Yet, the woman did not appear to care about them. Was it too late already? No, if that were the case, they would leave as quickly as possible. Either it was about to happen, or Wessex was more of a threat to them than even he realized.

And with a grin, he knew that they could not risk hurting him either. "Why, you are going to free me eventually anyway," he called out to her, smiling as best he could despite the strain.

"Oh?" her eyes grew interested once more.

"Of course, you need me to open that wall, you and Zagrosek both. I know what you are planning, and I will stop it and you."

She laughed then, crossing the space between them to run her hand across his cheek. Her fingers grew tight upon his chin, forcing him to look into her eyes. "No, my child. You know very little of what we plan." She then drew a rune, blue flame sparkling in the air, and stepped back. "I will enjoy the parley though, my boorish little boy."

And with that, she winked at him, and vanished into the streams. Wessex grunted, struggling against his bonds, but each time he tried to flex his arms, the rune she'd traced on his chest flared brightly, causing the bonds to tighten all the more. With a sigh, he floated in the miasma of magic, trapped.

It felt as if they had been running forever, but of course, that was only due to their continuous exertion. Charles was trailing behind Murikeer who leaped through the woods as if they were his own creation, ignoring any possible obstruction, and miraculously never stumbling. Finbar and Llyn, both of whose legs were rather short, had trouble keeping up with either of them, the witchlight trailing far behind the rat in the darkness.

Even Charles, whose own legs were not that large, had a bit of trouble keeping pace with the skunk, despite the fact that conditions were quite mild for them as they ran. The rain doused forest seemed to part before them as they ran, the ground blessedly free of root or boulder. Even the earth itself seemed firm beneath their paws, nothing worse than mere puddles created by the continuing deluge soaking their boots.

Finbar had never been on the trail they were following, the familiar trees seen at angles he had never before glimpsed in relation to any path he had found in the forests south of Metamor. It was totally incongruous with what he knew of these woods. There was little question that this was the skunk's doing, but he could no longer even see the monochromatic pelt of the stranger who had raced far ahead into the night. Llyn was nearby at least and in the short distance the witchlight illuminated, he could see the pink tail of the rat weaving back and forth as he ran. If they were going to make it in time, he knew that Charles and Murikeer would have to forget about them and go on ahead.

And Matthias had just that same idea as he struggled to find pace with the skunk. He knew that he could easily fuel his legs with the Sondeck, but that tended to wear his body out very quickly. If there was any fighting to be done, he would need his Sondeck in order to do it. Whoever was trying to hurt the Patriarch would have a very rude surprise when they arrived, not to mention the dragons!

But, he had no desire to let the skunk outrun him through this wood either. Murikeer's long legs were an advantage, giving him a gait that Matthias could easily have matched when he was a human, but was no beyond his capabilities, at least in his current form. With an almost audible chuckle, Charles knew exactly what he had to do if he wished to reach the Patriarch in time.

Coming to a stop, he leaned down and removed his drenched trousers from his legs and draped them over his shoulder. It would take a few moments, but he could more than make up for them in a few short strides. Closing his eyes, and pushing the rain away, he brought up his self image. With a sudden glint in his eye, he brought the rain back, letting it wash over him, and over his form. It felt so much easier than before, for soon, his body began to meld, expanding and growing another set of legs. Soon, he stood on four paws in the hard earth, feeling as if he'd been born a taur!

Grinning at the power racing through his muscles, Charles galloped swiftly after Llyn and Finbar who'd managed to pass him by. Within moments, he passed them again, their eyes growing in wonder at his huge shape as he rocketed past. In that moment, he felt as if things would be all right now, and that they would save the Patriarch. He wondered if the sudden euphoria was part of the change, but did his best to return his mind to the serious affairs at hand.

It only took him moments as he'd surmised to reach the skunk, nodding his head to Gornul who clutched the back of Muri's pack with his claws. He dug all four of his paws into the earth, pushing himself along as fast as he dared without outpacing the skunk. He had no idea how much longer it would take them to reach the Patriarch's camp, but with a sudden peal of thunder overhead, he wondered if they weren't already too late.

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