Winter's First Chill - Part II

Pacing usually helped Wessex clear his thoughts, but not that afternoon. Instead, his head was astir with random flashes of that dream he'd had in the dungeon, and of all the events that Zagrosek had played a hand in. He was tired of simply fumbling along behind this evil man, and was determined to bring an end to it all before the year was out. The magical energies were particularly strong this time of the year, and so he planned to use that to his advantage. As long as he could find his link to the man, he could discover what he hoped he needed to end his threat.

However, the only way to do that was to cast an augury on all of Loriod's garments, until he found just the right one that the fat noble had used in his communications with Zagrosek. Perhaps this other woman, this Runecaster would be there as well. Wessex certainly hoped so, as it would enable him to solve two problems at once. The trouble was figuring out which of the garments was the one he wished to use. It was not until noon that he realized the answer. It was exactly the same way that he had verified that Zagrosek had been in the forest the week the Patriarch had been murdered. And so, he'd sent a note to Prince Phil's apartment requesting use of the anti-magic powder.

And ever since the messenger had left his apartments, Wessex had been pacing back and forth, from room to room, checking and rechecking the hallway to see if Phil or Rupert were coming with the powder he so desired. Yet each time, it was empty, with most folks busy with the Solstice or Christmas celebrations. The blizzard outside prevented any of the outdoor festivities, but that was hardly unusual at the Keep, having happened many times before. But that mattered little to the boyish mage, as he never participated himself, instead using the time of increased magical activity to further his own studies and to cast particularly difficult spells.

Walking back into his study, he noted the empty spot by the bookcase where he'd placed the gifts for his students, and Jessica. Though he did not go to the parties or the games, he always gave his friends and students presents at this time of the year, as it was the custom at the Keep to do. Shortly after he'd washed the sweat from his face and come to his quarters, he'd welcomed his pupils and handed them their gifts, watching with delight as they opened them and then handed him one of their own.

Looking up at the other bookcase, he could see what many had given. From the brush and cream that were supposed to rid his damask lounge of the wax stain to the ornate mahogany scroll case that contained a map of the known world drawn on paper so thick that the ink would not fade for centuries, he felt his heart momentarily lift. His students had given each within their means, and found something that their boyish master would treasure as he did his own heirlooms. Wessex smiled then, his thin lips brimming with delight, his eyes stained with tears of love for his apprentices. They were the greatest blessings this world had ever offered him, he hoped that he could soon put this Zagrosek affair behind him so that he might spend more time with them and their training.

Turning from his lounge, Wessex paced back into the workroom. All along the slate he'd laid out the remaining garments he possessed from Loriod's wardrobes. Not every last one of them was able to lie flat on the cold slate, but as many as he possibly could fit were there. He tapped his lip thoughtfully for a moment as he stared at them, but then turned about and entered his private chambers.

The lounge of course still had an unsightly red stain from where the stanchion had tipped over in his last nightmarish episode before the previous evening. In a few days he would remember to take a little bit of time to use the cleaning agent one of his students had thoughtfully purchased for him. His bed was well-kept, having been unoccupied for over three months now. The desk was strewn however with his papers, scribbles he'd made that very day as he tried to capture all that he saw in the dream. He gave detailed descriptions of everything he could remember seeing, and it had ended up being several pages of script.

Glancing at them, Wessex skimmed through his scrawlings, and then shuffled them together neatly. There were so many notes that he had taken of this whole Zagrosek affair, he was going to have to have them bound one day! Setting that sheaf aside, he saw a clean sheet before him, and he could not help but tap his chin with one tiny finger. Turning back around, he gazed for a moment at the painting of his family's estate in Mycransburg. It now lay in ruins of course, and what hung above his mantle was all that remained aside from his own memories.

For a fleeting moment, he wished that he could go back to those days. His brothers had not truly been that terrible, and in time, they may have become strong men and fighters. True, they had beaten on him like a pack of animals weeds out their weakest member, but they were still family. Who was his family now aside from his students? Even Phil was only a close friend. There had been two of his students who had been especially dear to his heart. Dorson, the ferret, who had been cruelly slain by Zagrosek was one. Jessica, his journeyman hawk, the other.

Grimacing, he found his thoughts circling to her, his only student to ascend to that rank since the Battle of Three Gates. She was the only one that he had at first confided in about his nightmares, and now, she was being drawn into them. He trembled as he recalled that black visage with blasted red eyes that had coiled about her recumbent form. Wessex had every intention of making sure that it never happened. For some reason, he felt that whatever that thing had been, it was the source of his anguish, and of Zagrosek's malicious deeds. He was not sure why he felt this way, but it made too much sense for him to believe otherwise.

Looking back at the painting, he could not help but suppress a shudder. His face turned inexorably to that blank page before him, and soon his hand found the quill and ink. It did not take him long, but his hand was long practiced in the arts of the scribe, and soon, he had a simple letter composed. Wessex stoppered the ink bottle, and set the quill aside. Placing the letter on top of his notes, he pushed them aside and reached into the drawer of his small desk. There were the rest of his writings on Zagrosek and his allies.

Bundling all the papers together, he moved his desk out from the wall, and gently pressed against a single unremarkable piece of brick. It slid out slowly, the spring he'd placed inside grinding against the stone above and below. After a moment, there was a small natural cache behind the wall. Wessex shoved the papers inside, the note on top. He then pushed the stone back into place, the latch catching, and sealing tight. He wiped his fingers along the edge of the false stone, smearing the dust across the seams, and obscuring them once more. Grunting, he heaved his desk against the wall, covering the stone from view.

Wessex breathed deeply then, and stood akimbo facing his desk. It was a mechanical hiding spot, not even slightly magical in nature. It would not be difficult to find for one with a trained eye, but it was invisible to magical enchantment, which was exactly why he had made it. Even so, he was not quite sure why he had placed all of his notes in there. He would not need them to cast the augury, but he did feel in some small way better now, relieved in fact, that they were hidden safely.

Suddenly, there came a knocking at his door. "Finally!" he said, unable to help himself. He ran to the door, his breeches bunching up around his waist, and opened it wide. Outside stood Prince Phil and his aide Rupert. Phil was dressed smartly in a rich azure doublet and hose, while the ape wore the orange of the Whalish Marines.

"Ah, there you are! Did you bring the powder?"

Phil nodded, and Rupert held out a small pouch. "There is not much there, but you said you only needed a few grains. What are you using it for?"

"Oh, just to test a theory I have," Wessex lied glibly. He did not wish to have anybody interfere with this casting.

Phil's brow furrowed slightly, and his pipping voice betrayed his concern. "Are you sure it will be safe? I am leaving shortly with Clover to spend the New Year at Lorland, but I can stay for a bit if you need any assistance."

"That won't be necessary," Wessex waved one hand dismissively, smiling affably, even as he took the pouch in his other hand. "Thank you for the offer, but as I said, it is a simple thing. I just needed a bit of the powder. I promise to be careful with it, I know what it can do."

Phil grimaced slightly, one of the few expressions his lapine face could manage. He looked up at Rupert who pressed his palms together, and then spread them apart. The rabbit nodded after a moment and then returned to his friend. He afforded him a very pleasant gaze, his eyes smiling where his lips could not. "Then I shall leave you to your devices. I look forward to seeing you in the New Year, my dear friend."

Wessex smiled brightly then, reaching out with one arm to give the rabbit a quick comradely hug. "I shall miss you while you are away. We do not get near enough time to talk as we used to."

Phil was a bit surprised by the sudden show of affection, but returned it with equal candour. "And I will miss you, though I confess I will be properly distracted by my wife."

"As well you ought to be," Wessex declared brightly then, stepping back within his quarters.

Phil rocked his ears a moment, and then stepped back a pace as well, his large feet scraping the tiling with his sharp claws. His white fur ruffled beneath the doublet and his merry blue eyes twinkled. "Take care, Wessex. And do tell me how your theory holds up when you finish."

Wessex nodded, even as his hand gripped the edge of the door. "I shall. Good travel to all of you." And with that, he gently closed the door, his dear friend, the Prince of Whales once more gone from his sight.

With the pouch of anti-magic powder in his hand though, he could hardly resist the temptation to run straight for his workroom and unleash the powder. However, he only wished to identify the coat that Loriod had been wearing, not to completely destroy the magic contained therein. A few grains of the powder would be enough to show him which it was that he wanted to cast his augury upon without tampering the magical imprints Zagrosek and the Runecaster would have left behind.

So, instead Wessex walked calmly to the door to his workroom, and began to untie the cord of rope holding the pouch tight. He only loosened it slightly, just enough to allow the powder to spill out. Tipping it lightly on its side, he shook it, dislodging a dozen or so of the sparkling grains. He then pulled his arm back, afraid that they may be drawn to him instead, where they would surely paralyse him, if not outright kill him. However, the grains floated into the workroom, irresistibly flowing towards a single outfit lying to one side.

It was a thick red garment, scarlet, and stretched for having covered Loriod's fat flesh for so long. However, when the grains of powder settled upon its surface, a black flame lit each, burning them off as if they were chaff. Retying the knot about the pouch, Wessex knew that he had finally found what he hd been looking for these last three months. Within that crimson doublet, Loriod had met with Zagrosek.

"Are you ready?" Charles asked, gazing across the room to his student Garigan. The ferret was cinching the yellow belt about the waistline of his robe, also that same bright hue of yellow. His grey-white face gazed back at the rat, dark eyes anxious, but eager as well.

"Readier then I could ever be," he said heartily, pulling the belt taut about his wiry frame. His whiskers twitched into a grin and he then nodded towards his master. "Are you?"

Charles returned the smile, even as he patted the black of his robe, his paw tracing over the ancient heraldry of their clan. The emblem of red shield, with palm inscribed, and inside that hand the white sword upturned was there upon his breast, declaring his allegiance to the Sondeckis. "Of course I am ready, and delighted."

The two of them were standing in Matthias's quarters that late afternoon. Charles had left the Long Scout party only a short while ago, taking Lady Kimberly down to the Chapel. Father Hough was holding a night long service, one that he intended to attend once his business with Garigan was concluded. Of course, that would be a few hours from now, but he was certain the young priest would not complain about he and his companions arriving late.

The party itself had gone rather smoothly for the most part after Misha had made his feelings known. Rickkter had accosted him once, asking for the Sondeshike's return, but Charles had ignored the raccoon, instead continuing to imbibe more wine then he ought to have. Even Kimberly had been inclined to give him a gentle slap when she smelled the powerful scent of ale coming from his muzzle. After that, he'd partaken no more, letting the buzz he felt wear off for an hour or so.

Yet, even though he claimed he was ready to begin the ritual that would advance Garigan to the rank of a green Sondeckis, he still waited for something that he did not wish to confess. Glancing back around the room, his eyes fell on the oaken door that led to his chambers. It remained unperturbed, and no sound came from beyond, except for the occasional cheer of a merrymaker. Garigan of course noticed his distraction and so asked him what was bothering him.

"Nothing," Charles replied, startled slightly. "Nothing really, just a few stray thoughts, that's all."

"So let's get going then." Garigan jerked his thumb over his shoulder towards the door at the far end of the rat's room. Matthias called it a closet to all those who asked, but in all reality, it housed a narrow staircase that winded its way up through the Keep until it emptied out into a small alcove of the Sondeckis Shrine. It was how Garigan and he were able to move so freely to that secluded corner of the Keep to practice their clan's art in secret. Even now, it stood slightly ajar, waiting for them to pass through.

"Of course." Matthias nodded and walked across the cold floor to that door, and carrying a lantern, stepped through. Garigan was at his heels of course, but gave the rat plenty of room. It was completely dark except for the lantern that Charles brought with him, but he kept it that way as it would look suspicious for the former scribe to stock up on torches and oil when it was obvious he had no discernable need for them.

The stairs themselves were old and worn, the edges smoothed and slippery, as if in some long ago age, it had been an oft travelled passage. However, both Charles and Garigan did their best to keep them clean and dry, so neither had any fear of slipping and falling back down. With the hem of their robes dangling at their hocks, they scaled the twisting staircase, one paw always on the inner wall of the spiral. Soon, a shaft of light descended the passage from above, and they both could not help but smile as the power of the Sondeckis Shrine began to fill them.

Stepping out into the small alcove, Charles set the lantern on a small hook on the wall, and stretched his legs, examining the bright yellow clay beneath his toe claws. It was slightly damp, and there was a definite chill to the air. Yet, there was something else that the rat could not help but notice immediately, the scent of a human being.

Turning about in delight, he took a few quick steps into the Shrine proper, gazing past the altar with the angel kneeling in front, he glimpsed an old friend. Standing beside the porcelain angel, he was dressed in the same black smock that Charles wore, the Sondeckis heraldry firm upon his breast. His shoulders were broad, and about them, flowing auburn hair lay, crisp in the wintry air. His narrow eyes were set atop a long hooked nose, and thin lips, surrounded by a well-shaped goatee.

Charles burst out in delight, "Jerome! It is so good to see you again. I hadn't realized you would be waiting for me here. I've been expecting you to show up at my quarters the last hour or so."

Jerome smiled warmly. "Arrived early, so thought I'd see this Shrine you spoke of in one of your letters. Aside from the fact that there's a blizzard going on out the windows, this is exactly like the one we used to train in during our younger days. This Metamor Keep of yours is the most impressive edifice I have ever glimpsed. Your words do not do it justice, my friend."

"Nobody's ever could! So how long have you been here?"

"A few hours, as I said, we arrived early." Jerome stepped past the angel, smiling down at the rodent who was his friend of old.

Charles's eyes narrowed. "We?"

The Sondeckis laughed then, and swept his arm across the altar behind him. "You'll never believe who I ran into last month. When he found out you were here, he insisted on coming with me. I could hardly think of a less fitting time for a reunion than this."

The rat's mouth fell open when a fourth figure rose to a standing position behind the altar. A large smile spread across the lips of the man that was there, his wiry features making it even handsomer than he thought. A small bit of black hair rested upon his head, dangling just below his ears. The rest of him was shrouded in that black garment, enriched by the red shield, palm and white sword. His large hands rested on the altar, even further proof of what he was.

"Krenek!" Charles exclaimed, finding delight easily coming into his heart. Yet, in the same instant that he recognized his friend Krenek Zagrosek, his mind leapt through all that he had heard Phil and others say of this figure in the last eight months. He was partly, if not directly responsible for what Lord Loriod had done last April. Also, the rumours that he had heard in the last month or so indicated that he might even be the one who had killed the Patriarch, though his heart rebelled against such a notion. Even so, he decided in that moment to proceed as if non of it were true, unless his friend gave him cause to believe otherwise.

"It is good to see you again, Charles," Zagrosek said, stepping from behind the altar and joining Jerome. "You've changed." Somehow, the Sondeckis managed to keep a straight face while making such a ridiculously obvious remark.

Still, both Jerome and Charles laughed then, even as they huddled closely together, three Sondeckis of the black. "You haven't, still that same dry sense of humour. Tell me, where have you been these last few years. Jerome told me last June that you'd left Sondeshara about three years ago much like I had. Where did you go?"

Zagrosek shrugged, "I went into Sathmore as soon as I could. I heard shortly thereafter that Brothus died. And so while the Sondeckis were busy reorganizing, they lost my trail, and I've been moving about freely ever since through there and the Midlands. When I ran into Jerome here at a Lothanasi temple a month back, we both were very surprised. He told me that you were here, and training another Sondeckis, so I had to come and see you again, despite the risks this place bears."

Jerome then narrowed his eyes, his gaze straying past the rat to the figure standing alone, and uncertain by the alcove. "Is that your student?"

Charles looked back over his shoulder, and waved for the ferret to approach. "Yes, this is Garigan. Garigan, this is Jerome and Krenek, two of my very best friends from my days at Sondeshara. You can trust them, they are like us, Sondeckis."

Garigan smiled a bit nervously, appearing to be quite unsure of the two of them. Still, he did his best to appear confidant, holding out his paw to the two of them. "It is a pleasure to meet other Sondeckis finally. I have only known Charles here, and even then, only for the last six or seven months."

Zagrosek shook his paw firmly. "The honour is ours, Garigan. I've never heard of a Sondeckis being born this far north. The power had long thought to have been dead in the blood lines north of Pyralis. They'd be debating the significance of this in Sondeshara, if ever they knew."

"Which they won't," Matthias declared, placing his paws on his hips. "I trust Jerome has made that clear to you."

The other man nodded and glanced back at the altar. "He made it very clear, indeed. Where did you get the Sondeshike though? We've both been wondering about that."

Charles stepped over and picked up the long metal staff from the altar, and hefted it in his paws. It was large for him in this form, but he was Sondeckis, and had little difficulty in wielding it. "You remember that Kankoran who is living here at the Keep as well?"

Zagrosek reached inside his cloak in an instant and had withdrawn yet another Sondeshike. "There's a Kankoran here?"

Charles nodded, spinning the staff about in his paws. "Yes, but do not be upset. We have both agreed to leave each other alone, as it is in our mutual best interest to do so. However, as I'm sure you recall, Jerome, he possessed a Sondeshike, this very one I now hold in my paws. Back towards the end of summer, both of us agreed to a temporary truce while we assisted a common friend in a matter of grave importance. In the course of the mission, he was forced to give me the Sondeshike to save both of our lives. He never asked for it back afterwards, and so I never returned it to him."

Jerome laughed then and slapped his knee. "Oh, that was mighty sneaky of you, Charles. The curse chose well in making you a rat it appears."

However, Krenek Zagrosek did not appear to be quite as delighted. "You broke your truce? You should not have done that, even if it meant leaving the Sondeshike in the Kankoran's possession."

Both Charles and Jerome stared open-mouthed at their companion. "How can you say that?" Jerome asked. "It is our most holy weapon. We cannot leave it in the hands of our fiercest enemy!"

Zagrosek shook his head slowly. "We are Sondeckis first; honour and justice are what we cherish. If we cannot practice them ourselves, then we are not fit to enforce it among others."

"I have no intention of returning it, at least not right now," Charles added, the memory of Misha's remarks to him earlier coming back to him.

"I didn't expect you to," Zagrosek added. "I was simply saying that you ought not have kept it in the first place. Return it when or if it suits you. In the meanwhile, I thought that perhaps we might dance with them at some point while we're here. It had been over seven years since last we did so."

The smile crept back of the rat's muzzle. "All right, I would very much like to do that. But after the ceremony of course."

"Of course," Zagrosek nodded, and then he turned to Jerome. "So, have you heard any news of home? Neither Charles nor I have been there of late. You promised you'd tell us when we arrived and were all together again."

Jerome shrugged. "Well, there is not much to tell. I've already told Charles most of it, though when we last met. There si one bit of news that I have heard since then, that you both might find interesting."

"What is it?" The rat asked, even while Garigan watched the three of them, folding his yellow robes between his paws.

"Apparently, the new Patriarch has said that Metamor was not directly responsible for the old Patriarch's death."

Charles breathed a sigh of relief, "That is good news at least. We've been hearing too little of that of late."

Jerome shook his head. "He only said that Metamor was not directly responsible. He has blamed your kingdom for incompetence, and complicity in Patriarch Akabaieth's death. So, while he hasn't declared war against you, he has made your name carry even greater disfavour with the other kingdoms."

Zagrosek grimaced. "And what of Sathmore? Has he laid them to shame as well?"

"From what I've heard, the Ecclesia still has yet to make a decision regarding the western kingdom."

Matthias clenched his fist. "Well, I suppose this was to be expected. Any news from the Southlands? The last I heard was from you."

Jerome shook his head again. "No, not really. From what I've heard, Yoenel is doing his best to stamp out Brothus's cronies. No longer communicating with them openly, it is hard to get reliable information though."

Zagrosek rubbed his chin for a moment. "I am curious about one thing. How did Brothus die? I've never heard anybody say."

The other Sondeckis frowned and scratched at his goatee. "I'm not surprised, as only the blacks were ever told. We were ordered not to share that with any save the other blacks."

Charles cleared his throat. "I don't think you have need worry of either Garigan or I spreading such news about."

"I didn't think you would." Jerome then scanned the three of them for a moment, stopping momentarily to fix the ferret's face in his mind, and then he continued. "Apparently, he was suffering from an illness of the brain. Not madness or psychosis, just his brain started to fail. He began to lose control of his arms and legs, and within a few weeks, he could not move a muscle. His whole body just began to shut down completely. A few days later, he was dead."

Charles let his mouth slowly drop open in surprise. Something about Jerome's description sparked a sullen memory in him, of something he had read, or at least, been told of. "The new character was a white weasel, he said," Matthias murmured softly, so softly in fact that all the others could hear was a blur of sound.

"What was that?" Zagrosek asked, looking down at the rat.

"I was just remembering something I read once. Something I should have guessed long ago, but only now begins to make sense. There is another Southern mage here, and I don't mean the Weathermonger."

"Explain yourself, Charles," Jerome complained, crossing his arms. "You aren't making any sense."

"Do you remember a pedlar, a merchant of rare books by the name of Zhypar Habakkuk?" Charles asked. "He passed through Makor one year while we were there straightening out a small internecine feud. He wouldn't leave us alone if you recall."

Zagrosek nodded, rubbing his chin thoughtfully again, one hand still gripping his own Sondeshike. "Ah yes, I do remember him, though only vaguely."

"Well, he is here at the Keep, and he's been writing a story for quite some time now. In it, there is a man dressed all in white, who died of a brain sickness exactly like you described after alienating all those around him. That, and many other things that he's said give me reason to believe that he is a Felikaush."

"A Felikaush?" Jerome asked in bewilderment. "But Fellos was destroyed sixteen years ago. The Felikaush were all killed."

"Well, obviously, Habakkuk wasn't. He knows I'm a Sondeckis, and in fact, I think he's known that since the day he arrived. While Rickkter was in the infirmary, Habakkuk told me that if I should kill him, I would doom myself to destruction as well, and that I would no longer be a Sondeckis, but a monster."


"He's the Kankoran," Matthias added. "Anyway, I believe that Habakkuk is a Felikaush, perhaps even the only one left alive in the world. He's been manipulating everybody around him this last year, if not longer. I made him the Head of the Writer's Guild, hoping that he would no longer interfere, but it seems I made a mistake, he's only been able to reach higher in the ranks now."

"But why would a Son of Felix come here?" Zagrosek asked, the bewilderment clear on his face.

"I don't know. Probably because a few think I'm part of the prophecy," Charles regretted that the moment he said it, but it was too late now.

"You?" Jerome laughed slightly.

"It is true, but don't ask me to explain it right now, I do not understand it much myself."

Garigan then spoke up, his voice rather certain for somebody so inexperienced in matters of the Southlands. "Habakkuk may be as you say, but I have never known him to act or suggest somebody do something that would harm them. I think he wants to help, it is just others do not wish to move in the directions that he feels would be best for them. He says you crush diamonds, Matthias."

The rat shrugged. "I may do so, and he may truly believe as you say. But I do not wish to have any interfere in the way I conduct my life. Especially not a meddlesome scribe who may be a Felikaush. Their help is double-edged, I'm afraid."

Zagrosek however, tapping his chin, remarked, "Perhaps it would not hurt to at least hear out what this Felikaush has to say."

"Perhaps, but I have no intention of doing so anytime soon," Matthias replied hotly.

Zagrosek shrugged then and turned back to look at the altar. "Well, I for one am tired of hearing of dark news and times. I came here to renew an old friendship and to witness the rising of a new star in the Sondeckis constellation. Can we not return our thoughts to such merrier things?"

The other three Sondeckis each nodded at that. Jerome even went so far as to say, "And now you know why I was so loathe to tell you of the news! It all seems so bad. At least we have a new friend in Garigan."

The ferret's whiskers twitched a bit at the sudden inclusion and he grew even bolder. "And I am honoured to meet any who are friends of my master. I am honoured to be a Sondeckis."

Charles smiled, and then walked over to the closet on the far side of the Shrine. It was made from balsam wood, much like the ones at Sondeshara had been. Inside though, having arrived under circumstances that the rat did not wish to guess at, was a robe of luxuriant green, sized perfectly for his musteline student. He held it out, and showed it to all. Garigan's expression grew to one of profound joy.

"My friends, let us begin the ritual to make Garigan a Sondeckis of the green!" All four of them could not help but smile as they began to sing the Song of the Sondeck.

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