Winter's First Chill - Part V
arigan looked wonderful in green, or so Charles thought, as he gazed delightedly at his student, draped in the verdant robe of a second-rank Sondeckis. The ferret was equally enthused, twirling about on his paws, with the green cloth swirling about his sinuous body, while the two humans laughed and chuckled, watching and studying the way the musteline muscles moved. The old yellow robe lay atop the Sondeckis altar, forever more committed only to memory.
Even while they cheered and laughed within the Shrine, the shutters rattled with the force of the storm outside. The blizzard had only intensified after nightfall, gaining in terrible fury. To the rat's knowledge, it was one of the fiercest to have ever swept through the valley in the last decade. Of course, it was still sweeping, and he hoped and gave a silent prayer that none would be caught out in the open during this wretched weather.
He could almost imagine the pool playing Copernicus, lizard that he was, snuggled up beneath layers and layers of blankets next to a roaring fire. The more he thought about, the more he realized how pleasant that would be. The shutters were designed as they had been in Sondeshara, and so they were fitted to repel the gusts of sand that would be thrown against them when the winds rose to a shriek. They were equally suited to repel the snow that was thundering against their planks, but they were not as suited to keeping out the chill, for it was beginning to seep into the room and chill their toes.
Before Charles was able to lose himself completely in his thoughts, he felt a hand nudging at his arm. Turning, he saw Jerome standing there with a mug held out. "Here," he said, his smile infectious, "I think we could all use a little ale to warm our bellies."
Charles laughed a moment, his whiskers twitching and catching a bit of foam from the top of the mug. "I see you found the larder."
"It was where it has always been, as is everything else in this place. Though, the tapestry is missing." Jerome pointed to the bare spot on the clay.
"I know, it was torn down just over a month ago. I'm not a seamstress or I would be making a new one. I cannot ask any of the tailors here at Metamor to fashion a new one, as it would reveal our heraldry."
Zagrosek appeared thoughtful for a moment, sipping at his own mug. "I'm sure that if you wish, we could make a few quiet inquiries down in the Midlands, and have a replacement delivered to you sometime next Spring."
Both Charles and Garigan smiled. "Thank you, that would be wonderful."
The ferret however, his paws still pressing down across the green fabric, was elated. "This is so wonderful. For the first time since I've come here to Metamor, I truly feel like I'm part of something, that I'm doing what is for the best. Even if the home of our clan is on another continent thousands of leagues away, I still feel as if I am with the rest of our people sharing in this wonderful moment. Thank you both, Krenek, Jerome. And thank you, Charles, for showing me what I have, because I can think of no greater gift than to have friends such as you."
The rat felt his cheeks warm at the praise, and he held his mug aloft. "Thank you, Garigan, for giving this symbol some meaning for me again. It has been too many years since I have looked on it with anything but fear and trepidation."
Garigan lowered his eyes, though a smile did creep across his features. Jerome however was the next to speak. "And thank you Charles for the wonderful ale. This just wouldn't have been the same without it!"
The four of them laughed together then at the jocularity of their fellow. Zagrosek was the first to stop laughing though, his face meditative, as if he were summoning back and old memory. Finally, rubbing one finger across the rim of his mug, he murmured quietly, "It is good to see both of you again, even if I have to look through the eyes of a rat to know my old friend Matthias. I just wish that Ladero were here to share it with us."
Both Charles and Jerome stopped laughing then, their smiles vanishing from their faces as if they had never been there. However, the sudden silence was short lived as Charles raised his mug high into the air. "To Ladero then, for I never knew a finer man than he."
Even Garigan joined in the toast, though he did not know the lost friend the three black Sondeckis had shared.
After finishing off the ale in his mug, Jerome glanced from Zagrosek to Matthias. "I think he would be glad to know that we were able to reunite and drink a toast to him. He had always been the first to offer them in our younger days."
Zagrosek smiled fondly then, his eyes gazing past the altar at something far in the distance. "I remember that one time both you two were so stinking drunk, you could hardly stand, and you challenged each other to a fight. Ladero offered a toast to you both, and then he said, ‘Though they be brave and full of valour, they are also full of ale and will likely kill themselves before the other can land a blow!' Ah, those were the days."
Jerome grinned and nodded. "We were blue then, I think. I remember you never did get that stain from your cassock, did you Charles?"
The rat shook his head, ears folding back in embarrassed memory. "No, as far as I know, some youth is wearing it even now, wondering what battle it may have been taken in."
"A battle of grapes and wine," Jerome cheered, holding his empty mug into the sky. "I can still remember the juice all over your face, and how surprised you looked."
Zagrosek chuckled. "I prefer how he licked his lips and grinned because he thought it tasted so good!"
"I don't remember that," Charles admitted drily, glancing at his two companions.
"It was while we were down in Makor," Jerome added. "Same time we met that Felikaush friend of yours."
Charles blinked once, and then nodded. "Ah yes, now I remember. I think I wish I hadn't!"
The grimace of course only made Zagrosek and Jerome splutter with more laughter, while the latter reached over for the flask of ale to refill his mug. Zagrosek held out his own mug, and Jerome filled that too. Garigan, who had been listening in quietly though, cradling his mug between his paws and smiling at the stories he could never share, suddenly spoke. "What is a Felikaush?"
"Why do you ask?" Jerome murmured, sipping from his mug, and wiping the foam from his face on one sleeve.
"Well, everybody has said that Habakkuk is a Felikaush, but I've not heard any say just what a Felikaush is."
Charles turned to Zagrosek. "Would you take this one, Krenek, you are the expert on other mage clans of the South."
"I wouldn't say expert," Zagrosek replied modestly. "Connoisseur is more accurate, I think." He then turned to the ferret, a strand of his black hair falling in front of his eyes. "Have you ever heard of Felix of Lee?"
"He's vaguely familiar," Garigan admitted. "All I know was that he was a prophet of some kind."
"The most important prophet this world has seen in the last three thousand years. Well, though in the North, it had been forgotten, but Felix was married once, before the madness induced by his prophetic visions forced him into solitary confinement. His wife was pregnant at the time with a son, and she fled Lee at the Baron's behest. She boarded a boat for the Southlands, but she never disembarked where the Baron had arranged for her to stay. Instead, she made the perilous voyage around the Ebony Archipelago in the East, and finally settled at a small village named Kutelis.
"There she gave birth to her son, and they lived the rest of their days in Kutelis. When the boy reached fifteen, he began to show the signs of being a prophet as well, just like his father. The local lord saw great advantage in this, and so gave him a high station. Yet, despite the noble's ambition, or so I've heard, he was a man of reason, and he followed the advice Felix's son gave him flawlessly.
"The small village of Kutelis grew, and in time, Felix's family did as well. Within a hundred years, the life of the entire city revolved around them, and so they renamed the place Fellos, which was the name Felix translated into their new tongue. As his descendants were all prophets of one degree or another, they called themselves the Felikaush, which means the sons of Fellos, or Felix. This Habakkuk is a prophet, and he can see the future, or at least, he can glimpse it."
Garigan mulled that over for a minute, his eyes searching across the grey of his paws. "Well," he finally said, his voice uncertain. "If he is a prophet, then wouldn't it be prudent of us to listen to him?"
Charles snorted though. "Hardly. The Felikaush in the last thousand years have not used their gift to better others, but to manipulate them to their own ends. You've seen how Zhypar twists others around his fingers. I will not be used for his plans."
"But he knows so much that we don't."
"Intelligence and knowledge do not mean wisdom," Jerome murmured quietly. "I fear that Charles here is right in not to blindly take him at his word, for it could lead him astray."
"How?" Garigan asked, truly confused now. "If he knows the future, then he could obviously help us! How often have you wished that you knew where the enemy was in hiding so that you could break the ambush? How many small accidents have occurred to upset the plans of kings? If we could know the future, then we could prepare for them."
Jerome shook his head. "There are two reasons against that. The first is that we do not know how powerful a prophet this Habakkuk may be. He could be extremely weak, and only have flashes of things to come, but nothing concrete. Charles, you said it has taken him six years to write his little story. How much of that time was spent trying to put the pieces together?"
The rat shrugged at that, setting his mug on the altar next to the yellow robe. "I'm not sure, he spent a great deal of time studying in the library. It is possible he was trying to understand what he was seeing."
"The second reason, " Jerome continued, "is that just because he sees an event, it does not necessarily mean what he thinks it does. You both remember the one about the Baron who lost his most valuable treasure?"
Both Charles and Zagrosek had to repress a chuckle. "Yes, a most amusing tale." The rat murmured through his grin. "This Baron was informed that he was going to have his most valuable treasure taken from him. So he secured all of his wealth, and hired many more guards to protect it. However, our Baron had a few carnal tastes, and would hire prostitutes to fill his bed. Well, one of them, unhappy that he found her displeasing, sliced off his penis, not realizing who he was in the dark."
Garigan chuckled at that, the mask of seriousness about his eyes lifting somewhat. Zagrosek however shook his head. "No, I think it was that he did not pay her."
"Whatever it was," Charles shrugged. "Jerome is right though, just because Habakkuk sees something doesn't mean that he has interpreted it correctly."
Zagrosek continued to shake his head. "I think that Garigan has a point though. While all that you have said is true, there is no reason that you have to believe the Felikaush's interpretation. You could always go and hear what he has to say, and employ the knowledge at your own discretion."
Matthias found himself gnawing on the rim of the mug while he listened to his friend. Though it frustrated him, Krenek was right. The only excuse he had for not talking with the kangaroo was he did not like the fact that he'd implied that Charles should reveal himself. However, another idea struck him. He kept his gaze from Zagrosek, as there was that doubt within his own chest still. There would of course, have to be a test.
"I suppose that is for the best," the rat said after a moment. "It is the most Holy day of the year, why not renew old acquaintances, eh?"
"Now?" Jerome asked, stunned, nearly spilling his mug.
"Why not? I think we can trust his discretion, and as long as we don't wear our robes outside this room, nobody else would know who you were."
Zagrosek shrugged, setting his mug down on the altar. With one arm, he began to pull the black cloth up over his head. "Why not, indeed! It would be nice to see more of this marvellous Keep, would it not?"
The other man finally shrugged, and disrobed as well. The two Sondeckis folded their robes and slipped them beneath their shirts. Garigan chuckled slightly, as it made the two appear to have rather sizable guts. Charles stifled his own laugh as he slipped from his black garments, folding them and draping them over one arm, with the heraldry hidden within the folds.
"Would you care to come, Garigan?" Charles asked, rubbing his free arm across the front of his green and black doublet.
The green Sondeckis nodded, "Yes, I wouldn't miss this for anything. I'm glad you're doing this Charles. I think Habakkuk just wants to help you."
The rat nodded distractedly, averting his gaze momentarily. The subterfuge was necessary, but it hurt him to think he would trick his student so plainly about this. He finished off the rest of his mug and took the Sondeshike from the altar where he'd replaced it. Slipping it within his doublet, he saw that the ferret had shimmied from his own robe and was carrying it across his shoulder.
"We'll take the shortcut through my quarters. I think the party is still going on past that other door, I would hate to have to explain to certain folks who you were and why you were in here."
Jerome snorted at that, even as quickly drank the rest of his ale. He shook his head then, burping despite himself, the ale quite obvious already going to his head. However, none of the others paid it notice, as they turned back and walked down the smooth stone steps towards Charles's room. Still, the slightly inebriated Sondeckis remembered enough to shut the door behind him.
Matthias opened the thick oak door into the hallway warily, poking his snout out through the crack, sniffing to determine if any Keeper was out there. Yet, all he smelled was the dry scent of the Keep, and the faint odours of other Metamorians who had tread this way hours ago. And so, he stepped out into the hallway, escorting the three other Sondeckis before him.
"All right," Charles said, closing the door behind him. "We should be fine from here on out. I doubt any will ask questions even if they do see us."
The others all nodded and followed after the rat as he led them to a nearby staircase, and up one flight. The halls of the Keep were empty aside from the decorations gracing each wall. Most of the Keepers at this time of the evening would be at the worship services being held. Charles had planned on heading to the Chapel after Garigan had been made a green, but something more important was at hand, and he would see it through.
Of course, what he hoped to do might accomplish nothing, but he simply had to know, and there was only one person who could determine whether Zagrosek was the same as the phantasm that had controlled Loriod. And so, he took a route to the kangaroo's chambers that would take them past Wessex's rooms. Garigan thankfully did not reveal that they were heading in a different direction than they normally would have taken; he might not have noticed in fact, given that since he'd arrived at the Keep, neither he nor the rat had gone straight to see the scribe. He had to arrive there without Zagrosek realising what he was doing.
Yet, as he turned the corner onto the hall that housed Wessex's chambers, he knew instantly that something was amiss. There was the scent of fire in the air, and a trickle of smoke trailing out from underneath the Wessex's transom. Charles started visibly, and dashed to the room, wondering what could possibly be wrong. Had some experiment of the mage's gone terribly awry?
The other three Sondeckis saw what had startled the rat almost as soon as he did, and were quick on his heels, peering into the room in fright. From out each door, flames were licking, not very high as of yet, but the heat singed the tips of their hair and fur.
"Quick!" Jerome said, "We have to put it out!" He took his robe from out of his shirt, and began to beat at the nearby flames, smothering them in the thick cloth. Soon, they were all beating at the bright orange flames, batting them into submission, to leave only a blackened, smouldering bit of carpet or paper behind.
Charles and Zagrosek dashed into the boy's private chambers, and saw that the flames were dancing along the legs of an exquisite damask longue, and had engulfed most of the bookshelf and desk already. The rat slapped his cloak across the top of the desk, and the legs buckled beneath it, crashing the stoppered ink bottle, smearing the black fluid across his paws. He ignored that, even as he pressed his cloak down upon the dancing fire, squelching its breath.
He turned about and saw that Zagrosek had saved the longue from being turned from an heirloom into a pile of ashes, and was moving onto the bookshelf. The one place that the fire did not lash its burning tendrils was the hearth. A detailed painting of a rural manor remained untouched about the mantle, wild shadows cavorting across its surface as the fire consumed all else in the room.
The bookcase though, was a loss, as only the frame itself remained after Zagrosek reduced the last of the flames to warm, but dying coals. The rest of the room appeared to have been spared from the conflagration, but there was still the mage's workroom to contend with. Darting across the hall, the two Sondeckis found that there was nothing left but a few errant flames destroying the last remnants of some garment that had at one time been a bright satin. Charles tossed his cloak atop the orange embers, and pressed down tightly with his paws.
When he lifted the Sondeckis robe once again, it was covered in soot, and stained on one fold by the ink that had splashed across it, and from where Matthias's slick paws haw gripped it. Yet, the fire had been put out. Taking a deep breath, he looked about for the first time, and noticed that aside from the sooty remains of the red cloth, the workroom was completely empty. Turning, he saw Zagrosek standing over a black splotch on the otherwise grey slate.
Jerome and Garigan then appeared in the doorway, breathing heavily. The ferret was coughing and wiping the soot from his pink nose. "We managed to save most of the furnishings and books. I'd say this fire was started only fifteen minutes ago at most. Probably less." Jerome coughed then, and shook out his cloak, sending a spray of grey ash floating into the room.
"Thanks!" Matthias grimaced, covering his nose with the sleeve of his doublet. "How did it start though?"
"Magic, I'd say," Zagrosek murmured, leaning down and tracing one finger across the black smear. He then licked the tip of his finger and looked back at the three of them. "This is blood. Whose rooms were these?"
"Don't they belong to Wessex?" Garigan asked.
Charles tried not to wince as he nodded to his student. "Yes, we should look for him. He's not here, so where did he go?"
"Well, if he's bleeding, then he might have left a trail," Jerome pointed out, still wiping some soot from his face.
"Let's go see," Charles said, and the four of them rushed back out into the hallway. Scanning up and down either side, the rat finally pointed at a red hand-print on the wall. "Look, there. He must be seriously injured. We have to hurry."
The others nodded quietly, and they ran down the corridor, only stopping to check for sign of the blood at intersections. Always, they found a hand print, or a smear, or occasionally a few drops here and there. Though they had their differences, Charles could not help but worry about the boy. No longer did he care about testing Zagrosek's loyalty, but instead, he sought to come to the young mage's aid.
Yet, when they found him, in a strangely distorted section of the Keep, they were horrified. Wessex was standing before a wall, with chalk clutched firmly in one hand, drawing a detailed diagram upon the masonry. There were three circles one inscribed upon another. The outermost was dotted and bore strange chevrons in a radial pattern in nine predesignated slots. The middle chevron was missing though, but it was clear that the boy was about to add it. The second circle, unlike the others, was red, the chalk lines stained by Wessex's own blood. The inner circle did not appear extraordinary, though inside of it was a roundel, that bulged and creaked as something on the other side of the wall pushed at it, seeking release.
Yet, what shocked them the most was the appearance of the mage himself. The front of his white gown was completely drenched in blood, sticky and clinging to his chest, though it did not move. His neck was sliced open completely, and every once in a while a bit of blood would spatter out from the wound to dribble down to the floor at his feet. On that flimsy neck, his boyish head swayed, the hair matted in the foul crimson, and his eyes haunting pits that bore no expression of life in them.
"Wessex!" Charles cried, taking a step forward, garnering the thing that had once been a Keeper's attention.
It gazed hollowly back at him, not appearing to recognize him at all. And then, those grey orbs trailed past at something behind the rat, and they flare to viscous life. A bloodcurdling scream issued forth from his throat as more blood gurgled from the slashed wound. Still holding the chalk, the boy threw out his arms, and large spires of flame shot at the four of them.
Charles jumped to the side, tossing his cloak to the ground as he did so. The flame licked along the length of his tail, scalding him baldy. He cried out at the sudden pain in one of his more tender spots. The other Sondeckis were more fortunate, managing to move out of the way of the flame before it struck. However, that had only been the first of the boy's magics.
Lifting up his eyes to see, Charles ducked back down again as before the boy boulders materialized and flung outwards from his palms. Crawling along the floor, he could feel the rocks fling past him, grazing the hem of his tunic. A cry wanted to escape his muzzle, but he forced himself to absorb the pain, and draw it into his Sondeckis, for it would fuel his strength.
Behind him, he could hear Jerome give a sudden shout. Glancing back quickly, he saw that one of the chunks had smashed into his shoulder, and blood was spilling from where the fabric had been torn asunder. Gritting his teeth together, gnawing down upon his very gums, the rat turned back and threw out that contained rage, spiralling inwards at the dead boy.
Wessex, or what had once been him, gurgled in surprise as the rocks were shattered and strewn about the hallway. Yet, those malevolent eyes were once again filing his sockets, and throwing both of his palms to the floor, a geyser of steam erupted from the masonry, pushing aside the stones and upsetting Matthias's balance. The steam scalded his fur, while the buckling ground tossed him from his feet, only to land back on his tail, already singed and stinging from the first wave.
Yet, Zagrosek caught him before he fell the rest of the way, and helped him back to his feet. Jerome was standing right behind him, one hand over the wound in his shoulder. A grim look of determination was mixed in with the pain like a poultice for his injury. Garigan was trembling a few feet behind the rest, his eyes wide with shock.
Charles held out his paw, the few meagre hairs past his wrists blackened and curled at the tips. "Stay back, Garigan. Stay back!"
The ferret nodded, holding his robe in his paws, his whiskers shaking in fright. It was clear that he had never seen magic of this sort performed before. Frankly, it had been years since Charles had seen anything of this magnitude. While on the boat racing down the river from Arabarb back in April, there had been a lot of fire, but that had been the extent of Calephas's knavery. Wessex had been a friend, even an estranged one, and to see him with his throat slashed, still standing and casting spells of enormous malice, was unthinkable.
Yet, it was also real. The wall of steam was before them, blasting through the floor from some unknown abyss and collecting at the roof, obscuring their vision of the hallway beyond. And Wessex was on the other side of that scalding wall.
"Whatever spell he was casting, we better stop him before he finishes," Jerome muttered between breaths. "It didn't look very friendly to me."
"I think we can disperse this wall if we all throw together," Zagrosek pointed after righting Charles.
The rat nodded and balled his paws into fists. "Can you do this, Jerome?"
The broad man nodded, his face set. "Of course," He then raised both of his hands, letting the blood flow from his shoulder. The three pairs of arms bunched together to their chests, drawing on reserves that would startle any normal man. With mighty fury, they unleashed that potent force, sending a visible wave across the thick air and into that wall of steam, distortion creasing its opaque surface. Ripples ran from floor to ceiling and from either side of the hallway, as the steam scattered, billowing away as if it had been alive.
Beyond, the boy was tracing out the last of the chevrons, the fifth in the circle of nine. The chalk was lavender in his palms, his own blood discolouring the natural white. Charles and the rest strode over the pile of broken stones, jumping to intercept the mage's hand before it could finish the final stroke. Wessex however, did not hurry to finish the diagram as the rat had expected him too, but instead stepped back from the spell, allowing the three of them to draw near.
Suddenly, as their hands reached to wipe away whatever concoction this creature had devised, a filmy green layer appeared before them, growing brightly and sickly, covering the entire spell. And then, as they pierced that evanescent veil, those viridian gleams shattered in a coruscating shower that bathed their arms with an icy cold touch, as if they had been sealed in thick ice.
All three fell back as one, Zagrosek madly rubbing at his upper arms, trying to remove the slime that coated them, numbing them. Charles blew on his fingers, flexing them, half expecting to watch them solidify into rock as they were so cold. Jerome pressed both of his arms tightly between his legs, as if somehow his body's warmth would offset the lifelessness he felt in them.
Wessex however, continued to glare at them, the chalk gripped between his bloodied fingers, while his eyes, dead and grey bored them through. Yet, that only lasted a moment before he turned once more to the spell, stepping back before them, and bringing that chalk against the all to finish the last stroke of the fifth chevron.
"No!" Charles cried, holding out a paw that appeared grey as ice.
The boy paid him no heed, mindlessly drawing the blood-stained emblem upon that barren and desolate wall. Yet, Wessex had apparently forgotten about Garigan, who had disregarded Charles's instructions and leaped over the pile of loose stones and slammed his fists against the boys back. They tumbled as one across the floor, the ferret laying atop the small child, his grey fur smearing through the curdled blood on the mage's shirt.
He was about to strike and crush the boy's head under his fist, but Wessex threw up his own palms, striking Garigan beneath the snout, snapping his jaw shut so quickly that Charles could hear the snap of teeth, and watched a gush of blood emanate from his student's lips. Garigan doubled backwards, his paws clutching at his nose, while his two front teeth dangled out of his mouth, the bone holding it within clearly broken and the skin torn.
Enraged further, Charles tried to draw the power of his Sondeck into his arms, but found them dead to him, still coated in that filthy ice. Snarling, he instead redirected that energy into his foot paws, and kicked at the boy, the impact striking him solidly in the chest, sailing him further down the hallway. Yet, even as he landed, Wessex smacked the ground with his open palm, which sent a ripple through the masonry, toppling the rat to the floor once more.
Behind him, he heard Zagrosek and Jerome cry out as they were sent to their backs again. Matthias tried to put his arms beneath him, but they folded up instantly, and he found his front incisors pressed against the masonry instead. He could hear Garigan scratch and claw at his face, madly trying to dislodge the loose teeth hanging from his gums. Also, he could hear the buckling of the mortar on that wall as whatever was behind it was pushing free.
Rolling onto his back, he saw Wessex draw the last stroke, completing the circle of nine chevrons. Instantly, the spell flared a bright yellow, even the blood smeared second circle gave way to the brilliant incandescence. Wessex stood before the roundel drawn into the centre circle, and so the rat could not see what happened to the wall exactly, but he did see something burst through the boy's back as if it were crawling from his flesh itself.
It was, as he best could describe it, a hand. Pure black in colour, and completely indistinguishable in texture, it punched its way through the skin and the bone of the boy mage, clawing outwards as it freed itself from some unknown prison. The very walls of the Keep themselves suddenly stirred, as if in protest against this thing's presence. The braziers lighting the hallway flickered and began to die, their flames sucked towards that black appendage that was soon joined by another through the hole they had fashion in Wessex.
Charles felt the numbness in his arms fade, the blood flowing once more through them. Whatever protection had been laid on that spell was obviously no longer needed as it had come to completion. Wessex's body began to distort and bulge, and finally, it tore in two, the upper torso being cast against the wall, and them crumpling to one side, while the legs collapsed before the Symphony, dribbling a bit of blood, as most of it had already left his corpse.
|Talk to me!|