Book I of The Last Tale of Yajakali

by Charles Matthias
Text ©2006 Charles Matthias; illustration ©2006 Cubist

Prologue -=- Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2 -=- Chapter 3 -=- Chapter 4 -=- Chapter 5 -=- Chapter 6 -=- Chapter 7

Home -=- #5 -=- ANTHRO #5 Stories
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This is the first installment of a MK (Metamor Keep) serial. Go here for info on the MK setting

Chapter I
Into the Glacier

   There are many places in the known world that are dangerous to man. Two in particular deserve special attention: the Great Barrier Range and the Desert of Dreaming. Though one is a land of perpetual snow and the other an endless expanse of sand, in both, the unfortunate who travels through them need not fear death so much as losing his mind.

– from That Which is Known of Galendor,
Summa Terræ of Elvmere

   It was a motley crew indeed that had embarked from Metamor Valley that Summer Solstice; their number included a gryphon and persons who were part-skunk, -rat, -hawk, -donkey, and -kangaroo. Had they not been residents of the Valley, and therefore long since accustomed to the strange results of their homeland’s curses, they would doubtless have been struck by the outlandish nature of their group. As it was, however, the travellers did not give it a second thought.
   By midday on the second day of travel, they could no longer see any trace of the green valley behind them. All around the Metamorians were towers of stone and ice. Though the sun and stars declared it to be the beginning of summer, the air was cold on their fur and skin, and the wind was worse. With each gust they felt its frigid touch burn down to their bones.
   And according to Abafouq—a creature that resembled a child-sized man known as a Binoq, though until recently only spoken of in nursery rhyme—who was their guide through this desolate white wasteland, this was a warm day in the Barrier Range.
   They were eight in number, thrown together by forces that most of them did not comprehend. Even those such as Abafouq and the kangaroo Habakkuk who had orchestrated their journey from Metamor only understood part of the reasons for why they were presently wandering through icy crags and climbing higher and higher towards the glaciers in the east. They each had their reasons for trudging that next step into the hard rock and ice. And as they felt the cold settle in their flesh, they reminded themselves of those reasons.
   For Jessica and Kayla it was in some measure revenge, and in other measures to save those they loved. Both had suffered greatly from a vile sorcerer who styled himself ‘the Marquis’. Jessica’s master, Wessex, had been slain and reanimated by one of Metamor’s enemies during the Winter Solstice six months ago. She’d only begun to piece together some of the clues that he’d left behind in his notes when that foul Marquis had struck again. Now her beloved, a hawk-man named Weyden, was being held prisoner, and until the evil that had slain her master was defeated, he could have no hope of freedom.
   Kayla’s loss was far more recent. Although the skunk had heard about the threat of the black-clad Sondecki named Zagrosek from Metamor’s Chief of Intelligence, she had never thought that she would be drawn into the events surrounding him. And then she had watched her own lover Rickkter struck down by the Marquis, whose evilly enchanted cards had drained the very soul from Rick’s body. She so thirsted to drive her blade through that man’s gullet. Anytime she began to feel the chill in her body, she would think on that and felt the heat return.
   For Abafouq and his monstrous friend the Nauh-kaee—a creature whose kind was called ‘gryphon’ by other races—the reasons were both obvious and incomprehensible. Abafouq was incapable of brooding as they journeyed. He was always full of hopeful cheer and excitement. After spending the last five years of his life with only the white-feathered ‘beast’ for company, his gregariousness was understandable. He was leading others on a marvellous quest that would see them all to strange places. The extreme danger they had been in only a few days before was just a part of this adventure. Abafouq meant to enjoy his newfound freedom.
   As for Guernef (for such was the name of the Binoq’s companion), he was a complete mystery. His eyes were golden and stark, his gaze relentless. Though Abafouq could understand his speech, everyone else thought it sounded like the squawking of a very large bird. Not even hawk-woman Jessica could discern the slightest bit of meaning in those sounds. To the rest of them, Guernef’s presence was purely a piece of happenstance; while the gryphon presumably had his reasons, the others might well never understand them.
   But the gryphon was not the only one who was there for, seemingly, no better reason than the mysterious workings of Fate. There was a pair of woodsmen who appeared at first to be odd choices to embark on a dangerous quest against an intractable enemy. In fact, one, the donkey-touched James, could not imagine what good he might hope to accomplish. He had only been training to use a sword for five months now. How could he possibly help anyone? If not for his friend Charles, he would have felt completely lost.
   The other woodcutter, Lindsey, was more stoic. His years as a forester had made him strong in body, and sure in mind while in the wilderness. He had an axe at his side along with the packs slung over his shoulders. The axe was more accustomed to chopping down trees, but he knew that it would serve equally well for felling beasts and evil men alike. He was there because his friend Habakkuk had told him he must come along. He never doubted this was true, and trusted that whatever was to come, everything would turn out all right.
   Habakkuk kept his thoughts to himself; as a prophet of sorts, he had found that it was often easier to simply not speak of his precognitive visions. The kangaroo was quiet for most of the first day’s trek into the mountains. Even that night around the campfire sharing their first meal of the road, he had said little, only reiterating the importance of what they set out to do and the immensity and mercilessness of their enemies. Yet, he appeared troubled to those who knew him best. But when asked, he put on a resolute smile and continued on their jagged path.
   This journey was most difficult for the last member of their group, Charles Matthias. Though normally he was a humanoid rat, the queer magicks of Metamor had ‘granted’ him a four-legged form too; had his bestial parts been horselike rather than ratlike, he might have been deemed a ‘centaur’. He came because he had been ordered to, and because he knew deep in his mind that he must. He terribly missed his wife and five newborn children, and his heartache increased with each step that took him farther away from his home in Glen Avery. Perhaps Baerle (their opossum midwife) and their other friends might be able to bring her some cheer in this time of darkness.
   Also unlike the rest, Charles did not feel the cold of the ice and snow. A curse from the evil Runecaster Agathe had left him a creature of stone. Thanks to the intervention of the Binoq, he could move and speak, but he felt very little on his granite flesh. He had subjected himself to the mercy of the Lothanasi gods in hopes that he might be restored, and his chest now bore the marks of Velena, goddess of love, and Artela, goddess of nature; marks that shamed him as a Follower of Eli. But the goddesses could only return him to flesh once Agathe was dead. That woman had nearly turned him into a statue without even moving her hands: How could he hope to fight her?
   These and other thoughts filled the rat’s mind as he plodded along on four paws up a steep slope along the side of one peak. The ice-covered summit stretched impossibly high above their heads to the right, while on their left the ground vanished into a ravine whose bottom was cast in shadows. They’d been travelling now for three days through the Barrier Range, and they had only skirted around the edges of the glacier in all that time.
   The Barrier Range was the largest range of mountains in all Galendor, if not the entire world. They cleaved the northern half of Galendor from its southern half, with the narrow valley of Metamor as the only pass between the two lands. In the middle of the Barrier was a massive glacier that had not melted in even the histories of the Åelves. Just as the glacier continued to grow and bear the mountains down, the mountains continued to thrust upwards into the sky against them, lifting that sheet of ice and snow higher and higher.
   Stone and ice had opposed each other for uncounted ages, during which time many mountain peaks had crumbled under the weight and pressure of so much ice. Those toppled peaks gave the glacier room to spread out over lower elevations where it could grow more easily. The highest plains of the glacier were a forbidding land where the very air could steal a man’s life in seconds. Abafouq had rather cheerily informed them of this on their second day of voyage, and then assured them all that they would never set foot upon the Crown of the World, as it was known to the Binoq. It was a crown of ice that only Death himself could bear.
   Charles grunted as he stared ahead. Abafouq was leading them up the path, bounding on his little legs with the impish delight of a child with a newfound toy. If not for his misery, Charles felt sure that he would have been enchanted by the Binoq. Instead, he was irritated by his perpetual cheerfulness.
   And he was irritated by having to journey in the centre of their column. Having chosen to assume his centaur-like form for the journey, Charles carried on his back much of the party’s supplies. And since he was the pack animal, he was kept to the middle of the line for protection. He would have preferred to be at an end of the line, either front or the rear, keeping an eye out for any enemies that might be waiting for them or following them into the mountains.
   James was walking just behind him and seemed to sense his unease. “Are you all right, Charles?”
   Charles looked behind him at the donkey. He wore the bright yellow mail of spider silk they all did, as well as his pack of climbing gear. Over his hooves had been placed iron shoes with spikes in the front and the back. The path they followed was mostly hard rock with a bit of ice hiding in the cracks, so they were not much use yet, but they made it nearly impossible to move silently. At his side was buckled the short sword that Glen Avery’s master swordsman had been training him on.
   “I will be fine,” he replied, the words forming in his muzzle of stone as he willed them. “How are you managing?”
   “I’m cold. I wish we’d stop for a bit.” James had his right hand pressed against the stone face to keep him steady. His other arm was clutched around his middle to hold in what warmth he had.
   Charles glanced ahead. Abafouq had reached the top of the rise already. The ravine sloped upwards until it met their path, ending in a wall of stone. He could see two peaks beyond the rise, their summits flat and broad, beaten down by the wind and ice. If they were lucky, there would be a place to rest ahead. “Let us reach the rise first, and then we will see. It is nearly midday now. We will soon have to stop to enjoy a bit of warm food and drink.”
   “Not you,” James pointed out in hollow tones.
   Charles grimaced and nodded, even as he took the next few steps up the rise. His four legs made it relatively easy to scramble over the crooked rocks both jagged and smooth. With clawed paws he was able to find good purchase along the stone, for his hooved friend, finding secure footing was a bit more difficult. But James was a donkey, and he seemed to have a very good sense of balance in these high passes. Charles had ceased to worry about him after the second day.
   “No, I will not eat,” Charles admitted. He had not felt hungry at all since becoming stone. Nor did his chest need to move in order to breathe. In truth, he had discovered that if he did not will himself to move, he was as still as a lifeless statue. It was so unnerving for the others that he did his best to always keep some part of him in motion, even if only the end of his tail twitching back and forth while they sat around the campfire. “But it will be nice to imagine.”
   The slope steepened directly ahead of them and so both fell silent as they scrambled up over the ice-slick stone. When Charles put his paws against the stone, he began to feel something deeper lay within. There was a change in the minerals locked inside. He blinked as he felt some deep and quiet communication seep into his own granite body. Stone was firm and solid, protected within. Minerals strange and rare made their home there, as could he…
   He snapped his head up, and looked backwards. James was right behind him giving him a confused stare. Past him were Kayla and Lindsey, also regarding him worry. Guernef was further behind, but was not watching him. “Sorry, I was just confused.”
   “Well, keep moving,” Lindsey counselled. “You may not feel the cold, but we do, and we need to keep moving to stave it off.”
   He nodded to the northerner, and then lifted himself over the perplexing stone protrusion. What had he felt in that moment? It was as if the rock had spoken to him and called out to him. He cast a wary glance at the mountain that towered over him. How much stone did it possess and jealously guard?
   When he reached the top of the rise, Charles found the others waiting on a small plateau before a heavy wall of ice that was at least five times his height. Rock surrounded them on the other two sides, leaving them nowhere to go. He narrowed his eyes as he studied the way Abafouq was pacing back and forth waiting for the rest of them. Habakkuk and Jessica were working some of their equipment out of their packs.
   “Ah, Charles, good. We’re going to need some of our supplies here,” Abafouq said, jumping towards him immediately.
   Charles laid down on the ground like a horse might and allowed the Binoq to dig into the packs that were strapped to his back. “Why are we in a dead end?”
   “We have to climb onto the ice here,” Abafouq explained, as he pulled a length of rope from one of the satchels. Charles was dimly aware of being tired. As animate stone, the acuity of his senses—all of his senses—was greatly reduced, it seemed.
   “Onto the glacier?” Charles asked incredulously.
   “There’s a crack that winds back down into the easier passes only a short distance ahead. We’ll be on the ice for no more than two hours. If we make good time, there will be a nice cave that we’ll be able to sleep in tonight,” Abafouq explained.
   Jessica was bouncing back and forth on her talons. She looked to Habakkuk and Charles with wary eyes. “If it is all right, I’d like to fly up and see what’s ahead.”
   “I’ll take your armor for you,” Habakkuk offered, hopping forward to undo the lacings on the yellow suit that she bore. Jessica held still while he worked his fingers over the clasps, undoing each one at a time. When he was finished, he helped her shimmy from the suit. “Don’t be gone long.”
   “Be careful,” Abafouq warned, even as James crested the ledge and took a few haltering steps around to where Charles lay like a mare giving birth. “This high up in the mountains there is not as much air. Your wings may have trouble keeping you aloft.”
   Jessica nodded her head, golden eyes looking skyward. “I will be. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” So saying, her body began to shrink into the form of a normal hawk. With a jump, and several beats of her heavy wings, she lifted herself into the air. After a moment, she circled upwards over their heads before sailing past the edge of the ice wall.
   “When do we eat?” James asked as he stared up where Jessica had disappeared.
   “Not yet,” Abafouq replied while working over the knots in the rope. “Can you secure this end around that rock, please?” James nodded dumbly and took the rope towards a rock that was jutting out from the ice wall only a foot above the ground. “We’ll eat after we’ve made this climb. It will be safer that way. When you’re climbing ice, the last thing you want is to have a cramp. Now make sure you have it good and tight. Once Guernef comes up, he’ll fly the other end of the rope to the top of the wall.”
   James worried over the knot for a few seconds before asking, “How will we bring the rope with us?”
   “I’ll be the last to make the ascent. I can untie it while the rest of you hoist me up. We may have to do this for some of the packs as is.” He glanced up at Charles with his small face and frowned. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to take them off your back and then re-tie them to you after we get to the top.”
   “I expected as much,” Charles replied dourly. “I’ll change before making my ascent.”
   By the time Guernef had climbed up the ledge, Abafouq was already instructing James how to use his spiked shoes to make the ascent. The rest of them huddled close together for warmth and paid attention to the Binoq’s words. No one else spoke.
   “Whenever you are ready,” Abafouq told the donkey, “Guernef will fly the rope up to the top and you can begin.”
   James nodded uncertainly, but gripped the rope tightly in one gloved hand. The other pressed against the ice, feeling for contours or places where he might be able to grip it. His eyes looked to Charles uncertainly. Charles knew that this was difficult for his friend. Only six months ago, James been a marketplace servant, utterly unremarkable, who (like so many others) lost his entire livelihood in the attack from the wizard Nasoj. Now his actions could alter the fate of the world. How was he to have any confidence in himself at all?
   The rat did his best to smile encouragingly to his friend. The donkey smiled in return, lips parting to show some teeth for a moment. “I’m ready,” he said to the Binoq. The short man nodded and looked over to Guernef, but the Nauh-kaee had already grasped the other end of the rope in its massive beak. Its wings spread so wide that they threatened to bowl Abafouq over. And then Guernef was in the air, the rope dragging beneath him. A few seconds later and Guernef stood atop the ice wall, the rope held taut beneath him.
   “Here I go,” James murmured. He dug one spiked shoe into the ice, and then stood up on that shoe. He lifted into the air, his hand pulling the rope tight and close to his chest. James lifted his other leg and dug the spiked shoe into the ice wall with a thunk. He yanked the first free and stepped up again. Slowly, James lifted into the air, his grip on the rope so tight that it took him a second between each step to slide his arm upwards. His breath was heavy and his tail tip trembled in anxiety.
   “You are doing fine,” Charles called up to him. “Before you know it you’ll be at the top.”
   “Do not shout,” Abafouq hissed under his breath. “You do not know how loose the snow on that peak is.” His finger pointed back the way they had come. Charles stared up at the white-domed sentinel and nodded gravely. He had learned the danger of an avalanche from his days at Sondeshara, although back then the danger had been from sand and not snow.
   James did take the rat’s words to heart, for he kept moving upwards at a steady pace. After he had managed to climb halfway up the solid wall of ice, Abafouq gestured to Kayla. “Your turn now. Just do exactly as James is doing and you’ll be fine. When you get to the top, wait there for the rest of us.”
   The skunk swallowed heavily as she surveyed the rope. After wrapping her gloved paws around the hard cord, she closed her eyes in a silent prayer. Like the donkey before her, Kayla buried one spiked boot into the wall of ice, and hoisted herself up on the rope. She seemed to have a firmer grasp of the idea, and after only fifteen seconds was threatening to run into the donkey.
   Somebody let out a sigh of relief when James crested the top of the ridge. One by one they made their way up the rope. Both Habakkuk and Lindsey volunteered to carry some of the packs that Charles had been carrying, and so they were a bit slower in their climb. After both of them disappeared over the top of the ridge, Abafouq and Charles carried the last few packs to the base of the wall.
   “How many do you think you can carry on your back?”
   “I’ll carry these two. Anymore and I’ll be unbalanced,” Charles said, tapping two of the heavier packs. Even though he was stone, he could still use his Sondeck. It still felt strange to do so, and thus he took every opportunity he could to practice. If he was to be granite, then he’d know how to use his Sondeck through his stony flesh.
   “Then we only need to have these two raised up. Help me tie them to the rope,” Abafouq worked his tiny fingers into the knot around the rock. He grunted as he scraped at the rope furtively. “James is good at tying knots.”
   While Abafouq worked on the rope, Charles focussed his mind on his normal form, two-legged yet still rat-like. Thankfully, it was no different changing forms while he had still been flesh and blood. A moment later he opened his eyes to a world that was larger around him. The ice wall loomed dizzily high overhead, while the blue sky swam in circles. Somewhere the sun shone, but neither did it hurt to look at nor warm his stony skin. And all about were the towering peaks of the Barrier Range glaring down angrily at the trespassers in their demesnes.
   Charles put one paw against the wall of ice and blinked several times. Once the vertigo had passed, he bent down and hoisted the first pack. Abafouq had freed the end of the rope and was busily wrapping it around the other pack. Charles did his best to tie the first off, but his fingers were a little clumsy still. Abafouq took over a moment later, and then waved his arms wildly.
   Either Guernef or the others began to pull on the rope, as it quickly began to slide upwards. Charles rubbed his paws together and felt the grinding of stone against stone. He looked down at his paws and stared at their speckled surface. How long would he be this way, he wondered morosely.
   The rat was not given much time to ponder the question. Only a moment after the two packs had disappeared above the lip of the wall, the rope was thrown back over. The end landed on his head before settling against his ear. He flicked his ear once and it fell back towards the ground. “I’ll hold the end down here steady while you climb,” Abafouq offered, grabbing the end of the rope in both hands. “You’ll want to have the ice shoes on your paws.”
   Charles looked behind him and grimaced; the ice shoes had slipped off his hind paws when he’d changed back to his two-footed stance. Had he been flesh, he’d have felt it immediately. Grunting, he slipped both shoes back on and made sure that the buckles were tight. He wrapped his paw around the rope and kicked the iron spike into the ice. He put a little bit of the Sondeck into the thrust, but not too much. His blow left the iron spike solidly embedded in the ice, and like the others before him, Charles began his ascent.
   The weight of the two packs was heavy on his back, but he felt the Sondeck throughout his granite flesh, and it was enough to keep his grip on the rope secure. Step by step he ascended the wall as if he were walking up a flight of stairs at Metamor. Before he quite realized it, he was pulling himself over the top where the rest stood in a semicircle. Lindsey and James had broken out a bit of bread from one of the packs; they were distributing a few mouthfuls to everyone.
   Habakkuk was at Charles’ side as he climbed over the top and held out his paw. “Here, let me help you.”
   “I can manage,” Charles snapped. The kangaroo did not say anything, just nodded his head and took a step back. A moment later, Charles was on his paws again and stretching out his back. He looked around, and spotted Jessica talking quietly with Kayla a good ten paces across the plateau of ice. Guernef was standing with his hind paws on top of the rope and his forepaws gripping it round. Now all they needed was Abafouq and they could continue.
   While Guernef hoisted Abafouq up, Charles took a moment to survey their new surroundings. The plateau was fashioned from snow that had never melted, and over the years hardened into ice. He could tell that it was slick because he felt his balance shifting about several times while trying to stand still. It mattered little, for that was why they had ice shoes. Charles slid his pack around before him and pulled out the second pair of ice shoes he kept with him.
   The plateau extended for a good distance in all directions except the one that they had come from. He could see that the mountains framed it on three sides, though those peaks were all at least half a mile or more distant. Towards the east the sky grew hazy, and he could not make out any details. But it did appear that the glacial ice began to recede.
   “Did you see anything, Jessica?” he asked, being careful to keep his voice low.
   Jessica shook her head. “It’s exactly as Abafouq described it. We should be at the cleft in an hour. But the air is quite cold up this high. I wonder how far above Metamor we are.”
   “A full mile,” Abafouq said as he appeared over the lip of the ice wall. “And we’ll get another half mile higher before we reach Qorfuu.”
   “Are we going to have to climb any more walls of ice like that?” James asked. He’d already finished the small morsel of bread that he’d taken.
   Abafouq nodded and rubbed his hands together. “Yes, but this is the worst we’ll see for the next few days at least. Could I have some of the bread? And Charles, could you wrap the rope back up? We need to be moving again in a few minutes.”
   While Lindsey tore off another chunk of bread for the Binoq, Charles traded two legs for four and began loading up the supplies onto his back again.

      Once they began moving, the slipperiness of the ice plateau proved an easily surmountable challenge. Thanks to their ice shoes they had traction enough that not a one of them slipped in the hour it took them to cross the glacier. As the sun continued its westward trek across the southern sky, the ice beneath their feet shone; what was normally a dull grey began to sprout some surprising colors. Where rocks that had not been crushed by the ice’s weight protruded, the ice that clung to them began to sparkle in colorful scintillation. Yellows and greens spread across their feet, while their chests were bathed in violet and blue. Red light burned into the shadow of the rock.
   Apart from the sun-painted glacier, there was little to see. The sky had been cloudless the last two days, and it remained as empty and as perfectly blue as it had since dawn. The emptiness of the plain and sky together was in some ways more oppressive than the massive peaks towering over them. Here they each felt exposed and more alone than they could ever remember. None of them could find the will to speak, preferring to wait in silence for the hope that they would no longer be so vulnerable. They each felt like mice lost in a field with predators circling overhead. Even Jessica the hawk-woman felt nervous; she cast wary glances at the sky to make sure that it remained empty.
   When they finally reached the cleft in the glacial ice, they each breathed a sigh of relief. One lone hour spent walking at the top of the world had left all of them short of breath; even Charles, whose stony form had no such need, shared some part of the others’ distress. Truly, the air was thin so high above the ground! After they slipped down into the fissure, they each took a few minutes to rest.
   The fissure started as a narrow crack, but widened outwards and sunk lower. It was formed by the collapse of a mountain beneath the ice many years ago, or so Abafouq claimed. In the distance they could see two other mountains framing what was left of the glacier. The ravine widened to meet them. Only five minutes into the ravine and they could see that the passes beyond both mountains were free of the choking ice, at least as far as they could see. Another line of mountains rose up a mile past the edge of the first pair.
   After a half hour’s descent, the ice gave way to tight-packed rock. They all felt more comfortable walking on the rock than they did the ice, but Charles kept wondering how ice could churn the rock so badly. He felt along it with his toes, and from time to time, allowed his toes to pass into the rock. It felt strange to him, but he was becoming more adept at merging with the rock. As he slipped more and more inside the rock upon which they trod, he could feel more and more arcane and alien thoughts filling his own mind. The airy world, the world from which he had come felt so insignificant against the towering and eternal stone.
   He well remembered the warning he’d received at Metamor when he’d fallen into the stone in the Lothanasi Temple. Stone was jealous and did not give up its secrets easily. And so whenever he felt that massive patience beginning to draw him, he pulled back and would not sink into the rock again for many minutes. But there was something appetizing about it. He had been feeling empty for days, but after incursions into the rock in that ravine left him curiously sated, as if he’d eaten a large meal.
   As the walls of ice rose around them, the others appeared to feel better too. The light of the sun reflected off the ice, so there was no need for torches, at least not yet. And as the ravine’s walls separated, the rock path grew wide enough that they could easily move side by side. Charles found himself pacing alongside Habakkuk. The roo was walking as normally as it was possible for his large legs and hips. He still hopped from time to time.
   “So,” Charles said, staring the Felikaush on eye-level for once, “just how long have you known that it would be the six of us leaving Metamor on this mission?”
   Habakkuk’s ears twitched in his direction, but he did not look away from the path. For a moment, Charles wondered if Habakkuk was going to ignore him, but then the kangaroo spoke in a halting voice. “Some time now. Before your trial. I was greatly relieved that your exile would end precisely when it needed to.”
   “Is that what you’d hoped for?” Charles knew he should be indignant over the mention of his trial back in January that had seen him exiled to the Glen until the Summer Solstice. He’d barely had time to admire the home in the Long House that the Keep had provided for his family, and then when he was whisked off on another mission, this one likely to be longer than any he ever hoped to venture on again. But strangely, he felt nothing. Not any more…
   “No. I had hoped that you’d be punished in the same sort of way that Misha punished you after I broke your arm. But it all worked out in the end anyway.” Habakkuk glanced over at him, his eyes empty. He then took a hop forward a pace ahead of the rat.
   Charles grunted, but said no more. What other conversation there was between the rest was muted, at least until they finally reached the base of the defile between the two mountains. The land beyond rose upwards through a series of switchbacks. The path was worn smooth and the rocks were slick with water. The sun was shining on them and melting some of the low lying ice. For several moments they marvelled at the runoff, until they began to climb through it.
   Abafouq reiterated his promise that there was a cave ahead, but it was not until halfway up the next rise that they could see it in the side of the mountain face. The cave entrance looked southwards, and afforded them a good view of the path behind them as well as the path ahead. It was still an hour until sunset when they reached the entrance, but all of them were ready to stop for the day.
   “We used this cave on our way to Metamor,” Abafouq said. “You can see the remnants of our fire there. Some of the wood that Guernef collected should still be stored on that rock shelf. Do you see it, Lindsey?”
   “Yes,” the northerner agreed, grabbing a handful in his arms. “I’ll have a fire prepared in no time.”
   “And I’ll have us something to eat soon,” James said, as he helped remove the packs from Charles’ back.
   Jessica did not appear to like the cave and stood near the entrance, looking out towards the blue sky. “I think I’ll look around again for a few minutes. I won’t be gone long.” She turned to the kangaroo and asked, “Zhypar, can you help me with the armor?”
   Guernef settled in one corner and proceeded to preen his wing feathers completely unconcerned with the activities of the others. Abafouq set out the bedrolls while whistling a jaunty tune to himself. Charles dumped the packs against one side of the wall and then patted James on the shoulder. The donkey smiled to him once before digging into their rations for the night’s meal. The rat’s eyes spied the skunk delving deeper into the cave.
   The cave entrance sloped downwards after a few feet, and continued to do so in places. At one time Charles thought it likely that a beast had used it for a den, and he felt a dim memory of such an animal, a bear it seemed. But that had been many years ago, even to the mountain’s memory. Still, there was something else he felt, something quite… welcoming..? from the rock. It liked having guests. That was the only way he could explain it.
   “This is a nice cave,” he said, at which Abafouq nodded.
   “Oh yes, the rock here is very content. My people would say that this cave welcomes sleeping bears.” On seeing the face that the others made, he laughed. “Oh do not be afraid. We have nothing to fear of bears here. They have long since left these peaks.” He looked around and frowned. “Where is Kayla?”
   “I think she went deeper into the cave,” Charles replied. He stretched all four of his legs. “I’ll go see if I can find her.”
   The cave narrowed some as he moved away from where the others prepared camp. After twenty paces it turned sharply to the left and was cast into darkness. “Kayla?” Charles murmured as he stepped out of the light. Being a rat, even a stone one, his eyesight was very good in the dark. He could see the outline of the skunk as she stood holding something long before her.
   She spun on her paws and brandished two silvery blades before her. “Oh, it’s you, Charles.” Kayla’s voice was hard, but also empty. “I’m sorry. I just feel strange holding these.”
   “Aren’t those Rickkter’s blades?” Charles did his best to hide the acid in his voice as he spoke the Kankoran’s name. The Kankoran were another mage guild from the southern continents. They and the Sondeckis had long been mortal enemies. Rickkter and Charles had existed under a truce this last year, only because it would have been more trouble than it was worth to kill each other. In the last six months some of that hate had begun to abate, but still he had expected to feel an indignant flush of heat when talking about Rickkter. However, as stone he felt none of that.
   “Yes,” Kayla replied. She studied them in the darkness, turning the katana and wakizashi over and over again. What little light there was reflected off of them, giving them an unearthly pallor. “I haven’t used them before, but he showed me a little swordplay. I might have only been an aide to Phil—the Chief of Intelligence—but I still had to know my way around arms.”
   “I am sorry that I never became acquainted with you before, Kayla,” Charles told her. His association with her had been of a strictly professional sort, thanks to his distaste for her former consort.
   She snorted and sheathed the katana. The wakizashi she rolled back and forth in her paw as her tail tip danced behind her head. “Do you recall what happened at the bell tower?”
   “Of course,” the rat-man replied. How could he have forgotten? There, three servants of the Marquis had gathered to tie the censer of Yajakali to the nexus of magic that existed at Metamor. His friend from his youth, Krenek Zagrosek, had been one of those servants. Somehow, he and the other two had been corrupted by Marzac, the vile swamp that stood on the site of ancient Jagoduun. Rickkter had faced Zagrosek, and was nearly killed by the black-clad Sondecki until Charles had intervened.
   Kayla nodded. “Of course,” she repeated. “Until then, I did not know what to make of you. You do not want to know what Rick had to say about you. Phil always spoke highly of you, up until the end at least.”
   Charles flicked an ear negligently. “I would be surprised if Rickkter had anything nice to say of me. We are of rival clans. In the Southlands, we would have been bitter enemies. We almost became bitter enemies here at Metamor too. But no matter what was said of me, I’m sure I deserved some of it. I have not always acted honourably towards him.”
   The skunk spun in a circle, cutting a line through the air. “But you tried to save his life.” Charles wasn’t sure what else to say. He wished he’d known more of this woman before they had been thrust together like this. “There is something in this blade… I cannot describe it, but I think this blade is studying me.”
   “Studying you?”
   Kayla nodded, and ran one finger along the blade’s surface. “I’ve been feeling it ever since we left Metamor. I know Rick kept many strange artifacts, but…”
   Were he still flesh, Charles would have reached for his chewstick to alleviate the uncomfortable silence that descended upon them. Instead, he could only point back up the cave. “The rest are preparing dinner and our bedrolls. I think we should return.”
   Kayla’s eyes were transfixed upon the glossy sheen of the blade’s surface. Still, she acknowledged the rat’s words with a tail-swing, and after several more seconds of gazing into the weapon’s surface, she sheathed the wakizashi and followed the rat back towards the entrance. A bit of life seemed to leave her as the blade disappeared within its scabbard. It was as if all the aches of the last three day’s hard hike had finally settled upon her shoulders.
   “Yes, let’s go back. I’m ready for sleep.”
   Together they went back into the light and smiled to the rest of their companions as they coaxed the fire into warm life. The cave glowed with its warmth.

      Abafouq was right about the cave. Each of them felt well rested when they woke the next morning. Even Charles who was forced to rest completely huddled in blankets from head to toe to prevent himself from accidentally slipping into the stone floor while he slept, felt rejuvenated when he stretched all six of his limbs as the morning sun shined off the cave walls.
   They broke some bread and shared it with a bit of wine, and then packed up their supplies for another early start to their day. Unlike the previous two days, there were a few clouds hovering in the sky. Charles felt as if he could reach out and touch them as they drifted by so low and close to the mountain peaks. Otherwise the sky was blue and the air had a warmth to it that had been lacking so far on their journey.
   The path continued upwards along the mountain; it took them nearly two more hours to traverse the switchbacks. All of them were feeling especially good, and they frequently shared thoughts on the road ahead, or the occasional joke that struck their fancy. Nobody minded Abafouq’s congeniality anymore. The dark thoughts that had been weighing on their minds had left them at last. They each knew that their worries would return in time, but they intended to enjoy the pleasant atmosphere while it yet endured.
   Only the intractable Nauh-kaee seemed unmoved by the sleep in the welcoming cave. His beak was set in a hard line, and his eyes were fixed upon the horizon behind them. Occasionally he would narrow those eyes, studying some detail that he alone could discern. But not even Abafouq—the only one who could understand Guernef’s cries—was alarmed by this.
   When they reached the end of the switchbacks and could see the next portion of their trail, they all took a moment to rest their legs. The trail ahead wound alongside the glacial wall overlooking a small ravine. On the mountains flanking the ravine they could see a thick forest of pine clustering the base. Seeing the forest brought an even greater sense of relief to the Metamorians. Trees, even ones as unreachable as these, were a reminder of home.
   Their good moods were dampened when the white gryphon let out a sullen squawk. “What was that?” Abafouq asked, his eyes narrowed in confusion, lips drawn tight. “You see something?”
   All eyes looked back to the west. In the distance they could see the crack in the glacial ice they had passed through. Charles stared as best he could, but saw nothing but the empty wasteland of the Barrier Mountains. “Jessica,” he called, “yours are the best eyes amongst us. What do you see?”
   Jessica gazed back the way they had come. Guernef raised one wing and angled it towards their point of origin, as if he were pointing. The hawk followed the line of feathers, and stared hard. “I do not see anything there. Just the cleft. Wait…” she leaned forward, her wings folding behind her to give her the proper balance. “Yes, I see something. Men. There’s a group of men coming down the ravine.”
   “Men?” Lindsey asked in surprise. “Can you tell what they are wearing?”
   Jessica continued to stare, as did everyone else. But only the hawk-woman could see these strangers. “It looks like furs. I think they are wearing furs. And I can see a few of them bearing weapons. Wait, they’ve stopped. They’re studying the ground. Oh no…”
   “What is it?” Charles asked, struck by an inchoate dread.
   “They’re tracking us,” Jessica screeched, real fear blossoming in her voice. “By Akkala, we’re being followed!”

Prologue -=- Chapter 1 -=- Chapter 2 -=- Chapter 3 -=- Chapter 4 -=- Chapter 5 -=- Chapter 6 -=- Chapter 7

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