Book I of The Last Tale of Yajakali
by Charles Matthias
|This is the second installment of a MK (Metamor Keep) serial. Go here for info on the MK setting|
When the wind blew, Agathe pulled her purple cloak tighter. A simple incantation could warm her body in ways the mercenaries pitifully small fire could never hope to accomplish. But speed and stealth were her allies in these cold mountain passes. Rare enough were the living creatures in the Barrier Range; rarer still was the practice of magicmost especially of the sort the Runecaster practisedand their quarry counted at least one sorceror among their number. Did she use her enchantments to push back the cold, she might as well have ignited a towering bonfire; indeed, an erupting volcano would not have been more obvious to her spellcasting enemy!
The mercenaries she had hired were a brutish lot. Dressed in animal furs, they had enough body hair that they could have skinned each other to make more clothes. They were of burly stock, clearly children of the Giantdowns. Even the weakest-appearing of them could have broken Agathe like a handful of twigs. But after their first night, none of them wanted to even go near her when they did not have to.
Not only did their appearance appal, but their manners were ill-suited to civilisation. Though Agathe had several times demonstrated her skill in the dark arts, and her face was horribly disfigured, to their eyes she was, first and foremost, a woman. In their land, women were good for precisely three things: Cooking, cleaning, and fornicating. These men were interested in the last, and despite her warnings that if any dared to touch her they would not have time to regret it, one of them had been brave enough to try.
It had been their first night following the Keepers into the mountains. They were still close enough to the Valley that Agathe could risk using her own magic; as long as the Keepers didnt know they were being followed, Agathe meant to keep it that way. She did not tell the mercenaries that meant she would not use her skills as a Runecaster. And after the first night, she had no intention of ever telling them.
One of the younger men, whose beard was not nearly as long and scraggly as the rest, thought he could prove something by bedding their employer. Agathe allowed him to put his hands on her shoulder. But the moment his tongue touched her neck, his entire body caught flame! He didnt even have time to scream. He writhed in silent agony as his flesh burst into brilliant orange flame. The pyre lasted two seconds at most; then his body was a blackened lump of charcoal. A few white bones protruded from the dark mass, testifying that the thing had once been a man. None of the mercenaries went near her after that.
They still did what shed paid them to do. Upwards into the mountain passes they climbed, following after the Metamorians. The Keepers left a clear trail to follow; it was obvious that some of them were utterly unschooled in the arts of stealth and concealment. Even Agathe could see the paw prints the kangaroo left behind. Within the first few days, the leader of the mercenariesAgathe never bothered to learn his nametold her that theyd gained an hour on their quarry, and would be able to strike at them within the next few days.
Despite his words, Agathe wasnt satisfied. This cursed journey had been marked by all too many unavoidable delays and as she looked over the expanse of ice and rock, she knew that one such moment was coming to a head. She could feel the flow of magic, and the way a few particular threads were settling around one of her hirelings. The mercenary group had waited in the Metamor Valley a few days, while Agathe had gone to Metamor with Zagrosek to meet with Yonson in order to tie the censer to the Keep. During that time, the curses had explored the mercenaries, trying to find some way to latch onto their life force.
The only reason the mercenaries had agreed to wait that long was that they knew they would be leaving the valley quickly enough. What they did not realize, was that the curse was spread in every direction from Metamor, not just north and south. So even as they trekked those first few days through the mountains, the curses of Metamor had lurked around them looking for any purchase. All the while, the mercenaries had thought themselves safe.
Agathe was not worried. She could see the curse, and had erected countercharms that would hold it at bay. She was incapable of undoing any curse of Metamor after it made itself known, but she could shield herself from its effects. And all the while they journeyed, she watched the curse lose its battle to take the mercenariesall save one. One of the three curses had clutched him, and was working its way into his system, coiling tightly in his spirit and flesh until it would spring out, showing its effects to all the world.
As they crested a small incline in the ice flow, she saw that the magic was coming to the surface of the unsuspecting mercenary. One moment he was laughing over some crude joke with his fellows, the next he had lost his footing and unleashed a cry of pain. If not for the guide rope about his waist, he would have plummeted off the side of the ravine to his death.
Agathe watched curiously, her purple cloak pulled tight about her frame as the mans beard faded, his face softening. His chest expanded in two shapely lumps, while his hips widened; his voice rose in pitch with precipitous quickness. And by the time the mercenaries rescued their fellow, he had become a woman.
Agathe snorted as she saw this. The curses had claimed this one quickly. Shed heard that they worked strangely. Some victims, like this one, would change in moments, but others would suffer a days-long transformation. The mercenaries were wary as they looked at the newly-minted female. What the hell? one of them barked, his voice gruff. I thought you said we were leaving Metamor, bitch!
We have, Agathe replied, her gaze frostier than the ice that surrounded them. The curses stretch even into these mountains. Oh, do not fear; you are safe from them now. She was the only one they were able to claim.
The erstwhile man had been driven unconscious by the change. One of those holding her up slid his hand down her shirt, feeling at the new breasts that were there. He really is a woman! Ha! Before Agathes eyes, the mercenary slipped his other hand down the new womans pants. She woke with a scream.
Agathe snapped her fingers. Silence her, before she alerts our quarry. One of the other men gagged her with the rope, his eyes hard. Good. Now bring her along. Weve lost enough time to this nonsense.
The man whod become a woman still hadnt figured out what happened when her fellow grabbed her by the arm and dragged her up the slope. Her eyes were wide with confusion and fright. Agathe met them with her one good eye for a single moment before turning back to their path.
The wind was cold and the mountain forbidding, but Agathe would not lose her quarry. No matter what.
Thats it, we need to stop, Lindsey called from the rear. They had just ascended to a small plateau overlooking a wide valley between six mountain peaks. Soft sunlight illuminated the valley, revealing an impenetrable forest of pine. One step off the promontory and they would fall at least three thousand feet to the treetopsand certain death.
Abafouq glowered at the northerner. The Binoq was bouncing from one foot to the other in his eagerness to continue the climb. He assured them that the mountain pass led to another glacier field that theyd need to cross before nightfall. And with the darkening clouds on the eastern horizon, all of them were eager to find shelter against the coming storm. If not for the men trailing them, they would have stopped before the glacier. Now, however, they had to go as far as possible each day before stopping to rest.
It had been a full week since they first caught a glimpse of the men behind them. In that time, theyd risen before dawn to commence their days journey, and stopped as the sun was setting. They grew merciless in posting watches, with Charles usually sleeping only a few hours each night, as he no longer seemed to need as much rest as the others.
And even with their fast pace, the men behind them were closer than before. By Jessicas estimate their pursuers were only a few hours behind them. If they were lucky, they could cross the ice field before the storm hit, and their followers would be forced to wait on the other side for clear weather.
We have another hour to go before we reach the glacier, Abafouq pointed out. We need to keep moving.
We need to rest for a good fifteen minutes, Lindsey said, his face stern. We need a bit of food in our bellies, and we need a little wine to get our strength back. And if we cant get across that glacier before the storm hits, well want to keep our bodies as warm as possible. He then gestured to the others who were standing on the promontory while the two debated. Besides, everyone is worn out from this pace. Fifteen minutes is all I ask.
Abafouq appeared ready to shake his head, but a grumbling squawk from the Nauh-kaee made him sag. Very well, we rest here. Break out some of the food and wineskins, and well eat a little. Do not eat too much or youll cramp.
That injunction was one that all of them had become familiar with in the last week; Charles rolled his jewelled eyes heavenward at hearing it again. Still, he settled down onto his belly, his stone skin feeling the immensity of the rock beneath him. He couldnt help but tremble as he sensed the crawling of the forest floor, down at the foundations, like ants tickling over his toes.
He shook such thoughts from his mind and turned about to help his friends. But they did not need his help. The others in his party were clustered around his backside, digging into the packs for a bit of jerky to chew. Even James and Habakkuk broke off bits of the dried meat, despite their normally vegetarian palette.
Jessica was quick to bolt her jerky down, and then gazed towards the West. Her wings stretched outwards as if she were preparing to take flight. We should really see who they are.
This was another thing theyd heard a great deal of in the last week. From the very first, Jessica had asked permission to scout the trail behind them to determine who these interlopers were. Each time, shed been denied and reminded of their need for haste. This time, it was Habakkuk who spoke to quell her nascent yearning.
It is too risky, Jessica, the kangaroo said, worry and weariness clear in his voice in equal measure. One arm clutched at his side tenderly. Hed been favoring it for the last few days. Hed been wounded there in the recent assault on Metamor, and apparently it had not fully healed. What if they see you? They could have bows and shoot you. We wouldnt be able to help you at all.
I can fly higher than bows can reach, Jessica reminded him, her golden eyes at first angry, and then softening. Pleaseif we know who they are, then perhaps we can do something about them!
Not in this air, Habakkuk reminded her gently. It is too thin for your wings. Youd have to fly far too close to them to keep you safe from bows. And what if one of those mages is pursuing us? They could strike you down before you recognized them.
Jessica snapped her wings to her side with a loud whoosh. I am not incapable of protecting myself!
Habakkuk held up his paws while Kayla came to her side and said in a low voice. No one says otherwise. The skunk gently ran her paw over the hawks shoulder. It is just too much of a risk. Abafouq said the path would dip into lower elevations soon; then you can take to the skies to study them.
And whats more, Habakkuk added in grave tones, all the enemy needs to win is for one of us to die in these mountains. I do not know everything that is to come to pass, but I do know this: We cannot put ourselves in unnecessary risk. A time may come when our lives are asked for, but that time is yet to come. So please, wait until it is safer to take to the air.
Jessica took a deep breath, and then nodded. Very well. She tried to crack her beak in an avian grin to Kayla. The skunk saw it for what it was and smiled in return.
Abafouq rubbed his hands together, face still set in a grimace. Hrmf! This is all well and good, but we should continue on.
The Nauh-kaee nudged him in the back with his powerful beak, dark eyes reproachful. Abafouq let out a cry of surprise and glared up at the white gryphon. It was Lindsey who spoke. Not yet, friend. You promised us another five minutes. Another five minutes we will rest.
Glumly, Abafouq sat down and rubbed his pants.
Beyond the promontory, the trail wound upwards along the eastern face of the mountain peak. This peak was broad, sloping downwards towards the east before rising again to a lower summit that appeared more like a pastry with white frosting than a forbidding snow-capped spire. The trial led them between the two summits, where the ground was relatively flat, though choked with snow and ice.
As they walked, each of them cast furtive glances backwards, wondering if they would see some sign of their pursuers. There was a growing haze to the air, and the once-blue sky was greying with clouds from the east. That haze made it difficult for any but Jessica to make out the details of the path behind them. But with the twisting of the mountains ridges and its numerous rocky outcroppings, even she could only claim to have seen their enemies twice. And what she could see of them was the same as before, northern men dressed in furs.
Abafouq grew more and more concerned by what lay to the east. The storm on the horizon was moving in their direction, though they could not yet feel the wind. In fact, the air around them was very still. On the one hand, this meant that they could feel a tiny bit of the suns warmth; it also meant that the ice was beginning to melt, and that made their footing treacherous where the sun shined. The ice glistened wetly, and several times they would set hoof or paw down only to have it slide out from under them. All of them were thankful that their path had taken them away from the ravines edge, where such slips could easily have proven fatal.
When they passed the double mountain peak, the trail began to descend. The sun disappeared behind the peaks as they moved down the north slope, towards a basin of ice and snow. The basin was framed in the west and south by several tall mountains, but its northern or eastern extremes were not visible. The storm lurked to the east, and before it ran a fog that oozed across the surface of the ice like a living, amorphous blob.
Halfway down the slope towards the basin, Abafouq began swearing to himself. Kayla, who was behind him asked, Is something wrong? She had her arms around her chest; without the sun, the air had grown twice as cold, even without the wind.
Abafouq nodded and gestured with gloved hands at the fog bank. Yes, by Foqos Flame, look at that! We need to cross this glacier, it is the one I was talking about. But with that fog, it will be nearly impossible to find our way!
And after the fog comes the storm, Charles observed as the rest of them caught up to where Abafouq and Kayla were standing.
There doesnt appear to be any place on this side in which we can ride out the storm, Lindsey observed as he scanned the mountains framing the glacial basin. He hefted his pack on his back and gestured along the rim. And I cant see anything over there, either. Perhaps if we follow along the edge of the ice well be able to navigate the fog?
Abafouq shook his head. On the eastern edge, the glacier breaks up into several ravines. We will have to make a steep descent before we reach solid ground again. The ice is treacherous there, and the cleft we want is further north than the end of the mountains.
Guernef squawked angrily, his long leonine tail brushing across the Binoqs head, dislodging his cowl. Deep golden eyes regarded the short man intently, and Abafouq swallowed. You can find the way? But the rest of us
Here the Nauh-kaee gave another short cry, his voice harsh and filling the others with unease. Why couldnt they understand his speech? Abafouq nodded and sucked in his breath. Ah! Of course. How foolish of me!
What is it? James asked, his eyes wide with fear as he looked at the rumbling storm. It was swallowing up distant peaks in its dark embrace. The fog spread before it like winnowing hands.
Well tie rope around our waists. Well be close enough so that we can always see the person in front of us and the person behind us. That way, we do not risk becoming separated in the fog. Guernef can find his way through, so hell go first. I should go second in case he needs to warn me of something. Lindsey, I think you should remain at the rear, as you are the most experienced on the ice.
Lindsey nodded, even as he began to remove several lengths of rope from the packs on Charless back. I think we should keep our current order, apart from Guernef taking the lead. James and Zhypar are both strong enough to help Charles, should his weight prove troublesome on the ice.
I have an idea, Jessica said, hopping back and forth on her talons. It seems unlikely that they will risk death by following us into a storm but for all we know, they very well might. I could perch on Lindseys shoulder and watch the road behind us. I have the best eyes of any of us, and somebody needs to make sure our followers dont take us by surprise.
And maybe, Kayla interjected, an excited light filling her eyes, you could lay a few trap spells behind us in case they do follow. They wouldnt see anything in the storm untilboom! Fireball!
The hawks beak cracked in a grin. Yes, I can do that. I can try, at least. It might be tricky from Lindseys shoulder, but I can try.
Abafouq wasted no time agreeing to her plan. Well tie rope around your legs in case the wind picks up. Charles, can you carry her pack?
The stone rat nodded, even as James helped him tie off one end of the rope around his upper waist. Of course. Just secure it to my flanks. Ill be able to handle it.
Together, the eight of them worked on making sure that each of them was secured by rope around their torsos. Charles had two ropes around him; the one on his upper waist leading forward to James, and the one around his lower torso leading back to Habbakuk. Behind Habakkuk was Lindsey, and perched on his shoulder was Jessica, with a bit of cord around her talons. He hadnt even seen her change form. But shed been so adamant that they keep watch, he doubted that she felt any need to wait.
Once all of them were secure, they continued on down the mountain path. It was covered in loose stone and ice, as well as a light dusting of snow. Abafouq had explained that in the winter months, all of this would have been waist-deep in snow. As the days warmed, the snow melted, running off into large depressions, where it collected and froze again. Glacial basins like the one they were nearing would build up ice over the years until they crushed the mountains they rested upon. The paths were apparently less treacherous during the winter, when the snow provided a blanket over the slick ice, but Charles was still happy that they were here now when the air was not so cold that it would suck the life from them along with the warmth.
Not that freezing was a concern for Charles, but he still worried for his friends.
It took them another half-hour to reach the glacial ice below. Their pursuers had not yet ascended the mountain pass, but their trail was not hard to follow. They would crest the rise in another hours time.
The ice on the basin was slick in patches, but otherwise very firm. The fog bank rolled eastward at a steady pace; as soon as they set foot on the ice, they could feel the wind flowing from the east. It pulled at fur, hair and feathers with equal insistence, making each of them shiver anew.
Guernef lowered his beak to the ground, like a hunting dog catching a scent. Oddly, he didnt appear to be sniffing at the ice. Instead, his eyes closed slowly, and he stood there letting the wind wash over him. He held out his wings and the feathers lifted, pulling him upwards one moment and then down the next. For several seconds the Nauh-kaee stayed like that, trying to feel or learn something but what that something was, none of the Metamorians could tell.
And then the white gryphon drew in his wings to start across the ice, slightly north of east. Abafouq followed after him, his short legs having to move quickly to keep pace. Kayla shrugged her shoulders to the rest of them and then moved. James, Charles, Zhypar, and Lindsey all went next in turn, each of them walking in a long line held together by the two ropes secured to Charles in the middle, and to Lindsey and Guernef at the ends.
For Charles, the ground was wet and slick. His rocky paws did not like it. One of the many difficulties he encountered as rock was that his flesh did not give in the same way that any of the others did. His stony flesh was stiff, and preferred not to change shape more than was necessary. Here on the ice, he needed to maintain a firm balance, and that meant making minute changes in the way he stepped with each paw. When hed been flesh, this had all come naturally. But now he had to concentrate on it with every step. His only advantage was that with four paws, one could slip and hed still be able to maintain his balance. It was a trial nonetheless.
By the time they reached the fog bank, Charles finally felt comfortable with his gait. The fog was fairly thin at first, just wisps of cloud that hung in the air limply. But it grew thicker and darker with each step. The ice beneath their feet grew colder, and it became solid, and though Charless step was still weighty, the ice no longer melted under the pressure of his girth. James and the rest held their coats more tightly to their flesh, trying to retain such warmth as they still had.
But for all the growing darkness, at first Charles had no difficulty in seeing the white gryphon leading them into that miasma. Then he looked up into the sky, and could see the dark clouds churning. They looked so close that for a moment he feared they would topple like a stack of plates over the top of them all and crush them. But they remained perched in the heavens, grinding westward across the icy plain.
When Charles looked back down at their group, he had to stare to make out the dim form of the gryphon. The fog was thickening, closing about them like clawing hands; the Nauh-kaees shape was a dim shadow, an outline that seemed to twist and distort. The rat could not see Abafouq at all, but only because he was so much shorter than either James or Kayla. Of the skunk, he could clearly see her black and white tail, but even that was beginning to fade into the dank haze.
Charles glanced behind him, and could see the other three with ease. But when he looked forward again, even Kayla was becoming a thing of shadow and murk. There was no sign of Guernef at all. He heard James muttering prayers under his breath, and he could see the donkeys ears turn this way and that in alarm. The rat knew how he felt. There were few things worse than being lost in a world you could not see.
But they had the rope in front of them. As the fog closed around them, he began to lose sight of James too. The air had an undercurrent of wind, but it was always weak enough that it just pushed the fog forward without breaking it apart. Charles ran his fingers along the rope, feeling the cold threads with stone claws. The rope was not taut, sagging in the middle and swaying back and forth with the motion of their steps. But it still led straight, and that was all that mattered to the rat. As long as he had that, he knew they were making progress.
Charles chanced a glance behind him, but the fog was pervasiveeven Habakkuk was nothing more than a vague shadow. He wondered how Jessica was doing. Could her hawks eyes penetrate this gloom? He doubted it.
When he turned back around, he felt the rope in front of him go taut. He gripped it in his hands and took two quick steps. He saw James climbing back to his hooves. Are you all right? Charles asked.
James nodded, though the rat could only make out his silhouette. I just slipped. Im fine. Its good to hear your voice.
Charles had to admit that apart from the sound of their packs shuffling, there was no sound to be heard at all. The storm in the distance was a quiet menace, and the mountains were silent watchers whose groaning was too subtle to be heard. Being stone himself, Charles could feel that trembling when he stood on the naked rock, but out on the ice there was nothing. Nothing to hear for miles except themselves. Even in the deserts of Sondeshara, there had been life scuttling about the sand and rocky crags. With that realization, the air grew even colder.
If you need to talk, Charles told him, dont be afraid to. But dont waste your breath, either. The air is too thin up here to use it all on speech.
Quite right, Abafouqs voice came from somewhere in the murk. The fog was so thick that Charles couldnt even tell where the Binoq was any more. His voice surrounded them, as if cast down from the heavens. Dont speak if you dont have to.
Sorry, James muttered as he started to walk again. Within moments, the fog swallowed the echo of his voice, and there was silence once again. Charles grimaced and watched as his friend disappeared into the shadows before him. The fog, formerly warm and grey, was now becoming dark and foreboding. It slid along his body and obscured it so badly that he couldnt even see his tail lashing back and forth behind him any more.
As living rock, he didnt feel the same sort of fear he might have if he were flesh. Nevertheless, images of being caught in the stone tunnel at Metamor while a small rat began to flash in his mind. It had been a year ago, while on a training exercise for the Long Scouts, that he had burrowed as a normal rat through the walls of Metamor Keep. Misha and he had taken their animal forms; since Charles was a rodent and Misha a fox, Misha was hunting Charles. The rats job had been to evade him as long as possible.
Hed found a little crack in the wall, and to escape the fox, hed dived into the hole, following where it led. But quickly, the walls had tightened around him so that there was nothing he could do but push forward. On every side he felt the crushing weight of stone. Before him he saw only darkness. In that time hed inhabited a world bereft of light and of anything except himself and the stone. Hed come closer than at any other point in his life to losing his mind to the feral instincts of a common rodent.
And as he lost sight of James, the rope trailing before him into the dark fog, he felt that same sense of isolation begin to creep over him. He felt only the wind brush across his stone skin, and the ice beneath his toes. His paws clutched at the rope, which was loose enough that it did not pull on him. The sound of footsteps was muffled all around. There was nothing. No way to know if there was anything else out there. Charles wished he could have taken a deep breath, but he could not even do that.
So he walked. Walked and walked, forward on his four paws. Followed the rope. The rope led forward, and it sagged, but it was steadily leading him forward. Where was forward? He couldnt see anything more than a couple feet in front of his face, so he just had to trust that the rope led him in the right direction. What else could he do? If he tried to go anywhere else, hed be lost. This rope was his one thing that kept him from becoming lost. He needed to keep that rope.
There. His ear perked and he turned his head. Had he heard something? A mutter perhaps? A voice? The rope pulled taut on him, and he jumped forward a step. It was nothing. He had to follow the rope. The rope. He had to follow after that rope or hed be lost. Lost like in that tunnel
No! Charles ground his paws together against the rope. This wasnt helpful. He turned his mind away from the fog and the wind and the snowflakes that were beginning to appear in the air. He thought on his Calm, trying to find that place that existed inside of him that would still the nervous energy of the Sondeck.
A Sondeckis Calm was unique. None of them ever shared the same one, but each was a place in their mind and heart that was a refuge from all that existed outside. Inside that Calm, they could still the raging emotions that plagued their lives. Charless Calm in his youngest of days had been standing outside in the sands of Sondeshara, barefoot, while staring up at the stars. When hed become a rat, that had not changed. But when he took on a centaur-like form, that body was different enough that hed had to find a new Calm. When hed felt himself standing in the forest with the Summer trees about and the soft sunlight cascading in golden beams through the green leaves, hed found the Calm he needed for his quadrupedal body.
Now, walking on the ice, a creature of stone, he found his mind seeking out other images. The world was not green or yellow, but grey and full of a strange chill. He was standing, if that were the right word, upon the rocky slopes of a mountain. He could feel the roots of the pines that clustered around the base and the way they clutched the soil that clung to the rocky mount. He felt the tip of the mountain pierce the sky, domed with a crown of white. He felt the timelessness of the ages surge through him, watching all else around him falter. The trees died from fire, and the animals lives were but the barest wisps of breath. And still he stood.
And he felt his Calm.
Charles continued following the rope, watching as the flakes fluttered on past his head. They were growing more numerous. He walked steadily forward, the veil of fog parting long enough for him to see the shadow of the donkeys back in front of him. No, he was not alone, that he knew. A determined smile crept across his lips. With his Calm in his heart, he had no reason to let fear or madness tear at him. He was not alone at all.
The storm is nearly on us, he called forward. How much further do we have to go?
What was that? James asked, his ears turning back.
Ask them how much further we have to go! The storm is nearly on top of us! Even as he spoke, he lost sight of James, not from the fog, but from the swirl of snow that was falling and carried on the wind. The wind was growing stronger, and Charles felt snowflakes ripping at his stony cheeks. They could not hurt him, but he felt them wearing down his granite flesh.
He heard the muffled sound of Jamess voice ahead of him, but everything else was being swallowed up in the wind. It was beginning to howl as it whipped around them, the storms fury at last unleashed. Charles chanced a glance upwards, but all he saw was darkness. Could the sun have already set? It did not seem possible. There had been a few hours left to the day.
It was several minutes more before James shouted back to him. Abafouq says its another half-hour! Twenty minutes to the crevice and another ten minutes off the ice!
Good! Charles cried out. He had no need to worry about his voice in the cold air. Are you holding up okay, James? Just give me a tug on the rope if so!
There was a pause and then he felt the rope at his upper waist tugged. He smiled and called back. Good! Just hang in there and well get out of this mess!
The storm quickly became far worse. What should have only taken them twenty minutes stretched into an hour. The wind grew so fierce, and they were forced to use their ice shoes to anchor themselves into the ice. With the rising of the wind, the fog began to lift, but they could see no better than before. Snow blew all around them, but could never stay on the ground. For minutes at a time, they were all forced to stand still, leaning into the wind with ice shoes planted in the ice. They tightened up their line, so much so that Charles could reach forward one arm to steady the donkey when he began to tilt with the gale.
When the wind died down enough that they could move forward, the snow made it nearly impossible to see where they were going. They did not let the rope stretch out, but stayed one pace behind each other. And still Charles could not see the Nauh-kaee that was ostensibly leading them through this madness. He could see Habakkuk behind him now, but he could also feel him for the Kangaroo had grabbed hold of the rats long tail and did not seem likely to let go.
It was after the fourth time theyd had to dig their shoes into the ice that Abafouq announced the good news. Just a little bit farther now! James called back. Charles passed the message on, and saw Habakkuk do the same. Charles caught a brief glimpse of Lindsey. Jessica was no longer on his shoulder, but was huddled against his chest, shaking, with her wings curled around herself.
Charles glanced forward and strode, looking to either side. He couldnt see very far. Snow drifts were being pushed around by the wind, but he thought he saw hints of changing shadows. He stared as he walked at one particular shadow, a slice of greater darkness in the miasma. A sudden break in the wind made it clear to him. They had reached the edge of the ice basin, and now the ice was cracking into fissures. Abafouq had said theyd need to reach one of these. He could only hope that Guernef had led them to the right one.
Not long afterwards, the Nauh-kaee stopped and allowed the rest of them to catch up. They huddled together in a circle, and Charles could see for the first time how absolutely cold his companions had become. Kayla and James both had chattering teeth, and both of them huddled together with Habakkuk for warmth. When Lindsey arrived, he wrapped his arms about them, keeping Jessica between them.
We cannot stay up here, Abafouq shouted over the wind. His voice was sucked away almost immediately, but Charles could vaguely make him out. Im going to untie Guernef and hell make his way ahead. We have to climb down this crack! Follow after me. Charles, youll be able to navigate this as you are, but be careful!!
Charles nodded and watched as the Binoq pulled out the knots keeping the Nauh-kaee tied to them. Guernef squawked once, and then stepped over to the Metamorians. He leaned over them, and spread his wings. The wind buffeted the wings, which nevertheless kept his friends protected from the cold. Kayla reached up one paw and patted his chest. Thank you! she cried through her clenched snout. The white gryphon said nothing, just held his position over the top of them.
Abafouq turned to the crevice. It was a narrow crack that seemed no different from the others. Charles saw that the ice flow extended beyond where he could see. Through the crack, snow had begun to accumulate. Abafouq sunk a good foot into it as he slid over the edge. The rat watched, keeping a firm grip on the rope. Abafouq slid down a few feet, clearing some of the snow in his passage. He gave a tug on the rope, and reluctantly, Kayla slid out from under Guernefs wings.
The skunk found her purchase fairly easily, and Charles could see that the crack had left a steady incline. James followed after her once she had disappeared over the edge. Charles moved closer and helped his friend make the first steps. James tried to look brave, but the rat could see that hed been quite shaken by the walk across the ice. Charles patted him once on the shoulder before watching him disappear down the crack.
He looked over at the Nauh-kaee and his three friends still huddling beneath his wings. Habakkuk had slid out, ready to follow after the rat. Shift the rope on your lower torso, the kangaroo advised, pulling on the end of the rope around his waist. Charles saw it, and then twisted to reach for the rope. He would have to go down the incline backwards, and so the ropes tied to him would tug in the wrong direction.
It only took the rat a moment to reposition the rope. Once he did, he nodded to the Felikaush and then set his hind paws over the edge of the crack. It was a narrow crack at first, but it widened quickly. There was at least a foot of snow clogging it already, and more was falling every second. Charles sank his claws into the snow until they found something to grip. Abafouq, Kayla and James had already plowed through much of the snow, so his path was mostly clear. But he still tread very carefully. He was especially careful with his tail, holding it high over his back lest he knock the poor donkey in the head with a whip of granite.
After dipping below the lip of the crack, Charles felt something remarkable: The crack shielded them from the wind of the storm! He could hear his friends grunting below, as they made their way down the incline. Charles smiled. The snow was still falling, but they had crossed the basin. He gazed behind him and could see the outline of a mountainside a short distance ahead.
But they still had to navigate the incline. They took it slow and easy. Charles wished he knew how weary his friends must be by now. Being stone, he felt none of that. Paw over paw, they made their way down through the crack. The snow deepened the further they went, until poor Abafouq had to let Kayla take the lead. The slope leveled out, while the walls of ice on either side continued on for another half-mile. They stopped at a relatively stable section of the chasm and waited. The Nauh-kaee glided down the wider part of the chasm, but had to drop the last ten feet. The snow erupted around him, but settled back down gently. For a moment as the gryphon fell, Charles felt as if the air had been rising upwards to meet Guernef to keep him from hurting himself in his fall.
We made it, Kayla said in surprise. And look, the path continues on. I can see it winding up along that ridge.
Yes, Abafouq replied as he slipped his snow shoes from his pack. They looked like wide wooden nets that he attached to his boots. The path will actually take us down the ravine for a good bit of time before leading us back into the peaks. After tomorrow, we probably wont see any snow for a little while.
Good! James shouted as his teeth chattered.
Now that were past the worst of the storm, Lindsey said, we need to find shelter for the night. Theres no way they can follow us through that! We wont even hear it if one of Jessicas spells kills them.
Abafouq nodded and pointed at the mountain. One more hour of walk and well reach a shielded promontory that we can make camp on. I think we can even risk a fire.
R-risk? Kayla chattered, even as Lindsey helped Jessica free from his cloak, The only risk youll face is if we dont build a fire. Im freezing!
Abafouqs eyes were wide for a single moment before he nodded to the skunk. He quickly turned and walked down the crevice over the snow. The rest of them followed after, plowing through as more fell behind to cover their tracks.
The Binoq had been as good as his word. An hours more walk led them to a small ledge in a gully between two mountain peaks. Although to an untrained eye there did not appear to be any path beyond, Charles spotted the way down into the ravine that Abafouq must intend to take them on. It looked reasonable, and it was clear of snow. In fact, they would go as low as the tree-line. It would be nice to again feel wood around him, and real ground beneath him.
They were low enough in the mountains to find several scrub bushes dotting the hillsides. Lindsey and Charles collected enough to build a warm fire that would last them until morning. James cooked up some sausage for the rest of them, though he and Habakkuk mostly ate warmed bread. An outcropping of rock shielded them from the elements, and it was there that they pulled out their canvas and erected makeshift tents for the night. Charles and James took the first watch while the rest enjoyed some much needed rest. The donkey and the rat sat near to the fire, keeping their backs to it while they watched the night sky.
The storm had continued on to the west, but they could still see it in the light of the moon. The sky was clear overhead and to the south. What snow the storm had dropped on the promontory had been swept clean by the winds in its wake. In a few corners patches of snow lingered, but they melted in the glow of the fire. For the first time since they had left Metamor, the air felt warm.
How are you feeling? Charles asked softly. The donkey had not said much after eating. He sat in his yellow spider-silk vest with arms crossed and legs pressed tightly together.
A bit chilly, still, James replied. Tired too.
Did you have any trouble on the glacier today?
James nodded slowly. I couldnt see anything, Charles. All I could do was follow the rope.
Thats all I could do either, he told him. He wanted to reach over and pat his friend on the shoulder, but knew that the donkey was uncomfortable with seeing his friend turned to stone.
But youve been trained for all of this, Charles. I was just there. If you hadnt found me after the assault, Id still be a nobody.
Id say youre doing pretty good so far.
James shot a hurt look at him, his ears folded back. Then why did you ask me if I had any trouble? Why are you always asking me if Im okay?
Charles felt the sting of the words and could only nod sadly. Because you havent done anything like this before. Youre right, I have been trained. Trained my whole life to be a warrior in one way or another. But this is no easier for me than it is for you. I had to leave my wife and children behind, and Im a creature of living stone. But Im still here hoping that you are doing well.
Im sorry, Charles, I didnt mean it like that, Jamess ears fell back even further, this time in shame.
Im not mad at you, James. Not at all. Whats real is that I know in my heart you can do this. I have seen others in my clan train to fight from a young age, but when they actually had to face a real enemy, they froze and didnt know what to do. But in the Belfry, you did not freeze. You fought, and did whatever you could to stop the Shriekers. Youve had less than six months of training with a sword, yet you did not flinch from doing the right thing. Shriekers are one of the deadliest creatures ever encountered, but you stayed to fight. That says a lot more about you than you know.
James shifted his hooves in the rocky ground. He took a deep breath, and then let out a soft sigh. What does it say about me? His voice was quiet and resigned.
Charles shifted on his legs as he regarded his friend. He was still in his centaur-like form, as there seemed little point in changing out of it unless he needed to. He opened his mouth to take a deep breath, but he had no lungs with which to breath. Instead he spoke. It says that you are the bravest man Ive ever met.
James looked at him incredulously. But Im nobody.
The rat shook his head. I doubt that very much.
His friend opened his snout to object one more time, when his ears lifted high. Charles felt something subtle. He lifted his finger to his muzzle. Though he did not know what it was, he wanted his friend to be quiet. James took another deep breath, and then settled back against the log, pretending as if he was just laying there uninterested in anything else. Charles hid his smile. James may not have been training long, but seemed to have such remarkably good sense that the rat could not help but wonder how great a warrior he could become in time.
What had caused their alarm, Charles could not say. He rested on the stone of the promontory, and scanned the mountainside. It was dark, apart from the moonlight. The mountaintops were bathed in a silvery glow that shined throughout the range. The path theyd trod upon was easily visible to Charles eyes, though he saw nothing untoward. Nor could he hear anything apart from the snapping of the fire behind him. On a whim, he shielded his eyes from the fire and scanned about their camp. There was nothing at all out of place. Then why was he suddenly so nervous? Surely their pursuers could not have followed them through the storm! Jessica never saw any sign of their pursuers while on the ice.
Laying back down on the rock promontory, Charles again felt as if something were wrong. He glanced to the donkey, and while Jamess ears were alert, he seemed complacent, his body sagging where it was propped against the rock. All around them were stones of various shapes and sizes, and apart from a bit of soil along the mountainside, it too was completely stone.
Charles felt a sudden hint of excitement. He pressed his hind paws into the stone, letting his toes slip into its embrace. The stone gave easily, almost inviting him to dip further into its substance. He knew better than to sink too deeply, lest he be unable to return. But with his hind paws in the stone, he could scout along its contours. He could feel the subtle pressure of his friends sleeping on their blankets atop the rock, and to one side was the scraping of Jamess hooves. All that he could detect. He even felt a herd of mountain goat on the lower slopes.
But he also felt a man, slipping in quietly on the small ridge just underneath the promontorys edge. Charles tightened his paws, claws scraping against his palms. He felt no other, so this must have been a scout sent ahead. He was walking very quietly along the ridge. It wound up and onto the promontory only a few paces ahead. Charles gestured with one paw towards the opening, and then pointed at Jamess sword. The donkey nodded, and gripped the pommel in one hand.
Charles slid his forepaws into the stone, and glided through the stone with unearthly grace. He felt his whole body becoming energized as his toes trickled past veins of granite and a few trace metals. He crouched low, his mind completely aware of the man who was climbing with both hands so silently that even the rat couldnt hear him. Whoever this was, he was an extraordinary hunter. And now, though he didnt even realize it, he had become the hunted.
James did not move from where he sat, but his eyes watched the rat intently. Charles immersed himself further into the stone, feeling his tail sink beneath the surface. He felt as if he were swimming in a lake with no bottom. Only his conscious effort kept him from being swallowed up by the rock of the mountain. He felt its promise luring his granite flesh, but he kept his focus on his quarry.
And then he saw the man coming up over the bend! He had a knife between his teeth, and he was clothed in heavy furs that made no noise. Charles tensed, pulling on his legs to draw them up out of the rock. James could see the mans head out of one corner of his eye, but he pretended he was looking elsewhere.
Before he leapt, Charles could see the mans lips smiling.
A moment later, Charles jumped from the stone and grabbed the scouts arms, pinning him to the rock. James was up, his sword drawn a moment later. The man slipped out of his furs and kicked at Charless face. He let out a yelp as his shin connected with stone. Charles snarled and swiped at that leg with a paw, but missed.
The donkey was there a second later, grabbing the mans arm and poking his belly with the sword. Surrender or die!
The man spat at James, and kicked him in the knee. James buckled and fell to the ground. Charles grabbed the mans waist and tossed him towards the fire. His back crashed into the rock James had been sitting against and he let out another cry. He was on his feet a moment later, but then stopped. Charles and James blinked.
Kayla stood with the blade of Rickkters katana pressed against the intruders throat, pinning him to the rock. Who are you? Kayla asked, a fire in her voice that surprised them both. The blade seemed to shimmer and dance in their eyes with a silvery sheen.
The man tried to kick at her, but she stepped aside and pressed the blade deeper into his throat. The others were stirring and coming out of their tent now. Kayla took the wakizashi out and lowered it to the mans crotch. Talk or I make you a woman.
But their enemy laughed. Deftly evading Kaylas blades, he smacked his forehead into her snout. As she fell backwards with a cry of pain, the scout tried to head back down the path. James leapt forward, grabbing him around the waist. They both went down, and rolled sideways, the man kicking his legs and clawing at Jamess face.
James! Charles cried, as the grappling pair rolled towards the promontorys edge. He darted forward, and grabbed the donkeys hooves in his arms just as the two of them dropped over the ledge. James let go in surprise, and the man cried out as he fell past the ridge and into the dark chasm beyond. His cries disappeared a moment later.
Charles felt the Sondeck flow through his arms as he hoisted the shaking donkey back up over the ledge and onto solid ground. Are you all right? Charles asked, his voice full of the fear hed felt only moments before.
James rubbed his hands over the solid ground and took several long deep breaths. Kayla rubbed at her snout and came to his side while the others began to look around for any other scouts. Charles knew that there were no others, but let them look anyway.
After catching his breath, the donkey looked up at the rat with a silly grin on his muzzle. Why do you keep asking me that? Surprised, Charles let out a bark of laughter.