Book I of The Last Tale of Yajakali
by Charles Matthias
|This is the fourth installment of a MK (Metamor Keep) serial. Go here for info on the MK setting|
Communion of Stone
Finally, Kayla exclaimed as she put one paw over her eyes, the sun is back!
Her remark was met with a chorus of agreement from the others. Though the path had led them into elevations where short grasses were abundant, the storm had been dragging heavy clouds in its train. It brought no further snow, and they were unsure if they should be grateful or not. After that scout had managed to reach them despite the storm on the glacier, they had all been badly spooked.
Several times in the last few days, Jessica would snap angrily at Abafouq and Habakkuk over the matter of their need for haste. Even the others were beginning to grow weary of running. James even thought that staging an ambush as the hawk suggested was a good idea. But with Lindsey ever in support of the kangaroo and Kayla reluctant to question their guides wisdom, Jessicas plans would never come to fruition.
At least there is no ice to melt here, Lindsey murmured as the group paused on a southeastward facing promontory. Behind them and far above a vent in the mountain exhaled a dirty smoke. Foqos Breath, Abafouq had called it. It was one more landmark on their journey through the Barrier Range.
The path ahead wound around a snow-capped peak towards the north where it began a twisting descent into the valley in the east. Somewhere to the south lay the Midlands, but they could only see more peaks. But a few of these were short enough to be surmounted by bare rock.
But that means that our pursuers will be able to gain on us more quickly, Abafouq pointed out. The Binoqs brow was furrowed in worry. He hopped back and forth on his boots. They had shed the ice-climbing gear two days ago, and according to the little man they would not need them for some time. We cannot afford to delay.
Jessica appeared ready to open her beak to squawk angrily at the Binoqs unwillingness to let her do something about their pursuers. Charles just stood on the rocky outcropping, digging his toes into the stone. There had been actual earth on the path the last day, and to feel the stone again was a great relief.
An angry squawk did sound, but it was not the hawks voice that made it. All eyes turned on the white gryphon, whose massive bulk was usually so silent and unobtrusive that they barely gave it notice any more. Intense golden eyes were turned upon the Binoq, and all of them fell silent as the two mountain dwellers communed.
Now? Abafouq asked, his face full of surprise. But what if the winds pick up, I cannot move them like you can. The black eyes narrowed and something seemed to be conveyed in a short cry. Very well. I will do my best. But when will we see you again?
Guernef let out one more sharp squeal before turning towards the edge of the promontory. His leonine tail flicked once, his legs tensed, and then he leapt off the edge. Charles blinked in surprise, and Kayla gasped in shock even as the Nauh-kaees wings spread and he soared upwards.
Where is he going? Jessica demanded, her voice raspy.
Habakkuk stared with one paw to shield his eyes. East, it looks like.
Jessica shot the kangaroo a dark glare. But why is he leaving us?
Hes going ahead to prepare our way, Abafouq explained. He did not tell me what he meant by that. But he told me where he would be waiting for us. At the end of Velks Gorge.
Velks Gorge? Charles asked as he let his toes sink into the rock. It felt so comforting.
A pass that I know. We came that way when we journeyed to Metamor. Well reach its end in a weeks time. But only if we keep moving.
Lindsey shook his head and crossed his arms. Not yet, my friend. First we stop to eat. From the look of things this will be the best place in miles. And besides, it will feel good to let the sun warm us.
For a single moment, before the eyes of his companions fell upon him like daggers, it appeared that the Binoq would object. His mouth opened, and then it quickly closed again. He swallowed and smiled. That sounds like a very good idea. He was almost convincing too.
The sun did not stay with them long. Not a half hour after they left the promontory, the trail that the little man led them on dipped into the shadow of the southern ranges. They were still warm for a few minutes more, but then the wind began to flow down from the higher peaks in the north, bringing with it an icy chill. Though there was snow on the ground upon which they trod, they could smell its cold promise in the air as it brushed past their faces.
Jessica was better protected than most with her thick pelt of feathers. She was designed to fly high up in the air where it was, more often than not, quite cool. Her arms yearned to stretch outwards into wings and let that gust of wind lift her high. When shed seen Guernef take flight, shed felt a smart pang of jealousy. All she wanted to do was to fly up high and see who it was that was following them.
It was all that she had asked, and after the last two weeks travel, it was the one thing she had been denied. Several times, Jessica had to stifle the squawk of impatience that wished to escape her throat. Charles said they struggled with a man dressed in furs, but that man had fallen over the side of the cliff. Charles described him like a barbarian from the Giantdowns. While it was possible that men such as they would follow them into the mountains, to follow them as far as they had, they must have a reason.
And Jessica was willing to bet that the reason had to do with what happened on the Summer Solstice.
She could remember it well: It had dawned a bright and beautiful day. Shed been reading Wessexs notes again, hoping to find whatever connections she was missing, when shed been summoned to the Dukes council chambers. There Habakkuk and the little man Abafouq told them of the history of Yajakali, of Marzac, and of the three weapons of darkness that had been crafted there so many millennia ago. And then, Rickkter had alerted them to Zagroseks presence.
Jessica felt an ache in her heart as she recalled what had happened next. They confronted Weyden, her beautiful hawk who had been the captain of Ambassador Yonsons guards. Two of his men, friends of Jessicas, tried to attack them, but they were cut down; and Weyden, her love, had been imprisoned.
Jessica found her talons tearing at the short grass that clung with bitter tenacity to the mountainside as she walked. There had been nothing worse than seeing her man kept a prisoner in the dungeons. Hed left the Patildor faith to be with her, and there had never been any regret on his part. Theyd made love once. Jessica trembled at that memory.
Not even finding the censerone of the three weaponsin the Belfry mattered much to her. The only way she would see him free again was to defeat the men that had corrupted Yonson and his two guards. She had to kill the men that controlled the censer, the dias and the sword of Yajakali.
And she knew that this group following them had to have been sent by those very people. If she could only fly to find out how many there were, and who was amongst them, she would feel satisfied. Now all she could do was look over her shoulder and wonder when next shed see them following.
With Guernef gone, the rest of the group seemed quieter than before. Kayla continued to follow after Abafouq, and Jessica couldnt help but note the way her paws rubbed across the hilts of Rickkters swords. James the donkey was a mystery to her, as shed never even heard of him before meeting him on the Solstice. Yet he did not offer up any complaints, and ever tried to stay close to Charles.
The rat was so difficult to understand sometimes, she wondered how Misha could put up with him. Although hed been an integral figure in the madness from the very beginning, he seemed to fight his involvement at every step. But now that he had become stone, he was placid and resigned. Hed left a wife and children behind, but if this hurt him, he never showed it.
Jessica studied the stone rat-taur for several seconds. It had been unnerving to watch his granite flesh move at first. But now it did not bother her so much. Even as she watched him, something strange seemed to happen. It looked as if he were shrinking. It was slight, the sort of detail only one with eyes as good as hers might notice, but it was there nevertheless.
Jessica looked town to his feet to see if he'd bent his knees to accommodate the trail. She never looked at his knees. Her eyes spotted the incongruity immediately, and she felt her heart skip a beat. The path had led them across a bare patch of stone, only Charles wasnt walking atop it. His paws were wading through it as effortlessly as water!
She glanced up to study his face. She could not see it well as he was in front of her, but the way his ears turned, she could tell that he was smiling. The hawk pondered that for several minutes. He could move through stone Agathes trap spell had done more to him than she probably intended.
Suddenly, Jessica felt her heart jump. Maybe that was how they could scout out the path behind them! If Jessica could not risk flying through the air, why could Charles not fly through the stone? She kept the thought to herself. Shed speak to Charles later. Yes, later that night.
Despite her best efforts, a delighted squawk escaped her beak.
Charles was grateful to the Binoq when the little man showed them a cave they could sleep in for the night. Their journey through the Barrier Range had brought them down out of the rocky crags and onto plains of grass and scrub. But as the day wore on, the Binoq led them on a meandering path up along one large mountain-face. To the rats relief, they left the grass behind.
The cave was narrow, but widened the further they went inside. Charles could feel many passages that lurked out of view or were too tight for any of his friends to find, but he restrained his sudden desire to explore them. All around them they could hear the faint echoing drip of water as it coursed through the rock. That sound set Charles at ease, and while his friends made their meal, he found himself sinking against the rock. It was dangerous to become so comfortable with such minerals; he could well remember sinking into the stone floor of the Lothanasi Temple when hed first become stone. There, Kyiathe spirit of the Keep itselfhad been able to keep him from disappearing into the rock altogether. Out here in the mountains, his only defense was his mind and self-control.
Ive lost track of the date, James murmured distractedly as he chewed on a bit of dried jerky. Does anybody remember what day of the week it is?
Out here, does it really matter? Lindsey asked. With one of his daggers, he stirred the small fire hed built.
James shrugged his shoulders. I guess not. I just wish I knew. It feels like weve been in these mountains forever.
You know, Kayla murmured as she looked up from her blades, that were unsheathed and nestled in her lap, I dont remember how long weve been traveling either. I used to have a count, but I dont anymore.
Three weeks, Habakkuk called out. The kangaroo had pulled out a small book and was writing in its pages. This is July the twelfth. We are making good time, I think.
Abafouq nodded slowly as he settled down next to the fire that Lindsey had built. He warmed his small hands for a moment before rubbing them along his arms. As good time as can be made. Some of the passes in the next few days will prove more difficult. But as long as we reach the end of Velks Gorge, I think we should be all right.
Jessica stretched her talons one at a time. Why would he leave us? And just what is he?
Guernef? Abafouq asked, looking over at the hawk in some surprise. But the little mans snow-hardened face bore a warm smile. He is a Nauh-kaee. They are an ancient race who have always made the Barrier their home. My people fear them, and not without reason, either; many Binoq who have traveled into their domain have been eaten by some of Guernefs brethren. Yet they are also civilized in their own way. He paused, his eyes alighting on the fire with both wonder and uncertainty. I do not really understand them, even after all these years. Guernef has always done exactly as he willed.
I suppose we can only hope he has some plan, Lindsey muttered as he put another few branches on the fire. Hed cut down several bushes along the trail and carted them on his back. By morning there would be none left. Abafouq had a substance he could use to simulate warmth, and Jessica could just create fire, but without fuel to burn, they could not keep a fire lit.
I am confidant that his reasons are good, Abafouq replied. I am thinking he means to help us escape our pursuers there, but I am not sure what he has in mind.
So we are trying to get to Qorfuu, is that what you said the place is called? Charles asked. He ran his toes across the mostly-level stone floor of the cave, but would not let them sink into the rock.
Yes. I was instructed to bring you there by the beginning of the month of August.
Which means we have another three weeks to travel, Charles said after pondering the dates in his head. Are we making good enough time?
The Binoq sucked on his lip and his eyes cast down to the fire.
I take it that means no, Kayla asked as she gripped the katana in one paw. She was studying the blades edge, but her eyes caught the Binoq carefully as she spoke.
I do not know how we were ever to make this crossing in the time that I was given. I fear I have no solution for you. He looked to Habakkuk pleadingly. I wish that I could do what our friend wanted, but Ive failed.
Habakkuk closed his book and shook his head. Rolling across his heavy tail, the kangaroo rested a paw on the little mans shoulder. You havent failed us yet, Abafouq. Just lead us through Velks Gorge. And trust in your friends.
My friends, Abafouq murmured. His eyes were still downcast. I havent had any friends in a very long time, Zhypar. Guernef has been my only companion for the last five years.
All of us, Habakkuk pointed out, have been drawn into this together. Whether we like it or not, we are here now. His gaze swept over each of them in turn. We did not all know each other before, but by this journeys end, we will be as close as any band of soldiers whove faced many battles together and lived.
Several of them nodded their heads in agreement. And we are likely to face battle again, Jessica murmured. Those men following us are not going to give up. Why not lay an ambush for them in the gorge?
Maybe that is what Guernef is doing? Kayla suggested. The skunk had risen to her paws and was slowly moving the katana before her in gentle arcs. He told us to meet him in a week. And we are supposed to be in the Binoq city in three.
Kaylas right, Habakkuk declared. I know this frustrates you, Jessica, but it is not your time to risk your life. Be patient.
Jessica flared her golden avian eyes at the kangaroo. Be patient? The man I love is in jail because of this, and I will not see him again until those villains are dead. You didnt leave anyone behind!
Habakkuk tensed and lowered his eyes. I am sorry, Jessica. Just, please, trust in the rest of us. Where are you going?
Jessica had started to hop towards the cave entrance. Im going to take the first watch tonight. She did not wait for any to object. Soon, she disappeared around the sloped entrance.
Charles rose to all fours and sighed. Ill be right there with you. Being stone, Charles did not need as much sleep as the others. In fact, even when he laid down upon his cloak he did not truly sleep. His dreams were full of stasis and agelessness. It did not feel like dreams or sleep at all.
He found the hawk a short distance away from the cave entrance. She had walked back along the path a good fifteen paces where she huddled against the mountainside. Her wings were drawn around her chest and Charles thought she might be crying.
Jessica? he asked awkwardly as he approached her. She stirred and looked up at him. Her eyes were dry.
Charles? Im glad its you. Im sorry I shouted at Zhypar back there. I should apologize.
He shook his head and did his best to smile. Im sure he understands. Hes right about one thing, were all friends here now. He paused and looked out across the dark skyline. The sun had set an hour ago, and the air was growing very cold. Stars shone overhead. A full moon hung in the Eastern sky. The mountains were bathed in its silvery light, and he saw strange shimmering bands of ice in the peaks. The sun brought forth scintillating color, but the moon seemed to draw out subtle blues and violets, like silken nightgowns for the rock.
We barely knew each other before this, Jessica reminded him. Wessex saw you in his dreams aligning with them.
Charles grimaced and nodded. I dont blame you for thinking ill of me because of that. But I want to help free your man too. You said that he proposed to you?
From his cell.
I have been in those cells a couple of times, the rat admitted. They grow old quickly. I trust that our friends at Metamor have learned that he is no threat and have released him. By now they should have. Thats all the hope I can give.
For a moment it seemed as if Jessica was not going to say anything more. She crouched against the wall with her wings wrapped tightly about her. The only color he could see in the night was the yellow of her armor covering her back between her wings. But then she turned and shook her head. There is something more you can do, Charles. And please hear me out. I know you want to find out who they are as much as I do.
You cannot fly at night. Even I know better than to let you do that.
No, I will stay right here. But you, you can move through the stonecant you?
Charles crossed his arms. I have done so a little bit. But I have not immersed myself fully in stone since we left Metamor. I dont know if Ill be able to get back.
But you can feel the stone. Ive seen you. Its how you spotted that scout, right?
He slowly nodded, but he felt very uncertain. I can do this, but but it is dangerous for me. I nearly lost myself in the stone of the Keep. If not for Kyia, I would have been gone. I may have been turned into stone, but I dont want to stay that way.
Jessica lowered her beak. You enjoyed moving your paws through stone. I saw the look on your face.
The rat shook his head and looked away. Yes, I enjoyed it. It was like nothing else Ive ever felt before. I dont feel the cold or the heat, and I cannot smell or taste the food that you eat. But the stone, that I can feel. When I merge with it, I feel everything it feels. Ive felt the way that tree roots have dug into its side, the pain of water coursing through its veins and weakening it, the weight of snow upon its crown, and dirt and forests around its foundation. Ive even felt animals climbing amidst its peaks. Yes, I can feel all of that, and it is like nothing Ive ever felt before. Why shouldnt I enjoy it?
Jessica let her beak open in a smile. Then you might be able to feel where our pursuers are. Please, Charles. Maybe we can stop them, you and I tonight. If we dont, they may find us and kill us in our sleep.
Not likely, Charles muttered. And Im not going to risk being trapped in the mountain for this. You dont understand. And she didnt. Even standing upon the rock made him wish he could just sink down into the comforting embrace of granite.
Jessica took a long breath and let her wings unfurl slowly. You are afraid youll be lost inside the mountain?
Something along those lines. Im afraid that once I am in, I wont be able to get back out again.
The hawk pondered that for several moments. Charles took those seconds to study the western peaks with his eyes. Though his eyes were now stone tooeach a gem of onyx worth more than some of the richest merchants had ever beheldhe could still see very well under the dark shroud of night. He saw a herd of mountain goats scaling one bluff, but apart from them, nothing else of flesh.
I have an idea. The hawks voice was subdued, but it held a vigorous hope. I can tie a band of magic around you that youll be able to feel. You can follow it back here when you are finished.
Charles thought on that for a moment. He knew that Jessica was a very talented mage and he believed that she could do what she claimed. Maybe all he needed was some anchor? It could be a guide line, like the one they used to cross the glacier with.
That might work We should test it first before I leave. He narrowed his eyes. Will you be all right out here by yourself?
Jessicas feathers began to lift. I know many defensive wards. Do not worry. You just need to find out who our enemies are. She closed her eyes for a moment, and Charles could see the stubby claws on her wings bending and tugging at the air. Just hold still. I will be done soon.
To the rat, nothing at all was happening. One minute he was standing on the slopes with nothing around him but the cold glacial air. The next he felt something pulling taut around his middle. He reached his paws down to feel it, and was surprised when his fingers found something. It was indistinct, and it grew more solid as he reached for where his navel would be were he standing on two paws instead of four. But he could definitely feel it.
I hope this doesnt make it harder for me to merge with the stone, he mused. Im going to try this. He felt the stone beneath him, and allowed himself to begin sinking. Immediately he felt a vastness engulf him. Sitting against his skin were his fellow Keepers. They were settling down for the night, curling up in their quilts. Lindsey was feeding the fire, but he was the only one still up.
Charles wished he could have taken a deep breath, but he had no lungs in his chest. So he let himself slip further down, sinking inch by inch into the mountain beneath him. He felt the stone slipping over his lower torso. The cord that Jessica had tied about him followed him without difficulty into the granite. He stared up at the hawk as he felt the mountain slide up along his chin. And then she was gone from his sight. All around him was a world of stone. He felt the depths of the Earth beneath him. Down somewhere was a great heat, even though above was the chill of air and all that was not stone.
In that single moment, he knew all that lurked inside the mountain. It was a place of great ores and powerful resilience. There was an assurance that all else might pass away, and it would still stand tall. There was something comforting about it.
The cord about his waist was the only thing that was so different. And he was so glad to have it. Charles turned his focus upon it and pulled himself upwards. The mountain passed beneath him and he broke through to the air. Jessicas golden eyes were wide, and her beak cracked in a grin. That was remarkable!
I think I can do this, Charles said, rubbing his fingers against the invisible rope. Just give me a moment to get my bearings.
The hawk could only nod and take a deep breath. Charles was jealous.
The rat was not sure how much time hed spent inside the mountain by the time he finally left the peak his friends slept upon. Moving through stone was not like scouting through a forest. In the forest, he could see the ground and the trees, and all the paths that lay between. As well, he had his ears and nose to tell him what else lurked nearby that he could not see. But beneath the rock and deep within the minerals of the earth, those senses availed him nothing.
All he could do was feel at the rock around him, and stretch out his mind to every part of the mountain. But to make himself slide along the deposits and down towards where one mountain touched another, that required far more than just knowing where the juxtaposition was. It required him to discover how the rocks flowed together, and to follow that path like a mineral settling in water. When the rock was more like his body, a mixture of granite and other hard sediment, Charles had the least amount of difficulty. But when he found iron deposits or veins of other ores, he had to slide around them. The first time hed tried to pass through iron hed felt as if hed been stabbed. He did not wish to repeat the experience.
But one thing he discovered was that he could move quickly around the veins of metal. The rock seemed to flow better, more tightly packed, like water spinning over a drain. Not all of the metals hurt him the way that iron did either. He felt a strange delight when he discovered a vein of silver. It was so smooth, and it warmed him. He could almost feel the moons rays nurturing him as he let his paws sink into the silver ore. It beckoned him, inviting him further. He could rest in its gentle womb beneath the mountain
Charles pulled his paws back out of the silver vein and continued to flow downwards. He recalled the words of Kyia when she expelled him from her substance: Stone is jealous and does not give up its secrets easily. He would have to be careful not to let these ores distract him.
He turned his mind to his Sondecki practice, and he let the tune of the Song of Sondeck fill his thoughts. Its melody was as delicate and strong as a spiders silk, and he found after the first few bars the momentary tremor that had permeated his stony flesh was gone.
The rock of the mountain did not flow towards its brothers standing by its side. Instead, Charles had to force himself to move against the grain of his fellow stone. This was more difficult without some sense of true direction. He thought that he might slide up out of the rock to find his way, but there had to be several feet of hard packed dirt above the rock. He would have to stay below.
He let one paw feel at the rope around his middle. It was still there, firmly pressing against his granite flesh. Charles let his thoughts stretch out across the mountain, and he found Jessica holding the other end of the rope, still leaning against the ridge. Her talons dug into the rock, and he felt the nick of those sharp claws as if she were perched upon him and not the mountain.
Reassured that he could still find her, Charles continued downwards, sliding through gaps between the layers of rock to make his way. He found a layer of copper that ran beyond where he could feel. It did not hurt him the way the iron did, nor did it seem to be tempting his mind into stasis as the silver had. He gripped it and felt along its path, moving rather quickly beyond where he felt the mountain. Within moments, he found a new sense of agelessness and immensity filling his mind. Hed reached the next mountain.
Charles was stunned and felt an intense pressure pushing him downwards and against the copper ore. He gripped the rope at his middle, and tried to steady himself. He sought to find his balance, but there was no balance to be had inside the mountain. He lost all sense of up or down. His only anchor was the rope, and the copper ore that his paws were sinking within.
Had the rat a heart, it would have been beating rapidly. He knew fear, but could not feel it. He did not stay steady, running his fingers along the rope, feeling its otherness and taking comfort in it. It was the only thing that remained not-rock.
And then the pressure eased, and Charles drew himself out of the copper ore. The mountain was silent and heavy, and he felt an eternal patience too. Somehow, the rat felt certain it knew he was there, and it did not appreciate having another probe its inmost form.
Hed never thought of mountains as living creatures. And they werent, at least not in the sense that the rat thought of as a living creature. But there was something there, some presence that did not want him there. And Charles had no desire to stay either.
Quickly, Charles began to feel out the edges of the mountain, looking for any others that might be treading upon its surface. He felt the hoof beats of rams along one slope, and the crush of trees and earth elsewhere. But that was all that he could sense. He tried to stretch out more, and he could begin to feel the various minerals and ores that were hidden away beneath the rock, and he felt out paths through the mountain, but no men.
Charles left the copper ore behind and began to follow one of the paths. It seemed to flow along the same route that the Keepers had taken to cross over top of the mountain hours ago. He recalled it took them a few hours to make it around the tall peak. It had not been a terribly interesting journey, but he felt where their boots and paws had disturbed the stone. This mountain remembered what men did.
With that unsettling thought on his mind, the rat returned his thoughts to his Sondecki training. He needed to stay in connection with his Calm and with his sense of self. The Calm he now bore was filled with antiquity, roots dug deep beneath the earth, and a crown of ice upon his brow. Charles swam in that repose, settling against the rock with quiet aplomb. A warmth pervaded his mind, a soft cushioning warmth. Here was the ultimate expression of his Calm. Here was the strength of the Sondeck perfected and kept safe for all time.
The rock spread around him slowly, and he began to stretch out his arms and legs. He aligned his body into the flow of the rock, sliding downwards into the earth, deep beneath the weight of the mountain. He could feel it all, feel his body as if from the outside. The pressure was enormous, and in the endless vagaries of the ages, the onyx would spread, perfected throughout his ore.
It was safe to be stone.
He was stone. Ore.
A Sondeck was his Calm. His Calm was to be ore.
Charles felt himself diffusing, and his thoughts were erratic, coming only slowly, measured and temperate. A subtle nagging pricked at the back of his consciousness, but the power of his Calm kept it at bay. For a time. But even the Calm itself wore away under the weight of ages and stone. Ore did not need to think as men think. Ore needed only to worry over its perfection, as a Sondecki his power.
But as his thoughts became sparser and less coherent, the nagging perturbation grew more prominent. All his musings fixed upon the incongruity that wrapped about him. Something was not-stone. Something about him was not ore to be refined.
And then, he understood what that cord around him truly was, and his mind flooded with memory.
Charles struggled against the confining walls of rock and ore that had been slowly forming around him. He pushed and pulled on the rope around his middle, truly frightened by this mountain. He felt the stone about him hold fast, gripping tightly and full of a tremendous fury. The rocks shook and trembled as he struggled, both paws holding to the rope. He could feel that his lower half was amorphous, transformed by the mountains will into a blob of ore. He concentrated on having four paws touch the ground, and a long tail behind him.
And he thought of his family: Kimberly dressed in a soft blue dress with a child held in each arm. The children were rats, small beings with tender ears and tails, and little whiskers and claws that were almost translucent. Their eyes shone with insatiable curiosity and cleverness, and though they did not yet speak, they called to him by name. And Baerle was there at Kims side, smiling with eyes bright to him, that gleam of impish mischief teasing him. He needed them all.
He wriggled, and pressed outwards with his Sondeck, pushing back the mountains clutching walls. He felt his forepaws breaking free of the ore, and he pushed harder, drawing out his hindpaws and tail with each new bit of pressure. The mountain above churned, and he felt the rock quivering in rage.
He knew he could never defeat the mountain, only escape it. Charles turned his thoughts to the paths through the rock. There just ahead was another juxtaposition. He did not know how the next mountain would react to him, but it was his only refuge. Free of the ore, Charles swam against the rock, drawing the magical cord after him.
When he crossed the threshold, he felt the towering anger disappear, and felt himself in a soft haze like a foam bath. Charles took a moment to regain his composure. He dared not trust his Calm, that the mountain had turned against him. Instead, he let his Sondecki rage work into his toes and tail. The latter lashed behind him through the minerals, but this mount did not appear to object to his presence.
Slowly, Charles felt outwards along the mountains body. His mind first went towards the promontory that Guernef had launched himself from so many hours ago. A small smile came to his lips, but died when he felt something else there now. Tensing, Charles followed the rock upwards, sliding along the inside of this quieter mountain. He could feel men standing and sleeping on the promontory. Their tent poles had dug into the rock on the leeward side. He could not feel them clearly, but they were there.
The rat touched the cord around his middle one more time, reassured himself that his body was as it had been, and then began to slide up through the mountain. He needed to find some place that he could emerge and study their pursuers. It would not do to pop out of the ground right in the middle of their camp!
It was strange to him that this mountain would be so willing to allow him passage when the last had fought to absorb him into its strata. Dimly, he was aware that the symbols of Akkala and Velena in his chest were glowing warmly. He could feel something in this mountain, something smoldering and powerful, and they glowed with its radiance.
Charles swam upwards, sensing something that made him tremble. There was a deposit of rock deep inside the centre of the mountain, a vein of metal unlike any hed ever seen or heard of. It was heavy, very heavy, and it smoldered. There were cracks in the mountain. He remembered seeing them, and seeing the slight haze that drew up from them and past the snow capped dome: Foqos Breath.
And here, in this vein of strange rock, were Foqos Lungs. A marvelous energy seemed to churn there, and the rock shimmered with a brilliance and heat that the rat could not bear. Water poured down and into the fissure, surrounding the ore, and it in turn burned with a blue nimbus that he knew he should not approach. There was something corrupting in it, something degrading.
Unsettled, Charles fled back to the surface of the mountain, crawling upwards through its veins, ignoring the minerals and other ores he found secreted there. His thoughts must stay fixed upon their pursuers. He could feel them below now. They were on the promontory theyd rested upon to eat their lunch. A half day behind them now. But who, who were they?
Could he have done so, he would have sucked the cold air into his lungs when his head breached the surface of the rock face. The night sky was luminescent, with the moon casting its boreal light across the jagged horizon. Charles blinked as he saw that the moon was almost directly overhead. It was nearly midnight! Had he really struggled that long inside the vein deposit? How close had he become to turning into real rock?
He could not waste time speculating. If he was not quick, then one of the other Keepers would come to take Jessicas place and they would discover he had left. When he returned hed have to tell them anyway, but hed rather find out who these men were first.
He drew his shoulders and arms out of the rock too. He rested his elbows on the stone as he peered downwards. He hoped the moonlight would not reflect off his onyx eyes, but none of them appeared to be looking up.
It took him a few seconds to make out any details of the camp. There were three tents erected on the ridge, one of them small enough for just a single person. He saw five figures standing outside on the ledge. Two guarded the camp from either side of the path, while the fifth stood in the middle of the promontory, arms crossed and staring out over the chasm beyond. Yellow light escaped the two tents, and he could see flickering shadows within. Judging by the size of the tents, Charles estimated that there had to be at least another six men.
He began to hear sounds coming from one of the tents. He turned his ears forward and pondered what they might be. It sounded like heavy breathing, almost grunting and there was laughter. A terrible laughter, the sort of laughter that men make when they are gloating over anothers weakness. And then a scream, both of agony and ecstasy. He shuddered, for he had heard such cries in the meaner sections of towns, where the prostitutes were forced to ply their trade in dirty alleys upon piles of moldy cloth and garbage.
The figure standing in the centre of the promontory turned at the cry. He could see the left side of the figures face limned in the yellow light from the tent. And Charles froze as he saw the dark scar rending the cheek. The flesh was otherwise soft, and he saw the robes now for what they were. This was no man: She possessed an unearthly grace and a terrifying countenance.
And he recognized her! That ruined face belonged to the Runecaster that had been there in the Belfry. It was she who had tied the Censer of Yajakali to Metamor, she who turned him to stone.
And now he knew it was she who was following them.
He sank back into the mountain. He could only hope that she hadnt seen him when she turned her head. There was no way he could allow them to keep following themnot with that mage in their midst. If he could kill her, then he would become flesh again. All he had to do was to fling her off the promontory. He could do that easily. He would slip through the rock until he was beneath her, and then grab her and thrust her forward. It would take less than a second. The fall would kill her.
Or would it? She was a powerful mage. There was no telling what sort of magic she could conjure. And then, she could fix him into a statue as permanently as the mountain had almost done. With a sudden start, he realized that she would be able to use the magical cord tied about his middle to destroy Jessica. Jessica did not know how dangerous her hold on that cord was.
No, there was no way he could risk his life to destroy the Runecaster. At least, not like that. Perhaps there was another way?
He felt the solidity of the stone about him and a thought began to form in the back of his mind. A Sondecki had the ability to project force; they could throw punches that struck their target across a distance. He didnt need to be close to that woman to kill her! He had to strike a blow that she could not dodge or block; a blow that would kill her and the mercenaries she had hired.
They were camping on the edge of a cliff. They had nowhere to run, should the mountain strike them...
Even as the thought filled his mind, he felt some strange resistance. There was reluctance in the rock to move. It fixed him in place. He tried to fight it, but found that his body was immobile. It was not like before where his granite flesh had melted into ore. He felt as if hed been chained like a prisoner for questioning.
A presence held him. It did not speak in words, but he could feel the edge of thoughts in it. Just as Charles had been aware of every strand of fur on his flesh, the mountain knew each stone that formed its being. No man cut off his flesh for nothing. Charles could feel the strange fire within this mountain smolder and grow in intensity.
He closed his eyes, and saw therein a part of the Metamor Valley. It was Spring; the flowers were blooming in yellows and pinks and a hundred other colors not found in any other season. It was a garden, with statues standing in it. The flowers lost their petals, but the leaves of Summer spread to absorb the warmth of the sun. And then they began to shrivel and brown as Autumn claimed them for its raiment. White snowflakes began to fall, covering the statues in a cool blanket. The flowers bloomed again when the snows melted, taking with them sands from each statue, wearing them down over the course of years.
Charles saw his face peering out from the passage of time. His eyes were onyx in the midst of marbled granite. The right side of his face was marred by black veins of onyx in the shape of a scrawling hand, the hand of the Shrieker that had touched him. He stood tall, defiant against the ages as they wore away his features, until he was an unrecognizable pillar of stone. Dimly, he saw other statues, all of rats, filling that garden set before the mountains. Seasons and rains came and washed their faces away too.
Beneath it, beyond this image, he felt the core of the mountain filling with an energy that could shatter its face. Something was building, some strange reaction that he did not understand. Charles reached through the image, dispersing those phantom statues, and pushed his Sondeck towards the unstable vein. The water churned and boiled as it washed over the luminescent ore. Steam filled the chamber, unable to escape through the fissures overhead. It pressed against the walls of the rock, fed by his Sondeck and the mountains breath.
And then, Foqos Lungs exploded in a torrent of violence! The rock walls of the mountain thrust outwards from the vein, and Charles felt himself thrown backwards. His paws grasped the cord around his waist and he pulled himself along it. Screams of anguish filled his ears, screams of metal burning and of men falling to their deaths.
He felt himself drawn back, back through the mountains. For a moment he experienced the anger of the mount that had tried to capture him press against his body, and then that too passed. His friends were close, sleeping warmly in their cave, while Jessica drew on the rope to bring him back.
Charles burst from the ground and collapsed against the pathway, digging his claws against the stone. His tail lashed behind him, nearly swatting the startled hawk in his distress. His mind was dizzy with images. He saw a warm light beneath him, and realized that the sigils of the Lothanasi upon his chest were glowing.
Charles? Jessica whispered in a squawk. Are you all right?
He beat his fists against the ground but would not get up. He dared not; he feared his legs would betray him, and in his vertigo he might fall off the side of the cliff.
He waited, staring at his grey paws. They were a marbled granite, cold and stiff. He rubbed his fingers together, waiting to feel them become flesh again. But they were stone. They stayed stone.
I am still stone, he muttered, a sense of desolation overcoming him.
Along his back Jessica placed one of her wings to comfort him. What did you see? What happened? I heard an explosion.
He laughed bitterly. I found them. I saw who follows us. I tried to stop them. I think I killed some of them. But I didnt kill her. Im still stone. Im still stone. He closed his eyes and beat his fists against the rock. The light in the sigils began to fade. He had failed.
Who did you see? Jessica asked. There was genuine fear in her voice now. He could hear it clearly.
I made the mountain explode, Charles said slowly. He would not look up at her. There was something inside I dont understand it, but I made it explode. I hoped to bury them beneath rock. I should be flesh again, but Im not. The hawk did not say anything, only brushing her wing over his lower back. His tail was curling around his hind legs. We have to keep moving. Habakkuk was right to warn you not to spy on them. She would have killed you, Jessica.
She? From the way her voice trembled, it was clear that the hawk had guessed who the rat spoke of.
Yes, the Runecaster who turned me to stone, Charles said, his voice empty. Shes the one who is following us. We have to warn the others. He finally turned and gazed into Jessicas golden eyes. I dare not risk moving through the mountains again. If the avalanche did not stop her, nothing will.
Jessica nodded slowly. The hawk gazed westward. In the moonlight, they could see the plume of smoke rising into the heavens like a fist.
Strange magic filled the Barrier Range. Agathe let her mind feel the way it coursed over and through the mountains. It was the only solace she ever had anymore. The magic here was pure, untainted by the disgusting predilections of men.
The same could not be said of her mercenaries. Their vulgarity had become a familiar counterpoint to the winds and eddies of the night sky. The moon watched them from above as if unable to look elsewhere. All the world held its breath and gazed upon the tent, listening as the mercenary the curses had made a woman was raped yet again by those who had been her comrades-in-arms.
The mercenaries hated Agathe and only did as she told them because of the money she paid them, and for fear that they would be burnt to ash as their foolish companion had. These were coarse men who saw women only as creatures to fill their bed and sate their lust. When the curses of Metamor had made one of their number a woman, they no longer saw her as a fellow warrior; in their view, the gods themselves had blessed them by giving them a creature with which to enjoy their unpleasant trek through the mountains.
And they took that pleasure each and every night. From the hour their tents were erected to the dawning of the new day, the woman would be sequestered inside while, one by one, each of the men had her. She gained no sleep, and as they days passed, had to be tied to one of their mules to keep her with them. Agathe had not known her name, nor did she care to ever learn. If it kept the men from looking at the Runecaster, so much the better.
What irritated Agathe was that in the moment of climax, when the men fulfilled their lustful desire, the flows of magic would be disturbed. Everything would tremble and realign, like a rock plunging into a still lake. She could see the moment coming. The currents of magic seemed to hold their breath waiting for the detonation.
She screamed. Agathe could not keep her head from turning. Her hand ached to draw a rune in the air that would reduce the woman to dust, but she could not bring herself to do it. The flows of magic were in disarray. The Runecaster let her gaze wander. Only one strand of magic did not seem to have trembled in the orgasm. It was rooted, and trailed off eastward.
Agathe stared, perplexed by what that strand could be. There was something familiar about its anchor She let her will slide up the mountainside, feeling for that strand. Her hands were before her, slender and glowing with a pale blue nimbus. The vent in the mountain began to swell from some unseen power.
Her heart clutched tightly in her chest and she gasped. Blood began to pour from her right eye socket. Get down! she hissed, even as she began to draw wards before her. Her fingers traced out runes that shined with violet light.
And then the mountain detonated! Rocks and debris showered over the cliff. The guards screamed, and she saw one of them flung over the edge of the ravine. Rocks cascaded around her, arcing off the shield she was building. A storm of dust and stone hurtled down the side of the mountain, and a second guard was lost in the haze.
One large boulder crushed into the promontory, and the rock beneath Agathes feet trembled, before sliding away. She traced a new rune in the air, and her feet left the stone behind. Her shield encompassed the tents. The two who stood guard screamed as they slid down the side of the mountain, their voices lost in the darkness below.
Seconds later, everything was still. One of the mercenaries swore as he stepped from the tent to see what had happened. One hand gripped his unlaced trousers to keep them from bunching around his ankles. His voice turned to a scream as he stepped into empty air and disappeared.
Agathe drew more runes in the air. The rubble began to slide downwards, firming up beneath the tent and her feet. Terrified faces stared at her from the tent flaps, but none dared to disturb her. Before their eyes the ground returned. At first it was nothing more than packed gravel, but slowly it solidified, until it was indistinguishable from the ledge that had been sent into the gorge below.
The Runecaster lowered her arms and stared at the gaping hole in the mountain. A geyser plume rose upwards, one full of decay and poison. It was not safe to stay there any longer.
Our enemy has struck us, and killed five of your men, Agathe announced. We leave now. Break down the tents and make ready to leave. We will not sleep again until we have them. They know I am here.
Youre going to get us all killed, one of the men snarled from the tent. We are not going any farther.
Refuse me and you will die now. Or I will make you a woman to appease the lusts of your comrades.
The man grunted, but did not object again.
Agathe turned and gazed eastward across the mountains. She did not know how they had done this, but she would never be caught unawares again. With one hand, she wiped the blood from her empty eye socket.