Book I of The Last Tale of Yajakali

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

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

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This is the seventh (and last) installment of a MK (Metamor Keep) story. Go here for info on the MK setting

Chapter VII
Journey Above and Below

   Of course the Keepers were curious about the strange ship that rode the air—but they were also too tired to object when their initial queries were turned aside by the enigmatic Nauh-kaee. Through Abafouq, Guernef told them that they must rest and recover their strength first; when they awoke, then would their many questions be answered. James was the first to fall asleep, and after Jessica cast another healing charm on the donkey, she, too, succumbed to exhaustion. One by one the rest of them let their weary eyes close.
   Only Charles remained awake to watch as white-capped mountains slowly glided past the ship. Banks of cloud gathered about them, but parted before them to allow them to pass. There were nearly a dozen Nauh-kaee flying in the air around them, with four harnessed to the front of the ship like a team of horses tethered to a carriage. There two more on each side, and another two in the rear. Guernef remained in the ship with them, watching each of them as they fell asleep.
   For the first time in a seeming eternity, Charles knew that he didn’t have to worry about his friends’ safety. He could relax and allow himself the leisure of more pleasant thoughts. Settling down near the rear of the vessel, he undid the straps on his back and set what remained of their belongings to one side. He then curled his long tail around his flanks and became very still.
   One of the disciplines he had learned in his many years at Sondeshara had been to remain still for hours and meditate on his Sondeck. Yet flesh could never be as motionless as stone. His granite body was immovable and finally at rest. Stone did not like to move, and while the Binoq’s spells had allowed him to move like creatures of flesh did, Charles was still stone and knew it was better to be still and let the world move around him.
   Ruminating on it brought him a measure of contentment. It was also the first time since the Runecaster’s curse had made him this way that he was not surrounded by rock. He didn’t have to share the world with the mountains anymore. He could be his own summit and root. The delicate yet firm wood of the boat was his trees, the saddle bags his bushes, and his companions the many lives he felt and watched over that made his slopes their home.
   The rat allowed himself to sink into those pleasing thoughts for several minutes before a sharp spike intruded. “Matthias.”
   He did not need to move at all to recognize the harsh squawk as that of Guernef the white gryphon. But it was the first time he had heard anything intelligible from the Nauh-kaee. Though it felt like a strain, he managed to turn his head in acknowledgement of the greeting.
   “Matthias, I must talk to you now while the others sleep. And you must talk to me.” The Nauh-kaee leapt over Habakkuk’s sleeping form to stand before the stone rat. The kangaroo’s ears flicked once, but he did not wake.
   He moved his jaw. “How can I understand you?”
   “Because I chose to allow it.” Gold and black eyes studied him with such predatory acuteness that Charles was surprised when his rodent instincts did not kick in. Normally, an avian who studied him so intently, and with so obviously little concern, would have made him tremble and yearn to find someplace to hide. But not now: He just didn’t understand why he should be afraid.
   Guernef did not wait for him to reply before continuing. The gryphon’s words were harsh and lecturing: “You have become too comfortable being stone. Twice now you were nearly lost to the mountains.”
   “But I am still here,” Charles pointed out. He felt vaguely threatened now, and felt his Sondeck begin to flare to irritated life.
   “I see your thoughts. They carry on the wind. You have begun to see yourself as the mountains see themselves.”
   Charles, unblinking, pondered the words. He had felt the intense pressure inside the peaks of the Barrier Range. Their roots went deep into the Earth where it was always warm, and life grew along their base, climbed their slopes, and was supported and observed in every way by the snow-topped summit that shouldered the sky. No age went by without their notice; they could be jealous warden or helpful protector. It was an appealing notion. He did feel rather like his life had been in pursuit of the latter ideal…
   “Stop it, Matthias.” Guernef’s command was strident, and his eyes burned ever fiercer. “Your body is stone by an enemy’s curse, but you are in danger of letting it crush your soul. You may dream of being a mountain, but it can never be. Only a part of you is cold granite—and not the better part. But if you allow it, you will either be trapped as mineral, or you will become a stone spirit. Either way, you shall be forever bound to your mountain, unable to leave.”
   “But Akkala and Velena have marked me,” Charles lifted one paw and gestured to the two Lothanasi symbols that glowed with a faint light upon his chest. On the right was the twin spirals of Akkala; on the left, Velena’s circle atop a cross that resembled a looking glass. The Goddess of Healing and of Love. When the Runecaster died, their power would return him to flesh.
   Guernef was clearly not impressed. “If you give in to stone, you will fail them. You will stay a creature of stone and never again see those you love.”
   “That is not what I want.” In his mind he felt his children climbing up his slopes and his wife Kimberly and Baerle picking cherries from the bushes that grew in his soil. The thought pleased him.
   The Nauh-kaee lunged forward with a violent squawk. Charles felt so lethargic, he could not even bring his arms up to defend himself. The beak closed about his neck and he cringed as it scraped and nicked his granite flesh. Guernef leaned back slowly, his wings spread menacingly. “You are a fool! Be flesh for them, not stone! Remember them as flesh, or you will leave them in misery.”
   “I will keep them safe,” Charles assured him, remaining still, though very upset that he’d been scarred. It would take decades to heal.
   “You will leave them in sorrow.” Guernef snapped, and the rat felt the words jab into his mind like a knife. “Stone is jealous and thinks only of itself. You are better than that. Do not leave your wife without a husband and your children without a father. Is that what you truly want?”
   Charles shook his head slowly. It took some effort. “No. I want to be both. I want to keep them safe and see them grow. I miss them all terribly.”
   The Nauh-kaee’s voice became softer, almost compassionate. “A mountain can only watch; it can never be involved in the lives of those it loves. Yours is a soul for flesh. Do not be seduced by stone’s cold promises!”
   The more he thought about it, the more the rat knew that he wanted to be able to hold his children in his arms. He yearned to train his youngest, Ladero, in the arts of the Sondeckis. He certainly could not do that as stone…
   “What would you have me do?”
   Guernef leaned back on his haunches; his leonine tail flicked lazily up and down. “As stone, you will not feel the need to sleep. Spend this time thinking of your family, and all those you love, that you left behind in Metamor. Think on all those things that you would like to do for each of them when you return. Things that require you to be flesh. Recall all that you have done with each of them, and recall what it felt like to have fur and skin instead of just stone. Think on those things of flesh and blood, not stone and rock.”
   Charles’ head shifted its position in a ponderous nod. “I will do as you suggest.” Guernef regarded him intently for a moment before turning his gaze away. “I never asked for this,” the rat noted. “But I have been able to help them as stone in ways that I could never have as flesh. Shall I forget that?”
   “No. Remember it later.” Guernef paused and then opened his black beak again. “When you enter the caves of Qorfuu, you will be surrounded by ancient stone. It will be very appealing to you, but you must not join with it, ever. The winds can only keep you aloft for so long.”
   Charles was not sure what the Nauh-kaee meant by that cryptic remark, but nodded again. “I will do as you say. Thank you, Guernef. And thank you for finally allowing me to understand you.”
   “What was said was for your ears alone. I would not have otherwise.” And then the Nauh-kaee leapt back over Habakkuk and settled down in the centre of the ship. Within moments, he appeared to be asleep.
   Charles settled back into his torpor, but this time filled his mind with images of Kimberly, Baerle, and his children. One by one, he thought of them and what he would do first when he saw them again. He smiled. Just thinking about kissing his wife reminded him how good it would be to wear a body of flesh again.

   It was well after dawn when James opened his eyes again. He found himself staring at the bottom of the air-filled cloth balloon that held the ship aloft. The taut tethering ropes audibly thrummed at each change of the winds. The air was surprisingly warm, and for several long minutes, the donkey could not understand or guess where in the world he was.
   Finally, the soreness throughout his body brought his mind back to the present. He blinked a few times and brought a stiff hand up to gently probe at the left side of his face. The damage done to his eye had been healed by magic, but he winced several times as he ran his thick fingers across his muzzle. He felt the faint outlines of scabbed wounds crisscrossing his hide. Would he bear these scars the rest of his life..? He rather hoped they would him look distinguished, instead of deformed like some pensioned-off soldier who drank his days away at a tavern, talking about the good old days until one day he just couldn’t get up anymore.
   James sighed and looked around. The others were still asleep, though from the way they were stirring, it would not be long until they woke too. Charles had his back to him and appeared to be intently going through his belongings for something. For a moment James thought to speak and talk to his friend… but no, he needed a moment alone.
   It was strange, now that he thought about it. For most of his life James had felt isolated, and now that he was traveling with true comrades—people he’d come to know and that had come to know him—he wanted to be alone. It was not that there weren’t other people he’d known throughout Oh, the donkey had friends enough; it was just that he’d always felt as if life were a festival of sorts, and he was on the outside looking in.
   He’d spent his entire life at Metamor, and for many years he thought he might never venture beyond the city walls. His father and older brother had been killed during the Battle of Three Gates, leaving him alone with his mother. He’d been just old enough to be changed by the original spells, and so had been trapped at the city. At his mother’s behest he had not tried to join Metamor’s armies; instead, he apprenticed himself to a butcher shop to help support them both.
   And then his mother died shortly thereafter, leaving him with nowhere to go. When he went on his yearly patrol mission, the other soldiers dismissed his abilities with bow and sword, making him feel even more useless. Eventually, he’d given up entirely on ever doing anything more than chopping up meat and selling it. He didn’t even have hope of becoming a merchant himself, let alone achieving anything like prosperity or importance.
   Such was James’ life until the Winter Assault. That crisis shattered his existence, robbing him of the few people who knew him. At first he’d thought himself cursed. He’d been sent on an errand into the castle that day. He could remember cursing the hideous storm and how it would naturally fall to him to do that odious chore. And then soldiers hustled him into the Cathedral to keep him safe. When the fighting ended, he’d found that everyone else at the shop or in town had been killed.
   For days he wandered as if trapped in a nightmare, unsure of what to do. At odd (and oddly frequent) moments, he just broke down and cried. Never had he expected any help from others. It was true that Charles found him a place to stay at an Inn and bought him a meal, but he’d thought it was all some elaborate hoax that would end with him being indentured to pay off his tab.
   It took him some time before he began to realize that the rat meant exactly what he said. He truly wanted to help James get back on his hooves and do something good with his life. Nor had it been merely an act of charity; Charles befriended him, and while the rat could be a bit overprotective at times, he was still a friend.
   Those five months in Glen Avery had seemed a dream. For once, others sought to involve him in their lives. He was not constantly denigrated; rather, he received as much assistance as he gave, and those he helped thanked him for it. And not one of the rat’s companions acted like James didn’t belong at the table with them.
   And now here he was in the company of new friends, fighting to stop a terrible evil. He still didn’t understand how he could hope to do any good, but he knew that for his friends—for Charles, especially—he would try his hardest.
   Feeling the warmth inside the boat fill him, he began to stretch out his legs and arms. The rat heard him at last and turned his head. “Ah, good morning, James. How are you feeling?”
   James let a smile cross his supple lips. “Better. Still sore, though.” Though he’d wanted to be alone earlier, after spending a few moments considering how events in his life had turned he didn’t really want that anymore. He was happy for the conversation.
   “Your face is looking much improved. Jessica’s healing magic has definitely helped.”
   “I hope I won’t be disfigured.” He saw the lanky black hand-shaped scar that adorned the right side of the rat’s face, and would do so for the rest of his life, even after he returned to flesh. James immediately felt guilty. “Oh! I’m sorry—I didn’t think…”
   “Don’t be sorry.” Charles shook his head and idly slipped the scroll case he held in one paw back into a satchel. “It could have been healed, but I asked for the gods to leave it.”
   James blinked in surprise, ears tilting forward. “Why?”
   “I was touched by a Shrieker, and I lived. This mark is proof of it. How many others can say that? I doubt there is anyone else alive in this world who can make the same claim.”
   The donkey laughed quietly as he finally understood. “You’re showing it off?”
   “I can think of worse scars,” the rat replied with a shrug. “But you won’t have to worry. I doubt your cuts will leave any scars. At least none that might show through your pelt.”
   James nodded and leaned back against the gunwale. Lindsey was stretching his arms wide and yawning, but his eyes were still quite bleary. Beside him, Habakkuk was working a few kinks out of his legs.
   “What is this ship?” James finally asked, gesturing with his arms. Lifting them high hurt a little, but no more than after several hours’ practice with his sword.
   “I wish I knew,” Charles replied. His black gem-like eyes narrowed as he examined the interior of the hull. “It seems to be of Åelvish design, although it’s far more plain than I would expect from them. But you can see a few traces of their handiwork. Look at the inside of this crosshatch. Notice the fine lacework? That’s a knot peculiar to the Åelves.”
   James followed the rat’s finger and saw several strands of the wood underneath the cross beam were intricately interwoven. As he looked at it, he thought for certain he saw that it was shaped like a mighty tree. His eyes widened in fascination. “Remarkable!”
   “It is a creation of the Åelf,” said a third voice, a strikingly powerful one that echoed in his ears. The donkey turned and saw the frightening Nauh-kaee, Guernef, standing before him. James hadn’t even heard him land!
   “You can speak!”
   “I can,” the creature stated. “And I will speak of many things, including this ship, once you and your friends have broken your fast. There are many days yet to our journey before we reach our destination, so rest and recover. Soon I will answer what questions I can.” And then the white gryphon jumped into the air and dove over the side of the ship. Before either Charles or James could reach the other side to see what had happened, he swooped upwards and into the distance, wings spread wide and body lifted upon the winds.
   “I hope he doesn’t do that again,” James said as he peered over the edge of the ship. Though many mountain peaks glided past at eye level, the ground was still a long way beneath them.
   “I fear we have many more days of this to go.” Though there was a far-away look in the rat’s eyes, James knew he was just as queasy about being so far from the earth.

   It was another hour later before the rest of the Keepers were finally awake and fed. Some of their food had been lost on the river, and so they had to make do with hard bread and a bit of cheese. Nobody wanted to speak of their flight, which had left them all (except, perhaps, Charles) sore and aching. But each of them wished to learn more about the vessel the Nauh-kaee had rescued them with. Not even Abafouq knew what it was.
   They marvelled at the massive balloon that kept them aloft; they watched the Nauh-kaee who flew along side of them; they took turns peering over the side of the ship, only to sink back inside a moment later with an uneasy look in their eye. All except Jessica, who initially made light of their acrophobia while pretending to replicate Guernef’s frightening dive—but she abandoned such jests after seeing the looks of nausea that some of them quickly bore.
   When Guernef finally returned to the vessel, some of the Metamorians had grown impatient. “Charles said you can talk,” Lindsey announced as he sat on his satchel against the side of the hull. “So tell us what this ship is, and where it’s taking us.”
   Guernef stared at the northerner with deep golden eyes. Lindsey kept his arms crossed, refusing to be intimidated. But that did not seem to be Guernef’s intent. “The ship, as some have already guessed, was built by the Åelves many millennia ago. Know that it is the nature of all creatures to be born, grow into maturity, enjoy the wind on which they ride, and then die. In death, they make way for a new generation to tread the world. When the Åelves made this ship, they were in the height of adolescence. No part of this world could go unexplored or unmastered—not even the sky!”
   The Keepers all crowded a bit closer to listen to the Nauh-kaee. Charles could not help but grin as he heard the inflection of a true storyteller buried somewhere beneath the monstrous feathers and fur; even Abafouq appeared rapt with awe.
   “But the Åelves are a long-lived race. As time passed, and they left the peaks of adolescence for the crags of maturity, so did they leave the air to creatures born to it. Their fleet of ships they tore down, creating memorials to their days in the sky, but never again venturing into its heights. Our races have long been friends, and it was our knowledge that led the Åelves to ride the winds. So it was to our race that the last vessel was given. It is called Nak-Tegehki by my people—The Sky Leaving.”
   Kayla frowned and gestured at the ship. “I heard that the Åelves always made very intricate buildings. Apart from a few pieces, this ship looks quite plain.”
   Guernef turned his head to her, eyes intense. “You have seen clearly. Know that wood rots, including the wood from which the Åelves shaped this ship. And in the time since that shaping, we have replaced every bit of wood many times over—but we are not craftsmen of wood, cloth or rope. That is why much of this is plain. From age to age, however, the Åelves send us a piece they have fashioned for Nak-Tegehki, and we preserve them as best we can.”
   “I had no idea that the Nauh-kaee possessed such a vessel,” Abafouq said in amazement. There was a look of disappointment in his face though. “I had no idea.”
   “It was a gift from the Åelves to the Nauh-kaee. Now it is being used for the first time, as a gift from the Nauh-kaee to the seven of you. Perhaps the Åelves, in their wisdom, bequeathed it to us for this very time. None can say, and the winds only carry us where we must go. They do not tell us the why.”
   “And where is it we are going?” Lindsey asked as he crossed his booted feet at the ankles.
   “To Qorfuu,” Guernef replied. “It will be some days before we arrive. But it would have been another two months on foot, and none of us can spare that time.”
   “So why didn’t you bring this ship to us when we began our journey?” Kayla asked while one paw absently rubbed the hilt of her katana.
   Guernef shook his massive head. “The winds were not right. And it had to be summoned. Only one amongst my race can call Nak-Tegehki, but it takes many to guide it.”
   “And who is this lone summoner?” Jessica squawked curiously.
   “It is I.” None of them appeared particularly surprised by this. “I am the Kakikagiget of my people, as Abafouq has told you. In your tongue, my task means ‘Listener of Winds’. I act as storyteller, sage, and soothsayer for my people. I alone control the true magic of the winds, and I alone can summon Nak-Tegehki.”
   “So why tell us this only now?” Charles asked from the rear of the group. Even laying on his lower torso, he was still taller than the rest. It was strange not to be the shortest of his friends.
   “And for that matter,” Lindsey added, “why couldn’t we understand you before?”
   “I was not ready for you to understand me,” Guernef replied in a businesslike manner. “You know now because the winds say it is time for you to know.” He lifted his head and his wings began to stretch. “I must fly.”
   Before any of the others to object, Guernef jumped out of the vessel again. James covered his eyes quickly to avoid seeing the gryphon fall over the side.
   “Well, that was cryptic,” Habakkuk remarked in amusement.
   “You’d know something about that,” Charles pointed out, though there was good humour in his voice.
   “I fear I did not know this,” the kangaroo replied, patting his paw on the wood beneath him. “I’d love to know how they are able to fashion wood, even plain pieces like this, without hands. Ah, well.”
   “I guess there’s nothing else we can do, then,” Kayla said as she leaned back against the side of the hull. “And we have ‘some days’ to go before we reach this this ‘Qorfuu’… Does anybody know many days is ‘some’?”
   Abafouq shrugged his shoulders. “It is a small number of days, as Guernef has told us. I fear I do not truly know.”
   “I thought you lived in these mountains?” the skunk inquired.
   The Binoq laughed. “On and beneath the mountains! Not hundreds of feet above them! I do not recognize them from this great height.”
   “Oh, of course,” Kayla laughed a bit, and slowly she began to smile very wide. “You know, this is the first time in a very long while that I can remember being able to just sit and relax, without worrying about anything.”
   “Should you grow bored, I’d not advise taking a walk,” Lindsey grunted as he hunkered down.
   “But what can we do here for so many days?” Jessica asked while stretching her wings.
   “Talk,” Charles said. He leaned forward some, paws resting at his middle. “And I know just the way to start. I suggest that we tell each other the first thing we’ll do when we return to Metamor.”
   Even Abafouq managed to find something to say.

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

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