Book I of The Last Tale of Yajakali

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

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

Home -=- #10 -=- ANTHRO #9 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-
This is the sixth installment of a MK (Metamor Keep) serial. Go here for info on the MK setting

Chapter VI
Mountain Chase

    “How did they catch us!” Kayla shouted as she held her ski above her head. An arrow grazed past her spider-silk vest. The yellow armor did not appear to be harmed.
   “Who cares, just run!” Lindsey replied as the seven of them scrambled further down the ravine. All around them, arrows were clattering off the stone. The spider-silk armor that Habakkuk had fashioned for them was doing its job. Not a one of them had been skewered so far.
   Abafouq chanced a glance backwards, before he ducked to avoid an arrow aimed at his head. “They are on the ridge,” he called back. He fumbled one hand in his belt pouch. “I didn’t see the Runecaster.” Abafouq threw something small at the ground; whatever it was, it belched heavy gouts of smoke when it hit.
   The smoke billowed upwards, and the seven of them were quickly under its protective cover. But the archers kept firing. James let out a cry and gripped his arm tightly. A bit of blood dribbled from a small cut. “It’s nothing, I’ll be all right,” he stammered as he stumbled along after the stone rat.
   “We won’t survive like this,” Lindsey pointed out, growling under his breath. “Jessica, can you shoot them with a lightning bolt or something?”
   The hawk jumped from the northerner’s shoulder and flitted onto Charles’s back. The rat glanced back at her once, and watched as she shifted into her more-human form. “I need to perch here to cast spells, Charles.”
   “Do what you must,” the rat replied as he scrambled forward, grimacing as the smoke cloud began to break up. There had been a brief period of a few seconds in which no arrows had been fired. But now, more missiles fell around them.
   And then a fierce gust of wind came down the valley, and the last remnants of the cloud were swept away. Jessica let out a squeal, folding her wings before her. A ball of energy crackled between her feathers and then streaked up towards the ridge. It shattered in a cascade of sparks as it struck some invisible barrier that shimmered blue like a giant lens. Jessica squawked in dismay and fired a second blast. It proved no more effective than the first.
   “She has a shield of some kind!” the hawk cried in frustration.
   “So should we,” Habakkuk snapped as he hopped down the slope. He landed on a loose stone and his legs slid out in front of him. Lindsey grabbed at his shoulders and helped him back up. “Thanks!”
   Jessica twisted her wings, maneuvering her claws in intricate patterns; something formed above her, a shimmer in the air, not unlike a mirage but hopefully far more substantial. Abafouq threw down another cloud pellet to cover them—just in time. A fiery bolt of lightning arced down from the ridge, and cascaded into the billowing smoke. Jessica saw it coming, and shifted  her newly-created shield to block the bolt. She cried out at the detonation, and the ground seemed to shake.
   “I can’t hold her!” Jessica called back, even as she tried to draw strength from the magic around her.
   “What do we do?” James heehawed in fright.
   “The river!” Lindsey declared. An arrow came down and sliced across his hair. He twisted his head aside. “It’s our only hope!”
   “But we’ll die in the rapids!” Abafouq shouted in alarm.
   “And we’re going to live here? The rapids we can survive for a little bit. We have to try it!”
   Charles wanted to feel at the rock, but dared not with the Runecaster so close at hand. The thought of getting in the water was just as unappealing to him as it had been before. “I can’t ride down the river like this!”
   A gust of wind sliced the grey cloud in two. Tight whorls of smoke vanished, indignantly. Abafouq threw another pellet to the ground and snapped, “I have not many more of these. We have to move fast. Jessica, get off Charles so he can shrink. The rock drops here. Let’s get down this first. It’ll provide us some cover.”
   Charles felt an arrow bounce off his shoulder. Jessica, squawking in protest, jumped down from his back, her whole body shuddering. A blue bolt struck the rock just over the rat’s head, and the slate shattered into a million tiny fragments.
   “Ah, my eye!” James shouted, one hand clutching his face. Blood trickled down his cheek from beneath his hand, and the stone shower had gouged several gashes into his hide.
   Habakkuk wrapped one arm around the donkey’s shoulders and pulled him forward, lowering his head. “Get down!”
   Abafouq and Kayla jumped down the quick drop. The ravine leveled out slightly there, but the river still surged. A small pool eddied behind the latest of a series of waterfalls, but soon the water was all white froth again.
   Charles climbed down as quickly as he could, and then fell to the rock below when another bolt of lightning struck the slate a foot past him. He felt its death knell like the screaming of a thousand voices scattering into the wind.
   He looked back up and instinctively lifted his arms over his head as an arrow surged towards him. It bounced off of his arm and he felt a twinge of pain. Looking down, he saw that he’d been chipped slightly.
   “Come on! There’s no time!” Kayla shouted, her eyes wide with fright. She had her ski in the pool next to Abafouq’s. The Binoq had another pellet in hand; his last smoke cloud still hovered above them, but it was already dissipating.
   Jessica was down next. She cried out an incantation, forming a shield that glowed with a pale green nimbus. It spread out to cover her friends as they scrambled down the six foot drop. “Charles, help me with James,” Habakkuk called down. The donkey’s hand was pressed over his left eye; that side of his face was a gory mess. The rat narrowed his gaze as he saw that it was a crimson ruin held together only by sheer will.
   “Jessica—James needs healing!” the rat shouted, even as he rushed to grab his friend’s hind hooves and guide him down the drop. Lindsey jumped over their heads and tossed his ski into the pool, his oar already in hand.
   “Not now!” Jessica creeled unhappily. “I can’t leave this shield!”
   “Abafouq!” Charles snapped as James leaned against him. “I need you!”
   The Binoq handed his pellet to Kayla, who studied it curiously before throwing it down against the ground. The smoke rose quickly, billowing upwards to restore their concealment. Another bolt of lightning smacked into Jessica’s shield; the hawk could only squeal in pain.
   “This is a wound that will take some time to heal,” Abafouq announced after a quick inspection of the donkey’s face.
   “Do what you can before he dies!” the rat snapped.
   The Binoq rubbed his palms together and then reached up, touching the side of James’s snout. A warm glow came from his fingertips, and the donkey began to breath easier. He lowered his hand, and though his eye was still a ruin, the bleeding had stopped. “That will have to do for now,” Abafouq announced, and then ran back to the pool.
   “Thank you, Charles,” James replied, and then stiffly moved over to the pool. He slipped his ski into the water. Habakkuk had his oar in hand, and he furiously grabbed some of the satchels from the rat’s back.
   “Shrink down, we’ve no time!” Lindsey cried. Charles did so, even as another gust of wind cleared the smoke away.
   “By Tequ’s Sword, how many times—” Abafouq swore as he fished another pellet from his pouch. An arrow whizzed past his ear, but not before he sent another gout of grey smoke to fill the ravine.
   Lindsey grabbed Charles and dumped him into his pack. The rest of them each grabbed some of the packs that the rat had been carrying and stuffed them on their rafts. Lindsey slid onto his and pushed off with his oar. “Quick, hold tight to the rope. This is going to hurt.” Each of them grabbed the rope, while Jessica held her position on the stone.
   “I’ll follow you soon, just hurry!”
   “We can’t leave you!” Kayla called back.
   “I can fly, don’t worry!” Jessica said. A bolt of lightning smacked her verdant lens, which cracked with a sound like a rock thrown through a window pane.
   Lindsey kicked off, pushing his raft into the current. All of them held the rope tightly as it tugged, dragging them along faster than they’d ever gone. The river dropped over another pile of rocks, and Lindsey disappeared over the lip. Had Charles been flesh, he knew he would have felt vertigo watching the way the ravine walls swam around him, twisting and turning. Water sloshed and fell across the knapsack. He held tight, shuddering at each touch of the stone-eating fluid.
   “Jessica!” Habakkuk shouted. Behind them, the hawk was hopping backwards along the level outcropping. She was slowly shrinking in size, keeping the cracked lens in place as another bolt of energy smashed into its centre. Pieces of magic were forced away, only to disappear as the hawk lost her hold on them. The cloud of smoke was already beginning to evaporate.
   Unable to maintain her shield any longer, Jessica jumped into the air and twisted about, flapping her wings hard as she dove down along the ravine’s edge. An arrow brushed past her wings, but she pulled them in tight at just the right moment. Several more arrows followed her… but she evaded them all, and was quickly out of range.
   The ravine turned sharply left, and soon they all lost sight of the mercenaries. A bolt of lightning struck the southern wall and a shower of rocks plummeted into the water below. Lindsey furiously drove his oar into the water to guide them away from the falling chunks of slate. He gagged as the froth swept up over his face. Abafouq cried out as one of the packs was knocked from his raft and disappeared beneath the rapids.
   “Forget it!” Habakkuk shouted as he tried to keep the rear in line. “Just keep—” he spluttered as the water rushed over him. His ski almost tipped over, but he righted himself just in time with a swift shifting of his long tail.
   The ravine dropped rapidly, and while there were no more waterfalls, the river bounced from rock to rock. It was all Lindsey could do to keep them from smashing against the larger stones. Charles snuggled in tight in the knapsack, hoping against hope that it would not be swept off the raft and into the malevolent rapids.
   James still felt a dull throbbing in his left cheek and eye. He held his ski tightly, being careful not to let his fingers be crushed against the rocks as they wove back and forth along the river. He kept his head low and ears down, but still he felt agony all over from each bump and shuddering of the raft. His clothes were soaked within seconds, and he gasped for breath in the soupy froth. This was insane!
   Abafouq was mostly spared from the bumps and bruises by the pile of satchels that he surrounded himself with. He clutched them tightly, one hand holding tight to the rope as it yanked him along. His eyes were wide and he muttered prayers under his breath as the current threatened to smash them to pieces.
   Kayla and Habakkuk did no better. The skunk’s raft ran across a large stone and tilted dangerously to the left; Habakkuk smacked the right side with his oar several times before it leveled out. Kayla could not suppress her frightened chittering, though none of them were able to hear her over the roaring water.
   As the minutes ticked past, Lindsey’s arms became sore, and bits and pieces of the ski broke off. Habakkuk spent half his time kicking water from the bottom of his raft as it slowly disintegrated beneath him. Often, one of more of them screamed as they rode down a short waterfall. Several more packs were lost to the river, but Lindsey kept a firm grip on the one his rat friend hid within.
   Jessica glided down the ravine ahead of them and watched them, using her magic as best she could to try and keep them from completely destroying their skis. She cringed every time her magical shields failed to keep Lindsey’s raft from smacking into one or another side of the riverbank. Fortunately, the northerner hardly needed such help, as he was very good at navigating the rapids.
   After a seeming eternity of fear and pain, on the violent river, the ravine opened out wide before them. The river turned southward before it emptied into a waterfall that roared so loud it hurt their sensitive ears. Directly before them lay another tributary, thundering down from the east.
   “Get out! Get out!” Abafouq shouted, though his voice was lost on all but Lindsey and Charles who were his closest neighbors.
   Lindsey saw how the current was dragging them towards the southern precipice—and certain death. He dug his oar into the river, steering them towards the northern bank. There was no good place to land among its high rocks, but what other choice had they? Lindsey grunted as the water level dropped again. He jammed his oar between two rocks and held tight; immediately, the wood began to splinter, but it held together long enough for the northerner to grab the rock and pull his raft close to the edge.
   Abafouq’s raft slid past Lindsey. “Help!” the Binoq screamed as he clawed at Lindsey’s ski. The northerner yanked hard on the rope, pulling them closer.
   “There’s nowhere to land, just toss everything up!” Lindsey shouted as he climbed out of his ski. He threw Charles’ pack to the ground. The rat fell out, quickly growing into his  full-sized centauroid form. Lindsey’s ski, now empty, sailed on down the river. Seconds later it disappeared over the falls.
   Habakkuk, too, drove his oar into a crevice and held on tight. The wood endured no longer than Lindsay’s had, but Kayla and James still had time enough to climb up onto the ledge with the rat’s help. What few satchels were left they carried with them. The rat scanned what was left; they’d lost at least a third of their supplies. His second bag, which held his Long Scout gear, was gone. Thankfully, the one in which he kept the Sondeshike—his weapon, the weapon of his clan—was still there.
   “There, that’s it!” Abafouq shouted as Lindsey dragged him up from the raft. One by one, each of their skis dropped beyond the precipice, carried by the roiling current.
   James collapsed on the ledge, breathing erratically and trembling from the cold. His clothes clung to his chest, and the left side of his face was a mess of blood and cuts. Kayla was next to him, nursing several new bruises. Habakkuk did his best to stand, but one paw clutched painfully at his right side.
   Jessica landed next to them and returned to a human-like body. “We can’t wait here—they’ll be after us soon.”
   “Is there anything you can do for James now?” the centaur-like Charles asked as he began to secure the remaining packs to his lower back. Lindsey and Abafouq were straightening out the rest of their belongings.
   Jessica crouched over the donkey and stared with wide golden eyes at the ruin of his eye. “These wounds aren’t magical. I can heal them, but it will take me a few minutes. James can you walk?”
   “Yes,” the donkey brayed, shuddering from his pain. “With help.”
   “I’ll walk beside you and heal your face as we go. Come on.” Jessica pressed one of her wings beneath his arm; Habakkuk was at his other side and helped him to his hooves. James was unsteady, but he managed to stay on his hooves.
   “I think we have everything again.” Charles looked up to the eastern tributary, as violent as the one they’d just climbed out of. But they would now be heading upstream. “How much further until we meet Guernef?”
   “Five hours at the most,” Abafouq replied. “In another hour, we shall be seeing the bridge.”
   Kayla drew her wakizashi, and the metal glinted in the daylight. It seemed to shimmer with the gloss of silvery scales as it caught the reflection of the rushing waters. “I’m ready, let’s hurry!”
   Jessica muttered quiet words as she pressed her claws over the donkey’s face. Habakkuk was at his right side, and he nodded to Charles and the others. “We’re ready here. Lead the way, Abafouq.”
   Abafouq nodded and practically ran down the ledge. Lindsey waited for the rest to pass him before taking up the rear again. He cast one glance back up the western ravine, and then followed his friends.

    Not a minute went by without one of them looking over their shoulder. The westward-flowing tributary was thinner than the river they’d ridden, but the slope was sufficiently steep that the water was too dangerous to risk even taking a drink. The ravine walls were angled inwards, blocking the sun and casting them in a shadowy gloom. But there was never any sign of their pursuers. They’d outrun them on the river, but none could say for how long.
   James’ wounds were healed after a quarter of an hour. His eye was swollen and he could barely see anything out of it, but Jessica assured the donkey he’d have his sight back soon. Of the cuts on his muzzle, only the blood coating his hide gave any sign of them. The healing had taken a great deal out of both of them, and even after she finished, they had to help each other climb the ledge. When they slipped, Habakkuk and Lindsey were there to catch them and keep them going.
   Apart from Charles, they were all sore and tired. The rat carried as many of their traveling packs as he could. Lindsey insisted on carrying his own, as did the kangaroo and the Binoq. But the rest allowed Charles to shoulder their burdens. He didn’t mind, as it only made sense. True, it did hamper his ability to move through the slate, but right now, he had no intention of giving the Runecaster any opportunities to further bespell him. It was she who had made him stone in the first place!
   In spite of everything, when his eyes beheld the stone arch that crossed the river, he felt delight in his rocky form. The ravine had been formed by snowmelt eroding the slate; some of the stone was hardier than other strata. Before them stood a mighty example of it. One layer of slate had been sturdier than its brethren, and the stone beneath it wore away first, allowing the river to create a natural bridge. It led to a wide ledge on the southern side that would not be visible to the mercenaries. With luck, their hunters would never find them again.
   “There it is,” Abafouq said with a weary smile. “I am thinking we should be reaching Guernef before the sun has set.”
   “That’s good,” James muttered. Charles glanced back to his friend and saw that the donkey was still breathing heavily. He dearly hoped they’d be able to rest when they reunited with the Nauh-kaee.
   The ledge rose sharply towards the bridge. The river was at least a fathom below them, though the spray still cast a fine mist into the air that they felt at the edge of their fur and flesh. Charles tried to ignore the sensation of water running along his granite skin, but found it maddeningly obtrusive.
   Abafouq stepped onto the bridge and looked westward. “It looks like we are still ahead of them. Hurry; there is no other crossing, and there is just ahead a forking of the north face.”
   While the Binoq raced across Kayla looked over the side. The bridge was very narrow, no more than a foot wide. For the Binoq, who was used to dancing on ledges even thinner, it was a simple matter of walking across. For Kayla, it was a knife’s edge between the raging current beneath her that promised death.
   “Kayla?” Charles asked as he came to stand behind her. “Is something wrong?”
   “It’s just… I’m a little nervous,” the skunk explained, her green eyes wide, unable to see anything but the white torrent below.
   “You’re nervous?” Charles managed to sound bemused. “How do you think I feel?”
   Kayla laughed a little. Abafouq waved his hands impatiently. “Do not look down, as I have taught you, and it is that you shall be fine, Kayla. Now hurry!”
   Jessica and James leaned against the rat while Habakkuk and Lindsey reached them. The kangaroo was rubbing his head between his ears as if he had a headache. Lindsey smiled to the skunk and nodded his head. “It’s all right, Kayla. I’m a little nervous too.”
   The smile blossomed on Kayla’s snout. “Thank you.” With renewed confidence, she stepped onto the bridge, keeping her eyes level. Charles could feel the stone; it seemed quite content to bear their weight.
   Suddenly, Habakkuk’s eyes popped open and he lunged forward. “Kayla, no!” He grabbed her by the tail and yanked her backwards. Kayla let out a sharp cry of surprise, thrusting her paws before her. The wakizashi clattered onto the bridge before her as she fell to her chest.
   “Zhypar—what!?” Kayla screeched, even as Lindsey helped pull her up.
   “What are you doing?” Charles snapped at the roo; then he felt the earth shake beneath his legs. A bolt of energy smacked into the bridge. Fault lines radiated throughout the stone, and he knew it would crack and tumble into the river any moment.
   “Rick’s sword!” Kayla screamed and kicked Habakkuk in the thigh. The kangaroo bounced back in surprise as she dived for the wakizashi. The bridge was shaking. Jessica and the rest had their eyes on the west. The hawk began to chant and hold out her wings while James covered his face with his arms.
   “Get back here!” Lindsey shouted, trying to grab at the skunk’s tail. Even as he did it, the northerner realized how stupid an idea it was; fortunately, he received only a kick to to the groin, and not a faceful of her potent spray. It could have been worse.
   Another bolt arced from the distant southwestern ridge. Jessica held out her wings, but this blow shattered her makeshift defenses. It struck the bridge in the center and the stone crumbled, breaking apart at last. Kayla screamed as the ground beneath her began to disappear. She snatched the wakizashi in her paw, scrambling back as fast as she could.
   Charles sunk his forelegs and arms into the stone and pressed at it to hold her up. It was so brittle that it came apart between his paws, but he pushed and fed it as much of his Sondeck as he could. “Kayla, hurry!” he cried, feeling his grasp slip.
   The skunk rushed backwards on her knees and hands, flipping onto the ledge with a gasp for breath. She looked at Lindsey, who held one hand over his crotch as he winced in pain. “Sorry,” she said through clenched teeth, “but I had to get the sword.”
   “I can’t hold her!” Jessica cried. “Run!”
“Just follow the river!” Abafouq shouted. “I will find Guernef and we shall be coming for you!”
   “Then run!” Habakkuk cried. “Now, before she catches you!”
   The Binoq nodded and fled up the southern ledge. It twisted to the right a short distance ahead, and he was quickly lost to sight. Charles grabbed James by the arm, pulling him along as the Keepers began running, too. It took Lindsey a few steps to catch his stride.
   “How did you know?” Kayla managed to ask the roo between breaths as they ran. The ledge was steep, but the rock was rough enough that they had good footholds.
   The kangaroo tapped one paw to his temple. “A vision—it just came to me—I’m sorry I had to grab you like that.”
   “Sorry I kicked you too.”
   “Less talk , more running!” Charles shouted back.
   Jessica gripped the rat’s back with her talons as she tried to reconstruct her magical shield. She squawked in terror, holding her wings before her as another bolt of brilliant blue energy slammed into the cliff wall just overhead. Shards of slate showered down, rolling across Jessica’s shield to harmlessly scatter into the river.
   “There’s the turn Abafouq mentioned!” Kayla said, gesturing with the wakizashi at a small crevice that cleft the northern rock face in two. It was a good two hundred paces ahead of them. “Not much further now.”
   After all the bruises they’d received and the little sleep they’d had in the last few days, the Metamorians were very near the limits of their endurance; of them all, only Charles had enough energy to keep running. The two hundred paces might as well have been two hundred miles.
   “Archers!” Lindsey cried as an arrow brushed across his shoulder. His yellow armor held, but there was a frayed bit of cord where it struck.
   The mercenaries were lined up on the southern bank, almost directly above them. Charles focused his Sondeck into his arms, grabbing as much power as he could. He then flung his fist upwards at the slate. He hated to do it, but they had to do something. The force of his blow rushed in a deafening boom upwards, and smacked into the stone. A deep crack ran along the outcropping, and the archers stumbled. The stone settled for a moment, then gave way, carrying with it one of the mercenaries. The man’s screams ended when he disappeared into the river. An arm bobbed above the surface, once, a few seconds later; it never came up again.
   The other mercenaries backed away from the cliff’s unstable rim—but they were replaced by a shower of loose stone. Like stinging rain it fell, the stone shards shattering to dust when they struck the ravine wall. The hawk’s shield  kept most of them out, but a few made it through; Jessica cried in agony as one of them tore a gash into her wing.
   “Kayla!” the hawk squawked in pain.
   The skunk fell back to her side and put her free hand around the hawk’s talons. “Take my power. Just hold the shield!”
   Charles glanced back briefly, looking for the Runecaster along the ridge. He saw nothing, and wouldn’t have even if he’d  been standing still. He grunted and ran faster. The crevice was only a few more seconds ahead… A bright light filled his vision, and another fiery ball smacked into the top of the ravine at the intersection. Stone crumbled and fell. Another blast or two and the crevice would be completely blocked off!
   “Hurry!” Charles shouted. They had to get into the crevice, or they’d be easy targets. He pushed his Sondeck into his legs. He felt so weak after using his power to stop the archers. Now he had to use it again. He sprinted as fast as he could. Jessica squawked in surprise when he bolted out from beneath her. He hoped she kept that shield active.
   Not wasting another moment, the rat jumped and cleared the tributary. He dived into the stone, held outside it only by the straps around his middle with the satchels. He poured his mind into the slate, begging it to hold firm.
   Another titanic blast rocked him. Emptiness buzzed through his mind for a moment, and then everything started to go brittle again. He reached out with his Sondeck, filling what was left of the wall with rigidity. It had to last just a few more seconds. He could feel his friends coming around the corner. There was James and Habakkuk; Lindsey was helping Jessica and Kayla who carried their blue shield with them.
   And then the rock shattered completely under the Runecaster’s assault! Charles felt himself flung backwards. He landed in a sprawl of limbs on a narrow ledge. Above him the stone was collapsing. Instinct fired in his mind and he scrambled up onto his four legs and leapt further in the crevice.
   The stone came down with a crash, and the slate slid inwards, following after it. The river smashed into the rock, finding its only way out of the narrow gully blocked. The rat could only continue to backtrack, as more and more stone slid into the dam while the river rose and frothed in fury.
   “Charles! Hurry!” Kayla called to him. He blinked and looked to the other side of the river. The skunk waved at him while his friends ran up the narrow ravine. Jessica’s head hung limply from her shoulders.
   “Right!” the rat vaulted over the river and chased after them, leaving the dam and the quickly rising waters behind.
   “How long do you think the dam will hold?” Lindsey called back.
   “With this water? Five to ten minutes at most. She knows where we are, it won’t take her long to find us again.”
   “But she was on the southern ridge,” Lindsey pointed out.
   The rat snorted. “I think she’ll manage.”
   The fissure branched a few paces ahead. James leaned against the ravine wall, breathing heavily. “I don’t know where to go,” he muttered, his one good eye resigned and lost.
   “Habakkuk, do you know?” Lindsey asked through clenched teeth.
   “No, I am afraid not. Only that we need to keep moving.” He turned his head and looked back at them. “Is she all right?”
   “Just passed out,” Kayla replied. “She’ll be fine as long as they don’t catch us again.”
   “Abafouq said to follow the river,” Charles said. “The right fork looks larger to me. Let’s go that way.” He looked behind him and saw that the water level was still rising. “If we don’t do it now we’ll be swimming, and we definitely don’t want to do that.”
   “I’ll go first,” Habakkuk said. He tensed his legs, and with a quick hop, landed on the other side. He bounced once, then turned around. “James, come on! I’ll catch you.”
   The donkey nodded. He backed up a few steps, and then ran to the edge of the river. He leapt, hooves and arms flailing wildly. But he made it across. Habakkuk grabbed his arms and helped him against the wall.
   “I’ll carry Jessica across,” Charles offered. “You two go now.”
   Kayla sheathed the wakizashi before attempting her jump, but both she and Lindsey made it across as well. Charles nudged Jessica’s head; the hawk opened one eye, though it could not focus. “Jessica, I need you to shift down a little so I can hold you better. Can you do that? Jessica?”
   Fortunately, she had wits enough to comprehend. Charles kept a firm grip on her sides as her form shrank. The rat winced when he saw the wound in her wing muscle; it wasn’t deep, but it would keep her from flying. When she was small enough, Charles bunched his legs beneath him and jumped. He had to dig his claws into the stone to keep from crushing the skunk when he landed on the other side, but they had all made it.
   “How long do you think before she finds us again?” James asked.
   “I don’t know, but we can’t stop now.” Charles held the hawk out to the skunk.”Kayla, can you hold Jessica while I get something to wrap around her wing?”
   Kayla nodded and gingerly cradled the bird in her arms. Though still obviously dazed, Jessica’s eyes were a little clearer now.
   “We need to keep going,” Habakkuk said. He held one paw against his side, breathing heavily. “Can you help her while moving?”
   “No,” the rat admitted. “Kayla, climb on my back—see what you can do for her.”
   “I’ll do my best.” Charles felt her weight shifting onto the packs. He was so drained… but he was able to bear her up too. A strange thought of carrying his children around on his back, like a horse, popped into his head. Ah, he wished they could have been the first...
   “I’ll take the lead,” Lindsey said, patting James on the shoulder. “Just stay close.”
   The donkey could only nod and look back at Charles. Habakkuk fell back to the rear, but he kept his weapons sheathed. Charles tried to smile encouragingly to James; the donkey didn’t seem to notice.
   The ravine was no more than perhaps ten feet across, half of which was lost to the river. After half a minute’s climb, a loud crash sounded, and the river’s flowing picked up speed even as its level dropped. Charles felt the agony of the stone and could only tremble. He wished he could have saved it. He ran one paw along the slate, but it was cold to him.
   “I think that should do it,” Kayla announced. “Just rest here. You shouldn’t fall off here. You won’t disturb her, will you, Charles?”
   “No, I’ll try to keep steady,” the rat replied. Kayla slipped down from his back, avoiding his stone tail. He felt the small form of Jessica nestled between two satchels where his upper and lower torso met. He hoped she would be okay.
   After the clash of the waters and rocks died down, they heard nothing but their own heavy breathing for many long minutes. Lindsey followed the course of the river up through the ravine. The slope was fairly level most of the time, with an occasional incline steep enough that the rat needed all six of his paws to scale them. Several times the gully was joined by other tributaries; if not for the river’s being the largest branch, they would surely have been lost.
   When the rat saw a small crack in the ravine wall, one whose interior was completely and utterly black, an idea came to him. “I think we need a few minutes’ rest,” Charles announced. “Right in there. They won’t be able to see us from above. And I’ll  be done soon.”
   “Done? With what?” Lindsey asked unhappily.
   “Scouting. I’ll feel through the rock; I should be able to tell where they are before they notice me.”
   “No!” Lindsey snapped. “The last time you did that, you nearly got yourself killed!”
   Charles dug his toes into the slate beneath him. “That was different. The rock here is slate—it’s too thin to do anything to me.”
   Habakkuk broke in, his voice devoid of energy. “Lindsey’s right, Charles. You cannot risk that again. Still, we should stop for a moment, if only to catch our breath. Just five minutes.”
   Lindsey didn’t like the idea, but he led them into the fissure. It was dry inside, and the walls of stone closed together after only a few fathoms, but it was enough for all of them to get out of sight.
   Charles lay on his belly and felt for his Sondeck. It had been exhausted by the last two hours’ ordeal, but it was slowly renewing. Jessica hopped off the rat’s back and nuzzled at the bandage on her wing, but otherwise left it alone. James flopped on the ground and lay there breathing heavily. Kayla studied her swords intently, eyes agleam with their silver radiance. Getting no relief, Lindsey and Habakkuk spoke quietly but rather sharply near the entrance.
   The rat was too tired to listen, and so ignored them to focus on his Sondeck. He let his paws sink into the stone of the shallow cave and found it very comforting. This stone was glad to be away from the terrible river. Charles delighted in its all-pervading joy.
   “That’s five minutes,” Lindsey announced abruptly, snapping the rat away from his reverie. “Is everyone feeling better?” James nodded his head as he stretched and groaned. “Good, let’s go.”
   Lindsey stepped out of the small cave— and suddenly the walls groaned! Charles froze in place as he felt spectral hands closing around them. “Get out!” he shouted. “Everybody out!”
   Jessica cawed in fright, while Habakkuk and James stumbled towards the cave’s dwindling mouth. Kayla leapt to her paws before bending down to grab the hawk. “What’s happening?” Kayla cried, her eyes wild.
   “It’s her! She’s sealing the cave!” Charles pushed the stunned donkey out through the opening, then pressed both paws against the slate. It grated against his hands, and he felt it crushing inwards. The stone was crying out in agony and he could not help but vocalize it. “Get out! Ahhh!”
   “I told you we shouldn’t have waited!” Lindsey snapped as he helped the donkey get to his hooves.
   Habakkuk bristled but said nothing, waving his arms between Charles’ sides. “Kayla, hurry! Pass me Jess!”
   Kayla slid as quickly as she could between the rat’s four legs. The walls of the cave were closing in tight. The stone alternately crumbled and re-formed, leaving less empty space each time, and only the rat’s paws and strength kept the entrance from shutting as well. The cave walls crushed against the rat’s forelegs, and he braced himself against them, pushing his Sondeck back against the stone.
   Habakkuk yanked his arms free before it was crushed by the rock, then held them between the rat’s forelegs. Kayla pressed Jessica into his arms; he moved the hawk to one side. “Now you!”
   Kayla pushed herself forward. The floor of the cave was pushed up against the rat, too. Charles sunk his claws into the stone and begged it to fight, but all it could do was wallow in its agony. And all around him, the Runecaster’s hands closed around him. He felt the finality of stone sinking into his mind. It would only be a few seconds, and he would never leave. He could help heal this wound in the ravine wall, help it grow strong again to stand against the deprivations of the ages. He just hoped his friends would be safe…
   He felt Kayla squeeze out between his legs and knew he’d done it. The stone had closed around his tail and hind legs. He tried to shift them, but they were stuck fast.
   “Charles!” Habakkuk shouted. “Come on!”
   “I can’t,” the rat replied, holding the portal open for just a few seconds more. “I’m sorry.”
   “Charles!” James cried, his good eye wide in alarm. “Don’t give up!”
   The rat smiled, and was about to let go of the wall, when a strange thing happened: The cave stopped collapsing! Charles pushed at the stone, and found  he was no longer trapped. The rat stepped forward, sliding through the small gap that was left. He shifted a bit to get their satchels out the narrow opening, and was free.
   “What happened?” Kayla asked as she helped Jessica onto her shoulder.
   “It just stopped. One moment it was pressing so tight I couldn’t even move through the rock, much less get out—and the next, it was gone.”
   “Perhaps something distracted her,” Habakkuk reasoned. “Let’s keep going. She found us again, and that means the archers are not far behind.”
   Lindsey grunted, his face contorted into a disgusted moue. But the disgust appeared to be directed at himself. In silence, he turned and walked briskly up the ridge. Kayla soon followed after him.
   James hung back and put one hoof-like hand on the rat’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
   “Aye,” the rat nodded, smiling. “A little shaken, but I’ll be all right. Let’s keep going.”
   Habakkuk let out a heavy sigh, his eyes watching each of them miserably.

   For the next hour, the Keepers traversed the ravine in relative silence. It wound upwards through increasingly dense towers of stone, with numerous twists and turns that had them dizzy. At this point, after having passed so many of the tributaries that fed it, the river was but a small stream. Eventually, it disappeared altogether, and the ravine walls fell away on either side.
   When they emerged from the ravine, the Keepers found themselves on the mountain slopes overlooking a jagged plateau. The snow line was far overhead, but without the ravine walls to block the wind, they all felt the cold biting into their skin. The ravine’s main line ran to the south. It was sparsely covered in bushes and a few pine; the bushes gave way to tundra grasses in the north.
   “I guess we try to follow the main cleft,” Kayla suggested.
   Lindsey snorted. “Don’t forget those men on top of the ridges.”
   “Well, I don’t see them,” the skunk replied. “Maybe they climbed down to chase us?”
   “And lose their advantage? I don’t think so. You should know better than that.”
   Kayla’s fur bristled and began to churr. “What did you say?”
   “Look,” Habakkuk said, holding out his paws. “We’re all very tired and weary. Let’s keep moving and hope we don’t see them. We’ll have time to rest later.” He gave Lindsey a rather significant look and the tension quickly melted from the northerner.
   “Sorry about that, Kayla. I’m just on edge.”
   Kayla nodded and regained control of herself. “I know. Me too.”
   “Oh no,” James muttered, tail flicking madly form side to side. “What’s that?” He pointed towards a small shelf of rock that bridged one of the spans of the ravine. They all turned and studied the rocks; they saw the shrubs shifting, and caught a glimpse of a man dressed in furs. There was no sign of the woman.
   “That’s them,” Charles grunted. “And we’ve got no cover. It’s time to run.”As one, they set off in a mad dash across the mountain slope. Lindsey took the lead, with Kayla and James quick on his heels, while Charles scampered after them. Habakkuk hopped along in the rear. Jessica stayed firmly perched on Kayla’s shoulder, her golden eyes scanning the horizon for any sign of the Runecaster.
   The archers saw them immediately, and ran as well, crossing over the plateau with surprising swiftness. Lindsey charted a course that hugged the side of the mountain peak as it towered over the canyon. Charles saw the sense behind the strategy immediately; it would force the mercenaries to go around the numerous ravines. It would buy them more time. Just a little bit more—but that might be all they needed.
   And then, to the rat’s horror, the archers just ran across one of the open gaps! Their feet burned with a blue flame, and they moved as if they were crossing an invisible bridge. Had he a heart left, it would have sunk in despair. With the mountain on the north, and the ravine to east and west, they were completely trapped.
   Jessica squawked in terror. Her eyes were directed at the sky, and she tried to stretch her wings. Charles glanced back, and saw the Runecaster descending through the air in a brilliant shimmering sphere. Her purple robes billowed around her, and her hands crackled with a fierce energy. Strangely, the rat could see a frightful red glow burning in the ruined hollow of her eye.
   “Run faster!” he shouted. A line of flame erupted from her eye, and Habakkuk cried as it very nearly singed his back.
   “It’s too late!” James cried, even as the archers came around their flank. Arrows bounced off the rock before them. Lindsey gave a start as one of them sliced his trousers across his thigh. Blood flowed from the wound.
   Charles drew his Sondeshike from within his pack. James had his sword in hand, and Kayla drew out both blades. Habakkuk scrambled forward and undid the bindings on Jessica’s wing so she could shift. “We need you now,” he murmured softly, his voice cracking from pain.
   Another blast of flame seared the grass to their left. The Keepers danced to one side, while Jessica jumped from Kayla’s shoulder and began to spread out. She gave a short cry and lifted her wings, attempting to erect the blue shield again.
   The Runecaster’s deformed face neither smiled nor frowned; it was as lifeless as the grave. She raised her hands to inscribe a symbol in the air. A huge ball of energy coalesced before her and hurtled towards them.
   For a split second, each Keeper thought their life had finally come to a painful end—and then another sound erupted in the air. A gust of wind caught the ball of energy and flung it back  on the Runecaster. A hastily-conjured shield flared to life before her; the deadly spell struck it with a deafening roar. Rocks shattered nearby, and the mage was flung back out of sight.
   “They’ve returned!” one of the archers shouted in dismay; they scattered into the bushes, fleeing as dark shadows swept over the plateau. The Keepers looked up, and beheld a dozen Nauh-kaee diving out of the air. Their beaks opened in a terrifying cry of rage. Gusts of air beat back at the earth, uprooting bushes and scouring entire patches of earth down to bare rock.
   “He made it!” Kayla gasped in excitement. “Guernef brought his people!”
   “Where did the woman go?” Jessica asked, her voice ragged. She let her shield drop; instantly, it flickered out of existence. Charles couldn’t help but wonder if it would have done any good at all.
   “What’s that?” James shouted, pointing towards the horizon. Between two mountains, a ship sailed in the air! It looked like a longboat, with keels on either end. Ropes held it aloft, ropes wrapped around a giant cloth cylinder filled with air. Guidelines stretched from it to harnesses on several Nauh-kaee, who pumped their wings to bring the contraption over the rise.
   “I’ve never seen anything like this!” Habakkuk stammered, and for the first time in all the years that Charles had known him, the kangaroo looked genuinely surprised.
   “Look,” Jessica pointed towards one side of the bow. “It’s Abafouq!”
   The little Binoq waved towards them from one side of the ship. The Keepers all laughed raggedly, exhausting their final stores of verve. They rushed to meet the sky-ship where it would land. The Nauh-kaee directed it effortlessly, and it glided with supple grace. It came to rest against the rock plateau without so much as shifting the nearby grass.
   “Please to climb aboard!” Abafouq shouted, smiling ear to ear. “It is that we shall be flying the rest of the way, yes? Quick!”
   Lindsey scrambled over the side and then held out his arms to the rest to help them aboard. One of the Nauh-kaee landed next to them and helped nudge them over the railing. Despite being stone, Charles found the wood remained serenely undamaged as he crushed it under his paws. It had to have been magically treated, but how these creatures had made something like this was hard to imagine.
   The bottom of the boat was flat enough for them to find a comfortable place to sleep. The sides sloped upwards, with cross beams every twelve paces for structural support. At each crossbeam, a r cable rose up into the sky to the taut sack above.
   “That is the whole of us, Guernef. Let us be going!” Abafouq shouted.
   The Nauh-kaee squawked loudly, then jumped into the air. His brilliant white plumage caught the fading light of the sun. In that moment, before weariness overcame the Keepers, the gryphon looked like an angel.

    The sun set before Agathe found the mercenaries licking their wounds. They’d retreated to their makeshift camp, with the horses and the woman. The three surviving hirelings were busy securing their belongings to the horses; it was clear to the Runecaster that they intended to abandon her.
   “Why are you leaving? You haven’t yet managed to kill even one of them!” Agathe said as she walked into their midst. The three men were ragged, with several fresh cuts across their cheeks. The woman, her wrists and ankles bound, had already been tied down to one of the horses. Her eyes were open, but she did not truly see anything happening around her.
   “Did you see where they went?” the burliest amongst them asked, his voice filled with fury. “They were rescued by the gods, woman! We have no hope of following them now. And half of us are dead! Do you want the three of us to die too? We’ve done what you asked of us; we’ve chased them this far. But there’s nothing more we can do, woman. Now pay us and let us leave.”
   Agathe ran her hands over her arms. The force of her own spell had wearied her. The damn gryphons had surprised them—she’d almost managed to crush the rat in the cave, too, when they’d flown overhead. And now those same gryphons had rescued her quarry from certain doom.
   She had no patience left to deal with these incompetents.
   “Very well. If you wish to leave, I will assist you.” She lifted her hands and drew a rune in the air. The first man saw her finger and he let out a bellow of rage, thrusting a dagger towards her gut. But his knife bounced off an invisible shield, and he fell to her feet in surprise. The rune shot out from Agathe’s hands and embedded itself into his back.
   The man cried out in agony as his body shriveled and shrank. His two companions grabbed their bows and tried to shoot the Runecaster. Agathe looked at them and let fire rush from her eye. One of them was consumed immediately, screaming as his body ignited like a torch; he stumbled several feet before leaping over the edge of the ravine. His screams ended before he even reached the river below.
   The last man got one shot off, but his arrow, like the knife, bounced off Agathe’s shield. Seeing that, he threw down his bow and backed up several paces. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his eyes were wide. “Please! Please don’t kill me!”
   She drew another rune in the air. He threw his arms over his head, but the rune struck the ground at his feet. He looked down in surprise, and then back up at her. A brief moment of relief washed over his features, one mixed with confusion. And then he looked down again—his feet were sinking into the stone! “What? No!” he cried out. His legs sunk up to the knees when it stopped. The stone crawled along his flesh.
   Moments later, a statue eternally fixed in a scream stood where the man had once been.
   Agathe kicked at the pile of clothes that remained of the first man. A small frog leapt out from the pile. The curse of Metamor had nearly claimed him as well; it had been a simple matter to feed the spell. The pile of clothes had been warm enough for a frog—but on this mountain, at night? In another minute or two it would freeze to death.
   Now for the last of the mercenaries, the one who’d long since suffered the curse. Agathe walked over to her and yanked her off the back of the horse. The woman’s eyes were dull. “Are you going to kill me.”
   “No,” Agathe replied. She took a knife and cut the woman’s bonds. “Follow me and do nothing.”
   Too stunned to do anything else, she did. Agathe took a bit of chalk from her belt pouch and began drawing symbols on a bare patch of rock. There was more work to be done. Next time, the Keepers would come to her…

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

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