The Foxtauress didn't know if death was as real for the Demons as it was for her - maybe they awoke again after the destruction of their bodies in a new form, somewhere in Hell. Maybe the Demons possessed souls that currently floated towards their Hell gods. Maybe they just perished like a blown-out candle. She didn't care to know. Somehow, her companions were avenged, their murderers weren't alive anymore.
But revenge had never been her goal. It didn't resurrect the dead again. The Demons had to be destroyed or driven from this world - but not for revenge: to save the Furrys and Foxtaurs, yes, even the Oo'men, from the cruelty of the Hellbeings. And the two Bears had only been a part of the hellish force that Beladanar commanded.
"Trolls...", Khiray said. "Those stones were Trolls, weren't they?"
"Yes." Saljin nodded. "I wanted to tell you, but the Demons charged already, and I didn't want to warn them somehow."
Khiray looked over his shoulder into the direction of the forest. "They really looked like stones. Completely. If Trolls can disguise themselves that well, maybe the world is already swarming with them."
"They only live in mountain areas", Saljin tried to calm him. "There are probably more of them than even I can guess, but they are a peaceful people."
"Uh", the Fox made.
"Yes, really... I asked them for help against the Demons. They would never have attacked by themselves."
"That was it!" Khiray nervously ran his hands through the fur of his ears. "I wondered already why you made those noises."
"Noises? It's the language of the Trolls. The language of the stones."
"Saljin of the Stones... You possess great power, do you know that? You alone can talk to the Demons. If they weren't that peaceful..." He looked uncomfortable, as if he didn't believe that assurance. "You could lead them against the Armygan, an army of stone, and drive away all us Furrys!"
"Nonsense!" she interrupted him sharply. "If the Trolls were warriors, and if they were your enemy, they would have destroyed you already! But that's not their habit. And I would never get the idea of attacking the Armygan. What are we Foxtaurs supposed to do with a place that swampy? We have our plains, the beautiful grasslands, the forests... I admit, the woods here are pretty. The mountains are probably the only county where Foxtaurs would settle. All the riverlands beyond... forget them!"
Khiray snorted. "It's my home!"
"But not mine!" She recognized that she had gone too far. "I'm sorry. The Armygan makes me nervous. Demons are bad company. It's probably not bad here, really. But... but... I want to go home!"
The Fox sighed. "At least you've got a home you can return to. I've only got a ship on the river and the remains of a crew. Uncle Farlin has joined Galbren's army. My father and mother are dead. The rest of the crew has left the ship, and in my hometown I'm a traitor for most of the people."
"Oh, Khiray!" She hugged him closely. "I'm so sorry!"
"Not your fault. The Demons... the Demons and Galbren, they had started it all. If the Trolls... were less friendly, they could wage war on the Demons."
"Why should they fight for us? They don't interfere in our affairs. As long as the Demons don't attack them directly, they will keep their hands out of it all."
"But they helped you!"
"I'm something else." She resisted the temptation to say "someone special", although that would have been correct. She told Khiray about the Trolls' greeting at Dorn's Rapids.
The Fox shook his head. "You are something like an ambassador for them. They feel responsible for you, at least a little."
"They wouldn't fight nevertheless. I know them. Sorry."
Khiray shrugged. "No big deal. We're no worse off than before, are we? Pallys' staff doesn't work anymore, but the Bear Demons are dead. When Beladanar finally notices what's going on and sends new Demons, we are back at the ship again, I hope. With weapons."
They continued their way. But despite Khiray's put on equanimity, Saljin noticed he was annoyed. She could understand him very well. The Trolls were a formidable weapon against the Demons. They seemed to be immune against the magic of Hell, and their tremendous strength gave them a considerable advantage in battle. They were a little slow, and Saljin wasn't sure how vulnerable they really were - but there was a great number of them. But what she had told Khiray was entirely true. The Trolls wouldn't wage war. Probably, their language didn't even have a word for war. Their way of living was too different from that of the warm-blooded beings. They were - alien.
Yes, it would have been very convenient to have Beladanar run over by a horde of Trolls. But convenient solutions seldomly were good solutions as well. Could the Trolls defy even a Demon as mighty as the Lord of the Worms, or did Azzhuzzim Beladanar know means and ways to hurt them? And couldn't Khezzarrik khi Valangassis simply get new troops from Hell at Beladanar's whim?
But even if they knew an answer to all these questions, there was still the price. For a price was to be paid, for every solution, good or bad, convenient or less so. And Saljin feared that the price for an involvement of the Trolls would have been too high to pay: it meant to teach the Trolls warfare.
They needed another half hour until Ghanzekk's house came into view. It was an old stone building, low and ducked against a hill, with few windows and a massive wooden door. The rear part of the house blended with the hill, and the roof was covered with grass, just as if the house had grown from the hill itself.
Khiray knocked against the door with a bronze ring that was attached to the wood. Nobody answered or came, nor did anyone at the second and third knock. They could call out or beat at the door with their fists as much as they wanted: Ghanzekk didn't appear.
"He's not at home."
"Or he doesn't live here anymore", Saljin mused.
"The Bears didn't mention him going away, and they occupy the only harbor anywhere near."
"The Leopard is a magician, isn't he? I'm sure he knows a way to leave this region without being recognized."
Khiray nodded, not yet convinced. He pressed down the door handle.
The door was not locked.
Suspiciously, the Fox peered inside. Saljin took the Dekka'shin into her hands. It just looked like a trap. Had the Demons been here first? Were some of them still here?
Everything stayed quiet. The interior of the house was dark. Khiray pushed the door open with his foot until daylight flooded inside. A big room was visible now; too big to be completely lit by the sun shining through the door opening, and obviously without any windows.
Before Saljin could warn him, Khiray entered, the sword in his hand. She hurried to close up to him. Neither of them issued a sound - they had just made noise enough to wake the Leopard from deepest slumber. Ghanzekk wasn't here.
The house had a floor made of stone tiles. No floor-boards creaked, only the hiss of their breath was audible. Saljin opened her muzzle and breathed through the mouth. Her ears moved continuously to perceive the faintest sound.
Outside, mice hurried through the grass and rustled at the edge of the wood. Something moved hesitatingly through the undergrowth. A clock ticked slowly in another room, apart from that the house was completely silent.
The big dark room contained a library, a lot of strange gadgets, metal frames and instruments, vials with colored liquids and little boxes they didn't dare to open. Rolled-up maps were stacked in a corner, even a globe adorned the room. Khiray couldn't restrain himself and glanced at it. Dozens of continents swam in an endless sea. The Armygan was not visible; it was probably too small to be marked on a representation of the whole world. Saljin saw the Fox had difficulties to tear himself away from the globe. She knew from the Oo'men that globes were scarce and expensive - priceless treasures, even if they weren't really accurate. There were very few people who ever traveled the whole world, if any, and saw all the thousand or more peoples with their own eyes; even the shape of the continents was a mystery to many wise men. To make a globe, one had to accumulate the knowledge of a hundred travellers who themselves contributed maps of the most remote countries of the world.
But they hadn't got the time to appreciate the treasure. They searched for something else.
There were three doors in the big room. The right and the left door led to a kitchen and a primitive bathroom, both with windows. Beyond the kitchen they found a box-room, but nothing in there had any significance. Even a magician seemed to need some cleaning items for his household.
The only door remaining was the one at the rear end of the library.
"I don't think that we'll encounter Demons here", Khiray stated in a loud voice.
Saljin started. "And what if?"
"We made enough noise already. They would know we're here. If they were here, they would have attacked us by now. I don't think Demons would wait patiently somewhere back in the house if they can pounce upon us now."
The Foxtauress had the unpleasant notion that Khiray might underestimate the Demons. The Hellbeings had a nasty and cunning streak. But she hadn't scented any Demon trail herself by now.
There were no footprints on the floor. Not even their own - there was no dust around. Suspiciously Saljin probed the strange gadgets. Nowhere dust had collected. A spell to keep the house clean? No, there was a faint trace of dust in some corners, she recognized. And if Ghanzekk could clean the house with a charm, he would hardly keep any brooms and dustpans in his box-room.
It looked too tidy. As if whoever had worked here had put everything away before leaving. The books were in their places, none kept open. The devices, even those that looked quite often-used, had been neatly arranged. The room was chock-full with stuff, thus it was unavoidable that things were still occupying the desk and some things piled up in the corners. But Saljin got the impression that the former tenants had prepared the house for a longer absence and then left.
She told Khiray about her observation.
"There are no foods in the kitchen", the Fox added. "No dishes standing around, the sink is clean, all windows closed."
"The windows, but not the door." Saljin breathed deeply. "Ghanzekk did not protect himself against thieves."
"Who steals from a well-known magician has to be crazy", Khiray said doubtingly. "Maybe the Leopard trusts his reputation."
"The door has got a lock", Saljin stated. "He doesn't always trust his reputation, it seems."
Khiray nodded. "Let's have a look at the back."
They opened the remaining door with the same caution as the front door. Nothing happened. It was dark.
Carefully Khiray entered. "We need a light", he said.
At the same moment a lamp lit up. The room proved to be a long corridor leading far into the hill. The end of the straight passage was at least fifteen meters away. The house had looked rather small from the outside, but it extended - invisible from the outside - throughout the hill.
Each side of the corridor had four doors. The single lamp, obviously lit by magic, hung from the ceiling at half the distance.
"Where to?" Saljin whispered. The mysterious surroundings made her shiver. It was just a house, not even uncomfortable - no stone keep full of traps and dungeons. It was just a corridor, no raw-hewn rock cave with dusty flags and skeletons in iron armor standing at guard. But something weighted heavily on that house, a whiff of death... She smelled something. Old, dusty, dry. Something seemed to have died here, a long time ago.
"The last door on the right", she said.
Khiray nodded. Maybe he could smell it too.
They groped their way through the corridor - maybe there were traps after all? - and opened the door that looked just the same like every other door. It was only that scent that led them on.
The door opened into a bedroom. The corpse of Ghanzekk lay on the bed, surrounded by magical items and staffs looking the same like Pallys' wand. The Leopard seemed to be dead a long time. His body was dried and mummified, the tissue shrunk until the tight fur alone covered the bones. Maybe his body didn't decompose because he was a magician - in a climate like this, a corpse didn't mummify, normally. The stench of death hung heavily in the windowless room.
The contracted lips bared powerful teeth. The closed lids had sunken in. The skeletal hands, folded on the chest, clasped some sheets of paper. Khiray took them and looked at the scribblings while Saljin inspected the rest of the room. A chest, a wardrobe. Clothing for the winter, boots.
Something strange occurred to her. "If Ghanzekk is dead since who-knows-when, who cleaned the house ever since?"
Khiray leaned against the wall. "No one. He died only yesterday."
Alarmed, Saljin looked at the corpse. "What happened to him?"
"He turned a spell on himself. He rather died than facing the Demons a second time."
The Foxtauress shook her head. "That doesn't sound like the Ghanzekk Pallys described. And how could he know Demons are in the Armygan?"
"Magic, of course. He wrote this letter..." He started to read aloud. "'Dear Pallys, old friend!'" The Fox blinked. "He knew Pallys would come here."
"He didn't come", Saljin reminded him. "If the letter's for him, maybe we should better not read it."
"We came in his place. And we can use the information. And I have already skimmed through it. - 'I'm sorry to write in such an incoherent way, but after fourteen thousand years it is quite difficult to prepare for death. You may reproach me with escaping the easy way, after all my work, but I can see now that Demons are not a foe our modest powers can compete with. For seven millennia I searched for a means, but there doesn't seem to be anything that would be available to my minor talent.'"
Saljin felt her stomach tightening. Didn't they come here because they expected help from Ghanzekk?
"'I couldn't much improve the weapon I once gave you. That alone demanded all my skill. I do realize now that you were right to steal the Book of Conjurations; in my hubris I had possibly tried it, possibly set the plan in motion - ending up in Hell, or even worse, making this world a new circle of Hell. I hope you finally destroyed that wretched book.
I can feel that Demons returned to this world. I don't know who conjured them - some incredible fool, or a magician that is so full of himself that he still believes he can control them. They have to fulfill a pact once concluded - if one pays the price. But they will always try to circumvent the letters of the pact, interpret it at their whim, turn the words in your mouth. They are dangerous. They don't have any honor and no conscience. One cannot trust them. And only an Archangel can throw them down.
But for whom do I write this? You were part of it from the beginning. You know them. When we interfered in the fight, we didn't know anything; we were blind for the danger, fools who happily ran off to a war that meant nothing for them. We paid for it. And revenge devoured the rest of my life - one half of a very long life.
They are back. I know that you will come to me as soon as you learn about it.'"
"Ha!" Saljin said. "He didn't even want to come near!"
"'...about it. You are no magician, so it will take some time. I don't dare to linger or to travel the land to find you. All the places of power that would be open for me are far from here. No Archangel will save me from my fate. The Demons will sense me, like I sense them, and they will come for me.
But I won't be here anymore.
Maybe you'll follow me. We started the journey together; it seems somewhat fitting to me to end it together as well. We both are so distant from the world out there; it doesn't concern us any longer. May others continue that battle.
However, maybe you are still hungry for life. Maybe you'll like to take up battle one more time, now, that they came into the world without us being involved. I collected in this house all the weapons that I made in the course of time. They contain all the knowledge about Demons I was able to accumulate. You will find nothing comparable. It is possible that the conjured Demons are of a lesser kind, then those weapons may be able to destroy them. And even if they are of the mighty, the devices' power could be enough to send them back to Hell. Val Khassis, the Wolf that helped me so much in my quest some centuries back, mentioned that even the mighty among Demons are not invulnerable.
They play a game, deadly for us, but highly amusing for them. We are their food, their game pieces; nothing more but a means to get fame and power in the Circles of Hell. This world and its well-being is of no concern for them. If we can thwart their game, they may retreat again. That alone is my hope, and yours, if you step into the fight once more.
I will not wait until you finally arrive. I will not linger to put my powers to the test. I will not practice my skills again in this world. I have lived for millennia; it is time to welcome the death we both cheated for so long. I want to die with the memory of happy centuries, before the Demons destroyed us. There will be no more fight for me.
No one but you can enter the house; my last spell seals it against all those who don't carry the staff.
Follow me, or farewell, as it suits you. I remember you as a friend, and I wish you luck.' I can't read the signature, but it should be 'Ghanzekk'. The date is yesterday."
"Places of power? A wolf called Val Khassis?" Saljin stomped her paw angrily. "Nothing but new riddles!"
Khiray put the letter in his bag. "I'm sure Pallys can explain it. But Ghanzekk has the weapons here, as he wrote. We didn't make the way for nothing." He started to open the other doors in the corridor to search for the weapons.
So they were only able to enter the house because Khiray had kept Pallys' staff after the fight of the Trolls against the Demons. Saljin hadn't noticed that he took the wand with him, it was useless anyway. But the Fox probably hoped that Ghanzekk could recharge it again.
Saljin didn't feel at all reassured. The letter mentioned the weapons, but it also said that they only worked efficiently against lesser Demons. At least Ghanzekk assumed that. It was still an open question whether they would help against Beladanar.
And if Ghanzekk really was an expert in Demon affairs, his suicide shed a certain light on their chances. She sat down on her hindquarters and tried to think.
Val Khassis. Khezzarrik khi Valangassis. The names were somewhat similar. Just coincidence?
No. Nothing had happened to them by chance. There was a plan, a story, a hidden background behind it all. The only accident among all those events had been that they of all people had stumbled into Galbren's conspiracy. It could have been someone else as well.
But Galbren's plans had set events in motion. Not by chance. Beladanar had his own agenda. Not by chance.
"Huh?" The Fox already inspected the third room. Both had already forgotten that Demons might lurk in every corner.
"We escaped them three times now by a hair's breadth. In Sookandil. In the village of the Otters. And here again. Do you believe that happened by chance?"
"Luck. We were lucky. And we fought."
"Is that enough?"
"It has to be. We haven't got any more. Don't you want to help me?"
Luck? Only another word for chance in their favor. And there was something else. Pallys. Both of the immortals, the Rabbit and the Leopard, had chosen their home in the Armygan. And at what place had the Demons been conjured? In Sookandil, Pallys' new home.
How many Demonic invasions happened every year? How many immortals with Demon-fighting experience were there on this world? And how big was the world? Saljin rose, went back to the library - it befitted a magician that the first room in the house to enter was the library - and looked at the globe.
She didn't recognize anything. She knew the coastal line of Foxtaur Territory from the study of Oo'men maps. No, the scale was too big; Foxtaur Territory and the Armygan together were probably not more than a speck on this giant, wondrous world.
And of all that hundreds of thousands of cities covering the thousand countries and hundred continents of the world, the Demons chose exactly the city where Pallys lived - or was it the other way round? Chance, chance, chance.
No. She pushed the globe and let it spin around. There was no chance. Beladanar and Galbren weren't the only players who used them - and the minor Demons - as chess pieces, pushing them around. That was the word Ghanzekk had used. Pieces in a game. And there was a third player, invisible, keeping to the shadows.
How could Galbren conjure the Demons? Maybe it was easier than everybody thought. Maybe the governor's son got that knowledge in Drun'kaal. Maybe Beladanar himself chose him and spoke to him. All this was possible and probable. But they had overlooked a tiny fact - they had not even known it at first. There was someone who owned a book with conjurations.
Pallys had stolen that book from Ghanzekk. Allegedly to prevent Ghanzekk from calling the Demons. But what if...
Pallys, the mystery-monger. Pallys, the immortal.
She began to fear that she had found the third player.