The 'Silver Ansicc' had dropped anchor at the bank of the river, some distance upriver of a small fisherfurrys' village. There was no need to hurry any more. Their flight had come to an end: the Demons and Galbren's soldiers had already passed by them, and without Gate they had no possibility to attack without warning.
Saljin had told Khiray everything Khezzarrik had explained to her. The Fox however knew most of that already. Gate had set forth the details and mechanics of the pact and given away the ambush at the two arms of the river. The Demon had attached great value to the demise of Galbren and Beladanar. Khiray wouldn't forget his words - as he would never forget Khezzarrik himself.
The others - except Saljin - stared at him. He started to feel uncomfortable. "I'm fine", he answered their unspoken question, but he saw the doubt in their eyes.
But it was true. He was fine. The healing magic the Troll had imposed on him had restored and refreshed his body. He felt quite well - as if the energy of a bubbling spring pulsed in his veins. Just the memory of his time in Hell - if it had been Hell after all - remained as a black shadow on his spirit.
And he would never let that shadow win. Never. Beladanar had to be destroyed, Galbren stopped. He would do whatever was necessary to achieve that goal.
"We have to talk about what to do now", he remarked. "Without Gate, Beladanar's troops are cut off. The invasion from Hell is finished."
"There are more than enough Demons here", Pallys mumbled.
"We have fifty staffs to wield against them", Khiray insisted. "Even Demons are not immortal." The Rabbit stayed silent and just seemed to wait, but the Fox could see that he had something on the tip of his tongue.
"Do you want to storm Beladanar's ship and slaughter the Demons?" Pakkaht asked. The Deer shook his antlers in disbelief. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"We can defeat them!" Kinnih called out enthusiastically. "We've got the weapons! We are stronger!"
"They are superior in numbers, probably", Khiray interrupted him. "I'm sorry, Kinnih, but we won't fight."
Disappointedly, the young Badger fell back into his chair. "What else?"
"We are only eight. But we have fifty staffs. We'd even need support to wield them all. No, we will continue with our previous plan. Drunlord Kooradah has to be informed. He will take further measures. His magicians may use the staffs or explore them and built new ones. I'm not interested in ever meeting a Demon again, and there would be no point in it, anyway. Kooradah has the power and the influence. We are only a motley collection of travelers."
"Finally a wise word", Delley voiced. "I already feared you'd announce your newest plan of revenge."
Khiray looked down. Revenge? It had come to his mind. He had lost his father and his reputation, and the Demons were to blame - Beladanar was to blame. And that night in Hell... but Khezzarrik was the culprit behind the scenes, and he had become unobtainable. Yes, he had to admit that he'd feel a certain satisfaction by destroying Beladanar, by killing Galbren. He felt uneasy with the thought. Not that he had never fought before - or never hated someone. But this was something else. This hate was an elementary feeling, something always present in the background of his thoughts. He could imagine himself standing over Galbren's body with a bloodied sword - laughing. And that was something that in his books only the evildoers and villains did, never the upright, glorious heroes. Whatever happened to them, they always remained the just, wise, magnanimous men they were introduced as on page one.
But the truth was different. Maybe, he had to admit, the events had robbed him a part of that innocence he had seen the world through previously. Maybe they even had nourished a dark seed that had always been present, a fault that forever separated him from the perfect heroes.
Or maybe he had just grown up and saw the world as what it was: a place where justice didn't always prevail, where the good didn't always triumph, where a Furry sometimes couldn't even tell where evil ended and the good began.
Now, nothing was like it had been before. But he had to live with it.
"No plan of revenge. But a plan we need, if Galbren's allies block both arms of the river. I thought of the following: Speed is not as important anymore. We have to stay hidden, travel in secrecy, escape the ambush by disguise. We won't even come near the Demons; I don't know if they could spy on us then."
"If they can, plans don't make much sense", Fryyk stated.
Khiray sighed. "You are right. But maybe they sense our presence even if we are in disguise. Therefore, we'll take the route to Larynedd. There are only soldiers, no Demons, and they can't possibly look through a mask."
"If that Demon told the truth", Pakkaht warned.
"Yes. If he didn't, we'll need a new plan. Until then, we have to assume that only soldiers will wait for us along the river. We'll buy a new ship at the next possible opportunity - not a fast Otter ship, but a slow merchant's barge. The 'Ansicc' will stay behind as a security; I can get her back later on. Then we'll load the tub with stones to feign a freight load - there may be experienced Riverfurrys among Galbren's mercenaries, and they'd know the ship's freight state by looking at the draught. No ship travels to Larynedd empty; they would suspect something."
"You think of everything", Pakkaht mocked. "But in truth people are stupid and inattentive. They trot through the day and hardly realize what happens around them. Pickpockets have an easy lot in this kind of world."
Khiray looked sharply at him. "You are the one to know, are you? - In any case that's the way we'll do it. One single suspicion would suffice, and we don't need to run the unnecessary risk. Saljin, I fear we'll have to hide you until we are in Larynedd. We others will dress as simple merchants, according to our role. Maybe we can even hire three or four sailors, so the soldiers will not even recognize us by crew race." He stopped. The thought of leaving the 'Silver Ansicc' behind made him uncomfortable. He didn't even dare to leave Delley or Kinnih on the ship as a guard - if the Demons came to search for them, they might find the almost abandoned ship and vent their fury on everyone they found there.
It wasn't even right to leave the 'Ansicc' behind as security. The threat by the Demons hung over the ship like a very real curse. But the gold he still had in his father's secret storage might not be enough to buy a merchant's barge - ships were bought at a shipyard or a ship's market in one of the big cities, not somewhere midriver in a village. The captain of their purchase would know they were in trouble and demand shamelessly raised prices. Moreover, he couldn't hide the 'Ansicc' anywhere without a crew; someone'd find her and claimed her as flotsam.
He could only hope that the Demons wouldn't follow them - or, if they did, they wouldn't harm the pawnbroker. "We'll take a seaship from Larynedd to Drun'kaal. Thus, we'll avoid any contact with the Demons, slip by the eyes of the soldiers and arrive at our final destination."
"Won't the soldiers search every ship they see?" Saljin asked.
The Fox shook his head. "No, they can't do that. You have already seen that there are a lot more villages around here than north of Bear Mountain. On the way down to Larynedd, there are several cities and a multitude of smaller settlements. The countryside west of the river up to the mountains is rich and fertile and therefore densely settled, and there are still a lot of villages east of the river right to the edge of the big swamp. Here in the south of the Armygan, most of us Furrys live; here along the coast the whole settling started. There is a lot of ship traffic, much more than the soldiers could control. They would lay themselves open to suspicion if they did, anyway. Galbren has no rights down here."
"And he's not even around to press his recriuts onward", Delley remarked. "Yes, it could work. I'm not happy about leaving the 'Ansicc' in the hands of strangers, but the plan is good."
Pallys rose. "No, it isn't."
Every eye focussed on him. "Why not?" Khiray asked. "We don't fight, we don't risk anything, we complete our mission. Didn't you speak out against any risk?"
The old Rabbit nodded. "Yes. But things have changed. Not only for us, but for the Demons as well, and that's what's troubling me. Khiray, you insist on your plan to get to Kooradah. But I don't believe that the Demons will stay with their intentions."
"What else?" Saljin asked. "What should they do? They can't go back."
"If Beladanar would be smart, he'd kiss Galbren goodbye and keep in hiding. Demons are not mortal in the same sense as we are. They can hold out a hundred years or more in a hidden place until no one around will remember that they had ever been there. Then, they could set out to find magicians who'd send them back to Hell."
Saljin sighed. "I thought of this already. I didn't know whether there are such magicians here..."
"There are. Not many, but they exist. We'd be rid of or troubles if Beladanar and his entourage had this idea. But I know the Lord of the Worms. He'll be mad with fury. His anger will make him forget the fear for his existence."
"A berserker", the Foxtauress murmured. "Khezzarrik had implied that Beladanar would react this way."
Pallys nodded. "He'll only think of destruction and revenge. He doesn't have a true pact with Galbren; the governor hasn't paid the price, and Beladanar isn't bound to him for good or ill."
"How do you know that?" Kinnih demanded to know.
"It wouldn't fit into Beladanar's plans. A pact that forces him to support Galbren would make him his slave in every respect, and the discharge from the pact or its ultimate fulfillment would mean his return to Hell. There have been magicians who dared to make a pact with a Demon before. There are some rules even the Lord of the Worms must obey."
Khiray hit the desk with the flat palm. "So he will pursue us, with all his Demons and every ounce of his hate!"
"No." Pallys shook his head. "He doesn't know where we are. He can't search the whole river. He has very little patience, now that he has to expect the coming of an Archangel any moment. I don't think the berserker fury will even leave him the memory of who we are. We have only been Khezzarrik's tools, after all, indistinguishable from all the thousands of other Furrys in the Armygan."
"Tools or not", Pakkaht remarked, "we have thwarted his plans. Why should he simply forget us now?"
"He'll be closer to his true Demonic nature", Pallys explained. "Until now, he was forced to behave like a mortal, wear a hull of flesh, climb down to our level."
"Hey!" Fryyk uttered.
"That is the way he sees the world", the Rabbit soothed him. "He considers Demons the superior race. For him, Demons are more noble than any mortal. We are just cattle for him. Khezzarrik knows better, Khezzarrik is smart. He can follow our way of thinking and manipulate us in a way Beladanar never could. The Lord of the Worms may seem jovial and faithful to his allies, but behind that mask a terrifying hate boils, a hate for any minor beings - and for the fact that he is forced to love among those inferior creatures."
"And what's that all supposed to mean?" Khiray asked uncomfortably. He had got a feeling that Pallys wanted to make a very unpleasant point.
The Rabbit looked at him. "If you see a beehive in the forest, and you want the honey, and a bee stings you, do you pursue that special bee with all your wrath? Or do you rather kill any bee you see, without distinguishing?"
Khiray raised a hand and counted his fingers. "First, I do not plunder wild beehives but leave that to the bee-keepers who know what they are doing. Second, a bee that stings already dies, so there's no point in pursuing. Third, I do not kill bees for pleasure. Fourth, if I would plunder a beehive, whole swarms would come at me, and the most sensible strategy is to jump into the nearest lake. Fifth..."
"It's only a metaphor", Pallys growled. "If you step into an anthill in the forest and get bitten, do you search out exactly those ants who bit you to crush them, or do you trample all over the hill?"
The Fox leaned back. "I don't trample anthills just because I get bitten by a few. But I do understand. Beladanar perceives us as ants; we are all alike to him, and his hatred is not directed towards us personally, but towards all Furrys."
"All Furrys, all Foxtaurs, all Oo'men, towards all that lives on this level", the Rabbit confirmed.
"That's an insult, if I understand it correctly", Fryyk complained. Kinnih nodded.
"He is a Demon." Pallys shrugged. "He did pursue us until now just because we endangered Galbren's plans. Now everything's over. He has no reason to obey Galbren anymore, and no reason to harm specifically us. He's raging, and his fury will devour everything in his path."
"He'll kill innocent people", Kinnih feared.
"Are we guilty people?" Fryyk protested, and the young Badger shook his head in a hurry.
"He will kill anyone. Destroy anything. Bring death and devastation to all of the Armygan with Demonic magic."
"But the Archangels..." Khiray spread his arms. "You said that the Demons had to hide under the masks of Furrys to carry out their plans because the Archangels would spot them otherwise!"
Pallys nodded. "Yes. That was before. But as I said, everything has changed... Previously, they had to execute Galbren's plan that would help first Galbren to power, then the Demons. Now that is no longer a possibility. Even if Beladanar has brought a hundred Demons here already - and I don't believe that; Demons are had to keep in check and to satisfy, even for a Demon Lord - they are still too few for an army. With a hundred Demons the Armygan cannot be conquered, at least not in a way that doesn't raise the Archangels' suspicion. Before, Beladanar and Galbren tried to get the better of each other in a game for power. Now only pure force counts, and Beladanar is a master in that. Before, Galbren had been present to keep the Lord of the Worms at bay. Now he's traveling the Long Run somewhere, and Beladanar waits for us." Pallys breathed deeply. "All those things. Nothing is as before. Life is not like a book, with a beginning and a middle and an ending, and all the parts are neatly tied up and connected and made so simple that even the most gormless reader can grasp it all. No, life is like an anthill, swarming with events and people and things, and the things that happen here do influence things that happen there and the other way round. Plans and principles change. The events sometimes do not match what we expected. It's just like a ride down Dorn's Rapids: we can move the rudder and hope for the ship to react, but in truth we are at the mercy of powers we can't control."
"Figures in a game", Khiray murmured. "Only the player is sometimes invisible." Pallys' fatalism got on his nerves. He knew quite well that books only told a simple story. But life was not that much different as Pallys thought. Life consisted of a thousand small simple stories, a thousand fates that intertwined. It might be an anthill, but every ant went its special way, and all together formed something new, something bigger. And they didn't do it by just tagging along. They acted. Maybe it was the secret mechanisms of nature that guided their steps instead of a free will. But that didn't matter. They acted, and thus formed their world.
The Fox believed that Furrys - and Foxtaurs, and Oo'men, and whatever beings populated this world - could do the same. Forging their own fates. Not only pawns who got moved by invisible hands across a titanic playfield. Sometimes that might fit, but not always.
He hadn't survived a night in Hell by believing something else. Yes, plans and principles might change, the players switched their places, the invisible paths shifted. But despite all this, they still held their own lives in their hands. Their destiny.
"What's with the Archangel, now?" Kinnih impatiently demanded to know.
Pallys sighed. "He'll come. But he'll come too late. Beladanar's fury will take it's course, he will travel down the river to Drun'kaal, burn every village and every town along the way to the ground and destroy every life. The Archangels will notice the Demonic energies and come to look for them, but they'll need days for it. There are a lot of things that occupy an Archangel's mind, and their eyes do not rest on the Armygan all the time. Probably Beladanar will have leveled Drun'kaal in the meantime."
"No loss", Pakkaht remarked mercilessly. "The whole decadent bunch should be exterminated anyway."
Delley shook his head. "How can you say such a thing? The Drunlord keeps justice and order, after all. The court may be decadent, but there are a lot of honest workers and craftsmen in the city, sailors and farmers. Should they be exterminated, too?"
Pakkaht raised his antlers. "It makes no difference. Others will come and rebuild the city. Beladanar can't destroy all of the Armygan before the Archangels destroy him. The Armygan has survived the drought when the swamps became shallow muddy pools, it has survived the fever that came when fresh water became scarce, it has survived the big rain when the rivers left their beds and the swamp became an ocean, it has survived the storm tide that tore the old Larynedd into the ocean, and it has survived the plundering raids of the Pharrak. What difference does it make that the destructive force is a Demon this time?"
"If that's the way you feel, why did you come with us?" Kinnih became outraged.
"Little one, I wanted to leave Sookandil because the city had become a dangerous spot to be for me. If I had guessed we'd fight Demons along the way, well, maybe I had left already."
Pallys raised his ears. "We cannot allow the Demons to devastate our home. We have to stop them!"
"What?" Pakkaht cried out and jumped up. "You are the Rabbit that didn't want to fight, who wanted to flee the land because there was no hope, supposedly!"
Khiray pricked up his ears. Pakkaht was not supposed to know Pallys' words. That had been a matter between him, Khiray and Saljin only - and no one else had been let into the secret. Did Pakkaht eavesdrop on them?
The Deer was not who he claimed to be. Khiray guessed who was hiding behind that name. But he remained silent and left it to Pallys to defend himself.
"Maybe that had been the way I'd been thinking", the Rabbit stated. "But it only matters what I'm thinking now. And I believe that we can't let the death of so many Furrys happen."
"What a load of crap!" Pakkaht sat down again and folded his arms. "We are not responsible for Galbren's plan or the evil deeds of Demons. No one here is to blame. We don't have to set off like a bunch of brainless heroes to right the wrong and to fight for truth and justice! Especially since the enemy is superior by far. We don't have a weapon against Beladanar! He will tear us into pieces!" Then he continued in a lower voice: "You, I mean. If you don't value your lives, then by any means go and fight."
"Maybe we don't have to fight", Pallys said. "It would suffice to call an Archangel."
"If we use the weapons", Saljin interfered, "maybe the Archangels will spot them."
"I didn't notice anything of that", Delley refused. "I have yet to see an Archangel's tail end."
"You need a lot of power to reach the places where Archangels dwell", Pallys explained. "And you need special skills. The normal standard magic is unable to do that. Only a few magicians have ever studied that art: no one wants to anger an Archangel by calling him without need - and there are very few reasons to call them at all."
"But you know the art", Khiray guessed.
"Yes, I know it. But I am not a magician, and I don't have that kind of power at my command. I can call an Archangel... but only in a special place."
Saljin leaned on the desk. "Didn't you say once you can't call an Archangel?"
"I can't call an Archangel." Pallys drooped his ears. "Not here, not in Sookandil. I need a place of power."
"I remember. Ghanzekk wrote about it." Khiray tried to remember the whole message.
"For every one of us, there's a place of power. A place we are connected with in a special way. A place where one's fate took an unexpected turn. Some of us, especially us long-lived, have a lot of those places. Ghanzekk's places of power are far from here, on another continent. Mine... well, one of mine is Alvanere."
"Alvanere is a ruin", Pakkaht complained.
"They say ghosts are dancing there", Kinnih remarked.
"Alvanere had been a flowering city once", Pallys replied. "But that are things that do not matter here. In any case, we have to go to Alvanere so I can collect the power and call upon an Archangel. Everything else will be his business then."
Khiray didn't answer. Alvanere? At the point the Long Run left the lake of Alvanere, the Demons waited. The lake was quite big, and maybe the Hell beings just overlooked the 'Silver Ansicc', but the Fox didn't believe in it. The ship would need two or three days more to Alvanere, and Beladanar might lose patience till then and march against Drun'kaal. But that option seemed improbable as well for Khiray. No, the Demons would wait for them, and there would be another fight. With the help of Ghanzekk's staffs, they could hold them off for a while, maybe even kill a few. But the only way to stop Beladanar was an Archangel, and if Pallys failed...
...or if he still didn't tell the truth...
Khiray didn't know any longer what to think of his old teacher. So many secrets, so many lies. This new tale of the places of power and the possibility to call an Archangel could be a new delusion, a new lie. He had to hear the truth before he could ever trust Pallys again. The whole truth.
"We cast off", he commanded. "Delley, you take the wheel. Kinnih, to the engines. Fryyk, Pakkaht, Sarmeen: you'll do the rest. As soon as we reach the river arm to Larynedd, I'll decide where to go, not earlier. I have to talk to Pallys first."
His crew nodded and rose like a single Furry. He saw they weren't really happy with his decision - or rather the absence of a decision. But they couldn't offer any better solution. "And something else", he added. "I'd like to eat something reasonable today. Without Shooshun, we don't have anyone to cook any edible meal..."
"I'll cook", Pakkaht offered. "One of my talents."
Khiray nodded and closed the door behind him. Then he sat down again at the desk with Pallys and Saljin. "And now I'd like to hear everything."
The Rabbit drew invisible circles on the desk with his finger. "Everything?"
"Everything. Everything about the Demons, the places of power, about Alvanere and Ghanzekk."
Pallys sighed. "So be it. Maybe I should have told you everything from the beginning, have more trust in you... but after fourteen thousand years of betrayal and deceit and lies those things are rather difficult, sometimes." He closed his eyes, and for a moment Khiray thought he could see his incredible age - the millennia that weighed heavily on Pallys' spirit.
Then the Rabbit started his tale.