But here on the Lake of Alvanere, everything was different again. Alvanere was disreputable, even feared. No one lived near the ruins; very few villages graced the eastern bank. The next settlement was eighty kilometers down to the south of the destroyed city. Even the ships gave Alvanere a wide berth and followed the western bank, out of sight of the 'Silver Ansicc'. Only the signal horns could be heard occasionally.
Silence spread all around. The quiet seemed to increase as they came nearer to the dreaded place. Khiray steered the ship with the bank always in view. He knew the position of the ruins, but he had never been there before. Saswin as well had avoided Alvanere.
People told stories of ghosts that haunted the place. After all Pallys had told them, that probably was more than a rumor. Ghosts were real. Khiray had never met such a shadow being, but he knew the stories from a reliable source.
They arrived at Alvanere that afternoon. It was not difficult to find the ruins: a wide area, blackened and burnt, a time-gnawed landscape made from hills and heaps of stones. Although the events lay four hundred years in the past, no tree grew on the ruins; it seemed as if the city had been destroyed only yesterday.
When they came nearer, Khiray had to admit that this was not quite true: Wind and rain had ground down the leftover stone walls, the wooden parts were weathered, and the stone piles sunken in. And there were some plants after all, bold enough to fight for the free space: wild bushes, thorny shrubs, ferns and stinging nettles. But four hundred years were enough time for respectable trees to grow, to reconquer an untouched site for the forest. Whatever influence kept the plants back, Khiray could feel it under his fur already.
Threatening. Dark. A wailing from long-lost times, a mixture of voices that cried for revenge - or release.
Alvanere formed a peninsula, a tongue of land that pushed its ash-darkened masses far into the lake. Khiray guided the 'Ansicc' to the northern bank as well as possible. Once, landing-stages might have awaited ships here - the remains were still visible in the water -, but now there was no possibility to moor directly for a ship of the size of the 'Silver Ansicc'. Moreover, the underwater ruins were difficult to avoid. The Fox didn't want to damage the hull of his ship by ramming some wall parts.
He let drop anchor after the ship had arrived at the point where the peninsula and the northern lake shore melded. North of that place, the forest grew as normal, but south of the landing point the eye met only ruins, covering even the hinterland.
"A spooky place", Delley remarked. The Rat had slept over the morning, but was wide awake again now. No one in the crew could rest under the depressing influence.
"You have never been here before?" Kinnih asked.
Delley shook his head. "That's a place that is best avoided. No one in his right mind comes here."
Kinnih, Delley and Sarmeen started to prepare a dinghy and to launch it. In the meantime Perlish helped Khiray to secure the ship. "Shouldn't someone stay aboard?" the Deer asked.
Khiray made a gesture of denial. "No, we'll need every hand in case there is a fight. No one will try to steal the ship here."
"The Demons could sink it."
"If Khezzarrik told us the truth, they'll arrive from the south. They will not even see the 'Ansicc'." He knocked at his own cabin door. "Saljin?"
The Foxtauress opened and left the room. She wore colorful ribbons braided in her tail and the long hair. Freshly bathed and brushed, her fur looked fluffy and soft, and the red, blue and green of the fabric made her appear like someone who was ready to attend a spring festival. But the belts with knifes and short staffs as well as the Dekka'shin with its double blade and the rune-carved staff as a handle left no doubt that she did not expect a festival at all.
"Woo!" Perlish made. "If we are going to die, we'll die at least beautiful, won't we?"
"No one will die here!" Khiray snapped at him. "We have not even seen Demons yet!"
The Deer waved his hand. "Okay, okay. I'm just a little nervous."
"We all are", Saljin stated, but she was the only one who didn't even look nervous. She trotted onward to Pallys' cabin, but the Rabbit had gotten ready for the passage early and was sitting in the dinghy already.
One crossing was enough for them all, including the staffs. The dinghy touched the singed ground, and immediately the mental pressure increased.
"Ghosts", Pallys said. "They are waiting. They can feel us coming."
"What are you going to do?" Khiray asked and helped Perlish to pull the dinghy ashore and to tie it to a big rock.
The Rabbit pointed to the center of the rubble hills. "Somewhere over there lies an open space. That would be the easiest to defend, I think."
They followed him across the area. Rising walls obstructed their view of the ruins. The rubble made walking difficult; they had to climb several times, and every now and then something gave way beneath their feet. Stone, dust and ashes collapsed and reveiled deep holes. At some places, the former streets were still recognizable in form of valleys through the ruins. Wooden window frames and doors were completely decayed, leaving hardly a trace, and every structure that had been higher than two stories was ground down by time and now filled up the ditches.
Since no one ever came here again - except maybe adventurers, lured to this place by stories of ghosts -, all the stones, the bricks, the material the city had been built of, still were there, even if worn and cracked, shattered and wasted. Other cities that had been left for some reason, were plundered after some time by new settlers. Building material was too valuable to leave it lying around.
The mere sight of ruins was unusual for the Armygan. Nothing went to waste in the swampland. But here, not a pebble had been removed; once-high towers had crumbled and became irregular cones of brick lumps; shards of big windows glitteringly graced piles of cement and baked-together ashes.
It was hard to imagine that Furrys had lived here once. Merry voices in the streets, haggling customers on the markets, playing children in the yards.
A motion at the corners of his vision caught Khiray's attention, but when he looked, nothing was there. Demons? Were they already here, had they prepared an ambush? He warned the others. Tensedly, they sneaked forward, but nothing happened. If it were Demons, they acted very cautiously.
"There." Pallys pointed at a wide, open area. The rubble covered only the edges of the former square; the diameter of the open space was three hundred meters or more, with the remains of a single building in the center. The ashes had eaten into the stone the square had been paved with, but they could still make out the big colored tiles that had decorated the whole place. The building in the center was square with a length of about fifty meters. The remains of columns guarded the front, where the former entrance gaped as an irregular hole. That was all they could see; the building had no roof anymore, above a height of five or six meters, the whole structure had collapsed.
"Is that the house you lived in?" Perlish asked.
The Rabbit gave him a reproachful look. "If you insist on listening to things that are not your affair, you should at least listen better. I had lived at the borders of the city. This is the Temple of Alvanere, a holy place."
Accompanied by Khiray only, Pallys entered the Temple. The remains of the roof covered the floor, but strangely enough, a corridor was left that led to the center of the building. There was only one room inside, surrounded by columns, and in the middle an altar stood on a raised platform.
Pallys settled in front of the altar. "I will need some hours to call and gather the powers. If the Demons spot us, you know what to do."
Khiray shook his fur uncomfortably. "Hours? I'd rather not be here when the night falls."
"It's not a simple kind of magic, and I am no magician. What do you expect?"
The Fox laid back his ears. "I hope the ghosts don't bear a grudge against us."
"They will come here." Pallys looked around. "They will not bother you. As soon as the call gets out, they'll follow it."
"And the Archangel...?" Khiray tried to imagine what it would be like, when an Archangel descended to the earth. In the last days, he had seen more than he ever cared to know. Would this be a new level of terror, a picture of unimaginable power? Or would the celestial energies remain invisible for mortal eyes?
"He will come." The Rabbit crossed arms and legs and leaned back against the altar, his eyes closed.
Khiray nodded and turned away. There was a lot to do.
Before he had crossed half of the room, Pallys' voice once again rose. "Khiray?"
The Fox turned back. "Yes?"
Pallys opened his muzzle as if to say something, but stopped halfway. "Nothing", he finally uttered. "Just go."
Khiray left the temple with an unpleasant feeling - like an itch in the shoulder fur that couldn't be fought no matter how hard he scratched.
There were only seven of them - Khiray, Saljin, Delley, Kinnih, Sarmeen, Fryyk and Perlish. Of them all, only Saljin, Delley and Perlish had any battle experience that was worth mentioning. Sarmeen, Khiray and Kinnih were trained in handling weapons, but Sarmeen was the son of a governor, rather accustomed to duels, Khiray fought with an unfamiliar weapon, and Kinnih was too young to have much routine in a fight. Fryyk finally was an Otter, the member of a peaceful race. Otters seldomly fought, and if they did, they tried to use their most distinct advantage - the water.
To defend the temple ruin successfully, they had to form a circle around it. The Demons could attack from any side. Khiray assigned the group members in such a way that an experienced fighter and a less battle-hardened Furry alternated: himself, Perlish to the left, Fryyk, Delley, Kinnih, Sarmeen, finally Saljin. He had little choice in this matter: he thought it would be best if Kinnih stayed with his teacher, and Fryyk was flanked by two skilled warriors. There was one point where two less seasoned fighters had to side up, and Khiray trusted Sarmeen's abilities rather than his own. At least Saljin was between them, so he could feel somewhat safer.
They got the staffs from the dinghy and prepared for the task. Fifty staffs, fifteen of them long, fourteen short ones and twenty-one of medium size. Khiray handed the medium-sized weapons to the crew, together with one of the longer staffs for every fighter except Saljin and himself - their staffs were already put to use in their Dekka'shins. Then they placed the short staffs in two circles around the temple: one wide circle at the edge of the rubble hills, and one that was a little tighter, but still about ten meters away from their positions. The three concentric heptagons formed by the half-buried, upright staffs and their own stands were turned a little with each new circle.
They had had time enough to make some careful experiments with the staffs. Ghanzekk's weapons could be triggered from a distance if one made the appropriate gesture in the right direction. Moreover, they didn't need to aim; the magic looked for the next victim all by itself. That much they had learned from Ghanzekk's notes; of course, they had no Demons present to put the theory to a test.
Unfortunately, Ghanzekk's journal consisted only of loose pages, spread planlessly and more or less accidentally throughout the books they had gathered in the magician's house. There was not a single remark about the affinity to Troll steel, and nothing about the important question how much power the magic lost if the Demon did not stand directly at the staff when the green fire worked. With only seven positions, their circles of defense were rather sparsely equipped.
Eight long staffs remained. Khiray started to draw a magical barrier with them - just outside their stands, but within the inner staff-heptagon. The idea was to let the Demons come close, then stop them at the barrier and use the staffs in their back to destroy them.
How many Demons could be killed with a single staff? Pallys had spent his own when he destroyed Hhrugha. Had Hhrugha been a common Demon, one of the mighty, or even a Lord of Hell? If they were unlucky, the first guess was true. Pallys had owned his staff for a long time, but had never used it except to stop the Bear Demons in Sookandil.
Therefore, the worst case was that one small staff would only kill a single Demon. The Bears hadn't been stopped for long by the barriers. Probably they were among the nobility of Hell. Was the power of a middle-sized staff enough for them?
Perdition! Maybe one staff really equalled one Demon. Then, Beladanar mustn't lead more than thirty-five Demons into battle before the small and middle staffs were used up. And Beladanar himself was probably as immune against the staffs as Khezzarrik.
Well, Khezzarrik hadn't been totally immune...
The green fire seemed to seep into the ground while Khiray drew the circle. A pale glow marked his way around. Only occasionally small flames flickered on it. The barrier that the staffs should form remained invisible. The Fox looked back and frowned. His tail twitched nervously. The evil of this place might have an effect on Ghanzekk's magic...
There! There it was again, a darting he could only perceive from the corner of an eye. When he concentrated on it, it had already disappeared. His fur rose and refused to smooth down even with the most rational of thoughts. Ghosts. There were ghosts around them.
When Khiray looked back to the temple, he noticed something strange. The whole square had been covered in grey and black, a sign of the centuries as much as of the devastation. Now, however, the color of the tiles seemed to glow through the dirt in the vicinity of the ruin. A pattern became visible. The nearer to the temple the tiles lay, the brighter the color was, the clearer the former splendour seemed to reappear.
But even far away from the immediate influence of the temple, the magic worked. Fine veins of golden light, branched and angled like lightning, grew in the dust. Right now it were only a few, far apart and weak, but even as Khiray looked, they became stronger and branched some more.
"What's happening here?" Kinnih asked anxiously. The seven fighters gathered closely together, as if they trusted the magic even less than the Demons that might appear.
"Pallys calls the power of this place", Khiray stated. "I hope the ghosts are not disturbed by our presence." He completed the circle and rammed the last long staff into the gap between two tiles.
"And I hope the ghosts won't set upon us", Perlish mumbled.
"I know only very few stories of evil ghosts", Delley claimed.
"We should go to our positions", Khiray decided. "The Demons are the only thing we should fear here, and they can attack any moment. No more talk, only warning calls if somefurry sees something."
Waiting in the silence was the worst part. The sun sank, and dense clouds gathered, obliterating the stars. They listened into the night that crept closer, but apart from the far gurgle of the lake - barely audible even for their sensitive ears - and the rush of the wind, there was no sound. Not only the plants seemed to avoid the place, but the animals as well.
Although the sky became pitch-black, the vicinity of the temple was still reasonably bright. The thin energy veins gave enough light to see by. The green fire of the barrier was still barely visible, but in the half-light Khiray could make out the circle of the eight staffs at least.
He tried not to think too hard. If he concentrated on the Demons too much, the images would return...
...one night in Hell...
...and he didn't want to risk that. They needed everyfur. Things would happen, just like Saljin said, and it was of no use to worry in advance. Maybe the Demons wouldn't come after all. How should they know there were Furrys who opposed them, after all? Beladanar probably was well on his way to Drun'kaal. Or Pallys had judged him wrongly, and the Demon Lord was hiding to await a more favourable time.
Could an Archangel find Beladanar in that case? Even if the Demon had dug in somewhere, invisible for all eyes, sleeping away the century in some sort of magical nap, without releasing his hellish energies? And what would happen if the Archangel couldn't find a trace of the adversary? For the first time Khiray realized that this powerful being could be something else but their natural ally - that they could feel his wrath if he was called in vain.
A cry interrupted the Fox's thoughts. "Khiray! Ghosts!" It was Kinnih.
"Stay in place!" Khiray shouted back. "Keep out of their way, but don't do anything, except if they attack!" They had no weapon against ghosts. But Khiray didn't expect them to attack the small group. They came, lured by Pallys' call that lingered for hours already.
It could be over at any moment. The Archangel could appear every second now.
But the energy lines still widened, their web became tighter, and an even bigger area of the square was freed of the ashes, glowed in a multitude of colors, lighting a shadowless night.
Ashes - the ashes of the dead. The dead whose power Pallys commanded. Under the force of the call the ash dissolved, losing its link to the place of death, releasing the old, smouldering hate - the desperation, the dying, the hollow roar of destruction. Khiray felt cold shivers running down his spine, right back to his tail tip. That was a ghoulish kind of magic, a spell conjuring the powers of the dead. Powerful it might be, but what sort of magician would use that horror of his own volition?
On the other paw, there were some really unscrupulous sorcerers in this world. And if those forces would bring them new powers, they would use them for sure. It was rather strange that not more magicians plundered their places of power; not to call Archangels, but to strenghten themselves. What kept them from doing it?
Now Khiray could see a ghost on his side as well. At first it was only a small light that slowly came closer, but when it left the rubble hills and entered the free square, it gathered form. More and more distinct the spirit became, and when it passed by Khiray, the Fox could see that it was the ghost of a female Rabbit. She wore the illusion of clothes, probably the ones she had worn on the day of her death. Her eyes were fixed on the temple, she didn't look at Khiray. Although her paws moved, they didn't match the speed of her passing and went right through the ground with every step.
Khiray dared to look after the ghost. It slid into the temple, through the wall. More ghosts came from all sides. Some didn't seem to be as much in Pallys' spell; they looked around as if they were searching for something. Someone they knew? The city they lived in? An enemy?
Yes, there were Pharrak among them. They as well followed the magic, side by side with their victims and enemies. The lizard beings let their heads and tails swing; some of them without seeing, some attentive and suspicious.
Khiray let his gaze wander across the rubble mountains. There were more, many more of the ghosts. Had they held out here for all those centuries, without a hope to find peace? Had all the inhabitants and invaders of the city become ghosts, or only a part of them? The hills were swarming with them, and the dead bones of the city sprouted more of them with every second.
A young Vixen stopped in front of Khiray. She resembled his mother - but Ayashlee had died in another place, and the Fox hoped with all his might that she was not forced to wander the earth as a ghost. The strange Vixen wore unfamiliar clothes as well, a dress of very old design with lots of ribbons and cords. In her time, they might have dressed like that in the city, but never on the river - it was too impractical.
She extended a hand towards Khiray's face. Did she see a son in him, a husband, another dead relative? The hand passed through Khiray's cheek without causing any sensation, not even the cold breeze he expected. The Vixen stared at her paw, then she turned away and went to the temple.
Khiray hoped that her soul would finally be released in Pallys' ritual.
A soldier went by, in a uniform of archaic cut. Three Pharrak followed him. None of them even glanced at Khiray.
The square was full of ghosts now. Some moved along the glowing golden lines, others marched directly to the temple. Merchants, workers, children, old people. The destruction had spared no one, favoured no one. In the face of death they were all equals.
The air seemed to crackle with tension. At the points where the ghosts crossed Demon barriers, sparks sprayed, but apart from that effect, the forces didn't seem to effect each other. The barriers did not stop the ghosts, nor did the wandering spirits destroy the Demon shields.
Khiray eyed the rubble hills suspiciously. Demons might hide among all those ghosts to sneak on them. But the ghosts were transparent and bright, while the Demons wore ordinary furry bodies.
At least he hoped so.
A strange singing rang through the night. It came from the temple, but it was not Pallys' voice. Wailing, yet with a subtone of joy. As if a long time of suffering had just ended, as if the time for goodbyes had come. Did the ghosts sing? Out here, no sound came from them.
Khiray decided to leave his post for a moment to look after the Rabbit. He waved into Saljin's and Perlish's direction, indicated that they should supervise his part of the circle as well. Then he ran after the ghosts.
Light blazed above the temple. It came from within, a brightness that seemed to ascend to the clouds. Carefully he shielded his eyes with a hand before he looked into the ruin.
The ghosts were dancing. They circled around the altar, in a wide spiral. Those that came from the outside - floating through the walls - found their place at the outer edge of the circle, revolved with the others while slowly closing in on the center. The farther they came, the less clear their shapes were - they contracted, lost their features; the shine within them shrinked to a small ball, a bright miniature star.
And the stars became faster and faster the nearer they were to the center, until they were hardly recognizeable as a ball in the innermost circle, but rather a streak, no, a disc of light, consisting of hundreds of dancing souls.
Pallys stood in the center of the dance. The light that rose from the dead seemed to disappear within him and to make him glow from the inside. The ghosts were in him. And the light shape he had become had little resemblance with the former Rabbit - it was not even a Rabbit alone, but as well Leopard, Badger, Cat, Otter, Rat, Fox, Wolf, Deer, Bear, even Pharrak, a being of all races. He was male and female, old and young, incorporating all the life that had been in Alvanere.
And there was power in this place. Khiray was no magician, and he didn't even believe in any magical talent of his, but the single room in the temple was so full of energy that he could feel it - thick like syrup. The force dripped from the old columns, radiated into the sky, flowed in sluggish rivers through the building.
The song Khiray had heard came from Pallys' muzzle, or rather the muzzle of the being Pallys had become. A thousand souls sang the death hymn of a city that had been destroyed four hundred years ago, thousand spirits that had finally been given a voice again - or thousand voices, for that was how it sounded like: a chorus of mourning, a chorus of joy.
Khiray turned around and returned to his place. There was no ash beneath his paws any more - the whole square up to the rubble piles glowed in magnificient colors. The mosaic of tiles showed a picture now, emphasized and illuminated by a hundred thousand golden veins that not only covered the open area, but the hills behind as well.
And where the wall remains and the broken bricks of the former city lay, an image of Alvanere rose, the last of the spirits, the spirit of the town itself - like a living being, immersed in a pale shimmer; houses, palaces, huts; mighty archs, vaults, gargoyles; bridges, streets, columns, gates. High into the sky the towers of the ghost city soared, out of the rubble, into the night, called by magic, awakened from a restless dream.
Alvanere swirled and fluctuated like a mirage on a very hot day. The last ghosts came down the hills and floated across the square, in a hurry, as if they feared to miss something. The city stretched out, lost its form, seemed to grasp at the hurrying spirits. Then it changed one more time, followed the tracks of its inhabitants: the far houses disappeared first, became glowing stripes of light that joined the dance of the ghosts in the temple, then the nearer buildings, finally the whole inner city that surrounded the square. Khiray could only guess what was going on; his view of the events was not very clear from where he stood. But he understood.
At last the ghost of the temple itself disappeared - melded with the light in its ruins. The whisper of the city mingled into the song, and the life that its builders had given it became one with all the lost lives within.
But there was still movement. Something crawled amidst the rubble piles. The barriers hisses and flared. Green fire blazed from the eight long staffs.
The Demons had come.
They realized fast that they had been spotted and that the seven defenders were prepared for their coming. At any rate, they gave up their attempts of being sneaky and hopped, climbed and marched openly across the ruins. Beladanar was first. He wore his Oo'men mask instead of the worm body (unless there were worms hidden beneath the skin). The other Demons as well looked like normal beings - Furrys in their case, soldiers, adventurers, furrys-at-arms. Bears were not among them; the majority was Rats and Cats, but there were Wolves and Foxes as well. No Rabbits or Deer, no Otters or Badgers. Beladanar obviously didn't consider those races fighters enough for a Demon body.
How did the Demons acquire their bodies? Had there really been an Alfon Sanass once, conquered and seized by Beladanar - had all those creatures been true, living Furrys before? Or did the Demons create bodies out of thin air by the powers of their will? Khezzarrik had done this.
The Lord of the Worms crossed the square with leisurely steps and stopped in front of the barrier. Khiray came to meet him. The Fox was not sure if Beladanar had seen the staffs that formed the two outer heptagons, just ignoring them, or if he really didn't suspect the trap. But he wanted to put off the moment of truth as far as possible, to start the fight only when it was inevitable.
The Archangel should come soon. The ghosts already were in the temple. What was left to do? What amount of power flowed through the golden veins from the deep ground to Pallys?
When would it be enough?
Did Beladanar know what Pallys did? He didn't seem to be in a hurry. Either he knew nothing at all. Or he saw already that the magic would need even more time. Or he played a tricky con game and wanted to deceive them. Or - and that was the most disturbing possibility - he didn't fear the Archangel.
Khiray ignored the knot that formed in his entrails. Once again he faced a Demon. He would need all of his mind and all of his strength.
"Good evening, Azzhuzzim Beladanar, Lord of the Worms, Lord of Hell", he hailed him.
Alfon Sanass smiled, a typical Oo'men smile, baring the teeth, that did not mirror the mood in his eyes. Politeness. "Good evening, Khiray, little Fox. I see you didn't take my advice and tried to interfere."
"If I had known that my well-being is so close to your heart, I might have decided otherwise."
"I would have preferred that, indeed. Khezzarrik khi Valangassis hadn't got an opportunity to betray me. You wouldn't have been forced to pay the price. All those unpleasant things wouldn't have happened."
"They would have happened to someone else", Khiray stated. They would have happened to Saljin - who had remained a prisoner of Galbren. But he didn't say that aloud.
"Maybe... maybe not. Khezzarrik seems to value you very much. Maybe you are something special. Yes, for sure. His most useful tool - his sharpest sword. Another one wouldn't have done what you did. Not everyone makes a pact with a Demon, knowing all too well what would happen to him - and knowing that the Demon will betray him nevertheless."
Khiray pricked up his ears. "Betray?"
Alfon Sanass giggled. "Oh, yes! Did you really think Khezzarrik's plans would end at the point where he returns to Hell? No. He plans my destruction, but yours as well. He marked you. And he sent me a message, his parting letter so to say, wherein he was telling me about the whole extent of his breach of the oath. That is just like his kind: it's not enough for him to do things, he wants to be hated for it as well. To enjoy the victory to the full without bringing enough suffering into the world - without leaving me and my trusted ones to death - no, that is not even imaginable to him. Oh, I really admire him! An excellent planner, a genius strategist! I want to rip his flesh with small hooks from his bones, but he is my better. When I took his oath a long time ago, I thought to have subjugated him. Few things are as enduring and powerful as an oath among Demons. But he found a way. He made me believe that I acted from my own volition, and he even lured Galbren into the plan. But you..." He stopped for a moment, then he spread his arms and laughed jovially. "You, little Fox, are the core of his plan. Someone with enough brains to look behind the first veil, but with too little experience - and no knowledge of Demons at all - to even see the veils behind this one. Someone with enough courage to resist us, enough stubbornness, enough defiance - someone with a strong heart. Someone mad enough to make a pact with a Demon."
"Mad", Khiray said, "is not the word I'd use."
"Mad, in love, where's the diffference." Sanass waved his right hand impatiently. "The craziness of furbeings. The frenzy of cockroaches. Khezzarrik hoped for Pallys the Rabbit. You are what he got instead. Well, one stupid furrybeing is as good as any, I'd say. You followed his trail, you went for his bait, and finally you signed the pact to fulfill his plan. Ah, the boldness of it all! To use cockroaches to topple a king!" It was obvious that he spoke of Khezzarrik.
The Fox was not pleased about being called a cockroach. "Maybe I fell for his tricks, but I didn't know anything about the deceptiveness of Demons. You however, Mylord, knew Khezzarrik very well and still are a prey to his cunning."
Alfon Sanass shook his head. "That's why he took my place in Hell. But I am a sore loser. And you are my victim now, as you have been Khezzarrik's victim before. A cockroach, running here and there, always following its master's plans. You will be nothing more, never. But I will fall with all the glory of a Lord of Hell. It takes an Archangel to beat me, and before that one will come, I will punish you a thousand times for serving the wrong master, and I will enjoy your pain, your torment, your fear, your suffering, I will drink your life's forces and thus become stronger, an even mightier adversary of the Archangel, so that the battle will be a blaze to the heavens!"
The barrier flamed and sparkled, as if it reacted to Sanass' frenzy.
"We are here to fight", Khiray silently answered.
"Fight?" Sanass roared with laughter. "Fight! You! I am a Lord of Hell! You can't fight me with your toys! A cockroach with a sword is still a cockroach! You are too stupid to understand. You have not been sent here to fight, but to die. Khezzarrik has provided for the erasure of every trace of him in this world!"
"We have not been sent", Khiray protested. He had made the decision to sail to Alvanere long after Khezzarrik had returned to Hell. He couldn't influence them any longer.
Or could he...?
"Stupid furbeings", Sanass sighed. "Khezzarrik had planned everything. Everything. He knew about Alvanere, he knew about Pallys. He knew Pallys would try to call the Archangel here even before Pallys himself knew. He knew what would happen, and how. He knows your little hearts better than you do. He sent me a message to come here, but too late to be able to stop your magic. And he marked you, little crawler, with his mark, and gave me the weapon to plunge your mind into madness. That is his thanks for your service, his last joke, worthy indeed of a Demon Lord!"
Khiray shuddered. When Demons said something like that, it was the plain truth - as often they might lie elsewhen. So Khezzarrik's plans really lingered on beyond his goodbye. It was just like him to try to destroy Khiray - his pride was hurt by being captured in a pact.
Would the pact release Khezzarrik into freedom as soon as he himself was dead? Khiray had used words like "never", but if the pact expired, words had no meaning at all. Khezzarrik would be free to cause new harm. And he would certainly use the opportunity.
If this was true, it didn't even mean much whether he survived the confrontation with Sanass/Beladanar or not. His whole lifespan was but a wink for the Demon; a moment the Hellish Lord could patiently wait for to end. All that Khiray had won was just a delay. And not even the sword of the Archangel could reach Khezzarrik anymore.
But Gate's plans had not yet bore fruit. "Oh mighty Lord of the Worms, so you as well have become a tool of Khezzarrik? You are fighting me although you know that Khezzarrik wishes for exactly this to happen? Why don't you hide from the eyes of the Archangel until his wrath has passed by, and then try to return to Hell to call Khezzarrik to account for his treason?"
"Hide? Crawl under a stone, as if I were a cockroach myself? Stupid furbeing! I could never return to Hell, even less than I can now. Khezzarrik has vanquished me, in a way that has brought him all of my glory, my honor and my power. If I came back to Hell now, I'd be one of the many, and I had to repeat my ascent all over again. But if I hid here, everyone in Hell would look down on me as on the lowest of dirt Demons, as on a Nothing without any honor, as on a thing that is not even worth looking at! No, the fight is over; I can only add a glorious finale to my long existence, and that's the way it should be. I am still a Lord, and it is better to perish as a Lord of Hell than to exist as a miserable cockroach under the heels of the mighty!"
The Demons out there closed in. Some had lost their Furry shape. Hairless, bent, deformed - in the process of returning to their true body. Eyes glowed in the darkness of the rubble piles, other than the Furry eyes that just reflected light. In the distance, the brightness of the golden veins started to recede, and Khiray could estimate their numbers by the pairs of eyes.
But there were too many already. More than fifty, more than a hundred... not to speak of those who might still hide. The staffs couldn't be that good. Against overpowering numbers they would finally lose their power.
What was keeping the Archangel?
Sanass went up and down at the barrier. "As far as you roaches are concerned... maybe I follow Khezzarrik's plans. But that's of little importance. You have outlived your usefulness; you are becoming a nuisance, and he has given you to me as a parting gift. It is his plan, but it is not directed against me, and I intend to accept the gift, as a sort of tribute to the Lord that has beaten me. They will appreciate this gesture in Hell. A final tasty morsel before the great battle." Sanass let his hands slide over the barrier, testing its durability. The green sparks became flames, a wall of fire that engulfed the Oo'men form of Galbren's former advisor completely. The magic raged shrieking across Sanass' shape for a moment, then it suddenly died. The barrier was still present; Khiray could still see the sparks. But it hadn't harmed Sanass. He had withdrawn his hands and looked down on them - thoughtfully, as it seemed. "I will not kill you all", he continued, as if nothing had happened. "You will survive, as will that four-legged roach over there. Of course, you will suffer forever from Khezzarrik's shadow, and if you really manage to escape it, you will still have to face what I'll do to this creature there." He glanced hungrily at Saljin. "That strange connection of stupid furbeings is so... peculiar. It grants us a thousand new possibilities to refine your pain. I think not even Khezzarrik really understands why it moves you so. Your Gods have done you no favour when they cursed you with those follies. - Let me see."
Sanass' Oo'men eyes widened, became pitch-black, then blue - an azure light coming from the depth, a seeing fire. Suddenly, the original eyes returned. Sanass sighed contentedly. "So simple. That Saljin-being loves to run over wide plains. To see the sun. What pitiful pleasures. And so fast destroyed. I will rip off her arms and legs and blind her. Without killing her, of course; you are such fragile creatures after all. For the rest of her life she shall crawl like a blind fat maggot on her belly." He giggled. "I can feel your fury, your fear and your disgust becoming more powerful already. Give me more of it, little furbeing! Now that you have understood the game to the last, give me all of your hate!"
Khiray closed his eyes. Just talk on, he thought. That was Sanass' goal: to drink his fear, to take delight in his torment. The Fox was determined to keep his balance, to deny him all of his "morsels". But the images that appeared before his mental eye were too terrible to ignore. Saljin, cruelly mutilated - no, he would not permit it! Not ever.
But he had lost control already. His fur stood on end, his tail was a bristled stick, his legs trembled. He had to gather all his strength to force his ears forward. "Why us? Why always us?" No, that was the wrong thing to say; it sounded so... pleadingly. He couldn't face Sanass/Beladanar with fear in his voice. He didn't need to. There was a magic fence between them. He had a weapon. The Archangel would come now. But he had troubles nevertheless to suppress a sob.
"Why? Well, because Khezzarrik chose you, I think..." Sanass tapped his chin with a finger. "I have the greatest difficulties to tell you furbeings apart. I don't understand you the way Khezzarrik understands you. Probably, I have failed to study you sufficiently. But I have never dreamt that my power would one day depend on such meaningless knowledge. Khezzarrik knows how to exploit the tinies weakness in his adversaries... Why you? You have been Khezzarrik's most important tools. It is... how would you put it? Aesthetic. An act of beauty. Our game is refined to perfection by your eternal suffering."
Beauty? Perfection? That was not the way Khiray understood those words. Slowly, he started to comprehend what Ghanzekk had thought when he decided to exterminate all Demons. He couldn't blame the Leopard for it. There could never be any peaceful coexistence between Demons and mortals. Either the impenetrable barrier of spheres and levels lay between them, or they would clash with each other. The Demons were evil. Not in their own eyes, if they even had an expression for evil at all, but in the eyes of all mortals. They were incredibly cruel and powerful beyond comprehension.
No Demon could be allowed to live. Not in this world. And as long as Khezzarrik lived, Demons would visit the mortal world again and again... pact or no pact. Death would end the pact. Now Khiray was convinced. Khezzarrik wouldn't have allowed himself to become forever bound to a once given word.
Khiray's thoughts seemed to go in circles. A labyrinth without exit. They couldn't kill Khezzarrik. They would have a hard stand against the Demon army.
He wished he could at least respond to Sanass' words with some witty, defiant remarks. But at that moment, Sanass/Beladanar gave the word, and the attack began.
The Demons stormed across the square. Almost none of them still had a Furry shape, but they all had some features of Rat or Cat left, of Wolf or Fox. Furry arms sprouted from scaly, creeping bodies. Bushy tails wagged behind massive hindquarters of stone-hewn, Troll-like creatures. Some Demons were small, with long arms and legs, tooth-armed mouths and crooked eyes. Others towered high, thin and fragile looking. Most of them still had two arms and two legs and something resembling a head, but not all - Khiray saw a shapeless jelly ball rolling along, with swirling tentacles emerging on all sides, and a meter-long worm with spider legs and a back full of lashing nettle threads.
Sanass/Beladanar didn't move, nor did he make any attempt to control or guide the Demons. He would probably haven't succeeded anyway. For too long the Demons had been imprisoned in shapes that were not their own, being forced to imitate behaviour that was boring and dull-witted after their measure. Now with their final doom lurking ahead - did the lesser Demons know? -, they could vent their frenzy. The howling, shrieking horde was beyond control.
If they all had some magic, and threw that magic at the same time against the barrier - how long would the eight staffs keep them away?
Khiray wasn't eager to try. The first ones arrived at the magical line, only a few meters away from him, and ran into the barrier, although they should have seen it. Green fire flashed, Demon voices screeched. Burnt bodies fell down to the earth or tumbled back.
The major part of the Demon army was now on the square. If there were no more hiding in the rubble - and that seemed rather improbable to the Fox; what Demon would have wanted to miss this wild attack? -, Beladanar had more than two hundred of his subjects with him. With this count, there were four Demons to kill for every staff they had.
And Beladanar himself.
Time seemed to slow down. Khiray concentrated on the Now, the only thing that could matter for a warrior if he wanted to survive. There were no strategies against Beladanar. The Archangel had to come. All that was left to them was brute force - magical powers.
He triggered the staffs of the outermost circle with well-aimed motions of his hand and the correct syllable, then those of the middle circle. The green fire sprang forward from the weapons and searched for a victim. Fryyk and Sarmeen did the same on their sides. All of a sudden, the Demons were surrounded by hostile energies. Fourteen deadly discharges hit the bodies of the surprised attackers.
The Demons apparently hadn't counted on such a trap; even Beladanar looked baffled. Didn't he see the staffs, felt the magic? It was possible; Ghanzekk had spent seven thousand years of his life to refine the spell.
Some Demons seemed to explode from within, dissolved in puddles of green slime or stinking clouds that Khiray could even smell where he stood. Others burned, shrinked down to black lumps that rolled across the tiles, carried by their own impetus.
The Hell beings that had been farther away stopped in their tracks. Not those near the barrier, however - they ran into the magical line, were thrown back, injured, hit with deadly eruptions. Four or five got caught by the magic and stuck in the green fire, just like the Bears some days ago. Screaming and cursing in unholy languages, they writhed under the influence of the devastating spell.
Even while Khiray looked, the Demons of the back lines changed their mind. They continued their attack - cheeringly, as it seemed. What were they rejoicing over? That this last fight would be more interesting than they had expected, despite their numbers? Was this a feature that brought them honor and glory in Hell - posthumous?
The Fox repeated the gesture. But this time, there weren't fourteen victims on the Demons' side - some of the Hell creatures were able to shield themselves against Ghanzekk's magic more or less effectively. Blue, red, yellow fire resisted the green. Thaumaturgic spheres, normally imperceptible for mortal eyes, became visible as flame-engulfed shields, protecting the Demons from their doom. Not always successfully - Khiray saw some of the long-legged beings tumbling and falling, and a spider-legged worm had lost its nettle threads -, but unfortunately the creatures were only moderately impressed by even the worst injuries. They could fight to the complete dissolving of their bodies.
Then he started. The Demons that got caught in the barrier hadn't been all killed! Some of them wriggled onward, like a performer that wormed his way through a hole that seemed too small to accomodate his body, to the amusement of the public. Or a thief slipping through a crack in the wall. Only those intruders weren't mere thieves, but murderers. Khiray rose the Dekka'shin and struck - artlessly, but very efficiently. The green fire flared for only a second, and the blackened head of the Demon rolled across the colorful tiles.
"I see you have refined Ghanzekk's magic with your own ideas", Sanass/Beladanar said admiringly. "More strategy than I hoped for - more skill than I had expected. You are worthy adversaries for my unfortunate followers."
Khiray didn't reply. He could not gain anything by talking with Beladanar - the battle raged now. There was no delay and no stopping now. He cut the body of another Demon in halves just as the creature reached the other side.
It couldn't be long now. They could make it. By now, no Demon had penetrated the barrier - the seven warriors were watchful.
"Unfortunately", Alfon Sanass added, "the time comes to an end. I have to perfect the image. The art of torment demands that I complete the events before my only suitable enemy appears, and the last battle begins." He stretched out a hand - directly through the barrier. The green fire flared up, but Sanass/Beladanar didn't let it bother him. He made a step forward.
Khiray pushed the Dekka'shin directly into the center of the flaming energies. Sanass jumped back, away from the reach of the weapon. "Now, now, little furrybeing. You don't really want to stop me, do you?"
The Fox didn't fall for the deception. The Dekka'shin could wound Beladanar! Maybe it couldn't kill him - maybe the Demon Lord could heal any wound just as fast as Khezzarrik -, but it had to suffice to slow him down. He wouldn't allow him to hurt Saljin!
Sanass looked deliberately at his fingernails. "It is of no great importance with whom I start. Well, if you like to be the first, I'll gladly grant you that wish." He murmured some words.
A hollow pressure built up behind Khiray's forehead. What was Beladanar doing? Could he kill him with a spell that worked from a distance, through the barrier? The Fox swang the Dekka'shin across the magical line, but Sanass/Beladanar was too far away, and Khiray didn't dare to leave the circle.
"Do you remember a night in Hell?" Sanass asked. No - not really Sanass. The shape of Galbren's Oo'men advisor seemed to lose its coherence. The being behind the mask was bigger, darker, more powerful. But the Demon didn't finish the transformation, but remained a hazy shadow that distorted and obscured the features of his Oo'men host body. "Khezzarrik told me everything about it in his final message. I would have loved to participate, but for obvious reasons Khezzarrik could only invite his most intimate followers. A divinely feast, even if the last spark of desperation was missing - the spark that is only created by hopelessness, by the complete and utter abandoning of any hope. Only if the suffering is spiced by the realization that it will never end - only then the torture is perfect. But I can make up for that." A hand - too black and too big and with too many fingers to belong to a Oo'men being - dove into the manyfold darkness of Beladanar's body and produced a small blue ball.
"Memories, little furrybeing", the Demon murmured affectionately. "A part of the gift Khezzarrik gave to me. Your memories. One night in Hell. Caught in crystal clearness, to delight you forever, every day, every night, as perfect as if you'd be still in his realm. Maybe your body escaped him, but your mind will be his prisoner in eternity." He squashed the ball. The blue within dispersed.
But Khiray learned immediately where it had gone. A cruel pain shot through his body.
He was in Hell. No, he was still standing in the innermost circle of the temple defenders... He heard Khezzarrik talking. No, it was Beladanar's voice. It happened at the same time - he was here as well as there, here in his body, there in his memories, that were just as clear and sharp as if it happened now.
Two images, two events. Everything turned upside down in his head. But the pain seemed to be stronger than anything else. He sank down on his knees; the Dekka'shin fell to the ground. Unable to keep Beladanar in check.
The pain of the Then became desperation in the Now. That was Khezzarrik's final weapon against him, his last greeting. He had made him a tool, a willing servant, and rewarded him with madness. Amidst the chaos of two equally strong impressions Khiray could hardly think straight any more.
Every day, every night... Beladanar knew this spell. It would never end. As soon as the night was over, it would start anew, again and again, and it would do more to him than just cast a shadow on his life.
Life wasn't possible in this flood - this waterfall of memories. No dream companions, no Trolls could help him this time. Khiray felt himself sliding back into the darkness. Once he had returned from it. A second time he won't be able to walk this path.
Beladanar made the step through the barrier. For a moment the energy concentrated on him, but the Demon surrounded himself with a magic shield and dispelled the forces. At the same second, the Demons that still were stuck more or less helplessly in the barrier, and a dozen more that had only waited for this chance, penetrated the spell line. Before the barrier had solidified again, twenty or more Demons stood in the innermost circle and attacked the defenders directly.
It was impossible for them to trigger the outer staffs once again. To counter the frenzied Hell beings they had to summon all their strength and skill. Khiray saw from the corner of an eye Perlish wielding his staff against three or four clawed dervishes. The Demons jumped out of the way, appeared here and there, avoided the green fire. Once one of them had fallen, another took his place who had used the time to conquer the barrier wiggling and writhing. None of the defenders had the time to kill the intruders before they stood completely in the inner circle.
Beladanar looked down on Khiray. "I hope, little furbeing, that you still keep enough of your consciousness to enjoy the perfection of the game. It would be a flaw if you'd lose your mind here and now."
The Fox was determined not to lose his mind - he still fought. But the memories were stronger. They paralyzed his muscles, bit through his will. Screaming agony in sinews and bones flooded his tortured body. The darkness was so near. Everything blurred in front of his eyes.
Beladanar gave his Demons a sign. Half a dozen abandoned their previous victims and attacked Saljin. The Foxtauress swang her Dekka'shin. The corpses of Hell creatures at her paws told of her skill in battle. But the numbers were overpowering. Steel claws were just as useful weapons as swords - none of the Demons had a weapon, but their claws and fangs, the steel-hard scales and bony ridges made up easily for the disadvantage.
The Hellish Lord pranced in the direction of the Foxtauress. Suddenly, the Dekka'shin shot forward and touched the flickering shadows of the mask the Lord of the Worms was hiding behind. Saljin had seen in time that she was about to be attacked from another side.
Beladanar jumped aside and screamed. The magic of Ghanzekk hurt him - darkness sipped from the side of the figure.
Of course. The small part of Khiray that was still able to think about the situation drew the conclusion. The Demons protected themselves against the staffs with magic shields. But the Troll steel could not be stopped by magic, and once it cut into the Demon bodies, Ghanzekk's spell ate its way through it from within. Likewise, a touch of the staffs had to break the shields, only that the spell had to burn through the Demon skin first, losing some of its potency.
A Dekka'shin could slow Beladanar down, at least for a while. Only that he couldn't wield it any more. Khiray was beaten, thrown back into Hell, imprisoned in an ocean of hurt and despair. The Demons didn't care about him any more. In the perfect game of the Demon Lords he had found his final place. A piece that would not be moved again by either side.
Saljin cut another jumping Demon in half and shook off the one that had managed to climb her back, then speared him. Finally, she brought the weapon around, forced Beladanar into a new retreat and grabbed at the same time one of the middle-length staffs that she still had left.
Two smaller Demons smouldered in a spray of ashes when the energy of the staff tore across them. For a moment, Saljin was surrounded by fire. That gave her the second of freedom she needed. She aimed the staff at the Lord of the Worms and released its full capacity. An audible boom accompanied the clash of the energy on Beladanar's shield. The half-Oo'men, half monstrous figure swayed and fought for balance. Immediately, the Foxtauress plunged at him again, this time with the Dekka'shin. The blade penetrated the invisible shield and slid deeply into the shadow cloak.
Beladanar yelled. But he didn't die. Ghanzekk's sorcery was not powerful enough to kill a Lord of Hell. The green fire of the staff died, spent to the last. Behind and within the Alfon-Sanass-body forms appeared for a moment that could have been Beladanar's true Hellshape - a wormy mass of writhing tentacles, a hint of rotating rings of teeth in squelching suck-mouths, a trace of spike-armored extremities and half-blind ball eyes. Then the shadows cloaked the horrible figure from beyond again, and the Oo'men host became clearer once more.
But Saljin had lost her weapon. Ghanzekk's magic had injured the Lord of the Worms, but the Dekka'shin had given all of its power; what remained was a mere double-blade lance - worthless in a battle against a Demon. The Foxtauress didn't try to use the Dekka'shin a second time. When Beladanar's hands shot forward and snatched the weapon from her, she let it go and grabbed one of the remaining mid-sized staffs with each hand.
Beladanar inspected the Dekka'shin. Then he playfully broke off one of the blades. Ghanzekk's staff burst apart like rotten wood, the spell was gone.
The shadows bubbled in amusement - if Beladanar could feel anything like amusement in his true form behind the illusions.
Then his arms jerked forward, firmly holding the longer rest of the Dekka'shin, and rammed the splintered end of the magical staff right through Saljin's upper body.