The staff had hit Saljin below the ribcage, on the left side. The thrust of the Demon had pierced her body completely - the blood-smeared end stuck out of her back.
Khiray moaned, but he couldn't do much more. The memory of pain was too strong. Red-hot fingers on his fur, slimy tongues that forced themselves slowly into his muzzle. Demons danced around him, in the one reality as well as in the other.
Beladanar spread his arms and faced the temple. "Now come, my enemy! Come, my nemesis! I eagerly await you!" The singing and humming had become louder, the light intensified, but nothing happened beyond that. It was too late; the battle was almost over.
...it was just...
Khiray couldn't watch how Delley, Fryyk or Kinnih were doing, but Perlish and Sarmeen were fighting hard against the Demons. It looked as if the Hell beings just played with their victims, wounding them again and again without dealing the mortal blow, even allowing themselves to be killed for the sake of the game.
Beladanar observed the fallen Foxtauress thoughtfully. Then he grabbed one of her forelegs. The Archangel didn't come. The Demon had enough time to realize his threat. The game, the Demonic game...
No! Khiray tried to fight the flood of pictures from the past. He wouldn't allow it! Beladanar mustn't mutilate Saljin. Even if they were all dead already...
But they weren't. Not even Saljin. Khiray remembered what she had told him - the upper body contained almost no vital organs. He recognized that Beladanar knew that fact perfectly well. The Demon had not killed Saljin, even if the wound was terrible - the fate he had in mind for the Foxtauress was by far worse than death.
...was not over yet.
Khiray braced against the screaming pain in his muscles. It was just a memory. A memory, nothing more! It was not real. All of it had happened, but it was over. Pictures only!
But those pictures were perfectly clear in their gruesomeness. Khezzarrik seemed to stand right in front of him. The Demon laughed, laughed like...
Khiray's hand crawled forward, felt for the handle of the Dekka'shin. His fingers felt numb, icy cold, as if they had forgotten how to grasp. The ground trembled... no, it had trembled when Khezzarrik... Gods! The pain! His spine threatened to break in the battling forces, torn apart and twisted by steel...
The Fox forced himself to ignore the desperate cries of his tortured body. Not reality. Of all the defenders of the temple, he was actually hurt the least. The Demons did not even look at him. Beladanar didn't want to kill him. Not him, and Saljin neither. It would have put an end to their suffering, freed them. No, that was not the point of the game. The agony, the sweet agony, should go on for a long time. Despair and humiliation.
He pushed his paws under his body, strained his muscles. Get up. He used the Dekka'shin for support. The lower blade grinded into the stone of the colorful tiles.
Searing flames under his tail, fiery pain between his legs, and Khezzarrik's affectionate words behind him. No, he didn't want to remember that. His legs gave way. Do not remember. It hadn't happened. Nothing had ever happened. The darkness beckoned, lured him away. So simple, so fast. Why fight any more?
Saljin. Beladanar held her paw as if he pondered his next move, but he probably just wanted to savour the moment as long as the Foxtauress was still conscious. Her tail twitched, but she hadn't the strength to fight against the Demon.
In the calm silence figures emerged. A Troll, a Vixen, a Foxtauress, a Foxtaur. They held their hands stretched out, pointing to the raging fire behind him.
"No!" he said determinedly.
"You have to help her ", Dek explained.
"I can't", Khiray murmured. "It's too hard. The fire... I cannot suppress the memory."
"You mustn't suppress it", Ayashlee claimed. "It's a part of you. Beladanar's spell can only hurt you because you refuse to accept what happened. He dominates you - Khezzarrik dominates you - because you are fighting yourself."
"I don't want to go into the fire!" Khiray whined. "We cannot defeat him! It's all for nothing!" He ran past the four shapes, into the darkness.
"He's a coward", Dek said behind him. "I knew it from the beginning."
"He doesn't know duty. He only cares for his pityful small self", Saljin admitted. "He's only a townsfurry after all. Not a warrior. A pity; I wasted a perfectly good name on him."
Khiray whirled around. "That's not true! I have fought! And I lost! What am I supposed to do?" He fell to the ground, his arms embracing the legs.
The Foxtaurs marched along, into the direction of the fire. "Lost? A battle is not over before the last drop of your blood runs into the sand. A battle is not over before your final breath is carried off by the wind. A battle is not over before your arm has dealt the last blow. You have not lost. You gave up. Gave yourself up. Gave us up." They disappeared in the flames.
"Magic is in the mind", the Troll creaked. "The will joins the powers. But only a whole spirit can master the forces." His shape changed to a big lump of rock.
"I can't go into the fire", Khiray said quietly. "It's too hard. It will burn me."
"You must conquer it", Ayashlee explained softly. She stroked his head. "If you step into the fire, you can't master it."
"What else? What shall I do?" He felt the need to follow the Foxtaurs, and at the same time a yearning for the peace only the endless dark could grant him.
But the figure of his mother had disappeared. His dream companions had left him.
He stared at the flames. Master them? The searing wildfire looked like a burning forest. He was just a small Fox. No one could conquer that fire.
But it was just memory.
The flames were nowhere but in his mind. When he closed his eyes, they were just as real as if he was looking directly at them. Master them? Not stepping into them?
Slowly, he rose. The time Outside flowed differently. There, he fell, losing his balance... but here, in the cold Inside, much time would pass before his body Outside hit the tiles.
He stood in front of the flames. "Just memory", he murmured. "Memory is nowhere but inside." Khiray spread his arms, embraced the fire.
And then the flames were in him, and he screamed.
The pain was much stronger than anything he had imagined. Everything, everything he had suffered was still there. Khezzarrik. Hell. Once, he had returned from the verge of the void, crossing the flames with the help of his dream companion. But he had not mastered them, just left them behind; they had burned on inside him and provided nourishment for Beladanar's magic.
He enclosed the fire, devoured it, extinguished it. Every flame was a symbol of pure torment. The debilitating agony of the body. The exhausting pain of humiliation. The suffocating sensation of shame. The laughter of Demons. The voices. The hands. The spiked tentacles.
Khezzarrik spoke with Saljin's voice. Saljin's eyes looked at him. But behind them hid an old, alien, unspeakably depraved spirit. Khiray shook him off. Memory. It was just memory.
Colorful tiles, golden veins. He understood at the last moment that he had returned to the Outside, and caught his fall.
The fire was still there, but weakened. He could set one paw in front of the other. He could move. The pain was all-encompassing, as if someone had stuck a Dekka'shin through his body instead of Saljin's. Whenever he set his toes on the ground, it seemed as if he stepped into glass shards. Raising a leg sent a thousand needles stinging into his muscles. But he made one step, then another.
"Beladanar!" His voice sounded as if he had spent three nights with Delley in a bar and three days on the market, praising old turnips to the skies. His throat was dry and sore, his tongue heavy.
The Demon turned to him and let Saljin's paw go. For a short moment Khiray thought to see himself through Beladanar's eyes. Hardly a Furry any more, with bristled wild fur and red eyes, clasping to the Dekka'shin as to a sheet-anchor. The face contorted into a grimace, unrecognizable, the teeth bared. A Fox >from Hell.
No, not even from Hell. In Hell. A Fox in Hell, wading through an ocean of blood and pain, one step at a time, persistently. Memory. He fought.
The blood still flowed in his veins. He had a name. He had earned that name, and he would earn it again and again.
"You are very stubborn, Foxy", Beladanar sighed. "No one has ever broken that spell. Aren't you tired, Foxy? Don't you want to rest, laying down that heavy, heavy load?"
Khiray didn't answer. He made another step.
"Give it up already, little Fox. Your efforts are in vain. Your weapon can't harm me. You just amuse me."
One step more. There was no Archangel. There was no temple. There were no ghosts and no powers. The only reality was the tile just in front of him, the one to conquer, and the goal.
The world had become very small. It encompassed him, Beladanar, the pain, and the distance that was left. But the overpowering agony abated. Khezzarrik's voice was barely audible. The resistance subsided. Beladanar's spell broke, leaving nothing but the taste of ashes in Khiray's muzzzle, and a dying fire.
It was over. The place of darkness contracted. Without the fire to feed it, it shrinked into nothingness. The world returned. Khiray's eyes cleared.
No more torment.
He remembered, but the memory wasn't painful any more. It were just things that had happened to him. They were over. He had escaped Hell.
Beladanar seemed to understand. The darkness around him intensified, as he prepared a new, destructive spell. "I am losing my patience with you roaches", the Demon grunted. "As well, if you don't want to submit, then die!"
Khiray jumped. The strength had returned to his legs. And even more: the magic of the Dekka'shin pulsed in his hand.
Magic is in the mind, the Troll had said. The will joins the powers.
He could see the pattern, feel the magic. Ghanzekk's magic spread in front of his eyes, and he understood. He wove the shadow lines together, formed a new shape for the powers. Eight staffs that had not spent their energy by far, and his own Dekka'shin, joined in the new web.
The weapon fell, cutting through the shadows, through the Oo'men body, through the tentacled mass behind it. The simultaneous discharge of nine major staffs seared into the Demon with green flash.
Beladanar screamed. The shape of Alfon Sanass dissipated, cut into two halves, leaving nothing but the shadows. The Lord of the Worms bucked, shooting halfway out of the darkness - a thing with too many mouths and too many teeth - and collapsed. He writhed on the stone tiles, suddenly much smaller than Khiray, secreting white foam.
Disgusted, Khiray made a step back. He didn't believe that Beladanar was dying. But he had injured him - severely. He had shown him the meaning of pain.
Whatever happened now, Beladanar couldn't take that victory from him.
The darkness tightened again. Wormlike arms crawled out of it, embracing the shadows or hitting the colored tiles like whips. Slowly, Beladanar rose to his former size.
"Fool", he growled. The Lord of the Worms had many voices, and every voice had an echo, accompanied by the cracking and grinding of countless jaws.
Khiray went past him, not deigning to look at him, and kneeled down at Saljin's side. The Foxtauress had lost consciousness. Too much blood formed a puddle on the ground. The Fox wished he had thought of bringing dressing materials - but all the medicine kits they had were still on the 'Ansicc'. Why had they forgotten it? Had they believed not to return anyway?
He looked at Beladanar. The Lord of the Worms seemed to tower over them, four meters or more, pure shadow clothing and masking an unspeakably nauseating being.
The Demon turned countless half-blind eyes towards the Fox and the Foxtauress. But he couldn't say anything, because at that moment the sky exploded, and the Archangel came.
A single flash of lightning tore from the inside of the temple to the sky, branched, breaking through the clouds: a golden light illuminating the night, shining for seconds before vanishing. The darkness seemed even more black than before, especially since the glowing veins around the temple had disappeared. Not even the light within the temple shone any more; it seemed as if all the brightness, all the hidden powers in the ruins of Alvanere, had discharged in a single moment. The singing had stopped; the ghosts were gone, faded away.
But then a web of light formed high above the temple, a sphere of loose threads, a shimmering in the structure of the night. Khiray was reminded of Khezzarrik's gates. And it probably was something like that, an entrance, only that it didn't lead to Hell or some other place of this world, but to the mysterious realm where Archangels and maybe Gods lived.
And from the gate a figure of fire and gold emerged. It had the body of an Oo'men, but bird's talons instead of feet, and the head of a great bird of prey. It was naked, but without sex, and completely hairless. Giant wings spread from behind it's back, beating slowly; feathers covered wings and head. The tail of the creature resembled that of a reptile, but without scales: with a broad base, running out to a point, and a blade or a spike on its end.
The hooked beak opened, and the being cried out. The Demons started and cowered on the ground. Beladanar alone stared defiantly at the Archangel.
The golden figure was flawless. It had no scars, no deficiencies; perfect symmetry emphasized the immaculate proportions. Its build and its muscles gave the Archangel a male appearance; the shimmering skin glowed from within, and an aura of white power surrounded him.
Khiray estimated the size of the Archangel at three meters at least, smaller than Beladanar, but no less powerful. The sheer energy of the otherworldly being blazed in his eyes.
The Archangel landed and looked around. The Demons nearby whimpered and tried to crawl away.
"My name is Taphaliel", the voice of the Archangel boomed, deep like a big bell, echoing over the square. "Who called me to this place?"
Couldn't he see the Demons? Didn't he understand what was going on?
"Demons came into this world", Khiray called out. "A Lord of Hell seeks our destruction!"
Taphaliel let his gaze roam. His eyes were white and empty. "I can see that", he pronounced. "That was not my question."
"We", Khiray confessed, "we called you."
The Archangel nodded and strode towards Khiray. He didn't take any notice of Beladanar. In front of the Fox he squatted down until his strange eyes were on a level with Khiray's.
The Fox felt Taphaliel's presence, his power, his strength. The will of the Archangel penetrated him, searched his soul. He didn't need to explain or tell anything. The creature took what it wanted to know, absorbed Khiray's memory, all his knowledge, all his feelings. In front of Taphaliel Khiray felt more naked than ever, even considering his experience with Khezzarrik. He stepped back; involuntarily, he erected a wall in his mind between himself and the Archangel.
Taphaliel frowned, then smiled - not about some hidden joke, but like a father might smile when his son shows a new talent, a new skill. It was strange to see the bird beak moving - in a way no real bird could ever manage.
The Archangel rose, touching Saljin while he got up, and the staff piercing her body disintegrated... not turning to dust, but to nothingness, as if it had never existed. The wound contracted, but it didn't heal completely; maybe the Archangel didn't give it enough attention, maybe even his powers were limited.
Beladanar growled evilly. "So you have come at last."
"I have been called", Taphaliel stated unimpressedly. "You developed more skill in hiding from our eyes than you should. You are forbidden to spread your horror across this world." The terrible predator claws of the Archangel moved, gratingly tearing furrows into the square's tiles.
"No law issued by the Gods will ever stop us from doing whatever pleases us!" Beladanar hissed. "We are older than the Gods, older than the Archangels."
"Age without wisdom", Taphaliel said. "Age without dignity, age without respect or love. Power alone establishs your right. And where those mightier than thou walk, you have lost every right you think to have!" He beat his wings. Light surged up like dust, blazing spots, dancing like embers in the dark.
Light and shadow, Archangel and Demon. Both creatures stared at each other as if they could decide this way who was more powerful; they judged each other and burned the enemy with glaring looks.
Then Beladanar spread wings of midnight blackness and rose to the sky. Taphaliel followed in a spiral of fire.
The battle illuminated the clouds and the earth. The brightness devoured the dark, the shadows gnawed at the light. The heavens were divided into one half, more white than sunlit day, and another, more black than deepest night. The beating of wings was a storm on the ground, the flaring of chaotic powers plunged the ruins into an unreal fire.
The fight was beyond Khiray's understanding. He had felt magic for a short time, but that sensation was gone, part of a world that was not his. Here forces struggled that no mortal being could master. Like a flood that wrestled a wildfire, like an earthquake that stormed against the mountains, like the sea rising against the land.
It didn't matter for him any more. His fight was over. He had vanquished Hell already.
The Demons didn't move. Perlish struck them with his staffs and obliterated them, laughing maliciously. Some of the bigger Hell beings tried to resist, but they were too weak and too confused. Now that the Archangel finally had come, they seemed to have lost all their strength and ferocity.
Khiray examined Saljin's wounds. A dozen Demon claws had dug into her skin, but the tears and scratches were not too deep. The stab wound from the staff still looked worst; it had stopped bleeding, but the Fox could only guess whether the healing powers of the Archangel had closed the internal injuries.
The Foxtauress moved, twitched, opened her eyes. "What...?"
"Stay there!" Khiray commanded. "The Archangel has come."
Saljin stared into the sky. Khiray's eyes followed her gaze.
A cacophony of white and black powers ran through the firmament. The Archangel was nowhere to see, neither was Beladanar; both had completely dissolved into pure energies, changed into flaming fronts of incomprehensible magic. Streaks of light wove around ribbons of darkness, guided by invisible hands.
A storm ravaged the earth, bending the treetops; it carried the smell of lightning.
The eyes of the defenders were blinded by the change of brightness and dark, by colorful lights, blazing rings that spread to the horizon, centered on the opposing powers like waves surrounding a stone that has been thrown into the water. The voices of a thousand Demons and a thousand Archangels seemed to ride the storm. The ground trembled; the stone tiles vibrated as if a giant walked the earth whose steps made the mountains shudder.
Then the darkness dissolved, sprayed apart, was crushed by the light, and >from the center of the sky a black lump fell howling back to earth. Beladanar hit the square and melted - twitching and with writhing tentacles, viscous like a clod of tar over a fire.
Taphaliel landed beside the slowly melting mass and mercilessly watched the Demon die. Finally, the last movements in the slimy remains ceased, and the blackness disappeared without a trace.
The Archangel stretched out a hand, and the fire consumed the Demons that were still left - as fast as a fireplace devoured folded paper figures.
"It is over", Taphaliel said. "There are no more Demons in this world."
"It is not over!" Khiray contradicted. "The Demons know a way to come here without being called, without the need to seal a pact."
"I know", the Archangel stated. Of course. He knew everything Khiray knew - everything. The Fox lowered his head. He wasn't too glad that a powerful being like Taphaliel could see right through him. He had his secrets; things he didn't intend ever to reveal, things he didn't want to talk about - but the Archangel had ripped them from his heart already.
Taphaliel might be an enemy of Demons. But was he a friend of Furrys? His powers alone made him terrible - terrible like a flood or a drought, terrible like lightning or landslide.
An Archangel. Khiray understood why parents told their children of Foxys with wings. The strength of those creatures surpassed the limits of what mortals could understand. One could perceive a small part of their energy only, like a tickle under the fur, like a deep roar that resounded in the stomach. Everything beyond - everything that raised the Archangel above mere mortals - remained invisible, a power without a name, a whirlpool of tremendous energies for which no words had been invented yet, except maybe in a sorcerer's book.
Taphaliel picked up Khiray's Dekka'shin. Under his gaze the discharged weapon changed; the runes melted, the handle smoothed, the wood of the staff and the metal of the blades became one. There was no color anymore, no brown or steel blue - the weapon looked as if someone had taken a beam of moonlight and forged it into this form.
Hesitantly, Khiray took the Dekka'shin from Taphaliel. He could feel the magic in his fingers. More powerful than anything Ghanzekk had shaped. No, even more: that magic was not a directed, stored energy that could destroy Demons. It was a living connection to the immense strength of the Archangel himself.
Whoever wielded that weapon could slay a Demon Lord.
The Archangel turned away and spread his wings.
"Wait!" Khiray called out.
"What will become of us? Of this place? What am I supposed to do with this weapon?" The Fox raised his shoulders. "What about Galbren?"
The savage bird face was uninterpretable. "You will have to find your own answers."
"We did not ask for a plague of Demons!"
"No one asks for his fate. It enters your house without asking, sometimes bringing gold and a long life, sometimes devouring your children. You know more answers than most others already, Khiray." Khiray was grateful the Archangel didn't call him 'little Fox'. "You will find the others as well."
With those words he soared into the sky and disappeared in a blaze of golden light, leaving darkness behind.
Khiray sat down at Saljin's side on the hard ground. The Archangel had come and gone and somehow left nothing more than a big emptiness. He was tired beyond all measure. The Demons were dead - destroyed, passed away, exterminated. But he did not feel like a victor, instead, cold and fatigue crept through his veins.
They remained sitting there until the first beams of sunlight lit the horizon. The battle had taken almost the whole night. The final duel between Beladanar and Taphaliel, seeming so brief, had in truth lasted for hours.
Something was wrong.
A nasty feeling crossed Khiray's mind as if he had forgotten something. The Demons? No, in that respect he could trust the Archangel. The ghosts? No, they had disappeared; if there were indeed ghosts around that had not joined the dance, they would not come out in broad daylight. Galbren? No, in the silence he would have heard his ship; wherever the governor might be now, he was at least not here.
His eyelids were so heavy... but he couldn't sleep.
Pallys. Where was he? The defenders had slumped to the ground at the very place of their last fight, unable even to return to the ship. The Rabbit was obviously still inside the temple.
With difficulty, Khiray rose. They could not sit here in the dust any longer.
"Where are you going?" Saljin uttered.
"I'll look for Pallys, then we should better ferry over to the 'Ansicc'. I think a little sleep will do us good."
"I'm coming with you." The Foxtauress struggled to sort out her paws.
"You can hardly walk", Khiray stated.
Saljin supported herself on him. "It will do." But Khiray saw that it would not do - every step seemed to cause her pain, even if she tried not to show it. Perdition; he should have asked the Archangel for a complete healing!
More crawling than walking, they entered the temple.
Why did the dark, unpleasant feeling refuse to go away? Something he had forgotten. Something important. A question that had never been answered.
When he saw Pallys, he knew.
What had happened to Anzikhed, the magician of the past who had taught Pallys the spell? That was the question he never asked. The Rabbit had left out Anzikhed's fate in his tale; the way of the magician ended when he called the Archangel.
The gloominess of the dawn hid the true extent of Pallys' injuries, but Khiray didn't need to see it. The power of a whole city, the life force of the dead, the energy that pierced the spheres and reached the realm of the Archangels, had inhabited his body - and had been set free in an instant. The flash that showed Taphaliel the way had possessed an origin.
The Rabbit was burned, his fur singed from the body, the skin blackened. Of the long ears only stumps were left, the features were barely recognizable. Only the spell that maintained Pallys' immortality forced him to breathe, but against that powers, no magic helped. Pallys was dying.
"Khiray?" The rusty voice escaped the bloody muzzle. "Did he come?"
"He came." The Fox swallowed heavily. "The Demons are destroyed." He and Saljin knelt down at Pallys' side. Saljin took the head of the Rabbit between her front paws - not that this gesture was of any use; the blind eyes stared into the void.
"The stronghold... in the center of the ice..."
"I don't want to know!" Khiray exclaimed frightened. "Don't tell me!"
"As you wish... although you will ask yourself every now and then what would have been... Alvanere... Alvanere is free again... the old debt settled. Maybe I should have... died here four hundred years ago. Everything has an end, nothing is forever... so much beauty, and so much grief..."
Khiray didn't know what to answer. He couldn't imagine to live fourteen thousand years, and he even didn't want to know. One life was enough.
"Not only for Alvanere..." Pallys coughed, fell silent... but just as Khiray started to believe the Rabbit had died, he continued. "You have shown me a way... I knew once... and that had been buried many thousand years ago..." He reared up, collapsed again and started to whimper. "Mother? It is so dark in here! Where are you?"
Pallys had left his time, had returned to his childhood. Saljin bowed over him and whispered in the remains of his ears: "Hush, little one! I am here already! Look, the sun is shining..."
"Sun...", Pallys murmured.
"It is summer... and the smell of fresh grass is carried on the breeze. Do you see the fields over there, and the brook?"
"Water... earth beneath my paws..." The Rabbit giggled happily. He didn't seem to feel any pain. "And the trees..."
"The trees are growing up to the skies..." Saljin whispered in a choked voice.
"Heaven... Syrradrea...", Pallys uttered and died.
In a depressed mood they returned to the ship, wordless, wounded and tired. They had left Pallys' body on the altar in the temple. Ghanzekk's staffs as well were left back, with few exceptions; most of them were bereft of their power and worthless, and for the magicians at the Drunlord's court the books of the Leopard sorcerer would prove rather useful than his burnt-out instruments. For studies, the few they had not used up had to be enough.
They couldn't defeat a Lord of Hell anyway, as they had found out.
The 'Silver Ansicc' cast off and followed the bank slowly. The ruins stayed behind, silent, ashen grey even in the light of the morning sun. Khiray watched the remains of Alvanere from the afterdeck. After a while, Saljin joined him. Delley had applied a tight dressing in the hope that the internal injuries had closed. The Foxtauress was still losing blood. She had to support herself on the rail to walk at all.
"You shouldn't run around like that", Khiray said.
"I know", Saljin replied.
The Fox raised the moon-silver Dekka'shin. The weapon whispered to him full of promise, but he blocked his thoughts against the blazing power of the Archangel. He had enough of killing, enough of Demons, enough of magic.
Just one thing was left to do.
He turned the Dekka'shin towards the ruins and set the power free - a part only, a tiny bit of the endless energies that founded Taphaliel's strength.
Alvanere exploded without a sound. Light devoured the ruins, encircled the rubble, burned the ashes. The temple in its center vanished in the Archangel's fire, and Pallys with it. Even the stone the city had been built on was absorbed by the all-consuming white. When the light ceased, water flooded the bay where Alvanere once had been.
Khiray nodded slowly. Then he helped Saljin back to his cabin, spread a blanket over her body, lay down beside her and went to sleep.