He hadn't even gotten wet.
Perdition. That Wolf had four lives! He could ally himself with Demons, he could commit treason, he could gather an army to overthrow the Drunlord - and nothing could harm him.
But the truthfinder...
Khiray guessed that Vijapaai would see the pure truth in everything Galbren would say - whatever it might be. She was in league with him. Galbren had bribed her. "I demand other truthfinders to be present!"
The Cat glanced at him menacingly. "I always tell the truth!"
But Dhaurakil nodded. "So be it. I want this affair to be completely cleared up as fast as possible. I don't like secrets at the court."
Except your own, Khiray thought bitterly. But no, he couldn't reproach Dhaurakil with anything. The Archmage had been fair to him. Galbren and Vijapaai, those two were caught up in this.
Kooradah greeted Galbren. "I hope that the rumors about your treason are as exaggerated as those about your death."
"Of course", Galbren replied. "I wouldn't betray you for my life."
"Truth", the Cat murmured automatically, just as Khiray had suspected.
Three more truthfinders - a Badger, a Rabbit and a Vixen - arrived a few minutes later. They gathered in a bigger circle. Uneasily Khiray registered that the drunken guests of the orgy had assembled curiously, but silently around Kooradah's group.
Galbren stretched with relish. "It is pure luck I'm still alive. When the traitors barricaded themselves into the engine room of the ship, I guessed they were up to something. After they stopped answering me, I got suspicious and returned to the quay. Just in time. The explosion hurtled me around, but most of the debris missed me." He bared his right arm and showed a dressing. "Here, some plank hit me. But it's not too bad."
Khiray stared hatefully at the governor.
"I assumed the traitor would come to the palace to talk his way out of the mess he got into." The Wolf smiled at Khiray. "It's not in the best interest of his clients that their plans become known to the public in this stage. Fortunately I survived this last assassination. Little Fox, here your intrigues will find their end at last. Kooradah will learn the persons behind the conspiracy from your mouth, and the danger can be vanquished. Do not assume you can hide something from the honorable Lord. The truthfinders are incorruptible, and if it becomes necessary, Kooradah surely will not hesitate to use more painful methods of interrogation."
The Leopard shook his head. "I don't like this. Torture is not an honorable method."
"In the face of the danger..." Galbren sighed. "Well, if he talks by himself, all this won't be necessary."
Khiray felt as if he lay on the torture rack already. The only conspiracy was Galbren's! He couldn't reveil persons behind because there were no persons and nothing they could be behind! But if every one of his words was supposed to be a lie... if the Drunlord suspected that he really had something to hide... He had given the weapon to the Archmage in good faith. Why didn't the other truthfinders say anything? Galbren couldn't possibly have bribed them all!
"So there is a conspiracy", Dhaurakil tried to direct the theme of the talk.
"Truth", all four truthfinders acknowledged. So far, so good.
Galbren made himself comfortable. "It's a long story. It starts with a strange dream in which an Archangel visited me."
What? Khiray felt dizzy. He was stunned. The other truthfinders belonged to Galbren as well? That was impossible! Other forces had to be at work here!
"The Archangel told me a powerful enemy from the north would try to conquer our country. I assumed the Empire Dharwil that had seemed friendly towards us until now was behind it, but I'm not sure any more. Maybe there are other countries in the north I don't know about... I will leave it to you to determine the true enemy. - I was told to arm for war and to gather an army that could oppose the enemy. You, o Drunlord, were supposed to be informed as well, but the Archangel claimed that a group of traitors, spies and enemies of the country would meet in Sookandil, and my first duty was to find them and to destroy them. Little did I know by then of the true extent of the conspiracy."
"Truth", the magicians nodded.
"I began my preparations and recruited Furrys to my army. All those without work, all vagabonds got a useful task. All the time I kept my eyes open for the arrival of the spies. Then, strangers came to the city. Secretly I let them be supervised, and soon I discovered the plot. The strangers, Foxtaurs from the west, killed one of the reputable citizens of Sookandil, the merchant Saswin. They even succeeded in luring Khiray, this very Fox here, to their side by their lies. Every upright citizen of Sookandil can confirm this sad story." He told about the murder and the events thereafter until the trial. He kept to the facts, of course, but the manner he presented the story didn't leave any doubt about guilt and innocence.
Dhaurakil made an impatient gesture. "Do not interrupt Galbren any more; only if he tells a lie."
No. It couldn't be. Galbren resorted to his original lie, describing the Foxtaurs as dangerous enemies. It was not true; Khiray knew better...
...or did he?
What if some influence confused his thoughts? If he saw everything that had happened to him like through a distorting glass? What if Galbren had been right from the beginning, and the Foxtaurs were indeed the enemy, and he was a victim of Saljin's magic and her seduction?
What if he was actually part of the conspiracy - and Galbren not the adversary, but the upright saviour?
No! He had to trust his knowledge. If he couldn't rely on his own eyes, his ears, his heart any more, everything was lost. Then he wouldn't ever get free of that labyrinth of lies.
Galbren nodded thankfully towards the Archmage. "We managed to defeat the Foxtaurs when they came to free the murderer. Two of them were imprisoned. But I was in for a nasty surprise. My brother Sarmeen, who allegedly had died in a hunting accident, had actually hidden in the shadows - he is indeed one of the heads of the conspiracy, a traitor of his own country, his own city. Together with Khiray, they forced their way into the secret dungeons only he and I knew, and set the prisoners free. One of them got killed in the escape. Together with other spies that started to crawl from their hiding-holes - sure to be discovered then - the surviving fugitives fled downriver. But one thing they stole from me." He pointed at the Dekka'shin. "In the night after my dream, I found the weapon beside my bed. The Archangel had given it to me so I could repel the invasion. I started the pursuit together with my most faithful soldiers, because an instrument like that must not remain in the hands of the traitors."
"One moment", the Archmage interrupted him. "Why is the weapon tuned to Khiray, then?"
The governor looked down, as if he had to think about the question - he was elaborating his lie. "I do not know", he finally admitted. "A magician who was with me claimed that the fugitives hid in the haunted ruins of Alvanere. When we arrived there, we witnessed indescribable magic that killed many of my Furrys, one Oo'men among them, my trusted advisor Alfon Sanass. I can only guess that they gathered some power from this place to tune the weapon to that Fox. I'm no magician, I can't explain it."
"What happened to your magician?"
"He died in Alvanere, like Alfon Sanass. We followed the traitors here, knowing for sure that they would attack the Drunlord with their newfound powers. When we apprehended them, they fought back, and the traitors blew up their ship to kill me. But I succeeded in defeating my traitorous brother. Some of the traitors are still at large in the city; you should arrest them."
For a moment the silence was only interrupted by burps from the ranks of the drunken spectators.
"It's not true", Khiray finally uttered.
"But it makes sense", Kooradah replied. "As much sense as your story. Maybe even more, because it does without Demons. And I have to admit that I don't like a version too well where one of my governors is a traitor."
"Galbren's tale is true", Vijapaai confirmed.
The Fox jumped up. "What about the Otter village? What has happened in Bear Mountain? Ask him that!"
Galbren stayed calm. "I do not know what I'm supposed to have done with an Otter village. We apprehended you in Alvanere for the first time. What you did until then I have no knowledge of."
"And there is a hole in Khiray's story", the Cat pointed out. Khiray recognized in horror that he had made an enemy by accusing the truthfinder practically of lying. Whether she was on Galbren's side or influenced by some other force didn't matter any more: she tried to harm Khiray. "Why did the Fox not believe in the Foxtaurs' guilt, even if every evidence spoke against them? Why did he risk his reputation to defend a murderer?"
"Saljin...", Khiray moaned. "I... I simply knew..."
Vijapaai stared right into his eyes.
Khiray buried his face in his hands. "I love her."
"Aha!" Galbren triumphed. "That's the reason Khiray was won so fast for the traitors' cause, even though his father had been killed. Well, I think you shouldn't judge him too harshly. Even big heroes have been blinded by the sudden stroke of love, and hard they fell. How can we expect better from a little young Fox?"
Kooradah nodded. "I think you are right." He gestured at the guards.
"Wait!" Khiray called out. "Ask him... why the weapon was tuned to me if I had just been turned by the conspirators! Why not to one of them, why not to Sarmeen?"
Galbren wrinkled his muzzle in an expression of bewilderment. "Who am I to know the thoughts of traitors and the secrets of magic? It's true, we have some kind of puzzle here. My brother should have had no problems wielding the weapon, after all, it had been tuned to me in the first place. We are Wolves of one blood. But the tuning may react more to the spirit than to the body, and me and my deceased brother couldn't be more different. Yes, maybe the innocence of that Fox made it possible that the weapon could be tuned to him at all! - Besides, I have an even greater puzzle: What is that affair with the Demons you mentioned? What Demons? Where are they?"
Khiray cried out. He himself had fought for the banishment of the Demons >from this world - and now Galbren turned his victory against him. He would have jumped at the Wolf, with his bare hands, to strangle the murderer of his father, the murderer of the Foxtaurs, the real traitor. But the guards had approached him and held his arms. He could just writhe helplessly.
"What a sad sight", Galbren sighed. "One upright citizen, caught in a web of lies."
"Your lies, Galbren - your lies!" Khiray screamed, beside himself with fury. "Why didn't I use the Dekka'shin against Kooradah? Why didn't I level Drun'kaal? If I'm the traitor, why don't I act like it?"
The Wolf draped his tail over the knees. "Raising the attention of the Archangel by using his gift to me? No, that wouldn't be a good idea. You probably wanted to keep the weapon for an emergency, I guess. And to add credibility to your tall tale. Besides", he turned to Vijapaai, "I'd like to know what he has told you."
The Cat started to tell. The truth. Khiray's story. The Fox slumped in his guards' arms. The power of the Archangel could help him - but the Dekka'shin was in Dhaurakil's hands, and the Archmage certainly wouldn't hand it over.
He was lost. He had squandered Kooradah's and Dhaurakil's trust, who both believed their own truthfinders than him. Of course; he was a stranger. Kooradah knew Galbren; after the alleged death of Sarmeen the Drunlord himself had acknowledged him as governor. Dhaurakil knew his truthfinders, worked with them, trusted the infallibility of their statements. Only he, the little merchant, had no one at the court.
Even worse. Not only himself, but his friends as well would fall prey to the lies. They would be branded as spies and traitors. Delley, Kinnih, Fryyk... and Saljin. Yes, even the Foxtaurs of Golden Shore who didn't suspect anything just hours ago were drawn into the devilish intrigue. As soon as Kooradah sent out his guards, only Perlish would escape their search - Perlish the bandit who was suspicious of any uniform in town.
He wished he had never set a paw in the palace. Outside the sun sank. The evening flood started; it waited for no one, and the Foxtaurs would sail away, taking Saljin with them. Maybe that was the only good point. Maybe his only option was to gamble for time until Saljin and the Foxtaurs were saved.
"I wonder if it would be possible to tune the weapon back to me", Galbren mused. "Or to another upright servant of the Armygan; I don't want to be egoistical, although it was a personal gift from the Archangel. I do feel a little uneasy at the thought that the only one who can use it is a traitor."
Khiray let his head drop. He should have gone aboard the Foxtaur ship, together with the others. Speaking to no one, fleeing in secrecy - like Pallys had told him, that time on the river. He couldn't defeat Galbren. The governor's lies had decided the game.
Oh, somewhen Kooradah would see right through Galbren. If Khiray died under the torture without saying anything that was confirmed by the truthfinders... as soon as they had killed Delley, Kinnih and Fryyk... when the Otter tale spread...
But maybe Galbren controlled the Archangel's power until then. Or he had left Drun'kaal, once again rebuilding his army and the web of lies that would strengthen his influence. Kooradah was not stupid, but someone who could manipulate truthfinders held all the trumps in his hand. What gave him that ability? Did he really bribe all the truthfinders? Impossible!
But it was a fact. Galbren lied. Khiray told the truth. None of the magicians could discern the deception.
With that kind of power, Galbren could do everything he wanted.
Khiray tried to think. There had to be a solution. He had it on his tongue already.
The Demon game.
It wasn't over yet!
It had to be Khezzarrik's influence. He mustn't open a gate, but maybe he could send his power across the spheres and levels without, to cloud the minds of the truthfinders.
But how could he stop that influence without calling upon Taphaliel's power? The pact bound Khezzarrik to Hell, not his magic. What kind of interest did Gate have in Galbren? What was Galbren supposed to do that was so important for Khezzarrik khi Valangassis?
Maybe nothing at all. Maybe there were other reasons...
Those spectators who were still reasonably sober started to chant: "Kill the Fox! Kill the Fox!"
Kooradah shook his head. "Please! We don't want to judge hastily. We are talking treason here, and it seems most important to me to find out the whole truth before executing someone."
The crowd danced. "Kill the Fox! Kill the Fox!"
The Drunlord looked around displeasedly. "Throw Khiray into the dungeons. We will decide his fate later on."
"No!" Khiray struggled with all his might against the guards who were dragging him along. "Drunlord! I told the truth!"
"He didn't ", Vijapaai stated.
"I just ask you for a chance to prove my innocence! Kooradah! You are making a mistake!" But the Drunlord didn't look at him any more.
No one could stop Galbren now. The Drunlord was already caught in the net of the scheming governor. Dhaurakil was practically working for Galbren by now.
The orgy guests grabbed for Khiray and were roughly pushed back by the guards. Some fell to the ground, started to laugh, got up again. The Fox was dragged along by the Armsfurrys.
Galbren rose. "You should not forget to arrest the other traitors", he reminded. Kooradah nodded and beckoned another guard over.
No! He mustn't imprison the others as well! Hopefully the tide was high enough. Hopefully Delley, Kinnih and Fryyk got suspicious after he didn't return, and sailed with the Foxtaurs by now.
No one could stop Galbren, except...
Except him who stood behind the game and moved the pieces across the board.
He had feared it would come to this. His nemesis. His nightmare. But he couldn't think of an easy way out. "Khezzarrik!" Khiray called out. "Khezzarrik khi Valangassis, Lord of Hell! I know you can hear me! I change the pact! Do you listen?" He kicked at the guards holding him. "I allow you to open one gate to this place!"
The spectators and guards froze for a moment. The drunken minds of the participants of the orgy slowly seemed to grasp that the prisoner had just called for a Demon. But when nothing happened, they returned to their usual noisy romp.
Kooradah had come to terms with the fact that his visitors couldn't control themselves. "It is almost as if he believes in his own lies", the Leopard murmured.
Behind him the air shimmered.
Someone screamed. Dhaurakil whirled around, startled by the sudden evocation of powerful magic. The spectators jumped for cover, hid under tables, dug into the pillow mountains. The Armsfurs drew their swords. The two Wolves who held Khiray seemed unsure of what to do. In the end, they left their prisoner and ran to Kooradah to protect their Lord.
The Drunlord called for reinforcements. The shimmer became a whirl, fiery arms flashed from the growing gate. Then the fabric of space ripped open, and the speechless Furrys stared into the flaming abyss of Hell.
Khezzarrik stepped through, bowed and smiled. This time, he wore a shape similar to Kooradah's, but the spots were missing in his fur, the tail had a dark tassel, and a wild mane graced head and shoulders of the Demon. Kooradah's own features were mirrored in the massive face, but Khezzarrik was two heads taller again than the Lord.
Behind him, the gate closed again.
"And now?" the Demon remarked. "I can see two familiar faces, don't I? Don't anybody want to welcome me?"
Khiray stepped forward. "I greet you, Khezzarrik khi Valangassis, Lord of the Demons."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Galbren shouted. "We have an agreement!"
Indignantly, Khezzarrik wrinkled his muzzle. "An agreement I honored in every respect." He moved his hand in a magical gesture. The truthfinders cried out, clasped their heads and fell to the ground. "Truth and lie, lie and truth. The threads of the spider's web are carefully woven together."
One of the guards was courageous enough to attack the Demon with his sword. Khezzarrik cast him aside with a turn of the wrist. "The game has taken an unexpected turn. My agreement with you, Galbren, was an insurance against unpredictable events. For the unlikely possibility I would fail and Beladanar would gain power over the Armygan. Oh, excuse me: for the unlikely possibility you would gain power over the Armygan." He smiled faintly, considering the small difference.
Kooradah breathed heavily. What he heard from Khezzarrik's muzzle was no less than a confirmation of the treason. The Drunlord recognized that Khiray had told him the truth - that Galbren was the liar. But the Leopard was too intelligent to raise his voice in a situation like this.
"We don't have a pact, Galbren, my friend. No formal seal binds me, and you have never paid any price. You should have acquainted yourself with magic some more, governor. The only reason for me to cloud the truthfinders' minds - although my plans worked well and I defeated Beladanar in the end - is that this little Fox here escaped my last trap. He destroyed the perfect finish of the game. If every piece had fallen in its place, the brave defenders of their swampy hole would lie dead in the ruins of Alvanere, my Foxy friend would sway between madness and desperation, and his obnoxious four-legged lover would have some legs less. And your plans, Galbren, would lie open before the Drunlord, and you would wait in a damp dungeon cell for your execution, the last voice that could tell about my intrusion of this world dying with you." He sighed deeply. "What a vision! What a beautiful symmetry! Achieved despite of so many set-backs, after millennia of waiting!" Khezzarrik shook his head. "But Khiray shook off my spell. He wounded Beladanar. And the exquisite end collapsed like a house of cards."
The Demon stepped in front of Khiray and lowered himself on one knee, so he could look into the Fox's eyes. "It was a very good spell. There are only a few I believe are capable of vanquishing it. Love, Foxy? Is that what helped you? Help me to understand it!" He extended a hand and stroke gently over Khiray's cheek. "If I would understand love, my power would be all-encompassing. Then I could play games against the Archangels themselves."
"If you understood love", Khiray replied silently, "you'd be no Demon."
Khezzarrik rose. "You might be correct in that. Thus, cruel fate binds me."
Galbren was furious. "An agreement is an agreement! You have no right to reveal all my plans!"
The Demon raised his shoulders. "Oh, that's a tragedy! Well, I will fulfill my side of the agreement to the letter. What were your words, again?" He took the circlet from Kooradah's brow and set it on Galbren's head. "I'm supposed to support you until you wear the sign of the Drun and stand in the hall of the Lords." He stepped back and admired his handiwork. "Oh! It's time already! You do wear the sign, and you are standing in the hall. Voila!" The Demon clapped his hands. "It is over." He took the circlet back and threw it to Kooradah.
The Drunlord caught the symbol. "So everything's true."
"Whose side...?" Khezzarrik feigned to think about it. "Oh, Khiray's! Yes, yes, if you don't put much value on perfection... then his version of events is true, surely. Not that I wanted to support him, but... well, my own plans aimed at a different outcome. I tried to use my agreement with Galbren to have the Foxy killed by torture. As a small recompensation, so to speak, for the spoiled end of the game. But to call me... to call me, after all I've done to you..." He beamed at Khiray. "That is brilliant! Enemies become allies, friends become foes! For a mortal, that's almost Demonic. I could have stayed away from this world, letting events run their due course, but I had to react to that move. The game piece becomes a player."
"What do you want to do now, Lord of the Demons?" Kooradah asked.
"With this world? Nothing, nothing at all... for the time being, I have lost interest in mortals. Except one." He looked at Galbren. The governor started to tremble. A puddle formed around his paws. "I want to remember the end of the game in the cold nights in Hell. I want a sweet-tasting souvenir that will enthrall me for a long time and delight my servants."
"The game", Khiray said, "is not over yet." A vast calmness filled his spirit. He took the Dekka'shin from the Archmage's hands. Dhaurakil did not resist him.
Khezzarrik squinted as if he wasn't able to see. "The game is... not over?" For the first time, the Demon showed insecurity. Khiray realized that he could not see the Archangel's weapon indeed. Just the way the Demons had hidden from the Archangels' eyes, the Dekka'shin remained veiled for Khezzarrik.
The Fox whirled around, in a blow Saljin had showed him. Despite the Troll steel's transformation, the blades were still sharp. Galbren's head fell to the ground. Blood spurted up; farther back, someone screamed. The drunkards seemed to get sober in a hurry. The metallic stench of blood filled the air.
Heroes, Khiray thought, don't feel satisfaction. But he was deeply satisfied: Galbren was dead, dead for sure, and nothing would bring him back to life. The headless body twitched and collapsed, the former grey fur stained red. The traitorous governor would never have someone killed again.
A pawn that was taken from the board.
The Archangel's power lay in his hands. He was Khiray no longer. He was Taphaliel. He was vengeance. He was the judgement coming down on the Demon and his allies. Cold fire flashed around his hands. The booming voice of the Archangel came from his throat.
Khezzarrik looked at him, a little puzzled. "Why did you take him from me? I could have broken him a hundred times over."
Khiray/Taphaliel laughed. "No one deserves to end in the claws of Demons. Not even Galbren." From the corner of his eye he saw Dhaurakil pulling Kooradah with him, away from Khezzarrik, away from the deadly white light the Demon couldn't see.
"I could take you in his place", Gate threatened. But his voice was no longer as mighty, no longer as self-confident as before. He felt the Archangel's power and couldn't defend himself against it.
"Try", Khiray replied. "You are doomed", Taphaliel said.
Some of the guests had already ran for the exits, but most of them seemed entranced, frozen with terror. The Archmage pulled at Kooradah's arm, but the Drunlord didn't intend to flee. Instead, he bowed down to the unconscious Vijapaai and felt for her heartbeat. Obviously, she wasn't dead, since the Lord dragged her away from the danger and indicated the guards to carry her away.
Khezzarrik bowed. "Well, I can see my presence is no longer desired. What a pity; I had counted on more thanks."
"Thank you", Khiray said ironically. "Who crosses the boundaries of the law will be judged", Taphaliel growled.
The Demon made a step backwards, moved his hands and turned around. The shimmer appeared in the air, then the flames, faster than before. Khezzarrik didn't seem to value a dramatic exit.
A deep booming arose, making the walls tremble. With a sound like the beating of a giant gong, the gate to Hell collapsed.
Khiray had never seen Khezzarrik stunned; the Demon had always been the master of the situation. But now his furry shape flickered as if he hadn't even enough concentration left to keep a solid form. "What is happening here?" he howled. He repeated the gestures, applied his magic. The gate appeared and collapsed again noisily. Blue sparks flashed and ate into Khezzarrik's left arm. Roaring, the Demon tried to shake them off, but they devoured the illusion of flesh enshrouding the true Khezzarrik. For a moment Khiray could see behind the shadows. Khezzarrik was not unlike Beladanar, a shapeless being that twitched and writhed, with many arms and eyes and mouths and teeth. Then the darkness intensified, and the Furry body formed anew.
Only that its left arm was missing. Only a burned stump hung from the shoulder. Khezzarrik stared at the wound.
"The pact ", Khiray reminded him.
The Demon whirled around. Three eyes were staring from the forehead. The mane seemed to wriggle with small tentacles. The jaws parted at every word. "What about the pact? You allowed me to open gates again!"
"One gate", the Fox corrected calmly. "One gate to this place. Nothing more. No gate back. You have closed it behind you yourself. No one can break a pact. The Demon who tries, dies."
Khezzarrik felt for the left shoulder with his right hand, as if he needed a proof.
Then he exploded. The shadows jumped in all directions, became titanic arms of darkness studded with suckers and barbs. Khiray swung the Dekka'shin around, cutting through some of the tentacles. Khezzarrik knew he fought a power he could not defeat - except by killing the Fox. Nothing else would destroy the connection to the neverending energies of Taphaliel.
Escaping was not enough. If he fled, he was stranded here, bound by the pact as long as Khiray lived. After all the tricks he had used to overthrow Beladanar, he would find himself in just the same situation.
Khiray/Taphaliel jumped forward, into the center of the boiling shadows. The Dekka'shin glowed in an otherwordly fire. It cut through the threads of darkness and pierced the pulsing, sinister heart of the Hell being.
The scream shook the world. The essence of the Demon crystallized, the outstretched tentacles petrified, burying themselves in walls and floor. The foundations of the palace trembled. Light penetrated the shadows, wound itself around the moving grey bubbles inside the creature and squeezed the life from them.
A smell like ashes and hot stone spread. Khiray retreated the Dekka'shin. The amorphous remains of the Demon in front of him reminded him of the molten lava spewn forth by volcanoes. Slowly, the mass ossified. Other than Beladanar's body, Khezzarrik's corpse did not dissolve.
The darkness changed a last time. A face appeared out of the black cinders. It had Khiray's eyes, but the muzzle was a formless thing with canines in clicking insect jaws. "Well done", Khezzarrik whispered. "You won the game. The pawn defeats its players. One hero more is born for whom legends will be written. A worthy opponent of Demons." The jaws closed. "You have to say something heroic now. What about a timely howl of triumph? Be aware, little Fox... don't forget, the most dangerous foes are those you ignore..."
Khiray did not answer. The influence of Taphaliel had left him. The Demon fell silent. Black power dripped from the tentacles that now ran through the hall like some kind of grotesque beams. Then a storm roared up, tearing the remains of Demonic magic towards heaven. The glass dome burst under the ravage, and colored shards rained down, shattering on the petrified arms, hitting the floor clinkingly.
The night sky was illuminated by white rings spreading to the horizon. The fire of an Archangel, the blackness of a Demon. Khiray stared upwards until the last traces of the battling powers had disappeared.
The silence and the quiet filling the hall afterward seemed to last an eternity. Then one of the injured started to whimper - splinters of glass had hit him. Only a few had been so clever to use the tentacles of the dead Demon as shelter or flee from the glass rain under the tables. The hail of tiny shards had spared almost no one. The Armsfurrys, unharmed thanks to armor and helmet, helped the injured to get up.
Khiray looked around. The lump that had been Khezzarrik's core lay in the room's center like a giant rock, higher than Kooradah and with a circumference that four Deer could hardly embrace. The condensed shadows hang above it like marble curtains. Looking closely, one could still see the true shape of the Demon in the molten boulder: a creature with many teeth that seemed to jump from its stone prison if one stared too long at it. The tentacles - sharp-edged and lined with hooks and thorns - sprang forth in all directions; some ended mid-air, others pierced the walls, and some went right through the stone of the walls, spanning across the courtyard outside. The hall seemed to be full of tentacles, and through some trick of shadows or a flicker of light, it looked as if they were still moving.
But what attracted Khiray's gaze was the grotesque, twisted face in the stone. It still had his eyes. And despite the many jaws, it seemed to laugh about a good joke.
What did death mean to a Demon? The end of the game?
Tiredly, Khiray looked up. It was night already. The flood had come, the ship of the Foxtaurs was on its way to Golden Shore.
It didn't matter anymore. Weariness crawled through his veins. Taphaliel's presence had robbed him of his last energy. Galbren was dead, Khezzarrik was dead. He was the last of the players. But the victory left him empty. He dreamed of a soft fur...
Kooradah and Dhaurakil caught up with him just as he wanted to leave the hall.
"I have to apologize", the Drunlord said. Blood streaks stained his spotted fur.
The Fox nodded. "That new sculpture will not be removed easily." He pointed behind.
Kooradah's face remained expressionless. He seemed to ponder whether Khiray was joking. Then he said: "The Armygan will never be as before. We can't rely on the truthfinders like we did. And we have to become more watchful against treason in our midst."
Khiray looked outside. The oaken door had cracked under the tremor. "I have a wish."
"It is fulfilled already", Kooradah claimed.
"There is a ship mooring at the harbor, a steamer. Her name is 'Laidanna'; it belonged to Galbren. She shall be transferred to a Rat named Delley and a Badger called Kinnih."
"So be it."
"And there is a wreck... the wreck of my ship. If something can be salvaged >from it, Delley shall recover it and keep it in store for me."
"It is as good as done."
Khiray thought carefully. He couldn't hardly do anything for the Otters; Fryyk would return to his kin. They had to rebuild their village, but they wouldn't accept any help from Kooradah. It was not easy to see, but the Otters were a proud race. And Lysh... Would she ever wonder what happened to him? And there was Uncle Farlin who had joined Galbren's troops. When he learned about the events and what he had done, he would be inconsolable. But Khiray couldn't change it. So many unfinished things, so many threads he would never connect. Perlish and the Troll steel swords. Shooshun in Bear Mountain. Kaslin-Ray. Farlin in Sookandil. Pallys' books. Ghanzekk's research. The Trolls.
The stars sparkled and beckoned. He didn't say goodbye, but he heard many voices behind him murmuring his name: guards and guests alike.
"Khiray of the River ", Kooradah said.
The Fox turned around for a last time.
Khiray nodded. Then he crossed the bridge, followed by dozens of eyes. He left the palace straight. No one stopped him, although guards and servants swarmed over the place like ants in a hill. Once outside, he stopped a cart. The streets were full of Furrys who stared to the sky as if they expected a sign. The end of the Demon had been visible throughout the city and beyond - for many, it probably had looked like the end of the world.
He had no special destination in mind, so he headed for the harbor. Maybe Delley, Kinnih and Fryyk still waited for him. They could roam through the bars. He didn't drink a lot, only when business demanded it, but today he would get really drunk. So much death. Only a game of Hell.
The Rat, the Badger and the Otter were there. They stood around and seemed to wait for something. For someone. Khiray smiled. It was good to have friends. And there was someone else. A Foxtauress.
Saljin? Didn't Balashain of the Green Cliffs tell him she would need weeks of rest?
No. It was Balashain herself. The ship hadn't left yet; the dark silhouette of the two-mast vessel rose above the waters.
He left the cart and threw a coin to the Dragger.
The Foxtauress crossed her arms. "You are late." She grinned. "We just wanted to cast off."
Khiray felt a sensation he could not easily sort out - gratitude? Relief? Saljin was still here. That was everything that counted. He turned towards his friends. "Delley... the 'Laidanna' belongs to you and Kinnih now. The Drunlord will see to it. Fryyk... I don't know how to say thanks for everything..."
The Otter waved the thought aside. "Forget it. It was an adventure. Maybe a little too adventurous for my taste, but I'm still alive."
"Do you really want to go, captain?" Kinnih asked.
Khiray nodded silently.
The young Badger took his hand. "Good luck." Then he turned around and scurried off, as if he had to hide something.
"Mh, those youths", Delley grumbled and wiped his eyes. "Can hardly await to get to the next bar. Hey, Khiray. Should you ever head towards the Armygan again..."
"I won't forget you", the Fox replied.
"Khezzarrik is dead?" Fryyk demanded to know.
"Stupid question", Delley growled. "Come on, let's go. Eh, Kinnih, how many girls did you have?" He strolled slowly along.
The Badger looked up in bewilderment. "Girls? Well..."
"None, eh? Doesn't matter. We'll change that. Tomorrow, you'll stand at the helm as a man. The 'Laidanna' is no 'Ansicc', but with a few tweaks here and there... Fryyk, do you fancy big women...?"
Khiray looked after the three until they had disappeared between the storehouses.
"About time", Balashain murmured. "The high tide doesn't wait for no one."
"You waited for me."
"Huh." The Foxtauress went aboard, and Khiray followed her. He had been on the ship once, but this time he felt as if he set his paws onto a new country. A dozen Foxtaurs seemed to have waited just for him. The plank was pulled back, the sails unrolled. Slowly the ship moved away from the quay, out of the harbor to the open sea. "I did see you with her. I'm not the youngest daughter of my mother anymore, but that much I can see. And she'll need someone now. Eh, that little Badger made us store six loads of that damn stuff... I'm quite curious how you want to drag a burden like that a thousand kilometers north." She leaned onto the rail.
Khiray stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do, until the captain prodded his ribs. "Come on, go to her. You look as if you could use a bit of a nap."
The Fox nodded and went under deck, very carefully - the sea ship rolled more than the 'Silver Ansicc'. A small magic lamp dimly lit the Foxtauress' cabin. Khiray leaned the Dekka'shin in a corner and went to the bed. "Saljin?"
"Hmmm? Oh, Khiray." She put some effort in her voice, but the Fox could see in her eyes how weak she actually was. "I almost feared they would sail without you."
"Someone has to watch over you, or not? - Khezzarrik is dead, and Galbren as well."
The Foxtauress nodded slowly, but she didn't say anything.
Khiray took off his vest, the ear jewelry, and his loincloth. There was a trace of blood on his right arm, but he didn't feel any injury. Galbren's blood. He remembered... the governor's head...
Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would think about everything. Tomorrow, when the weakness in his legs had disappeared. Tomorrow, when the voices of the Demons in his mind had gone silent. Kooradah, Dhaurakil, Vijapaai. So much he had to tell Saljin. Tomorrow another life would begin.
He lay down beside Saljin and touched her carefully. The bed was rather narrow for two, but at least it was built for Foxtaurs. Tomorrow. Tomorrow was time enough.
But what, in the end, makes us heroes?
It's not about the number of enemies we defeat; every barbarian monster-killer can slay a thousand foes, given enough dumb luck and brute force. Every skilled wielder of swords can make a name for himself by choosing his adversaries carefully. Any leader of a group of brigands can boast of the things he accomplished by keeping his armsfurrys nearby.
It's not even about kingdoms conquered and legends told. Sometimes, legends got woven around a character of the distant past, exaggerating his virtues, diminishing his faults, making him a feature in stories, greater in death than he'd ever been in life. We choose that kind of heroes for ourself by telling tales and listening to legends, but those heroes of stories are dead, and do not reveal the truth.
And it's not about noble deeds we do. Those as well belong into stories; in life, nobility is seldom found. We all have our desires, our little demon of greed we listen to. Even the greatest of Noblefurrys may not act out of selflessness, but out of vanity, basking in the admiration of others that see the flawless hero in him.
True heroes... living heroes...
It's about the strength of the spirit, about sacrifice, and about the things we survive.
Sometimes, things happen - events that hurt us, that injure our minds, that threaten to destroy us and shroud our lives in darkness. We do not have control of circumstances; no matter how hard we try to lead a good life and follow the right path: things still happen, the shadows catch up with us, and time leaves us behind, a shattered image of all we'd ever hoped to be.
There is a place, somewhere in the void, where silence wraps around us, where images are grey, where the sounds are dull and the memory hazy and far away. It's a hiding place, where we can curl up and tremble like little frightened animals, suffering in loneliness. No scars are deeper than the scars of the soul.
Some of us never leave that place. They get lost there, in desperation and hopelessness. Sometimes, they break free in one last effort, destroying everything they are and could be by sacrificing their lives, escaping from the darkness of the inner space into the eternal oblivion of death.
And then there are the heroes.
We fight; a fight that is lonelier than anything else, because it is fought in our minds. It does not matter why we do it, or what gives us the strength. Love, hate, friendship, duty. We use our mind, our spirit, our will, to battle the void in a fight against our inner Demons that are, and have always been, more dangerous than the outer Demons we may encounter.
Some fall back into the darkness, retreat to the silent place, their battle lost. But some emerge into the light beyond.
Heroes are tempered steel, forged in fire.
Some embrace the flames and draw their strength from them; instead of being hurt by the visions, they face and overcome them. They have crossed the void by courage. They have vanquished the fear by their will. They have broken the silence with the strength of heart and soul. They are the heroes.
Deep down, in the bowels of a ship sailing the ocean along the coast, Khiray stirred in his sleep. Images of Demons kept returning to him. They could not hurt him, not any more; he had conquered them all, and most important, he had conquered himself. But he knew that they would be with him in his dreams for a long time to come.
He stretched out a hand and touched Saljin's back, very gently, as not to wake her. His fingers touched soft warm fur. He buried his muzzle in the silky hair of her neck, breathing her sweet scent, until his troubled mind calmed down.
Saljin felt him moving, and curled together a little more, as far as her wound permitted it, reassured in the presence of her beloved.
As long as it lasts, she thought, but somehow she hoped that 'forever' was at least an option.
Sleep well, little Foxys, and may your dreams be blessed.