Original SWAT Kats Story

Duty and Desire

By C.L. Furlong & Helion

  • 4 Chapters
  • 119,156 Words

When, years before the SWAT Kats will unintentionally visit Megalith City’s magnificent halls, duty and desire cause the paths of two different kats to cross, the future of a whole kingdom is suddenly connected directly with their fates. Rated M for strong language and violence. (Complete)

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Author's Notes:

C. L. Furlong:
clfurlong@aeiou.pt
C. L. Furlong:
Hello there, SK fans. So, here’s, at last, the second part of this ongoing epic. If Part One has had an elephantine birth, as my co-author and friend pointed in this section last time, this part was not an easy enterprise as well. I hope the long delay hasn’t driven away our readers from the fate of Khronos and his comrades but rather fuelled their desire to know how the brave knight fares. I am really to blame for this two-year delay for my personal and professional life as a teacher and a student came in the way of the development of this story. Besides that, both Helion and I agreed to withhold the submission of both Part Two and Part Three so that we could have the whole story in our hands in its written form. We did so in hopes of wiping out any plotline errors or inconsistencies that might have lingered around and could only be detected after having written most of the text. I believe the result is satisfactory for both of us and I hope this story is at least as appealing to all you SK fans as it has been to us.

I indeed have to thank my co-author, Helion, both for his almost divine patience towards me and for his masterly crafted pieces of writing, for it is my strong belief that this story wasn’t likely to have the luster it has if not for him. I’m also beholden to some writing personalities that much helped me get a grasp on the dark-age and mystical imagery surrounding this story, which was enlightened by their works. Names as Harry Turtledove, James Patterson and, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien are here, thus, remembered and thanked.

Also the inspiration provided by the musical piece “Requiem for a Dream”, by Clint Mansell, helped me craft some of the battle scenes. I think they were better written (and read) when hearing that particular musical score. Well, enough’s been said! Time just to point that this fiction is unrelated to my “Final Resistance” series (which is far from dead…).

Helion:

Wow. I just realized that it’s been 23 months since we started this story. Therefore, welcome back, dear reader, and thanks for joining us again after such an extensive hiatus! I’ll try to keep my comments short, but there are a few notes on the text I would like to mention:

First of all, there is a short synopsis of Part 1 at the beginning of this file, for those of you who want to delve into Part 2 without re-reading the beginning of the story.

Secondly, as C.L. already said, Part 3 is nearly complete, too. Once some finishing makeover is complete, it should be posted here, too. That should hopefully happen within the next few weeks (read: November)!

Thirdly, “Duty and Desire” is a 4-part story, but Parts 1-3 are a self-contained unit within the whole text. This means, even if it should take another two years to finish that part (or even if Part 4 will never see the light of day), there is no cliffhanger situation once you’ve reached the end of Part 3!

Fourthly, I have to thank my dear friend and co-writer C. L. Furlong, as he is the motor of the story. He denies that in regard to Part 2, but he truly is the writing force behind many, many scenes here and almost all the scenes in the upcoming third part. Denial or not, thanks for keeping the vehicle running, pal!

Fifthly, should you (either in Part 1 or 2) stumble across any quotes from one or two Shakespearean works (especially from “Hamlet”) that are not specifically marked as such, do not blame C. L., for this is my doing! Sorry, I just couldn’t resist putting those things in, and I hope I still get the chance to add a few more of the Bard’s quibbles (or of one of his contemporaries) in Part 3.

Chapter 2

Crossroads of Fate

DUTY AND DESIRE

PART TWO – CROSSROADS OF FATE

The first rays of a new dawn cast long dancing shadows upon the barren low hills south of Megalith City, waking up the dormant earth and its inhabitants, stirring them from the cold night they had endured during their sleep. And a cold night indeed it had been. The first icy breaths coming from the Northern regions had approached almost unannounced last night.

A chilling draft entered Khronos’ billet and ruffled Sir Astor’s woolen white cloak, as well as his hair, which partly lay in disarray over his forehead. The elder rose from the stool, his respiration visible in the form of conspicuous small clouds as he walked to the side of Khronos’ bed. His gaze pierced the thick blanket and sheets and settled on the still form lying on the bed in front of him.

A choice he wished he’d never have to make battled in his mind. Khronos had seemed lifeless for almost three weeks now. Chances were slim, if not non-existent, that he’d ever come out of such trance. What if the Chief Healer couldn’t fathom what was ailing the warrior? Would it be kind to let him endure such a state month after month until finally immobility and inactiveness had weakened him to a point where his inert body couldn’t resist the unyielding, frigid claw of death any longer?

He uncovered the warrior’s body, exposing his bare chest to the biting draft. He noticed that not even a single fur on his torso stood on end, testifying
the apparent lifelessness of his pupil.

“There’s no other choice… His last deeds were grand and by them he shall be remembered…” – Sir Astor muttered. His face had acquired a grim expression of determination.

He rested his palm on Khronos’ chest and closed his eyes, but could not shut out the remembrance of what had passed not quite three weeks ago, after Khronos’ battle with the treacherous jester…


—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

The jester lay limply on the ground, unconscious. Green sparks ravaged Khronos’ body as the final embers of the amulet’s magic faded away. Then he fell on his back, rigid.

The battle was finally over.

But, there was no minute to spare. The fight for Khronos’ life had barely begun.

Telluros and Pyros bore their friend’s unmoving and bleeding form to his quarters with the speed of dire need, while Hydor and Eolos searched the castle for the Chief Healer equally fast, raising him from his sleep and hastening him to their companion’s side.

This was where Sir Astor found them all already gathered when, still weak from his earlier protective spell, he reached Khronos’ quarters last. He instantly ordered the Mystical Knights to secure and search the grounds for any possible enemy that might yet have slipped detection. He was aware of the mute objection that shone in their eyes, their urge to defy any order to leave the side of Khronos’ sickbed, but he ignored it.

“Is that how you would honor Khronos’ sacrifice, by betraying the king’s safety in the same night he gave his health to protect him?” – he asked. The four warriors lowered their heads in shame and instantly left the crammed room to fulfill their duty. The Arch Mage looked past the Chief Healer at the lying form of Sir Khronos. The gray fur of Sir Astor’s most powerful protégé had dulled to the stony color of ash.

“How is he?” – Sir Astor queried in a low voice. The shadows cast by the crepitant flames of the torches hanging from the rough stony walls accentuated the lines of fretfulness that were carved on the aging kat’s face.

He watched closely as the Chief Healer examined the gray-furred tom lying in his bed. The physician shook his head slightly and moved the torch in his hand further towards Khronos’ chest.

“I asked…” – the aging kat insisted but he was interrupted in mid-sentence.

“Sir Astor!” – the Healer exclaimed in an impatient tone – “Forgive my rudeness, but I cannot focus on my work if I am constantly interrupted. I am fully aware of your concern for your student, but worrying won’t do much! I must concentrate on what I’m doing, else, something might slip my eye!”

“Your point is well taken. My apologies. Please, carry on.” – Sir Astor muttered as he went to the window and looked to the moonless skies of that ill-fated night.

“As I feared, the wound he gained during Bard’s Horn battle reopened.” – the Chief Healer reported after several minutes of heavy silence – “It is bleeding again, but I think I can take care of that. Apart from some bruises and excoriations, he doesn’t seem to have anything broken or any internal damages.”

Sir Astor cocked one eyebrow at that verdict. He turned around and came to the still form of his student. Khronos had, in the meantime, broken away from his rigid state. Now it seemed he was merely asleep.

“What about his chest?” – Sir Astor laconically asked.

“What about it?” – the physician replied, confused.

“Khronos was hit by a magical blast right in his chest. The stroke passed through his upper torso and left from his upper back.”

“Are you sure?” – the Chief Healer asked, dubiously.

“I do not usually lie, Chief Healer. Nor are my senses impaired. Above all that, I have eyewitnesses.” – the aging kat retorted in an icy tone.

The healer gulped on the sly and approached the bed once again. Straining his eyes to see something strange or peculiar at the glimmering red light of the torches, the Chief Healer searched in vain. Khronos’ chest fur and skin were virtually undamaged, except for the slash he’d received when he fought against Lord Tyrakks’ minions. The physician put his ear to the warrior’s chest and listened carefully. It seemed as if all was functioning perfectly. With the help of the elder kat, he turned Khronos so his back was facing up. He proceeded similarly, checking the fur and skin, which were unharmed, leaning over and approaching his ear to the Mystical Knight’s back. For a moment, it seemed as though everything was well. But then he heard something strange. It seemed like liquid was running somewhere inside Khronos’ chest. The Chief Healer straightened himself up like a bolt.

“You were right!” – he exclaimed – “I don’t know what it is, but the sounds I’m hearing are different from those of a healthy kat. Something is happening inside his chest although there are no visible scars or bruises on the outside… This defies everything I’ve ever seen and know… I must study this case further before I risk a diagnosis…”

“Can’t you do anything for now?” – the aging kat queried.

“I must clean and cauterize his wounds, especially that large one on his side and the slash in his chest but as for whatever is happening inside him, I dare not open him… At least, not in that place… The most advanced studies indicate that the innards of a kat’s chest are vital and must not be disturbed… I’m sorry, but I will not risk opening him in that place…”

“I see… But you can make a prognosis, can you not?”

The Chief Healer frowned and stroked his chin, thinking as hard as he could. Yes, he had a theory but without further study he had no basis for it.

“The only prognosis I can make is that of fluid lodging inside his lungs. I think it may be somewhat similar to the phlegm disease that plagued the kingdom nineteen years ago.” – the physician stated out. The Arch-Mage’s expression became even graver with such prognosis.

“The rate of morbidity was appallingly high in that year…” – Sir Astor closed his eyes and shook his head, forcing his thoughts to leave the gruesome images of the great plague and focus on the present – “Those are ill news… If Khronos has that disease…”

“I didn’t say that!” – the Chief Healer retorted – “Based on the few facts I have been able to gather, that would be my prognosis. However, he does not present any exterior signs of the disease, which adds up to my doubtfulness concerning the presence of such illness inside Khronos. For now, I must repair what I can and then we must let the warrior rest until I figure out what can be done in respect to what is passing inside him.”

“May the Sacred Kats hear your words, Chief Healer…” – the Arch-Mage muttered – “May they hear your words…”

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

Two days passed without any sign of recovery on Khronos’ part. The deep wound on his flank had, once again, been sealed and the blood loss was rapidly contained. After that, the Chief Healer set out on a true quest in order to understand what was going on inside Khronos but all the information he gathered was nothing short of contradictory. In a few words, the royal physician didn’t have the slightest clue as to what ailed Khronos.

“What the Healer doesn’t understand…” – Sir Astor said as he watched the afternoon’s stormy skies – “… is the different nature of this new ailment.”

“I believe I understand what you mean, master… Whatever’s gnawing at Khronos’ insides is not of natural origin.” – Telluros stated.

“It is magical… I fear there’s nothing the Chief Healer can do about it…” – Eolos muttered between clenched teeth – “It’s on occasions like this that I wish magic could be used to heal…”

“You know very well it can’t.” –Hydor explained – “So, you might very well stop thinking about that.”

“That’s not entirely true…” – Astor thought as the rumble of thunder rolled in the air – “Magic *can* heal… Although, to do so the practitioner must let go of his life… That’s how superior magic works… A life for a life… And there have been enough deaths already…” – the elder closed his eyes just when a lightning bolt crisscrossed the horizon seconds before an explosion boomed over Megalith City.

“There have been enough deaths already.” – he repeated aloud – “But, I fear
more are yet to come.”

A short pause followed. Then – “King Darkwater!” – Pyros voiced the problem that had lately been constant on all their minds.

The Arch Mage opened his eyes to find the four knights watching him, awaiting his verdict – “Yes Pyros, King Darkwater. His defeat will only fuel his fury, a fury that has already grown into a raging inferno. What suffering he will cause when it is stirred up further not even I can begin to imagine. Let Khronos’ injury and the death of all those brave people of Megalith be a warning against the agony that might yet touch our sacred city. It shall never be! Too long have the king and I pushed this decision away from us; even now I still dread what we must do… But, it must be done. For the sake of freedom, King Darkwater must not be allowed to live. The number of his supporters has been waning for long and is now near nil. Only his gruesome strength keeps him the power, but his madness will collapse in on itself with his death. It is the only chance for a peaceful coexistence between the kingdoms of Megalith and Darkwater. King Darkwater must not live! So decrees King deManx XIII, with full support from the Council.

I will appoint the difficult task to you – our all’s safety lies in your hands. What this task – what I – demand from you is stealth and wisdom, not the rashness and boast you have come to like and show too much lately!”

All except Telluros had at least the dignity to blush and look away, and even Telluros wouldn’t meet his master’s eyes. Sir Astor continued.

“Here is what you will do…” – and he began to describe in detail the secret assassination plan that in a good week’s time would lead to Darkwater’s end, while the sound of thunder rolled over them in ever-decreasing intervals.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

For a long time Sir Astor had now stood at the side of Khronos’ bed, his veined right hand on the chest of his student, but his thoughts far away. The sun had risen to twice its height above the horizon in the meantime and orange light poured into Khronos’ billet from outside. It borrowed a warm tinge to the dispossessed gray walls and finally brought Sir Astor back to the present. It brought back, too, the dreadful decision he had made… A last time he watched his pupil, then he pressed Khronos down with his hand and started chanting in a whisper. All of a sudden, the light inside the Mystical Knight’s quarters faded into shadows.

“May the Sacred Kats forgive my actions…” – he thought as the spell neared its completion. Suddenly, Khronos grunted in a low voice. Sir Astor withdrew his hand immediately. His mien was a mask of consternation and confusion. That was the first sign of life Khronos had given in almost twenty days. Shortly after his grunt, the gray-furred warrior gasped out aloud. Then he quieted down once more. However, Sir Astor looked, dumbfounded, as the fur on the warrior’s bare chest stood on end with coldness. Soon enough, the resting kat started shivering slightly.

“Sacred Kats… This cannot be!” – Sir Astor mumbled in astonishment as he covered Khronos with the sheets and the woolen blanket. In a few minutes, not only the Chief Healer but all the other Mystical Knights, who only last night had come back from their successful covert mission, were there. Once more, the small room had to accommodate too many, and too animated, people.

“This is flummoxing! The sounds I’ve spoken of weeks ago are gone!” – the middle-aged physician stated with his ear glued to Khronos’ back – “He sounds like a normal healthy kat!” – the Healer straightened himself up and pierced Sir Astor with an inquisitorial gaze – “How did this happen?”

“I do not know! I simply stood here, watching over him when he grunted, followed close by a gasp.” – the aging tom explained. Suddenly, Khronos grunted aloud and his eyelids started shivering. Seconds later, he slowly opened his eyes.

“Sinister have been my dreams as of late.” – the gray-furred warrior muttered almost unintelligibly. He then groaned in pain as he slowly groped his forehead. – “Oh, my aching head…”

When Khronos finally recollected himself, he realized he was not alone. He looked to the inquisitorial faces of his comrades, his master and the Chief Healer, not grasping the reason for their presence in his quarters. Pyros finally broke the silence.

“Khronos? Are you well?”

“Apart from this terrible headache, I’m quite well! Seems like I’ve drunk too much of that wine with you, Telluros…” – Khronos answered. However, everyone was taken back one step, as though they had been burnt. Their faces bore a mixture of surprise and fear.

“What… What happened to your voice?” – Hydor questioned.

“What do you mean?” – the gray-furred rider asked back, cocking one eyebrow.

“Can’t you hear yourself?” – Eolos inquired – “You don’t sound like your old self… Your voice… It’s… it’s… changed.” – he finally managed to say aloud. The unspeakable thought, however, that was on his mind was – “his voice lost all its warmth… as though a chill had rooted in his throat…”

“What? Are you mad? And I thought I drank too much last night… You’re no better yourselves, I see!” – Khronos scoffed.

“Your comrades are correct, Khronos.” – Sir Astor intervened – “You sound different. More malicious, colder… I cannot describe it better. However, it suits you better as a warrior. A warm-voiced fighter does not inflict the same impact on the enemy as a cruel-voiced one.”

“But… I sense no difference in me…” – Khronos said.

“Khronos, can you remember anything that happened to you?” – Pyros asked.

“Well, like I said, I must have imbibed myself in spirits during the feast. Last I remember I was drinking a goblet of wine with you, Telluros. I was enjoying myself very much last night. I suppose being javelined at Bard’s Horn gave me the appetite for a good celebration. That’s all I can remember. Probably I got drunk and passed out, did I?”

“You don’t remember the invasion? Or the battle that ensued?” – “Eolos queried. The other kats present seconded Eolos’ questions. But, Khronos didn’t  remember anything. All the pain and suffering he endured that night had been erased from his mind.

“This is most peculiar…” – Telluros stated, puzzled.

“Not quite.” – the Chief Healer intervened – “There have been documented cases of loss of memory and sometimes madness arising from severe blows to the head. You told me he fell on his back at the end of the battle, right? He must have knocked his head against the floor then, causing this failure to recollect past events.”

“What about the change in his voice?” – Pyros questioned.

“I do believe the answer to that is quite obvious, is it not? My belief is that whatever was at work inside his chest caused his voice to change. Apparently, our young hero seems to have made Fortune smile to him. It’s not often that someone survives after getting wounded in war and then during a battle to save his king.” – The Chief Healer pointed out as he walked towards Khronos. The physician examined the gray-furred warrior thoroughly, resting his ear against Khronos chest and back once more to be assured that the sounds of liquid lodging inside his lungs were definitely a thing of the past.

“Well, Healer? What’s the verdict?” – Sir Astor queried, with a note of impatience in his voice.

“Our young tom seems to be well. I’d recommend one or two days of rest before getting him started in his trainings. Well, I believe I am no longer needed here. Good day to all!” – the Chief Healer said before leaving.

“The Chief Healer might be convinced the change in your voice was the result of whatever was gnawing inside your chest, and with that I have absolutely no problem, since I have a similar belief.” – Sir Astor stated after the departure of the royal physician – “However, not even he could say what it was that was affecting your lungs, Khronos. Aye, your voice changed, but not by natural reasons… It changed because of foul witchcraft…”

“Why do you say this?” – Khronos asked.

“Because we all saw what happened when you fought that mad jester. He put a spell on you. We all saw the green ray of energy leaving his hand and hitting you in the chest. The spell was so powerful the beam left you by your back.” – Hydor explained.

“And the magical overload the amulet let out over you didn’t help either…” – Sir Astor somberly thought as he reminded himself of the shattered talisman. He then addressed his pupils, as if completing his thoughts aloud – “And that is a good reason to follow the Chief Healer’s instructions. Come. We should let Khronos rest.”

“More than he did in these three weeks?” – Pyros commented in a jocose tone, which granted him some fulminating stares from both his comrades and his master – “I was being flippant, my friends!”

“With your permission, master, I would like to stay.” – Eolos asked.

“As long as only one of us stays and does not disturb Khronos, I give you permission, Eolos.” – the graying tom responded before heading out, followed by his students. Eolos respectfully bowed his head to his mentor before bringing the wooden stool near the window to Khronos’ side.

He waited in silence until the noises of the streets had swallowed his master’s footsteps. A smirk spread on his face.

“Actually, disturbing you is the only reason I’m here, my friend. Pyros wasn’t that wrong with what he said – you did miss out on those last three weeks. I guess you thirst for some news rather than for another round of sleep, am I not right?”

Khronos nodded. – “But first… I thirst for some water. My throat is on fire.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer more of that wine…” – He laughed as he saw the look on his friend’s face. – “No, I didn’t think so. Well, the king’s steward himself has been bringing a bucket of fresh water from the king’s private well each day. I’m sure there’s a full bucket in the antechamber. I’ll get you a cupful.”

Eolos left the room and Khronos raised his torso carefully. He had to digest all the new information. They said he’d slept for three whole weeks, but it couldn’t be, could it… That he’d been magically assaulted… Khronos felt his chest with his right hand. The still flaming red spear wound scar was larger than he remembered, but there were no rank smell or suppurating fluids. Nor had it reopened when he’d sat up. It was healing fine, just as it had before the feast… His voice had changed…? Again he felt his chest. Nothing seemed to be different…

“It is as I thought…” – Eolos’ voice flooded in from the next room – “There’s enough water in here to quench even a greedy donkey’s thirst. The steward would’ve done better to water the nearby vegetation with the surplus water. All the flowers inside and surrounding your house have wilted!”

But Khronos wasn’t listening. An unexpected terror had pulled him out of his reverie. If he had lain here for the last three weeks with the other Mystical Knights constantly standing watch over him, maybe they had discovered…

His eyes raced anxiously across the room, searching the spot where his most prized belongings lay hidden. What if they had found the watch…? Or… The…

“Here, my friend.” – Eolo’s slender form crossed his line of sight and that, more than the words, drew him back to the present. It took Khronos a moment to realize that Eolos had thrust something into his hand. He forced himself to look down.

The passed cup felt cold to the touch. The surface of the water within showed a distorted version of his emaciated face. Khronos took a small gulp. The liquid was pleasantly cool. He drained the whole cup.

“I’d better start giving you a rough sketch of what happened and let you sleep thereafter. It wouldn’t surprise me if Sir Astor still makes a visit later, to see whether or not I keep to his orders not to disturb you too much. I’m not keen on sweeping the Tower every day for the rest of my life… That is… if there’s no fine brawl or a noble maid won as compensation!

On the evening of the feast, we were attacked by…”

“WE?” – Khronos’ newly sprouted laugh got wedged in his throat – “You mean… the *whole* castle! How fares Queen Callista?” – he shouted panic-stricken. And after a pause in which Eolos eyed him silently, he added as a quieter afterthought – “And the king?”

“No harm has been done to His and Her Majesty. You stopped Darkwater’s traitor just in time before he could kill King deManx.”

“Darkwater…” – mumbled Khronos, trying to make sense of what he was hearing. Fate had played its bitter tune with him and, by making him forget about his part, robbed him of all soothing explanations for his actions.

“Yes, King Darkwater. His greedy schemes were his death, but…”

“He’s dead? When…?”

“BUT,” – Eolos continued undeterred – “you’re making me jump to the end too soon. It’s best to start at the beginning of the tale. Lie back and listen…”

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

Around the same time, inside the castle, the Arch Mage bowed before the queen.

“Our first training session in more than a month and you’re late. Sir Astor, this is highly unusual for you.” – she said with a faint smile.

“I’m afraid, milady, that I must leave you unusually early as well. I bear news for the king.”

“About Sir Khronos? Sir Astor, tell me, is there any news about the condition of our brave warrior?”

“There is indeed, and good news at that. Sir Khronos has finally awakened!”

“I must go see him at once” – the queen exclaimed, delighted.

“And I vehemently must object to that, my queen!”

Queen Callista’s angry look told him without words that he was on the brink of overstepping his boundaries.

Sir Astor continued, calmer but no less firm – “He is still weak and the assault has left its traces on him. His wound still isn’t fully healed, his voice will stay raw, changed by the damage the magic of the amulet has done to his body, and he has lost his memory of the attack altogether.”

The queen covered her mouth with a trembling hand.

“However, his strength is not the main reason why I object to your going. Sir Khronos doesn’t remember anything of what happened after the feast, including… this.”

From somewhere inside his robe he produced a golden chain. As he pulled it out completely, Queen Callista could see the heavy emerald stone that dangled at its end. Her eyes widened.

“The amulet!”

“My queen, as much as I wanted Khronos to wake up, it is a very fortunate circumstance that he can’t remember the amulet, or anything that happened between Your Highness, the jester and himself in the Tower…”

“Yes, how very convenient…” – spoke the queen bitterly.

“You are doing me most wrong, my queen…” – the Arch Mage said, and there must’ve been traces of his hurt in his voice, for Queen Callista’s stare softened – “This is not about denying Sir Khronos the public honor he deserves for saving our beloved queen from the attack in the Tower, as Your Highness knows well enough! This is about saving our kingdom from the dangers open words about your training would unleash. Your powers in the magics equal those of Sir Khronos, and the world hasn’t seen powers of his might in almost a century.”

“That’s not true!” – objected the queen – “Your powers are greater still than those of Sir Khronos, or mine!”

“Yes, but when the people watch me, they only see an aged kat whose time is nearly used up.” – He raised a hand to stop the queen from protesting to what they both knew was true – “But you, my noble queen, are young and strong, prudent and determined. Many would find in that a threat to their own schemes. Others would follow Emilio of Darkwater in sprouting a grudge against our kingdom…

It is our duty to protect Your Highness, as it is Your Highness’s duty to protect Megalith Kingdom. Until you are fully trained, words of your powers would endanger our realm, not strengthen it!”

The queen’s shoulders sagged as she relented – “The age now following Darkwater’s demise promises peace and prosperity. I wouldn’t be worthy to wear the crown if I risked my subjects’ good fortune for my personal desires.”

Sir Astor smiled – “Seldom has this crown ornamented a worthier head than yours. Wise you may be, and loyal and good, but it is the rare gift of understanding that raises you to a queen amongst queens. Milady, I only ask you to delay your meeting Sir Khronos until the day of your husband’s small celebration for his victory over King Darkwater. By then we will know more about Khronos’ condition. Nevertheless, my queen, I must ask you not to mention the Tower incident to Sir Khronos when you will see him!”

“I give you my word, Sir Astor!”

The Arch Mage beamed at her. He held out the hand with the amulet – “I realized this amulet is kept safer with you than it is kept in the Tower. Queen Callista, I’d like you to wear it all the time, in case you need its powers urgently. If you don’t use it, nobody – not even those perceptible to magic – will think it anything but an ordinary piece of jewelry. My queen…?”

He waited until she gave him a nod, then fastened the chain around her neck.

“Is this the amulet that was broken?” – the queen asked.

“The very same.”

“How…?”

“I think this matter is better left untouched…” – said the Arch Mage uncomfortably.

“And I think it is *not*!” – the queen replied. Her voice was steel once more – “Your words, Sir Astor: it is my duty to protect our kingdom. The matter of this amulet is part of that duty. You never explained where it came from, or how a simple jester could turn it into a weapon of hell. It was beyond any blacksmith’s capacity to mend and at this moment you’re telling me it’s whole again. Now is the time for answers. And I will have them!”

A minute passed in which both kats eyed each other in silence. Then the elder bowed again, lower than before.

“You are truly a queen amongst queens.” – he said, admiration and pride filling his voice – “My apologies, my queen. Of course you are entitled to knowing the nature of this magical item.

The amulet is my creation, its recent remaking of my doing as well. Both need a kat mighty in the magics who has mastered the difficult task of creating magic receptacles. I am the only wizard alive with that knowledge, a knowledge so dangerous that it will die with me.”

“Why do you keep saying that death will embrace you soon?” – queried the queen – “You are still…”

“Milady, I am old,” – the Arch Mage put it bluntly – “I might not look it, but I have already been blessed to live twice as long as the most kats. I can feel the advancing winter in my tired old bones, and for a long time now I have been feeling the approach of the cold season, more aggressive and intense each year. As I’ve been around ever since they can remember, people think I will be around forever, yet I know my time to depart has slowly come. Two or three more years, five if the Sacred Kats will grant them, then one of the younger knights will have to take my place. Telluros presumably.”

The queen looked shaken.

“Do not mourn, Queen Callista. I am not dead yet, nor do I fear the path that lies before me. But I can’t close myself from the truth either. My end is nigh, and there are many objectives I have to complete before the end – your training, for instance.”

Again a mantle of silence hung in the room, this time covering it with an air of grief. Finally the queen spoke up softly.

“You still haven’t explained the nature of those magical items, Sir Astor!”

Her resoluteness made the elder smile.

“Yes, my queen. They are vessels for magical energy. Their creator transfers some small or greater part of his powers into them during the process of creation. Thus, without the receptacle, the magician becomes weaker than he was before, but wearing it he can draw on the enclosed energy to magnify his powers many times beyond his initial limit. And as you know by your training, this works for the wearer even if he isn’t the creator of the receptacle.”

“But the jester is no Mystical Knight…”

“No, but not all kats sensitive to magic become Mystical Knights. Many can sense magic, but not actually wield it, or barely wield more than a spark of it. Such a kat is the jester. His powers were far too weak to enable him a life as a magic warrior. The amulet nullified his weakness. Therein lies the danger of a receptacle and that is the reason why I do not want the knowledge of how to create them spread.”

“Not even among the Mystical Knights?”

“Not even among ourselves, milady. Not only would it be disastrous if a receptacle fell into the wrong hands again, but also just Khronos, Telluros and maybe Eolos have the prowess needed to create them. I do not wish to stir up any enmity between my five protégés… No, my queen, Megalith City and the Mystical Knights will have to do without this dangerous wisdom in the future. And to tell the truth, if it weren’t for the severe need to complete your training in such a brief time span, I wouldn’t have restored this amulet either! The spell to create or re-create receptacles is the most difficult spell I’ve ever encountered, highly dangerous to the wielder, for in the worst case it can even burn him out.”

To Queen Callista the chain around her neck suddenly seemed to weigh ten times of what it had weighed before. She gulped surreptitiously – “I see. I will keep it safe, for the sake of our kingdom.”

“I am overjoyed to hear this, my queen. But, I must ask you not to use the amulet’s powers unless dire need demands it. It was safe to teach the mastering of a receptacle while my pupils were gone from the city. Now that they are back, Khronos and Telluros at least would feel it when someone draws on the powers stored in it, for they are the strongest in our midst, and thus the highest sensitive to magic. We will continue our training with the receptacle far outside the city grounds, where they won’t be able to feel the emanations, but whenever we have to confine to this room, secrecy demands that we restrain our sessions to channeling our inner powers.”

“I understand.”

The Arch Mage inclined his head elegantly – “And now, my queen, it is really time for me to report to your husband. With your permission I will return tomorrow at night, to resume today’s training.”

The queen nodded her consent.

“My queen…” – Sir Astor bowed one last time and made to go.

“Sir Astor…”

“Yes, my queen?”

“I highly appreciate your council!”

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

Night slowly crept forth outside the castle and with it came the frigid gusts of winter wind. It was around that hour that Sir Astor came to Khronos’ quarters to see how the young tom was doing. The aging kat found the room dark and no signs either of Eolos or any of his comrades. The heavy breathing of Khronos came to his ears, telling him his pupil was sound asleep. The Arch Mage smiled paternally in the dark before closing the door ever so slowly.

Not a moment had passed after Sir Astor’s departure when Khronos sat up and got off his bed. Dressing his winter cloak, made out of pure wool, he went to the window. He looked to the dark skies. Behind whispers of clouds he could still see the waning moon. A distant rumble of thunder rolled in the sky and the air was heavy, still, as though on the brink of a storm.

The gray-furred tom stepped away from the window and headed for the small table in front of his bed. With a single gesture, he lit both candles standing on top of it. A pallid red flare filled the darkness of his room, barely illuminating his studying table. Stacked up against one corner were a few old-looking tomes. He retrieved a book from the center of the stack and placed it between the candles. The book’s cover was in the color bordeaux, with only a fine golden string flanking the edges.

Khronos closed his eyes and began chanting in almost an inaudible tone. While he chanted, he drew a circle on the book’s cover with the palm of his hand. Inside the circle, he gestured a triangle and finally, inside the triangle he drew a vertical line from its summit down to the middle of its base. In the featureless cover the designs Khronos had gestured appeared with a golden glow as he withdrew his hand. Suddenly, the tome opened up and the pages turned wildly until the page where his last note was written appeared. Only then did he stop chanting and opened his eyes. He took the writing goose feather from its stand, dipped its nib into the writing fluid stored in a small metallic vial and started writing.

“There is a frenzy in my mind these days. According to my comrades, I stopped a deadly foe of His Highness King deManx. Yet, I retain no memory of these events. They say my voice changed as a result of a mystical attack from that same foe and yet again I sense no alteration in me.

Are they telling me the truth? Or is this a very well constructed plot? Did they discover something? Anything? Truth be told, I’ve been careless of late. Careless with my thoughts, my feelings… Sir Astor is cunning… Very cunning. So is Telluros.

But, for all their astuteness, I think I have one advantage… My possessions remain hidden well out of sight. I’m surprised the spell I cast upon them worked so well. Even Sir Astor didn’t seem to notice anything.

Sir Astor… My mentor… All I am I owe to him… I’ll make you proud of me, master. I have been studying a form of magecraft that hasn’t been seen upon these lands for centuries now. I believe I have finally decoded it: the art of producing magic receptacles.

But I’m trailing off. I saved the king’s life, they say… They say I am a hero and that I should be proud of myself… When I first became a Mystical Knight I made an oath of honor: that I would lay down my life for my king and serve him until death came to me or he relieved me of duty. There’s no greater honor than to defend and die for my king…

For my rival…

My king, my foe! My foe, my king! For the one that stands between me and the love of my life must be considered a foe! For a foe is the one who dared marrying that which pales the sun and makes the glorious golden skies hide behind clouds in shame.

Callista! My body, my heart, my soul longs for you, for the Queen of queens, for the one whose beauty is envied by, yet cannot be compared neither to, the sun, the skies, the seas and the flowers!

Oh, cruel fate, oh horrid destiny! To be so close and yet so far away… This love is never meant to be. She is my queen and I am only a knight in the service of my lord, the king… Her husband… I am caught in this foul crossroads …”

Khronos clenched his teeth and tightened the grip around the feather. His light handwriting suddenly turned heavy and bleak.

“My king! Callista is his but for an unfortunate mishap. She could have been mine! She SHOULD have been mine! It is an honor to die for my king, aye… But I would lay down all my nine lives, my body, my soul only for a single kiss from her…”

The gray-furred tom lightened the grip on the feather. He paused for a moment as if unsure of what to write next. He dipped the nib into the writing fluid once more. With a slightly trembling hand, he resumed his writing.

“The news Eolos transmitted to me earlier this morning carries a shred of hope, though… A mad jester, he said… Perhaps I can use him… Perhaps, if all goes well… It is a desperate ploy that needs maturing… Yet, I am a desperate tom. I despair for love, for her love…

I have the nagging feeling the room is getting darker… It does not seem the fault of the candles I lit though… For whatever the reason, it soothes me…”

He placed the feather in its stand and closed the book, repeating the same protective magic ritual as before, only backwards. That done, he went to the window, where he sat on the stool. From some inner pouch on his cloak, he produced a pipe and some smoke herbs. He ignited his pipe and sucked in a generous breath, exhaling the smoke dilatorily. Soon enough, he was sunk in his own thoughts.

Clouds wheeled overhead as a new storm approached from the North. The breeze turned into a freezing constant wind that ruffled Khronos’ hair. He reached for his pocket and retrieved a small round object. The gold of the casing felt warm to the touch and it glittered faintly at the wan light of the moon when it showed its face between the clouds. He looked at the artifact he’d been secretly tinkering with for months on end now. It was a hand-held replica of the giant clock fitted into Megalith City’s clock tower and a true work of art. Khronos was one of the few who mastered the fine art of building timepieces. However, instead of dedicating himself to build large clocks, like the one in the Tower, he had dedicated himself to building a hand-held miniature. For him it was the ultimate challenge; it was also his pride and joy. To his knowledge, no one to date had managed to miniaturize those beautiful clocks, except for him. He held it near to his chest, affectionately, closing his eyes.

He loved that watch almost as much as he loved his Queen.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

Morning came without a sun. The world was bathed in a gray shadow that mirrored the heavy rain clouds that hovered above the citadel of Megalith. A drowsy humdrum rain had started falling and remained for the rest of the day and night. Horns blared near the gates, announcing that it was time for the first shift of the guard.

It was this sound that awoke Khronos. He unwillingly sat up in his bed. His mind was a tourbillion of thoughts. Night hadn’t been as good an advisor as he’d hoped it would be. The determination he had built up over the last hours had been fueled by the darkness and was now a frail remembrance in the light of the early day.

Khronos sat in silence for long minutes, his stare lost in the distance. After that time, he blinked and his eyes acquired a steely glimmer.

“Get a hold on yourself, Khronos. There is no choice… There was never a choice!” – he said aloud – “Callista is waiting for you! Don’t pretend you don’t see the interest she deposits over you! She cried your name when you fell from your horse. She came here when you got speared… If you falter now, you’ll never succeed. Fulfill your destiny! Take Callista for your spouse and become the next sovereign of this kingdom! No one will dare to speak against you when you’re ordered king!”

The gray-furred tom finally got out of bed and washed his face on the bowl that lay on the ground. The contact with the refreshing fluid cleared his thoughts and shed any doubt still existing in his mind. He cleaned his fur and dressed his winter clothes, above which he dressed his hauberk, on which Sir Astor had cast a spell that considerably reduced the weight of the steel chain mail without, however, affecting its solidity. That done, he dressed a black jacket and fastened it around his chest with X-shaped leather straps. Above it all, he donned his purple cloak, putting on his hood.

He went for a small chest in one corner of his quarters. He opened it and, from the bottom, retrieved a very ancient-looking book. He stared at the book in his hands. The tome’s cover looked featureless and overall not worth the effort of looking at, but only so because of the spell Khronos had cast over it and which he now unwove. By pure chance he had discovered it, but it was his greatest finding ever! His eyes admired the true nature of that timeworn book. Its light-brown-leather cover had two darker stripes, one at the bottom and the other at the top. Between them there was a blue inclusion of tinted leather in the shape of an hourglass sown in the light brown leather. Nothing else ornamented the cover. He opened the book’s first page, where, written in a dark brown faded lettering, the title could be seen: “Tome of Time”. New courage coursing through his veins, Khronos closed it again, put it under his right arm and hid it with the cloak. After letting out a resigned sigh, he left his barrack.

Khronos made to the castle with unflagging steps. Yet, while his legs pressed forward, his mind raced back to the stunning revelation Eolos had made the  morning before.

“A mad jester, you say?” – Khronos had asked, suddenly interested.

“Indeed. It was the former jester to His Highness. It is, however, amazing how he could wield such a power.”

“Was he powerful?”

“Quite! Not even Sir Astor could do anything when he pointed that emerald at us, immobilizing us all.”

“An emerald, you say?” – Khronos had asked again, not even attempting to disguise his interest in the matter.

“Aye. It seemed as though the jester was drawing his power from it rather than from himself, like we do. A most glorious deed on your part, I might say, destroying that wicked stone!”

With the help of his findings in the Tome of Time, Khronos was able to draw his own conclusion. It meant what he had destroyed was a magic receptacle, that the jester had plied it and that, in order to do so, he must be able to wield magic to some extent. He obviously was an ‘abeyant’, a latent mage that could only work magic through a receptacle, neither a mundane kat nor a Mystical Knight.

In this fact lay the one shred of hope Khronos had only confided to his journal.

“Controlling the ‘abeyant’ should pose no problem. No problem at all…” – he mumbled under his breath just before the shadows of the castle walls swallowed him.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

His footsteps echoed slightly along the poorly illuminated, narrow, humid and moldy corridor, multiplying its sound many times until it seemed as though a horde of soldiers was marching down the hall. He stopped, wondering if his imagination was playing tricks on him. Looking back over his shoulder, Khronos saw nobody. A chill ran up his spine, like a foreboding warning. He pressed on further, resolved to go with his plan to the end, to *whatever* end…

He didn’t have to walk much further. The corridor was finally coming to an end and he could see the glimmering orange flare of oil lamps up ahead. He’d at long last reached the lowest level of dungeons, where the ones who would rather be forgotten were located. At first, he heard nothing, the early reverberation of his footsteps still loud in his ears. Then, he discerned something else as he drew nearer.

A slow and lugubrious dirge chanted in a melodious voice.

Khronos stepped into the small square in which the corridor branched off in two directions. To his right was a row of iron-barred niches. To his left ran one of the branching corridors; the other ran straight ahead from the point where Khronos stood. The wizard looked inside the first cell, from where the lament was coming. A decadent form on the cell’s cot was embracing its knees. The soft ring of the bells from his cap, together with the chanting and the setting made the scene altogether eerie.

Khronos remained there in silence, unable to neither act nor react. For his part, the jester also seemed unaware of the knight’s presence as he continued his dirge. Then, suddenly, the jester stopped singing. The eerie ringing of his cap’s bells still remained in the air a second later. Khronos blinked in surprise by the sudden silence.

The insane jester looked to the dark figure outlined by the dancing flare of the oil lamp behind and, for the first time, he looked scared and recoiled ever so slightly from the cloaked and hooded form that terribly resembled Death.

Then the jester’s eyes flared bright green for a moment, recognizing the kat in front of him.

“Is this all?” – the jester asked to no one in particular – “Is this all the witch could conjure?” – he snorted, finally addressing the knight – “Or is your coming of your own making? Are you seeking revenge for what I did to you…?”

Khronos removed his hood – “The past doesn’t concern me. What does concern me is the future… and the role you will have in it.”

“Crazy!” – the jester spat.

“Crazed you may be and yet I have reserved a part for you in this tale. Do you want to know how the tale will end?”

“I *so* yearn for it! A tale without an end is like a story without its middle, which is exactly where one can find your kind! A sty, you understand? Story – sty… Hahaha…”

“Insolent. Be careful, jester: you’re narrowing what little uses are still left to you at an astonishing rate. Nevertheless, I will tell you how this will end: before long, I will seize control of this realm by espousing the Queen but, to do that, I will have to remove something that constitutes a mutual obstacle, I believe. I speak of King deManx XIII. *You* will aid me in that task.”

“*You* are crazy! Why would I help you?”

“I take it you have no great affinity for His Highness… You’d be removing a large boulder from your path. Once I’m ordained king, your life won’t be forfeit any longer and you shall freely choose where and how to make your living. How does that sound to you?”

“Like you’re pulling my end-less legend! Hahaha… And yet…” – the jester closed his eyes and pondered for a few instants before responding – “What must I do?”

A smile spread on Khronos’ face. The jester was his.

“Only fulfill the vow that has made you turn traitor in the first place: kill deManx! And, I will grant you enough power to deal with that annoyance.” – The
jester’s eyes glowed brighter than before when he heard Khronos’ words.

Khronos thought hard, looking for the right thing. He needed something small from the jester, something that he could carry with him at all times. Then he looked at the jester’s head and a light shone in his eyes.

“But first… I’ll take this!” – Khronos’ snatched the cap from the fool’s head.

“Hey! What are you doing?” – the jester bawled although his face presented a mix between shock and confusion – “It won’t fit you! The colors don’t match! I… You wouldn’t like it! You don’t know where this has been… NOT FUNNY! GIVE IT BACK!”

“Be silent! I must concentrate on the spell!” – Khronos ordered as he opened the Tome of Time on the page where the centuried spell for creating magical receptacles was written – “Ah, here it is.”

“Wizards… You can never tell what they’ll do next…” – the jester mumbled as he squinted to try to see what was being done.

Khronos placed the fool’s cap on the floor and started chanting the spell in a voice that seemed guttural, grim and terrible to the jester’s ears. The flames dancing at the tip of the oil lamps died out until they became the size of a small candle’s flame. Khronos’ words reverberated throughout the maze of passages as his footsteps had done a few minutes earlier, turning the chanting into a whirlwind of fell voices. Khronos seemed to have grown in stature and his figure had become both grand and terrible as a storm in the ocean. The ground and the walls moaned and shook ever so slightly.

The jester recoiled to the innermost wall of his prison and hunched there, in the darkest and furthest corner. Somehow, Khronos’ clothes fluttered wildly as though he was surrounded by a terrible windstorm. However, the flames in the lamps refused to die out. The jester saw a barely noticeable vortex of dust and ash rise up to engulf the sorcerer and his cap. The spell neared its completion when an obfuscating flare surrounded the frame of the Mystical Knight.

A burst of green light shot away from the wizard’s body and rushed to hit the fool’s cap still lying on the floor. And so, the power transfer began. Khronos could feel his power being drawn from his body, leaving him weaker by the moment. Feeling enough of his power had been transferred down to the fool’s cap, he tried to end the spell. He did not anticipate what happened next, though.

It seemed the spell had a will of its own, that it would not be commanded – or stopped – as easily as it was unleashed. Khronos struggled with control. Only after great efforts and torturing pain did he manage to interrupt the flow of power and thus end the potent and quite unwieldy spell. He fell to his knees, wheezing and panting. The vortex that surrounded him vanished, the flames flared up, the room became brighter and the ground and the walls stopped moaning.

The jester awkwardly got out from his hiding place and went to the bars. With the gray-furred knight lost in some kind of shock, he didn’t miss his chance. He snatched his cap through the bars and swiftly reclaimed his prey.

“Not funny!” – he repeated in a growl directed at his visitor, groping his precious fool’s crown affectionately whilst searching for any spell-caused blemishes. When he found none, he put it back to where it belonged – on his head.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

His senses were lost in inebriated sleep; they came back gradually, and most reluctantly. Taste was first of all to return, and it announced itself in the form of a thick, sour aroma coating his tongue and palate. Together with the sharp smell that suddenly flooded his nostrils – a concoction of ale, wine and mead, overlaid with cold sweat – it made him feel slightly sick. His reviving vision didn’t do anything to stabilize his condition. On the contrary. Blurred and lagged, it rather enhanced the ill feeling. His ears resumed their work: some loud intelligible noise near to him was mixing with his own sluggish breathing. It was then that the pain set in, the combined input of all his senses cleaving his head in two as deftly as an axe. Telluros groaned despite himself.

The oldest of the five Mystical Knights and chosen successor of Sir Astor forced his eyes fully open and waited for his head to clear. Slowly, he realized that
the condition of his mind was only partly responsible for his foggy vision. There was more smoke hanging in the room than clouds in the sky on an overcast
day. What little he could make out in the room was distorted by its gray wafts. There were numerous wooden chairs, benches and tables and at the center of the wall to his left stood a huge bar made of black oak, many scars and some minor burnt spots showing its age. The whole floor seemed to be one giant pond of ale.

Finally it came back to Telluros where he was: in the Hard Hart inn. And, with him there should be…

He turned his head. As expected, he found the sleeping form of Sir Hydor next to him. His head on the table, his mouth wide open, the burly knight snored loud enough to wake the dead, unaware of the puddle of spit that had formed under his chin. Telluros shook him gently.

“Bugger off and leave me alone, wench!” – came the mumbled reply.

Telluros abandoned gentleness. He gave his friend a push hard enough to send him off the table. As Hydor had sat against the wall to have a better view of the room, his head merely slipped down onto the bench, but the soft thud that followed was enough to get his attention. Not to mention his curses…

“Filthy son of…”

Telluros let the litany wash over him – “If you’re finished with your greetings, see if you’re well enough to get up and going, Hydor!”

“‘Well enough’… Ha! As if you were a sturdy drinking companion! You’ll never drink anyone under the table if you keep to that watered wine, Telluros! A Mystical Knight should be able to cope with stronger brews. The time you take up an ale-drinking contest with me and remain the last kat standing I’ll kiss your hairy rear!” – and he straightened himself up with such an enviable velocity and ease that the stunned Telluros missed any chance for a suitable reply.

Hydor even dared to stand up, a task he performed as flawlessly as his constant grumbling. Now it was his turn to gaze at the room.

“Seems we beat all the others, though, huh?” – he commented the lack of any other customers.

Telluros had realized that, too, and the only explanation made him slightly anxious. The Hard Hart was the ‘noblest’ tavern in Megalith City. That is, its clientele was different from the other taverns. The latter were found in the outer bailey, and other than a rich selection of drinks they offered the weary traveler a place to stay. Those taverns drew commoners and foreign visitors alike. They entertained them, feed them and even took in those with fat enough purses. In short, they were open all day and all through the night.

The Hard Hart in comparison didn’t accommodate travelers. There were no rentable upper floor rooms in the Hard Hart for a nightly stay. It was the guards’ inn, the bourgeois’s inn. Sometimes even a minor noble could be found among the regulars, for they too felt the occasional need for drink and gambling and were dire to feed it as long as they didn’t have to leave the inner bailey to do so. Early in the morning, the innkeeper would close the place till evening and throw out the last, keg-bottom seeking customers – no matter their heritage. But, that didn’t hold true for the Mystical Knights… They were too respected – and Telluros guessed too feared – to be forced out.

So the innkeeper had not stirred them from their slumber but let them stay where they were, not daring to evoke their wrath.

“Pitiably weaklings!”

“Judging Hydor’s grouchy behavior, who could blame him?” – Telluros thought.

It was not the thought of being left here alone that filled him with dread, though. It was the dim morning light that infiltrated the room through the dirty, greasy windows that did so. It was morning already!

“We’ll be late!” – he groaned.

“So?” – answered Hydor rhetorically.

“So? So when Sir Astor rips my head off, at least it will lessen the pain.” – Telluros replied cynically.

Hydor’s chuckle barely covered his murmured “wimp”. Louder he added – “What’s done is done, so stop whining! Celebrating Khronos’ reawakening was your idea!”

Telluros was too wise to reply. They both knew that it had *not* been his idea. But, Hydor could be very persuasive sometimes, and after their respectful tavern abstinence while Khronos lay dying, he hadn’t needed much urging to convince Telluros to tag along. No, he wasn’t free of guilt here. Telluros sighed mutely. Trusting that his headache wasn’t even near its peak yet, he was already being punished for the lack of resolution he’d shown yesterday.

Nevertheless, there was no denying that the last night had been highly enjoyable. A month of self-restraint spiced up the experience of the tavern. The smells
had been sweeter than usual, the flavors much stronger, and Telluros had actually heard one or two new jokes over the hours, which was a first one. Moreover, people hadn’t slackened buying them drinks, either to hear of the feast invasion first-hand, or to congratulate them on their grand victory. Sensing liquid profits, Hydor had been more than willing to share their tale with the public. Telluros’s hangover was proof enough of that…

There had been other exciting news as well. Especially one well-told tale came back to Telluros’s dazed mind, one that directly related to the events during the feast …

“Hydor, do you remember that jester from last night?”

“What, are you mad? Lousy skills, no sense of humor, unashamedly hubristic… Of course I remember him! The folks he had under the table with his enactments must’ve drifted off into grateful unconsciousness!”

“Actually, the crowd hung at his lips…” – Telluros corrected him.

“Hah! If the mad old jester was even lousier, it’s no wonder he was replaced!”

“‘MadKat and his revenge.’ The tale will become a legend, I tell you! MadKat…” – Telluros mused – “A fitting name.”

Hydor snorted contemptuously – “MadKat won’t harm anybody anymore, unless he learns how to dry-fart people to death over the distance of a mile! We should break this pathetic story to Khronos before someone else does! He will have a good laugh.”

“Lead on then, Hydor, or one whole day of chores isn’t the end of our punishment!”

It happened in the same moment he made to rise: He received an invisible blow to his gut, yet it felt as solid as if someone had punched him for real. Telluros gasped and doubled over, losing his balance and falling butt-first onto the filthy wet floor.

“Can’t even stand two sips of mulled wine…” – Hydor complained, misjudging his friend’s fall – “I should get me some *real* drinking companion, like Pyros!”

Telluros let Hydor’s remark pass. Shock and fear dissolved any effects the long night of drinking had left on him. He jumped to his feet. He had felt that gut-blowing feeling before. Nearly one month ago… At the evening of the feast!

“HYDOR, QUICK! OUR KING AND QUEEN ARE IN MORTAL PERIL!”

He drew on his powers. Around where the locked door stood, the tavern’s loamy soil sagged in a circle of three meters. With nothing to support its weight, the whole construction was pulled down by the door’s pillars. When the door fell outward, Telluros was already jumping over it and vanishing into the rain outside.

Having not felt the magical force that had warned Telluros, Hydor stood still for a moment, trying to digest his friend’s words. Then he ran after him, a tetchy sigh coming from his lips.

“A knight’s duty shouldn’t have to begin before noon!”

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

The feeling was not altogether pleasant. It felt as if the cap was melting into his flesh and the skull beneath. His costume, too, seemed to take on life. It expanded all over his body and became his second skin. Although the jester couldn’t see his face, he knew that it was now colored in red and beige patches. Not so much as a curl of his auburn fur could be seen any longer.

He didn’t feel the pain. He laughed. Only *now* did he know what real power was. The witch queen’s amulet had been a child’s toy!

He leaned against the cell bars and, while he was looking down at the fallen knight before his feet, felt his body compress as if it was made of butter.
Soon, it fit the gap between two bars, and he simply slid through. He liked the feeling. Outside the cell, he turned on the spot and squeezed his head through
the bars again, stretching his neck as far as he could. It lengthened further and further. His head struck the wall in the furthest corner of the cell, and,
with a laugh, he withdrew again. No cell would hold him in the future!

“I didn’t exaggerate about the power I’d grant you, did I, jester?” – said Khronos. He stood up elegantly, but a wheeze was still in his voice.

“The name is MadKat, knight, but you can call me…” – he paused – “No! There is no second choice for you! MadKat you shall call me ere your end!”

His obedience and terror of before had only been show. It didn’t do to send someone away from the cell if he promised power and freedom, but now that he
had obtained what he wanted, revenge was all that was on MadKat’s mind. King, queen, knight and jester – they would all die before the day was out! And, the knight was already at his mercy before him!

“You aged me, you caged me, nothing now shall save thee! Ahahaha!”

He felt his newly gained powers flow into his fingertip, but then MadKat stopped himself.

It would be too easy.

The knight had destroyed his plans, had imprisoned him! He wanted to make him suffer like *he* had suffered! He wanted to make it last! Khronos should delude himself with the false hope that his plan was working. He would kill deManx; it was what he had wanted to do in the first place. But, directly thereafter, he would kill the queen! The she-kat the knight had just confessed he loved madly. And, only then – when the lines of shock and loss had etched their way into Khronos’ face – would he kill him. It was a fitting end for his foe, MadKat decided, and another laugh wormed its way up from his yellow-crimson chest and erupted.

“Ah, don’t you worry, my mischievous magician, you shall have your wish first. The king falsely abandoned and imprisoned me. And, a king can’t afford to have faults! Why, we should help to cut these defects out of his character! Literally… Ahahaha!”

His eyes gleamed again. In his new all-costume form this bright green looked – if possible – even eerier than it had ever before!

“MadKat will stage his verdict and make him feel guilty ere his end… The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king!”

He winked at Khronos and vanished in a puff of yellow smoke.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

Khronos regained his breath. The gray-furred tom stared into the empty space where MadKat had been only a second before, not fully grasping what had gone wrong with his spell. He’d done everything as it was supposed to be done. Why hadn’t he been able to control it?

His dark spell had drained him of more magic than he’d calculated, leaving him weaker in the magics than perhaps even Hydor, the weakest Mystical Knight in their midst. Khronos greatly felt the loss, like someone had cut a large piece of flesh from his ribs. Already he was scheming on how to get his powers back. He decided he would make another receptacle to reclaim his lost powers. All it needed was studying the Tome of Time further, and nothing would go wrong on his second try!

Anyway, what was done was done, and it had been worth it! MadKat’s powers were beyond anything Megalith City had ever seen. The ability to vanish in a sulfurous cloud even stunned the Mystical Knight. DeManx would stand no chance!

Once the king was dead, he would get rid of MadKat, too. He’d always intended to put away with the mad nuisance afterwards. His dark plots needed no confidant, and the profession of a jester brought a loose tongue with it. MadKat’s threat to kill him, too, came unexpected, but Khronos shrugged it off. Even with half his powers gone, he would easily crush MadKat in the dust drawing upon the collected wisdom of the Tome of Time. And, his killing the kat who murdered the king would be the final thing to drive his wife, Queen Callista, into his arms. Khronos smiled as he ran up the stairs to the castle. Things were working well!

All that was left for him to do now was to verify the efficiency of his assassin tool.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

A broad theater stage appeared out of nowhere in King deManx’s throne room, complete with a stool and a table on its floorboards. Two curtains fluttering wildly between three pillars formed its rear wall. If everything except for a few red stripes had the color of a sickly yellow, it was because the whole thing was de facto MadKat’s body, shaped to fit his vengeful desires. His head stuck out grizzly from the tabletop, mouth wide open in a leer. The liberties that companied his new powers came to him so naturally he had already forgotten how it was to have only one, nonflexible, form.

“I’m here to stage your trial, deManx!” – he announced, only to end with a frustrated roar. The glorious revenge plan he had formed in his head had turned out to have one significant flaw.

The throne room was empty!

What in times of King deManx’s presence was a heavily guarded room teeming with servants and glorying in politicking now only served to dissipate his echoing cry. The golden ornamented monstrosity that served as the king’s throne stood cold and empty on the marble dais.

Too bad! He would’ve liked to take on the guards in the room one at a piece, making *them* look the fools and give deManx a real fright before he took on the king.

MadKat prepared for jumping to another scenery, but his indecision whether to pick the king’s private rooms or the royal gardens was what massively changed the following events, yes indeed the fate of an entire kingdom. For in his pause he heard it: the unmistakable sound little bells made when shaken.

“Who’s playing hide and seek with me? Show yourself! I know you are here somewhere!”

The stage shaped back into the form of a costumed clown. MadKat walked around the huge block of marble on his silent new yellow soles. Behind the dais he found the cowering jester, the one that had visited him in his cell, the one that had taken his place. The one he had named…

“NEWT! What a pleasant shock to meet such an unpleasant shoat!”

Seeing another kat from his death list, another charlatan to be tried and found guilty, his crazed mind abandoned all well-laid plans. No more playing hide-and-seek! MadKat put King deManx down at the bottom of his revenge queue for the moment. Grabbing his successor by the scruff of his neck he pulled him up.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret, Newt: You made a big mistake to slight
me!

Too bad you won’t live long enough to spread the wisdom!”

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

Khronos didn’t know where MadKat had vanished to, but he scarcely wanted to miss the king’s execution, now did he? Surely not!

He ran up the stairs that led to the castle in record time. He had to be fast, had to be on time.

“I won’t be late!” – he told himself – “Time has ever been my ally!”

Only he didn’t know where to run to. Reaching the castle’s ground floor, he had to decide quickly. The throne room was as good a place to start looking for deManx as any other, so he continued in that direction, rightly assuming that MadKat had thought along the same lines.

Another record time and the corridor leading to the throne room reached its end. The absence of guards before the heavy double oak doors made Khronos’ soaring spirits plummet. The king wouldn’t be inside.

So, when he opened one door nevertheless, it was just to confirm his fears and to move on with the assurance of having checked. It came as a total surprise
to him when he saw MadKat inside. Khronos sneaked into the room and closed the door behind him silently, just in time to see a costumed kat being flung across the polished dark floor, leaving a long line along the way. Half a dozen similar lines on the floor and twice as many rips on MadKat’s victim’s costume showed that it wasn’t the first time the unfortunate jester had wiped the ground with his body. It seemed that MadKat was enjoying himself quite a bit.

The jester MadKat faced certainly regretted having woken up today! The enmity MadKat emitted was tangible and, to Khronos, palatable as well. He smiled from the shadowy corner he’d hidden himself in.

At least he’d see a little demonstration of his magical crony’s work.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

MadKat let his adversary recover for a moment. The sport was juicier if his victim deluded himself with the possibility of escape or a truce. But, moreover, he had stopped because he had felt another presence enter the room, a well-known presence… The Knight…

“How… you… get out…?” – spluttered the shaking form of Newt before him, failing abysmally at putting a befriending smile upon his face.

“‘How’… ‘Get out?’” – echoed MadKat in a high-pitched voice – “Is that all you have to say. ‘How’? Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chop-fallen?”

Newt’s only answer was a stutter. Then, with swiftness one could not expect from a trembling body, he darted away, aiming for the leftward side entrance. He might have outrun any other person, but MadKat simply laughed and vanished into thin air with a pop.

He reappeared in the doorway Newt was making to, his right arm shaped like a large peahen feather, nib faced outwards.

Newt’s momentum carried him right into MadKat’s arms. He screamed hoarsely as he felt the sharp thin end run through him.

MadKat roared with crazed laughter – “Impaled on your own sword, fool! Ahaha! The pen is indeed mightier than the sword!” – he withdrew his transformed hand, holding it up high before the jester’s face – “Red ink. Hahha…”

He remodeled his limb to its normal form. His lower arm was striped with blood, but his fingers and palm were all covered in it. What a glorious dark red color! Sweet revenge – how he loved it!

Newt seemed to have lost all wish for movement. He stood still and pale, needing all his strength not to sag on the spot.

Still laughing, MadKat used his hand to smear Newt’s blood all over his poor victim’s own face – “Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.”

Newt was unable to answer, but MadKat was enjoying the show even so. He watched the unpainted parts of Newt’s face become chalky. At long last Newt succumbed to gravity, falling limply to the floor.

“Not up to the job, eh?” – MadKat chuckled – “I guess I’ll have to do it on my own, then! Don’t run away, Newt, I’ll be back!”

He turned around and looked the hidden Khronos directly in the eye – “Queen Callista, it is time I expressed my deepest admiration to you!”

Another evil grin, another loud crack, and he was gone.

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” – Khronos’ anguished scream cut through the sound and lasted long after he, too, had rushed from the room.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

Queen Callista was alone in her chambers. At last. Chambermaids could be stubborn like mules when their working domain was concerned. The queen’s rooms looked tidy, clean and fantastic in every aspect, but it had been an impossible undertaking for Callista, even with her outstanding diplomatic talents, to get that particular point through to them and see them leaving.

“If her husband is rallying in the glory and nobleness of a boar hunt, a young queen should be at his side, attending him.” – the boldest had even dared to voice, just to get her out of the room – “Or use the given time to invite the noble ladies of the court to a private feast in the great banquet hall.”

They didn’t understand that at the moment nothing mattered so much to their queen than being left alone in her own chambers. No, it wasn’t loneliness that she sought, as again the daring chambermaid had argued, but rather the remoteness and familiarity of the place. Only in her locked private chamber could she study her magics further without chancing any unexpected disclosure.

Of course, this wasn’t an enterprise the Queen could have disclosed to her chambermaids (and certainly they would have considered something as trivial as studying magics or the safety of Megalith City a feeble excuse for refraining them from their cleaning duty anyhow). So in the end it hadn’t been Callista’s speech that had driven them away, but rather her near faint a few minutes ago. The chambermaids had left, suggesting their Queen should have a lie down, and that she should generally not overexert herself during her “blood days”.

Blood days… Callista had almost laughed, had it not spoiled the ready-made excuse to see them leaving. No, it must have been the heat of the argument that
had made the Queen’s knees weak and driven the color from her face, for by now she was feeling absolutely fine again, except for a slight prickling sensation
that hadn’t quite faded yet. But, that was nothing to stop her from doing what she was intending to do ever since her training session with Sir Astor.

When the elder had given her back the amulet the day before, she had realized how much Sir Astor risked and sacrificed for her. Creating a receptacle could
suck the magic out of its creator… And yet, he had not only risked the spell once but twice, each time transferring a small amount of his powers into the
amulet vessel. He parted with his skills so that his queen could blossom to the full.

Sir Astor’s self-sacrifice made her choke. He trusted in her powers and her wisdom more than she did herself. She would not disappoint him! And, she would
not be idle but use every single minute she could spare to exercise, secure and deepen his teachings and whatever she could learn through books on the side.

Of course, she couldn’t do that under the Arch Mage’s very nose, so she had to wait for any opportunity when he was distant enough not to sense her practicing. And, this morning, such an opportunity had presented itself to her. Her husband’s decision to organize a hunt had been a spontaneous one. A high noble from the Westlands, one of the King’s cousins, had turned up at the gates with his party late last evening, and he was known for loving a good hunting even more than her husband was. King deManx had only been too glad to show him his favorite hunting grounds. Always concerned with his liege’s welfare, Sir Astor had accompanied their small under-protected group, as had the Sirs Eolos and Pyros.

This evening, when their agreed meeting would take place and Sir Astor would educate her in the magics for the first time in a month, she would surprise him with her skills!

Queen Callista walked to her large wall mirror, a shining three-feet ellipse in a silver casing emblazoned with the deManx family crest. To anyone who would’ve glimpsed a moment, her image would’ve been breathtaking. Yet Callista merely watched the amulet, a jade butterfly on the pink field that was her finely-cut dress. Then she closed her eyes. She would not use the amulet’s powers, she had promised Sir Astor that, but there were enough spells that didn’t need the extra power to be cast, spells not even Sir Telluros or Sir Khronos would detect when she used them. She decided she would start with something simple – masking her mirror image.

She was clearing her mind for the spell when some magical disturbance broke her concentration. With a loud noise, a kat materialized in her room behind her, his costumed reflection in the mirror making her jump. Queen Callista caught herself soon enough, though. A queen *never* jumped!

Outwardly not showing a trace of the shock she was feeling inside, she calmly turned around.

“Queen Callista. The queen who lets her subjects rot!” – her invader bowed mockingly lowly – “MadKat’s time of revenge has come! Are there any last scornful words you’d like to bestow on me?”

Her heart hammered in her ears and the prickling sensation she felt had become a coat of life ants biting away at her skin. Only hours before, Sir Astor had
warned her that those open to the magics might sense a receptacle whilst in use. Now she knew why. The cap upon the fool’s head was a receptacle, and its
wearer was using it without relent. The power emanating from it was so mighty that Callista feared its sheer resonance would sweep her away any second. The
amulet around her neck couldn’t save her; that she knew with the certainty of the doomed. Before she’d be able to as much as draw upon its powers, the escaped jester would’ve stomped her out like a moth.

Her only hope lay in stalling. If she could stay alive long enough, maybe there was a chance of escape or of coming aid. A slim hope, but better to build on a slim hope than to shovel a wide grave!

“MadKat, you say? I thought that was the name sung in the taverns to mock you. You’re a fool to adopt it!”

“But, I *am* a fool! Ahahha… But, again, you err in your judgment, my ghastly queen. It’s a great name! One I want to live up to. You see…” – he smiled maniacally – “…madness just brings out the best in us!”

“Where is my husband?”

It was not a question she had wanted to ask. It made her vulnerable – always bad in negotiations. But, she was at a loss for words, and the unknown fate
of her beloved was an ever-growing lump in her throat.

“What have you done to him, MadKat?”

“Nothing. Yet! Hahaha!” – MadKat laughed over his own bad joke – “I suspected him in the gardens, with you at his side. I wish it had been so, for I’m *dying* to meet him as well!”

His face became hard in an instant – “Tell me where he is!”

Nobody was coming. Her chances were dwindling away…

“I just asked you where my husband is. Even a fool should know then that I do not know of his whereabouts!”

“Wicked witch!” – he snarled. Now he was really enraged; Callista could see spit flying from the side of his mouth – “A queen does not lie to her subjects!”

Desperate, Callista tried to use his rage against him. She reached out for the power stored in the amulet…

MadKat’s right arm stretched and grew. Before the queen knew it, a gigantic fist stretched out to meet her, and she was slammed into the mirror. Her head
met its surface. She heard the sound of breaking glass. Pain crept into her skull. Lights faded…

“Don’t try your weak tricks on me!”

MadKat’s voice became more distant somehow.

“And your husband… Your silence doesn’t matter. I will find him! Soon you will meet him again. In death!”

Callista knew she was slipping out of consciousness. She slipped into darkness with a last illusion imprinted on her mind: that of her door being slammed open.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HER, YOU WHORESON?”

“Sir Khronos…” – MadKat cackled, his face drawn in a caricature of puzzlement – “Now why does this seem familiar?”

It should’ve been clear to the knight what he meant. Khronos storming in on MadKat with the queen out cold in the corner of the room was an eerie reenactment of their first meeting in the Tower on the evening of the feast. But, of course, Khronos didn’t remember that, and the quip missed its mark. Instead, Khronos thought MadKat was referring to their former meeting in the dungeon. The flippant remark about his deliberate ‘betrayal’ made his blood boil.

His secret love lay on the ground as if…

“You will pay dearly for this, MadKat! Time is mine to master // Through ages it flies // You will wither and alter // Until your existence it nullifies!”

The aging spell didn’t come to him as easily as it used to. The fast run from the dungeon to the queen’s chambers via the throne room had exhausted him, and, apparently, it was harder to conjure with only one half of his former powers. As a result the purple ray that flew from his fingers was thinner than usual.
MadKat had no problems teleporting himself out of harm’s way.

Now it was his chance to charge. His head formed into a hammer that smote the knight frontally. The cloaked kat slammed against the wall, and the Tome of
Time flew out from under his purple garment. Dazed but otherwise unhurt, Khronos landed on his stomach next to it.

“Good night my knight! Ahahah!”

The remark was a mistake, and it cost MadKat the opportunity to finish Khronos off. For during the pause the knight recovered enough to clear his eyes. The
Tome of Time lay at his side. The sight gave him strength.

He combed through his memories for a spell that would aid him against such a potent foe. Finally, he came up with one: the Sphere of Contraction. He remembered the day he had read about it in the Tome for the first time: a month and twelve days before the autumn equinox. Khronos could remember every spell by that criterion; dates and times came to him naturally.

He pressed his hand onto the cover of the tome, the precise date and the precise situation firm in his mind. A wind seemed to hit the book from the side as soon as he withdrew his hand. The book opened and the pages were lifted by an invisible tide. When the effect ebbed away a second later, Khronos stared at the opened page. It was the one he had sought. With a quick chanting he cast the spell written on it.

For a moment the room was filled with fog so thick one couldn’t see the hand before one’s eyes. The fog soon started to swirl, though, and it was drawn towards MadKat as if by a magnet. It formed a semi-transparent sphere around the fool, ten feet in diameter and tightening further.

MadKat used his smoke cloud trick to disappear again, reappearing on the other side of the room. To his horror he realized that the sphere had transported with him! He jumped a second time and again the sphere followed. Something fairly close to panic now showed on his face.

“What is this new devilry?” – he shouted, his voice rising involuntarily at the last syllable. His new prison had contracted again. Now he could barely stand upright inside the foggy sphere.

Khronos didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer! The spell had to be maintained, and it cost him all his strength to do so. He could feel MadKat’s struggling.
It ripped at his weave with his every heartbeat. If MadKat pounded against it long enough, Khronos knew his strength would falter and then the mad jester
would break free. There was no way he would be able to squeeze MadKat to the size of a horse’s head inside, which was what he had intended prior to his chanting. Well rested, he might’ve been able to press him into a bloody pulp but under these circumstances…

He had to bluff!

Summoning his last reserves, he tightened the sphere’s radius again – “Greet the Kats Beneath for me, MadKat!”

MadKat was forced into a crouching position, now clearly terror-stricken. He used his teleportation spell again and again, vainly trying to get rid of the
foggy trap. But, however often he was materializing in every single corner of the queen’s quarters, he couldn’t shake off the spell; it was just teleported
with him every time did. The Sphere of Contraction was cast upon a person, not upon a place.

In his fright MadKat did exactly what Khronos had hoped for: he fled. Cursing the knight mutely, he vanished in a yellow cloud. The imprisoning sphere vanished with him.

Through the magic link Khronos could feel MadKat rematerialize miles away from the castle, in an uninhabited hurst far to the north. Then the link broke. The spell, in addition to having to be maintained over a longer period, was the more difficult the more distance lay between the wielder and his target.

His shoulders sagged. Khronos leaned panting against the wall.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

MadKat’s shoulders sagged. He leaned panting against a withered tree stump. If the knight knew how much strength it had cost him to stop the sphere from squeezing the brains out of him, he would never have let him escape, he was sure of that.

It made him hate Khronos even stronger. He would return and pay him back for the humiliation he had given him before the unconscious queen!

The queen…

Yes, maybe he would unveil the knight’s little secret, too! That would be fun…

Against his own will, MadKat’s chin fell to his chest.

But first, he needed a break…

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

“Sacred Kats!”

The wounded jester lay in a large puddle of his own blood. Telluros knelt down beside the tom and lifted his head onto his lap. A quick scan told him the poor soul was beyond hope. He had the skin of a ghost and his eyes were already dimming.

In a last effort, the dying kat grabbed Telluros’s hand and pulled him down with a death-grip.

“MadKat…” – he whispered into the Mystical Knight’s ear, the last breath that should ever leave his body. He was dead.

“May the Sacred Kats have mercy on your soul!”

There would be a time for proper mourning, but it wasn’t now, Telluros knew. They could afford no delay! Unaware that their king was hunting outside the city grounds, Telluros raked his brains for every place in the city King deManx might be at such a time.

“MadKat is back! Quick, Hydor, we must find and protect the royal couple! You search first the gardens and then the private chapel and the royal wine cellar. I’ll take their private quarters, the halls and the royal stable. Pray we’re not too late! MOVE!”

Telluros stood up. Blood had soaked up into his gown, dyeing everything from his knees downwards a rusty red.

“Let’s hope no more blood will stain our soil today” – were his words before he started running.

“Of course *I* have been given the longest route!” – was Hydor’s remark upon his departure.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

Tears were falling freely down his gray facial fur, only to be greedily sucked in by the purple cloth of his hood. His plan had failed. It had destroyed the one true gem in his life. Khronos couldn’t bear the pain. It brought him to his knees after but two steps and he so crept onwards to his beloved queen, to hold her in his arms for the first and tragically last time.

The queen lay lifelessly in a shower of glass below her mirror. Dark blood had matted her waist-long hair. How virtuous she looked, how innocent, how mighty and yet how frail… How could blood dare blemish an angel! If only he could bring back the past to save her…

Trembling hands traced a jawbone, caressed a rouged cheek and pulled splinters of glass from her golden strands. She felt so warm…

Suddenly she stirred.

“Callista! You live!”

Formalities were forgotten as joy as he had never known surged through his body. Khronos brushed her lips with his, longing for the moment to last. For once, time was a thief, though, as it was gone too soon.

Khronos forced his body to rise, never taking his eyes off of his secret love. Queen Callista was slowly returning to consciousness, but sleep had a claim over her yet. All would be gone when she awoke…

In that moment Khronos knew that he would do anything to possess her for eternity. The future he dreamed of could still come to pass! If MadKat revealed his dark secret, however, this future was nil. Khronos’ decision was made!

“My queen, I promise I won’t return to you until MadKat has been made pay in the only currency he understands: in blood.”

His body yearned for rest as much as his mind craved her embrace, but the task of MadKat’s removal didn’t tolerate any deferral. Pleasant sleep he would find after the deed was done, not before! Fighting off his urge to touch her again, Khronos turned, picked up the Tome of Time and left the queen’s chambers without looking back.

When Telluros reached the room five minutes later under the eyes of a stirring queen, a riding Khronos was just passing under the city gates and vanishing into the uncertainty ahead.

—————S———-W———-A———-T—————K———-a———-t———-s———-

Of one thing Khronos was sure as he galloped away from Megalith Castle: the jester was making use of his cap. The Mystical Knight was magnetically drawn to the insane jester. Just like Queen Callista sensed the reverberations of magic radiating from MadKat’s cap, so did Khronos feel the same emanations, although at a higher level due to the dwindling distance separating both toms. He spurred the flanks of his steed and rode harder despite the continuous curtain of rain. The air around him was cold and mist blew out from his mouth, as well as from his mount’s nostrils.

Inhospitable as it was, the rainy, bitter weather had one effect on him for which Khronos was thoroughly thankful: it was reviving his senses and restoring
the strength that the spell of MadKat’s creation and the Sphere of Contraction had sapped him of. It had seemed impossible to Khronos before, but now he felt that when he’d meet the mad jester, he would be able to rely on his full magical powers once more. And, for this miserable traitor, no less than the full blast of his wrath seemed satisfactory…

Soon enough, Khronos reached the foggy margins of the fast-paced river that ran from west to east and, together with the cliff it’d been carving for centuries, formed the northern boundary of Megalith City’s domains. Galloping over the stone bridge the city’s craftsmen had erected, he quickly left the liquid line behind and penetrated a narrow region populated by dry bushes and thorny plants, the beginning of the forest that lay behind. Kingswood was how this dense plot of arboreal vegetation was known. It was a long strip of densely grown pines but not very wide – only about five miles at its widest point.

When Khronos entered Kingswood, the rain stopped bothering him so much. Instead, something more troublesome than water interposed in his way. It was said a rider couldn’t gallop through a dense forest like Kingswood. However, either by magical arts or simply by great skill, the trees presented little hindrance to his march. He zigzagged through the forest for a long time, always climbing up the hill it covered. Then, the trees became more disperse and, finally, the Mystical Knight broke out from the tangle of trees into a dipping clearing of bare gray rock, which bore a flat top that stood above the tree line.

“Tor Drabtop…” – Khronos whispered as he looked from one side to the other – “He’s near…”

Spurring the sides of his mount, Khronos proceeded to the top of the clearing at a slow pace. Soon, he reached the flat summit of Tor Drabtop and looked around, over the dull green downhill. It was a desolate sight in such weather. The curtains of light rain drowned almost all the scenic beauty of that region, and nothing but a gray veil could be seen. Only the closest trees were visible.

“It’s a dreadful scenario for a battle… – “Khronos thought as he dismounted – “The misty surroundings play favorably to a surprise attack.”

Khronos’ steed neighed and kicked out suddenly. The gray-furred warrior patted the restless horse’s neck as he soothed him with words. – “Easy, Trouncer. Easy. You can feel him too, can’t you? Relax. You’re safe here, with me.”

Khronos took off his hood and looked around, inspecting his surroundings. He tensed his muscles in anticipation. Nothing suspicious was on his eye or hearing range, though. However, beyond his common senses, Khronos could feel the emanations coming from the receptacle *he* created. They were pulsing fiercely now. There was no mistaking: MadKat was there! Unexpectedly, as if on cue, Khronos heard the eerie ring of small bells… Like the ones sown into a jester’s cap.

The Mystical Knight drew steel, a sharp quick metallic sound echoing against the ring of trees and losing itself in the hum-drumming rain. Large droplets of sweat mixed with rainwater rolled down Khronos’ face, dripping from his nose and jowl. He looked around anxiously, his sword pointing heavenwards in front of him, all his senses heightened. Then he heard it again. He spun around, only to face the gray emptiness. He bared his teeth.

“WHERE ARE THOU?” – he bellowed in a strong, threatening voice – “SHOW THYSELF!”

For what seemed like eternity there was no reply to his challenge. Then, in a soft scornful tone, no louder than the softest breeze, Khronos heard a word.

“Fear…”

“What…?”

“Fear…” – came the voice again, more harsh and defiant this time. Khronos turned around sharply, trying to locate his foe, but, before he could shout another
challenge, the voice became a cackle.

“Fear *me*!” – it spat. The next moment a red and beige tentacle that appeared to have been embedded under the rock became alive, releasing itself from the stone as a destructive coil that pulverized everything in its path, coming directly towards Khronos. The gray-furred warrior barely had any time to jump away from the waving tentacle before it blasted the rock where he’d stood only moments ago.

Khronos rolled on the wet ground and watched as the tentacle freed itself, leaving an irregular furrow on the solid stone. To his dismay, he saw the red and beige projection turn around and come rushing to the spot where he was lying. He made a quick roll to the left and thus avoided the strange tentacle that javelined the hilltop in his stead.

The Mystical Knight quickly regained his footing and his composure. He watched as the tentacle recoiled completely before acquiring the shape of an arm. Then, stepping from behind a large pine tree, MadKat revealed himself wearing a wide maniacal grin on his face.

“Quite impressive!” – MadKat cooed – “For a knight you jump very well. You should have considered becoming a clown instead, he, he!”

“We had a deal!” – Khronos shouted – “You could have been wealthy and free when all came to an end. Why did you betray me?” – he asked, barely containing his fury. A chill, however, ran up his spine when he heard MadKat’s shrill laugh.

“Oh, please! It takes more than a fool to fool a fool! I am your fool, your tool, and your stool to inherit the kingly rule! Why, you’ll spin your dreams of greatness on my back! And afterwards…? I am a spool of threat to you!” – he had to interrupt his speech, for a cackle wound itself up from his chest – “I may be a fool but I am *not* stupid, my dear Sir Mule! Once I had fulfilled my play, you’d have ushered me off the stage straight away! After all, he who knows the truth can hardly live to *tell* the truth, right?” – he concluded.

“Then you have willingly chosen obliteration…” – Khronos coldly stated as he pointed his sword towards MadKat.

“Oh… I’m so scared!” – MadKat retorted mockingly. His lips broke apart in a maniacal sneer – “But I daresay I can *snake* my way out of this…” – he said in a gleeful tone as a green surge of bright green light flared up his eyes. Withdrawing his arms completely into his torso, he then flung forward several tentacle-like projections towards the Mystical Knight.

Khronos had only time to jump aside in order to avoid the first tentacle, which splintered everything where he’d stood into a thousand shards. His composure regained, he swung his blade in a wide arc that met the following two incoming projections. Red and beige pieces fell lifelessly on the outcrop. Hurriedly, Khronos flipped backward and rolled on the ground, thus evading the five following flexible javelins that, in his lieu, only punctured and speared the gray rock of Tor Drabtop.

The Knight quickly came to his feet and ran along the rim of the clearing as fast as he could, avoiding the seven subsequent blows. When he passed in front of his horse, the two tentacles that missed him embraced the animal around the mid-zone and lifted it up, squeezing the steed’s abdomen so much they cleft the animal in two. A sharp neigh of agony echoed before the animal met his demise in a burst of red.

“TROUNCER!” – Khronos bellowed before he whispered – “My faithful Trouncer…” – His eyes acquired a steely gleam as Khronos now ran towards MadKat, zigzagging and evading the other onslaughts that missed him by the skin of his teeth. When he was at a wolf’s leap from MadKat, he jumped into the air. With that, he avoided two snake-like projections that dug deep into the rock, creating a small cloud of dust and stone shards as Khronos leapt over them. The Mystical Knight swung his sword into position only a breath’s time span before he hurled it against the jester’s chest with a desperate shout.

The sword dashed through the humid air as it sang a metallic song of death. MadKat saw as the tip of the projectile hurtled towards him. He sent out even more snaking tentacles towards both Khronos and the incoming steel. As though it was guided, the sword miraculously passed through the barrage and MadKat watched as it spiked his chest, buried itself to the hilt in him and punctured him from side to side.

A smile appeared on Khronos’ lips. However, it was promptly replaced by a grimace of pain as finally one projection managed to hit him in his shoulder, stabbing and throwing him back to the ground. The tentacle recoiled and left a bleeding wound behind. Khronos covered his injured shoulder with his hand and raised his torso to get a glimpse at MadKat.

The jester was still standing with Khronos’ sword perforating his chest and protruding from the middle of his back. The smile returned to Khronos’ face,
and he stumbled up to his feet. He walked to MadKat.

“A sting can still kill a scorpion.” – Khronos said. MadKat had his head down towards his chest. The Knight couldn’t get a good vision of the jester’s face. It was only when MadKat heaved up his head a little that Khronos saw the wide grin on MadKat’s face. The warrior froze.

“Apparently you don’t know my sign.” – the jester said – “I’m a Ram!”

Without warning, MadKat’s upper torso transformed into a battering ram that smote Khronos frontally. The impact lifted the Mystical Knight from his feet and hurled him across the bleak peak of Tor Drabtop. He landed hard on his back in the very center of the clearing. Despite the immense pain flooding him, the pain that stabbed Khronos most was the feeling of something little slipping out of his robes, disappearing on the cold rock behind him. A leathery, unremarkably looking tome…

MadKat clutched the hilt of Khronos’ sword and yanked it out of his chest, holding it high in the air. Precisely then, a thunderbolt left the clouds and crisscrossed the sky behind the jester, outlining his dark silhouette in bright blue light. It started raining harder then.

“What an unexpected boon…” – MadKat said amid the fits of insane laughter. – “Neither sticks nor stones… not even blades can break my bones… Can you say the same for you, knight? Here! Have your steel back!”

The jester lowered Khronos’ sword to his eye level and twisted his torso several times before he unwound himself, letting go of the weapon. Propelled by the momentum from MadKat’s uncoiling, the sword headed back towards its owner with deadly speed. Khronos didn’t have time to react. He just saw his sword dashing towards his face. He still leaned his head to the right and, with that, he managed to escape the tip and body of his blade. However, the hilt hit him with full strength.

The impact was so brutal it slammed his head hard to the left. Khronos’ entire bulk wavered, and he fell again on the wet rock. The sword still flew for a
few yards over the hillcrest before it finally disappeared in the dark. It hit the stem of some distant tree with a prominent thud. Khronos scrambled to all
fours as he covered his face with his left hand and howled in pain.

MadKat smiled as he noticed the flood of blood that snaked through the fingers of his opponent’s hand and trickled to the floor, sprinkling the ground with scarlet tears that matched the crimson patches of the insane buffoon’s skin.

“King, queen, jester and knight… The four are on my mind, but the knight is on his fours… Ha, ha, ha! Oh, sweetest of sights, only outmatched by that of the pheasant king’s demise…” – MadKat gloated as he approached the fallen knight.

Khronos was dumfounded. Never since Bard’s Horn had he felt that way. He wasn’t accustomed to be beaten by anyone. Not even Telluros, who he dubbed the most powerful Mystical Knight of all, with the exception of Sir Astor, had beaten him like this clown did. How could this bloodthirsty maniac cheat death in such strange a manner?

“I didn’t even touch him! He touched me twice! And now, he touched my face! My beautiful face! I’ll be scarred forever!” – he selfishly thought before something strong wrapped around his neck and lifted him up in the air. Khronos fought to regain his freedom but to no avail. MadKat brought the Mystical Knight close to him, their noses almost touching.

“A sorcerer you thus claim yourself?” – he spat on Khronos face – “Why do you think Sir Astor is still teaching you? You Mystical Knights are nothing but dumb apprentices! Apparently, you didn’t know exactly what you were doing when you were creating me. My thanks! Your stupidity and immaturity have given me the means to finally achieve my revenge on those who mocked and imprisoned me.”

MadKat tightened the noose around Khronos’ throat, making the knight gasp for air. Khronos struggled as hard as he could, but the grip would not yield. He
could feel the gobs of blood pulsing from the hole in his eye under the pressure. Khronos didn’t know it yet, but he would never see again from his left eye,
which would become an empty socket for the rest of his life.

“You’ve granted me my direst wish. Now I’ll grant you yours! I’ll match you with the queen!” – MadKat chuckled – “For she shall soon share your fate!

Good night, good knight.”

The noose tightened another few inches, and the pressure became unbearable. Flecks danced before Khronos’ vision while darkness was lurking at its sides,
waiting for the opportunity to cover everything under its mantle. Only MadKat’s mentioning of his beloved Callista kept the Mystical Knight struggling at all.
Guided by chance rather than by planned action, he tore his hand through MadKat’s face. But just like MadKat’s body was immune to a sword, his head didn’t take any harm from the scratching. MadKat laughed in his face at the feeble attempt. Then two of Khronos’ clawed fingers scraped one of the fool’s cap’s bells and tore it off. It rolled away with a tinkle. A pitching scream told Khronos that he had achieved a hit.

Suddenly, he felt like being flung through the air. He looked down and saw the bare rock rushing towards him until it hit him in the back with full force. The gray-furred tom yelped as his back hit the stone, gasping some gobs of red saliva in the process. The Mystical Knight quickly scrambled to all fours, struggling to keep his remaining eye on the convulsing jester. He unsteadily tried to get up when he felt a small form pressing into his stomach. He had landed on his tome!

“Not funny!” – growled MadKat, infuriated. His seizure had ended and he was advancing on Khronos again, his eyes flashing a brilliant green.

“Very well, Khronos…” – the gray-furred warrior thought – “Your knightly tricks had failed you… Time to resort to the only idiom this fiend understands… Raw power!”

“So I’m an apprentice, buffoon?” – he growled loud enough to be heard – “Let me tell you that this apprentice still has some tricks up his sleeve.”

He strained to rise, the Tome of Time clutched firmly in his hand. When MadKat saw the tome that had created him, he became frightened.

“That book again! I cannot let him use it on me! Its spells might pluck off the powers it has feathered me with in the first place. And likely, it might
do much worse…” – he was still thinking about this when he jumped into the air, covering the distance between him and Khronos.

Khronos pressed his hand against the cover of the book as he thought of the date and spell he required. The book opened suddenly and the pages revolved
wildly as though a sudden gust of wind had hit them. When it finally stopped at the page he intended, he pointed the Tome of Time to the incoming jester
and screamed the spell written on that page.

Suddenly, a torrent of raw purple energy left the book. The beam was so powerful that the drops of rainwater were diverted from their path and a clearing in the continuous roof of clouds appeared right above Khronos’ head. Khronos’ cloak wavered wildly as though blown by strong winds. Even the nearest pine trees’ branches were bending because of the discharge. The beam hit MadKat dead center, stopping his trajectory in mid-air and enveloping the insane jester in a cloud of purple energy that began to restrict the jester’s movements. Khronos held the book high towards MadKat, continuing the attack.

MadKat tried to transport himself to another location but, unlike the spell Khronos had used on him in Queen Callista’s quarters, this hex didn’t even allow
him to succeed in this trick. If MadKat was frightened then, he almost panicked now. That was the difference between him and Khronos. Their mystic powers were matched, but Khronos never lost his serenity during a battle.

“NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” – the jester shouted in despair.

“I’m correcting my mistake. If I can’t destroy you, then I must take you to a place from where there is no escape.” – Khronos announced in a terrible and icy voice.

“NO! I WILL NOT ALLOW YOU!” – MadKat screamed in rage.

He drew on his powers. Panic and fury let him lose all inhibitions, and the force he created was colossal. MadKat directed his whole might at his opponent,
and as if the knight’s spell was a fine thread, he could feel his counter-spell travel along its weave towards Khronos. It finally reached the knight, where
it slashed at his chant like an invisible sword, even drilled into his mind. MadKat could see pictures of Khronos’ life in his own head.

Khronos experienced the same. The collected flood of MadKat’s insanity bore into his brain, shattering his spell. His thoughts cartwheeled – “What? Is he that powerful?” – He was shocked!

MadKat could see Khronos’ advantage was wavering. The spell that was still constricting the mad jester was on the threshold of collapse. – “NOT SO CONFIDENT NOW, HUH, KNIGHT? WHEN I GET OUT OF HERE I’LL CHOP YOU IN TWO LIKE I DID TO YOUR HORSE!”

“I will *not* let an imbecile like you outmatch me!” – Khronos retorted before he chanted the spell for a second time. The energy beam intensified as a new
wave of purple energy left the book and hit the jester. Storm winds flogged the barren plateau and tore some branches off the nearest trees. The clearing
of yellow sky hanging above Khronos’ head enlarged, and the rain stopped falling. Khronos kept chanting until he felt he was on the brink of his strength and
sanity. Still, MadKat was resisting the spell, fiddling in his mind.

“Come on, Khronos! Just one last effort! He’s finished!” – he thought as he kept chanting with increasing fervor, the pain of his wounds long forgotten,
the flood of insanity running through his head put aside. His legs were shaking with the tremendous effort, as were his arms. It seemed he was holding tons
in his hands. Then he felt the difference. The resistance was beaten, and the spell gained vigor. MadKat had yielded!

The cloud of purple energy enveloped MadKat completely and started to shrink. MadKat was in panic. He didn’t know whether or not he was going to survive this, but the odds were all against him now. He had resisted for as long as his strength had allowed it. Now, the trap closed in on him. In less time than it takes to tell, the jester found himself in completely different surroundings. What once was dominantly gray now bore a tinge of green. Yet, he could still see the trees. He ran to them but slammed against something solid, making him fall onto his tail. He got up and walked, only to be stopped again by the same invisible wall. It hit him then: he was in some sort of magical prison. He pounded and pounded against the wall, but it wouldn’t give in. He would spend the following eight hundred years of his life trying to figure a way to escape his mystic gaol.

The spell was complete. Khronos slowly closed the book as the cloud of energy shrank many times its original size and acquired a regular geometric shape. When the purple glow finally ceased, the prison looked just like an ordinary ochre and crimson box. Khronos watched as the box fell from the heavens and landed on the ground with a loud thud, as though it weighed much, much more than it appeared. When it hit the ground, the clearing of yellow sky closed and the rain started to drop again, hammering down even harder than before, at the same time the wind calmed down.

Khronos looked at the box for what seemed the longest time with an empty gaze upon his only eye. Then, exhilaration took hold of him, and he raised his arms high into the sky, roaring out his victory.

When the surge of exhilaration passed, Khronos kneeled on the floor and, exhausted and wounded, he let his body fall forward toward the ground.

To be continued…


Glossary

of Characters, Names and Places


Characters

The Royal House of Megalith

The Court of Megalith

The Mystical Knights

The Court of Darkwater


Names


Places

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