DUTY AND DESIRE
C. L. Furlong & Helion
October 5, 2002
October 19, 2003
October 30, 2003
|C. L. Furlong:|
RATING / WARNINGS:
R for strong
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.
SWAT Kats and anything related to the series is the property of Hanna-Barbera. No infringement is intended and no profit is gained with this fiction.
|C. L. Furlong:|
|Well, chatting for so long and supporting each other for more than two years now, I guess it was a matter of time before Helion and I attempted a co-writing endeavor. Spurred by two mysteries in the show, we tossed our ideas about it in one of our mail chats and readily realized they had some potential. From there to developing them to its present state passed much time. The writing only, as you can easily see checking the dates, took an entire year. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we’re pleased with the result.
This story is intended to have four parts and the events reported in it span at least 800 years in time, since the days of Megalith City to modern-day Megakat City, laying the foundations for the origin of two of its most strange characters.
I have to thank my co-author for spurring me on when I was slow to write and for his small alterations on my pieces of writing (“butchering my writing” as he would call it), which only made the text much better in my humble opinion. I can say I liked very much the experience so far and I hope you SK fans out there enjoy this text. Time just to say that this fiction is unrelated to my “Final Resistence” series.
They say stories are the children of their authors. Well, this particular child had a difficult, an elephantine, birth, with nearly 15 months passing before it came to see the light of day completely. It was also very unpredictable betimes, with an inclination towards wanderlust – just like a toddler. It outgrew us faster than we could cloth it – just like an adolescent. It spurred those nagging doubts that you might not have checked up on it intensively enough, often enough – just like a teenager.
The thought of its three brothers and sisters following in its steps makes me go bald – just like a parent…
Even so I am generally pleased with the development of our offspring. Many fabulous ideas, sprung from the mind of either of us, have been passed down to it, while we cleared many a more stumbling blocks from its path in joint efforts. The result is both most amazing and most complex, and I have to thank my co-author, victim of my abundant text revisions, for his stoic endurance and for the unique experience he shared with me. I am also indebted to a late (and here unnamed) writing genius for giving me inspiration and for “lending” me a handful of his masterly crafted lines.
But now enough of my rambling speech. All left for me to say is: I hope you will enjoy this story! Here we go…
Especially in this first part of the story there are a few new characters, and their unfamiliar names might be confusing at first. We therefore added a glossary to the end of this text. You can click on any “—S-W-A-T–K-a-t-s—” dividing line to jump direct to the glossary. Use the “back” button of your browser to navigate back to your former position in the text.
The waters are calm. The air is silent. The earth is still. Since the departure of the foretold blue-clad warriors, mirth had returned to the barren lands. The crops he destroyed were replenished and my subjects were well fed and happy.
By the stroke of the Dragonsword he was defeated. By the warriors’ hands I was rescued. All of us bore testimony to the great aerial conflagration that took place in front of our flabbergasted eyes. The worm and its master’s lives were finally consumed, every soul realized. For the moment, even my person. But we were all deceived… for the connection could not be undone without supporting the fee… A fee that had not yet been collected…
Calm are the waters. Silent is the air. Still is the earth. So they have been for four lustrums. A new generation was born out of the ashes left by he who commands the time, healthy, happy and confident in a new future. And a promising future it appeared to be. Two crops a year were harvested, the waters were once again replenished with life and the cattle herds multiplied. They were, indeed, twenty golden springs. However, some things that should have been kept in mind were buried into oblivion. The long period of peace and joy drove most of the warriors weak. The people stopped thinking about old foes and started questioning if evil would ever come back to torment them. They blindly and unwisely decided it would not.
Calm waters, silent air, still earth… Too still… The more reassured my subjects became with the passage of time without his showing, the more concerned I grew. I saw him coming every night in my dreams, like a frigid clawed hand gripping my heart, recalling me of my duty and of the price I agreed to pay. And, I was not proven wrong… An evil that did not rest stirred and arose from the depths of infinity, a haunting memory of a faded era, and of unmatched sorrow. Unmatched… until that one night…
Like a thunderbolt he stroke. At dusk he came, mounted on yet a larger dragon than that which’s fate had been sealed by the touch of the Dragonsword. The self-proclaimed SWAT Kats, Sir Razor and Sir T-Bone, were not there to come to our aid then. Every one was caught by surprise when the gigantic winged beast exhaled its putrid fire over the citadel. No one knew what to do. No one was prepared for yet another onslaught from this ancient evil.
Swipe after swipe, the fetid fiery emanations swept away half of my subjects, half of my friends, in that accursed night. The air stirred with the nauseating stench of decay, with the agonizing wailing of the waning and the soul-piercing screams of those still living. The causeways were filled with fires and ashes and the charred remains of those who were fortunate enough to have died… And although time is his to rule, he did not grant us any time to mourn… So much hatred in someone I used to trust saddens my soul and torments my nights…
Gathering my subjects, I escorted them to the deepest catacombs of the castle, for depth and inaccessibility were the only possible defenses against such a large beast of evil. But I stayed behind myself to ensure that all of my subjects were led to safety. At daybreak only immortal death still lived above the seared grounds of Megalith City. The morning reddened skies no longer showed the color of the flaming rising aster but rather paid tribute to the gross of citizens slaughtered in the all-night attacks. It was time to carry out my desperate plan.
I witnessed how the dragon swooped past the walls and contoured the main tower before poising on it, its enormous wings covering the entirety of the tower and part of the castle. I saw its ominous shape darken the rising reddish orb, its ghastly shadow cast upon the castle. The creature heaved out its horrifying roar before it exhaled torrent after torrent of its fetid fire over the castle and the surrounding burg. Then, amid the deafening crackling sound of the flames, I heard his vile voice calling out my name.
“Callista! Callista, my angel! Have you finally reconsidered my offer? Callista!”
By magic he deceived us and by magic he was deceived. The arts of illusion allowed me to be where I was not and yet, they allowed me to once more use my wizardry and save my subjects. My image sought him out, answered his vile call. As soon as he laid his only eye on me, the dragon ceased its destructive activity. My duplicate – me – stood in the middle of the fiery ruins of my castle. Through her eyes I witnessed the destruction surrounding me and my heart pounded stronger in grief when I thought of my late subjects. Anger welled up in my heart like it never had before.
“I WILL NEVER BE YOURS, PASTMASTER!”
The conflagration I summoned next was potent enough to reduce his beast to a pile of the same ashes it created and on which it fed. However… the same passed with my city, which was reduced to a pile of rubble and gravel. Only the tower he once claimed his remained erect, not without severe damage, though… The price was too high… My city was destroyed… But at least my desperate ploy worked. Faking my and all of my subjects’ death, he left us alone.
For the few of us blessed – or cursed – enough to survive the fierce attack that night the world had changed forever. With mourning hearts we shoveled graves for the ones we’ve lived with, the ones we’ve laughed with, the ones we’ve loved. For those we had just lost. Too many graves, and too many cries, and too often there was nothing even left for us to bury but hopes and ashes…
None of my subjects stayed long for the dragon had burnt and contaminated the fields with its putrescent fire… They gathered whatever puny remains they could find, scattered and fled, those horrible events burnt into their lives, into their souls, as deeply and everlastingly as they had into the erstwhile fertile soil.
Their fate is unknown to me. Let them have found the peace of a new life to slowly forget about the grief brought upon them in the name of this sick love… Glorious Megalith City and the lives of its noble citizens were destroyed because of this morbid desire that overcame his sworn duty towards my husband and me. Not again could I risk conjuring up a tragedy upon my subjects with my presence…
But the struggle is yet to be finished. The menace he represents is too grand to be ignored and there are not many who can put an end to this insanity… For few are those who still remember how it all began…
|The waters are stirring…|
|The wind is whining…|
|The earth is revolving…|
The time has finally come…
The sound of horns echoed in the valley below and reached the ears of the kats inside the fortified citadel of Megalith City. Towards the southeast, the tower guards spotted a small group of travelers. They approached slowly, as if weary of the trip, with unfurled banners waving softly in the afternoon wind. There were some hundred kats, dressed as if they were going to battle – or as though they had just fought one. At the head of the column stood three hooded riders clad in dark purple robes.
“They return!” – one of the tower guards bellowed – “The Purple Company returns! Lower the drawbridge!”
Once more, the horns’ blaring filled the valley as the Purple Company marched towards glorious Megalith City. In entering the citadel, the populace came to see the warriors and cheer for them.
“So few of them homecoming…” – some said.
“The battle must have been horrific…” – others commented amid the cheering for their champions.
“Look… Not even the Mystical Knights returned untouched! Their robes are in shreds!”
The warriors and the riders simply marched in without a word. Only the tramping of feet came from the Purple Company. They penetrated Megalith Castle and the gates closed behind them with clangor. They stationed in the yard, the three riders with their faces obscured by their hoods always in the lead, followed by the archers and finally by the infantry. The riders got off their mountings and stood to attention.
Moments later, two figures appeared at the balcony overhanging the large yard. One was tall and slim, dressed in a beautiful pink dress, with long blond hair dancing in the breeze. The other was smaller in stature but considerably larger in the waist zone, dressed in turquoise garments. Both were holding their hands.
On seeing the couple, the riders placed their right fists on their chests. The sound of the quivers and spears hitting the ground filled the air for less than a second as the archers and the infantry soldiers presented their weapons and placed their right fists over their chests as well.
“LONG LIVE THE LORD AND LADY OF MEGALITH CASTLE!” – every warrior said in unison before kneeling down on one knee and leaning their heads down to their chests respectfully.
“Ah, yes, yes, long live the lord and lady, yes…” – the turquoise-clad kat babbled in a low tone. Maurice Dagobert deManx, known as King deManx XIII, ruler of Megalith Kingdom, cleared his throat and spoke out in a clear tone.
“Welcome home, brave warriors. What news do you bring from the southeastern borderlands?”
The middle rider rose from the ground and spoke.
“The border is now safe, milord. The enemies have been repelled back to their homeland with severe casualties. A garrison of two hundred soldiers was left in the stronghold of Bard’s Horn to rebuild the village and keep watch on the border. The enemy, however, claimed the life of three hundred of our warriors. Victory lies with us, but the casualties of this battle were too high.”
“Your brothers-in-arms shall not be forsaken, Sir Telluros. They will live forever in our hearts as heroes. We will all mourn over their loss.” – the gentle voice of Queen Callista reached every warrior’s ears like a soft angelic breeze. They all felt better, even less weary from the trip after she spoke.
“Your Highness is right.” – Telluros said – “They shall never be forgotten.”
“This deserves a feast! You have all done very well, my warriors.” – deManx XIII said, moving his right arm in an ark in order to address every kat stationed in the yard – “You deserve a rest. You are dismissed.”
All kats rose from the ground and knocked their heels before performing a left about turn. The remaining vanguard left first, followed by the archers and finally, when the yard was cleared, the Mystical Knights mounted their horses and abandoned the area. The last one was lingering dangerously to his right. He was about to cross the gate when he fell limply on the ground.
“Khronos!” – Callista called out. Khronos’ comrades dismounted and came to aid their fallen friend.
“Khronos! Speak to me, my friend!” – Telluros said. Hydor, the third purple rider, came hastily to their side.
“Let me take him to his quarters. Give warning to the Chief Healer to meet us there anon. I’ll have him ready for observation.”
“It shall be done.” – Telluros said as he remounted. Spurring the sides of the animal, the purple rider galloped off.
Moments later, in Khronos’ quarters, the Chief Healer made an ominous discovery. While he took off the warrior’s robe, he noticed a red smear dyeing his garments’ right flank. He tore the fabric open in that zone and showed a bleeding wound staining the rider’s gray fur in dark red.
“How did he get that wound?” – the Chief Healer asked.
“We don’t know!” – Hydor commented – “He never said anything to us!”
Telluros smacked his fist against the stone wall – “Reckless youths! They think they can take on the entire world on their own!”
“Now, now, Telluros! Calm down!” – Hydor soothed – “He’s just five springs younger than you. I know how you feel but right now we can’t do anything about it. I’m quite convinced that Khronos knows he should have warned us of his injuries. When he wakes up we will reprimand him properly but right now we should focus our energies on trying to mend his severed body.”
Telluros sighed audibly – “You are correct. The life of our comrade is far more important now than any reprimand. Besides, it isn’t for me to decide. Our tutor will do what he sees fit in his case.”
“How is he, my valiant warriors?” – the most gentle and melodious voice came from behind them. They spun around and found Queen Callista standing at the door of Khronos’ quarters.
“He’s badly injured, my Queen!” – Hydor responded, after saluting his Queen – “We will do our best to heal him.”
“Where is he? Out of my way! Out of my way! Where’s Khronos?” – someone called out from outside the room, climbing up the stairs.
“Pyros…” – Telluros stated in a sigh – “What is that hot-headed friend of ours doing here?”
Callista stepped aside to let the burly Pyros and the slimmer Eolos enter the quarters of the fallen purple rider.
“Where’s Khronos? What happened to him?” – the burly purple rider asked, echoed by Eolos. Telluros just cleared his throat menacingly.
“Where are your manners?” – Telluros said in an icy tone.
Pyros and Eolos spun back and looked at the pink-dressed she-kat standing at the entrance of the room. Only after a few seconds did they recognize the features of their Queen. They suddenly kneeled down on the floor and saluted their monarch.
“Queen Callista, long live the Dame of Megalith Castle! I humbly beg you to forgive us our foolish actions.” – Eolos spoke.
“Stand up, both. You were fretful about the health of your friend, as I am.” – Callista said, lighting up their hearts.
“That, however, does not excuse them, neither of their manners nor of their duties towards Your Highness.” – a respectful and venerable voice boomed over the room. They all looked to the entrance and saw the elderly form of Sir Astor, the Arch-Mage, who bowed to Callista. – “Long live the Dame of Megalith Castle!”
“Sir Astor, my most trusted advisor.” – Callista greeted the elder tom back.
“Your Highness shouldn’t be here. With all due respect, this is no place for a queen.” – Sir Astor stated, passing Callista by.
“The welfare of my warriors is one of my matters, Sir Astor.” –she retorted.
“Chief Healer?” – the Arch-Mage simply asked, changing the hand that held his retorted wood staff.
“It appears to be a spear wound. Deep, but it can’t have hit any vital organ or else he would be dead by now. I’ll do what I can. It’s a good thing he fainted. That way, he will experience little pain.”
“I’ll cast a mild spell over Khronos to prevent him from waking up before you are done mending him.” – the elder kat said before passing a hand over Khronos’ face – “Did any of you witness how he got that wound?”
“We haven’t got the slightest clue, sire.” – Telluros responded.
“How many times do I have to tell you that we must look after one another? Together we stand but once divided we fall!” – the Arch-Mage proceeded towards the four warriors assembled in front of him – “You are special. You’re the few selected ones that constitute the Mystical Knights. Ever since you were mere kittens, you already showed special magical skills. You were chosen for your abilities and trained accordingly. No other knight in this kingdom received the schooling you have. You must understand that you are an integral part of this kingdom’s first line of defense. And you are very few! We must not afford something like this repeats!”
All purple riders leaned their heads towards their chests, humbly. Sir Astor simply sighed and looked back at the dormant form of Khronos.
“However, he’s to be blamed as well. He should have warned you that he’d been wounded. He still doesn’t understand that you are a unit, that you’re part of something bigger…” – the elder tom said, lowering his tone as he spoke – “Now I think we’d better leave him to the capable hands of our healer. We will all leave the premises.”
Hours later, the Chief Healer finally stepped out of Khronos’ quarters. He looked pale even at the red flare of the torches. The six worried kats waiting for news before the housing instantly stopped their hushed conversation and pacing and walked towards him. Telluros met him first.
“How is Khronos?” – he asked, intensely. His green eyes were nearly coruscating.
“The wound is severe. I’ve done everything I could…” – the middle-aged gray tom said. All the other Mystical Knights gathered closer, fearing the worst.
“He *is* going to recover, isn’t he?” – Pyros asked. Every warrior present silently shared his question.
“He seems to be stable now. I’ve managed to stop the blood loss and, after cleaning the wound, I’ve cauterized it. The wound is closed but he lost too much blood. Now he must have plenty of rest in order to recover. If he survives this night, I’d wager he’ll live.”
Everybody sighed, clearly relieved. The Chief Healer walked away, accompanied by the Queen and the Arch-Mage. The remaining four Mystical Knights stayed behind.
“I think at least one of us should stand guard to our fallen friend.” – Eolos proposed.
“I’ll do the first shift.” – Telluros offered.
“Very well.” – Hydor said – “I’ll do the second.”
“And I shall take the third shift.” – Pyros stated.
“Which leaves me with the fourth shift.” – Eolos commented – “We’ll do shifts of three sand clock turns each.”
“Very well. I’ll see you in the morning, brothers.” – Telluros said before opening the door and entering Khronos’ quarters. The other purple riders scattered to their own rooms.
Once inside, Telluros sat on a wooden stool by the window. He lighted his pipe and sucked in a generous breath, expelling the smoke dilatorily before he glanced at the sleeping form of his friend.
“Sir Astor?” – Callista’s soft voice reached the Arch-Mage’s ears, who was rummaging through the pages of a thick and old book.
“My Queen?” – the elder kat asked, turning around surprised – “Why isn’t Your Highness asleep yet?”
“Sleep is denied to me during these hours…”
“Because of Khronos?” – the Arch-Mage asked, softly.
“Yes. Sir Khronos is a dear friend to us. I cannot stand knowing that he is hurt.”
“Fear not, milady. Khronos is a fighter. He will survive this.” – Sir Astor reassured Callista.
“I hope so…”
“He is a good and strong knight. There is glory reserved for him yet.”
“You have foreseen it?” – Callista asked, interested. The Arch-Mage, however, turned around and laid his hands over the studying table, lingering his torso over it. Callista noticed the change in the Arch-Mage’s expression. – “What have you foreseen for my friend, Sir Astor?”
Astor sighed deeply before he answered his Queen’s request – “Khronos is a special kat. I suspect he has many hidden powers in him, powers that not even I can unveil. His ultimate future is hidden from me, my Queen. I see glory in his closest future but his distant future is blank… It is as if he will be put in a crossroads of fate. It appears that, on the one hand, Khronos can choose to have a glorious future but, on the other hand, he can choose a future of
“I see… However, that is a choice we all must make.” – Callista reasoned.
“Indeed it is. But I feel there’s more to Khronos than meets the eye. As I said, he is strong but not just physically… His magic is stronger than the magic of any of his comrades… He still doesn’t know how to use his full potential, though, so the others treat him like a younger brother. And he actually sees the others as his older brothers. I am unsure whether I should teach him to develop all his powers or not. The fact that I cannot predict his future makes me quite uneasy.”
“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, Sir Astor. Sir Khronos is a very good friend. With all my heart and soul I do believe he will never choose the path of darkness…”
“I do hope so, your Highness. I do hope so…”
The night passed slowly. Eolos’ shift was nearly over when he heard a knock at the door.
“Who goes there? Friend or foe?” – he questioned, out of habit.
“It is I.”
“My Queen!” – the warrior said, surprised, as he hurried to open the door. – “My Queen, long live the Dame of Megalith Castle!”
“Good morning, Eolos. How is Khronos?” – Callista asked, entering the room and heading towards Khronos’ bed. The purple rider was still asleep. His expression was peaceful and serene.
“He hasn’t awaken yet and he hasn’t moved since I’m here, Your Highness.” – Eolos responded in his soft tone.
“He doesn’t seem in pain…” – she observed.
“I’m sure he’s not. Our Chief Healer is very competent…”
“I wish he gets better soon.” – Callista said before she turned around to leave.
“Whatever… Your Highness orders… I shall… accomplish…” – a warm voice made itself heard.
“Khronos!” – both warrior and Queen stated, simultaneously.
“Khronos! Are you feeling well? Utter to me!” – Eolos asked.
“Do you need anything?” – Callista offered.
Khronos looked his Queen right in her green eyes – “To be able to gaze upon that which is fairest underneath the skies is the greatest gift Your Highness could ever bestow upon me.”
Callista blushed a little – “Gallant as ever, I see. Welcome back, warrior!”
“Ah, here you are, my sweet!” – a known infatuated speech filled the room.
“My husband!” – Callista exclaimed happily with an irresistible smile on her lips. She went to his side and gave him a light kiss. A light shadow cast momentarily over Khronos’ face.
“Ah, I see our warrior has awakened already, hey? Good, good! I’ll arrange a feast, yes, he, he! I’m looking forward to seeing you there, young tom. Will you accompany us, my Queen?”
“Certainly, my King! Pass the word on to your comrades, Eolos! I’ll have places of honor reserved for you!”
“We shall attend, my Queen!” – Khronos stated before speaking in a loud voice – “Long live the Lord and Lady of Megalith Castle!”
“Fools! All of them – fools! Look how proud they walk in their decimated lines, presenting their unblemished silver breastplates…”
The ginger kat pressed his knees into the animal’s flanks. The mule whinnied in protest but turned around.
“Even if there isn’t time enough for anything else, there will always be time enough for them to polish their armor before homecoming. Fools!”
Soon, rider and steed were walking off, though the unhurried pace was the stubborn beast’s decision rather than that of its thievish new master’s.
“Let them sweat to death under their precious metal. The unyielding sun will finish the sweet task their enemies failed to accomplish.”
Not once did he look back at proud Megalith City dwindling away behind him. The monumental crenellated fortress was bathed in a lustrous orange – a warm, peaceful blanket that spread out to include the surrounding meadows and forests and welcomed the Purple Company back from their victorious campaign.
“Mindless lords make mindless followers.”
Further he rode, a grim smile on his face, until the fluvial roar emanating from the bottom of the gorge didn’t reach his ears any longer, until even the heralding horn calls had faded to a murmur.
Only then did he stop. Still he didn’t look back, but in his mind he could see the inner bailey clearly, and the scene that would greet him were he there now: the congregational cheering of the citizen waiting in rapt attention for the last warrior to pass through the gates. The warriors facing the balcony of the royal couple on bended knee, all-hailing the king…
“The fool! All of them – foo… Ooooohhh… Ouch!”
The animal, finally coming to the decision that the weight on its back was a nuisance, had neighed and kicked out. Now it was trotting over to a field of daisies, its rider thrown off.
“Arrghhhh…” – he roared, beating the dry ground with his fist. He sprang up, strode after his mount and smacked its head, hard.
“You, too!” – he shouted angrily. Spit flew from the corner of his mouth. – “You’re all in cahoots with *him*!” – His hand balled into a fist and he struck out for the second time, harder than before. The mule neighed and made two jumps before it snorted disapprovingly and continued to graze.
“Why, whinny all you like, stupid ass. All of you asses will whinny once I’m through with you and your pathetic pheasant of a king. Pheasant – peasant. Peasant – pheasant. Pheasant – peasant. Ha, ha, ha…”
He began to chant. – “There was a king, a pompous king, who loved to feast all night. Loved plays and game more than his dame, for throne and fame let rounds of dice decide. ‘And ho,’ he cried, ‘and go, me dice, and go, me dice…’
Well, indeed he died! Ha, ha, ha… Dice. Dice. Dies… Ah ha, ha, ha…” – he laughed shrilly, the abysmal fires of madness still blazing in his eyes.
“I’ll have my revenge on you, king. When I return, you can feast on your demise with your joyful lady. Make her laugh at that.”
The night passed swiftly. So did the next night, and the day in between. By the hour dawn settled over the road for the second time, the solitary, vengeance-driven rider became nervous. He cursed the terrain, the Purple Company, the weather, Lord Tyrakks and his soldiers, everything…
King deManx he cursed more than the rest, except maybe his steed. The beast was slow, it was stupid and it was stubborn. If only he had stolen a *real* mount, one of those obeying black geldings with wings on its hoofs. But the theft of a mule was all he had dared, even with the pandemonium accompanying the Company’s return. He wasn’t exactly inconspicuous in his colorful patched garments; riding a knight’s charger, he would have stuck out a mile everywhere like a pine tree in a field of nettles.
Minute after minute stretched unbearably as he searched in vain. Long since had he passed the kingdom’s southeastern border stones by, had he left King deManx’s realm by overgrown forest paths barely wide enough to let one rider through, intent on overtaking the defeated troops. Had he missed them? Perhaps their rearguard, even on foot, was faster than his stupid animal? The mule was repeatedly baulking lately, now that he had ridden it hard and nearly without pause for two days. Maybe he should bind it to a tree and let it starve on its arrogance… But where to get a new mount?
By midnight, much to the mule’s luck and its rider’s relief, he found the sign he sought: a single soldier – a scout, watching the army’s backside.
“Who’s there? Friend or foe?” – the scout shouted from the dark.
“Soldiers…” – the ginger kat mused, flicking the animal’s ear for its latest whinny.
“Neither friend nor foe.” – he replied – “A friend would call you before him you would, a foe would kill you before him you could. I am but a kat shares common interest with your lord.”
“Stand and unfold yourself.” – the voice called forth. There was a noticeable tremor to it.
“Well spoken.” – he dismounted, reached into one of his many pockets and retrieved a ball made of the same colors as his dress, ochre and crimson. He stepped in the direction the voice came from and threw it into the night. The ball rolled over the ground and unfolded into a cap as it went. It came to rest at the feet of a soldier at least two springs away from growing his first beard, its three bells ringing eerily.
The scout’s eyes widened as he saw his costume – “A clown?”
“A jester! Words are my weapons, and I have just the words for your retreating lord to raise him to glory still.”
“Edgar!” – came the summoning call from somewhere inside the fabric.
Edgar, as he now knew him, pushed him into the largest tent in the camp. He was a charcoal gray mountain of a kat, all muscle and sinew. No doubt the sword dangling from his hip would be at the ready in the blink of an eye if the prisoner – if he – would do as much as cough uncalled for.
Perchance Edgar was one of Lord Tyrakks’ knights. Maybe he was his learned councilor. Considering the strength and routine with which Edgar was gripping his shoulder and pressing him to his knees before the saffron-furred, sinister-looking lord, however, the jester could think of him as little more than his crony. Like the cronies he was going to get himself…
“People facing the gallows have more reasons to smile than you, trespasser.” – Lord Tyrakks said – “What is your name, and what business commands you here? Speak quickly!”
“My name is jester, my lord, but you can call me anything, just don’t call me often. Ha, ha…”
Before he could continue, Edgar’s foot patted the jester’s already sore rear not unlike his own stick had patted the mule’s on several occasions – with full strength. The jester crumpled up in pain at the feet of Lord Tyrakks.
“I’ll call you a madkat then…” – the noble hissed – “… to ride into our camp at the dead of night, alone and unarmed. We do not love those who follow deManx. Our hospitality for his spies excludes anything but slow strangling by their own entrails. I warn you not to play games with me, fool, lest you beseech me to stage a play with you and the ravens.”
“So I shall play games with you? Why, I know just the game of cards you might find delighhhh…”
An iron fist clamped around his neck, three fingers and a thumb the size of thick branches lifting him off the ground as if he were a puppy. Edgar. The jester struggled in his grip, but all good it did him was to send the bells on his cap ringing.
Lord Tyrakks bore down on him – “I’ll let Edgar here cut your bells off slowly, one after the other.” – he said warningly.
“Why…? Does he… need… some… himself?” – the jester gasped out.
The brute dropped him on the one-word command and drew steel.
“If to this end I must come…” – the jester spoke from the ground, his right hand at his throat – “… then so must you!”
“Halt!” – the lord beckoned Edgar – “This is your very last chance, jester. Speak!”
“How many kats are out there in the camp? One gross, where formerly had been five? Your *cramp* indeed!” – the jester spat, knowing the truth of his words – “A battalion was sent out, no more than a company returns. Words of failure travel fast. His best vassal yet you might be, but when he lays eyes on this pitiable morsel of an army in a fortnight, your liege will not be pleased with you in the slightest any more.”
“I am not to blame! No one could have defeated those warlock demons! They befuddled my soldiers so their armed forces could engage us most strangely. None could have done better than I, ridding the world of three hundred of their number.”
The jester smiled upon seeing Lord Tyrakks becoming defensive. – “Your noble heart will miss your noble tongue once it’s chopped off together with your head. Kings do as kings please. I must know, for I was played foulest by a king myself…”
“King deManx…” – Lord Tyrakks concluded.
“The very same. He discarded me, discharged me, and discredited me publicly.”
“I wonder why that is.” – Lord Tyrakks asked wryly – “I reckon you’ve been disrespectful to your liege, or too respectful to his lady? Been deceitful? Thievish? Mocking? Lying? Maybe you just were not funny…”
“Nooot funneeeee!” – roared the jester enraged. Edgar chuckled dumbly. – “I want my revenge! I want to see his head on a pike! I want him to know it was I who overthrew him!”
“And how are you going to achieve that?” – asked Lord Tyrakks.
“You are going to help me.”
“*I*! You must be crazy!”
“Crazy…” – echoed the jester.
“Why should I help you, fool?”
“Because you’re by one head better off taking fool advice than you are without.” – And he laughed insanely – “By new moon, you can either have returned home to accept the punishment for your failure, or you can send message to your king from within the stronghold of Megalith City, telling him that you have taken the enemy’s heart in one single stroke of genius with nothing more than a handful of your most loyal soldiers…”
There was a steely glimmer in Tyrakks’ eyes telling the jester that he had him in his pocket…
“What miracle would get us close to and into the castle unseen?” – he enquired with poorly feigned indifference.
“There was an entrance to the castle that led from the wine cellars into the gorge and on steep and narrow paths further to a small plateau near the river’s edge five or six furlongs to the east. It was used for the water trade decades ago. When the water level dropped too low for river transportation, the entrance itself fell into oblivion, but it still exists, closed but unguarded, and only I know of it. It will bring ten, maybe twelve kats into the castle undetected. I can show you.
Now deManx, being the pheasant king he is, will not miss the opportunity to feast the Purple Company’s return. The bigger the revels, the better. Hence – and I’d stake me life upon’t – he’ll feast on the eve of the autumn equinox. That night, soldiers will be drunk with mead, lazy because of the banquet and victory. Their watch will be weak, and I know just the leaks in their guard to get you inside the city’s inner ring unhindered.”
“What about the fiendish magicians?”
“They’ll surely be guests of honor at the feast, as engaged in songs and wine as anybody else. Drunk, they aren’t much of a hindrance, I’d wager, and the moment of surprise lies with you. Besides, they’re only six in number, one of them as weathered as the oldest oak…”
“Five in number,” – Edgar spoke. The jester blinked surprised. He had thought the brute must be mute. – “Remember Oswick claimed he killed one of them with a spear, my lord. The Grey Devil…”
“Grey? That’d be Sir Khronos!” – the jester stated eagerly – “One of the Mystical Knights indeed, maybe the most malicious. Your soldier can boast himself on having killed a worthy enemy!”
“He cannot.” – Lord Tyrakks barked – “For that fight was the last deed my cousin ever partook in in his life. Within an hour afterwards, he withered away most unnaturally, in shrieks of pain. He who killed him thus evilly calls himself a knight, you say?” – He growled. – “I say he’s nothing but a sanguinary sorcerer! If he is still alive despite all odds, I swear I will disembowel him on his own sword.”
The jester grinned wickedly. – “Does this mean we have a deal?”
The commanding officer of the army just gave him that hard look again. – “You said you’d stake your life upon your plan, traitor…
And you do… You do!”
The jester launched into another fit of maniacal laughter. This time, Lord Tyrakks joined him.
The marching of five suns marked the passage of time. As the autumn equinox drew nearer, the preparations for the feast were steadily reaching their completion. King deManx grew ever more excited.
“This must be a memorable occasion. Everyone should remember it for ages! Our victory at Bard’s Horn will surely put an end to those petty brawls Darkwater has against me!” – the ruler of Megalith City said as he walked through the royal gardens alongside Sir Astor.
“Things may not turn out to run as smoothly as you are foretelling, milord. Darkwater…”
“Is defeated! He played his last card and was utterly humiliated at Bard’s Horn! Emilio of Darkwater’s nothing but a clown, a power-hungry king that got strangled by his own dark ideals!”
“How I wish I were as calm and assured as my liege…”
“Do not fret, my dear friend! I know I am correct! Hmm… I just had an idea!” – deManx said as he stroked his chin.
“And what may that be, milord?”
“I think we ought to arrange a parade…”
Sir Astor bowed his head respectfully, knowing the final tone in King deManx’s voice too well to stir the conversation back to the matter of King Darkwater. He let the king dwell on the festival activities, adding his own suggestions and advice concerning security to the royal monologue betimes, but his worries had not ceased with his liege’s assurances.
His eyes wandered over the maple trees with their flaming red and yellow tops and, ignoring the five-pointed leaves that were picked from their summer residence and borne to the earth on a gentle autumnal breeze, repeatedly came to rest on the tower at the far western end of the inner bailey.
If Darkwater still had a card to play, there very likely was the only thing to trump it.
Wanderers from distant lands who set their eyes on the stronghold of Megalith for the first time were as one awed by the monumental structure at the far western end of the inner bailey. The whole upper half of the jet-black tower loomed over the castle and could be seen from a league afar, as it was not only the largest building on these fortified grounds, but also in the land.
What was so striking about it was not only its size alone. At the tower top, before a blood red face, the hands of a magnificent mechanic clock announced the time. It had been a present to the late king, King deManx XII, from one of his continental trading partners, and its midnight chime was legendary. The people of Megalith City still stuck to their sundials and sand clocks, but not so much out of tradition than for the fact that there was such craftsmanship and artful beauty in the making of this clock that no copy had ever been successfully made.
The Tower itself – for so it was often simply called: the Tower – dated back to the earliest times of Megalith City. The fitting in of the clock under the roof thirty-two years ago was just the latest larger alteration it had experienced. Recurrently fortified in times of war, repaired, extended and – again – reinforced in years of peace, it had now reached its final height and although it was still years from where the solidity of its walls would sadly come to the test, their strength was far above that of its neighboring structures.
However, when he watched the tower, it wasn’t the ashlar walls Sir Astor had in mind but rather what they housed. The clock tower was the base of the Mystical Knights; it accommodated their training rooms as well as the priceless treasure of knowledge, enclosed in tomes and stacked in sheets of vellum in rows of shelves inside an extensive library. It also had a room with sickbeds to cure the wounded.
In case of another attack by Emilio of Darkwater’s soldiers, the Mystical Knights were their last best hope for victory. But the power to draw magic had faded throughout the recent century. Now, the tower could even have been used as the knights’ barracks, so far had their numbers diminished over the last generations. Only seven kats were able to wield magic more than a trickle. Six of them had been instructed in its uses inside the tower no sooner than they had been out of their cradles, trained in the line of duty for the king of Megalith Kingdom.
Sir Astor was one of these six, raised a Mystical Knight some sixty years ago. Now the obligation to learn the others its ways was his. Their training was nowhere near completed, especially not that of the younger knights, like Sir Khronos, but the Arch Mage feared that Megalith Kingdom would need them back in action again sooner than he wished.
Two hundred paces away, it was just Sir Khronos who, after a weeklong bed rest, couldn’t wait to get back to action…
“Easy, my friend! Lean on my shoulder!” – Telluros said to Khronos, who just dismissed his friend’s help with a gesture.
“I am not crippled, Telluros! It is merely a spear wound!” – he said, covering the side of his torso with his hand.
“I utterly concur! It is a spear wound, indeed… A wound that nearly claimed your life!”
A small grin flourished on Khronos’s face – “Yes, but my foe met his ultimate fate whereas I still breathe…”
“Only barely, I must emphasize! Why have you not given warning that you had been injured in battle?”
“What good would it have done? The battle was over, anyway! Our foes were withdrawing!”
“Then you were merely careless!” – Telluros bawled – “That is even worse than hiding your injuries from us.”
Telluros stepped face to face with Khronos – “We are a unity! A unity, Khronos! Can you not see it? We look after one another! We do not abandon each other to their fate!”
“I know that!” – Khronos exclaimed, looking away from Telluros’ visage – “It’s just…”
“You are as good as any of us, Khronos! Your loyalty to the cause we stand for is unquestionable, your powers amazing and your wisdom considerable. Why do you insist in wearing that veil in front of your eyes? Because you are the youngest of us? By the Sacred Kats, that is preposterous!”
“Do you really mean the words you have just spoken?”
“I do not speak unless I mean what I say, my good friend!”
“I thank thee for thy support… Willst thou stand by me when I meet Sir Astor?”
“You can rely on me…” – Telluros said as he helped the gray-furred tom out of his quarters.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Megalith Kingdom, a small band comprised of ten kats made their way through the rocky outcrops of the eastern lowlands. Though the frigid claw of winter was approaching, the weather the small company was experiencing remembered more that of mid summer. It was the last spurt of heat before everything turned snow white. High in the air, soaring on the upstream hot air drafts, a falcon let out a high-pitched scream.
Covering his forehead in order to shield his eyes from the bright sunlight, Lord Tyrakks saw the ominous winged shape against a cloudless sky as it retracted its wings and dived headfirst into some unseen prey. He then proceeded to gape at the few surrounding low hills, distorted by the heat waves. A drop of perspiration dripped from his forehead and got lost on the filthy clothes the warlord was wearing.
“Bloody heat…” – he swore in a low tone, ending with a hissing sound of exasperation.
“I’d urge you to convince your men to travel with all haste!” – the madkat said to Tyrakks – “Tomorrow will be autumn equinox eve. We should not – we cannot – linger!”
“What?” – Sir Anthros’s cry in disbelief was merely one of many.
“How far are we from that accursed entrance?” – Tyrakks asked. He too was dog-tired. He could understand his men, but he inwardly cursed at their tactical short-sightedness.
“Less than a day of journey. We’ll have reached the cave by tomorrow morning. Then you can all rest there until the strike. We can only strike late at night, after the meat and ale have done most of the work for us. Even if you sleep all day, we’ll still have plenty of time to make last hour adjustments to our plans… Besides, you’ll be fresh and relaxed. Megalith Castle will be ripe for the taking then…” – the jester explained. He looked to Tyrakks and then to the rest of the warriors.
“The buffoon is right… We go on.” – Tyrakks commanded.
Before even one kat had the chance to march another meter, Sir Anthros complained again – “Why the bloody hell do we have to wear these stinking clothes?”
Lord Tyrakks exhaled on the sly before addressing Anthros – “I already explained… We will draw less attention to ourselves if we dress like peasants.”
“But I am not a peasant!” – Anthros replied – “I belong to the Royal Family by…” – he was cut off in mid-sentence by Lord Tyrakks’ exasperated roar.
“You belong as much to the royal family of Darkwater as a filthy mare does! Now be silent and get your whimpering hide moving or I shall have your head on a tray!”
“No one talks to me like that!” – Anthros said as his right hand cupped his sword and the other poised forcefully on Lord Tyrakks’ shoulder – “I will…”
A red spray filled the air momentarily when Edgar’s black blade swished in a shiny ark to cut Anthros’s head off, which rolled downhill helplessly.
“I am sick of your endless struggle for power, Anthros… Especially at the cost of losing mine…” – Lord Tyrakks muttered. The jester, who was in the lead of the group, merely grinned sardonically as he beheld the feud.
“Very good, *milord*… Now we have one chance less to overthrow deManx!” – the jester spoke, only to be met with Lord Tyrakks most fearsome grudge.
“Say but a little more, fool, and I will have you eat horse dung!”
The jester hushed and resumed walking.
When the others were slow to follow, Edgar grunted, one hand cupping the hilt of his enormous black sword while cleaning the gory blade on a small piece of fabric with his other hand. The weapon remained ominously out of its sheath. Malthus, another of Lord Tyrakks’ companions, gulped silently and set into motion, as did the rest of the group, proceeding silently due west. Lord Tyrakks sighed and wiped the perspiration off his forehead before pressing on.
“Bloody heat indeed…”
The day of the feast finally arrived. Megalith City seemed to rejuvenate with the joyful event. Although the feast was meant only for the noble and the clergy, all of the villagers joined the festivities in their own way. In the village, red and yellow tapestries, carefully embroidered during the long and cold nights of winter, some representing battle scenes, others presenting the royal crest, were hung from the windows in respectful sign for their sovereigns. The streets were mostly clean and the people wore their best garments, most of them meant for the weekly mass.
In the castle, flags and banners were unfurled and quickly caught height in the morning breeze. Tapestries also hung from the main windows of the palace. In the center of the largest yard, where the warriors used to practice, there was a pole from which radiated many colorful bands that were attached to the neighboring buildings, giving the square the impression of a multicolored tent roof. In the yard itself there were the kingdom’s troops, wearing their best ceremonial light armors. The few rays of sun that penetrated through the colorful rooftop made their armors and weapons glitter briefly.
In the balcony overhanging the yard, both deManx and Callista stared down at their troops, who had been serving them so well for so many years, reviewing them. With an approving nod of the head, deManx ordered the parade to begin.
For the first half of the day, the troops strode throughout the main arteries of Megalith City. The air vibrated with the sound of trumpets, drums and feet as the infantry marched and the riders rode their steeds, noses held high in pride and dignity.
The populace cheered for them, either filling the sides of the streets or hurling flower petals from the first floor windows as the warriors trampled by. For the ones who fought at Bard’s Horn, this was pure bliss, to be acclaimed as heroes and be showered in flower petals.
From the highest tower in Megalith City, the Arch Mage, Sir Astor, surveyed the scene. He stroked his long white beard. His face bore the lines of many battles, although his were quite different from those the soldiers below had fought. In fact, weren’t it for his Mystical Knights, perhaps Darkwater would have already annexed Megalith Kingdom to his…
“Tell me what troubles you, master!” – Telluros asked, softly. The Arch Mage turned around slowly, leaving the festive scene behind. If the noiseless entry of the young knight had surprised him, it didn’t show in his stance or expression.
The aging kat crossed the room that was his study and retrieved a dust-filled book from the top of a sizeable bookshelf and set it over the table, opening it up slightly at the middle. Only then did the elder speak.
“I do not share the king’s belief that Darkwater is ultimately defeated. He has turned his greedy eye on Megalith Kingdom for so long the sight has poisoned him with unceasing hunger for it.” – He lifted his gaze and looked the young tom right in the eyes – “He will attack again. It’s just a feeling I have, but seldom did I perceive a stronger feeling… Something is definitely and terribly wrong. Darkwater will attack again! Megalith City will need the Mystical Knights before the end, Telluros!”
“Megalith City will not fall. Not while I and my brothers still have strength left.”
“What did I tell you?” – the madkat stated, triumphantly – “Here is the cave!”
The narrow cliff path they took had taken its toll on the warriors. They were exhausted. They couldn’t care less whether the jester was right or not, whether he was leading them to victory or into entrapment. They just wanted to rest. Even Tyrakks got past the mad jester and entered the cool cavern. Well, to call it a cavern was an overstatement. It was merely a shelter in the rock, just large enough to accommodate the seven warriors, Tyrakks and the madkat. In the farthest wall of the shelter there was a large crack that, accordingly to the mad jester, led to the castle cellars.
“In bygone times, the barrels were uploaded from the river down there in these contraptions here.” – he pointed to the remains of two “Y” shaped poles, each one of them had a system of three wood pulleys – “You notice the system they used? Intriguing! Whoever devised it must have figured out that the barrels were lifted more easily this way…”
“SHUT UP!” – Tyrakks growled – “WE’RE TRYING TO SLEEP!”
The insane buffoon just shrugged and moments later he too lay down on the cold rock and closed his eyes. A twisted grin began to spread on his face.
Night came, descending slowly over the fortified burg. Stars started glittering, fine holes in the tight dark mesh in which her dress was woven, letting the light beyond glimmer and borrow a gray tinge to the darkness that was her garb. Night settled then, quiet and relentlessly.
Torches were lit everywhere throughout the city. In the central plaza, a large bonfire was raging and nearly every peasant and bourgeois encircled it, dancing and jumping and singing.
In the castle, in the large yard, the tent roof gave way to a roaring fire, fueled by a considerable cedar log. The perfumed billows filled the yard in which three tables, arranged to form a sizeable U, were displayed. Large roasted wild boars, birds, hares, variable vegetables and fruits and casks – endless casks of wine and ale – brought from the large tons in the royal cellars crammed the large table.
The music of mandolins, drums and flutes filled the air, subduing the animalistic sounds of the eatery, the clink of metal goblets and the sounds of the inner flames’ merry crackle.
DeManx sat in the middle of the short end of the U, with his wife and queen by his side. Sir Astor, Telluros and Khronos sat next to the king whereas Eolos, Pyros and Hydor sat to Callista’s right. The rest of the nobles and the clergy sat to the sides, at the adjoining tables.
Granted, eating was indeed what those people did best but there were pauses between the snacks for some cultural interludes, during which rimes and rigmaroles were read, songs were performed and games were played. During the snacks time, talk always ensued. Soon, the order of the places was thoroughly messed up. King deManx left his queen in the capable hands of her chambermaids and was almost immediately surrounded by some of the noblemen of his court, discussing business. Although he was the king and had many kats at his service for that kind of duty, deManx had inherited a special nose for business and would have himself dealing directly rather than having some third party doing it for himself. Soon enough, Lady Callista announced her departure to her chambers. The feast lost much of its luster when she disappeared beyond the gates.
Seated somewhat more apart from the remaining guests, Khronos followed her by the corner of his eye while he sipped a bit of wine from his goblet. He then looked to the moonless skies. Whatever he was thinking, whatever he was feeling could not be perceived by the looks displayed in his mien.
“What time is it, fool?” – Tyrakks’ disgruntled question shot through the small space. The warlord looked outside and, barely outlined against the moonless sky, he saw the shape of the insane buffoon. His eyes were gleaming in bright green, as would a demon’s. A white toothy grin appeared beneath them. Tyrakks instinctively reached for his sword. The feeling of the cold steel comforted him. – “Fool?”
“It is I, do not fret.” – he leaned his head to the side, looking amused – “Did I perchance frighten you? There is no need for cupping your sword, milord.”
“Your eyes are glowing…” – Tyrakks muttered.
“Like the eyes of all those who seek vengeance…” – the jester responded.
“Like the eyes of one who’s been caught by that siren’s call named madness…” – the warlord thought, getting up – “You still have not answered my question.”
“It is a little after nightfall. The sun set about two sand clock turns ago. The feast has started in the meantime. You can hear the music and the talk.” – he calmly filled the warlord in as he went to the small crest overhanging the very diminished river flowing below and contemplated the dark skies. Tyrakks joined him moments later.
The lord sucked in a deep breath of the cool and fresh canyon air – “The night is perfect for a strike. Only the stars glitter above our heads.”
“You will not have to sneak your way into the castle. It matters little if there is a moonless sky or a full moon illuminating the entire castle out there.”
“You know no more about strategy than a rock does. Cover of darkness is always an advantage over the enemy.” – Tyrakks stepped back into the exiguous space of the cavern – “Gather around, all!” – he commanded his small band – “You too, fool.”
“What do you want?” – the jester asked, displeased to be amid that bunch of smelly toms. The glow in his eyes had, meanwhile faded away to a normal level for a kat.
“First some more information. How far is it to deManx? He’s all that matters!”
“Behind that crack there is a set of stairs that will take us to a trapdoor in the floor of the royal wine cellars. However, the former wooden door was replaced by a large slab of solid rock. We will need a great deal of strength to set it loose. There aren’t many places to hide once we’re in the cellars. From there, there are a few stairs running up a narrow corridor that will take you to the base of the tower. You’ll have two choices. Either you attack directly in the yard, which is located about fifty meters to the south…”
“Or?” – asked Tyrakks, who didn’t like the idea of a direct, headless attack at all.
“Or you climb up the tower for an arrow attack. The top of the tower grants access to a beautiful ornamental frieze that runs around the entire length of the royal manor’s façade. It is narrow, but large enough to let a kat pass; in front of the yard it gets large enough even for two kats. Act with stealth and you’ll have a perfect shot at deManx from up there.”
“We shall attack on two fronts, then. I shall lead you, Glorivald, and you, Marcus, up the tower and onto the frieze while Edgar will lead the rest of you into the yard. Yes, you too, jester, so shut up!” – the jester grudgingly closed his mouth again – “You will sneak your way through the yard. Try to avoid unfriendly gazes. Take any cover you can find and don’t kill anybody unless it is absolutely necessary. Soldiers will get suspicious if their comrades fail to return to their duties and missing servants or citizens will draw attention to you like a dead horse draws the flies. Station near the gates of the royal residence and hide
there. Got that?”
Eight heads bobbed up and down but Tyrakks looked only at Edgar. The husky warrior nodded slowly, agreement shining in his eyes.
“Good. I, Marcus and Glorivald will take up positions on the frieze and fire our arrows at deManx. Is there any signal we could use to coordinate our attack, fool?”
The jester looked outside, into the darkness of the gorge – “It’s still early. If you don’t waste any further time arguing, you can be positioned and prepared before midnight. At midnight, you will hear the tower clock chime. Twelve strikes. You could strike deManx’s twelve then, too. Hehe…”
Lord Tyrakks looked at the jester acidly, but had to agree it was a good plan – “We’ll strike at midnight then – on the twelfth chime. If we fail in acquiring our quarry, deManx will surely be led your way, towards the palace, towards safety. You will make them realize how much in error they are. In any case, you will only attack after we had our shot at deManx. Whether we fail or succeed in killing our prey, you will only charge after that. Understood?”
“But, sire… Why don’t we attack first? It would create confusion and in confusion there is opportunity…” – Malthus pointed out but was cut in mid-sentence by Tyrakks.
“Aye, you would create confusion… And perhaps enough time for our target to become a moving blank! Perhaps a drunkenly wobbling moving target but a moving target nonetheless. Nay! We strike first. Only then you shall have your carnage… The plans are set. You all know your roles in this strike. May the good fortune be with us all. The seeds of war are sown!”
“May the darkness avail me and my dark desires!” – the jester thought, his eyes acquiring a stronger greenish glow as he balled his fists.
Squire Simon made sure the simpering smile was plastered on his face until he was a good distance away from deRelieu, but once half the yard lay between them he dropped his masquerade. A dire scowl now showed on his face as he wished the noble a dispossessed, friend- and penniless future. DeRelieu was a pain in the ass under normal circumstances. Drunk he was like syphilis – insufferable.
In preparation for the feast, deManx’s best spirits had been carried from the royal wine cellars into the serving rooms of buildings closest to the yard. Barrels of several burgundy wines, dry Ost Arden wine, Lyncaem Red, even ale out of Varryn. That was done both to keep the nobles happy and the servants’ routes short, as the wine cellars were too far away to walk there and back again the whole night long without tiring.
But deRelieu didn’t like these cheap, watery brews, as he called them. Only red wine from Hanro would do for the duke and his drinking companions. And Simon was to be the squire who “had better go and get them a cask of that unless he wanted his hide whipped raw”…
Simon checked the dancing flame of his candle for a last time before he opened the door and stepped into the tower, following the dark staircase that wound into the deep. He wouldn’t even have time enough to taste a mouthful of the king’s best wines himself, because deRelieu was checking the time like a hawk, and woe to him if he appeared lazy.
“If that wine is so strong I’m sure you won’t notice a little extra in it!” – Simon mused loudly about spitting into deRelieu’s brewage as he reached the end of the stairs.
Determinedly he walked over to the place where the Hanro was stored and put the candlestick onto a large wine barrel while he groped for a flagon. The glimmer of the candle’s flame shone eerily in the semi-darkness of the cellars. Shadows hushed over the walls, giving Simon the false impression of company. There in the corner it looked as if someone…
“Ah! It’s been quite a while since last I drank such a fine ale!” – Pyros stated, sighing out pleased.
“According to your own words, it was about five minutes ago that you had that last fine ale…” – Hydor commented with the shade of a mocking grin on his lips.
“So long ago? Sacred Kats, time flies when you’re enjoying yourself…” – the burly warrior said, filling up another goblet – “TO THE KING!”
“Aye, to the King!” – Eolos spoke.
“I’ll drink to that! To the King!” – Hydor corroborated.
Telluros smiled at them as he raised his cup and repeated the same toast. After emptying his goblet, he grabbed the wine carafe to fill it up again and walked towards Khronos, who was sitting somewhat apart, smoking. He sat down beside his comrade.
“You seem to be enjoying the feast.” – Khronos stated before sucking in a generous portion of smoke and letting it all out slowly.
“Unlike you. What ails you?” – Telluros asked as he passed an arm over Khronos’ shoulders and shook the gray tom a bit.
“I know you better than that, old friend. You may be able to hide your feelings from everyone but not from me… I know what troubles you tonight.”
Khronos looked straight into Telluros’ eyes. A flicker of fright flashed ever so rapidly across his own face. His heartbeat accelerated. How could he know that…
“I fear the same…” – Telluros continued – “The castle is vulnerable tonight. Even the guard on the towers has been lightened.”
The gray knight’s shoulders sagged ever so slightly. Were he alone he’d have sighed in relief.
“Even the Dark Mistress is against us tonight.” – Telluros continued, looking up to the black moonless skies.
“Aye, there is little silver in her murky dress tonight… Not enough to spot a small offensive party, anyway…” – Khronos agreed, giving voice to the other tom’s thoughts.
“Perhaps we’re just allowing ourselves to be carried away by our own training. Remember how we were taught to be on our guard at all times?” – Telluros asked.
Khronos softly patted the side of his torso – “I guess I learned that the hard way…”
Telluros chuckled and raised his cup – “To a successful recovery, my friend!”
Khronos reached for his chalice and held it high as well. After the strong clink of metal against metal was heard, they gulped down the spirits inside each cup in one drought.
“Such a fine wine…” – Khronos sighed in pleasure, allowing himself a moment of rest from his worries.
“I doubt it Pyros would agree. Unless you forcibly separate him from his supply of Varryn ale, of course…”
Khronos laughed quietly. He refilled his goblet with wine and sipped a bit from it, letting it stay in his mouth for a while, feeling the alcohol sting and pleasure his tonsils. The festive sounds flooded the yard and spilled out to the streets surrounding the castle. The billowing clouds of perfumed smoke, the meat, the sound and the wine all contributed to lighten his mood. He observed the remaining guests and gave out one of his rare warm smiles. He began truly enjoying
Suddenly, everything changed. A strong, yet totally unexpected feeling overthrew Khronos, making him gasp and double over ever so slightly as if he received a blow to his gut. The feeling came so suddenly he dropped the metal cup, which fell on the floor with a loud metallic sound before slowly rolling away from him. The gray tom watched as the crimson pool of wine spread at his feet.
“What was that?” – he muttered. He then looked at Telluros with an inquiring gaze.
“You felt it too?” – the brown-furred tom asked back. Meanwhile, the aging form of Sir Astor stepped away from the festive frenzy and marched over to them. His face bore the lines of preoccupation all over it.
“Something evil happened.” – the Arch Mage spoke – “Somewhere in our vicinity, although I cannot say exactly where…”
“What’s happening here?” – Pyros asked as he walked towards the three mages – “The faces you’re making could strike terror even into Darkwater himself!”
“We must act quickly if we want to prevent further harm. Gather Hydor and Eolos.” – Sir Astor ordered. Pyros acknowledged and left without questioning.
“Well done, my warriors. Resistance must be terminated on sight!” – Tyrakks complimented his companions, some of which were cleaning their swords. One of them cleaned a spiked iron rod.
“What do we do now?” – Glorivald asked.
“Nothing has changed! You all know what to do! Blow out the candle and leave this mess to the darkness.”
Blackness blanketed the cellars by the time the nine scurried up the stairs. Once they reached the door on the ground floor, Tyrakks peered outside. The path was clear and dark. He silently praised the Sacred Kats for withdrawing the nocturnal aster’s light.
“Go now. And be swift but stealthy! This whole operation depends on absolute secrecy!” – Tyrakks ordered. His warriors passed him by, following the lead of the gray mountain named Edgar. Last of all scurrying off was the jester. Tyrakks grabbed his right arm, making him stop.
“Remember you said you’d stake your life upon your plan, buffoon… And I reiterate that you do…” – Tyrakks sneered. The jester glared back at the warlord. With a jerk he loosened his arm and followed the others. The warlord watched them merge with the darkness before addressing Glorivald and Marcus. – “Let’s go.”
By the time Pyros, Hydor and Eolos had gathered around Sir Astor, Khronos and Telluros, they already knew something terribly wrong was under way. Their master’s mien and orders spoke volumes about the seriousness of the situation.
“I fear the guard has been breached. Something terrible happened nearby. We may all be in grave peril.” – Sir Astor briefed them all.
They looked around. The other guests were completely unaware of the impending danger and the spirits and that night’s feeding frenzy had already taken care of them all. The soldiers were totally incapable of defending their own purses, let alone the castle or their king. Even the high priest seemed as if he had had a close encounter with the Sacred Kats. The king was no better himself.
“We’re on our own, men.” – Sir Astor darkly added, looking from one side to the other – “Be on your guard. The enemy still has the advantage of surprise.”
Telluros grinded his teeth as he too looked from one side to the other discreetly. They knew something had been set in motion but could do nothing about it while they didn’t figure out where. They were helpless.
Precious time trickled away until help came in the form of a blabbering, irritated raised voice – “Where the hell is that bloody squire with our wine? He’s been gone for twenty minutes already!” – one of the noble kats shouted, obviously inebriated by alcohol.
Telluros stopped for a moment and then looked in the direction of the cellars, pondering. Then he turned to his comrades.
“They’re in the cellars! They’re in the royal wine cellars! The squires normally don’t take more than eight to ten minutes to go in there and get back. Twenty minutes is far too long.” – he explained.
“You may be right.” – Eolos spoke – “Even drunk, the squires wouldn’t dare defy the wrath of their lords!”
“Let’s go!” – Telluros commanded as he guided his warriors out of the yard.
“Khronos and I will stay and protect his majesty. Good luck.” – Sir Astor said.
“Why have you impeded me from going with them? I am eager for some action!” – the gray-furred tom asked sharply as he watched his four comrades all but run for the cellars. Despite his best attempts he was unable to hide the tone of anger completely from his voice.
“The wound you carry is still not fully healed. I want you close to me while you’re not completely recuperated. Now we must mingle with the others and keep our eyes peeled for anything unusual.”
With a sigh of resignation, Khronos complied and followed his master.
With a gesture, Edgar ordered the kats at his command to come forth. They slid along the street quietly as shadows and hid behind or underneath the chariots and baskets that crammed the sides of the causeway. They rapidly covered the fifty meters separating the tower and the entrance to the yard that way and hid behind a large turned wagon.
Edgar peered out and was about to order his kats forth when he saw four toms leaving the feast yard in a hurry. As they fled past him he recognized them as the Mystical Knights. A smile flourished on his lips as he informed his comrades.
“Those were the Mystical Knights. Oswick was right, he really did kill one of them. Kats Beneath eat the wretched warlock; Sacred Kats welcome our fallen friend…”
“Why would they flash by us?” – Leitner queried.
“I don’t know but I don’t care either. This is our cue! If we’re going to penetrate the yard, we won’t have a better chance than now that those conjurers are away.”
“I can think of better things to do tonight than die…” – Julius said in a whisper, uttering aloud the words that filled the minds of everyone present in that secret council. Some heads even bobbed up and down ever so slightly, sharing their companion’s thought.
“There is some dying to be done tonight, aye…” – Edgar spoke in a deep, rumbling voice, albeit keeping it at a whisper level – “But it will not be us who will die! Forth is our way! Move your heavy arses, you miserable whoresons! Tonight we bring victory to our liege and honour to our lord!” – Edgar incited them.
In they went. Their trial by fire would be precisely the entrance. If they were spotted entering the yard, all would be lost. At least they had gotten rid of those smelly old peasant clothes. They weren’t in their best ceremonial garbs but they could be taken for guards if not for the fact that they were wearing King Darkwater’s uniforms. It was a pity that they hadn’t found a patrol of guards to steal their uniforms. It would have been much easier that way…
Nevertheless, hunching behind empty casks, dented metal shields and other artifacts that lay around the yard, they managed to reach the side arcades. Once there, they converged on the farthest point, huddling there where there were permanent shadows.
“Are all present?” – Edgar asked on the sly.
“All present and accounted for.” – Malthus replied.
“Good…” He observed the surroundings: the arcade in front of him, the yard to his left, and – in the wall of the yard just north-west of them – the gates to the palace. He studied them for a while, realizing those doors were guarded but remained mostly buried in shadows. He then proceeded to study the arcade in front of him. Trailing the whole span of the yard and separated from it by a low wall about half a meter high, the arcade was gloomy and poorly illuminated.
“Good…” – he repeated – “Follow me!”
They crawled the entire length of the arcade. When they got to a door where the servants came in and out bringing food and taking out the remains, Edgar ordered Phileas to come with him. Like Edgar, Phileas was also well built but was shorter than his comrade, which made him look fat rather than muscled. Many enemies met their doom facing Phileas exactly because of such misjudgments. Edgar and Phileas pressed themselves against the shaded wall. Edgar peered inside. The room was empty. He ordered Phileas to the other side, which the other warrior did without hesitation.
Keeping a watchful eye in the room, Edgar ordered his men to pass to the other side one at a time. Malthus and Leitner had already passed when someone strode into the room. Edgar pressed himself harder against the wall and, with a gesture, ordered Julius and the fool to stay put. The squire walked through the room and stepped outside. As soon as he did it, two strong arms wrapped around his neck and, with a gesture learned out of years of practice, swiftly twisted the tom’s head. The sound was like that of a dry twig snapping. The roar of the festivities easily subdued it. The unfortunate squire never even felt what happened to him.
“Mateo?” – came suddenly the shout from deep within the house.
Footsteps were growing louder, announcing the imminent arrival of more kats. The heartbeat of each of the invaders accelerated – this was exactly what they had feared. The missing of one servant might go unnoticed, but if they had to subdue half of the household minions or even a chamberlain, then their detection would only be a matter of minutes.
The jester reacted first. He pushed past Julius and stepped inside, retrieved the bell cap from his pocket, unfolded and donned it.
“Wait!” – hissed Edgar – “What are you doing?”
“Following Tyrakks’ order to stake my life upon his plan” – the jester whispered in return. Behind his back he motioned for his accomplices to disappear outside while he waited for the voices to take on shape.
Edgar had to swallow his tongue so as not to ask the mad jester loudly further about what he was planning. Instead he silently ordered Julius to get over to their little crowd, quick, and together with Phileas they carried the corpse to a shaded area a good distance away from the door, where they dropped it silently.
He told his men to keep hidden there and sneaked back, his hand on the hilt of his sword. He reached the door and risked an eye watching the encounter inside for a second. He could see two servants in the room with the jester before he withdrew his head again. Warily he listened in on their conversation.
“The last time I looked into a mirror, I was the jester! But if you mean that servant that left this house a minute ago, I guess he was headed for the yard. They all do.”
“The jester? I thought the king had fired you?”
“With the largest feast of all coming up, the king would show little vision if he fired his best merry zany.” – the jester’s voice held only the slightest trace of anger and even Edgar wouldn’t have noticed it, hadn’t he spent the last days in the company of the fool – “Who’d be there to entertain the king and all his gallant friends tonight, I ask you.”
“No one, I assume?”
Edgar didn’t have to see the jester to grasp the answer. Those infuriating bells on top of his cap betrayed his nod anyway.
“Exactly! The king needs my skills. I will make this evening unforgettable for him and his suave courtiers!”
“Then what are you doing *here*, jester?”
Cackling, the jester twisted his head on his shoulders, making exactly the same snapping sound that had accompanied the murder of the servant, albeit not nearly as loud. The bells on his cap hadn’t ceased ringing either – “I’m warming up for my performance before the king.”
“Why here?” – came the voice of the second servant.
“Well, let’s say I know better ways to warm a body up than exercise, and as the one way is currently unavailable to me, swarming moth-like around the nobles in that yard, I thought you might provide me with the other one… I can’t drink under the very eyes of the nobility, but that doesn’t mean I never say yes to a good wine prior to my entry. Just like you…”
Edgar could literally envision the broad, maniacal smile on the jester’s face, but he was certain the fool was right. On such rare occasions as feasts, the servants were always assuring that they too had their share of wine and ale; they just had it in private.
The answer of the first servant came hesitantly – “I see… Well, if you…”
Edgar didn’t listen any longer. He remembered the time and Lord Tyrakks’ orders. He released the hilt at last and slowly retreated from the door, sure that after some little negotiation – in the form of tales for wine – the jester would follow the servants to their clandestine stock of spirits for some drinks. All that mattered to Edgar was that the threat was banned.
He came back to where his companions were huddled around the corpse – “Let’s move on!”
“What about the jester?” – asked Malthus.
“He’s luring those fools away from our tracks.”
“He’s not accompanying us?”
“Now why don’t you think for yourself for a change, Malthus?” – growled Edgar – “What good would the madkat do us in a fight? Rhyme his enemies into melancholy? Without his insider knowledge he’d have lost his usefulness to us long ago! Let him get drunk with the servants until we finish our task. Then we get back here and finally get rid of that insane pestilence, too…”
Malthus looked surprised and also slightly bashed. Phileas, on the other hand, grinned widely – “How long have I waited for you to say this!”
“Then why are you still lingering here, wasting precious time? Move! The final hour is advancing with wide steps!”
They resumed their crawling and finally reached the end of the arcades. They could go no further lest they wanted to be detected. But they were very close to the gates and there were only two scrawny toms standing guard to the gates – Edgar would call anyone scrawny who wasn’t as well built as he was. He smiled in anticipation. Beating them to a fleshy red pulp would be so easy…
He studied the yard once more. He tried to discern how many guards would be stationed in there. He could count as many as ten. They were just six but they were the best fighters of Lord Tyrakks’ battalion. Besides, he could perfectly well see the guards were slightly drowsy. He wondered where King deManx’s soldiers would be. Probably celebrating and frolicking in the city, either with their wives or with their lovers. Perhaps even with both. Well, they would learn tonight that the price of freedom is a constant watch. Edgar and Lord Tyrakks would be there to assure they understood well the lesson.
Meanwhile, the four Mystical Knights reached the cellars. The room was completely dark again. Telluros was in the lead, with Pyros and Eolos right behind him and Hydor covering up the rear. A squishing sound filled the room for a second when Telluros stepped forth. Pyros mumbled something and a glimmering fireball appeared hovering over his head.
“Good work, Pyros. Now let’s… Sacred Kats!” – Telluros gasped when he saw what he had stepped into. Glued to his boot were the squished remains of a feline brain portion still dripping blood.
“What is this new devilry?” – Hydor asked in a low voice.
“Look! There!” – Pyros pointed forth – “Now we know what happened to the poor squire!”
The dismembered and disemboweled body of the young tom lay in a large pool of his own blood. Eolos came closer and examined the remains.
“This was not made by a single blade. The poor bastard was attacked by several foes.” – the slim knight examined the shattered head and shivered – “What a way to go… I’m afraid one of his attackers had a mace of some sort. A sword couldn’t do this to a feline skull…”
“And look here…” – Hydor pointed.
“I can count as many as four, maybe five kats.” – Pyros said before reckoning for a second.
“The footprints end very quickly. We don’t know where they have gone to.” – Hydor spoke.
Telluros pondered on that information at the glimmering light of Pyros’ fireball. Whoever had broken in obviously knew his way around the castle; a fact that pointed to the existence of a traitor in Megalith court. Telluros ran to the base of the tower and outside. From there he looked around, to the path that separated the tower’s entrance and the yard where the feast was still occurring. The causeway was large enough to let a pair of chariots pass but its sides were filled with many objects that could constitute good hideouts for a direct attack on the king.
On the other hand… With a sense of premonition, Telluros squinted heavenwards. Outlined fleetingly against the dark stone wall, Telluros thought he saw the shape of a kat on the almost invisible frieze.
“Sacred Kats! Pyros! Eolos! Go back to the king and escort His Highness to the palace. Hurry! Our sovereign’s life depends on it!” – Telluros ordered – “Hydor! Come with me! We’re going up onto the frieze.”
“What? Are you mad?” – Hydor questioned in disbelief. Still, he followed the brown-furred kat’s lead. In all the years he’d befriended Telluros he had never led him astray. Even so he sighed in annoyance.
“The things I must do for our king’s sake…”
Midnight was merely minutes away when Tyrakks and his companions reached the part of the ornament overhanging the yard. The warlord ordered his men to take up positions on the frieze, with a distance of fifteen meters between each other, for their coordinated attack. Tyrakks knelt down on one knee and looked back to Glorivald and Marcus. The first was a dim shadow to his left but the second was nowhere in sight, out of his eye range because of the darkness. Tyrakks smiled grimly, then looked below and quickly found the round figure of deManx, laughing that insidious and stupid laugh and drinking wine and eating roasted wild boar like a thirsty and famine beast. The picture sickened him. Soon he felt a growl growing deep inside him.
He retrieved his bow and one arrow from the quiver. Unseen, he heard Glorivald and Marcus do the same. The warlord passed the tuft of black feathers at the end of the arrow by his lips before taking a careful aim. He aimed at the back of deManx’s head. In just a few moments, by the final midnight strike of the Tower bells, deManx would laugh no more…
The clock tower started its fabled midnight’s chime. The deep ring of bronze bells rolled over the yard and drowned out the festival activities. The sound ebbed away and silence lasted for a second, then the second strike cut the air. However, a muffled thud interrupted Tyrakks’ concentration. He looked to his left, from where the sound had come. He merely saw Glorivald who, just like him, was watching the darkness inquisitorially. Something was wrong.
“Focus on the target, now! Forget Marcus!” – Tyrakks ordered, whispering in the silence between two more bell strikes. He resumed his aiming. For him, the entire world turned jet black. All he saw was the back of deManx’s skull. He aimed and recoiled the string. The bow cracked ever so slightly. The string chanted a song of death and doom. A drop of perspiration dripped from the warlord’s forehead. He licked his lips. Megalith Kingdom would fall and his monarch, Darkwater, would cover him with all of the kingdom’s glories. He could picture the arrow’s path. He could see it perforating the skull and burying
deep inside his foe’s head. It was in his hands now.
He didn’t see the two kats approaching, almost running over the frieze. The same mistake cost Marcus his life. He only noticed Telluros’ incoming sword when it came flying towards his chest, riveting through him from side to side. The death was almost instantaneous. Telluros had to slow down to retrieve his sword. Hydor passed him by while he saw Pyros and Eolos enter the yard, running as though their own lives depended on that.
The tenth sound of the gong vibrated in the air when Hydor saw the two kneeling toms, stretching their bows and aiming at something in the yard. He felt a chill running up his spine. He didn’t need to know anything else. He practically flew over the frieze and screamed as he lunged at the nearest kat, tackling him against the wall. Glorivald released his missile upon impact. The arrow flew from the bow and darted through the air meeting its target and burying itself deep in the chest flesh. The noble tom fell to the side and rolled so he faced the dirt on the yard’s slabs. However, he wasn’t deManx. Glorivald had missed thanks to Hydor.
Fear for his liege’s life had dazed Hydor for one second, as much time as necessary for Glorivald to recover. He wrestled himself out of Hydor’s grip and kicked out at him, hitting the Mystical Knight square in the chest just as Telluros flashed past them. Hydor flew back, tumbling and using up his entire year’s luck ratio by somehow preventing himself from going over the edge. Glorivald drew steel and charged. All Hydor managed was a hastily performed roll to his right, then the sound of metal cutting through the air where he had stood only a moment ago echoed from the walls. Hydor growled and threw a fist at his enemy’s face. Glorivald jumped back and overbalanced for a split-second, giving the Mystical Knight a break long enough to draw his own blade. Now their fight truly began.
Telluros was past the heap that were Hydor and his adversary, running over the frieze, but he was still too far away to try a decent throw of his sword like he did with Marcus. The clock struck twelve for the last time. Before he could intervene, the warlord’s fingers released the grip they held over the bow’s string, letting it propel the arrow towards its target with lethal speed. The arrow soared the distance between Tyrakks and deManx, cutting the very air, making it resonate as it zinged towards its blank. Telluros shouted a vain, helpless and desperate negative.
A lone figure was walking slowly, almost leisurely, through the dark streets of inner Megalith City, away from the festivities and its noises in the yard, wandering westwards, ever westwards. Blackness made the air as impenetrable as if it were dense with fog, and that’s why no one noticed that this kat was scanning the surroundings circumspectly for any sign of unwanted company. Nobody saw the maniacal smile on his face or the gleam in his eyes, maddened with determination. Not a soul could hear the three-bell cap, for it had long since been rolled into a ball and hidden in a pocket of the red-beige costume again.
The jester stopped where blackness became pitch-blackness, in the shadows of a large building in front of him. He looked up and his eyes flashed a brilliant green for a brief second. Here he was at last: the Tower.
Patiently he waited for midnight, which didn’t take long to come. It had already been five to twelve when, after only one drink, he had excused himself from his sociable new servant “friends” (he had to chuckle into his fist on account of this address) with the excuse of having to prepare himself for “his grand finale” (another chuckle). Now the bells above his head rang out and uncoiled the tension that had been building up in him and elicited these titters. He counted the booming chimes to the dozen while he was working the door’s lock and pulling it ajar. Then, the final ring fading away in the cold air, he slipped through the small gap, closing the door behind him. His eyes started to shine again, brighter and madder than ever. The opalescent green was his only source of light, but it was strong enough to guide him through the unfamiliar surroundings.
Pyros and Eolos had never run faster in their lives. They had to get their liege out of the archer’s range, or at least shield him from any arrow that might be sent against him. Every meter seemed to stretch; every citizen nearby seemed to block their path. They knocked passers-by down without missing a step, jumped over smaller obstacles like baskets and logs at full speed and yet the distance dwindled far too slowly. Pyros saw the slightly hunched form of Sir Astor amidst the celebrities and shouted out loud, waving frantically…
Sir Astor turned around, startled by screams nearly drowned by the clock’s chime. He recognized the running and waving Pyros just as a second, fainter scream floating down from the top of the northern wall made him jerk his head up.
Instantly realizing the imminent danger, Sir Astor did the only thing he could do. He cast a spell. For the Arch-Mage the world seemed to slow down around him. His mind became a void swallowing anything but the spot his eyes were focused on. He searched for any sign of an incoming projectile. He searched, searched and almost missed it in the dark. The arrow was so small it was nearly invisible slicing through the blackness. Already weakened from the advanced spell he was perpetuating, the leader of the Mystical Knights cast a second spell to slow the arrow down. The arrow’s velocity and contour made it as hard to stop as an incoming boulder flung by a catapult. When it finally stopped, it was merely a few inches from his sovereign’s skull. The Arch-Mage dropped to his knees in sheer exhaustion just after the arrow fell helplessly at deManx’s feet. None of the other Mystical Knights would’ve had the strength needed to conjure these two powerful spells, except maybe Khronos.
“Never mind me.” – the aging kat wheezed in the direction of Eolos and Pyros, running towards him – “Our king is in mortal danger. You must take him to safety.”
“Aye.” – Sir Eolos acknowledged, short of breath, but pressing on. Together with Pyros he ran to Sir Khronos and the king – “Your Majesty is in grave danger out here. We are to escort you to the royal palace. GUARDS!”
At the Mystical Knight’s shout the ten guards stationed in the yard came to him. A nearly breathless Sir Astor joined them after the guards were instructed on what to do. After acknowledging his condition to the expectant Mystical Knights, they moved on towards the gates.
“Ah, what’s going on here?” – King deManx demanded.
“Not to worry, my liege. Your safety is assured now.” – Pyros stated as he led the king away. He was about to reach the gates when the two guards stationed there fell to his feet. He stared down on them, not fully grasping what had happened.
“I think you’re very much in error, warlock demon…” – Edgar said, jumping from his hideout and holding his black sword high above his head. He swung it down on Pyros’ head, ready to chop the mage in two.
Up on the frieze, Lord Tyrakks snarled in contempt at the devilish magic that had crossed his assassination plans, but he could do nothing about it. Instead, he got up while he unsheathed his sword and held it high to stop Sir Telluros’ incoming blow.
Both warriors were soon entwined in a fierce battle. Tyrakks was a skillful swordsman, dancing the dance of death on the dark, narrow frieze high above the yard with no worry about himself. Telluros, however, parried his every move, just as fearless and daring in his attacks as his opponent. While they were going at it hammer and tongs, minutes slipped away before Telluros had even the chance just to glimpse at the happenings down in the yard out of the corner of his eye. What he saw made his heart pump harder against his ribs.
“Hydor! It’s a trap! Fighters are attacking the king in the yard! Get rid of that goat-eater and go down and help our friends.” – he ordered.
“Right! Like I’ve been wandering around all this time, no?” – he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm as he blocked another slash from Glorivald.
“You know, for once I’d like you to simply follow orders.” – Telluros sighed. As if on cue, Hydor released another sigh. Slashing out, he managed to rip a bleeding gash on the side of Glorivald’s torso. The opposing warrior closed his defense as he groped his bleeding hide, which gave Hydor all the extra seconds he needed.
“Giver of life, // Taker of life. // Faster than a roll of dice, // Water, turn into ice.” – Hydor chanted. Suddenly, a glacial coldness enveloped Glorivald and he started freezing up from the inside. The black-furred tom screamed in agony as the ice crystals pierced his every fiber, his every organ. In a few moments, his own blood froze up inside his veins. Soon enough, his strength faltered and he fell from the frieze. Glorivald passed away even before he froze completely. When he impacted on the rock slabs of the yard below, he shattered in a million pieces.
“Good work. Now get going!” – Telluros congratulated his comrade between clenched teeth as he blocked another blow from Tyrakks.
“I’m on my way!” – Hydor acknowledged as he backed away over the frieze.
Pyros had only time to react, not think. He clapped his hands on both sides of the incoming blade, managing to stop its motion when the edge was only a few inches from his forehead. Edgar forced the sword down as Pyros forced it up. The black blade’s edge pierced the flesh on the base of the knight’s thumbs, making his blood trickle down his hands and onto his chest.
From behind him, Malthus, Leitner, Phileas and Julius stormed into the yard and quickly surrounded the retreating party, slashing out as they went. Four of the guards met their ultimate doom right there in the first onslaught. The remaining warriors managed to draw out their swords and defend themselves. A
terrible sword fight ensued with an inanely blabbering King deManx in the middle.
However well trained Megalith soldiers may be, they can never be a real challenge when their reflexes and minds are slowed down by alcohol. Soon, the guards realized they were no longer fighting to defend their king but rather to defend their own lives. It became clear their foes would stop at nothing to take their sovereign’s head off. That spurted them for a while but their efforts were impossible to sustain. In short order, the invading party slaughtered them all.
Pyros was also losing his strength. The proverbial sword hanging above his head had all of a sudden taken a whole new and realistic meaning. The blood from the wounds in his hands was now dripping onto his face. Desperately, he jerked the sword to his right and tried to dodge it. He managed his intent and swiftly turned around as he unsheathed his sword and held it vertically to block his foe’s slash, eliciting an explosion of sparks from the point of contact between both blades.
“There are five of them against three of us!” – Eolos rasped as he blocked a slash from Julius and dodged a stab from Malthus.
“Then let’s even the odds!” – Khronos stated as he fenced against Phileas and Leitner. He dodged a blow from Leitner and head-banged him into his companion, making them both tumble backwards. That bought him time enough to concentrate on the stronger of them and to chant a spell – “Time is mine to master. // Through ages it flies. // You will wither and alter // Until your existence it nullifies!”
A purple ray shot towards Phileas, hitting him square in the chest, throwing him away. The brawny warrior soon got up and looked to his hands. He saw the fur on them growing at an astonishing fast rate. He began feeling tired and started having trouble breathing. The fur started to turn gray. He realized he was aging at an unnatural speed. He doubled over and clutched his gut. It felt like on fire. He staggered to Khronos, who was busy again fencing with Leitner. Phileas screamed.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME, YOU DEVIL?”
Leitner looked behind and saw his comrade staggering towards him. His fur was absurdly long and gray. His face was scrawny, almost skeletal. His steps were unsure. He wheezed in and out loudly. He grabbed Khronos by the neck and tried to strangle him but his fingers had no strength left in them. He squealed an unholy scream as the strength faltered him, making him kneel. The pop Khronos heard told him the kat had broken his kneecaps when he knelt down. His screams were heart-rending, unearthly. His fur started falling in large patches quickly followed by his rotting skin. Soon, nothing more but a pile of filthy rotten entrails were at Khronos’ feet. The kat was now a brown skeleton, still withering away. He wasn’t screaming anymore. Not a sound was heard from him anymore. At last, his bones exploded in dust, forming a heap at the purple rider’s feet ready to be blown away by the nocturnal breeze.
Leitner had his eyes opened up wide. He was terrified about what had happened to his comrade. He looked back at Khronos, a raging growl forming deep in his chest.
“YOU WILL PAY, YOU MISERABLE BUGGER!”
The other attackers were also terrified. That only made them even more eager to destroy the Mystical Knights and vanquish their miserable excuse for a king.
“The wind flows // In strength it grows. // Sharper than a knife // I call the Wind Scythe!” – Eolos chanted.
The wind caught up and soon the night breeze turned into a storm enveloping Eolos. He slashed out with his right arm, aiming the apex of the slash at Julius. A wind stroke hit the enemy warrior and a gush of blood flew across the air. Julius stared unbelievingly at his chest. It bore a bleeding slash that ran from his lower left chest up until his right shoulder. Julius was shaking like a green stalk in the wind. Eolos slashed out again and this time the blow was so powerful and so well aimed that it beheaded the opposing warrior.
“Now that’s more like it! One-on-one combat, just like it ought to be!” – Eolos gloated, and with reason. They were finally fighting back after the initial casualties. However, their foes battled even fiercer now, driven by fear of ending up like their comrades.
“They are not felines in nature, these whoresons! Give these demons no quarter!” – Edgar grunted aloud to incite his comrades, now greatly reduced in number with the losses of four of them.
“They mean to kill me! Astor, they mean to kill me!” – King deManx blabbered as he cowered behind the white garments of his advisor.
“They will not harm your majesty… Not while I still have strength left!” – the aging kat wheezed out. He was still tired from the powerful spells he invoked only moments ago. He tried to stand tall and proud to protect his sovereign but it was no more than a mild illusion, the only sorcery he could muster at this point. He was totally dependent on his pupils.
“The Gray Devil!” – Leitner spat, turning each word into a curse – “Now I know why your foes dubbed you by such a name, warlock! Oswick should have speared you from side to side when he had the chance!”
Khronos raised his sword to block a downward slash from Leitner. The impact caused a shower of sparks to rush over the Mystical Knight’s face. – “So that was the name of the bugger who speared me!” – he grunted – “Were his parents mad at the world when they named him so?”
“Wrong comment, wretch!” – Leitner grunted between clenched teeth. He drew back his sword for a low slash. The blade swooshed in a shiny arc from below, meeting Khronos’ blade in a powerful upstroke that Khronos couldn’t fully block. Both swords went up with the blow, which made the Mystical Knight open up his guard. Leitner sneered malevolently. – “Oswick also told me something before he died!”
Saying no more, Leitner kicked Khronos’ right side as hard as he could. Khronos opened his eyes wide when he felt the sharp pain on his still not completely healed wound. It seemed as though he had gotten speared once again. He simply gasped and grunted his pain out in surprise. Doubling over he quickly tried to close his guard while he groped his side with his left hand.
“He told me where his spear fell! He drew out your blood with his javelin then. Now, my blade shall finish his work!” – Leitner said as he slashed out at the wounded tom.
Khronos still tried to block the slash but fencing with only one hand, the gray tom did not have the strength to withstand his foe’s mighty swipe. Khronos’ sword flew from his hand and fell on the stone floor with a loud metallic clangor. Leitner attacked once more without giving Khronos enough time to dodge his blow. The slash hit the Mystical Knight at the base of his chest, ripping his clothes and opening a bleeding gash. Khronos let out an exclamation of pain as he groped his chest. His opponent threw him a punch to his face, which made the gray warrior fall back to the floor.
“Call out for your demonic makers, warlock!” – Leitner said as he raised his sword over his head, readying himself for the final strike – “Not even they can save you now! DIE!”
Khronos saw the sharp edge of the blade hurrying towards him, ready to chop him in half. He closed his eyes, hoping his demise would be swift. The sound of metal against metal rang over the sounds of the battle. The sound, just as the long wait for the incoming blade confused Khronos. He should be finished by now. He opened his eyes and saw some sparks. His enemy was overhanging him. A few beads of sweat ran down his forehead. Leitner wasn’t looking down at him. He was looking to the side with a besotted look on his face. Khronos looked to the same side. He finally discerned the other sword, which had stopped Leitner’s blade. He recognized the kat who wielded that second sword.
“Hydor!” – Khronos sighed in surprise.
“No brother of ours shall be killed while I’m alive to protect him!” – the blond tom growled in a low tone. He then roared and forced his sword up, drawing his opponent away from the injured Khronos and resuming the fight with Leitner in Khronos’ lieu. The gray knight swiftly assessed the damages inflicted upon him before getting up. He quickly went for his sword, returning then to guard his king along with Sir Astor.
“I apologize profusely, my mentor… It seems I am now unfit to retake the combat…” – said the Mystical Knight.
“No one is ever completely unfit. Even now, you still battle for your King. Every drop of blood dripping out of your body speaks volumes about your loyalty and your courage.”
“Then why is my heart telling me that this is pointless?” – Khronos thought as he pointed his sword up, assuming a defensive stance.
The dame of Megalith City, Queen Callista, rolled on her bed under the silky sheet. Her golden mane lay partly over her face in disarrangement. She was sleeping peacefully, as if nothing in this world could disturb her. In fact, she was dreaming. In her reverie, she saw herself lying down by a small mountain stream, stretched over the green grass that blanketed the banks of the indolent rivulet, occasionally cut by a rocky outcrop.
The sunrays were caressing her face as she lay on her back, hands behind the back of her head. Weren’t it for her garbs, she could be mistaken for a peasant girl. She opened her eyes and watched gleefully as a multicolored butterfly flapped its large wings across the air.
She admitted she loved that place. There, she didn’t have to be queen. She was just another sentient being in communion with Nature. She closed her eyes again, listening to the rhythmic drone of a cicada perched on a branch of the willow tree overhanging the flowing body of water. Lulled by the insect’s sound, she strayed into a light sleep.
She didn’t know for how long had she stayed in that blissful trance. What she did know was that strange, out of place sounds started merging with the rhythmic lullaby drone of the cicada. It sounded like metal hurtling into metal, the song a blade sang whenever it swished… Even ghastlier were the sounds of what seemed to be screams…
Those unfitting sounds gained over the cicada’s song, bringing Callista to awareness. She looked around but all she saw were the grass, the stream, the mountain fields sloping down to the valley below, the willow tree and the singing insect still perched on one of its branches. However, she didn’t hear either of these natural melodies. She kept listening to those horrid noises.
In time, Queen Callista woke up. First, her eyes parted but a little, thin slits that barely let see her emerald green irises. As she recollected herself, she opened her eyes and cleared the sleep out of her head. Her golden locks swished wildly from side to side as she shook her head to clear the last traces of sleep-induced dizziness.
Still, she kept listening to those unfitting sounds. However, now she heard them clearly. She got out of bed and hastily dressed her dark pink silk robe over her under garbs. She headed out of the bedroom and, barefooted, quickly strutted towards the throne room. Once there, she headed for the large window that granted access to the balcony overhanging the yard where the feast was supposed to be occurring. She grasped the curtains and shoved them aside abruptly.
A battle was brewing right below her frightened and confounded gaze. The feast had yielded to a nightmare. She could see her husband cowering behind the white garments of her trusted advisor, Sir Astor. There were also the Mystical Knights, all of them battling fiercely against some invaders she had never laid eyes upon before.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME, YOU DEMON?”
The scream came to her ears almost as clearly as though she was down there, in the yard and made her quiver. She saw one of the invaders quickly decaying and finally turning into a skeleton that blew to a fine dust in front of Khronos.
She watched as her Mystical Knights struggled valiantly against the invaders. For a long time, she thought both parties had equivalent strength and skill. She gasped in horror when she saw Sir Khronos receive a blow to his side and fall down. She looked at Khronos’ companions, hoping any of them would notice the fallen Knight. Soon enough, however, she realized they were too focused on their own fights to pay much attention to their comrade.
They couldn’t help Khronos. But maybe *she* could help them all…
As he scanned the lower levels of the Tower the jester thought of his companions. What would he give to see Tyrakks’ face, or that of his near dumb-show man, Edgar, if they knew he had used them for his own dark desire – “No, my selfless distraction of those servants has not been selfless in the slightest, Edgar!” – he whispered into the darkness, to no one in particular. Rather it had followed the single aim he’d been undertaking ever since he left Megalith City: to get into this very tower.
He had sworn vengeance on King deManx, wanted to see him suffer, humiliated, even dead; however, he did not want this to happen by somebody else’s hand. The Darkwaterian soldiers were just a diversion – cannon fodder, albeit very cussing cannon fodder… And the jester truly doubted that there was any chance of success for Lord Tyrakks’ plans. The Mystical Knights were far too alert to be caught napping on duty like cheap tavern guards, and too powerful to be swatted by a band of blunt soldiers with blunt weapons.
“Chances are they’re already dead by now…”
It didn’t matter to him. Darkwater’s soldiers had just been his guarantee that the Mystical Knights were kept too busy to worry for their tower. They had fulfilled their task, what more could he ask for?
He began laughing eerily – “This is my game of chess, deManx! You have some knights, but they’re busy with my pawns. And so you’re defenseless. I will destroy your king. But you can’t destroy mine, as I have no king, hahaha… – Now where is it? It must be here somewhere!”
His humor vanished as swiftly as it had come – “Arrgh!” – he had opened another door. Behind it was another training room, midway up the tower. He turned and ascended further, eyes flashing maliciously, another growl rumbling from his throat.
“The queen is the key to winning this game, deManx! Your queen and my queen, for that’s the same thing. AND I WANT HER AMULET!” – he screamed, not caring if anyone noticed. A mad rage had taken hold of him. Again…
For he knew to whom it belonged – the amulet… He had seen it. When he had still had access to any part of the castle, when he had still been the king’s jester, he had espied it. Queen Callista was its wearer – the seventh Mystical Knight was of royal blood! Sir Astor was giving her private lectures in the castle, in secret, because no others, not even the other Mystical Knights, should know of her tampering with magic. It was a great secret – a great tale and one, over that, that yearned to be told. But the jester had kept it to himself, and he had checked that the Arch-Mage and his pupil hadn’t noticed his spying on them.
The amulet was an enhancer, or maybe a collector, he didn’t know exactly… Worn around the neck it magnified the queen’s magic abilities considerably. And it would enhance anyone’s magic abilities considerably, even his… But while Callista was the amulet’s wearer, Sir Astor was its keeper. The amulet had to be somewhere nearby! If he could get it out of the Arch-Mage’s custody, no one would be able to stop him from settling with deManx once and for all!
The stairs ended. The jester had reached the highest floor. There was a small hole in the ceiling through which a wooden ladder led to the clock above, but he doubted that the amulet was hidden directly beneath the gabled roof. Apart from the hole, only one more door was on the corridor. He pushed it open and the shimmer of his eyes bathed Sir Astor’s study in an unearthly green.
Grinning uncannily he set about his work, literally upending the room’s interior in his search. Soon hundreds of papers and tomes, ripped carelessly from their shelves or pushed from the desk, carpeted the floor with a thick layer of knowledge.
“Wait! What’s this?”
A panel in one bookshelf, hidden behind some ancient looking tomes, had caught the jester’s attention. He hurled the books across the room and pried at the board with greedy hands and mad desire. The fingernail from his right index finger tore off and blood smeared the oak furniture. He never even noticed it. Then the wood yielded. A small niche lay behind, and in it – like a green eye in a nest of gold – the emerald of the magical amulet glowed at him invitingly.
“Like one of my eyes…” – he said, spellbound.
The amulet was of an indescribable beauty and it sang to him of victory and triumph. He reached for it with shaking hands. The gold felt warm to the touch. The madkat attached the golden sling around his neck, savoring the power that emanated from the jade-colored stone and coursed through his body. He did not waste a single thought to the possibility of safeguards against theft. However, the amulet was magically warded by one of Sir Astor’s ingenious charms, and though the Arch-Mage was too worn out from his recent protecting spells to notice the magic signal that was sent out, someone else was perceptible for it.
His ears twitched as if something had disturbed them. Khronos felt a strange pulse of magic unlike any other he had felt before that night. He looked back to Sir Astor, analyzing the elder’s face out of the corner of his eye, looking for any signs of recognition. None. If the aging tom was feeling the same thing he was, he didn’t show it. Khronos tightened the grip on his sword as he clenched his teeth. He tried to concentrate. It was hard due to the battle that sprang all around him.
He looked to the perfectly proportioned figure of Hydor, then to the slender form of Eolos and finally his eyes settled on the powerfully built bulk of Pyros. As far as he could tell, they were unaware of the mystical emanations he was picking up. He focused on the magic signal. It didn’t take him long to discover its source and his eyes went wide when he did.
“The Tower!” – he whispered to himself – “It’s coming from our tower. Someone’s inside!”
Khronos looked once more to the fighters around him. Then he looked to the frieze where Telluros was still fencing against what was probably the commander of the invading party. Was this whole battle just a diversion from his foes’ real goal? What could they be after in their tower?
“Whatever it is, it mustn’t fall in the wrong hands!” – he spoke before he sheathed in his sword and darted away from the battle and out of the yard.
“KHRONOS!” – the Arch-Mage bellowed in a tired voice but his pupil was already halfway through the yard when he shouted.
“Cowardice runs deep among your comrades, warlock demon!” – Edgar grunted at Pyros after blocking a stab from his opponent – “Watch as they flee from the might of Darkwater! It appears that the so-called Gray Devil has turned into nothing but a gray coward!”
Pyros’ eyes turned to thin slits. Growling, he managed to overpower his opponent’s strength and open up his guard, after what he gave a powerful kick to Edgar’s ribs. – “Khronos is *not* a coward, you goat-eater!”
Pyros jumped back and started chanting as he held his sword upside down with both hands – “The old flame keeps you warm. // Fire and brimstone // Listen to the one // Who invokes the mighty firestorm.”
The burly Knight lowered his sword, riveting it into a floor stone slab. As he did it, sparks came out from the tip, which grew up in size, turning into a tourbillion of fire that shot away from the blade and was directed to the bulky figure of Edgar.
Edgar, who was groping his injured ribs from Pyros’ earlier kick, clenched his teeth and awkwardly dove away from the whirling rivulet of fire. Still, he was partly caught by the Mystical Knight’s magical onslaught. Falling helplessly to the ground, he grunted out aloud in pain as the side of his torso was scorched by the unnatural assault from his opponent. The husky warrior stood on the ground, groping his injuries.
Pyros wasted no time. He took up his sword and ran towards the fallen adversary. He rested the tip of his sword over Edgar’s throat, pressing into it to stress his words.
“I do believe our little spar is quite over now…” – he said, slightly short of breath.
Edgar growled but the tip of Pyros’ sword pressing down on his throat made that act rather difficult. The offensive warrior wasn’t ready yet to just give up. He was still grasping his black sword. In a last attempt to trounce Pyros, he tried an upward slash on the defender combatant.
“ARE YOU BLIND?” – Pyros shouted as he removed his sword from Edgar’s throat and rammed its blade’s edge against the black blade’s flat body, near the hilt, shattering the sword in two. After that, Pyros relocated his sword’s tip over Edgar’s throat once more, this time pressing so hard that a thin thread of blood started trickling down Edgar’s neck. – “Or are you just stupid?”
The gray husky warrior glanced at his broken sword and then at the broken black blade lying on the floor. Finally, his look settled on Pyros’ determined expression. He clenched his teeth in contempt. He closed his eyes and slowly eased the grip on the hilt of his shattered weapon, letting it slide to the floor with a soft metallic clang. He had finally met someone he couldn’t vanquish.
Queen Callista pushed the clock tower’s door open and got inside, questioning herself why it was unlocked in the first place. Once inside, she whispered a spell that ignited all the candles in that room. She took a flat candlestick from a nearby desk and rushed upstairs, towards Sir Astor’s study.
She kept thinking about the front door being on the lock. It didn’t make any sense! It wasn’t like the Arch-Mage to be so careless as to leave the entrance open! She was still thinking about this when she heard a tom’s enraged voice shouting something she couldn’t quite discern because of the echo. The reason for the front door to be open was crystal clear now: someone had broken into the tower.
Callista stopped climbing up the stairs. She felt uneasy. She had hoped the tower to be empty. Now, she knew someone, perchance one of the invaders, was inside. She reckoned she wouldn’t be much of a hindrance to a warrior, at least not if she used blunt force. Her only weapon at the moment was her magical abilities, which were still being developed by Sir Astor.
“I must risk it! My comrades need me!” – she whispered to the shadows before pressing on – “My *husband* needs me!”
She practically ran upstairs. Her pink robe fluttered with every step she took, just as her golden hair did. She moved so hastily that for two or three times the small flame that illuminated her way threatened to go out. Almost miraculously, it didn’t.
When she reached the top floor she stopped in her tracks and gasped. An eerie green light poured from Sir Astor’s study. Apparently, the trespasser was searching for the same thing she was looking for: the amulet Sir Astor had given her to enhance her magic abilities. The stakes had all of a sudden risen to a dangerous height. Still, she was determined to help her friends and save her beloved husband. She stepped in.
“Cease this foul deed at once!” – she barked at the trespasser. Her eyes grew wide in disbelief when she recognized him by his patchy beige and red clothes. – “The jester?”
“My Queen!” – the buffoon crooned, bowing down to Callista before putting his cap back on – “How great a joy you bestow upon me by blessing this moment with your presence, for from this moment on you shall witness not only your beloved husband’s downfall but also the destruction of this place of pomposity named Megalith Castle!”
The jester pointed his right forefinger at Callista and shot a bright green ray of energy towards her. The Queen barely had time to whisper a protective spell of her own, surrounding herself with a weak barrier that almost promptly shattered when the greenish ray of light forced its way through it and hit Megalith City’s dame. The damage it did, however, was greatly reduced thanks to the protective barrier she invoked. All that she felt was a weak electric pulse running through her, forcing a small scream, more of surprise than really pain, out of her. When she regained enough composure, she faced the crazed fool.
“How dare you attack your Queen?” – she said in a deep voice. She cast an elemental spell that turned the air of the room into a small storm. Vellum flew everywhere and any candle that was lit went out. The flogging winds made the jester fall on his tail. But, being still the wizard’s apprentice that she was, she couldn’t uphold the attack for long. The amulet was her only chance. She had to wear it if she intended to win this battle. Taking profit of the mess her storm caused, she dove for the jester and tried to rip the amulet off his neck.
“What’s this?” – the jester said in a mellifluous tone as he grabbed her fists into his – “Is there something my Queen wants from me? Oh, perchance my Queen is looking forward to use this charming talisman that I found? Well, guess again, sweetheart!”
The fool pushed Callista aside, making her fall to the ground. He aimed his right palm at her and shot a small torrent of green energy that stroke her dead center. She was both too tired and too surprised to raise any barrier against that magical onslaught. She was thrown out of the room and sent into a wall before collapsing to the ground, passing out instantly. The jester walked towards her still form and inspected her. Aside from a few excoriations from rasping against the wall and the floor, not even her fur was harmed by the magic attack. The same couldn’t be said for her robe, which bore some gashes and smoldered a little.
“I have no quarrel against you. On account of that I will let you live to witness the downfall of your precious city.” – the jester stated as he turned around to reenter the Arch-Mage’s studio. From his back, a shout of anger came to his ears.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HER, YOU WHORESON?”
Khronos would never run faster in his life. He didn’t know what was going on, he didn’t know what those signals were that he received, he didn’t know anything. All he knew was that pure gut instinct was telling him to get to the Tower as fast as he could.
He rammed his shoulder into the wooden door and burst into the ground level of the tower. He stopped there, both in surprise and pain. Not only was the door unlocked but also the candles on the room were lit. Definitely there was something very wrong going on. Besides, his last stunt made the pain Leitner had revived in his torso resurface. He slowly unsheathed his sword and climbed up the stairs, trying to subdue the pain. The emanations he picked up earlier had long since faded. Now all he sensed was the nauseating miasma of some powerful, yet foul, magic, beckoning him to come upstairs.
He was about halfway up to his mentor’s study when he heard a short yelp of pain.
A female voice!
He widened his eyes suddenly. Could it be her? He gritted his teeth and ran up faster, tightened the grip on the hilt of his sword. He was on the floor below Sir Astor’s study when he felt another strong pulse of evil wizardry. He heard something thumping against the floor of the upper level. He ran up, almost praying not to find her there.
He reached the upper level and stopped. His eyes trailed down upon the unconscious pink-dressed form in the floor. The golden hair fell in a lump over the side of her face.
“No… By the Sacred Kats, no… Not her…” – he thought. He looked up ahead and saw her attacker leaving the corridor, about to enter Sir Astor’s study. Anger and hatred welled up in his heart. He could feel a low growl forming deep into his chest. He shouted in anger.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HER, YOU WHORESON?”
The jester turned around to meet his new adversary. As he did so, Khronos could see the amulet hanging from the fool’s neck, pulsing with energy and shining in a bright green. The jester smiled.
“Sir Khronos…” – he cooed – “Welcome back from the dead. You’ll find out soon enough you should have remained with the Kats Beneath!”
The jester walked towards Khronos with decisive, unafraid steps. The bells on his cap rang softly with every step he took. A white maniacal toothy grin was plastered on the buffoon’s face, which was bathed in the green eerie glow from the amulet below.
“She was foolish enough to try to stop me by her own paltry means… But my power is beyond anyone’s meager understanding! She learnt that the hard way and so will you…”
The insane buffoon suddenly aimed his palm at Khronos and shot a green globe of sorcerous energy. Daringly, Khronos deflected the blow with his sword, causing the sphere to crash against the wall on one of the sides, producing a small burst of energy that dyed the wall in tones of dark gray. Had it been any ordinary warrior to try such a stunt, he’d be dead by now. As it happened to be a Mystical Knight, drawing on his own magic in defense, only Khronos’ sword suffered from the magic attack, turning into a molten and retorted lump of steel that Khronos threw aside.
“You will pay for what you’ve done to my Queen.” – Khronos growled, gritting and showing off his rear molars and canines – “BASTARD!”
With hate fostering in his heart, Khronos suddenly called to him all the mystic power he could muster. Rarely such a magic might had been displayed before. Sparks ran throughout his body as his clothes fluttered wildly as though caught in a strong whirlwind.
“Impertinent fool! You’re injured! You’re weak! Do you think you stand any chance against one who has become powerful enough to defy the Sacred Kats themselves?” – the jester gloated.
“Pomposity will be your downfall! NOW DIE!” – Khronos hurled a torrent of purple energy towards the jester, hitting the insane fool dead center and throwing him across the corridor, into Sir Astor’s study and through the window opposite. The jester fell helplessly from the top of the tower to the ground, screaming on his way down.
Khronos panted, tired. He dropped to his knees as a few beads of perspiration were running down his forehead.
“Khronos?” – a soft voice called, coming from behind the Knight. The gray tom looked behind and saw Queen Callista straightening herself up. – “Khronos, are you well?”
“My Queen…” – Khronos grunted as he stood up – “Did that fiendish fool harm your person?”
“It will be all right.” – she evasively responded.
“My Queen, you should not stay here. It is very dangerous! Your Highness should get back to your royal accommodations!” – the gray warrior said, concern filling his words.
“You rid us of that assassin! He surely passed away when he fell off the Tower!”
“No, my Queen…” – Khronos answered, somberly – “He still lives. I still sense his foul presence in our midst… I’m afraid he now tries to finish what his comrades have started and failed to do…”
“My husband!” – Callista whispered, in shock – “Khronos, you must stop that mad kat! I’m sure he means to assassinate my beloved husband! You *must* put an end to this insanity!”
“I will do as her majesty orders me to do. And I promise my Queen I shall return as the victor.” – he answered as he fled.
Running down the stairs, he groped his right flank. All this commotion had had its toll on his injury. It burned as if the Kats Beneath were torturing him with blazing iron rods. But, inwardly, that was the lesser of his pains. The one that had just been given to him by words hurt a lot more than any physical ache. Still, he pressed on.
“You battle as though the whips of the Kats Beneath were at your back, demon!” – Lord Tyrakks grunted out as he dodged a slash from Telluros. For more than just once, Tyrakks thought the Mystical Knight was about to overpower him. Yet Telluros always held back, prolonging the battle. It was as if the Mystical Knight was either trying to prove something or merely having fun.
“That is more than I can say for you, lousy trespasser!” – Telluros taunted Tyrakks. The warlord growled and kicked Telluros’ gut.
Also for more than once, Tyrakks had almost managed to throw Telluros off the frieze and every time the sorcerer had managed to circumvent the predicament. Now, alas, his luck finally ran out. With the kick Tyrakks threw him, he misplaced his foot and fell off the frieze. Still, he was lucky in his misfortune. Out of desperation, Telluros managed to grasp the border of the frieze. Weren’t it for his rapid reflexes, he’d be crashing onto the stone slabs of the yard below now, like his sword did in his place.
Lord Tyrakks came closer to the border and looked down on his enemy with a maniacal smile distorting his features.
“It appears the tables have turned in my favor, warlock. Here I have you entirely at my mercy. What’s to stop me from parting you with your life?” – Tyrakks asked disdainfully as he crouched on the frieze.
“You will not escape from this castle alive” – Telluros grunted – “Your followers have failed you and you are greatly reduced in number. Even if you take my life, others will finish what I began and for you there will be no comfort in this world, for you will be forever hunted down by my brothers! He who kills a Mystical Knight is doomed to suffer an equivalent fate.”
“Indeed, for you are demons and demonic creatures are relentless towards their quarry. Alas, poor demon, that will not be enough to stop me from fulfilling my destiny…” – Tyrakks stated out as he straightened himself up.
“To remove all who oppose the will of Darkwater. Prepare to meet your demonic makers, warlock.” – Tyrakks informed. He raised his sword over his head with the tip facing down. He meant to thrust it through Telluros’ head.
“You may find that we’re not so easy to remove…” – Telluros said before he chanted rapidly – “I beckon on the power // Of the mighty earthquake // So in my final hour // There’s destruction in my wake!”
After chanting, Telluros pounded his free hand on the part of the frieze directly underneath Lord Tyrakks. Under his spell, his hand bore enough strength to turn that portion of the frieze into dust. Without support, the warlord fell helplessly off the ornament. Although stunned by such an act, Tyrakks still managed to shout as he fell onto one of the tables set for the feast. He crashed among the remains of food and spirits, cracking the wooden table and making everything on it to fall on top of him. Even so, the fall didn’t kill him, although it rendered the warlord unconscious.
“Fell situations require fell deeds…” – Telluros said before he sighed out and strained to get back up the frieze. Once atop the ornament, the brown-furred Knight looked down to the yard. He saw that Pyros had dominated his attacker. Hydor and Eolos were still fencing their enemies. – “I’d better get down there and secure my prey.”
As Telluros hastily backed away from the frieze, Eolos and Hydor conjugated their efforts, throwing a final magic offensive against their foes.
“Sharper than a beak of eagle // I call the water ice sickle!” – Hydor chanted his spell, which turned the air dampness into ice needles.
“The wind flows, // In strength it grows // And like a hurricane it blows!” – Eolos cast his spell, which caused the nocturnal breeze to accelerate to sub-cyclonic speed.
The result of the conjugated attack was the merciless pounding of thousands of ice needles against Malthus and Leitner with full force. The icy spears riveted in their bodies and reduced them to two bleeding dead pincushions. After assessing the result of their attack, both warriors knocked their forearms against each other’s, congratulating themselves on a job well done.
Precisely then Telluros arrived at the yard, carrying two rolls of rope. He stopped when he saw the bloody lumps in front of Eolos and Hydor. The ice spears had started to melt in the meantime and left open bleeding gashes behind.
“Good work.” – was Telluros’ only response. He handed Hydor a roll of rope and motioned him towards Pyros before he headed towards his quarry, Lord Tyrakks. He found the warlord still unconscious amid the food and metal calyxes and goblets. His clothes bore the stains of grease, wine and blood. The Mystical Knight didn’t waste more time and hurriedly tied the warlord up.
That done, he placed Tyrakks over one of his broad shoulders and carried him towards his sovereign. Pyros did the same with Edgar after Hydor finished tying up the brawny kat.
“Here they are, Your Majesty.” – Pyros stated as he kicked Edgar’s rear and forced him to his knees, beside Tyrakks – “As I promised, your safety is assured now.”
“Boastful as ever…” – Telluros muttered, smiling. His words were underlined by Eolos’ and Hydor’s scoffer smiles.
“Is… Is it over?” – King deManx babbled from his new cowering spot under Sir Astor’s garbs. The graying tom looked down and his face reddened. He hastily stepped away from his sovereign. The Mystical Knights gathered there laughed their heads off.
Edgar, on the other hand, had no reason to laugh. He gave out a low growl. This sickened him. The best warriors Darkwater had were destroyed by this mockery of a bunch of merry scrawny sissies… He dared to look at his unconscious leader. Tyrakks concerned him the most. His comrades were dead; there was nothing he could do about it. Perhaps they did deserve to die, if their incompetence was so blatant to the point of being defeated by these… sorcerers…
“Yes… Sorcerers… The battle was lost from the beginning. I can see that now. We were never a match for these magic-wielders… We were doomed to fail all along. If only they hadn’t used their fiendish sorcery… Well, that’s the same as asking a tiger not to use its fangs and claws…” – the brawny black warrior closed his eyes and lowered his head – “There’s still one last hope, however…” – And that hope covered him in shame.
“A toast!” – Pyros stated out aloud, grabbing a calyx full of wine – “To our monarch, king deManx XIII!”
“Aye!” – was the nearly simultaneous answer of the remaining Knights. As they prepared their goblets to toast, Pyros raised his into the air. When they turned to make their toast, a bright green beam of light shattered Pyros’ cup into tiny shrapnel, spilling the crimson liquid all over the burly warrior’s face and hand.
“I believe it is still too early to celebrate, my friends. My victory will only be complete when I bring this kingdom to its knees!” – a deriding voice reached their ears, coming from the entrance of the yard. In the shadows there was a small green glowing spot.
“Who are you?” – Pyros inquired, enraged – “Did you do this?”
“Jester would suffice, I suppose. Or madkat. But you can call me anything, just don’t call me often!” – the buffoon said as he came into the light, revealing his beige and red outfit, as well as the fool’s cap with his tinkling bells. – “As to your second question, yes.”
“Isn’t… Isn’t that my former jester?” – King deManx asked, cowering once more behind Sir Astor. The Arch-Mage didn’t answer that. His eyes were settled upon the glowing green pendant hanging from the jester’s neck. He gritted his teeth and tightened the grasp on his staff.
“How did he get his hands on the amulet?” – Sir Astor thought to himself – “I would have sensed if it had been stolen! My protective spell… Well, that’s all beyond the point, now… The question is whether I will be able to stop him or not. I’m still weak… I don’t think I’d stand a chance against him if he unleashes the full power of the amulet… I don’t think my Mystical Knights can withstand it either…”
“Stay back before you regret your deeds!” – Telluros stated out, positioning himself in front of all the others.
“And who would dare to face me?” – the fool challenged as he kept walking towards them relentlessly.
“I would!” – Telluros responded, drawing steel.
“NO!” – Sir Astor shouted – “Blades are of no more use here! Our mystic powers are the only thing that now has a chance to stand in his way.”
“Master?” – Eolos inquired – “What do you mean?”
“I’ve wasted enough time tonight. Time to end it all for you!” – the jester said as he prepared a massive magic assault.
“Time?” – a familiar voice made itself heard – “Did someone mention the word ‘time’?
Everyone looked to the entrance of the yard once again. In there, under the portico, stood Khronos, already chanting one of his most powerful spells that was, simultaneously, his trademark. – “Time is mine to master // Through ages it flies // You will wither and alter // Until your existence it nullifies!”
A purple ray shot away from Khronos’ hands, directed at the jester, who just had enough time to raise a protective frontal barrier that blocked most of Khronos’ spell but not all. A trickle of his magic still hit the jester, adding the weight of ten more winters to his total. The fool grunted as he felt himself aging at an unnatural speed.
“Is that all you can muster, wretched warlock?” – the jester defied. He turned his back on the remaining kats and focused only on Khronos. – “You will regret
ever having crossed my path. AAAGGHH!”
The jester fell on all fours after receiving the full strength of Pyros’ fire rivulet against his back. He looked back, gritting his teeth in anger.
“I’ll teach you all not to meddle with me!” – he said as he got up and pointed the amulet on the Mystical Knights’ direction. The green glow intensified and they were all forced to their knees. Some magic prevented them from straightening up, no matter how hard they tried to. – “That’s it! Bow down to me, worthless worms!”
“NO!” – Khronos shouted as he ran towards the fool, preparing another spell already – “I won’t let you succeed! I’ll stop you!”
“You will do nothing of the sort!” – the jester replied, aiming his right palm at the gray Knight and launching a torrent of green sorcerous energy against him, which met the incoming warrior head on, throwing him to the ground.
Regrettably, the stream of magical power had hit Khronos in the precise spot Oswick had javelined him. The same spot Leitner had kicked only minutes ago. Khronos curled up in a ball on the floor with his hands covering the wounded side. The pain was as terrible as when he first got speared in the battlefield. The ache was impossible to sustain and he had to scream it out in a heart-rending howl of pain. He looked to his hands and saw them tinged in red. The latest attack had reopened the gash. The sounds around him had faded to an unrecognizable muffled noise. Through misty dazed eyes, he saw the jester shooting some green rays of sorcerous energy against his friends, his mentor and his king. He was punishing them, torturing them before the end. In his mind, he recalled Callista’s words.
“Khronos, you must stop that mad kat!”
He closed his eyes, in pain.
“I’m sure he means to assassinate my beloved husband!”
He pounded his fist onto the rock slabs.
“You must put an end to this insanity!”
He opened his eyes suddenly. Yes. It was his duty. He had to put an end to this insanity, once and for all.
Straining to rise up, he leaned on his knee for support before throwing the final spurt of muscular strength to straighten himself up. He gasped for air as though he had just done the most difficult task in his life. Still, he staggered towards his enemy.
“My only chance… The *only* chance… Is to destroy that amulet…” – Khronos thought to himself as he limped towards the jester – “My pain means nothing… My duty is to protect the King of Megalith Kingdom… No matter the cost…”
“Bow down to me, your executioner!” – the jester exclaimed as he punished his victims some more. He’d discarded the gray warrior completely when he saw him curled in ball on the floor, screaming in pain. He thought he’d probably just inflicted him some major internal damage, incapacitating the Mystical Knight indefinitely. The physical attack he suffered came, thus, completely unexpected.
Gathering whatever strength, both physical and of will, he had left, Khronos hurled himself against the jester, knocking him to the ground. The pain he was feeling in his side was overwhelming but he wouldn’t let it stand in the way of his duty. Khronos managed to turn his foe around, so the jester’s back faced the stony floor of the yard.
“YOU!” – the fool managed to growl in contempt before Khronos’ fist crashed on his face. Enraged, the jester pressed his palm against Khronos’ chest and shot a beam of green sorcerous energy that passed through the knight’s body and left it from his back. However, Khronos managed to stay on top of his enemy and administered another punch to the fool’s head, toppling off the jester’s cap.
But the latest mystic onslaught had it consequences. Khronos could feel his strength fading away rapidly. He wheezed with each breath he took. There was
only one thing to do. Khronos grasped the amulet and the artifact let out a discharge of pure sorcerous energy that enveloped both the Mystical Knight and the fool, who howled in pain. Drawing power from an unknown source, Khronos tugged at the string, trying to rip the amulet off the jester’s neck. The deed couldn’t have been more difficult. It seemed as though the string was made out of steel. Khronos roared out as he finally managed to tear the amulet off the
buffoon’s neck, leaving a brief green trail behind as he withdrew his hand from his foe with the artifact tightly secured inside.
The jester lay limply on the ground, unconscious. Khronos was standing, with green sparks ravaging his body as the final embers of the amulet’s magic faded away. His mouth and eyes were wide open but he was neither screaming nor seeing. His comrades were shouting his name, watching helplessly as he rigidly fell on his back. His right fist opened and allowed the shattered talisman to slip from his palm.
The battle was finally over.
Rumors of Darkwater’s assassination attempt on deManx’s life spread like wildfire in the streets and for weeks to come the citizens of Megalith City had but one topic to discuss at home or in the taverns: the monumental battle that had been fought in their very midst, in the heart of their city. And even though many kats had witnessed the events, gossip distorted the truth until the story had it that deManx had single-handedly and with bare hands fought his adversaries – gruesome, evil creatures out of legends.
Storytellers didn’t do justice to the six brave soldiers who had saved their liege’s life. They barely even mentioned them, nor did they refer to them in the aftermaths of that fight. When the threat Darkwater presented was suddenly banned by the enemy king’s suicide, raconteurs and even some chroniclers readily laid the reason for it at King deManx’s feet. They saw Megalith Kingdom’s victory as a sign of the restored heavenly order.
The truth was less spectacular, albeit less peaceful. Again it was the Mystical Knights who twisted fortune to their king’s advantage. Sir Astor’s questioning the surviving attackers soon told him that there was no chance whatsoever for peace with a neighboring land under Darkwater’s sovereignty. His gory feud could and would fester, resulting in unpredictable anguish on both sides. But due to the heavy losses accompanying his futile attacks on Megalith Kingdom, Darkwater had lost the goodwill of his people. Only his Sacred Kats-given position kept him the power, while his possible successors were less war-obsessed than him. It was a decision of weighing one life against innumerable innocent lives, and Sir Astor chose without a second’s hesitation. With Sir Khronos still in sickbed, close to death, he sent the other four Mystical Knights to the court of Darkwater, to succeed where Lord Tyrakks and his men had failed. King
Darkwater’s death was no suicide.
It was the end to the war.
Another figure wasn’t accredited for his part in the scheme. Few people knew about Megalith City’s vengeance-seeking collaborator; fewer still knew what happened to him. As secretive as possible the jester was thrown in the deepest dungeon of Megalith Castle. In a moldy, slippery, cold cell that hadn’t seen a ray of sunlight since the foundation of the citadel he awaited the judgment on his crimes, not knowing that his vows against the king weren’t yet as public as he wished them to be. Seldom did he get company, and nobody watching him engaged in his soliloquies was friendly to his cause. And yet it was on the very day that Darkwater was stealthily assassinated that he did not get one but two visitors, and both helped to shape and spread the legend he was going to become…
The day had already sneaked up close on nightfall, even though there was not one sliver of natural light in the dungeon that would have told the mad kat that.
Suddenly he became conscious of the presence of another. In his mental state he couldn’t tell for how long it had been there already. Now, however, awareness hammered fiery needles into his skull. He turned.
A lighted oil lamp flickered low in a small alcove in the wall opposite the thick iron cell bars. In front of the lamp stood a she-kat, more veiled than illuminated by its thin, sorrowful excuse for light.
“The mobled queen…”
Even in the darkness, the apparition of Queen Callista appeared remarkably corporeal.
“That’s good, ‘mobled queen’ is good. – I say we will have no more marriages. Those that are married already, all but one shall live; the rest shall keep as they are. Hahaha. All but one… All but one…”
Unlike the other forms that had eventually disappeared when he had ignored them, Queen Callista persisted. The jester watched her cagily, beating back against the hammers inside his head by hitting his head against the wall. Notwithstanding his own maltreatment a big maniacal smile spread on his face and his eyes began glowing anew. Maybe this time it was indeed the queen that stood before him and not merely his imagination playing tricks on him.
“Queen Callista!” – he addressed her direct at last – “How happy I am to see you well. Which reason do I owe the honor of your visit to my lofty abode? Tell me…” – he continued, without giving her the chance of an answer – “… how fares that humble protector of yours, Sir Astor?”
His question had the wished effect. The jester saw her body tense.
“I take it he is forever shocked past words” – he chuckled.
The queen stepped closer to the bars. When she spoke her voice was ice – “No offense in the world is as great as that it would excuse unspeakable carnage in revenge. What renders the offense to you so special that it would rationalize the fathomless suffering and irrevocable anguish you have brought down on the kats of Megalith City and Darkwater Castle, jester? Answer me that!”
The jester laughed loud and unexpectedly. The laugh mingled with the ringing sound of the bells on his cap to create an obnoxious noise that made the queen step back hastily as if faced with a coiled adder.
“Oh, Callista…” – he addressed her brusquely, adding insult to injury – “Don’t you try to fool a fool! You’re not here to parley with me in my defense. It
is the amulet that brought you hither. For you thirst to know how I came to know of it, and who else knows of it, and yet you fear the answer I might unleash.” – he chuckled, and if only for its dramatic effect.
If possible, Queen Callista became even icier – “Fine, let me be blunt. There is no argument and no witness beneath the sky that you could call upon in your defense! High treason alone stipulates your death, jester, but above this, you have brought mindless death down on the city, simply to make it suffer for your personal satisfaction.”
The jester cackled merrily – “Do not forget my attempt to take the crown off your husband’s head. Together with his head…”
“The theft of a magical instrument out of the Tower weighs just as heavily against you.” – ignored the queen his comment – “Nobody knew about the amulet except for Sir Astor and myself. I put it beyond Sir Astor to be unguarded even on half as private a matter, just as I have not spoken to a soul about it. I command you to tell me: how came you to knew of it!”
The smile stretched wider on the jester’s face and he banged his head against the wall with increased vigor. But he didn’t speak.
Minutes passed. Queen Callista broke the unbearable silence at last – “Whatever hopes I might have had of gaining an illuminating answer, I see it is lost in
the abyss of your mind. Our conversation is leading us nowhere” – she turned to go – “May the Sacred Kats have mercy on your soul.”
“The Council will be highly interested in my testimony.” – called the jester after her. It instantly made her stop.
“The Council. Even you can’t ignore the fact that the decree for my execution will have to pass the Council. They will question me in this matter and I daresay my words will blow them away!” – he shot her a gloating look – “Their queen – a witch!”
For the jester her sharp intake of breath was sweeter than her perfume.
“Did you think I hadn’t noticed, Callista? I’ve known it even before you tried that weak spell on me in the Tower. You-are-a-wi-hi-tch” – he chanted tauntingly.
“You asked me for bluntness. Now be blunt yourself! What do you want?”
“What else than the obvious: my life and my liberty!”
“Even someone as you should realize that your toothless threat won’t have such a power over me!”
“Toothless? Do not belittle my wits; you fear the day your sorcery powers will be made public. Why, else, would you train in secret? Your future, nay the future of whole Megalith, may wilt with the disclosure of your nature. My freedom in exchange for keeping your secret safe – I say it’s a fair trade!”
The queen came nearer again and wrung the iron bars with her hands. Her gaze was steel, as was her voice – “You have deeply mistaken me if you think I could be blackmailed thus! There will be no trade; the Council won’t hear anything from your mouth!”
“Hahaha…” – bellowed the jester – “You can’t leave the Council out of such a grave decision!”
“I can, and I swear I will! I won’t let you abuse the Council for your destructive schemes, nor will I let you taint our city any more with your madness than you have done already. Your life you shall have, yes: I’ll let you rot in this cell for your hideous crimes, madkat!”
The jester became solemn in an instant. His eyes flashed brighter than ever, a malignant green that paled as fast as it had appeared. Then the color faded away completely, and darkness hid the contempt on his face.
“I changed my mind, queen. How remorseful I am to see you are so well! I should have killed you when I had the chance. But be assured: I’ll be revenged on you for this! Now go. Your presence wounds my ears and impairs my sight. Go!”
He closed his eyes and rocked back and forth on the floor of the cell, always whispering to himself, sometimes hurling his torso against the walls.
“All but two shall live… All but two shall live…”
When he opened his eyes again, Queen Callista was gone.
More time passed, unheeded by the jester. He continued his rocking until hunger made him stop and grope around on the floor for something eatable. His fingers found the wooden bowl and he overturned it with his overhasty movements. It didn’t matter, as it luckily didn’t contain another potion of the watery insipid pepper stew they had ‘fattened’ him up with lately. The dish was porridge, just as cold as the stew would have been, but at least he could still eat it
from the floor…
The jester lifted his head out of the small heap of porridge to see who had spoken. An unfamiliar figure stood before his cell.
“Who are you?” – he asked him, wiping porridge from his mouth with his sleeve.
“I am… the jester!” – said his visitor, with a long, pregnant pause in the middle of the sentence.
That brought the prisoner to his feet and to the door of his cell in a heartbeat. He took a closer look at the stranger. If not for the pale fur that shimmered a sickly yellow in the faint light, the vis-à-vis could’ve been his twin. He had nearly the same height, the same slightly lopsided grin and wore a similar red-beige cap-crowned costume that (to the imprisoned jester’s immense satisfaction) clashed gruesomely with his coat color. But, judging from his looks, he was ten years the younger. As old as the jester would have been if the Gray Devil hadn’t aged him with a spell… That made him seethe.
“*I* AM THE JESTER!”
“No, I am! You *might have been* the jester once. Now you are a swine eating from the floor!” – Even his opponent’s laugh was a foul copy of his own.
The jester grinned back with an evil smile – “Then at least I know my place, whereas you certainly don’t! Being the king’s lapdog you’re only allowed to sit at his side, not to stroll around in his playground on your own!”
“A jester can go almost everywhere he likes, and nobody looks at him twice. You above all ought to know that.” – the visitor made a dramatic effort to inspect the thick cell bars – “But maybe you’ve forgotten about that lucky privilege somehow…”
“As you will, after my loose tongue lets slip our little encounter to a guard.”
“Tush, tush, never tell. Who would believe a confined madkat?”
“What do you want from me?” – snarled the jester, irritated.
“Words, words, words.”
“Why would you believe a confined madkat?”
“I don’t have to. As long as my ale-loving listeners *might* believe your words, I have a good story to tell. A story that makes me friends, and friends that foot my bill.”
“You’re not the new jester, you’re a newt then!” – guffawed the jester – “You should sway back to the taverns, Newt. There is no story for you here!”
“Oh, but there is! My nose never lies to me.”
“But only because it cannot talk! Hahaha…”
“You certainly *are* crazy! But madness alone cannot be the reason for your imprisonment, or this cell would burst with company. What was your offense that they hid you down here? Did you molest a chambermaid? Or maybe a minnesinger… Did you poison the royal fowls, or wound that Mystical Knight, what’s-his-name? Did you switch…”
“Ah! So you…” – exclaimed the jester he’d just named Newt, only to lose his enthusiasm as he draw his own conclusion – “But no, you couldn’t have injured him. I heard Queen Callista tell the Chief Healer about some magical damage to his body. Your awful jokes may be deadly, but they’re certainly not magical! What is this knight to you, and you to him, that his condition excites you so much?”
Here was the one chance for the jester to tell his story and to denounce Callista as a witch. Yet if, apart from the royal couple and Sir Khronos, there was one kat alive the jester loathed as much as this cocky counterfeit of his, he hadn’t yet met him. He certainly wasn’t going to reveal anything to this tavern drunkard!
“He was the one who imprisoned me.” – he answered evasively instead – “Will he
“The Chief Healer thinks so. It seems that’s some more bad luck for you, eh, fool?” – said Newt, uncaring, but obviously pleased that he could tease the prisoner with his bits of knowledge – “Back to my story! I gave you some information, now you can do the same…”
“Okay, here’s a treat for you!” – he beckoned Newt nearer to his cell, who was more than eager to follow – “If you want a story, go to the stable in the very south of the outer city ring.”
He dropped his voice conspiratorially – “There you might still find some living beings in Megalith that might take to you: a few really stupid asses! Hahaha. I will tell you nothing, Newt!”
The blonde-furred visitor grimaced with disdain – “Then our one and only combined show is over, fool! And now, if you excuse me, I will take the liberty to go where you can’t follow me.”
“Yes, into thy grave!”
The entertainer locked eyes with him – “What was that?”
“You heard me well enough, Newt. You took my place. I’ll be revenged on you for that. And on the king, queen and knight who imprisoned me.”
His visitor roared with laughter – “I’d like you see try it. You as surely will be able to take revenge on anyone as you will be able to walk out of this
cell and see the sun again.”
“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.”
“Not for you, poor tom, it doesn’t! But my thanks to you for this highly amusing anecdote! It’s rather short but I’ll embellish it sufficiently and
title it ‘The tale of MadKat – The jester who went mad because I took his place’. My nose didn’t lie. Our meeting will be buying me a few drinks after all!” – he
laughed and quickly strode from the dungeon.
“I’LL HAVE MY REVENGE ON YOU!” – screamed the jester after him – “AND ON THE KING, QUEEN AND KNIGHT WHO IMPRISONED ME!” – his voice became a chill growl –“Sir Khronos!”
Maurice Dagobert deManx XIII
King of Megalith City.
Queen of Megalith City, his wife.
The King’s private healer.
Former jester to the King.
Present jester to the King.
The Arch-Mage, leader of the Mystical Knights and counselor to the King and Queen.
|- – Mystical Knights.
Emilio of Darkwater
The King of Darkwater Castle.
King Darkwater’s kat; a warrior.
Knight in the duty of Lord Tyrakks; his personal servant.
|- – Knights in the duty of Lord Tyrakks.
Seven high-ranking citizens of Megalith City who, as a group, have been given the power by King deManx to co-determine on his gravest decisions; set up to prevent the possible abuse of the monarchical power (as it
The Purple Company
The unity of at least one battalion of Megalith City’s soldiers and a few or all Mystical Knights accompanying them for protection and help by the means of magic; named after the dark purple robes of the Mystical Knights.
The tower of the Mystical Knights; the highest tower in the land, with a mechanic clock fitted in under its roof.
A tower and the surrounding lands in southeastern Megalith Kingdom; theatre of a great battle between King deManx’s and King Darkwater’s armies.
The greatest city and golden heart of Megalith Kingdom; court of King deManx and Queen Callista
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