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Prologue Thunderstruck Lock and Key

In the world of Aqualon

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Lock and Key

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“Let go! Let go of me, Kenji! Damnit!” Din kept trying to tear her arm free of his iron-clad grip. Under normal circumstances she might have had the strength, but she was trembling, her face wet with tears, her eyes wide with desperation.

Kenji just stood there, gripping her, mechanically, barely registering that he was holding her back. It was just a reflex, nothing more. His eyes were locked on Sameth’s face, and he could not even hope to guess the expression in his own eyes at the moment, but surely, he must have looked utterly mad with impotent rage. In the periphery of his ever more tunneling vision, there stood Atlas on one side, staring in disbelief at the other side, the side where, in a pool of her own blood, Kathy lay dead on the floor of her room.

“I was already too late when I arrived,” Sameth muttered gravely. “Her heart… had already stopped beating.”

“You found her?” Kenji asked quietly. It was strange. He heard himself say the words, but it didn’t feel as though he was speaking at all. He felt as though he existed, wholly, in that narrowing field of vision between himself and Sameth. As if he had somehow chosen to exist only in this sliver of perception, as if existing beyond it bore with it the risk of missing even the tiniest detail, the tiniest hint of Sameth Gildorn’s guilt. Yet he had spoken, as though another Kenji was still operating his mouth.

“She had sent for me. I do not know what she wanted to discuss, and when I arrived, she was… already…” it seemed he had difficulty finishing the sentence. Or was it all an act?

Din still helplessly tugged her arm, trying to get free from Kenji’s grip. “She… she can’t… hick… how could she be…!” The incoherent yammering barely reached Kenji.

Maya. He had not moved his lips, but Atlas’s hand shot up to his ear immediately and Din briefly froze. There was a tiny rumble from the tower walls as every last breath of air inside the building vibrated with Kenji’s whispering voice. Come to the Lady of Lightning’s Chambers. Now.

The room had become eerily silent, interrupted only occasionally by Din hiccupping and occasional sob.

When Atlas stepped across Kenji’s unbroken stare, his other hand sprang up, tugging at his robe. Atlas snapped around with a flash of anger on his face: “Kenj! Let me close her eyes at least!”

Kenji shook his head. “I beg of you, Atlas, wait for Maya…” When the man had walked between himself and Sameth, the spell had broken, and suddenly the tiredness and sadness rushed into Kenji’s body as though he was breathing it in after holding his breath. He felt his eyes burn and a painful lump growing in his throat. The hand clenching Din’s arm fell down, and the one that had tugged at Atlas moved to cover Kenji’s mouth, where its fingers dug harshly into his cheeks and jaw.

“What is your purpose in calling her here,” Atlas asked quietly. He did not look at Kenji but at Kathy’s still body.

“She has experience as an investigator. Do not make her work more difficult by… by manipulating the…” he was incapable of saying the words ‘body’ or ‘crime scene’. This was Kathy… He had looked forward to telling her their little wilk problem was dealt with and hearing her ribbing reply… Had she already begun packing for her trip? His eyes darted around quickly, trying to avoid the par of the floor she occupied. It didn’t look like it…

Atlas’s shoulders slumped down. Then he straightened them up and quickly dabbed his face with his sleeve, his back towards Kenji and Din. He turned around, his face slowly regaining its composure. A strange sense of reassurance was radiating from him as he furled his brow. “Kenji, Sameth. You are the men I trust most in this world. I am trusting you now to deal with this like the Keepers you are.”

Kenji’s mouth opened but Atlas silenced him with a gesture.

He continued: “I am going to take Din out of this room and stay with her for a while.”

Din immediately protested. “You can’t just drag me out of here like a child! I am a Keeper too! Kathy is… Kathy was…” An animalic whine escaped her, and she bit down on her lip hard in protest of her treacherous body, her eyes were a battleground of fury and grief.

“Din,” Atlas said quietly, gently. “I cannot stay here. But I do not wish to be alone right now. Would you do me the kindness of accompanying me?”

She bared her teeth and angrily gripped Atlas’s arm. “Oh, very good!” she exclaimed lividly, tears still streaming down her wet cheeks. She stomped towards the door, dragging him behind her. “Stupid old man!”

“Old?” Atlas’s voice came weekly from the corridor outside.

And suddenly, Kenji and Sameth were alone in Kathy’s room.

When Kenji had come in, he hadn’t been able to look at Kathy’s body nor had he been able to tear his eyes away from Sameth lest he miss the tiniest indication of guilt… Now he could not stop looking at her, lying dead in a pool of blood. And he dared not look at Sameth. The room had been disturbed by magic. Lighting magic, judging by the scorch marks. Even from his vantage point, Kenji could tell that Kathy had been stabbed, and her hands were clutched around her might trident, Ankerias. It looked as though she had stabbed herself in the chest. Nonsense. What had happened in this room? Besides him, he could hear Sameth breathe. “You found her like this?” Kenji asked quietly.

“Yes.” The tone of Sameth’s voice was inscrutable. “For such a thing to happen in this place… this is a tragic loss indeed…”

“I don’t understand…” Kenji muttered.

“Excuse me?”

Sameth sounded sincere when he bemoaned the loss of Kathy. Kenji believed what he heard. But at the same time, his gut kept telling him with absolute certainty that it had been Sameth, no other. Sameth had killed Kathy somehow. Or had he? Was something wrong with Kenji? Was he, not Sameth the problem? Had he missed something? Perhaps the chernowilki had carried something more sinister into his presence than the message of the Shadow Society… perhaps there had been some sort of curse attached to him… But then, was the claim of the Shadow Society itself a ruse, planted perhaps by his father? Had they never been involved, their name just invoked to throw him off the trail?

“What is it, you do not understand, Kenji?” Sameth inquired. His voice was suddenly very close.

Kenji flinched back, turning to see himself face to face with him. “I… just how this could have happened…” he said evasively. Sameth was much too close. He saw the dirty yellow gleam that had invaded his eyes. As a child, Kenji had lived in the Old Country, the lands of Vechnaya Bramma where the terrible Curse of Manastranza gave power to curses and made the blighted turn into monsters that should only exist in dark fairy tales. He has witnessed the blackest animancy up close and learned exactly what to fear in this world. He feared those eyes. There still was powerful animancy in those yellow clouds, something still working its way into Sameth’s brain, or perhaps even his soul. Kenji could see it, sense it. It was not the kind of perception one who had been raised in the safe and peaceful Middle Lands was ever likely to be cursed with, but for a Brammir like him, who had spent years at the Black Czar’s court, it was second nature. There was no self-deception here… The evil truth was staring him right in the eye.

“Of course…” Sameth said with a dry smile. “It was wise of you to call Maya to our aid. I am sure she will bring light to the situation.” For just a moment, so brief it could have been a trick of the light, Kenji thought he saw the smile crinkle into a smirk. But Sameth turned his back to him. At his sides, Kenji’s knuckles had started to whiten. Just when he lifted one arm, trance-like, about to do something he would have come to regret dearly, a new breeze moved through the corridor, and like a cloud, the long silver hair flew behind Maya as she rushed into the room, her eyes widening as she saw the scene before her.

“By the gears, Kenji!” She looked from Kenji to Sameth, back to Kenji, and then finally settled on staring at Kathy’s body. “What happened here?!”

Kenji’s arm fell back down. His voice was subdued, almost into a whisper, when he replied: “You tell us.”

For a moment there was a flash of horror on her face: “What, me? What are you talking about, I don’t know what happened here!”

“Of course not,” he replied, his emotions far too disarrayed for him to roll his eyes. “But I want you to find out. You have some experience with these things. Look around, tell us what you think happened here.”

“I think the third wind is about to blow the roofs off of Fulgrath…” she muttered.

Kenji calmly stepped up to her, put a firm hand on either of her shoulder and gave her such a fierce headbutt, his own ears were ringing afterwards.

“AAUUHHGH!” she screamed, clutching her forehead with both hands while squirming in pain.

“Keep your fucking witty comments to yourself, sister,” he spoke coldly, “and get to work.”

He turned to put his eyes back on Sameth. Before his sickness, at least Kenji wanted to believe this, the old man would have commented on what had just happened. He had been a peace-loving man who abhorred violence. But now, there still was that weak smile on his face. No, not a weak smile… merely one he wanted to look that way. Something about it was insincere, fake. Kenji’s brow furled angrily.

Beside them, Maya was stepping gingerly across the room, looking at various corners, sometimes picking things up. Between every little noise she made, there was a blaring moment of silence, like a skipped breath that burned in the lung. Finally, she sighed and said: “She killed herself. There is no other way it could have happened.”

Kenji’s brow did not unfurl, but crease even further. “But what?” Something wasn’t right, he could hear it in her voice.

“Well, it doesn’t really matter, but as you can see there have been lightning discharges in the room, almost as if she was fighting something.” Kenji noticed that she was giving him a strange look. “And this book…” She held up a tattered collected volume of the first dozen or so Ferry Tales, an old HJT serial about the adventures of Corsic ship mages, some of them, in fact, about Kathlyn’s childhood. Kenji had meant to read them some time but had never gotten around to it. Maya continued: “It was close enough to the body for one of the corners to be soaked in blood Almost as if she was carrying it in her arm when she stabbed herself. Maybe the same thing that caused her to use lighting magic also somehow led to the book dropping near her, but there aren’t any other books here…”

“She keeps her books in her study…”

“Well, she had just picked this one out to read then. At least that seems likely to me. There is a bookmark neatly placed on her nightstand. If she had already started reading the book, it’d be inside.”

“It sounds to me,” Sameth ventured, “that the circumstances of the situation are quite hazy. What makes you so sure this was suicide?”

Maya pointed at Ankerias. “If I tried to take that trident into my hands, it would burn me to a crisp. Keeper weapons are bound to their Keeper. She might have let someone else touch Ankerias willingly, but I would say it is inconceivable that it could be used to harm her if she didn’t explicitly desire it.”

Sameth nodded. “There are mighty souls inside our weapons. They cannot be wielded against their wishes, and they would never wish their Keeper’s harm. I struggle to see a flaw in that reasoning… Yet, why did she do it? I am baffled…”

Kenji grit his teeth. Maya had confirmed his suspicions. Still, they made no sense whatsoever. Kathy hadn’t been suicidal, what utter nonsense! Hadn’t she just told him that she was going to investigate the Shadow Society’s claims? Perhaps, Sameth had used his earth magic to thrust the trident… no, there was just no way that could have worked, for the same reason he could not have thrust it into her himself. “And you are sure she died off her wounds and not something else?” he asked Maya desperately. “Perhaps she was already dead when she was run through?”

“Only if she died just before it. … Perhaps not even then. I think her heart was still beating when it was pierced. Otherwise I don’t think she would have bled as much.”

Kenji turned towards the cold, stone wall and hit his fist against it, then let his aching forehead sink against the cool black. “We will need to send letters to the Grand Academy of Fulgrath Department of Weather Science and the Shunkashûtô Institue in Yamaseki. Go and get Master Austin to draft one each, put them on high alert for anomalous lightning storms.”

Sameth protested: “No! That would be as good as announcing the Lady of Lightning was dead to the world! We need to be very careful about how we handle this situation. Such tasks should be entrusted only by direct couriers, and only to specific people.”

“Oh, we are going to hide her death then?” Kenji asked bitterly. “How very sensible.” 

“You mean political, Lord Kenji. We are politicians. Whether we want to be or not.”

Maya cut in. “I am still going. I should get someone to help clean this up; I know who to ask, don’t worry. Moving the trident will be dangerous, but I think there are some containers built for that purpose in the basement…”

Kenji nodded. “Do what you have to.”

With that and a flying white cloak, she left the room again.

“Politicians…” Kenji grunted, almost forced to suppress a manic grin. That was one of the last things Kathy had complained about. Being a politician.

“Yes,” Sameth replied. “Our hands move the pieces of the world across the board. Both you and I have a nation we have to answer to, and the greater nation of the Middle Lands depends on us as well. We must be diligent in our actions and direct people and information with great skill and consideration.”

Kenji lifted his head from the wall, his eyes blurrily staring at the quartz-veined black surface before him as Sameth laid out his spiel.

“Speaking of which…” he noted, and there was a strange pause before he continued that made the hairs on Kenji’s neck stand on end. “You should go and see your wife.”

He had turned around before he even realized what is body was doing. The pleasant smile on Sameth’s face seemed almost wolfish. “What?”

“I met her earlier today, as it happens. I think it would be a good idea if you went to her soon, Lord Kenji. I am sure she expected you for dinner and is worried about your tardiness.”

It was incredibly difficult to read into Sameth’s expression, but Kenji could still feel cold sweat on his back. It was a threat. He was sure of it. If anything were to happen to Poppy, he… he’d. He turned to the door and stepped out of Kathy’s chambers in big, hasty strides. From behind him, he heard Sameth’s voice, and though he could not say whether he was imagining it or not, it sounded utterly mocking to him:

“Watch your step, Lord Kenji, it is dark outside!”

Kenji rushed across the corridor with ferocious speed, the air behind him pushing him forward, the air before him thinning. Like a cannonball through the stony barrel, he flew onward. When the door he sought came into his sights, it surprisingly creaked ajar and was instantly flung wide open and off its hinges by the powerful current that had propelled Kenji through the tower.

A brittle, surprised voice yelped: “Ouch!”

Kenji skidded across the black floor, halting before the aperture with wild eyes, and out of breath. Then, he suddenly snapped back out of the haze of terror that had clutched his heart. “Colchester!” He exclaimed in bewilderment. “My gears, your hand! Is it broken?”

The old page lifted the offended extremity in a dismissive shake. “Perish the thought, My Lord. You merely startled me.” He gave Kenji an encouraging smile and stepped back into the room, making way for him.

Kenji, still huffing a bit, stepped in, still at a loss. “What are you doing here, Colchester?” He looked around for a couple of things he intended to take with him – and came up empty.

“Doing some packing on your behalf, sir.”

Kenji’s jaw almost dropped. “What are you, a wishing moth in disguise or something? Whatever prompted you to do that?”

“Ah, pardon my initiative, my Lord. I had prepared the horses and provisions you had asked for and thought there might be a trifle or two you would not wish to miss on your journey to Aerialis. I do hope I have not overstepped my station.” He bowed his head in courteous shame.

Kenji breathed in deeply, and then out again slowly. “The spell ink debacle, of course… I fear more pressing matters have taken the stage. Colchester, Lady Kathlyn… has died.”

The old man’s hand rose to his mouth as a faintly yelped “Oh” escaped it. For a moment the aura of utter primness and decorum evaporated around him as he visually slumped. “My Lord Kenji, I beg you tell me this is some sort of lark…”

The question hung in the air like some sort of tangible sliver of hope, waiting to be taken to its grave by Kenji’s reply. In truth, he felt no different. That all of this had to be some sort of silly, tasteless mistake. A trick of sorts, nothing more. But Maya had inspected the body. The reality of the matter was… just that. “I am sorry…”

Colchester’s eyes were glistening in the pale light of the magus lamps, and he visibly suppressed a sob. “I… well… I don’t have the words…” He looked weak and miserable.

Kenji rushed to his desk and drew out his chair, offering it to the old man. “Please.”

The man thankfully sunk onto the cool wood, pulling a white handkerchief from his breast pocket to dab his eyes with, clutching the soft cloth afterwards with a shaking hand. “She came here… it must have been some seventy years ago… I was still a young hallboy back in the day. She was such a vibrant lady; well, a bit of a rascal, to tell the truth, much like Lady Din, though even more lively if you can believe it…”

Kenji could believe it. Even these days Kathy could out-lively Din sometimes. <No. Not anymore…>, he thought bitterly.

“I took quite the shine to her back then. We… used to be an item for a few years, actually… Oh, what is the world coming to, Lord Kenji? Please, I must know, what has happened to her? How did she…?”

Kenji bit his lip. “It looks like…” He could not say it. How could he tell this sweet old man that Kathy had killed herself? He could barely endure the fact himself. It kept dragging him down into a dark pool of numbness, only to swell up and spit him out into an inner world of pain, and when he thought he could bear it no more, he sank back into the pool. And all this he had to push down and back over and over, as far away as possible, because now, right now, he wasn’t even sure if Poppy was safe. “She was stabbed,” he managed.

Another tiny sob escaped the frail body of Colchester. It was clear to Kenji that the composure was so ingrained in the man’s bones that he could not let go and bawl his eyes out in front of him, and he couldn’t help but admire him for it. Kenji himself only kept things barely together by sheer necessity.

“Colchester, my things…” he looked around. “In that bag, yes?”

He nodded.

“Forgive me, but I must take them now and leave. I think my wife may be in danger. Please take as much time as you need.”

“My Lord!” Colchester exclaimed in alarm, rising to his feet “is there anything I can do?”

“You have already done more than I could have hoped. I owe you a great deal. Make no mistake, I will repay you in kind when I get the chance, my good man. Just make sure you stay alive and well…” He grabbed the bags Colchester had packed.

“Alive? Am I in danger, my Lord?”

“We are all in danger, Colchester,” Kenji replied darkly. “Please, keep a close eye on Din, I worry for her. Send her to my house tomorrow morning if I… just send her. And don’t arouse Lord Sameth’s attention.”

“Lord Sameth? I don’t understand, my Lord…”

“I wish, I had all the answers, Colchester. Gears know I do… Something has crept its way into the Tower. Not a monster from the Old Country, mind you… But there is foul animancy at play here… I must leave!”

As Kenji strode out of the room, Colchester called after him: “Take care of yourself, my Lord.”

Thanks to Colchester’s mindful preparation, Kenji had gained more time than he had lost, talking to the man. Now, he was once again rushing through the tower, heading to an eastern window and jumping right out. He fell almost the full two stories before a heavy blast of wind ballooned his special cloak into a rigid half-bell, breaking his fall. The wingwrap was a traditional combat garment worn by the White Lancers of Aerialis, a knightly order of wind mages. With it, a wind rider, as the art was called, could leap incredible distances if they knew how to use the right kind of wind magic. Kenji did so, hopping dozens of meters at a time as he made his way to the sleepy village of Vorstadtn.

When he finally arrived in front of their little hut, all seemed to be well and undisturbed. Rime had encrusted the fringes of the living-room window, but faint candle light was flickering from within and the door was shut and undamaged as far as Kenji could tell. He held his breath and turned the doorknob.

Swallowing in apprehension, he pushed the door open and stepped inside his cabin. The candelabra on the table flung wicked shadows across the living room. In his home, Kenji tolerated no magus lamps; he avoided magic engines where possible, knowing that their drain on the user’s soul had blighted many a Midlander already. “Poppy?” he ventured meekly. His eyes wandered across the laden walls, decorated with various Kaltani masks and talismans he had collected over the years.

There was movement near the stove. A gentle seething sound accompanied by the irregular soft clacking of a copper lid filtered into his strained hearing. Poppy was sitting next to the warm stove where she had apparently fallen asleep on a book, one of the Arklight Press illustrated novels from Fulgrath she treasured so much. Waking with a feeble stretch, she looked over to Kenji across the shadows. “How late is it?” she muttered. Her hair, darker than usual in the twilight, was ruffled from being buried in the crook of her arm.

Kenji held back tears of relief and stepped inside, closing the door on the cold night outside. “Too late. I’m sorry, dear.” He stepped over to the large cypress-wood table, taking a seat and resting his forehead on his hands. Suddenly, he was overtaken with weariness. The spell he had worked with Din’s help had drained his soul quite a bit. But it was a trifle compared to the horror of seeing Kathy on the cold ground… He still could barely believe any of it.

“It’s fine,” Poppy mumbled, with a yawn. “I kept a bit of heat up. Let me get you a bowl of stew…” she rose, shedding a warm blanket, and clattered about the cooking area to produce a bowl. Kenji could hear her ladle something chunky, and a pleasant, rich aroma had begun to fill the room when she lifted the lid. “Did Din keep you busy, or was it work?”

Kanji sighed. He could not say it. Not just yet; he had to process the day himself first before breaking the news to Poppy. Saying that she and Kathy had been bosom friends would have been an overstatement, but they had liked each other well enough. Kenji recalled them meeting for tea on many occasions. There would be no more of those. The soft clack of a wooden bowl being placed gently on the table before him caught his attention. He was looking at the disks of carrots and strips of onions in the milky potage. For a moment, the steam rising from the bowl and the plethora of mysterious ingredients held his fancy, and he felt strangely entranced in the divination of their nature. Then he snapped out of it, realizing he had been asked a question. “Work? Yes, I suppose a bit of both,” he said quietly.

His eyes flickered to the side. Something about the movement of the shadows seemed off to him. There was an erratic edge to it that went beyond the flickering of the candelabra. Were there still minions of his father about? The spell he had wrought with Din had wreathed the Tower of Five in perfect protection, but the surrounding lands… it would take at least until morning before the barrier was strong enough to expel any unwanted guests from as far away as Vorstadtn.

“You seem out of sorts, Kenji,” she replied with a twang of worry in her voice. “Is everything alright.”

No, and it wouldn’t be for a long time, if ever… “Just some unpleasantness,” he lied. And then, in a stroke of genius he added: “Maya told me there is trouble in the Eastern Fiefdoms. Something about missing batches of spell ink.”

“My word! The last time that happened the Keeper of Lightning died!” Poppy exclaimed in shocked surprise. Then, she yelped: “Oh my, Kenji!”

That shocked remark was owed to Kenji accidentally snapping his wooden spoon in two. He stared at the broken pieces before him. The handle bit had fallen into the stew. He fished it out gingerly and put it to the side. Then, he took the shortened spoon and ladled some stew into his mouth. While he was eating, Poppy rose from her seat, her hand brushing his shoulder as she moved about the room. When she sat down again, as quietly as she could, Kenji said almost conversationally: “Something’s different. Have you changed your recipe?”

“Silly me,” she said impishly. “I must have forgotten to put in the love.”

Kenji looked up dumbfounded, only to find Poppy’s hand in front of his face. She was holding something that gave off a dark, metallic glint in the candle-light. In one motion, she pushed her hand forward and stuck it into his left eye. His mouth went ajar and his body froze. Something she was holding was sticking in his eye and if he moved, he’d pull his own eyeball out. “Poppy… What the fuck…” he groaned, feeling a sickening shiver ripple across his body.

“You Keepers,” she muttered. “Souls like mountains. It barely takes a moment for one like this,” there was a bittersweet smile on her face as she casually pointed at her nose.

When she shifted ever so slightly, Kenji could suddenly see the inky, yellow clouds in her bright, brown eyes. He felt the stew trying to make its way back from his stomach to the outside world.

“But Sameth, that one built a fortress around his soul as if we were coming with swords and catapults. And Kathlyn… stupid bitch…”

Now Kenji felt the anger rise to his face in red hot waves. “Let Poppy go, whoever you are!”

“Let Poppy go? What are you talking about, I’m right here and fancy-free.” She grinned at him. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I have to show you the light.” She twisted her hand and whatever was inside his eye, pulling it back out when she was done.

There was a flash of light. A golden light followed by a searing pain as though he had stared right into the midday sun. Everything about him was obscured by dark blotches for a moment as he struggled with all his might to remain conscious despite the agonizing pain that was threatening to split his head open. When he removed his hand from his eye, there was no blood on it, and looking up he could see that Poppy was holding… a golden key. “What did you do to me?!” he yelled in terror.

She gently pulled a finger to her lips. “Shh, you’ll wake the neighbor’s dear.”

A nasty throbbing was pounding against the inside of Kenji’s head, and he felt a sinking feeling in his heart… and beyond. There was animancy in that key, and it was trying to attack his soul! He started looking around the cabin frantically, clutching his hand back over his eye. The door creaked open and someone stepped in. Snapping around, Kenji saw that Sameth had entered.

“My word, Kenji. You seem distressed.” There was a smile on his face. A cold, derisive smile.

“You!” Kenji screamed in a frenzy.

“Calm down and relax, son. I couldn’t fight back either, and trust me I have a lot more experience than you when it comes to magic.”

A sudden stab of pain went right into Kenji’s brain and he howled like a kicked dog. His hand had flown to Orzelgryf’s handle, and suddenly his scream was amplified a thousandfold, exploding in an outward burst of air that flipped the table over and blasted everything not tied down against the walls. Sameth was blown right back out of the door and Kenji scrambled to the south wall, picking up and tossing away masks that had fallen to the floor. “Where is it… where is it…” he muttered feverishly. When he couldn’t find the mask he was looking for, he grabbed a small cabinet and hurled it out of the way. There! He picked up a strange piece carved from ivory. There were no eye holes in the mask, just one for the mouth, and silver wire was inlaid across the smooth white surface in incredibly complex, angular patterns. He put it on the ground, pulled Orzelgryf from its leather scabbard and, resisting another agonizing throb, brought the point down on the right side of the mask, breaking a thin hole into it. He sheathed the sword again. Then he grasped the mask and set it on his face. With as commanding a voice as he could muster, he proclaimed: “Brynwain, druid of the Gods, built a labyrinth of bones! A Keeper soul’s a mighty thing, and wars be won with mighty things! But twist them on themselves and you’ll find that even they have mighty chinks!

“Adorable…” Sameth had returned. He wiped some blood from the corner of his mouth where his lip had been torn. “But futile.”

“You may be a learned man in the ways of magic, Sameth Gildorn,” Kenji replied from behind the mask, his teeth grit, “but yours has been a nice and clean education. I come from a land where monsters like you roam the streets every night!” the mask had tightened, sticking to his face, and the throbbing pain in his eye had begun to subside. As had his ability to use his Keeper magic. The Labyrinthine Mask of Brynwain was twisting his soul into knots. This made it near impossible for whatever animancy the key had bored into his being to advance further. Now he was temporarily safe from the attack and at the same time rather defenseless. He had hoped his opening attack would have put Sameth out of commission for longer.

The Lord of Earth shook his head. “Tsk, tsk, tsk, Kenji. Look at what you’ve done.”

Kenji’s gaze shakily wandered to the side. His left eye was completely covered by the mask and the field of vision in his right eye was limited by the small hole he had punctured into it. Still, he could see her clearly: Poppy was slumped down on the floor, her back against the wall. From behind her, a dark streak of blood went upwards to a larger blotch. She wasn’t moving at all, and with his Keeper magic locked away by the mask, it was impossible hear her breathing in the wind. If she was breathing at all… “Noooo!” he screamed in utter poverty.

“I recall reading something about that mask. By the gears, you have a truly ghastly collection in here, don’t you?” Sameth noted with a raised brow. “It would seem you are still at my mercy, however. I think I’ll immobilize you and peel that thing off, how about it?”

There was a rumble below the cabin, and Kenji barely managed to jump out of the way as several spikes of compacted earth broke through the wooden floor boards. He panted, looking about wildly for something to use, a weapon, a totem, anything he could throw at Sameth to buy himself some time. Jumping the man with a temporarily mundane Orzelgryf in hand was tantamount to suicide. Suicide… by the gears, that was what had happened to Kathy! Sameth had tried to take her like he was trying to take Kenji right now, and she had stabbed herself in the heart with Ankerias! His teeth clenched in jaw breaking ire as he realized this. Was this his fate as well? Had he no choice but to stab himself with his ancestral Keeper weapon?

“Keep still,” Sameth commanded coolly. “I wouldn’t want to crush you prematurely.”

Kenji saw it again. The smallest unnatural flicker in the dancing shadows across the cabin interior. And there was his chance. Unlike Kathy, he had the mask, halting the progress of the animancy, so his only problem now was being trapped with one of the most powerful men on the planet. The trick to getting away from the most powerful men on the planet was to hit them from a direction they did not expect. Kenji breathed in and yelled at the top of his lungs: “Kill him, chernowilk!”

Instinctively, Sameth looked behind, expecting someone or something to have crept up on him. That was a mistake, because a thousand hair-thin tendrils of utter blackness suddenly lashed out of the shadows across the floor boards and dug into every bit of exposed skin on his body with eldritch hunger. When his head snapped back, his yellow eyes were wide with shock and pain as he screamed: “YEAAAAAARGH!!!” The horrific, shadowy simulacrum of a wolf’s head emerged from the tangle of black strands, leaping at Sameth’s throat with a black howl that reverberated out of the hut and sowed nightmares into the heads of sleeping shepherds.

Kenji was already outside. He had darted towards Sameth as soon as he had turned his head and pushed his way out into freedom. Looking about frantically, he stumbled to the left, heading towards the stables. People had emerged from their houses, trying to find out what the commotion was about. Some stared suspiciously at Kenji, but for the most part their gazes were fixed towards his house where Sameth was screaming and screaming, as though his skin was being peeled off. Which was not far from the truth. Mighty blasts and blows shattered the quiet of the night as Kenji’s cabin was torn apart by earth magic when the Lord of Earth ran rampant in his desperate attempts to free himself from the horrific chernowilk of Vechnaya Bramma.

Meanwhile, Kenji had made his way to the Vorstadtn stables and stumbled inside, looking for his horse. She was a true white Friedbert, an Arkatrashian-Saltplains crossbreed with wise, purple eyes and a gentle disposition. He looked about hectically for the saddle and found it neatly stacked on top of a crate, next to a bunch of packed saddlebags. Colchester. Kenji lifted the expertly crafted saddle with some difficulty and placed it gently on Clarie’s back, strapping it down. Then he grabbed the saddlebags, heaved them over and hooked them onto the appropriate eyelets. He carefully put on her bridle and guided her out of the stables. In the background he could no longer hear the pounding of earth magic or the screaming of Sameth, but the commotion had become even livelier and the whole village was up and gathered around Kenji’s home. He heard shouts like get a healer and someone send for the Tower, by the gears. He heaved himself onto Clarie’s back and spurred her into a fast trot, feeling too weak to keep up a gallop.

The mask on his face throbbed as it clung tightly to his skin, constricting his breathing with only a mouth hole on it. Long ago it had been designed as a weapon against Keepers such as himself. Now it was keeping his soul safe; if only barely.

Kenji slumped forward slightly, struggling to keep his eyes open. He had been tired and defeated before, now he was at the end of his rope. How? How could one man lose so much so quickly? As Clarie trotted on eastward, he felt his consciousness slipping.  

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