Chapter 38: Rougarou
The great hawk soared over Aureus, casting its shadow onto the cobbled streets below. The bird’s sharp eyes scanned the ground as hundreds of black robed figures converged on the courtyard between the Ascension basilica and the Aurum Oratory. Lines of Afreet officers stood guard at the gates of the city, around the Oratory and at the doors of the imposing Pyrus.
The great hawk’s nostrils twitched as the acrid scent of burnt wood engulfed its senses.
Soaring above the Ascension Basilica Ash looked down on a patch of charred ruins where once had stood the majestic dome of the Oratory Library. What little remained of the magnificent staircase, delicately carved oak bookshelves and the thousands of thick, leather-bound volumes, still smouldered. An occasional gust re-igniting fragments of paper and parchment, the flames flickering in the rubble.
The hawk’s wings dipped, as the bird turned towards the south, gliding silently towards the valley of Ferndell.
Minutes later, Ash was standing beside the trail leading into the swamp. It was just as he remembered. Less than a year ago, when he had stood almost in this same spot, his only concern was how to win the novice challenge set by Lord De Lille.
Life had seemed so simple then; exciting, full of potential, idyllic even. Now, the burden of his quest weighed heavily on his shoulders - almost too much to bear. Failure meant death for everyone he cared for, and judging by the sacking of the Oratory Library, Lord Ka was already preparing for his glorious reign of power. Ash wondered what would life be like under the rule of a tyrant like Lord Ka? What he imagined terrified him. There was no time to waste.
“Hello,” he called out nervously as he made his way further into the swamp, “Err, I am here to speak to Raemis. Hello… anyone?”
The swamp seemed unusually silent. The familiar sounds of birdsong and rhythmic chirping of crickets were absent. The only thing breaching the silence was the occasional croaking of a lone bullfrog.
As Ash moved deeper into the swamp, the ground became boggy. His boots squelched in the mud, making loud sucking noises as he struggled to pull his feet from the mire. Like walking through treacle.
Stagnant water and rotting vegetation mingled with the scent of animal excrement where foxes and wolves had sprayed the ground around the base of trees marking their territory. The bloody place still smells the same.
Ash grabbed hold of the branch of a nearby tree and used it to extricate himself from the bog, pulling himself up onto a sandy mound. That’s when he noticed the tracks. He placed his muddied boot down beside a single, man-sized, wolf track. Jeez. Hearing a faint rustle from a patch of thicket, then another from the bushes to his right, Ash glanced around nervously.
“Rougarou, I know you’re watching me. I mean you no harm. I wish only to speak to Raemis…”
Ash swung around as twigs crackled loudly behind him.
“Who has the affront to enter my territory and speak my name?” Raemis emerged from a strip of dense, thorny shrub.
Two others came up behind Ash, with their jaws gaping as they blocked his retreat.
During his time studying at the Oratory, Ash had seen many pictures of the Rougarou. He had never seen one in person. The pictures did not do the animals justice. The massive creature stood erect.
Raemis was a giant of a man, but instead of hands and feet, there were elongated paws housing claws as sharp as talons. His massive, muscular body was covered in thick grey fur.
As Ash met the creature’s eyes he had no doubt that he was looking into the eyes of a wolf. I’m a metamorph, I can deal with this…
As if reading his thoughts the Rougarou smiled, lifting his pointed snout and easing back its muzzle to reveal two rows of inch-long, razor sharp, teeth.
“I am Ash,” he said, his voice quivering as he spoke, “I have heard much about you Raemis - many good things. That is why I… I have come to ask a favour of you…”
His request was cut short by a blast of Raemis’s raucous laughter.
“A Mud Ascendant - purposefully invading my territory - to ask me a favour? What can it be, that is important enough for you to risk your life for? Maybe you are in need of some venison for your table?”
“Rose the Whyte sent me to speak with you,” Ash approached the beast, portraying an air of relaxed courage, which was far from how he felt. “She asks that you return the kindness she once showed you.”
Raemis’s stance altered. His body relaxing as Ash offered his hand.
“I would do anything for Lady Rose.” Raemis took Ash’s hand in his. His expression altered to one of concern. “Is Rose unwell? Is that why she did not seek me out herself?”
“Lady Rose is in Isingwilde and is in good health.” Ash caught a movement from the corner of his eye as more Rougarou emerged from the bushes. He was completely surrounded and as they circled they were closing in. Ash turned his attention back to Raemis. “However, she, and all our people are in grave danger. We expect an attack by Lord Ka at any moment.”
“Ah yes, I heard that Aureus had fallen to the Ophite Lord Ka.” Raemis gestured to his pack, signalling them to back off. Immediately, the Rougarou halted their advance. “We did not shed many tears over that, as you can imagine. As far as we are concerned Lord Ka did us a favour. For the first year in centuries, we will not have to suffer the cull of our brothers, our mates and our cubs. We have no wish to return to an Aurum ruled by Gold Ascendants. So, if that is what she…”
“All Rose asks from you is a lock of your hair.”
“That seems somewhat of a strange request,” Raemis let out a chuckle “I had not realised I had made such an impression.”
“It is for use in a spell. Without it, Rose and all of those with her will be obliterated. Lord Ka intends to use the confractio charm. This spell is the only way to stop him.”
“And if I help Rose to make her magic, and Lord Ka is defeated, then the Golds will return to Aurum, and the persecution of my pack will begin again.” Raemis shook his head, “No, I cannot do this. No matter how much I may wish to help Lady…”
“I promise you Raemis, Rose will not let that happen.” Ash laid a hand on the Rougarou’s arm, “You have seen for yourself what Rose is. She fights for the rights of all of the people of the Afterlands, your pack included. Rose’s triumph in unifying these lands is prophesied by Lord Eldwyn. You can trust her Raemis, I swear, she will not let you down.”
The pack began circling again, they were getting restless and evidently did not like what they were hearing.
“Raemis, I do understand your feelings about the Golds,” said Ash, suddenly remembering something that Auriel had told him. Maybe it’s worth a shot… “but surely being ruled in part by the Golds is more preferable than being governed by the Djinn?”
“The Djinn?” His words were spoken with a snarl, “why do you mention the Djinn?”
“From your response, I see you are unaware of some of the facts about Ka’s invasion of Aurum,” Ash put his hand behind his back, crossing his fingers, “Lord Ka has summoned the army of the Djinn and has taken on the persona of Fyre Meister Phlegon. He now controls the entire Afreet army.”
Three more Rougarou appeared from the thicket. They immediately began closing in, yellow eyes fixed and jaws agape. Ash smelled their pungent canine scent as they approached.
Again Raemis raised his arm, stalling the pack’s advance.
“You may take what you came for. Tell Lady Rose that she has our allegiance.”
Enchantment of Ice
Three days had passed since Rose had last looked on Ash’s face and wondered when, if ever, she would see him again. Three whole days filled with hours of planning and preparation for something virtually impossible to plan or usefully prepare for. Rose had long tired of the endless discussions about whether we should wait for Ka’s army to come to us, or take the initiative and use the element of surprise by taking the battle to them.
This morning, at the Council meeting, Rose had found it more and more impossible to concentrate. Finally, she lost her temper. “How can we usefully plan anything before Ash returns. Until then, we won’t even know whether we will have a weapon with the potential to defeat Ka.”
The stunned silence at her uncharacteristic outburst was followed by the exchange of knowing glances. She had stormed out then, heading out into the snow.
Pulling her cloak about her, she lifted her hood, shielding her face from the biting Northeasterly wind. Ash should have returned by now… Something is wrong.
Lately, she had become obsessed with the sky, perpetually casting her eyes towards its endless horizon, her ears straining for the distant cry of a fyre hawk.
So focused was her attention that she failed to hear Auriel’s approach. The crunch of her friend’s boots through the snow should have long heralded her advance, but Rose heard nothing, the crisp sound tuned out as she listened for the high pitched call of the hawk. Consequently, Auriel’s sudden appearance caught Rose off guard.
“I’m sorry I startled you,” Auriel smiled, seemingly amused at her friend’s preoccupation. “It’s only been three days Rose, he’ll be back.”
“Oh, I’m not worried about Ash,” lied Rose, “he can take care of himself. I’m just impatient to get on with things. We have little enough time to prepare as it is.”
“Yes, of course,” Auriel sounded unconvinced. “That must be why you are out here… planning, when Lord Dux has expressly told us all to remain within the city walls.”
“He should have returned by now,” Said Rose, an unconscious sigh escaping tightened lips. “Lord Ka is in Aurum, the place will be swarming with Afreet. I wish we had known before Ash left.”
“It wouldn’t have changed anything,” said Auriel, “he would still have gone, you know that we have no other option. Look, Rose, Ash may not be the brightest novice that the Oratory has ever seen, but he’s no fool. We all knew that Ka would end up in Aurum, Ash won’t risk getting too close to Aureus, and the Afreet won’t venture near the Ferndell swamp, you know how they fear Rougarou, they are terrified of the animals.”
“I guess, you’re right,” Rose managed a weak smile. Auriel always managed to put things into perspective.
“Shall we go back?” Auriel tilted her head, “There’s hot soup waiting.”
Rose nodded and they began walking back to Isingwilde. The snow-frosted turrets of the Isingwilde pyrus glistened in the sunlight, dazzling Rose’s eyes as the solitary screech of a hawk broke the silence. Rose turned her face to the south and squinted towards the sunlit horizon. The sky was a bright cobalt blue. Rose’s breath misted in the air, instantly freezing into a curtain of glittering powder. She watched as it floated skywards, glistening in the bright morning sunlight.
“Tell me you heard that too?”
“I heard it,” Auriel turned her face towards the Southeastern skyline. Raising her arm, she pointed towards the Sharp Peak, the highest summit of the Ice Mountain range “there…”
A lone fyre hawk soared high above the escarpment, circling wide as it descended into the valley, spiralling down as it glided northwards. It was heading towards Isingwilde. Rose felt her breath stall in her lungs. It’s Ash… it has to be him.
Seconds later the bird was above them, swooping down, cutting through the air like a comet, its form shimmering and altering as it neared the ground. Ash had long perfected the morph, his transformation from bird to Ascendant was seamless, Lord Irwin himself could not have bettered it.
“Miss me?” Ash hitched his lips into a slanted smile, “I told you I would be back.”
“So you did,” Said Rose attempting to sound casual and mask the extent of her joy at his return.
However, her nonchalant manner did not fool either of them. Ash’s eyes glinted as their attention was resolutely fixed on her.
Rose felt her cheeks flush.
“When you two have finished gazing into each other’s eyes,” said Auriel, raising her brows, “maybe Ash can tell us how he got on?”
“Raemis says hi,” Ash reached inside a small pouch attached to the belt of his robe and lifted out a lock of straggly hair. “His gift to you - One hundred percent lice and flea free -guaranteed.”
“And how is Raemis?” Rose chuckled, taking the wisp of hair between her fingers.
“Big enough and ugly enough that even Linden would think twice about tangling with him,” said Ash, “you neglected to inform me how massive he is, and those teeth…”
“So everything went smoothly?” Asked Auriel, “I told Rose she shouldn’t worry, that you are too smart to risk going to Aureus.”
“Rose was worried?” Ash grinned, “Well I guess that’s because she knows me a little better than you obviously do. Of course, I went to Aureus. I needed to travel fast, and the quickest, most direct route to Ferndell took me right over the city. I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to check if the city was still intact and find out whether Lord Ka was in residence. He was, by the way.”
“Yes, we know. We found out from El-on-ah,” said Rose, “that’s why we were worried.”
“It’s not only Lord Ka though,” Ash frowned “from what I was able to make out, there are also a few hundred thousand Afreet and a significant number of Bloods inside the city.”
“Bloods?” Auriel’s eyes widened.
“Ophites, I guess, I hadn’t realised that there were so many of them. Surprisingly, it seems Lord Ka has quite a large following.” Ash’s expression clouded, “and I’m sorry to have to tell you this Auriel, but the Oratory Library has been gutted - burned to the ground.”
“No!” Auriel’s hand shot to her mouth, her eyes instantly brimming with tears, “What a terrible waste... thousands of years of work, all of that knowledge… gone. So many of those books are unique… irreplaceable.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Rose. “El-on-ah told Che that Ka is intent on re-opening the Oratory, installing himself as Prima Magister. How can he run a school without any books?”
“I suspect that the only book Ka wishes the students studying is The Unification,” said Auriel, “and perhaps the Grimoire. I’m sure he retained a copy of that.”
“Ash, you should go immediately and speak to Lord Dux. Tell him what you have just told us.” Rose glanced down at the lock of hair in her fingers and her mood sobered, “and I have work to do. We can not afford to delay any longer. I must brew the Incantatio potion. I’ll be with Lord De Lille in the Alchemy Chamber if you need me.”
“Don’t worry Rose, you still have plenty of time,” said Ash, “Ka will not be able to get here as rapidly as I did.”
“Ka will not,” said Rose, “but the Afreet can fly almost as swiftly as a fyre hawk, and potentially, there could be Metamorphs amongst his Ophite Ascendants. If so, I am sure they would be eager to make a good impression on their Lord and Master, especially now Ka holds Cinnabar, Glynesfarne and Aureus. The only major city he doesn’t hold is Dynasgwyn, the first capital of Rhodium. Ka will waste no time there, once he discovers we are at Isingwilde.”
“In that case,” said Ash, “I’ll fly ahead, and before I speak with Lord Dux, I’ll ask Lord De Lille to meet you in the Alchemy chamber. So you just head straight there - okay?”
Ash planted a fleeting kiss on her forehead as his body began to shimmer, dissolving and reforming into a hawk. A second later he had gone.