The House of Yeel
Author:Michael McCloskey

Chapter 6: The Stone Garden





I have now traveled with the Great Yeel for six days and nights. His feats of power never cease to amaze me. This mighty wizard commands all the elements. Fire and light I have seen him produce upon the shortest notice. The earth and her children shirk before him, and she weeps at his very passage. Air is also his to command since he can fill his palace with warm or cool breezes at a whim. Water too is his slave. He alters the course of streams within his palace at the smallest motion of his hand.

Yesterday as we supped in his opulent palace in the sky, a gnarth discovered the portal of light which connects us to the mainland and wandered through after our scent. Not only did Yeel detect this gargantuan beast immediately with his mystical eyes that are everywhere, he went out to do battle with the creature side by side with the Crescent Knight. I myself confess to no small measure of anxiety upon seeing the poisoned spines on its tail. But Yeel stood before the thing and called forth some power beyond understanding. Flashes of light and smoke erupted from his outstretched arms, accompanied by a loud crash of sound. The gnarth beast rolled its eyes in stupid terror and bolted from us in haste.

I now know that all the old stories must be true. The barbarian horde is vast, but I find myself beginning to think that there is nothing that Yeel cannot accomplish.

“Are you done with your persistent memory storage?” Yeel said, interrupting Jymoor at her writing. She looked across the dining table at the powerful wizard, trying to decipher his words.

“What’s that?”

“You’re engraving memories onto that roll of fiber, are you not?” Yeel asked, pointing a thin hand at Jymoor’s scroll.

“Oh. Yes, I have a limited amount of it but I felt the need to record your amazing feats before I grew accustomed to them.”

“Ah. How flattering. I wish I could read your memories, but I don’t know your language.”

The knight guffawed. “You’re speaking it now. We understand you,” he said.

“Ah, that I could. My memory isn’t up to the task of learning to speak or write or read it. We communicate through a particular talent I have, of placing meaning into other’s minds. Actually I’ve been speaking to you in my native tongue all along. But still you understand and the words come to you as a side effect.”

“A jest, my lord. Surely a jest?” Jymoor said.

“No, it’s true. I assure you. But we can speak more of it once we resume our journey. Will we reach your homeland this day?”

“No, I’m afraid the forest is vast. The Far Coast is well beyond the common knowledge of my folk.”

“Ah, that’s too bad. But, we’ll get there in time. Like many problems, long journeys are best handled in small doses. Are you ready?”

“Yes, let’s get going,” Avorn said.

Jymoor thought he sounded sour. The Crescent Knight didn’t take well to being the second most noteworthy hero around. He seemed to be waiting for Yeel to prove himself still further. Or perhaps the man actually hoped that Yeel would fail, Jymoor thought.

“Between the two of you, we should be able to repel the barbarians,” Jymoor said, trying to include the knight. “A powerful wizard and a mighty warrior to lead our people. This has been a more successful quest than I could’ve hoped for.”

The three left the kitchen and moved through Yeel’s palace toward the portal. As usual, Yeel seemed to linger along behind, almost as if the guests led him through his own house.

On the other side of the portal, the sun shone down through the leaves of great trees that surrounded them. As usual the Crescent Knight chose to lead and started off in an easterly direction. The man had left his helm and greaves behind in the palace as a concession to the effort of carrying the extra weight through the forest. Even though the beautiful armor strengthened its bearer, Jymoor had observed that Avorn would tire if forced to wear it all day long in the absence of the moon.

They moved along a verdant hill and crossed a small stream by walking on the trunk of a giant tree that had fallen over the running water. The undergrowth thinned ahead. Jymoor kept a sharp eye out. She called a soft warning when she spotted vague forms ahead in the trees.

“There’s someone ahead!” she said. Avorn drew his sword, but Yeel simply continued forward. Jymoor took a few more steps. The figures in the woods seemed very still…

“They are stone,” Avorn announced. He lowered his sword but kept it out as they paced closer. Soon the three travelers stood before one of the forms and Jymoor identified it as a solid sculpture as the knight thought.

“They’re replicas of your race,” Yeel said. “Strange facsimiles that could hardly fool a trained eye. Perhaps this is a religious ritual of some sort that the locals participate in.”

“They aren’t very similar to each other though,” Jymoor commented. She reached out and felt the stone of the nearest icon, which had been shaped into a likeness of a young woman. She found it incredibly soft. Warm, yielding flesh moved under her hand.

“Argh!” she yelped. The statue before her flickered into vivid colors, the brown of leather and the soft tones of flesh. A sword hung at its hip.

“Help us,” it said, holding its arm out toward Jymoor.

“Yeel! Do you see?”

“Most noteworthy! You have the power to transmute stone into living material! Jymoor, I had no idea you possessed this advanced science! I beg of you that we share notes at once on this subject. Such a rapid and efficient process, too, I simply—”

“Help us, please,” the newly animated maiden urged again. “Whatever manner of beings you are, please let us go.”

“Yeel, I didn’t do this. I don’t know what happened. But we must help her. What’s your name?” Jymoor asked the woman.

“I’m Sword Master Kasil. Beware. The serpent-mage Slevander lives in this grove, he’ll trap you. He’ll enslave you as he’s done to me.”

“Master Kasil! I’ve…I’ve heard of you!” Jymoor stammered.

“Ah, of course, a classic mistake,” Yeel interrupted. “I assumed cause and effect, but in fact it was a coincidence. Will I ever learn? There are certain principles which must guide and discipline discovery, and I admit extreme embarrassment at making such a foolish error. I withdraw my demands.”

“Yeel, think no more of it, please, but what about Master Kasil? Can you help her?”

“Well, she seems fine, although this talent of turning from stone into flesh is quite disconcerting. Miss, are you in good health? You mentioned being trapped? Are there even now invisible restraints which—”

“You must understand, I can only speak for a short while. I cannot leave this place. Beware of the creature with—”

Kasil’s urgings were cut short. She looked down toward her feet. Jymoor saw a wavering grayness welling up from the ground. She gasped. Kasil gave a sad sigh as the phenomenon consumed her.

Once again she appeared as a cold statue of smooth stone. Strips of lichen rested at her feet where they had been dislodged, the only remaining sign of her temporary return to life.

“This is horrible! She’s imprisoned here. We must aid her…I wonder why she said, ‘whatever manner of beings you are’?”

Yeel fidgeted for a moment and then shrugged. “She hasn’t met us before, so naturally she…didn’t make any assumptions. Uh, or perhaps that is the traditional greeting construct where she comes from.”

Jymoor sensed Yeel’s dismissive mood and decided to concentrate on more pressing matters. But she remembered how Yeel had referred to “her race” as if he didn’t share her humanity. Did he simply mean her people?

“You must prepare to destroy this awful monster that’s done this thing, my lords. Together, two such as you are can do anything!”

“We’ve only heard one side of the story, my friend,” Yeel said. “Perhaps this Slevander fellow had his reasons. If he even exists. We must keep an open mind. Nevertheless, it would be prudent, yes advisable, to ready ourselves…”

Yeel fished through his reagents pack with one hand while grasping his shiny three-armed flail with the other. Jymoor saw Yeel twist in a disturbing way. For a moment his movements seemed to defy human skeletal restrictions. Jymoor blinked and looked more carefully…the odd man did only have two arms, right? Of course he did.

Jymoor shook her head to clear it.

“What magic do you have to protect us?” pleaded Jymoor, turning her gaze from the wizard and scanning the nearby garden.

“I have a formula which promotes movement,” Yeel said. “Perhaps that would be appropriate, considering that the theoretical threat at this moment is being turned into a sessile pseudostatue. And then of course, there is my malinthander and the knight’s sword.” Yeel shook his flail emphatically as he mentioned it.

“Sometimes the greatest of dangers can be avoided through the judicious application of blunt trauma. I wonder how it is that the biped remains standing even though she is now incapable of the constant adjustments that your kind makes to remain upright.”

“My kind?” Jymoor asked.

“Well, yes, that is to say, um, mortals. Nonwizards.”

Yeel produced three small packets and handed one to Jymoor and another to Avorn.

“Here’s the compound,” he said. “It should be easy to break open.”

Jymoor took the small packet. She ripped one corner of the container and lifted it toward her mouth, pinching her nose shut.

“Halt! Desist! Clamp your mandible, Jymoor! Whatever is it that you are preparing to do with the bioruminate pace catalyst?”

“I don’t swallow it? Is it medicine, a potion mix?”

“Swallow it? Oh my no. Rub it on yourself. Wait. You haven’t eaten any floridius root today, have you?”

“Any what?”

“Flori—oh, no, of course you haven’t. It’s fatal to humans. A poor question on my part. But you can never be too careful. Well, perhaps one could be too careful but I meant—”

“Yeel, the task at hand,” Avorn interrupted, pouring the powder out into his hand and rubbing it onto his face.

“Yes. You must be on the watch for this Slevander, whoever or whatever he is,” Jymoor said. She began to rub the substance on her exposed skin.

“Very well then. A game of cat and mouse is upon us,” Yeel said. “It occurs to me that perhaps we should not be talking. The noise might attract this foe, and we would lose any edge of surprise that we potentially have. In fact, if we continue to speak out loud, Slevander might hear us and attack while we are locked in conversation, catching us by surprise and dispatching us before we are even aware that we are under attack! Why it could even be this very conversation about the possibility itself!”

Avorn stared at Yeel in irritation. “Then don’t speak!”

Jymoor winced, afraid that the knight’s harshness might anger Yeel. She had never seen the mighty wizard become enraged before, but the very thought filled her with dread. There were stories…

“Very well then, let’s all be quiet,” whispered Jymoor. She looked all around, checking for any anomalies.

Yeel pointed forward. Avorn turned and walked onward, deeper into the forest littered with statues. Jymoor followed, spotting the eerie shapes more and more frequently as they moved on. Jymoor saw stone scouts, footmen, and knights. Some of the statues seemed to be sharply defined and out in the open, but others looked weather worn. A few were partially hidden beneath heavy vines or other foliage.

They emerged from the trees and Jymoor caught her breath. A vast garden stretched before them. As she took in the sight she realized that the place had been long neglected. Even though beds of flowers and walls of shrubs grew in full color and health, the lines that delineated the various areas of the place had started to blur.

To the left Jymoor saw the statue of a warrior frozen with his spear ready to cast. The figure stood on the edge of a swath of overgrown grasses.

“This Slevander has defeated a lot of people,” Jymoor muttered.

The group walked along the soft grass strip, watching the statues as they passed. Other than the soft rustling of plants in the breeze, Jymoor couldn’t see anything moving. They passed several more stone victims. Jymoor saw a petrified man in a robe, bowing low as if in worship.

They came to a circular clearing in the flowers, with a ring of six or seven statues arrayed along its perimeter. Suddenly Jymoor noticed a giant black reptile head peering at them from a bed of flowering plants. The eyes held the vertical black slit pupils of a venomous serpent. The jaws of the creature looked wide enough to engulf a man.

“Beware! I see it!” Jymoor yelped. Yeel and Avorn spun to look at her, so Jymoor just pointed. The other two turned and saw the thing as it reared up on strong, black coils to regard them from above like a giant cobra.

The twisting ebony serpent locked its eyes onto Jymoor and it spat forth a long acid syllable.

“Yaaaaaag.”

The word struck Jymoor like a wave. She felt her skin crackle and harden. For a moment she felt despair. Had she become a statue? Then the attack passed and she exhaled spasmodically, twitching in fear.

Avorn charged toward the monster, sword held high. He slashed and then thrust at the trunk of the serpent but it retreated out of range. The knight advanced again, but the serpent’s tail whipped around and struck him in the leg. The Crescent Knight faltered beneath the onslaught, falling to one side. His assailant bunched up over him and opened its jaws as if to consume the knight.

Jymoor could hardly bear to watch. She loathed her helplessness, but she carried no weapons. She hugged the stone next to her. How could she help?

The stone shifted and she realized she had disturbed another denizen of the awful garden.

“Your friends may prevail,” a rough voice came from above. Jymoor looked up at the being she had awakened, a stout woodsman with a red beard and axe in hand. Then Jymoor looked back to where the knight had fallen. A huge red-scaled thing towered next to the serpent and the knight. Jymoor struggled with the appearance of something so large seemingly from thin air. Spines erupted from most of its back. The monster had two long front legs with three enormous claws extending half the height of a man. It supported itself on three broad back legs and a long, muscular tail covered in more thorny extensions. Its thick, muscular neck flattened into a wide head that was mostly mouth, like a giant toothed clam. Jymoor couldn’t see any eyes on the creature but that didn’t comfort her in the slightest.

“Where did that come from?” she cried. “Where’s Yeel?”

“Take my axe,” the burly man-statue said, and handed Jymoor the weapon. Jymoor grabbed the weapon with one hand without removing her gaze from the towering beast that had appeared to battle Slevander.

“What can I—” Jymoor stammered, but then she saw that the man next to her had already returned to an inanimate state. The huge tail of the red monster swept toward Jymoor, a giant scaly juggernaut covered in sharp spines.

Jymoor scrabbled back to avoid being crushed by the tail. Her foot caught in a vine, and she fell back with a shriek into darkness.





***





Yeel swung his malinthander again and bellowed in the manner of a beast. Slevander dodged out of the way with uncanny agility. The serpent retreated, fooled by Yeel’s new disguise. He had planted the suggestion of a terrible foe into the minds of all those around him, in order to gain the initiative in the combat.

He projected the concept of the malinthander as being the huge paw of the monster he had become. His natural height aided the illusion, since he already stood taller than humans from foot to highest tentacle. He swept it toward Slevander again, just to keep the serpent at bay.

The pace catalyst that Yeel had employed to immunize himself and his Companions had met with some measure of success; even though Slevander had tried to reduce them to statues, he still moved and fought.

In order to keep from giving his opponent time to think, Yeel wailed again and lumbered forward. He sent tentacles ahead, transmitting the concept of the huge beast seeking its prey with its long, clawed hands.

Once again the creature slid away, keeping most of its body under the heavy growth of a patch of beautiful plants. Yeel worried about keeping track of the head and those dangerous fangs. But the mouth might be as dangerous from the spells it could utter as the poison it might impart.

The head appeared on Yeel’s left flank, curling around the leg of a petrified human. It feinted forward, testing Yeel’s defenses. Yeel bellowed and charged sluggishly. He realized he didn’t have long. The snake mage would be more confident with his next attack.

The alchemist’s other tentacles had not been idle. Yeel produced a vivid blue sphere with a small hole drilled into it and a thin shaft of reddish metal. He slid the cylinder into the sphere and fused it shut, setting into motion an inevitable reaction that would serve to obliterate the sphere and anything near it.

Yeel had only seconds to act. The reaction took place even as he stood trying to calculate a likely future location of the black serpent. He hurled the sphere with one tentacle while swinging his malinthander in the other direction with another. He thought the sphere felt warm just as it left his hand. Or had it been his imagination?

The serpent darted away predictably, sending its sinuous body sliding directly over the sphere. Yeel reversed direction, attempting to make some distance. A muffled boom sent bloody, scaly body parts raining down throughout the garden. A fragment of bone struck Yeel in the trunk, sending a white-hot bolt of pain hurtling along his nerves. He tried to put the injury out of his mind.

Would the death of Slevander result in the freeing of his victims? Yeel eagerly looked toward the closest statue. As he watched, the person returned to flesh and bone. It was a man in chain wielding a long halberd.

The man at arms took one step forward, a smile forming on his face as he realized his change of state. Then he saw Yeel.

The man screamed and ran.





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