Babel in Winter
Like a mad artist'sdream, this city of gravity-defying towers, crisscrossing bridges, suspended platforms, and arched balconies, sprawls in a valley between the ridges of high mountains all around it. Drifts from a recent snowfall cling to the spires and render the bridges treacherous with slick ice, while bundled Eeee flit hurriedly from one shelter to the next, showing little eagerness to keep wings spread and exposed in the inclement weather. The city teems with life and action despite the cold, especially closer to the ground, where the lower classes hustle to make their living.
A lone rakhtor, mounted by a nondescript Gallah, soars between the haphazardly constructed buildings. Though the rakhtor maintains an altitude well above the ground, its body is not suited to flight at the heights required to wing above the high towers, and accordingly it struggles to maneuver in the relatively confined alleys of the city. Its canine rider, clad in boiled leather and rough-spun cloth, does her best to guide her mount, but a pair of Eeee scream high-pitched insults at her after hastily diving to avoid the buffets of the rakhtor's wings.
Though her study of Babelite culture might offer that she exchange a subtle insult of her own, the ex-Gallah must do all she can to maintain control over her large mount in such tight corridors. And despite her change in appearance Missy is simply Elise in disguise and she is most certainly not inclined to learn the ways of the casual insult no matter how flowery.
Something unidentifiable, but with an unpleasant smell to it, whizzes past the claws of her mount, but nothing else follows it. The rakhtor clacks its beak around the bit at the back of its mouth, gliding along on a passing draft of warmer air rising from a bakery lower down in a tower. The animal has been flying for some time now, and is probably due for a rest and a drink of water … and that thought is followed by the notion that Elise could use a drink, herself.
With what bit of hand she can spare without releasing the reins Missy pats her mount comfortingly, knowing well that it must be tired after such a long flight in such a cramped place. She herself notes her own thirst and ponders landing for a few minutes in order to let her and her mount rest. To this end she leans her head over the side to occasionally glance far down at the shops and facilities below while being sure to keep a careful eye on where she'sgoing, lest she earn another volley of insults from the locals. The bakery is a thought, but she wonders if they might have a supply enough quench her rakhtor's thirst or even enough room to land at all.
A few places seem more or less convenient to a short rest a landing platform outside a tavern whose sign shows half an Eeee, dressed in black and red, on it; a bridge between towers with two tattered banners of gold and green tied to posts near the center, where she could offer her beast the rest of the water from one of the flasks, if nothing else. A few other landing platforms large enough for the rakhtor dot the towers, here and there, though whether for private or public use she can't be sure.
Missy decides upon the tavern, thinking it best to land at the public "watering hole" rather than take the chance of landing on a random outcropping just to find the ire of the house guards. Steadily she begins to direct her rakhtor on its descent and shifts to look over its side, lest she land on top of someone.
The rakhtor glides onto the platform easily, folding in its wings and claws scrabbling on smooth stone for a half-dozen steps before it manages to stop, near the opposite rail. A beige-furred Eeee, nearly struck by one folding wing, turns to snarl at the rider, but seems to reconsider upon seeing her armor. Instead, he ducks into the tavern without comment.
"There we are," says Missy in Babelite. She slips one leg over the rakhtor and shortly hops off its back to the ground with a thunk of shifting leather armor. Once she straightens, she carries the reins over to the railing and begins to tie them in a knot that, though secure, is also easily undone if one knows the ins and outs of airship tackle. Once that's done, she pats her mount with her right hand while laying her left on the pommel of her sword to steady it. "If anyone but me messes with you, eat them," she instructs the bird in case anyone might be around, before heading inside.
The bird caws at her in return, and dips its head eagerly into the watering trough before it, thick tongue lapping at the liquid as its beak clacks. The canine pushes open the door, and is struck by a wave of warmth and roar of noise from within. Masses of bats flock inside a cavernous room with multiple tiers of bars, while some of them sit at chairs and tables, and others hang from the rafters or other conveniently posted crossbeams. It does not look especially friendly towards non-fliers, despite the trough for mounts outside. A single burly black Jupani sits at the floor bar, sipping his drink alone, and Missy has a moment to reconsider the wisdom of entering.
Five days have passed since the mages arrived in Babel, and the air mage they brought for added firepower has added his own ritual to the list of magical activities the shadow mages must cover, but for an unanticipated reason. The thickening haze of incense and other smokes from their rituals threatened to asphyxiate the casters, and any action to air out the warehouse by mundane means seemed likely to draw attention. Accordingly, the air mage has been running a filtration spell. Over time, the air inside the warehouse has come to smell fresher and cleaner than that outside, rising as it does from the refuse-strewn passageways at the base of the towers.
Missy hunkers around a mug of tea during her break on the watch, maps of Babel and the central Tower spread on the table before her, when Fyiara pulls up a stool beside her. "Heya, sugar," she says by way of greeting.
The Gallah looks up from the maps she had been studying to smile briefly at her guest. "Greetings, Madame. A very cold day is it not?" she greets the Khatta.
"Aren't they all?" the feline mews, fur ruffling. "At least all the burning ritual components help keep it warm in here. Drafty bloody warehouse. Any road I've got some news for you." She rubs the back of her hand against her nose. "I've looked over the information Stalker came up with on the ritual they're doing nice piece of recon work, that and compared notes, and I think I was right about being able to work up a triggerable spell that can axe it. We've pinpointed three of the other minor rituals, and Stalker's been to one of those sites, too looks the same. So we might be able to bring them all crashing down at once, if we do this right."
"Wonderful to hear it, and Mage Stalker should be commended," comments the Gallah at the news. She lifts her to mug of tea to take a sip and holds the mug in her hand as she continues. "Have you any word as to their goal? I must admit, I have my speculations, but I would much rather have facts before we begin."
"Oh, I can tell you for certain that they're trying to raise spirits and imbue them with the powers of the Eeee Sisters, as powered by their mythology. There's also a component to the spell which is used to harness the spirits keep them controlled, rather than randomly wandering around doing whatever they think Eeee goddesses ought to do. But you know all that. The closest I have to news is that it looks like the powers they're giving to the sister-spirits are a way-point, and not an end." The feline pauses, watching the canine to see if she's following her.
Missy grimaces. "A … 'way-point'? First Ones deliver us, incarnated and controlled Sisters … with the potential to become even more powerful than what has been witnessed? It cannot be allowed to happen. If the Sisters are incarnated and controlled, it will give the High Princess the control she lacks now, and beyond that, I cannot fathom fully the mayhem such incarnated deities might wreak," says the Gallah. Her head shakes and she takes another sip of tea, nodding for Fyiara to continue.
"Well, that's the thing, sugar. I'm not entirely sure that the mages mean to keep their incarnated deities around. More like they want to infuse them with as much power as they can manage, and then turn around and use the newborn Sisters to feed power into something else." Fyiara wiggles her nose, ears flattened against her head. "What else, well, can't tell yet. Probably won't know without a look at the main ritual. Might not even know then. But doesn't matter, cause we are going to put an end to it before it comes to that? Right? Right. This is where you come in, sugar."
"Something … else? Oh my," Missy comments, her voice quieting somewhat. After a moment, she lets out a breath and nods, putting her mug down again, and smiling faintly to the disguised Dean of Chaos. "I am happy to serve. What do you need of me?"
"I can make the triggers, but not with just the components I've got on hand. We couldn't bring everything, and of course it would turn out that I'd need some of the things I left behind." She wrinkles her nose. "That's the bad news. The good news is, all of it should be available from the Guild Hall. Unfortunately, we can't spare any of the mages to go fetch it for me. So we need to send one of the guards." Fyiara waggles her whiskered eyebrows at the former poodle meaningfully.
Missy lifts a brow and cocks her head to the side. "I see. When shall I depart, and what materials do you require?" she inquires.
"I've got a list in here." The Dean of Chaos places a leather scrollcase on the table. "Well, two lists, actually." She pops it open, and slides out a piece of parchment. "This one asks for an unguent to treat Remington's stiff knee. That's not what we really want, but it'll make a reasonable cover in case, um … well, you know." She fiddles with the ceramic fastening that the case's stopper fits into, finally pulling it out, to reveal a narrow space between the case's outer shell and its lining. The Khatta upends it, sliding out partway another rolled page. "This is the real list. Don't give it to anyone but Mage Flutenote. It has my sigil on it that should be good enough to get it filled without any quibbles. If it's not … " She hesitates.
The canine listens to the dean's explanation up until she stops. The brown and white mutt straightens, and looks to the feline questioningly. "And if not? I will need to know your secondary plans should things go awry. Or, would you prefer I handle it as I see fit at the time?" asks Missy.
"I don't know," the feline admits, wrinkling her nose. "There's some concern among us, and back the High Council, that, well, the Guild Hall here may not be entirely trustworthy. Flutenote's the Chaos mage assigned here; she's a Rhian from Rephidim, and I doubt that she's going to side with the Eeee or their deities, m'self. But … well, she might turn you down if she thinks it's a forgery, say. You'll have to act on your own initiative for this, Elise. Use your best judgement. Priority Number One is: Don't betray us. If getting the components means risking this base, don't do it. We'll find another way to resolve the problem if that's the case. But anything you think you can get away with that will get me this stuff, do it. And hopefully, well, you'll fly out there, Flutenote will give you the stuff, and you'll be back before sundown with none the wiser. Right?"
A nod. "We can only hope. I will do what I can, and depart as soon as would be best. Also," she holds her hand out for the scroll case, "if matters become difficult, I may not return here at all, and will instead attempt to make myself scarce until the next day since there is little to be gained by stealth here at night. Failing or being unable to do that, I will await contact from one of our mages here as you are better off to find me than I am to sneak back to you. I will await delivery of the password 'Louise Genevieve', and be sure to use it, as I will expect any other who meets me and does not mention it to be a spy," explains the disguised Templar.
"Louise Genevieve," Fyiara repeats, her eyes crossing. "Oog, I never was good with names. I'll go whisper it in Paranoid's ear; he'll remember." She reassembles the scrollcase with its hidden compartment and message, handing it back to the faux Gallah. "Good luck, sugar."
Missy accepts the scrollcase and takes it up in both hands before standing up. "Remember, 'Louise Genevieve' … do not forget," she reminds the dean. That said, she inclines her head once again to the feline and givens her another brief smile. "I will return as soon as I am able, and it is safe to do so. I wish you luck here as well."
In the crowded bar, the beige Eeee who'd glared at her while they were still outside sits at a table with a small cluster of friends, young toughs wearing blades and patched cloaks, ale mugs, empty and half-full, ranged over the tabletop before them. He glances at her as she enters, and offers an unpleasant smile. A few others in the bar likewise inspect her with unfriendly eyes, though most seem content to mind their own business.
Missy flexes her right hand in a subtle warning, clenching her fist and releasing it, the action also serving to ease her somewhat sort hand. After a moment of glancing around, she makes her way forward towards the ground level bar. Though she believes leaving may be the best choice normally, she does not particularly wish to display any signs that might be interpreted as fear while in Babel, lest someone take that as sign of weakness and a reason to give her trouble here or after she leaves.
The bat bares his teeth at her again, whispering something to one of his companions, far too low for the Gallah's less acute ears to catch over the noise of the tavern. Most of the open space at the bar surrounds the dark, burly wolf who sits there, the only other non-winged person in the establishment.
The Gallah approaches the bar and gives the burly wolf a respectable distance in doing so, though not so very far as to be more obvious than necessary for the gesture. "Ale, and water for my canteen," she tells the bartender simply, making no effort towards small talk. She also doesn't bother to take a seat as she most certainly had no desire to remain here longer than necessary.
The Eeee barkeep hustles to fill orders, setting several mugs onto the platters of various waitresses. He shows no signs of having heard the canine, though with such large ears it seems like it would be hard for him not to. One of the Eeee next to her squeaks at the bartender, and he fills a whiskey glass for him, setting it out. The Jupani eyes her, glancing up and down her frame once, appraisingly, then returns to his drink.
Meanwhile the mutt remains at the bar, waiting, and watches the bartender expectantly. She shifts her weight to one leg and folds her hands in such a way it places her right hand to hover near the grip of her chitin sword. If she noticed the wolf looking at her she doesn't react, simply waiting for her drink like someone with somewhere to be.
The bartender shuffles down the length of the bar, helping another Eeee customer farther along. The Eeee beside the Gallah downs his whiskey, looks at her, and guffaws, then exchanges a few words with the Eeee next to him, half of it too high-pitched for the canine to hear, the other half unfit to repeat.
After a while longer of waiting, the Gallah glances out a window, frowns, and shrugs. She grumbles something that sounds sufficiently irritated and turns to make her way towards the door.
Outside, the cold, bracing air feels more welcoming than all the tavern, for all its physical warmth. Her rakhtor lifts its head and caws at her, something drooping from the edge of its beak.
Missy lets out a breath once she departs the tavern. As warm as it was, she would most certainly never wish to return. And beyond that she does not have the time or inclination to raise a ruckus for a drink. There is too much at stake to do more than act for appearances, and this trip to a bar is sufficient to help her more appear the mercenary. "What do you have there, boy?" she asks her rakhtor as she nears its reins to unfasten them.
The rakhtor twists its head to follow her motions, chirping, and a piece of fabric flutters to the ground. A thin trickle of dark liquid drips down the edge of its beak as the dog unties the animal.
With a wince Missy continues to unfasten the reigns until at last she has them. "Ah, yes, I see … you have had a visitor. Well, at least you are fed now," comments the canine. She tries hard not to think too deeply about what transpired while she was away and moves to climb up her mount in preparation for take off.
The bird chirps again, sounding innocent, and once she's mounted, it hops lithely to the rail, then spreads its wings and catches the wind, soaring down and onwards. A keening scream drifts past them, carried by the chill breeze, and in the towers below, the canine spots a half-dozen small figures in an aerial swarm above a seventh. The scene reminds her, eerily, of a flight of crows surrounding an owl before tearing it apart.
Missy makes herself comfortable, and makes sure she is fast upon the mount lest her ride be uncomfortable or worse. As the scream catches her ears, she casts a glance over the side of her rakhtor to take a moment in order to examine the happenings below, thinking for a moment just how often Babel seems to be the host of sad, painful cries.
Closer study reveals that the six swarming figures are all Eeee, and all marked by the same colors bands of green and yellow circling their right biceps. The seventh figure catches an updraft after a steep dive to avoid them, then has to twist and shed altitude again as one of the six cuts her off. They look like they are playing some kind of game with her, rather than flat out trying to trap her, though from the sound of her previous cry, she may not be as enthusiastic about the game as her pursuers.
Missy keeps her eyes on the aerial "game" as it happens below her. She watches it with considering eyes, frowning as she ponders the matter of time and action with this city of strife. Her head shakes and she pulls upon the reins. "Down," she says, directing her mount to drop altitude so she can get a get a better look and if necessary prepare to assist.
The "players" ignore her approach, as the rakhtor obediently tucks in its wings and shifts into a leisurely downwards spiral untrained, it might have simply dove, but that maneuver would be somewhat hazardous for its rider. As she nears, Missy can see what probably prompted the scream earlier the Eeee prey has one gashed wing, and it drips red blood, though the girl seems determined not to favor it, spinning and circling to avoid her tormenters. Four of them hold no weapons, while the other two clutch daggers.
Missy twists the reins around her left hand a few times making sure the rope is taut around her arm, thus allowing her to grip the reins more solidly with a single hand. She then draws her sword with her right hand, adjusts her feet firmly into the saddle, and pulls again on the reigns again. The rakhtor's flight is leveled to allow for a direct approach and she points her sword towards the rear of the group pursuing the girl. "Attack," she orders her mount, voice echoing solid resolve.
The bird peels back its beak and looses a raucous war cry, wings straight out and clawed feet lifted and poised for attack as it plows toward the group. Two of the three males nearest it flick their wings out and turn, screeching something incoherent as they dive to either side, while the third remains bent on his pursuit of their quarry.
Upon the back of the rakhtor, the ex-Gallah raises her sword in case she need swing, and with her left hand guides her mount to pursue the third man who did not break during her charge. As she does so she casts a glance over either shoulders so as not to let the remaining Eeee ambush her.
As she dives past, the Eeee on her right appears intimidated by the naked blade, falling back, but the one on her left snarls and pulls a knife, climbing a few yards, then dropping in to slice at the left wing of her mount. Meanwhile, the rakhtor catches up to the seemingly oblivious Eeee, and its sharp talons shred through one wing, closing around the bones with an audible snap. A short, sharp scream erupts from the wounded boy.
Spying the swooping Eeee approaching from behind and to her left, Missy jerks the reins to direct the rakhtor to bank right, allowing for it to dip the left wing as it turns and leave the attacker to either pursue the wing and meet her head on or else break his charge. Preparing for this Missy stands, reins tightly wrapped around her hand and feet well braced, to meet the Eeee with her sword ready. Having no time to direct her mount otherwise the caught boy remains at the mercy of her rakhtor.
Responsive to her command, the mount swerves into a deep curve, and despite her precautions, the canine feels herself wobble in the saddle as her body turns parallel to the ground. The Eeee assailant tries to twist out of his dive to avoid the mercenary's counterattack, but his momentum proves too much and he serves only to leave his back and wings wide open to her sword.
Meanwhile, the rakhtor shakes its talons, releasing the crumpled Eeee from its grasp. The boy twists in the air, screaming and trying frantically to straighten the ruined wing and fly. The bat that had been on her left and behind curses at her, and dives after his erstwhile companion. Of the three others that were farther ahead, they have forgotten their prey and are turning in their flight to assail the Gallah instead.
Her blade cuts through the air, and down to cut across the Eeee's back where his wing meets his body. The result is a severe slash deep into the boy's back, crippling his right wing if not proving fatal by itself. She leaves the bat to plummet to the ground and directs her rakhtor to straighten and begin climbing so that she can meet the next three at a more advantageous altitude.
Seeing the three attackers approaching from above, the rakhtor gives another of its unnerving screams, climbing in the air with beak parted, trying to avoid intersecting with their path as they descend. The forgotten erstwhile victim smiles ferally, turning in the air after her attackers left her, and she now plummets into one of the two, knife in hand that slashes through the vulnerable wing membranes, and this Eeee loses control, too, descending like his fellows.
Though considering diving to avoid meeting the two Eeee head on, Missy decides against this as she does not wish to leave the woman alone should the two Eeee turn their assault back on her. Thus she continues her ascent and stands ready to meet the bats with her sword prepared to strike, waiting for them to draw close enough so she can defend her mount and the unnamed victim.
The remaining two, seeing that they've gone from outnumbering their prey to even odds, abandon their attack vector, diving instead after their latest fallen companion. The female Eeee they had taken for prey crows her triumph with a wordless cry, dropping to follow, knife unsheathed and ready to meet them.
"Wait!" yells Missy to the other woman. "Don't let them lead you to them!" Regardless of her warnings, Missy guides her mount to follow the woman if she chooses to continue her dive, as the canine is not about to let her go on alone now.
Catching the last part of her cry, the Eeee pauses, wings unfurling to slow her descent. The two bats catch up to their third, grabbing his arms, and she watches as the three of them dwindle towards the street below, her own wings beating steadily now. The rakhtor caws, bringing one talon to its beak to lap at the blood, and the Eeee looks to Missy, with icy blue eyes that seem scarcely more friendly than those in the Half-Man tavern. The female gives a single, curt nod, then wings away, towards a cross-alley.
Missy just returns the nod to the woman and once the victim has departed, simply shakes her head. Without further delay she directs her mount to depart for the Embassy in something of a hurry, having spent enough time on distractions, and finding little reason to remain here.