Somewhere in the Temple of Being
Like many places inside the strangely fleshy Temple, it is warm and damp in the chamber Lilac and Dragonfly have been recovering in. The Temple itself has been largely quiet, and its many eyes are, at least for now, not focused on the bat and human inside it. The place is mostly quiet but for the occasional rumble, gurgle, or gush of fluid.
Dragonfly's large ears have been pricking and swiveling, and the bat has been avidly looking around with a mix of curiosity and uneasiness.
Lilac, for the most part, has been resting. She's slept a long time, and seems to be unphased by her surroundings. As it is, she's seen enough horrors in the last few days to last a life time, and the oddness of the Temple is relatively little compared to that. Rolling over, the cursed woman sits up and says, "Are you ready to leave, Dragonfly?"
"Yes, I think so," replies the eeee, wiping her blouse off ineffectually for the umpteenth time. "The question is, how do we get out?"
"The same way we came in, I should think," says a tired sounding Lilac. She rises to her feet, taking a moment to look herself over and shake her head. "I am such a mess." She shakes her head, feeling a mess in more ways than one, and then starts walking towards the room exit. "Temple of Being, we need to leave now," she calls out, running a hand along a wall.
Dragonfly gives the bardess a sympathetic look. "Do you want my blouse and skirt? They're goopy, but at least they're something. I still have my smallclothes, at least."
Lilac blinks, a bit surprised that Dragonfly would offer her clothing. After all, it isn't the nakedness or the external mess that bothers the bardess. "Oh, no, no. That's not what I-" she bites her lip then shakes her head, "No, nevermind. I'm used to this you'll see." She waves the bat to follow her out, then begins walking. "I've been thinking about our escape, and when we reach the surface, I think you can freely exit if I hide in the shadows. Then, we can sneak out together, from the camp, and return to my cave to get our things."
A split developes in one of the walls, and swells outward. The flesh spreads away from one of the Temple's eyes. The voice that seems to come from everywhere says, "Then go."
Lilac winces at the Temple's words. Then go it doesn't care about us at all, does it! She pauses in her walking, needing a moment to swallow her emotions and hide her face from Dragonfly. It takes her a moment, but she begins walking again. "Let'sleave this place, I don't think the Temple cares about us at all."
The bat's mouth twists. "I don't think it does." She begins following along, shaking her head. "It's strange… " she begins, then glances up as if assessing a risk. "For such a vast and powerful being, it seems… incomplete. Like it seems to operate on a very basic level." When the Temple fails to crush Dragonfly between its walls, she looks encouraged, and goes on. "I don't think it even cares what I'm saying as long as I'm not threatening it."
"I don't even know if we could threaten the Temple of Being. I think Hakuu might be able to, but I've already spoken my warnings about that." Lilac isn't really sure where to go, so she just keeps walking. Moving forward makes her feel a little better. "I think I know what it's missing," she goes on to say, "I think it's missing a heart." Pausing at an intersection, Lilac looks both ways before randomly picking one. "It only exists for itself, it has no greater goal, no sense of community or love. The Temple is great, but is also very small."
The bat nods. "That's a good way of putting it," she says. The various fleshy tubes and passages twist around and about in a dizzying, confusing manner, and there doesn't seem to be much in the way of landmarks, until one passage widens out. The walls here look tougher, and the Temple's odd patches of phosphorescence reveal a large chamber full of, of all things, rocks. They vary in size from a grown man's head to a grown man's height, piled up with sand beneath them in loose, wet lumps. The boulders have the same brownish colors of the desert stones Lilac saw on her way, but many of them are polished, smooth and rounded.
Lilac comes to a half when she reaches the rock room, taken aback by finding something non-organic. She looks around a moment, then reaches over to run a finger along the smooth surface of a stone. "I think we're close to an exit now," she says after a moment of thought. "I've been thinking the Temple might have extremities outside the Temple of Being structure itself, like the sandlions on the warlord's map." She leaves the stone be for now, and looks up, trying to spot a mouth, or tube, or some other departure point.
Dragonfly kneels by the boulders, laying a hand on it and looking at her disheveled reflection in its polished surface. "I believe you're right, Lilac. We'd heard the warriors talk about 'sand lions', saying they were some sort of ferocious beasts that lived under the sands around the gorge. We assumed they must have been mutated creatures straying from the Beast Lands. Now I'm not so sure… " She roots around at the base of a boulder, scooping away gobs of sand until she comes up with what looks like a large broken bone shard.
Lilac continues to look around a moment, pausing only when she spots Dragonfly digging. "Do you think the exit is dow- … What is that?" Walking over, Lilac kneels down and begins sniffing. "Is that a … a bone?!"
The eeee tugs a bit more, coming up with some more shards and holding them out to Lilac. They don't seem to have much scent, but then, the Temple has a pervasive jumble of smells that make picking much out difficult. The fragments look old and brittle, but are big enough that they likely came from some large animal.
"I guess we know what the Temple eats, when it isn't worshipers," the bardess says, head tilting and ears flattening. "This must be the stomach of one of the sand lions. Maybe we could get it to, um … vomit us up?" She winces at the idea.
Dragonfly squints up at the darkness of the ceiling. "Hmm, maybe. This sac might be some kind of gizzard for grinding tough stuff up, it might regurgitate the stones when they're too smooth to be as useful, or just to get rid of all the excess sand and stuff that it seems to swallow."
Lilac nods a little, then turns and walks over to a nearby wall. "Then we need to get the Temple to … regurgitate? … us. And, um, without being smashed by rocks. You are not going to die on me again!" Testingly, Lilac reaches out and pokes the sac wall with a finger, repeatedly. "Let. Us. Out!"
"I don't plan to die again if I can help it!" the eeee says. The wall that Lilac touches is thick and muscular, moreso than elsewhere in the body of the Temple. It barely even yields when prodded. Meanwhile, Dragonfly goes to stand on a boulder and beats her wings, lifting herself upward and disappearing into the murk momentarily.
"Well, that's good because … because … " Lilac blinks as she looks back, " … Dragonfly?" Feeling a moment of panic, Lilac lays her hers back and looks about frantically until she hers the eeee's wings beat. "Don't leave me here," the bardess screams in a scratchy voice, immediately leaping to the air and chasing after Dragonfly with all her remaining strength.
There's a squeak from above, and Lilac quickly finds the eeee by a huge valvelike opening in the ceiling, the orifice surrounded by what look like downward pointing teeth. "Easy, easy, I'm right here! I just came up to look at what we've got here," she hurriedly says, a look of worry on her face. "Are you alright? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you."
Wide eyed, Lilac hovers in front of Dragonfly in awkwardly, before wrapping her arms around herself and looking away. "I'm sorry, I've just … just been here too long. I, I don't want to … to think about this place anymore. I want to leave," she apologizes, tail tucked. "Do, do you know how we can get out?"
Dragonfly dangles upside down, studying the opening. "God physiology isn't my strong point," she admits. "Or anatomy in general. Judging by the angle and teeth, it looks like this must lead to the surface. I would assume it opens when the sand lion either swallows or spits the rocks and sand back up, if that's what it indeed does."
"Well, how do we get it to do that?" Lilac darts up on a downward stroke of her wings, grabbing on to the ceiling so she can hang there. "Usually when I do … what we want the Temple to do … it's because my stomach is upset. Like, this." Reaching over, Lilac grabs one of the toothy extremities and begins wiggling it vehemently. "I want out!"
The vast, sphincterlike valve contracts a little, the row of toothlike things around it lifting away for a moment. From the perspective of the two women, a lot moves, but relative to the fleshy bulk of the Temple, it's a mere twitch.
"Why won't it let us go? Didn't we give the Temple what it wanted? Why. Won't. It. Open!" Caught up in her desire to escape, Lilac continues to shake the tooth as if she, alone, could displace the massive muscular structure. "Let me out! I don't want to be here anymore! LET ME OUT!"
It seems like Lilac can't hope to move such mass… but as she begins struggling against it, the teeth shift again, and the ring of muscle relaxes and spreads away, the opening widening to something on the order of cottage. Dragonfly's eyes widen.
"Finally! Finally, we can leave here! Come on, Dragonfly, let's go!" Without waiting for a response, Lilac grabs Dragonfly's hand and releases the ceiling, catching herself with her wings before she begins to ascend!
The eeee has to flap hard to keep up, but she seems an agile flier in her own right, which is good. The 'throat' ahead of them is lined with long spines or barbs pointed downward, smoothed on one side from the sand that apparently pours down this gullet. They fold in as the gullet continues to spread away and lets both winged women continue their ascent.
Lilac doesn't pause to look, or even think much about the relatively danger. So consumed if she by emotions too long in building, she can think of only one thing: escape. She must escape the Temple, and all its horrors! "Faster, Dragonfly, we're almost there!"
Wisps of dusty sand stream past the two women now. The light has gradually given way so that even Lilac's superior night vision has no light to work by, but Dragonfly's sensitive ears seem to help guide them long enough to see a crack of light ahead without being impaled by a downward facing spike. The light is faint, but it spreads and gets stronger.
"Oh, the light Dragonfly! We've come so far, but it's almost over!" Lilac squeezes Dragonfly's hand, continuing her ascent and feeling of anticipation as she nears the exit. It's been such a hard road, but she's almost free of this nightmare. I can take Dragonfly home, I can sleep under the stars! I can see Gibson and Kinny again! With her free hand, Lilac reaches upward, as if she could pull freedom closer to herself by straining for it.
The light is dim, but soon it's spread enough to see that the light is coming from the speckled shape of the Procession. Lilac and Dragonfly dart out from the opening that spreads to something the size of a small stadium. Sand cascades away from a tough, craggy, shell-like dome that has split into a toothy maw, the very same that the two women have emerged from. The shell seems to spread the sand away from itself, the desert looking almost like an ocean with the waves that the sand lion throws away from itself.
Far above the opened dome, Lilac finally slows to a halt. "We made it!" With a lateral flap, she spins Dragonfly through the air, holing on to her by the hand. "We made it Dragonfly, we're alive and we made it!" Tears stream from the bardess's eyes, glinting like tiny stars under the Procession light.
A little breathless, the eeee laughs, spinning along with Lilac. "And we're away from Beshret's dig! What luck!"
Lilac spins and spins, slowly losing altitude as she talks to the Eeee. "And, they probably think you died in the Temple, so no one should come looking for you! We can be away, or we can return to my cave and recover our things! I have your journal!" With the wind whipping through their hair, Lilac has to shout. But mostly, she wants to shout because it makes her feel alive something the two of them almost weren't.
The overjoyed eeee nods, grounding herself a little despite the giddiness of being in the open air again. "Let's go to your cave. We may be free, but we're in no shape to travel the desert." She glances at the horizon. "It looks like night is just falling. It'll get cold soon."
"Then lets go," Lilac agrees. The bardess banks, guiding the Eeee in to a level flight as she soars off to find her cave. Unwilling to let go of the only person she's had real contact with since this nightmare began, Lilac doesn't let go of the scholar's hand.
It takes a bit of re-orientation, but the actual flight is quick. The cave Lilac chose is as she left it, except that the bag that contained the wriggling gobbet of Temple is missing.
Lilac flaps her wings, which are now sore from too much quick flight. "Your journal is there," she tells Dragonfly, pointing at the book, "my clothes are there, and my belt is … " she blinks, looking around, " … is … " more looking, and, " … gone?" Her ears shoot up, and her eyes widen. "Oh! I remember now! I brought one of the red squiggles with me, and it bonded to my belt! I didn't know it was a person! Do I never stop destroying people?!" She reaches up and grabs her ears, looking pained.
The eeee shakes her head, reaching out to pat Lilac's arm. "At that point, I don't think it was any more a person than a squibbit is a person. It's unnerving to think of what happened to them, but you had no way of knowing."
"Maybe it … walked away?" Lilac whines softly, tucking her tail as she goes to gather her clothes. After donning them, she takes a moment to dust herself off. "Well," she says with a hint of a sigh, "I suppose it's an improvement. We'll have to find an oasis and clean off before we … Um, we do what we'll do, which is … " The bardess hadn't thought of their next step beyond 'return to Kin,' and isn't exactly sure where Kin and friends might be. "Well, anyway! I can probably sniff them out once we get going."
Dragonfly picks up her journal, flipping it open and smiling for a moment, then glancing back at Lilac. "Where are we going, actually? You don't know where your friends are?"
Lilac glances back, still trying to shake some sand out of her boots. "Oh, they're going to find help to the Empire against Hakuu's forces, so I think they'll go back the way we came. They might try and meet up with the soldiers we met on the way, since the town is hostile to us. Plus, the town's the only way out that I know of. If they found some other way, then I'm not sure where'd they be. I can smell them, though!" She reaches up and taps her incredible nose, then smiles a little.
The eeee puts her hands on her hips. "Well, I'm counting on you, so I'll trust you to get us to safety. We'll be going to Viper's Hold, then?"
"Yes, buuut, the lord there is actually paid off by Hakuu, and he tried to kill us," Lilac explains, holding up her hands as if to assure Dragonfly it's all okay. "But, but, it'll be fine! We talked to a god, you came back from the dead, we escaped an army can it really be worse?"
Dragonfly laughs squeakily. "I suppose not. But we still need to sort out how we're going to get where we need to get to. The desert's harsh, and I don't see anything in the way of food or water here."
"Well, normally I'd turn in to a dog, then hunt something to eat," Lilac says, as casually as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. She pulls on a boot and frowns, thoughtfully, "But, of course, you can't do that, and I'm a little nervous about doing that right now. I think, I'd like to be human for a while." She gives the bat another smile. "But, I do have a plan! We know where some of Beshret's hidden supply caches are so we can just steal one!"
The scholar nods, hugging her book to her chest. "The sooner the better, then. I don't actually know how much time we spent in the Temple."
"Neither do I," says Lilac, who hugs her own hands around her chest after turning. "Dragonfly, can I ask you a … a question?" Her ears perk, but her tail tucks.
"Yes?" The eeee's tall ears swivel forward.
Lilac's gaze slowly slides off, as if she can't quite look the Eeee in the eyes. "Do you … have any children, Dragonfly?" Her ears swivel to listen, but the bardess seems intently interested in the floor suddenly.
Dragonfly looks surprised at the question, fingering the corner of her journal. "Oh, no. I've never really… my career always took precedence, I suppose. Why do you ask?"
"Um, no reason." Lilac bites her lip a moment, then looks up and smiles uncomfortably. "Are you ready to go? We should reach the cache at night, I think that'll be to our best advantage."
The eeee looks puzzled, but she doesn't press. "Alright. Lead the way."
Looking past the eeee, Lilac peers out at the sky. "We may as well wait until nightfall, it'll be easier to travel at night anyway. I know it's not much, but this has been my home for a few days, and you're welcome to get comfortable until then," she says. Taking a seat, Lilac leans back against the wall and adds, "I can't tell you how glad I am we're out here once again."
Night (as well as the temperature) falls, though there's still some time yet before it gets as chilly as it's going to. The two women set out under limited Procession light, the sky murky. It's south and away from Beshret's base of operations, so at least there's distance being put in there, but going only on Lilac's memory of the map doesn't make this any easier.
Lilac guides Dragonfly low across the horizon, searching with her eyes as well as her nose. "The icon on the map looked like a barrel, but it could be anything," the bardess admits to the eeee. "Your hearing might be even better at finding than my eyes or my nose, so keep your ears perked!"
Procession-lit sand dunes pass by below, occasionally spaced with boulders that yield little of interest. An hour passes with nothing in sight, and the night gets steadily chillier.
"This is harder than I expected," Lilac admits to Dragonfly. "Did you manage to find anything? If this doesn't work, I do have one more idea, but it'll probably slow us down a little."
The bat calls over the rush of the wind, tilting in the air slightly to speak to Lilac. "Nothing yet! What do you have in mind? We've got some time yet."
"Well, it's a long shot, but we could try and fly to a Savanite tribal camp we stayed at," Lilac suggests, pointing off in to the horizon. "Or, we could keep searching. It getting cold though, and I traveled this way with much more hair." The bardess glances across the dimming landscape, finding it all looking more or less the same. Rocks and sand extend in an endless monotone, giving no hint as to a hidden cache. "Do you think they'd mark them from the ground?"
Dragonfly shrugs helplessly in mid-flap. "I really wouldn't know. I should think they'd keep them well hidden, though." She pauses, then gives Lilac another surprised look. "You know a Savanite tribe? A wild one?"
Lilac gives Dragonfly another smile. "Of course, I do! I am a traveling bard, I do meet interesting and exciting tribes when I'm not being a terrible solider, after all!" She wags her tail, but the motion is lost in flight. "They'll be easier to find, but a lot farther away. Well, they seemed farther away we were dragging a slow cart around before. Would you rather go there? I bet Kinny would appreciate knowing Long-Shadow is okay, too."
"Maybe they'd be our best bet, then," Dragonfly says, drawing her blouse up closer around her neck as best she can. "If we keep moving, we might stay warmer."
"Let'sgo then, it might be best Beshret never knows we came this way anyway," Lilac agrees. She glances around, trying to get her bearings, then points. "That's the way, I think! They'll be a lot easier to find they worship fire!" Reaching out, Lilac offers her free hand to the bat. "If we have to, we can always find a cave and try and build a shelter there."
Dragonfly takes the proffered hand, two pairs of wings sharing the gliding now. The plan takes the women further south, and Lilac's memories of the Burning Sands camp are definitely stronger than the positions on the map. Despite making good time, it's still a long flight, and the temperature continues to drop, the wind becoming cutting.
"Brr, maybe deciding to stay in human form was a bad idea," Lilac admits after a while, her free hand wrapping around her chest for warmth. "Only, I can't fly very well as the beast, and I'm still very uncomfortable with the idea of changing. I don't think I'm ever going to forget-" Lilac blinks, glancing at Dragonfly's neck and grimacing. "Anyway," she says rather loudly, trying to shake bad memories, "I'm just glad to be away from there. It was so alien, and it … it … " the bardess shudders. "Ugh, I don't want to go back!"
The eeee's teeth are chattering a little when she replies. "I c-certainly don't have any intention of going back. Why would we? We're out! Th-there's a whole army back there." Miles and time continue to pass, and the temperature continues to dip. Hunger begins to gnaw at Lilac, and Dragonfly's stomach growls as well. "I hate to ask, but is it much further?"
"I h-h-hope not," Lilac replies. "I n-never expected to be t-taking anyone away from t-that place," the woman chatters back. She surveys the horizon, trying to spot a campfire, or even a cave that looks promising. "If we m-must, we can land and use each other for w-warmth."
More time passes. It must be past midnight by now. The temperature has plummeted, and both Lilac and Dragonfly are shivering uncontrollably. It's difficult to keep one's wings outstretched now.
"D-d-down," Lilac chatters, "we ha-have t-t-t-t-t-" Unable to stammer out the words, Lilac just points: down. She begins to descend, urging Dragonfly to follow her.
The bat needs no convincing, tucking her wings back and angling down along with Lilac. The dunes and scrub rise up to greet them, the odd clumps of basalt-like stone ridges standing over them where they land. Dragonfly immediately folds her wings around herself, still trembling. "Wh-wh-what sh-should we d-d-do?"
"I-I have n-n-no c-choice," Lilac replies. She releases Dragonfly's hand, and steps back. "H-hold p-please." Quickly, Lilac kicks off her boots and her pants, leaving her shirt on since it won't rip. "Can't t-talk a-after," the bardess adds, before dropping to her knees and placing her hands on the ground.
"C-can't escape it," whispers the human, before she begins to change. Her back cracks and arches, her face extends, her light gray skin begins to sprout thick black fur. The woman changes, as she has before, not because she really wants to but because she must if Dragonfly's to keep warm. Of the change, perhaps Lilac's teeth are the most startling to the eeee: rows and rows of shark-like rippers, echoes of a horrible memory that brought the two together in such an unfortunate fashion.
Dragonfly takes an involuntary step back, seeing the bardess' other form as more than a shadow and a flash of teeth for the first time. Some of her shivering might not entirely be the cold, now. "L-lilac?" At least one problem is gradually easing itself… wrapped in dark fur, Lilac feels herself warming back up, bit by bit.
Ahh, at least I'm warming up, Lilac thinks. Ferocious her beats form may be, but Lilac's beast form is comfortable, if just not comfortable for others. Sitting on her haunches, Lilac stares up at the Eeee and has a moment of unease. It was in this form she originally killed Dragonfly, and now, here she is, revealing herself for the monster that attacked in the darkness. In a way, saying she did it almost could seem unreal without revealing this form. But, like this, Lilac is holding the murder weapons or rather, is the murder weapon.
It occurs to Lilac quickly that Dragonfly must be wrestling with more than her own fair share of discomfort. Lilac had hoped to never reveal this form to her, so she'd never have to face the memory, but it can't be helped now. Oh, what do I do? How can I make her feel comfortable around me after I killed her? She cocks her head to the side, thinking. Come on, bard! You're a bard! Be creative! Think fast! Darn cold brain! It's not her best idea, but it's all she has: Lilac hops on her hind legs, let's her paws flop in front of her, and hops up and down is as silly a fashion as she can manage!
Dragonfly dances another step back, wings half-spreading again and hands quickly rising up, then uneasily grasping her wrist as she realizes Lilac's staying in place. "Erm… that's quite amazing," she ventures, watching the shadowy creature carefully. "You certainly look an… uh, able huntress." She speaks as though she's not quite sure whether the human she was traveling with is still in there. "Shall I try to get a fire going, then?"
Lilac barks a yes before dropping down to her paws again. Once down, she lopes over to Dragonfly and, after looking up at her, whines pitifully, pushing the top of her head to the woman's foot, ears back, and tail tucked.
The eeee finds herself petting the beast as reassuringly as she can manage, her eyes serious. "You really are wrestling with… with everything that happened back there, aren't you?"
It's funny, Lilac thinks, feeling her eyes sting, my heart leaks so much differently like this. The beast feels her heart bleed through the body she's been cursed with for so many years, the human emotions she's pent up expressing themselves so easily now. She remembers all the times she's rolled around Kinny, or licked Gibson's face, or otherwise felt freer this way. Beasts wear their hearts on the sleeves, she reasons, trying to think clearly and avoid breaking down. But, she can't hold it back. She whines again, wings drooping head pressing harder in to Dragonfly's foot. And she forgives me, she forgives me … She'd never quite admit it, but the petting means everything to her right now.
Dragonfly gradually relaxes to some extent, just running her fingers through Lilac's dark coat. She can't hear what the beast is thinking, but she seems to understand on some level, her voice soft. "What's done is done, Lilac. We're here now, you and I. I've had regrets in my past, too. It took some mistakes for me to find out the right way for me to go." She looks up and out over the dunes. "It may not be the same path for you, but… Well, there's a saying in Babel… "Regrets are gravestones, not houses." You mustn't forget a gravestone, but you can't live in it either. Do you understand what I mean by that?"
Lilac listens, soaking up the words and the comfort like a balm for her aching heart. The Temple, her mistakes, they've all worn her down, chipped away at her, and cut her deep. She though escaping the Temple meant escaping the horror, but it doesn't. The wounds linger. When the eeee finishes, Lilac looks up, head tilted and ears back. Her eyes glisten behind the glow, and, slowly, she begins to wag a little.
Dragonfly offers the bestial Lilac a small smile. "You better find us something to eat. I'll see if I can't build a fire out of this dried scrub, and maybe catch some bugs for us."
The beast nods its head a little, then licks Dragonfly's hand. As she walks past, she brushes up against the eeee, glad the woman is alive. There's something simple and soothing about just listening to the eeee speak, to feel Dragonfly's petting, and to smell the life in her life. I wonder if she'll let me curl up in her lap, Lilac wonders as she sets out to find something to eat. It may seem childish, but Lilac isn't so very old, and she longs for simple comfort in the wake of so much fear and pain. Even here, in the cold middle of nowhere, the warmth of kindness melts all the pain away.
As she says, Dragonfly eventually sets about getting a makeshift camp together in the sheltered lee of one of the Desolate Band's many pointy rock outcroppings. "I think we must have traveled far enough and fast enough that they won't see the smoke."
"Rrrf," is Lilac's response, which while it could mean anything, sounds a bit like an agreement. The beast-woman managed to get ahold of herself and her guilt after further kind words and petting from Dragonfly, and has since paced around the camp area while the eeee prepared the site. Now that Dragonfly is done, Lilac decides she'd best do her part now time to hunt. The shadowy canine creature points its nose towards the surrounding darkness, perks her ears, then looks back at the Eeee expectantly.
The eeee looks up from the meager-looking pile of tinder she's scraping together. "Mm? You'd best get started. I'll be here, I won't be any use to you, I'd just get in the way."
Lilac pads around in a circle back to Dragonfly, taking a moment to push her head in to the other woman's side before darting off in to the shadows. Now, it's time to hunt. So far, Lilac's only had to hunt for herself, and the desert's offerings have as weird as they are scarce. Many legged creatures with sharp poking tails, giants Lilac would feel nervous about attacking even with all her friends with her, and bits that turn out to be the extremities of a god. What would an eeee eat? Don't they eat bugs? I think they eat bugs, Lilac decides, putting her nose to the air. I'll find bugs and meat.
The air still smells a little of rain and ozone, as if the storm from previous nights were somehow lurking in hiding. Streams of sand are frozen where they've dried, the remnants of flash floods snaked around and already beginning to fade like old scars, windblown grit filling them up and dust softening the cuts in the earth and dunes. The place looks as desolate as its name would suggest, but Lilac knows there's life out here, and experience on the road has taught her that where there's life there's something to eat.
Feeling much better now, Lilac lopes through the darkness with the sand squishing beneath her paws. Experience has taught her her that prey tends to follow water, and in a desert where water is rare, she figures that's especially true here. Thus, Lilac pauses at the scene of a prior water flow, looking at the way the grains of sand have been moved, then sniffing around to see if she can catch wind of water. Maybe there's a puddle or two left, she decides.
The dried flow leads Lilac down a very shallow grade. The ground is less sandy here, looking more or less like flat clay that has baked into cracks forming irregular plates like the leathery hide of a gator-shiga. Clumps of vegetation, dried out but still tough, dot the edges of this odd flat area.
Plants are good, plants mean animals, Lilac figures as she sniffs at a sad weed. Finding the herb to be especially interesting smelling, she flops on her side, rolls on her back, and wiggles her back against the ground as she thinks. I could dig it up, she considers, but that ground looks mighty solid to her, or maybe dig around for water. Rolling back on all fours, Lilac decides to dig a bit. Maybe she'll find a mole, or some bugs!
After digging a bit, Lilac finds the ground becoming softer. I guess the water sinks? she wonders as she keeps going. Moist sand is even better than dry sand between the paws, and Lilac finds herself simply enjoying her digging. I wonder why I never realized how much fun digging is, she considers to herself, and with shrug, continues to dig a hole in the desolace.
The hole doesn't get too terribly deep before Lilac finds a hardened clump of mud, roughly oblong and about the size of a loaf of bread.
"Rrr?" Lilac queries the world, not having expected hardened mud in the center of so much moistness. Deciding to take a look, for no other reason than it's there and it's interesting, Lilac sticks her nose in the hole and tries to push the clay piece to the surface. Maybe it's an egg! I hope it's an egg. her tail wags at the thought of eggs.
It's easy enough to lever the thing out of the hole with her long nose, and the mudball rolls on the flats a little, shifting slightly like there's something loose inside.
Buried treasure, Lilac decides, wagging all the more. The distinct irony of making a life changing discovery of wealth at this stage in her life would not be lost on her, but right now the only gold she's really interested in is the golden tan of a cooked leg of pretty much anything. I wonder if this is edible, she considers as she idly spins the clay-encrusted whatever-it-is with a paw. I could play ball wi- … NO, no ball. I have to find something to eat!
The oblong mudball spins for a few rotations, but not for very long given its rough texture and apparently not-solid contents.
I guess I can't make whatever it is dizzy, the beast decides, stopping the rotation with a paw. She decides she'd best try and open it, and so reaches over to wrap her jaws around it and gentle apply pressure.
The mud breaks easily with a squeeze of Lilac's jaws, and her mouth immediately fills with a fishy-tasting slime.
Lilac's ears splay, her togue's left hanging out as she tries to decide if the slime is gross or not! Were she in her human form, she might go, "Ewwwwww," with much prejudice, but as it is, she can only whine, drool, and run in a circle several times before she calms down. Once settled enough, she returns to the cracked mud shell, wondering what on Sinai she just bit in to!
With the mud 'shell' broken open, Lilac can see she's managed to unearth, of all things in the middle of a desert, a fish of some sort. At least, it looks distinctly like a fish, with fins along its sides, a flattened fin-like tail, and what might be gills along its neck. Its head seems to be eyeless, with only some vestigial spots where eyes might be, a gaping mouth. It doesn't move… whether it's alive is difficult to say, but it doesn't look or smell rotten… just fishy and slimy. Very slimy… viscous threads of shiny goop still stretch away from its wormlike skin.
It's definitely disgusting, but Lilac would admit to eating worse. She shake, shake, shakes her head until most of the slime has left her face. Trails of stringy mucous arc through the air in all directions, scattering like buckshot. Well, it's food, she declares, pondering pawing the creature but thinking better of it. A few of these should help Dragonfly! Cooked, they definitely need to be cooked. Normally, Lilac in her beats form would be quite happy to eat just about anything, but the fish manages to be a member of a minority exception. With all that slime, she wonders if she could even chew on it!
Deciding she'd best carry it back to the scholar for her inspection, Lilac tries to pick up the lip of the shell, hoping to use it to carry the odd fish like a bowl.
With the goop having poured out, the mud shell is much too crumbly to carry. However, with most of the slime out, the fish itself isn't too slippery.
Being forced to pick the fish up raw, Lilac does so, but tries to keep her tongue well away. She begins to pawd off back to camp, but pauses; she almost forgot something. There must be more, I bet this used to be a pond or … oasis, as they're called. Oh, and water too! We'll need that. The canine creature lopes over to the weed she had previously rolled over, and takes a moment to squat down and mark her territory before racing off back to Dragonfly.
It's a quick jaunt back to the camp, and it finds Dragonfly crouching over a small ring of stones, blowing into a pile of tinder. A pair of sticks she's found have had their sides worn smooth where they've been rubbed feverishly together, and it seems the eeees patience pays off, the wisp of smoke she was nursing being coaxed into a tiny flame. Dragonfly carefully hand-feeds it a few tiny bits of dried plant fiber and only the smallest twigs, trying to encourage the flame to grow. She glances up from her work, startling slightly at the sight of Lilac, but quickly settling. "Back already? What have you got there?"
Lilac responds with a muffled but excited "rrrf," before padding over and presenting her muzzle for Draginfly to take from. Her tail wags, feeling quite proud of having found a fish in the desert. She decides she'll have to tell a story, or write a song, about fish in the desert some time.
The eeee takes the offering curiously, holding it up to examine by the steadily growing firelight. "A fish?" she exclaims. "How in the world did you… why, of course, it's a yearlingworm!" She holds it up to show Lilac again. "Though it's not really a worm, that's a misnomer. It's a kind of fish that buries itself and emerges with the rains. People who live in the desert noticed that, and thought that once a year, they grew from the ground during the rainy season, but scholars seem to think it actually somehow sleeps underground when the rain dries. This one must have just cocooned itself and gone dormant."
The beast Lilac sits on her haunches, head cocking to the side as she listens to the scholar's explanation of what a fish is doing in the desert. Of course, given she just carried that fish, a slow trail of slime begins to drip from the corner of her mouth, even as her tongue lolls out.
Dragonfly eyes the beast. "Ehh… well, let's not bore you. I'll start cooking this, and you see if you can't find us some water." She glances around the camp, pursing her lips. "Not that I can think of anything for you to carry it back in, but… well, we'll figure something out."
Lilac deposits the fish in Dragonfly's hands, then gentle reaches out to tug her clothes gently to get her attention. Then, after stepping back, Lilac paws in the dirt until she spells 'water,' followed by 'with, ' and 'fish.'
The scholar searches Lilac's face. "You mean the fish will provide moisture? It will, to be sure, but… or do you mean there's water where you got this fish? That stands to reason. I guess if you can't carry it back, we can go there to drink."
The beast wags at the latter of the scholar's speculations, indicating it is the correct one of the two. After another head-butt of affection, Lilac turns tail ans scurries off in to the darkness to get more fish!
As the scholar settles down to cook the strange desert fish, Lilac darts back and forth between the camp and the dry riverbed to retrieve more fish for dinner. After about an hour, the beast has piled up a modest amount of the desert oddities, and guided Dragonfly to the watering hole she dug twice to help her drink and wash off. Now, the two sit before the fire and the slow sizzling sound of crisping fish. Lilac has decided to simply sprawl out beside the scholar, ears swiveled to listen to the woman speak.
It's taken some searching a bit further afield to find sticks long enough to cook the fish with, and it's not easy to cook them without a knife to clean them, but Dragonfly wasn't squeamish about 'wringing' the slime off, and the resultant dinner isn't too bad, all things considered, supplemented with some insects attracted by the firelight. With the requirement for food and drink satisfied, and the warmth of the fire holding the desert chill at bay, lids begin to hang heavy. Dragonfly yawns, and says, "We should probably keep a watch just to keep the fire going. I'm not sure if I could get it lit again."
Lilac, who had with her eyes closed and head down looked asleep already, suddenly springs up to her feet. She uses her muzzle to nose Dragonfly back, nudging her to the ground as if to urge her to sleep. Tail wagging, the beast seems happy to take the first watch.
The weary eeee doesn't seem inclined to argue, and she gives Lilac a grateful pat before settling down and draping her wings over herself. Despite how uncomfortable the ground must be for someone accustomed to sleeping upside down, the exertion of the previous night quickly catches up to her, and Dragonfly is soon fast asleep with a thin pillow of rolled-up clothing.
Lilac watches the eeee fall asleep, feeling content to watch over the other woman. In a way, the sleeping Eeee reminds her of Kin and her friends. The eeee gives Lilac a sense of stability and purpose, as well as the joy of company. When she's sure the eeee is asleep, Lilac steps out in to the shadows, deciding to conceal herself where anyone blinded by the fire light might not notice her. There she lies down to wait, for however long Dragonfly needs to sleep.
The hours pass, and Dragonfly quietly dozes, the rhythmic sound of her breathing faintly audible in the quiet of the desert night, almost hypnotic in how regular it is. It's difficult to keep from yawning. Overhead, something seems to creep over the stars and Procession, blotting them out… windblown clouds racing along, as if a blanket were unrolling over the sky.
Lilac gives in, yawning widely and exposing her rows and rows of teeth. More suited to shark than canine, Lialc's beast form has a double-row of slicing teeth, able to rip flesh with ease. Ease, perhaps, but there's little wisdom to be found among Lilac's teeth. I wonder if it's going to rain again, the beast wonders, looking up at the sky. I hope not, I'm not sure I can protect the fire that long. She eyes the fire, figuring she can mantle her wings over it. That would leave Dragonfly exposed, though, something Lilac isn't sure she wants to do.
The sky answers with a flicker, a brief spark of purplish lightning picking out the clouds overhead. A few seconds later, the rumble of thunder and a faint whiff of ozone is carried on the wind, along with a feeling… a feeling of being watched.
Ears shooting up, Lilac's head rises. She can feel her hackles raise, and instinctively, she sniffs at the air. Something's there? She darts her head around, trying to spot anything lurking in the dark. Am I just imagining it? The idea that she's imagining it, or, worse, insane isn't easily dismissed, and the beast wonders if she's pushing on too hard, in an effort to do everything she can for Dragonfly.
For a few minutes, there's nothing but uneasy silence except for the low moan of the wind picking up. There's another flash, this one brighter than before, the crack of thunder more immediate, fitful light bringing the sandy landscape into stark relief for a few moments and toying with Lilac's night vision. The wind becomes increasingly capricious, gusting through the camp and changing direction abruptly… it carries a stream of sparks away from the fire, then a near horizontal stream of smoke as it smothers the fire completely into gray ash.
The fire! Lilac hops to her feet, not having expected the wind to pick up so fast. She hurries over to the ash, desperately pawing at it, trying to huff and puff and blow the fire back to life. Come on, please relight! Please, please, please! She works at it, glancing over her should and around, trying to manage the fire and shake the suspicion more than just the wind is after her.
The ash in the circle of stones is barely warm, little more than a fine gray powder that clouds up and stings the eyes when Lilac blows at it. Some of the clouds in the distance alight briefly, smaller and dimmer arcs crawling between them, followed by the mutter of thunder. The sensation of being watched only becomes more intense, a prickling, crawling sensation on the back of the neck.
This is hopeless! The beast abandons the fire, unwilling to return to her human form to try and relight it while she feels the camp is under threat. Instead, she turns around, hoping to fall back beside Dragonfly and protect her from wind, rain, and whatever may lurk in the darkness. I won't let her die here, do you hear me world? I won't!
Turning around to lope toward where Dragonfly is sleeping brings Lilac eye to glassy eye with a Korv, its beak tip nearly touching Lilac's snout. A flicker of lightning picks out milky hues in those eyes, and the crimson spilling down her chest.
Waaaah! Lilac's internal scream is mirrored by a yowl of a cry, the beast skidding abruptly to a stop and falling back on its rear. She bares her teeth a moment, not quite registering the being in front of her until she has a moment to stare at the Korv and let it sink in. The zombie Korv! My friend! Her mouth gapes, and she blinks in surprise, before wagging her tail in sheepish greeting.
The Korv cocks her head, eyeing Lilac instead of returning the greeting. She takes a step forward to keep pace, beak hovering close to the bardess' face, dark eyes occasionally flicking down to look the whole of Lilac over, scrutinizing her. She reaches out to poke at Lilac with a scaly, bluntly taloned finger.
Lilac yelps when poked, her ears wilting and tail tucking. What was that for, she wonders, head cocking to the side questioningly. Unsure what to do, she lifts a paw and paws the Korv, whining quietly.
Poke. Poke. That bony finger keeps prodding at Lilac. The bird stoops to try stabbing that finger at the bardess' stomach.
Lilac yelps every time she's poked, but tries to scoot away when her belly is poked! Maternal instinct kicking in, she tries to protect her belly, and the child that lurks like a dark cloud on the horizon. STOP IT, she thinks, trying to get to her feet and protect her belly. Stop it! Why are you hurting me? I had to do it! I made my choice! Don't you think I feel bad enough already?
The Korv keeps in step, face seeming to get closer somehow, filmy black eyes filling Lilac's field of vision. The jabbing sensation seems to come from all over now, flank, side, shoulder, leg, back. Lilac can see her own face in the Korv's eye, so close that only her face can be made out, now so close that only her own eye is looking back at her, just a field of violet, brightening and flickering with the lightning, washing into a shade of red.
No, no, no! Stop it! You're hurting me! Why are you doing this?! The poking and prodding makes Lilac yowl, yip, and eventually stumble and start to snap her jaws in defense. Get away! Leave me alone! LEAVE ME ALONE! Her muzzle breaks in to a toothy snarl, but her aggression loses steam as she can no longer see more than herself. As the world washes in a shade of red, she screams.
The world bursts into light, and Lilac can hear her own screech. As her eyes adjust, dawn glares her in the face, a sliver of sun forcing her eyes to adjust. Nearby, a Savanite squats, his long arms extended and holding the very end of his spear so he can touch Lilac with it from a good nine feet away with the butt end. It's Long-Shadow, and his tail goes brushy for a moment at Lilac's cry. Nearby, a lump stirs, wings shuddering and then stretching out. "Nnnh?"
Lilac, forgetting her form in the wildness of her nightmare, rolls around pawing and snapping at the air. Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, she repeats in her head, unable to shake the terror from seconds ago. It feels like the whole world blames her, coated in red, with no escape from the horror or the blood. She wails, howling her fear.
Dragonfly heaves herself upright, the howling startling the sleep out of her rapidly blinking eyes. "Whuz… hey!! Who're… g-get away! Shoo!" She picks up one of the rocks from beside the campfire and hurls it clumsily at Long-Shadow, who darts away with tail a-frizz. He stops a safe distance away, but doesn't brandish his spear, just crouching on his haunches again and eyeing the two women cautiously.
Finding herself flailing at nothing but the sun, Lilac quickly comes to realize the reality of the situation: it was only a nightmare. She lets her paws fall, rolling over on to her side and curling in to a ball. Was it just a nightmare? Does my Korv friend blame me? Does she know, does she know I have blood on my hands and what I did? Oh gods, please. She drapes a paw over her muzzle and her eyes, wanting the light to go away.
The eeee gets to her feet with the help of a wingbeat, skittering over to Lilac's side and kneeling nearby. "Lilac, what's wrong?! Did he hurt you?!" She's got another rock clenched in her fist, and her ears are swiveling around quickly.
Lilac whines, uncoiling her head from her pawns to press it against the woman. Before the eyes of Savanite and Eeee, Lilac sheds her beast form, trying to shake out of the form as if shedding it will shed the nightmare and all its awfulness. When she's changed enough to speak, naked Lilac is still pressing her head to the woman. "Do you blame me, Dragonfly? Do you? I think she blames me, Dragonfly! The ghost blames me, I think she's mad does she hate me?! The world was covered in red!" As her front right paw turns to hand, she presses it against the woman's shoulder, her sharp talons painfully clutching until there's just long blunt human nails in their place. "Why, Dragonfly?! Didn't I make amends?!"
"Wh-… " The eeee looks at a loss, gathering Lilac up in her arms when the young woman presses her head close, sheltering the bardess with leathery wings. "Y-you had a nightmare, Lilac! Shhh, we're alright now." She winces when Lilac's fingernails dig into her shoulder, but doesn't let go. "You had a nightmare, we're alright! You… the red, you were probably seeing the inside of your eyelids as the sun shone through, nothing more!"
"But, it was her Dragonfly! The one who … who taught me to … to … " Lilac blinks, seeing Dragonfly's face, and the sun behind her clearly now. "Wha- … But, it was her, wasn't it, Dragonfly? W-why would she, she want to … " The bardess looks down at herself, lifting her free hand to her eyes and staring at it. " … hurt me?" She turns her hand over, trying to think of some answer, then lowers it to her stomach, ears laying back as the woman frowns gravely. "But, why would … For that reason … ?" She looks up again, ears askew in confusion, the corner of her eyes glistening moistly in the unrelenting desert sun.
The eeee shakes her head hurriedly. "You were having a nightmare," she repeats. "There's nobody here to hurt you. Well, maybe him… " She lifts her gaze, warily looking at Long-Shadow, who still sits on his haunches, balanced on his toes some distance away and looking on with equal wariness. "But no ghosts."
"But … " Too exhausted to argue, and wanting to believe Dragonfly, Lilac lets the matter go for the moment. Instead, she follows Dragonfly's gaze to the supposed threat, getting ready to defend herself even as her stomach turns at the very idea of blood. When she sees who it is, her ears shoot up, then splay out. "LONG-SHADOW?!" She blinks, wondering if she's dreaming again, and seeing the man remains present she reaches out for him. "Long-Shadow! You're alive! Oh, Kinny will be so happy! This," she then gestures at Dragonfly, "is Dragonfly! Dragonfly," the bardess looks up at the woman, "This is Long-Shadow, he's from the tribe we stayed with! We're saved!"
Encouraged, Long-Shadow's tail de-frizzes somewhat, and he begins a slow lope closer. Dragonfly looks shocked. "Oh! This is… I completely forgot, I'm so sorry." She seems to remember the stone in her hand, and hurriedly casts it aside, looking embarrassed. "I wasn't awake yet when you cried out, and I saw him standing over you, poking you with that spear, I thought… well, nevermind." With her hands freed, she brings them up and hurriedly makes some gestures that Lilac recognizes as Silent Sign.
"I think he … he was nervous around me," Lilac admits, trying to suppress the hurt that makes her feel. After a nightmare like that, Lilac feels guilty just for existing. "Oh, your arm! I'm sorry, I, um, well, I should get dressed, shouldn't I? I, I have no modesty anymore." Lilac hugs Dragonfly, then untangles herself and begins stumbling around to find her clothes.
Dragonfly shakes her head. "Just scratches, don't worry. You get tidied up and dressed." Long-Shadow signs a few things in return, looking a little surprised, and the eeee translates, "He says he didn't mean to startle you, but he wasn't sure how you'd react to being woken up, so he wanted to be at a safe distance." She pauses, and adds, "I don't think he expected me to know Silent Sign, either."
Long-Shadow nods at this, demonstrating that he, at least, understands Standard to a degree.
"Oh, I'm not mad at him. I mean, aren't I dangerous?" Lilac sounds less than happy about the fact, but she simply shrugs a little and begins dressing. As she turns her boots over to empty them of sand, she adds, "Do you know, I think I've traveled the whole world now, and the only language I've learned is … beast-talk?" She laughs a little, trying to make light of her nervousness.
Rather than answer either question, Dragonfly shrugs a little uneasily. Long-Shadow signs some more, and Dragonfly pays close attention, after which she says, "He says Glowing-Coal sensed the fire we built, and he volunteered to investigate, hoping it would be us. He wants to know where… Sun-Scale, the old one, and the three Lapi are."
Lilac slides in to her clothes after shaking them out, sitting now to pull on her boots. "Tell him 'Sun-Scale' and the others went to find help, and could be anywhere between here and Nagai City," the human woman answers. "Actually," she adds, looking up, "I was hoping he'd know where they were, but looks like I'll have to rely on my nose."
Long-Shadow gets an odd expression on his face, and makes a few more signs, to which Dragonfly says, "He says he can more or less understand you." The tribesman nods once, then adds a few more signs and points south, then holds up a waterskin and shoulders a beaded hide pack that he's brought. The bat translates, "He says we're half a sun's travel to where his tribe is camped, and he's brought food and water. Trails are faded with the rains, but maybe Glowing-Coal will know."
"Oh." Lilac gives Long-Shadow a weak, sheepish smiles. "I'm sorry I know you can understand me. I'm just … tired, and not thinking straight. Let'sgo to your people." With that, Lilac stands up and wobbles a little, then walks over to the Savanite.
The Savanite gives Lilac a sympathetic look, and waves for both women to follow, offering up the provisions and waterskin. A few more finger wiggles, and Dragonfly says, "He thinks we look like we've had quite an ordeal… I dare say, I'm inclined to agree." She picks at her filthy clothing, and shakes her head. "He also adds that if we need to slow down or anything, to tell him."
"I just want to be as far away from here as possible," Lilac answers, sounding tired. "And, I want a bath."
After the previous day's meager repast, the freshly smoked meat, grain mash, and pure water that Long-Shadow has brought along does much to make Lilac's stomach feel better and her legs more steady. Even Dragonfly puts away more than she expected to, commenting that she must have been sustaining herself as much on worry as she had on a few stray bugs and slimy mudfish. The tribesman sets a brisk pace, but not one so grueling that the two winged women can't easily keep up, and as the sun climbs higher, he lends some clean headwraps to keep it off, most likely a considerable relief for the more light-sensitive Lilac. It's about mid-day by the time the three come within sight of painted hide tents, bonfires, and groups of Burning Sands going about their daily lives.
"It's soooo nice to be away from that place," Lilac remarks as she walks. "Long-Shadow, I think I love you now. You are my favorite Savanite and, oh, look! The tribe! Ohhh, I'm so glad to be back." The were's tail wags, and, even though she looks tired and ragged, she's smiling genuinely now. "Look, look, Dragonfly! The tribe!"
Dragonfly swoops low, and takes a few steps with her landing. She does indeed look, and seems surprised, even though she knew exactly where they were going. "I learned Sign as a matter of business, but I never expected to be among a wild tribe." She hesitates, looking a little self-conscious about what she said, but it doesn't seem as though anyone else has heard her say 'wild'. Long-Shadow trots on ahead, waving when he's greeted, and he beckons the two guests in.
Lilac lands besides Dragonfly, but keeps her wings high to hide herself from the sun. "It's okay," the human tells the eeee, reaching over to pat her hand, "Kin had the same worries when she came here, and, I think, the same," she gives the eeee a knowing look, "background, but it's all right. If you treat them well, they'll treat you well." She then takes the other woman's hand and begins walking forward at a faster clip. "I am so, so glad we made it! I almost can't believe it! Did we really escape what I think we did? Did it all really happen, or was it all a nightmare after all?" Lilac looks up, almost pleading, as if to say 'let it be a nightmare.'
Dragonfly has to jog to keep up, holding a hand up to keep her hair out of her face. "It's hard to believe," she says diplomatically, simply hurrying along. Their guide leads them to a hide lodge, familiar-looking despite having been moved several dozen miles. Glowing-Coal sits outside it on a colorful blanket, his hands outstretched toward a fire pit as if he were warming them, though with the sun high overhead, there's little need for warmth. The embers in the pit heat up, their glow spelling words. "Visitors again. Rest and recover, you look to have endured much. We will bring you fresh clothes, food, and drink. You are safe here."
Slowing before the fire, Lilac opens her mouth to reply to the fire-sign, but finds herself choking up. She swallows hard, whispers a quiet, "thank you I'd hug you if I could," before kneeling down where she stands. Finding herself nearly losing a hold of herself, she cups her eyes with a hand, breathing in deeply and steadying herself, before forcing herself to look up and to smile. "Glowing-Coal, d-do you know where Kin and the others have gone?"
The old Savanite leans forward, his face concerned, and Dragonfly kneels down by Lilac to shelter her with a wing. The searing letters brighten again, forming new words. "We have not seen them since you last left us. I sensed your fire the night before, and Long-Shadow hoped that it was all of you. He told us of the vast army within the canyon that you all fled, and thought you might have regrouped. I do not know where your friends are… but I can guess."
Lilac glances at Dragonfly, giving her a weak and embarrassed smile. "I'm a mess, aren't I," she whispers to the other woman, before turning back to the elder. "Y-you can, elder? I could find their trail with time … I think … but I don't think we have that much time. As for the army, and the … the temple … " Lilac takes a deep breath, then exhales, shivering, " … be very careful around them. Even should they, they go … Please, never enter the temple. I will explain why … You, you elder … You must not let your people enter it."
Dragonfly gives Lilac a charitable smile, but says nothing. The shaman looks surprised at Lilac's words, but nods solemnly, and the fire speaks for him again. "Fear not, we have no desire to. Even this far north, within the Desolate Band, there is little for us." He leans back, settling into his blanket and gathering his shawl around his shoulders. "The Savan moves, however. Great forces are at work. To the west, toward the place the Nagai call Viper's Hold, I have sensed more fire, of far greater intensity, the kind that only dance can conjure, or the Nagai's terrible songs of war."
"Viper's Hold is at war … ," Lilac breathes, leaning back until she bumps in to Dragonfly's wing. "The Hold is controlled by Hakuu's forces they tried to kill us and if there is battle there, then the Nagai Empire must have realized the lord's treachery. If that's so, then … Then Kinny will be there. It's the only way out of the desert, that I know of. It's how we arrived." Closing her eyes, Lilac takes a moment to rub at them. "Then we can't stay long. I … I need to return to Kinny. She gets … in trouble without me. No rest, for the weary."
Some finger wiggling from Long-Shadow, and the shaman sighs, but nods, and the embers spark. "Long-Shadow would go with you. I fear for him and for you all, as I do not know what awaits you there beyond flame and ash. But your paths are your own, and I wish you safe travel. I implore you stay until you are prepared, leave only when you have regained your strength." He glances at Dragonfly appraisingly.
"I … " Lilac pulls her hands away from her face, looking at them searchingly. "I … will stay. I just don't … I don't need to sleep." She looks over at Dragonfly, and says, "You should rest, Dragonfly. You've been through a lot, and we may have a hard road ahead. I, well, I'll just … be here waiting."
The eeee looks all too happy to agree, and gratefully accepts when some Savanite maidens arrive with clean stacks of cloth and herd animal skins. With the attention on her, Glowing-Coal's fire asks, "Another friend of yours? Please do not take offense, but I must ask if she would bring any danger among us."
Lilac slowly stands up, walking over until she just plops herself in to a seated position beside the elder. "She's a scholar, a, um … a seeker of knowledge. I think she once had slaves." The human glances at the eeee a moment before turning back. "But, I don't think she has any interest in slavery. I, well, I think she's safe. Her only danger is that she might ask your tribe many questions. Oh, and she's one of the people we were trying to find, so she must be good people." In a lower voice, Lilac adds, "Please treat her well, I risked … I owe her so much, and I must protect her. I couldn't, couldn't endure if something … something happened to … to … " Lilac swallows, unable to finish her whisper.
The elder holds his hands up placatingly, his weathered face smiling his reassurance. The words in the fire spell out, "Friends of Sun-Scale are welcome to warm themselves by our fire. I only wish to be certain, my tribe must be safe. Let us speak of it no more."
"Good, I'm glad," Lilac whispers. She inhales a moment, then props her head against her hand, resting her elbow on her knee. "In my land, there are people called witches, who we sometimes go to for … advice. I'm so very far away from home, do you … have anyone like that, I could speak to? Maybe a … a midwife, even?"
Glowing-Coal folds his hands in his lap, the wrinkling around his eyes deepening a little in thought. "I am this tribe's so-called wise man. I also bless our cubs, though I am shooed away when they are being delivered, like all our men. What do you seek?"
"Well, um … " Lilac reddens a little, her ears laying back. She can't quite manage to look the elder in the eyes any longer, glancing away. "Well, I, how about … dreams? Do you know anything about special dreams, elder? Cursed dreams? Cursed … people?"
The shaman rubs his throat as he muses, looking into the fire as if searching his memories. "We dream, as many do. There are symbols within them from which can be gleaned insight. Special dreams, however… moreover cursed ones… these are domains of dance, of the art. My expertise is with fire, a power of the here and now, of the waking world." He taps his throat once, then drops his hand back into his lap, the embers in the fire rearranging themselves. "I will tell you this, little one. I know that there is powerful magic, magic that lingers as hot coals do, some created still by powerful weavers, and some left from the old times, before my father's father's father lived, lost and forgotten. It is a mistake to think all stories are gone, a graver one to think they have no power. All of this old magic was made for a purpose, all of it bent to suit a need, but all of it can be dangerous. Never take it lightly."
"I … I have seen an old story," Lilac admits horsely. "I no longer believe that the tales I rell are all just stories. There are things … horrors … in the world, there is magic, there are curses. They lurk in the old places, their shadow draws close now. Some, like Hakuu and his group, are trying to find what lurks in the shadows. If he does, if it answers him … " The bardess looks up, fixing her eyes on the old shaman with such fear in her eyes as to, perhaps, send a chill down the old man's spine. She can only hold the look a moment, before she loojs away and her body droops, as if the focus took a lot out of her. "But, that's not … not what I need to know. There is a Korv in my dreams a bird-woman and I'm afraid to see her again. I'm afraid to sleep. I'm afraid, I'm afraid." Her hands moves, as if to grip the shaman, but she holds it from reaching him. "What does the world want of me? Tell me, elder, what can I do? I'm covered in blood and I … am cursed, and even my dreams haunt me now. But I have to … hold on." Her fist clenches, and she shivers again. "It's horrible. The, the death … that place, horrible … ," she murmurs, almost incoherently.
The shaman leans forward when Lilac's haunted eyes find his, but his deep-set eyes of pale gold hold only concern, and he rests his chin on his fingertips. The little sparks in the fire pit spring up again. "Little one, you must be held by strong magic indeed. It is not a kind that I can dance or burn away. A weaver of dreams, perhaps, or a weaver of fates." He doesn't move from his spot when Lilac reaches out for him, but instead looks steadily into her face, as if searching it, while the leaping flames continue to speak for him. "I will reason something to you, for while I do not know of what dark art grips you, I do know how magic behaves. Old magic seems alive, but everything I have seen has shown it is not. If you are visited by this Korv, it is either of your own mind, or it is something that has a mind of its own. You cannot face down an arrow or a burn, but something with a mind, you can. I would reason that the Korv is not your curse, the curse is not the Korv. Can you understand this?"
"The Korv is … not my curse?" Lilac looks up, and her eyes are moist. "I thought she, she was my … my friend. I wanted her to be my friend, and we ran together, and she taught me how to change my form. But I went to the temple … I went to the temple and I … I … " She glances back at Dragonfly, biting her lip, "I did something terrible. Innocent blood … " Her eyes widen, and this time she does lean over to put a hand on the elder. "But, but, I made amends! I found a way! She lives again … She lives … Wasn't it enough? I … I am babbling." The woman inhales, pauses, and shakes her head. Some of the strain leaves her face, and her words are calmer. "I think this Korv knows what I did, and she … knows. And I am, I am … I … " Laying her ears back, Lilac looks down to her tummy, some of the color draining from her pace. "A life for a life. The old god … the temple … I should … should speak to your midwives."
The shaman doesn't seem quite able to follow, his brows knitting together. The fire forms words again. "Feel free to speak to whom you wish. Are you certain you wish to go on to Viper's Hold? Perhaps you should go to the city of the serpents instead. I have no love of them, but they have mages there. The desert is no place for the unready, less so a battle."
"I go where my friend are, they're all I have," Lilac admits. She tries to calm herself, taking another breath, despite how limited the impact of her last attempts were. "Let's… Let'stalk about the Korv. Do you think she must be a … a real person? A ghost? She's dead, you know. Her neck is missing."
Glowing-Coal nods, and takes up a stick to stir the fire pit with. "Of that, I am fairly sure," says the fire. "A curse, I would describe as a magical malady that persists. It would need no mind. It does not reason. This Korv may be the source of the curse, but it would be seperate from the malady." He smiles apologetically. "I wish I could explain it more clearly than this. But a curse you cannot reason with, cannot fight except by magical means. It would not present this Korv to you. The Korv, you can deal with, could give a reason to leave you be."
"Or a reason … to be my friend," Lilac says, nodding slowly. A silence, and then Lilac offers, "Please, elder, forgive me … I … I've not been well. I'm sorry to babble. I wasn't always like this. Some day, maybe … Maybe I can return, when I'm well, and tell you a story?" She smiles, if a bit uneasily, then asks, "I would like to see one of your midwives, and then I am going to go to sleep. I will find the Korv, I will see what she wants. I … I will get a hold of myself. I will." Her smile becomes a little more sure.
"Rest as long as you need, little one," says the fire. "I will wait to hear your story, as I will wait to hear Sun-Scale's."
"Thank you." Lilac squeezes the elder's knee, then stands up. "Can you point me to where I need to go, please?"
The old cheetah makes a series of signs, first pointing to his mouth and running his finger down, then a running his hand along a straight line, and finally laying a fingertip on his wrist. The fire forms words to explain. "That means Red-to-Wrists. She is our medicine woman and my mate. Look for her amongst the other women, where they gather."
Lilac nods, then reaches over and wafts a hand through the edge of the flame. "I read once, that life if like a flame. It consumes, it burns, but it also holds back the darkness." She then walks past the old Savanite, but pauses, leaning over to kiss his wrinkled forehead before walking off to find the women. Where would I be, without people like him? I'm cursed and blessed. The thought makes her feel a whole lot better, so she wags.
The shaman gives Lilac a pat on the hand when she leans close, and he smiles at her words. Dragonfly stands up to follow along.
Walking along, Lilac takes Dragonfly's hand, swinging it a little. "Do you know, if I've learned anything on my wanderings, it's that some people are great?" She grins a little, then stops, looking the eeee in the face. "Dragonfly, I didn't want to say anything, I really didn't want to burden you any further, but I think … I need help now, and what I ask Red-to-Wrists will be … be uncomfortable. But, I don't understand Savanites, and I need you to sign for me. Dragonfly, will you … will you help me? I, I don't mind if you refuse. I can wait. It'll be hard on you. Actually," Lilac begins to turn, shaking her head, " … No, nevermind. Want to go eat?" She tries to drag the eeee off, babbling about what could be done or not, and avoiding her gaze.
The eeee looks a bit confused, pulled one way and then the other, trotting to keep up. "Lilac, if it's just simple translation… "
Lilac gets a few steps, slowing, and stooping. She doesn't look back, but she does whisper, "It's more than that." Her ears droop and her tail tucks, and she whispers, "Don't you know, the Temple of Being demands a price?"
"I… honestly can't remember much detail. It didn't speak to me so very much," ventures Dragonfly. She stops with Lilac, her hand still held, and her ears swiveling forward to listen.
"It demands a price of everyone who asks for a boon. For every wish, for every hope … The temple eats parts of people, to grow, and in turn it shapes flesh and molds bones. Do you know, it can even fix a torn neck?" Lilac's ears wilt, and she turns around slowly, looking at the eeee through her drooping hair. "Or, it asks something else something only women can give. Dragonfly," she squeezes the other woman's hand, tail tucking, "I didn't think it would … I thought it was poetic. The price I paid for your life, is another life. I'm pregnant, Dragonfly."
The eeee blinks, at first in plain confusion, then whitening in her ears. "… With… ?" She points vaguely to the north.
Lilac just looks away, reddening and tucking her tail so far the tip could tickle her belly.
Dragonfly puts her free hand to her mouth. Lilac can catch a brief look of horror and illness on her face before she turns to the side and more or less masks it, folding her ears back as she does so. "Lilac, I'm… I'm sorry, I didn't know," she says, swallowing once and touching her throat absently. "It… I… I see. What will you do?"
Lilac steps forward, taking Dragonfly's hand with both of hers. "No, please, don't be sorry! This is my fault! The burden of paying for it should be mine, what I did and chose to do is my burden and I deserve it." She tilts her head, ears going akimbo, "But, I'm scared, Dragonfly! I don't know what to do, now! I need advice, I, I don't know what will come of this I may not even have … have much time left. But I don't want to make another mistake. I don't want to, to … " she looks down, frowning at her belly, " … make another life suffer, because I was stupid. That's the only reason I told you, because my … my chi … child needs care, and I have no one to ask."
The bat looks at Lilac out of the corner of her eye, then reaches out to touch her upper arm, looking at her more directly, though her ears are still folded back. "Putting aside the notion of fault for a moment, even if you got yourself into it, I can be sorry as much as I'd be sorry for a woman who had any mishap happen to her. Even if I had nothing to do with it. Feeling nothing for people who've made mistakes is Babelite justice, and I recognize it, but not all of us have such hard hearts."
Lilac lays her ears back, her eyes watering as she meets the eeee's eyes. "I feel so worthless and stupid, Dragonfly. I left my home to be a great bard, and I've ended up like this. I, I can even accept that, but I didn't want anyone else to be hurt because of it! I, I … " the bardess bites her lip, then explains, "I didn't want to be alone. When you were dead, I saw all I had left turning its back on me, even myself, I couldn't forgive myself! And then the temple … it's a god, isn't it, Dragonfly? … asked what it did, I thought … that … I wouldn't be … I would have someone. I was so weak, and desperate, and in all the lost hope and all alone … a child … " Lilac whines low, before finishing with, "I want to be a good mommy, Dragonfly!"
Dragonfly's hand squeezes where she holds Lilac by the upper arm, the bat returning Lilac's gaze. It wasn't so long ago that the bardess was looking this close in Dragonfly's eyes, and she watched them turn glassy as the life faded from them. Now they search her face, little flicks of motion, the pupils resizing, the occasional blink to ward off the dryness of the desert air. "Lilac, I'm alive. You're alive. Everyone who is alive has to look forward to facing hardship, but for each day we live, we have succeeded. To dwell on failure before it happens is to fail before you've begun." She sighs. "I wish I could teach you how best to deal with pain, but… really, it's just something that takes practice."
Lilac listens, ears perked, and as the eeee goes on, Lilac starts to smile a little. "I'll, I'll do my best, Dragonfly. Thank you for listening to me. I haven't quite been myself, lately. I'm usually … happier. But, it means a lot to me to have someone to talk to, who listens, and who cares. I think, as long as I have friends, I'll never really be without hope." She then leans in very close, almost nose to nose, and adds, "Saving you, that was one of my best choices in life. Your eyes are so pretty, now." The bardess hops back, then asks, "So, do you want to help me find Red?"
After meeting with Red-to-Wrist, Lilac dimisses herself for the one thing she needs most now: sleep. Exhausted both mentally and physically, the bardess colapses on a heap of animal hides in the corner of the tent, to sleep the day and night away in a coma-like sleep.