Along the Saskanar River
The Saskanar River winds its way through the lands marked on maps as the "Ashdod Territories", though many of the people Eeee, Aelfin, Fnerf and Gigi along the way have little to nothing to do with the affairs of the Babelites. Most of the way, the river is flanked by eroded bluffs and dense forests, though on occasion, vast swathes of land have been cleared and terraced for farming, and such farmlands herald the inevitable riverside village to be found along the way. Occasionally, there are stone ruins of temples, statues, and cliff paintings, some of Babelite origin, some of other cultures, and some utterly alien, but none of them treated kindly by the passage of time. The fields of Ashdod are fertile and the forests full of life, but in the dull of winter even if it is not so far north to have snow the song of nature has quieted to a sleeping sigh.
The journey upriver has been a slow process, but for the most part a pleasant one, thanks to the hospitality of the villagers along the way. At first, Gigis encountered along the river were merely cordial at best, and distant at worst They were not graced with the famous geniality of the Gigis living in the areas most likely to draw tourists from the wealthy island in the sky and its protectorates, and their wariness of Bhuz extended to the other spotted felines in the boat.
The travelers were not without resources, however. Bhuz demonstrated his skill as a fisherman many times over, and Elijah had not forgotten his woodsman skills from an earlier time nor had Inri, and with her skills with the powers of shadow (discretely used when Bhuz was not around), she could make herself quite an effective huntress.
Watches-Quietly was probably the only one a little out of her league, for even though she had begun the earliest part of her life struggling out an existence in the wilderness, she had become far more acclimated to city life in the intervening years. Nonetheless, she has proven herself to be observant and eager to learn as ever, and this has been as good a chance as any for Elijah to pass on his knowledge of the wilderness.
Inri has hardly had to bother with her "talismans" to ward off bugs. The weather has gotten progressively cooler as autumn has hinted more strongly of coming winter, and as the travelers have worked their way somewhat northward in their mostly western trek. There are no Creens to be seen, nor the beautiful but deadly parakas that are found along the Saskanar, and many a time the air has been full of the honks of southern-bound flights of birds.
The Gigi settlements have given way to those of the bat-like Eeee built around natural caves, with additional homes often dug into the cliffs and bluffs flanking the river now and then and of the roaming Fnerfs, who have no homes as such, but typically sleep curled up under the stars, near their Rughrat flocks.
They have had no concern about the spots on the fur of Elijah's companions, having little or no familiarity with Savanites since these agrarian communities are far too small to support slave populations.
Of course, there are the occasional xenophobes, or those who declare that the visiting strangers are a bad omen because of Elijah's feathers, because Inri and Watches-Quietly don't speak, because the Procession is in an ill alignment, or any number of things. Fortunately, these are the exception, not the rule.
Today, alas, has been a day of exceptions. The bats dwelling in the nearby mountains are of the xenophobic variety, to the point of harassing the travelers to move along and get out of their territory … and, really, there aren't any conveniently-placed markers to indicate just where the end of that territory might be … or whether the neighbors will be any more receptive.
The sun is setting, blocked from view by a small range of mountains. Here, the land is too hilly for farming, and too wooded for Rughrat grazing. Atop one of the peaks, silhouetted by the waning sunlight, the jagged outline of a ruined fortress can be seen, a monument to some earlier age when perhaps Babel's influence extended even out this far, or else some other kingdom rose to prominence.
The sky is darkening faster, however, than it normally would … for within just the past few minutes, storm clouds have been sweeping over the mountain range, bringing with them sudden gusts of wind, and peals of thunder in the distance. It's a freak storm, for certain but not unheard of in these parts. After all, according to Bhuz, Shabar isn't that far away, and Forbidden Zones tend to be home to all sorts of strangeness when it comes to the weather. This is little comfort, however, as Bhuz abandons any hope of making it to the next settlement by nightfall, and instead is doing his best to row to shore as quickly as possible.
A brown Vartan clings to the back of the boat, trying to hold it steady and guide it to the rocky shore without the waves smashing the boat to bits. His eyepatch has slipped a little from his cheek brushing against the keel, revealing a whole and healthy looking eye underneath. He nudges the boat carefully, his arms trembling from the prolonged exertion and from the chill of the water on his skin.
Bhuz, too busy with the business of getting his boat and passengers to shore intact, doesn't notice the Vartan's curiously healthy eye. Instead, he paddles furiously. Watches-Quietly tries to "paddle" with her hands as the boat is lacking another pair of oars though it's largely just a token effort of desperation and inability to just sit there and be utterly helpless. Inri just looks at the sky, seemingly more concerned about it than their present predicament.
"Child," Elijah scrawks to the Savanite cub. "Make sure our supplies do not fly loose. You'll do better there." His submerged hooves scrabble along the floor of the river, crunching stones and sinking in the muddy bottom as he struggles to push the boat along.
Watches-Quietly nods, and shakes her soaked arms, then grapples with the supplies, trying to rearrange some of the smaller items so that they'll sit lower in the boat, even though that means sacrificing leg space. Elijah's footing gets more solid, however, albeit slippery in parts, thanks to the mossy growths. There's a great deal more scrabbling and shoving and splashing … but then there's another splash from Bhuz, as he hops out of the boat on the other side, and hands his oars over to Watches-Quietly and Inri. "Here! Use them like poles, or we'll slaype to the side and squoozle over!" He then finds footing and helps push the boat onto what appears to be the edge of a silty shore in the shadow of several boulders at the base of the bluffs.
Elijah lets his breath out as Bhuz joins him in the water. He reaches out and carefully replaces his eyepatch as the oars change hands and then gets a better grip on the boat, focusing more on holding it steady while the three felines guide it.
There's a schuss of the bottom of the boat brushing against silt, and though much of it washes away into the gorged river under Elijah's hooves, he finally hits packed earth and gets a more solid footing. With a bit more shoving and hauling, the boat finally reaches a point where it stops rocking. "Hokay great-gravy! Out, and I'll hurf it up to higher footers, so's it doesn't get splooshed downwater, when the river gets washy!" Inri and Watches-Quietly disembark, clambering onto the rocky bank, while Bhuz hefts his end of the boat which, aside from the supplies, is rather light without the weight of its passengers all the more reason to get it to higher ground, lest the water rise more and wash it away.
The Vartan hefts up his end. "Is there a good camping ground around here? Someplace where we can get out of the rain and get a fire going to dry off and put something warm in our bellies?" He looks out towards the ruins he noticed earlier.
Bhuz, his eyes covered by a slop of drenched head-hair, stumbles backwards, but still holds the boat up. "Good? Way no! I'd been keening for getting upwater to Sugarfir Point, but we got sloshed on big time! Here, the flap-meizhas are way un-smoothing! Best we be skoodling on upwater, soon as the storm is peaced over!" The ruins are pretty much out of sight now, what with the continual building of the clouds, and now that the boat is under some of the shelter afforded by the bluff. However, it appears that not all of these stones are boulders … One of them looks like a broken part of a face, its blank eye staring blindly at the Vartan as he scrambles past. At the top of this particular rubble pile, the gaping maw of a cave can be seen.
Elijah nods. "Let's get the boat secured then." He studies the broken stone, trying to determine what species the statue might have been made to represent.
Bhuz nods, and scrambles back some more. Meanwhile, Inri reaches into the boat, and pulls out some of the heavier items, and Watches-Quietly follows her lead, setting them temporarily aside amongst the rocks, to lighten the boat. As for the stone, it is hard to tell, given the rain, the increasing darkness, the distraction, the weathered nature of the stone, the fact that it's broken, and also that it looks like this is a stylized representation, not a physically accurate one. However, the Vartan's answer comes a few steps further, as he sees some more stone fragments that look like parts of stylized bat wings … and another well-worn piece that might be a large ear.
It looks like, actually, the broken stone wings form a bit of a bowl-shaped arrangement, by accident of their falling and as good a roost for the boat as any.
"Watches-Quietly, I have a gunblade with my pack. The bullets are useless but the sword might become necessary if the locals become a bit too hostile. If it's not too heavy, try and fetch it out for me while we secure the boat. Find my crossbow as well if you can, I need your night-eyes in this darkness." The Vartan resists the urge to shake his soaked feathers out just yet and instead simply hefts the boat towards the bowl.
Watches-Quietly isn't easily seen due to the distractions, but she's dependable enough that Elijah can be certain that she's doing as she's told. With a bit more huffing and scrabbling on the wet stones … the boat is finally led toward the bowl. It appears that Bhuz was just as aware of its utility as the Vartan. At last, it's set down. Inri comes up, hauling some of the items temporarily set aside, while Watches-Quietly pulls the gunblade out of the boat. Bhuz pulls out some ropes, hands some to Elijah, and then uses his half to roughly secure the boat to some of the rocky outcroppings rimming the "bowl".
Elijah flexes his fingers for a moment, trying to get the blood flowing back into them as he works tie the craft down. "Do we have anything to cover it with?"
Bhuz nods, wiping the slop of wet hair out of his eyes. "Yeah. The tarpotent … ah … " He digs around, then pulls out a folded tarpaulin sheet that looks to be of Rephidim manufacture, and very weathered and worn … but it should offer some protection. He starts spreading it over, while Inri puts the last of the items back in the boat, save for some ponchos that she's dug out.
The Vartan flutters his wings for a moment, shaking some of the clinging water loose as he lets Bhuz cover the boat up. He rubs his arms, trying to work out some of the cold.
The thunder peals grow louder, as lightning flashes across the sky, and sheets of rain brush across the mountainside. Bhuz glances up, and mutters, "Ho gnarlybones." He glances over to the cave. "The hideyhole's lookin' better now. But verilysayin', I haven't been lurking in there before. But the flap-meizhas keep up to the high-hangings, not down here by the wash-outs."
Watches-Quietly hands Elijah the largest of the ponchos a bit too late, that is and holds the gunblade … a feat in and of itself, as she could never wield the thing.
Elijah nods and pulls on the poncho; it might warm him up at least. "Thank you," he whispers to her, and then raises his voice a bit louder. "Let me lead. If there are hostiles in the cave, I should probably be the one to meet them. I see no signs telling us to leave, and it would be just as dangerous braving the river in the storm as it would be waiting out some time on enemy land. Best we go and dry ourselves out at least." He balances the blade against his shoulder and starts towards the cave.
Watches-Quietly nods, and then signs, "But not too deep! Ground doesn't look stable!" She looks at all the broken stones about them.
"Point taken. Just deep enough to get out of the rain and maybe get a fire going." The Vartan nods, peering into the cave and trying to see if there's any signs of recent habitation.
It looks as if the "cave" is actually a ruined structure dug into the side of the bluff, partially carved into rock, and fortified with stonework … though it looks like whatever served as a stone facade on the outside has long since crumbled and formed the pile of stones that the travelers have climbed upon to get here. Quite possibly, once upon a time, this entrance wouldn't have been accessible by foot, but rather would have been elevated from the river several feet or more. If that's the case, the broken stones and the silt accumulated amongst them have formed up a barrier, and possibly even caused the bank to shift.
It looks as if there's an antechamber of sorts that could offer shelter from the elements, though there's at least one obvious passage heading deeper inside. There's nothing particularly inviting about the passage, however, to encourage further exploration in a strange place in a strange storm, unless one simply wants to find new danger just for kicks.
Elijah gives his feathers a good hard shake before entering the antechamber. "This looks relatively stable. Best to get settled here." He peels off his poncho and folds it up as a cushion to sit on. "Is there a lantern in the supplies? I'd like to light this place up a bit to get a better look at it."
Inri nods, and comes up with a shuttered lantern that she'd already dug out of the supplies for just such a purpose. She also has a bundle of driftwood under the other arm, though it'll take some drying before a decent fire can be started with it. Before she can get it under the cover and pull out a tinderbox to try to start the light, though, there's a flutter of wings, and a loud shriek, as a shadow bolts out of the aforementioned passage, shooting toward Elijah! "SKRYAAAAAAAA!"
The sword in the Vartan's hand twirls in a bright arc until the flat of the blade rests against his arm. He spreads his wings out like a wall to protect his three companions and thrusts the handle out at the shadow.
With a loud thunk, the blunt end of the handle connects against the ribcage of the bat with enough force to take the wind out of a Jupani. With a fragile Eeee, however, he's most certainly down for the count. A chitin blade falls from his hands and clatters to the stone floor, and his body collapses in a heap next to it with a squeaky wheeze.
Bhuz blinks, taking a moment to adjust to the flash of activity that just occurred. "Uhm … I'm way-sorry, didn't know that any … " He looks about, peering into the darkness, to see if any more attackers are forthcoming. Watches-Quietly just holds her hand clamped over her mouth, as if stifling an urge to scream … while Inri drops the lantern to the floor and kicks the chitin blade away from the bat.
Elijah nervously crouches down and pats the fallen bat, trying to see if it carries any identifiable markings or if it's just dressed as a peasant who might be on the run. He warily eyes the entrance. "Keep down and away, they may have bolts."
The bat is wearing attire that is befitting a peasant, but he has a tabard thrown over his body that is of a better quality cloth, bearing an embroidered design. A rune. Elijah has encountered this before. It is a rune known as "The Corpse".
"Inri … try to get a log burning. Dump oil on it if you have to." He rises up and shoves at the bat with his hoof. "I think this one is a soldier, and I'd like to know if there are more lurking about before we settle in."
Watches-Quietly drops to a low crouch, sliding over to the wall and putting her back against it, warily regarding the passage. Bhuz, meanwhile goes over to the lantern. "I'm gonna flick the glowcase. The flappers can vis us just fine in the dark, but we can't them!" He starts fumbling with the tinderbox.
Inri nods, and arranges some of the wood, pouring a bit of oil over it. Once Bhuz has a spark and then a small flame going to light the lantern, she finds the driest twig she can, and lights it from the lantern, then works on starting the fire.
Elijah fetches his crossbow and wraps some cloth around the tip of a bolt, dipping it in oil as well and holding it over the infant flame. "I'm going to see if there are more in there. If you hear me yell at you to run, I want you do to so and not look back, understand?"
Watches-Quietly nods … then hugs Elijah's arm, closing her eyes tightly. "Careful," she signs with one hand, pressing it against his arm so that he can feel the sign, if he can't see it clearly enough by the dimly glowing lantern and Inri's modest start of a fire.
"Always," he clumsily signs back. He pulls out his own lantern and lights it, then notches the flaming bolt into his crossbow. Carefully, he crawls across the floor of the cave and shoots his arrow down the passage, watching to see if it lights up any new dangers or gives him a better view of the passage.
The arrow courses down a gradual incline formed by intermittent sets of steps. There are broken pillars that lie sideways across the passage, but there is enough of a gap in the large corridor that Elijah can still walk down, only having to duck his head and wings on occasion. The Eeee, after all, aren't keen on tight enclosures. They prefer interior places where they can fly, if possible, though this no longer looks appropriate for that. No more lurking shadows present themselves … but Elijah catches a faint sound from further down the corridor, around a corner … singing.
"Wish I'd brought my armor… but I wouldn't feel right wearing it," the Vartan mutters to himself. He loads a new bolt into his bow and sets it at his side for quick use and then dims his lantern as much as he can without walking completely blind in the passage. He grips his blade in hisother hand and starts down the passage as quietly as he can muster.
"Dream and never wake," a girl's voice sings in Babelite, echoing from what must be a larger chamber branching off from the corridor.
As he approaches the corner, he can now see flickering light very dim, not really enough to provide much in the way of illumination at all coming from what must be the larger chamber off to the side. "So you may not love that which is passing.
"We give, Sunala takes,"
"For she alone is ever-lasting."
Elijah resists the urge to flatten his ears at the music as he tries to get a better look into the chamber. He concentrates for a moment, trying to determine if this is a simple song or if it has the feel of magic to it.
As Elijah concentrates … yes, he can definitely feel the sensation of magic. This place is thick with it. It stains the floor, the walls … but it does not seem that the singing itself is part of any working of a song. Rather, it sounds as if the singer is on the verge of breaking into tears.
"Youth is quickly gone,"
"The flower blooms, then it is quickly faded."
The next chamber is indeed much larger, and deeper into the bluff. The ceiling is high enough that conceivably someone could fly in here, though not for very far. There are high alcoves that could serve as perches, and at the furthest point into the bluff as the chamber goes, there is a wide altar, upon which lies a prone figure a female bat, her hands folded across her chest.
There are candles along a magical circle marked on the floor, ringing the altar. Part of the magical circle is carved into the stone, while there are also marks in chalk and positioning of stone, and colored sands. The girl is dressed in a gown of rough white cloth, her wings swept back to hang so that their tips brush the floor. Her hair is long and white, though her hide is black. Her eyes are closed.
"The old will always long,"
"For the time they were not so jaded."
As Elijah moves into a position where he can better see the interior, he sees a female bat kneeling before the altar. She is a double of the one on the altar … white tresses spilling between her wings, over her back, and the black hide of her arms, ears and wings visible, though her face is turned away, toward the stone bed, altar, or crypt that the first figure lies upon. It is obvious now that she is the one who is singing.
( I will probably regret this, but I have fought those claiming to serve the Sisters long enough to know how dangerous they truly are. ) The Vartan rises from his crouched position and slowly walks towards the altar. He slings the lantern on his belt and takes his crossbow up in its place. "Such a distant place for a sacrifice," he speaks in the Eeee tongue, although his baritone voice gives the words a heavy quality, almost unnatural.
"Sister dear, please pray for me " and then the bat breaks off her song, twisting around in her position at the sound of the intruding hippogryph. Shredded folds of wings sway with her movement, revealing now in the candlelight that she is quite incapable of flight. What's more, she falls sideways, as it appears that she has been kneeling for so long that her legs have fallen asleep. "Who are you?" she squeaks, remaining in the Babelite tongue.
"I could have answered that question a year ago, but now I cannot. I was many, and am now nobody at all. Ultimately it does not matter." The Vartan glances at the figure on the altar. "Do you intend to kill her for Sunala?"
The crippled bat struggles to find her footing, and pulls herself up, leaning against the stone structure that holds her twin. "No. No, I am the sacrifice. She is Srinala," she says, using a word that sounds like a slur between "Life" and "Death". "She is blessed, my birth-twin. I was born to be given as a blood-offering to Sunala … and the prophesies have told that this night will be the most fortuitous. It is a night of change."
She doesn't sound particularly confident when she gives her tale certainly not enthusiastic about it. She wipes at her eyes … which are milky white in a way normally only found in the Sylvanian strain of Eeee. She is not only a twin of the bat on the stone slab, but of the idol behind it, with its peeling flakes of old paint.
The Vartan's eyes narrow. "You intend to kill yourself in front of your sister?" He taps the ground in front of him. "Come here, and tell me how old you are."
The girl shakes her head. "No. Kanara, of the village guard, he … " Her expression shifts. "He wouldn't have let you in here. What has happened to him? And … I am almost … I would have been … sixteen … this winter holiday." She scuffs her bare feet against the stone floor, rubbing some life into them, and then hesitantly walks over to the Vartan, straightening up as she musters up some resolve. "I am not afraid of dying. It … it is for the good of the village." Meanwhile, Bhuz can be heard calling down the corridor, "Are you doing smooth down there, Elijah-maizha? We have a blazer now!"
"Doing fine!" he shouts back and then focuses his gaze on the bat again. "Your guard lives, and you are a fool for coming here. Sunala is a goddess of death, and death is all she offers. I do not see how having your soul used as a tool to kill others could be 'good'. What is the point of this ritual? Why did it require you and your sister if you are the only one who is to die tonight?"
The girl breathes in gasps, lowering her chin as she closes her eyes. "You are a foreigner. You do not understand. The village priest worked a miracle, and saw to it that I was born in the image of Sunala, so that some day, when the need arose, I could be offered up to save the village. It was a mystery, a surprise, that we were born twins … though my sister is never-waking. She is Srinala living yet dead, a good omen from Sunala, and a blessing to the village, though she lives only by the magic of the village priest. I feed and wash her … but we have fallen upon a terrible drought, and diseases, and we had a clash with raiders, so that our strongest men are dead." She puts her hand to her head. "There must be a maiden sacrificed to bring power to the prayers of the village priest, for all his previous petitions have gone unanswered. I was born for this. I do not … I do not wish to die." She opens her eyes and looks back up to the Vartan. "But I am not afraid."
Elijah sighs and tenderly strokes his thumb on the Eeee's cheek. "Death will not solve your problem, and I am less of a foreigner than you think. Before the Princess murdered him, your Prince Boghaz was one of my dearest friends." He looks at the altar. "If you die, who will take care of her? Have you thought of that?"
The bat trembles at the touch. "Yes … yes, I have thought long and hard about that. But the priest promised. If I go quietly, he would make certain she is looked after. She is blessed. The village can't do without her." She looks back up at the Vartan. "You … you think I'm fixated on this, don't you? You think I'm one of those Screaming Ones from the cities, who wish to throw themselves off cliffs, simply to gain everyone's attention for the few seconds before they hit the ground? I am not like that! I am strong! Sunala would accept no less!"
"I know you are strong. You know I could snap you like a dead leaf if I wished, yet you do not plead or beg, nor do you threaten to bring Sunala's wrath upon me. Just listen to me, and hear me out before you do this." He draws away and approaches the altar, looking down at the Eeee's sister. "Has she always been like this? From birth?"
Footsteps pad down the corridor, and a spotted girl comes around the corner, holding a cooked fish speared on a stick. She jolts to a stop when she sees that Elijah is not alone. "Sorry!" she signs, pressing her free hand against her nape, and stands bolt-still, glancing about to see if she has walked right into a stand-off with a band of Eeee warriors.
Elijah makes a quick "hold" gesture at the cub, indicatingthat she should be still, but keeps his poise relaxed to make sure she understands that as far as he knows there is no immediate danger.
The bat girl sucks in her breath as she sees the spotted girl, and her gaze lingers on the intruder for a moment … but then she nods. "Yes. From birth. She would have been stillborn save for the prayers of the priest. Our village has never had a Srinala before. They are usually only born to the cities." She sighs. "I … I had hoped this would be blessing enough. But … my people are going to die."
The Vartan strokes the girl's cheek in a twin gesture shown to her sister. "If the raiders were dealt with, would your people fare better?"
"The raiders are long gone," the girl says, sighing. "You seem a powerful warrior. If … if you had been here a season ago… " She brings a hand to her mouth, biting on it, as tears well in her eyes. She recovers, then says, "But they are not your concern. We are only humble villagers. Only a miracle would cause the deities to notice us, let alone care to help us. And I … tonight I am to be that miracle. But … if you've killed Kanara." She shakes her head.
Watches-Quietly firmly shakes her head back and forth, then signs, "Not dead! Just knocked out!" The bat girl, however, doesn't evidence any understanding of Savanite sign, though she curiously watches the flashing hands.
"He lives; he'll just have some bruised ribs. I am no murderer, unlike Sunala." The Vartan makes a sweep at the circle on the floor with his hoof, marking out a part of it. "Fifteen winters old … how can making pleas to a goddess of death possibly save you? Have the priests always been right? Or is it easier to send a child away to die in the hopes that somehow a miracle may occur? This is foolishness."
The bat looks up to the Vartan. "Then what shall be done? If I return to my village, as soon as they figure you for a foreigner who doesn't follow our ways, they'll tell you lies and anything they think you want to hear, and take me back and promise that everything will change. Then, they'll ask me to give my life on the next holiday, before winter sets in, and hope that the alignment is as strong as it is tonight. If I flee, then they will have no choice but to send Srinala to oblivion. And if I were to take Srinala with me, she would die as we travel, and some other girl would be slain on the next holiday. Whatever happens, someone will die. That could only be stopped if you slew each and every one of them first, and then … it would be moot."
"The Kindly Ones are not so kind," the bat says. "They shape our lives with tragedy, with questions that have no answers. It is the way of things. I wish that I lived in the realm of happy endings, with the shining knights of the sky realms, but I was born here, dedicated to a goddess of death. I cannot change my birth."
Elijah frowns again. "You admit to me that they lie." He closes his eyes and sheathes his sword. "Ultimately, we must all make our decision about whom we follow. Before I make my decision about you, allow me to ask you this … do you think that your death or the death of anyone else will bring life back to your village? Do you believe that if you spill your blood here and now that it will do anything more than deprive your parents of their child, and leave them with one who cannot laugh or cry or play or sing?"
"I have no parents," the bat says. "Or none that I know." She looks down. "I was born in secret. Supposedly, I was spawned from nothing, but I know good and well one of the village women was my birth-mother. And the priest himself might be the father. But I've never known for certain." She looks up. "And, yes. I know enough of the miracles of the priest. The Rephidimites would call it magic or sorcery, but the shedding of blood makes magic more powerful. I know something of it, for it pleased the priest to teach me some minor arcana, thinking it befitting my role."
"What is your name?" the Vartan asks.
"Sunala," the bat says, but there's something different about the inflection. Translated into Rephidim Standard, it would have been as if she had said the word "death", but with something between capitalizing it and not a pale reflection of Sunala, perhaps. Most foreigners with less years of experience with the language, however, would completely miss the distinction, and risk a major faux pas in Eeee company by the mere act of repeating her name.
Watches-Quietly timidly steps forward. "Elijah?" she signs. "I … I think her story reminds me of mine. I think I might be able to reason with her … ?" She looks askance to the Vartan.
"Perhaps I do not understand you, Sunala. I am a fallen warrior who felt betrayed by his master. I am a believer in the Star, and I have never seen a miracle in my life yet I follow it nonetheless. You may call me Elijah, although in truth I have no name." He steps down from the altar and continues marring the circle. "I could, perhaps, kidnap you and forcibly keep you from killing yourself this night. I may even be able to slay your entire village … but my heart tells me that ultimately this decision must fall on your shoulders. Nobody can force you to kill yourself, and you also should consider the people whom your shed blood might save for another season. If you leave now, your sister may die but I do not believe that she was ever truly alive. I have seen bodies without souls before; I have even battled a few in my time."
The Vartan sighs. "You fall under the Sisters because you allow yourselves to … no other reason. The Star teaches of free will, and you have that regardless of whether you believe in my Star or not. Perhaps your village suffers because they depended on the Sisters to save them when they should have been training warriors to fight, or protecting their harvests. The door is open for you to leave, and perhaps I was even sent here to show it to you. Whatever else happens, however horrible it may be, is because others wanted it to happen. But you do not have to be a part in it."
The bat takes a deep breath. "I see," she says, barely more than a whisper.
Elijah nods to the cub. "Please… speak. If she doesn't understand Standard, I will translate."
Watches-Quietly nods, then peers down the corridor. Apparently satisfied that Bhuz isn't lurking there, listening in on things, she takes a deep breath, and speaks. "I'm not really a Savanite," she says. "I was born to a race of people who I think still live here, though they're now the Gigi. I … " She looks up to Elijah.
The bat blinks, as the seeming-Savanite begins to speak, but she listens intently.
Elijah nods, motioning for the cub to continue.
Watches-Quietly shifts one foot nervously, then suddenly asks, "Uhm … can you understand what I'm saying? I don't want to just babble on if you don't know Standard."
The bat nods. "I understand Standard. I have something of an education. Please … go on? If you're a Gigi … are you an outcast?"
Watches-Quietly shakes her head. "No … no, not really, though the spots have given me a little trouble, but for other reasons. People thought I was a talking Savanite. But … that's not the important part. You see, I was born to serve as an 'avatar' for this sorceress called Amenlichtli. And Dadd- uhm … my father has been very concerned about that. That she'll try to take possession of me."
The bat stands up more tall at this, her expression fading into a more serious than curious one. "Amenlichtli," she repeats in a near-whisper, and frowns at the name.
Elijah flinches and loops his thumbs into his belt to keep from fidgeting with his hands.
Watches-Quietly nods. "Yes, and " Just then, there's a cry from the cave outside. "Aaaa! OW! You bit me! OW OW OW! HELP!" There are sounds of struggling. Watches-Quietly jerks her head in the direction of the corridor, and starts to call out, but slaps a hand over her mouth, stopping.
Elijah leans back towards the corridor. "Inri … one good hard kick to the stomach should deal with him."
Elijah motions to the two. "I'll be back in a moment. You won't be disturbed." He starts to climb up the steps.
Bhuz's cries still sound out, and then there's a smack and a pained squeak, and it goes quiet out there except for Bhuz's jabber of nonsensical almost-curse words directed at the presumably now unconscious bat.
"Be sure and tie him up this time!" the Vartan calls out. "Use my poncho for strips if you need to."
When Elijah's attention returns to the chamber … it's empty. He can still hear, however, the echo of Watches-Quietly's voice, narrating the tale of Paradys and her rescue by a large and powerful Vartan hero.
Needless to say, the sensation of magic is strong in the air, and a strong doubt imposes itself on the Vartan of what his eyes are supposedly telling him.
Elijah's ears flatten as he returns to the chamber and he concentrates, trying to somehow will theview back to how it should be. "Sunala? Watches-Quietly? I can't see you."
The methods taught him for seeing through illusions come back to him, as he carefully peels off strips of the facade. The corridor … is actually longer than it appears … longer than it appeared earlier. He must have been fooled into stepping back several paces when he leaned back into the corridor earlier to shout outside. But it's as if he's having to solve his way through a labyrinth … and Watches-Quietly has already made it through the narrative of her tale, and is well through her life story. He can also hear Sunala's voice. She's telling Watches-Quietly about her life, her village, her people … how desperately they cling to life … It's much the same thing he heard before, but he can sense some sort of … artificial urgency behind them. It's as if he can hear the words not only through his own ears … but those of Watches-Quietly. And in her, he can sense that they're having a much stronger emotional impact. Something is happening to her.
Elijah's heart starts to pound and his brisk walk becomes a full out run as he tries to get back to his daughter. At the moment, nothing else matters but to get there before that something happens.
Magical barriers tear away as Elijah navigates the actual labyrinth as well as the magically imposed one. It would seem unclear how much time is passing, but there seems to be an urgent pace to the conversation he can hear unfolding. Whatever put up these barriers is well aware that he's breaking his way through them faster than new ones can be put up. He can hear the echoes of his own voice, the sounds of combat … Eeee warriors, though he knows they are just phantoms, part of some illusory story being played out, with Watches-Quietly as the audience and unwitting participant. In glimpses he has of the actual chamber, he can see her standing there … he can see the body on the altar. She is alone. There is no Sunala … none save for that lying on the stone slab. There are no Eeee warriors, there are no sacrificial daggers only Watches-Quietly and a dream-play.
Watches-Quietly pleads with the dream-Sunala not to surrender to the Eeee warriors. In the phantom reality, the dream-Sunala is taken up to the altar … which is bare, as if the other-Sunala has been forgotten from the dream-play as an oversight. A priest blathers something about how the warriors cannot be the one to make the sacrifice … Only Watches-Quietly can do this, or the ritual will fail, and the villagers will all die. His words are not convincing on their own merit, but they carry a magical impetus that imposes their false truth upon Watches-Quietly's perception. In her phantom world, this is the truth.
"POUNCER! If you can hear my voice, fight it! I don't know what you are being made to see, but in a forsaken place like this you must be wary! For the love of the Star, call out to me if you can hear me!" The Vartan runs like his wings are aflame. He focuses on that image of the play in his head, and tries to will a third figure into it … not himself, but what he has always imagined the image of the Star to be … a figure so bright it hurts to look upon, and one that doesn't hold any particular species or gender … just a humanoid figure that radiates a feeling that he's only managed to touch upon in his deepest meditations. In between shouts he prays madly for the figure to be there with the cub, if not visibly than invisibly.
Pouncer, in the dream reality, stops, looking about for the source of the voice she must hear, even amongst the phantoms. "There must be a maid sacrificed this night," the priest hisses, and the peals of thunder echo loudly in the shadow play … though, in truth, Elijah can hear them just as loudly outside, and a sound like a wail amidst the thunder. "That's no sacrifice," Pouncer says to the priest, defiantly, tears streaming down her cheeks. "That's murder."
"Shout it!" Elijah yells through the corridors, his hooves sparking against the stone floor. "Break the illusion!"
Pouncer screams at the illusions, but the next words that escape her lips … "If there must be a sacrifice, then I will be your sacrifice. There was as much magic in my birth as in hers." The rumbling grows stronger, and there is a wave of anger and surprise that he feels, causing the phantoms to drop their guard. With the weak spot exposed, he breaks into the chamber the real one at last. Pouncer is kneeling before the altar in the same place where he saw the singing bat.
At the same time, he can see the illusory priest, the illusory warriors, and the other, illusory Sunala, though he can see through the phantoms well enough to realize them for what they are. The feeling of death and blood pervades the room, but it is not imbedded in the walls, or even the idols of the room. It comes from the body on the stone slab, and as the prone bat's chest heaves and falls, the phantom images' breaths come in gasps just as agitated. "You can't," the phantoms say, and it's unclear just which one, according to the phantom play, is supposed to be saying that, "That's not part of the… "
The Vartan streaks into the room, although his pace slows to avoid smashing into the cub. He rushes towards her and grasps at her shoulders, trying to shake her awake.
As the Vartan rushes toward Pouncer, the phantom priest rushes toward her as well, phantom dagger upraised. Pouncer, in dream and in reality, jolts up, her eyes full of fear, as she throws herself backward toward the altar, away from Elijah's grasp, interposing herself between him and the body … between the priest's illusory dagger and the sacrificial victim. As she does so, her very real self tumbles back against the very real prone figure … and at once, the phantoms scatter as if turned into pillars of dust and blown by a strong gust of wind. "Nooooooo!" comes a scream that echoes audibly in the chamber, though not from Pouncer's lips.
"Pouncer … get away from her! That … that thing is an Avatar, or a focus." Elijah draws his sword out, although the tip trembles in his shaking hands.
"Daddy! Stop! No!" Pouncer cries out, throwing her arms wide.
Elijah shakes his head. "I'm not going to kill it … her. I just want you to get away from that altar."
Pouncer gasps, regaining her breath, which comes in heaves, and she pats her hand around uncertainly on the stone slab … then recoils when she touches the body lying there. "All … all right … I … Daddy, I was dreaming, wasn't I? They … hurt you really badly and … " She staggers away from the altar … then gasps as she looks past Elijah at the seemingly solid figure of Sunala, glowering back at her from across the room … though its apparent solidity is fading quickly.
"She beat you, witch. Without magic, without a weapon … she beat you. Go and rot with that knowledge," Elijah hisses at the fading illusion. "I'm fine, Pouncer. We were deliberately separated… "
Pouncer covers her mouth with a paw. "Daddy … I'm sorry I blew it. I … I should have stayed outside. I didn't mean to get myself in danger! I thought everything was all right… "
The phantom Sunala glowers. "Do you realize … what you've done?" it whispers. "Do you realize? It was so simple … " Despite the fading of the spirit, the thunder outside rumbles even more intensely.
The Vartan manages a smile. "No, Shinyfur. You've just proven to me that I need to have more faith in the fact that you can protect yourself. I am so proud of you right now that I cannot ever hope to form it all into words." He turns to face the fake Sunala. "And you … what has been done? What were you hoping to do here?"
The phantom balls her hands into fists. "This indignity will not be forgotten!" it howls, and a whisper in the back of the Vartan's mind suggests to him that it really should have come out as an incredibly powerful and intimidating threat … but it scarcely competes with the storm brewing outside.
The storm, in fact, is far more disconcerting. Through the wind, the Vartan can barely make out a cry of anguish. The voice sounds vaguely familiar, though twisted by a fear that seems somehow uncharacteristic for it. "… not … fair," the wind howls.
"Give Sunala the regards of the Champion of Shadows," Elijah says, smiling despite the uneasiness around him. "Or Amenlichtli, or whomever it is that you serve. You cannot touch my family."
The phantom fades out. Pouncer blinks. "Daddy … I … I don't know how I know it … but there isn't any drought. There weren't any raiders, either. It was all a lie."
Elijah lets the sword drop from his hand, his arm trembling like mad. "The one on the altar … is she what the illusion said she was?"
Pouncer turns to look back at the slab, and gasps in surprise when she sees that the other "Sunala" hasn't faded away. She coughs, patting her chest a couple of times, then chokes out, "Yes." She coughs again, then more clearly she says, "Sorry. I … Are you used to having to go through this sort of thing, Daddy?"
"Not really… I just wait until everything is safe before I crack." He picks up his sword again and slips it into his scabbard. "The magic came from her … but I would feel about as honorable killing her as I would killing a comatose man or sleeping child. Do you know what the purpose of all of this was about?"
Pouncer shakes her head. "No … and … no, you couldn't do that. Not … not after all I went through to protect her. I mean … you know … in the dream." She shakes her head, as she tries to make sense of it all … then suddenly starts and jumps back a step, bumping into Elijah. "She … she moved."
Elijah's feathers bristle nervously and he puts one arm around Pouncer's shoulder. He says nothing and simply watches, waiting to see if the Eeee moves again.
This time, Elijah is able to catch a bit of movement other than just the prone Eeee's breathing. Although she's facing away from being jostled by Pouncer's earlier fall … her eyelid can be seen to flutter … and then she rolls back, lying more or less flat on the slab again. A hissing sigh escapes her lips, then turns into a slurred mumble.
The Vartan blinks. "Hello?" He lets go of his daughter and takes a hesitant step toward the Eeee.
The eyes open the same milky white eyes as the phantom-Sunala from the illusion. The head jerks in a barely controlled flop, and the mouth strains to move, though no intelligible noise comes out, while the rest of the bat's body twitches and jerks now and then. "No " the mouth blurts.
"Stop!" Pouncer says, reaching forward. "You'll … you'll fall off, hurt yourself … something. I'm … ah … We need a doctor… I think."
Elijah puts a hand on the Eeee's forehead to try and calm her. "Go get Inri. She knows about herbs and might know a thing or two about healing. The only other place I know of that might have a healer near here is either back where we started or at the Sanctuary."
Pouncer nods. "Shabar! We're not far from there, right? Maybe after the storm… Inri … Right!" She dashes out of the chamber, weaving around the twisting passage, now plainly seen to be a bit less of a straightaway than it first appeared.
The Vartan watches the cub vanish and focuses on the Eeee again. He feels a momentary pang of guilt as a voice in the back of his head screams that he kill the bat and make sure that she can't be used as any sort of magic focus again. But he has also sworn only to kill warriors, criminals, and the undead. The girl, as far as he knows, is an innocent. "Do you know where you are? Can you speak at all?"
The bat looks up at Elijah, and lies still for a moment, just breathing, and looking at him presumably with those blank eyes. Her mouth moves very slowly, deliberately. "Yesssss," she says, in a slurred hiss. "I … want … to … sit … up … now."
Elijah curls an arm across the bat's waist and pulls her upwards, still offering support. "You are not supposed to be able to talk. I was told that you have been comatose your entire life. Do you know why you can speak?"
The bat is quite weak in Elijah's arms, even for an Eeee … but her muscles still have more definition to them than a body would have, utterly unused since birth. The muscles should be atrophied. "… magic," the bat slurs.
"What is your name?" The Vartan pulls out his canteen and tries to get the bat to drink. "Do you know what just occurred here?"
The bat at first seems unresponsive, letting water spill out of her mouth, then chokingly swallows down some of the water. When her mouth is clear, she reaches up shakily with a hand, showing unnatural progress in gaining control over motor skills. "Sri … nala," she utters. "No."
"That will do for now then. Can you tell me what you do remember?" He wipes at the bat's chin.
"Need … time," the bat utters, "to … sort … out." She holds up one hand, staring at it intently. There is a scratch on it. Evidently, she must have been scraped while shoved across the slab. "It … ," there's an even longer pause, then, "… hurts."
Inri sprints into the room, followed a moment later by a panting Pouncer. Inri dispenses with her usual facade, and says, "Are you all ri Oh." She regards the bat … then furrows her brows, and digs through her pouches.
Elijah feels the father in him well up and he gently takes the bat's hand, kissing it softly. "I am sorry, Srinala. My name is Elijah, and this is my daughter and my sister, Pouncer and Inri. We'll make your hand feel better."
Elijah detects something of a recoil in the bat's reaction to his kiss of her hand, but she hardly has the strength to move her hand willfully, let alone resist. Inri checks the hand, and declares, "It's only a minor scrape. I'll clean it, though, so it doesn't get infected."
"It hurts," Srinala repeats. "Make it stop. Now."
Inri gives Srinala a puzzled look. "I'll … do my best." She puts a swab into the opening of a chitin bottle of alcohol, and tips the bottle just enough to wet the cloth, then tilts it back and closes the lid. "This will sting," she warns.
The Vartan puzzles over this, and then grips the Eeee's shoulders to keep her from flinching too much.
Sure enough, it stings, as demonstrated by a shriek from the bat. Pouncer slaps her paws over her ears. Inri just flattens her own ears, wincing, as she's much closer to the source, but she finishes swabbing the minor wound, then pulls out some gauze, and wraps the scrape. "It will be fine," she assures the bat, applying a Khattan-sounding purr.
"Have you never known pain before, Srinala? Not even from being accidentally bumped while you were being moved around?" He ponders this.
Srinala doesn't answer him. To Inri, she says, "I forgive you," then bites her lip.
Inri raises her eyebrows at this, and says, "You're welcome," as she casts a glance at Elijah with a "get a load of this" expression on her face.
Elijah just shrugs. "I thought she was a vegetable ten minutes ago," he scrawks in Vartan, and then switches to Standard again. "Do you want to try walking, Srinala? It might be best if we get some shoes on your feet first. I'll wager your feet don't have any calluses, and there are some sharp stones on the floor."
Inri looks about the room, then signs, "These are Life Magic runes Babelite focus. The circle is all scuffed up, though. I can't make out what spell it was supposed to be."
Srinala says, in slow words, "You may carry me." Despite her lack of perfect control of her muscles, she seems to have regained enough to sit up straight now … and she sits, chin held high, as if she were a court-raised Babelite "princess" of one of the feuding noble houses, heroically putting up with indignities forced upon her by fate.
"That's my fault. Usually when I see a Babelite magic circle, my first impulse is to wipe it out as quickly as I can manage. Are there markings from any other spheres?" Elijah sits down besides the Eeee and lets his breath out, allowing himself to relax for a moment. He eyes the bat and smirks. As a knight he's had to play escort to nobles from time to time; he doesn't mind the indignity. "All right, Srinala. I'll carry you."
Inri inspects some of the parts of the circle obscured by the altar from casual scuffing. "Life," she repeats. "No other spheres."
Pouncer murmurs, "Can … Life Magic make you able to speak, if you've been a vegetable all your life?"
Inri looks to Pouncer. "All your life? No … you have to learn things. We aren't born knowing how to speak. I should have taken years to learn to speak as well as I do. I can only do this because of … the machines that imposed memories upon me."
"Maybe this was something similar. I've an idea in my head about all this, but it might be best to give Srinala some time to acclimate herself and piece her memories together before I confuse her." The Vartan hops from the altar and carefully lifts the Eeee. "Meanwhile, be patient. We might get more information out of that guard, unless he was an illusion as well."
Inri smirks. "If he's an illusion, he's doing a remarkable job of putting down fish. He's easily subdued, but he has an annoying tendency to wake up again."
Pouncer leads the way out of the chamber. "Shhh. Bhuz might come to check on us," she whispers, then scouts ahead.
"We'll see how he reacts when he wakes up and sees Srinala awake." He adjusts his hold on the bat to make sure she's comfortable and then follows behind Pouncer.
A short while later, Elijah walks out to see the bat warrior thoroughly trussed up leaning forward and chewing on some fish held on a stick by Bhuz. Beyond the edge of the chamber, where the walls give way to open sky, the storm is still blustering with full force, and Bhuz has moved his camp as far away from the opening as possible, and from the sheets of rain that pour down relentlessly. At the sight of Elijah carrying Srinala, the bat jerks around, and spits out a mouthful of fish bits. In Babelite, he stammers, "You … she … she … " He rocks back and forth, then lands flat on his face.
Elijah shuffles his poncho on the floor around with his foot until it makes for a good seat, and then sets Srinala gently down on it. "She … what?"
"I throw myself at your feet, Kindly One, and beseech you not to cast my wretched soul into oblivion!" he squeaks, still down on the floor, face-down.
Bhuz winces. "That's gotta scrunch. Hey, man, lemme pitch you back to a proper OW! He bit me again!"
The Vartan stares dumbly at this. "Could you, by any chance, tell me who this woman is and what was going on in that chamber?" he grunts out in Eeee to the prostrated bat.
Srinala looks down her nose at the flattened bat. "He is confused. Do not listen to him." Her pronunciation is improving by leaps and bounds.
Kanara says, "She is the Srinala, the dead yet living, and as the prophets have foretold, come to our humble world our mistress! I worship in awe."
"Silence!" Srinala hisses, her voice quivering bitterly. "You don't know what you speak of! Quit groveling! Untie him at once!"
Watches-Quietly opens her mouth, then closes it, as if preparing to say something, then remembering her ruse. She starts to sign something comforting, but then realizes that Srinala evidenced no understanding of it, so she just fidgets with her hands, wringing them together.
"And what is she supposed to do that requires such worship?" Elijah drums the tips of his talons against his beak, and then blinks at Srinala, confused at the outburst. "He attacked us, and we could have died in that illusion trap. Srinala, if you have an explanation for us I would like to hear it. I think we are owed one."
Srinala shudders. "It … is all … a mistake. A … ritual gone wrong." The thunder peals again, and the sounds of delighted laughter can be heard on the wind. Bhuz, Inri and Watches-Quietly each jerk at the sound. Kanara is in no position to do much of anything.
"What was the ritual supposed to do, Srinala?" the Vartan replies.
Srinala shrinks momentarily at the laughter, then lifts her chin again. "It was a test. A test of virtue. A test to see if one who was worthy would come here to wield a dagger for the glory of Sunala, to perform a sacrifice on this holy night. But the Winds of Chaos blew strangely. You came instead. And now … I cannot explain it." She looks over to Watches-Quietly. "This is your fault."
Watches-Quietly looks shocked, and points to herself. "Me?"
"Would you rather have a knife speared through your chest? It would probably have hurt more than that scrape on your hand." Elijah folds his arms.
Srinala just simmers quietly, not answering the Vartan's question. The winds laugh again, but less loudly. The peals of thunder seem to be dying away, though the downpour does not relent. Bhuz casts a worried look down to the boat, but from the firelight, it can be seen to be quite secure on its perch, and well above the flooded river.
Elijah drums his fingers a bit more. "You were somewhere else, weren't you? A better place than this?"
Srinala narrows her eyes. "Yes," she says, with a wary edge to her voice, then closes her eyes entirely, breathing slowly.
Bhuz looks to Kanara. "You know, that has got to really mursh your snozzle, lying on it like that. But I am not letting you gnat me again, got it?" He hauls the bat up, this time more carefully, to a sitting position, while the bat struggles, squeaking in Babelite, "Please forgive me, Kindly One, for rising in your presence!"
"I know is it cold comfort to you, but I think that it is better that you have been brought out to a real world than a pretend one, especially if you were being set up to be murdered for a petty little test." He takes one of the fish from the fire and blows on it softly, cooling it down and then carefully breaking it in his hands before offering it to Srinala. "We can help make learning how to manage here easier for you, but you'll have to be as patient with us as we will try to be with you."
Srinala cracks open an eye again, regarding Kanara with a look of disgust, then sighs. "Very well then. Your assistance is appreciated. When the storm clears, you may take me to Babel."
Watches-Quietly rolls her eyes.
"We are not going to Babel. If we did we would probably be killed on the spot, and probably you as well. We are going to Shabar," Elijah patiently explains.
Srinala's eyes shoot open. "Shabar?!" she squeaks, then she regains her calm. "No … you would not be harmed. I am … Srinala. Introduced to the proper people, I can inspire … warm reception." She nods toward the would-be-groveling Kanara who chatters prayers for forgiveness under his breath.
"You are not a goddess, and I will have no part in false worship. We are going to Shabar. You may remain here with Kanara and perhaps fall victim again to whatever fate was intended for you tonight, or you can accompany us. We may journey to Babel after we leave Shabar, but Shabar comes first," The Vartan says firmly.
Srinala purses her lips. "Very well then. Babel … after Shabar."
Elijah shakes his head, although his tone is still level. "Babel maybe. I am a soldier that fought in the war, and although I have a few friends there … I have plenty of enemies, and I will not walk my family into their nest. If you are still intent upon Babel after we leave Shabar, I shall try to see about finding you passage there on an airship, but I make no guarantees."
Srinala pauses, as if calculating, then inclines her head in a slight nod. "I understand." Her eyes wander over toward the fish Bhuz has roasting on spits over the fire.
Elijah offers the cooling fish in his hands to the Eeee. "Help yourself."
The Eeee takes the fish and nibbles on it.
"Careful," Bhuz warns. "They've got spineys," he adds, then winces at a crunching noise. Srinala frowns, then spits out a few fragments … and resumes eating, more voraciously despite it.
Smiling to himself, the Vartan scoots over to Watches-Quietly and gives her a hug. "About around here is when I let myself crack. You did well, and I'm proud of you."
Watches-Quietly smiles and hugs Elijah back, purring faintly. Inri smiles as well, then signs, "I'll make the bedrolls … and see if I can improvise some for our guests." She rummages through the packs that have been pulled up to the relative safety of the ruins.
Elijah stretches across the floor of the chamber and yawns, munching on a fish. "At least I've gotten plenty of practice on how to sleep on floors."