As they closed in on the temporary settlement that was sat in the center of the valley, a group of weary-looking warriors moved to accost them. Their immediate attitudes were not violent; however, the entirety of the company was put on guard as they laid eyes on Mishonrayel. Sirian had to ponder just how bizarre an idea it was that they would respond with sudden apprehension at seeing a coyote with three heads, even if those heads were not active, yet not bat an eye at a fox nine flowing tails. It had to be the state of the extra parts and not the presents of them that did it. After all, Mishonrayel’s spare heads were underdeveloped, milky eyed on the one they were open on, and their muzzles and ears had become almost melted shut on the other. On the other paw, her own tails were practically perfect copies of the first fluffy, vibrant ray of golden sunshine and marked with bands of soot and dandelion. Then again, she thought, it could be that not only was one inherently beautiful and the other disturbing, but perhaps they, like too many others, fancied her muzzle enough to neglect the issues. All the same, they encircled the four; however, they looked less than formidable.
Sirian browsed the group; the collection was a mix of different northern bound races that had been in that frozen wilderness since the exodus. It must have taken either a great strength of will to unite lynx with caribou and cougar with wolf, but most shocking was that other combination, wolf and caribou. Something between those two races seemed to always bring the worst out of each. In fact, wolves often enough clashed with anyone that even slighted them partially. Not even other wolves were wholly safe from the wraith of one over-anxious chief. The lynx and cougars uniting was another story entirely. They were what had been commonly called near-kin. Near-kin were close groups, like the deer and elk to the west or wolves and coyotes. However, the land all four races covered was so massive that whatever had forced them south would have to have been something terribly significant.
“What is your lot doing this far south? This is no place to try to build up a new colony, and you best believe that chief Atlai will contest it and no doubt bring war upon your people,” Sothoh began, directing his comments at the lynx nearest him.
A feminine voice broke the air, coming from just beyond the circle, “We’ve not come to make war on this land. Had we, our warriors would have ransacked every village in the land before you would even know it, young wolf. We haven’t any means to satiate your chief’s appetite, but neither do we come to do harm to him or his lands.”
“Why have you come then? Surely there is more land north and perhaps more game. We’ve come into something of a dry spell as of late, you understand?” Sirian tested the waters, wadding in just far enough to get either an honest answer or cautious objections.
A sandy-furred lynx, outfitted in an all scarlet ankle-length dress with lace cuffs about the wrist and a matching veil, appeared behind some of the men. Her gaze searched before resting on Sirian, “It is not so simple, sweet child. Why we have come south, why so many all at once, is no small thing at all. I doubt you would very much understand.”
“Well, you’ve got time to explain it to us, I have questions, and my boys have to track us down something to eat before we can begin in earnest today. So how about we come to your wagons and have ourselves a little talk?” Sirian boldly asserted in a far more brazen attitude than she would ever attempt with one she knew, let alone a stranger. To her delight, the maiden nodded approvingly before dismissing her guards and starting for the wagons.
Sirian was the only one to follow the lynx. She left the boys to hunt even if Mishonrayel was more a hindrance when it came to the matter. She could have commended the coyote for stepping away with the wolves when he did; his presence put most on edge. Sirian had become so accustomed to seeing his less than handsome muzzles for so long that it was no burden on her, yet others still thought him a demon. Indeed, in some ways, he was twisted by the vile blood that demons carried, but that did not make Mishonrayel one of their numbers. Even so, had he been by her side, the already grief-stricken and desperate faces Sirian saw all about the camp would have no doubt saddened all the worse for it. It was all too evident, the closer she got and the more she saw of these travelers that they were not here for trouble or to claim new lands but to flee the terror of their own. The very thought that so many could be turned out of their homes and sent running for what looked like the better part of a season awed Sirian in the worst possible way. She could not wait to know exactly why it was that they had ended up nearly at the front door of Seras.
They approached a tent set against the back end of a wagon. The two seemed to be almost one whole item as though the canopy of the wagon were attached to the back half of the shelter. Though the lynx were already rather squat people, the height of the conical-shaped structure only served to make the priestess look all the more diminutive. As they entered, a cacophony of shouts and screams could be heard; however, Sirian identified them quickly as more peaceful noises. Within the tent was a gaggle of children, playing in the way young cubs do, almost entirely unconcerned their playmates may not have been of their own race. With an abrupt, high-pitched whistle, the veiled maiden called the cubs’ attention and kindly asked them to dismiss themselves. All but one gray-furred lynx quickly scampered out of the hut. As the maiden seated herself near the room’s heart, the cub moved to sit beside her, not too close but enough to insist some apprehension about being near the queer-looking stranger. Sirian sat opposite the lynx, keeping a stout pinewood box that could have served as a table between them.
For a few moments, there was silence, the gruff-looking soldiers remained outside of the tent, and the little one sat twiddling her thumbs. The priestess busied herself with a thread patterned with beads and crystals while Sirian examined the interior of the tent. She noted first that the wagon’s back end was directly connected to the shelter’s with only a thin flap separating the two. All across the stitched canvas and hide interior were murals done with thick brushstrokes using a material that gave away a twinkling that seemed almost unnatural. They depicted things rather crudely; people traveling, something like a cave, strange figures with no legs, and what may have been the depiction of a demon. Sirian could only assume these were to convey some sort of story, perhaps one that the lynx didn’t even know. There were too many things like that in the world; structures, sculptures, items, and so on that had been there before any had dared even venture to those regions. Things that defied what modern folk were capable of doing and indeed went beyond what most were able to understand. Lost in thought for a moment, Sirian almost didn’t realize the lynx priestess was speaking.
“It started slowly, at first, and then it was only a short while before whole families were succumbing to it. My mentor went to the first village that had been devastated by the blight, she never returned. Before the season was out, they had raised me to head priestess, as though I knew any better than my teacher,” she sighed and shook her head, fixing on the cerulean crystal at the center of the band.
Sirian leaned closer, not for a better look but curious, “What was happening in the north? Priestess, I might be able to help if I can understand what went wrong.”
“Shi’Karil, you can call me that name. It is more appropriate for one who does not worship as we do. And what has happened we fear can not be undone by any mortal paw, less the great lord of the dark demands sacrifice to slake his thirst. I will tell you what has happened, is happening, I should better say. We have been cursed, some of our own, none who follow with us today. Many have fought it, tried to stop it, and some have succeeded, but once the ferality comes over a victim, it is too late for them,” she answered, her gaze still not meeting the fox’s.
Again, Sirian hadn’t enough information to understand the woman, “What is the ‘ferality’ Shi’Karil? I’ve never heard of anything like it. Perhaps it’s not unlike the curse that afflicted my people not long ago.”
“You would know it, had you seen it. That much I am wholly certain of. What happens to those that are taken by this curse, it is not a thing that you would easily forget. Even seeing second-hand what becomes of those unfortunate souls is too much,” Shi’Karil grasped the cub’s paw gently, “I know for those who have seen such sights it is an experience that can not be forgotten no matter how they might try.”
Sirian searched the two lynx’s expressions for a moment, seeing that there was something too personal between the two that was being prodded at with her questions. Despite the troubled, almost pained expression on the girl’s face, she knew she needed to press on. Pressing both paws down on the pseudo table, Sirian demanded, even if her voice didn’t make it so, “What happened to your people? What has this curse done to its victims?”
“They have been made into beasts. Predators like what stalk some of the lower creatures that we contend with. However, rather than simply chasing down some shren, they have turned on their own. If you had seen the things I have seen, you wouldn’t want to know more,” Shi’Karil retorted, her tongue becoming suddenly acidic. She almost shook, her glare so intense that there was no way Sirian could assert she was making some joke of it.
Slowly, Sirian worked over the information in her mind before asking, “Who is this ‘great lord of the dark’? Is it someone we can find and talk to? Maybe we can reason this whole thing out.”
“If you think for even a moment that I’m going to ‘reason things out’ with that monster, a creature that has allowed for my people not only to be transformed into beasts but to mutilate and eat the flesh of their own, then you are sorely mistaken! The feral curse hasn’t only afflicted our kind and all of our neighbors but has prevented us from even giving our dead the proper rights. Those few lucky souls who were able to have their bodies devoured by the holy flame are not even a quarter of those we lost. I had to watch,” she placed her paws over the little one’s ears then, “watch as my own sister, turned into a mindless beast, fight to break through a barred door to try to feast on her own daughter. The poor girl hasn’t managed a word since that night, and we were not even able to put an end to her suffering before we fled home. So don’t believe for a moment this is something to be solved with words. Burn my soul, but if we do ever find this lord of the dark, I will personally put him in the dirt.”