Of Mortals: Chapter Twenty-six

“…Jaium!” Sirian sat up with a growl of concern, her mind racing as her eyes shot about wildly. It took a few moments, but before she knew it, reality had set back in, and the vision painted in her mind’s eye was little more than an echo. Even as she sat there on the cold, hard ground, Sirian couldn’t rightly put together all the pieces that had made up that terror in her early morning dreams. Yet, she had near enough an idea to conclude whatever had happened in those nightmares pertained to those left-back in the east. Looking to Shi’Karil, who sat up yet still as stone petting the myter, Sirian could tell that she had not been exactly quiet as these torments filled her dreamscapes.

With a solemn, quietness, Shi’Karil remarked, “You’ve cried out in panic on and off since before dawn. I worried those down in the valley may hear us, but they seem very much inattentive to what goes on beyond their domain.”
“Why didn’t you wake me if you were worried?” came Sirian’s response as she collected herself from her fitful resting.
Patting the bird’s feathers smooth again, the lynx’s gaze became distant, now matching her tone, “I don’t know. Maybe the weaker part of me thought it might be better they come for us in the night and slash out your throat while you sleep and my own while pretending to. Perhaps I was afraid you would grow louder in waking. To insist I know, with certainty, why I do the things I do, sometimes I think, is beyond my abilities.”
“Shi’Karil, I know we’re a long ways off, and by no means would a trip back be easy or safe, but you’re not tied to this half so tight as I am. You can go back east any time and help everyone there with your spellcraft. I will do what I can here on my own,” Sirian admitted, not for the first time; however, unlike before, Shi’Karil remained silent rather than vehemently responding she could not turn back now. After the uncomfortable silence between them finally had played itself out, the two began out for the morning, intent on reaching the cathedral by mid-day at the latest and meet what fate lay in store for them before dusk. To wait another night to know if they had come so far and done all they had in vain would not be possible.

They led the myter down the hill, neither riding the bird as they already had some difficulty with slopes unless they had been brought up in hilly regions. Neither of them wanted to admit that even if it was a flat plain they had to cross, they would not ride the myter. Secretly each woman knew that they had to reserve the myter and its fleet footedness for a hasty retreat if one at all could be made. Sirian wanted the option to toss Shi’Karil on the bird’s back, slap its tail feathers, and sending it darting away from the nightmarish palace. Shi’Karil probably was aware that the fox would try something of that sort and perhaps had a mind to do the same to her were she not so much smaller than her. Either case, both knew it would be best if the myter had a full rest to burn through before becoming tired in case they needed a quick flight from the cathedral, whether it went well or not.

Looking to what awaited them at the bottom of the slope, seeing the lurking creatures that wandered so aimlessly, Sirian and Shi’Karil began considering turning away then and there. They wouldn’t, they knew they couldn’t, but in their heart of hearts, they had the urge to. It was not an immediate reaction, but slowly the shadowed figures began to react to the strangers. What response they gave was minimal at first, barely enough for Sirian to detect: however, as they moved into the city from beyond, keeping on the path until they reached the first line of homes, that dull change became for more apparent. Once they were near enough to the figures, it was clear they were beginning to group up into clusters. Now so near to the people, caribou by the looks of it, the duo could determine that they were not going to be neutral towards their passing.

With lively steps, not at a run but a brisk jog, Sirian and Shi’Karil hurried deeper into the village despite the crowds encroaching on them. Were they feeling less pressed, the two may have pulled themselves up on the myter, but there wasn’t time enough for it. Glancing back, Sirian confirmed that even were they inclined, any chance at a retreat was now cut off by a knot of figures. Looking ahead to that looming structure, veined in harsh ridges and topped with points that impaled the sky, Sirian swallowed hard. They were not far off from it now but still had so far to go before touching the first step into the cathedral. That was if they made it there.

The mob of shadowy caribou pressed in tighter, not too far ahead on the path, and to either side, very few gaps remained. Both Shi’Karil and Sirian knew their clear route had been cut off, and they would need to take an alternate course. Neither came to a full stop nor consider mentioning where exactly they would go. Rather, both, with a rein of the myter in paw, tried to dart off in opposite directions. With a sudden snap and crow from the bird, the two were brought out of their tunnel vision focus to realize their partner was not on the same frequency as they were. The reins had snapped free of the myter, likely causing it a bit of shock if not pain, but more importantly, in that brief pause and lack of progress, the hordes had surged forward. As they fought to decide which direction to flee in, their minds were made up for them.

A pitch-black spike of night shot through the air and skewered through the throat of the myter, cutting off another cry with a gruesome gurgle. That action, the realization these creatures meant more than to simply hold back the duo, caused both women to take flight. Neither considered for a second that the other wasn’t going to follow them and before they knew it, both were darting away in opposite directions. Luckily for both of the women, there was sufficient room to slip through the mobs without being caught. Had either gone in the same route as their partner, that space would have been too narrow for them to run abreast. And in that action, the two were separated in a manner far better than their adversaries could have hoped for.

It wasn’t until Sirian had hidden away in one of the half-ruined corridors of stone that cropped up all around the city that she realized she was not being followed. To know there was not a soul pursuing her should have brought the fox peace of mind; instead, that discovery concluded for her that Shi’Karil had not followed her. Either the lynx had panicked and shot off in another direction or… Sirian didn’t want to consider what could have happened to her only friend out there and even consider the possibility it had been swift and relatively painless was damning. Unwilling to admit that her partner had fallen or been taken left Sirian only hoping that Shi’Karil had safely escaped with her life. However, even with the lynx out there, somewhere, Sirian’s present predicament was worse now than it ever had been.

Though she had been able to bar the entrance to the stone structure, there was a certainty in Sirian that those shadowy things had their ways for entering the building. Even if they couldn’t find access to the building or break down the doors, they undoubtedly surrounded her present prison. Within, there seemed to be minimal supplies or means of help. Further down the hall, the light seemed to fail almost entirely as the structure was mostly intact and lacking windows. The prospect of the corridor leading anywhere was lost quickly as Sirian acknowledged that the hall was one isolated row of stone among the desolate grounds in these darkened lands. Still, she had to search and hope to find anything that could be of use. Even a more sly means of departure from the structure could give her the upper hand on the residents temporarily.

Flaring her paw with a globe of light, the effort a slow burn on her Erkinan as there was no means to replenish the power now, Sirian began into the pitch darkness. Her free paw did not stray far from the handle of Sothoh’s ax. Though Sirian wasn’t so well-versed in the act of fighting, especially with such a weapon, she’d rather be able to fall back on it for at least its intimidation factor, if nothing else. However, what fears may have remained in her that this place would be infested with some form of demon or creature was ill-founded. The stone hall was empty of all but spiderwebs and mounds of dust, some things that had wriggled in and decayed ages prior, and the occasional wrecked shell of pottery and wicker. It seemed a useless and perhaps vestigial structure of the city until a gleaming ray of orange caught Sirian’s eye.

Letting her light dissipate, Sirian fell low, almost wriggling like a worm across the dust-caked floor before beginning forward. There was no telling what caused the illumination, yet it appeared to Sirian that where ever the light originated from was not on the same level as herself. Instead, it looked as though a ridge of stone sat between her and the source of the glow. Quietly and patiently crawling her way to a ledge, Sirian could look down on an ancient-looking room. A brazier of ethereal light flowed at its center with the vague shape of man, its shadow cast by another lamp. Whoever waited for her below, Sirian couldn’t guess, but they undoubtedly were looking to cause her harm. The fox cursed herself but couldn’t deny that going against one would be far superior to fighting the horde beyond. With careful, quiet steps, she felt her way around the ledge before finding rough handholds leading down.

Once down the bare earth floor, Sirian could see the strange shape of a person waiting between the two identical braziers burning with their intense golden light. They apparently had not seen her despite facing partially in her direction. Eagerly,

Sirian scampered on quiet feet to be entirely out of the guard’s sight. They seemed hardly concerned. Keeping one paw on the handle of the ax while charging the other paw with Erkinan, Sirian approached the armored man from behind. She expected a fight, one she couldn’t quite handle, yet that wouldn’t stop her from engaging. If she at least struck the first blow, Sirian figured she could survive; however, as she grasped the shoulder plate of the waiting man and pulled, the fox found herself utterly beyond herself.

She had tugged back to throw the knight across her outstretched leg, tripping him; however, it fell in such an inorganic manner. It slapped against the dirt and was almost without any reaction when it slammed into the stone wall behind it. As Sirian set eyes on her foe, ready to come down with the ax for all she was worth, she noted that the enemy was hardly a threat. The thing did not move nor seem alive at all. In fact, it didn’t look like any living creature Sirian could recollect. It was an armored carapace, adorned with runes, filled full with clockwork and cogs, and cut in the visage of a cardinal bird. Sirian was not an expert on avians by any degree, but the tall crest and reddish tint to the armor gave the identity away almost immediately. It was a shocking revelation, to be sure, but Sirian wasn’t quite certain what to do with this find. Yet as she neared and set her paws upon the face and breastplate of the bird soldier, a feeling ran through Sirian’s veins, something that tugged at her well of Erkinan.

Wanting to trust her own intuition, though somewhat skeptical if she was simply just feeling relief run through her, Sirian did not immediately do as his body demanded. Rather, as the request from within her to pump out light energy came, she gave only a small trickle just to test the waters of this experiment. To her chagrin, her senses seemed to know better than she and were far more trusting in the world around her as the result was a twitch of life in the armor. Trying again, this time with a goodly amount of her energy, Sirian watched the armor shift to life slowly, the gears half exposed at the break under the arms began turning once more. Struggling at first until coming fully alight, the eyes started to work, the beak creaked open with a rusty, metallic hiss, and the whole of the body commenced twitching, testing old joints and functions. After a time of trial and loosening of seized internal mechanisms, the cardinal focused on Sirian, studying the fox silently until it had made some internal determination. Finally, a fluting tune of whistles, rising and falling in octaves and length of notes, echoed from the beak. Sirian didn’t quite understand the noise, but she felt it was more welcoming than threatening. Cautiously, Sirian extended a paw to the downed bird, hoping the armor covering it was more than just pretty plumage.

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