Adventures of Longtail - Sleeping Fury - 09

1.

    White-hot pain knifed through the darkness of his slumber, forcing him awake. He tried to sit up, then fell back, gasping at the agony clawing at his side. Blinking through the fog in his eyes, he rolled his head about him and tried to make sense of his surroundings. Debris was everywhere - huge fallen branches, mixed in with bits of shattered clay, glass and broken furniture. The air smelled of charred wood and his ears refused to stop ringing.

    Bit by bit, his memory returned. He had a name…Mauf….yes…, but what was he doing? The Elder’s study, giving a report, and then….The Prophecy! Mauf remembered now. The trembling of the earth, the harbinger of omens! And the burst of light that followed…He rolled over to his side to push himself up, and screamed as the movement caused the smashed bones in his arms and ribs to cut into tender flesh.

    “Friend Mauf!”  The call was faint through the buzzing in his ears. It was Sszesskri. 

    “Help me!” His cry was weak, not much more than a croak. It was hard to draw breath. Every pull of his lungs set his ribs on fire. He tried again, “Help!”

    A shadow loomed over him, and the familiar, sibilant voice of the Stone Singer brought such relief he almost sobbed. “Friend Mauf, you are hurt! We must get you to sssafety. Can you walk?” Ssezsskri’s antenna twitched in worry as he reached out to examine Mauf.

    Mauf shook his head. “Can’t…get up…arm…and ribs…I think they are broken,” Mauf gasped. “They hurt when I move.”

    Sszesskri ran his fingers over Mauf, putting gentle pressure on his arm and ribs as he felt for crepitus. Mauf hissed with pain and withdrew. “Yes, you do have fractures, I see. Here, let me help you up, friend Mauf.” The Stone Singer slid his arms under the young priest and helped him to his feet, careful not to touch Mauf’s injured side. 

    With the Stone Singer’s help, Mauf tottered forward, wincing with each step. As they staggered out of the blasted remnants of what was once their barracks in First Canopy City, Mauf saw what lay before him, and swallowed. “The Old Gods help me….”

    Sszesskri’s neck gills pulsed yellow, blinking in and out with a tremulous rhythm. “Aye, friend Mauf. May The Onesss who Left grant us mercy.” The Stone Singer’s antenna drooped.

    Whatever force had thrown Mauf through walls and left him with a broken arm and ribs had blown an entire Bough away, leaving an empty space that looked as if a titanic spoon had scooped out a portion of the Pillar Tree’s canopy. Whole branches - mighty arteries where hundreds used to live, were shorn off. Ripped from the Pillar Tree and flung into the air with the merciless indifference of natural forces where they plunged into the depths below, bringing doom to anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in the Bough and not yet crushed into a pulp by the concussive force that had struck them. 

    The branch they stood on - where the Elder had her quarters and where they had met before it was destroyed, was spared, although not from complete destruction. Many of the pods that once hung on the branch were gone, either smashed into smithereens where their remnants littered the grounds about them, or hurled into the abyss also by the same explosion. The thick swell of vibrant leaves that had adorned the branch was swept away, leaving it a bald, forlorn shadow of its former self, the barren sprigs that grew the leaves sticking out like thorns on a dead bush. Sombre silence hung heavy as a curtain over the scene. The magnitude of the disaster had stunned those who remained, even as they struggled to understand what had happened.

    A space had been cleared for the injured, and it was to this spot that Sszesskri guided Mauf in his halting gait. As Mauf approached, he saw Captain Tasch directing the flow of traffic as the wounded streamed in. The captain looked up and spied the Stone Singer with the priest, and pointed to an empty space. Sszesskri brought the young priest across, and help Mauf as he sat down, careful not to rock his sides. The Sand Strider’s cutter, an aged male with streaks of grey in his fur with a harried look, hopped between patients, examining them. Most were crew from the Sand Strider who had been in the barracks during the blast. The rest were locals and even a few Tree Dwellers whom laid unmoving, staring into the distance at nothing as if in a catatonic trance. Mauf shivered. Something about the lifeless, wide-eyed look on the Tree Dwellers made his flesh crawl and fur stiff.                

    The cutter came over to Mauf and gripped his head in his calloused palms, tearing Mauf’s attention away from the Tree Dwellers as the cutter peered into Mauf’s eyes, examining his pupils. “What ails ye then? Any bleeding’? Feelin’ like going to sleep maybe?” the aging male snapped, his voice raw with fatigue. 

    Mauf shifted about, mindful of the pain. “Broke..I think I broke my arm, and ribs,” he said from clenched teeth. The cutter shot his hand out and prodded Mauf’s side. The priest arced his back and hissed, drawing away, but the cutter held him down with a strong grip and pressed his fingers along the priest’s arm. Mauf’s eyes bulged, and rolled to the back of his head as he passed out from the agony.

    The cutter slapped him back into wakefulness. “Here now, don’t be a spineless rat and go fainting on me! Ye’ll be fine. Clean break. Ye should count yourself lucky. We’ll set yer arm and yer ribs be fine in a week or two. Maybe.” To Sszesskri, he said in a manner brusque and pitiless, “Hold ‘im.” Mauf’s jaw dropped in protest as Sszesskri clamped his hands onto Mauf’s shoulders. The cutter reached into a bag and pulled out two pieces of wood. His movements swift and sure, the male pulled Mauf’s arm to straighten it, then clasped the wood braces to the arm and secured the braces to the arm. Mauf yowled.

    In a flash, Captain Tasch was beside them. He eyed the dazed and stupefied priest, then said to the cutter, “We need him alive, cutter. Pilot be wanting to speak to him still.”

    The gray-furred male grunted. “He’ll live, Cap’ain. Weren’t nothing serious, borked arm and ribs is all. Be fine to talk.” The cutter gathered his things. “Beggin’ yer pardon then ser, still got lots here to take care of.” Tasch nodded, but the cutter was already gone.   

    “’Tis well that you lived, priest. Many were the ones who did not,” said the captain.

     “What happened?” Mauf asked through his pain.

    Captain Tasch raised an eyebrow at him. “Your Prophecy, isn’t it? It has begun, it seems. I thought we still had weeks before it happens.” 

    Mauf gave a slow nod. “I meant what caused this. I remember something bright.” He lifted his good hand and gestured around him. Mauf remembered a dazzling light that had blazed through the windows of Elder Nimi’s study before he was flung through the wall.    

    Tasch shook his head. “We’re still making sense of it all, piecing together the picture from those that saw it. There was that shaking, you might remember.” Mauf nodded. Tasch continued,”After that, a bright flash of light, as you said. Came down from the heavens, some folks were claiming. Then...we don’t know. Some kind of explosion. Took many of the branches clean off the Pillar Tree, as you can see. A lot of lives were lost. Thrown from the branches or went down with them.”

    “The Ambassador hasss agreed to help with the evacuation at least,” Sszesskri added. “This had frightened Ambassador Orn enough to plead with the Elder to start moving those who live here.”

    Tasch snorted. “Aye, Finally. When the fire is nipping at his fat tail.” The captain turned to leave. “I have other matters I need to attend to priest, but the Pilot will want to see ye, about the matter earlier. Before we were interrupted.” He hesitated, then said to Mauf. “Ye did well lad, all things considered. Just tell the Pilot what she wants to know.” Tasch walked away, leaving Mauf to slum onto the ground to rest.

    Darkness had fallen by the time Elder Nimi came by. She woke him with a boot in his butt. He opened his groggy eyes and gazed into the stern, unreadable visage of the Elder. The light from the lantern she carried bounced off her fiery hair in angles that gave her the feel of a goddess sitting in judgement.

    “Follow me.” Her order was curt and clipped. She strode away without a backwards glance, towards the edge of one of the broken off branches where they could be alone. He heaved himself up, his good hand searching for the sling that the cutter had given him when he came a second time. Mauf hurried after the Elder, pace slowed by the pain in his ribs. She waited for him, and when he caught up, she went straight to the point.

    Resume your report. You mentioned a traveller. He is here, in the Jungle, you said. I want to know where, and why he’s here.”

    “He might,” Mauf corrected her with a nervous stutter. “I don’t know for sure, since I don’t know when the last entry is, or where to find it. I need the cipher. Or more time.” He forced his eyes to stop sliding to the edge of the branch. Dark purple clouds churned in the depths beneath and he shuddered, his mind conjuring unpleasant images of being swallowed up by the clouds while falling from the edge. “As for why,” he swallowed, throat dry all of a sudden, “I think…again I am not certain…they..that is, Siv and the Traveller, might be Skybridge mapping.”

    “Explain.”

    “Exactly what it means,” Mauf picked his words with care. The Elder seemed fixated on this, and he did not want to touch her off, again. “I think Siv, the Traveller, and their master were looking for new Skybridges. They had already discovered many, from what I could tell. More than a few from the Jungle, I’d wager.” 

    Elder Nimi considered him for a long time, not saying a word. Long enough for his nervousness to start climbing into anxiety. At last, she broke the silence. “Tasch will give you the ciphers in the morning. I expect two things from you. One, find that last entry of the traveller. Tell me where he is. Two,” she stepped closer. Close enough to touch her snout to his. “You will speak to no one except me of what you learnt. No one, not even Lemnu. Not who the traveller is, not where he went, or any of the other names you might find in the list. If you do, I will gut you.” The cold, flinty glint in her eyes forestalled any protest he was about to make. 

    Satisfied that her point was made, she walked away, leaving Mauf weak-kneed and shaking in the suffocating heat.    

2.

    The creature stirred. Bits of loose earth and gravel still fell upon its head. It hissed at the weight on its back. The rocks and earth that had came tumbling down on him when its burrow had collasped, waking it from its slumber. It had no name for the black, throbbing feeling that now pulsed through its veins. All it knew was that it wanted to sink the serrated blade that sat atop its claws into something. Something soft…it wanted to find something soft to stab, stab, stab! It was as if a prey escaped when it hunted. Prey never escaped. Never. When prey did, it wanted to crush, to tear, to bite…to stab. The creature gathered its strength, and heaved, flinging the fallen burden that had once been its lair away. It raised a leg and stomped on on the ground, venting its anger. It hissed. Not enough…not enough. The creature swung its arm, the serrated blade striking rocks. Sparks flew, and for a brief instance, illuminated the its inky black carapace before the shell absorbed the light, melding the creature back into darkness once more.

    It had been about to sleep. It had prepared for a long time. A long time, for a long sleep. The rumbling was coming, and the hot, warm bath. It wanted the hot, warm bath. The heat would have been soothing, and it would have dreamt. Dreamt of the killing it would do when it awoke again. The eating. Killing….slicing, crushing, biting…stabbing! Hot ichor that would flow down its gullet like nectar. Prey that squirmed as it sliced off limbs one by one. It would have dreamt sweet sweet dreams. The rumbling had came. Too soon, but it was comforted by the rumbling. It settled in.

    Then the white came. The white had flooded its senses, knocking it from its light doze. Searing and screeching white, it blinded and deafened. It was like abrasive sand rubbed all over its sensory organs. After the white came a wave, a wave that tore down its burrow, burying it. 

    The black, throbbing pulse grew stronger. It smashed the things in its path and dug its way out of its collapsed lair. Now the creature had to find a new den. Somewhere it could sleep through the rumbling, awaiting the hot, warm bath that would come after. It sent out its senses, and searched. It felt rocks, which was dead, black and empty. Wood, not so black. Small, scurrying things. Bigger scurrying things - prey, but it was not hungry, not yet…and….something different. Different, but familiar. It had no color, but it was bright and the brightness was cold....and white.  

    The creature chittered and clacked its mandibles together. The black, throbbing pulse turned into a bubbling red. Its forelegs did a little scrabbling dance. 

    It was sleepy. Now it was awake. Awakened by the white. It was going to find a new lair, but the white, it was out there, scurrying around. It had something to do now. Payback. Revenge for the waking it and destroying its comfortable bed. The creature crouched, and with a mighty leap, sprang away, flitting through vegetation like the whisper of a ghost.   

3.

      An oversized insect buzzed overhead in the crushing heat. It hovered and darted, looking for sustenance amongst the dense growth of strange fungus and eerie pod like plants. Long strands of sticky, ropey substance hung between the alien plants like vines. The insect avoided the strands, flying through the strange forest with contemptuous ease. In the distance, it spied a soft, luminescent chrysalis, swaying in the still, fetid air from the thorns of a tall, needle-like tree, helpless and vulnerable. Food. Its patient search had paid off. Prey in sight, the insect flew straight for it, and slammed into a web which color was so close to the twilight gloom of the forest that it was invisible. Too late, it realized it was a trap. It struggled and fought with mighty desperation to escape its snare. The glowing chrysalis unfolded itself, like a rubbery, fleshy flower to reveal a nightmarish maw. It spat at the trapped insect. In seconds, the insect, which had been free and vital, a master of its surroundings just a moment ago, stopped moving, save for a feeble twitching in its limbs. The chrysalis snapped its petal arms around the insect, and folded the hunter-turned-prey into itself. 

     Below the scene where the hunt took place, the Longtail kept himself hidden amidst the foliage of a bush-like plant. The smell of decay was strong here, cloying and sickening. The ground was soft with filthy moisture. Sections of the earth were so wet that they were pools of thick bubbling mud belching noxious fumes that stank like rotten eggs. 

    When the struggle of life and death was over, and stillness returned once more, the Longtail lowered the hand he had been holding up and nodded for his companions to follow him. They kept themselves low as they waded through the mud. The well-camouflaged web spun by the glowing chrysalis, and chrysalises, was everywhere; they had found that out the hard way when Gor’s heat spear had gotten caught in one, and they spent a very tense hour trying to free it without pulling the attention of the web spinner to themselves.

    The Longtail ran his fingers through the fur on his face, trying to scrape off the mud that clung to his fur. All he managed to achieve was to transfer the mud on his hands to his face instead. At least his cloak kept most of the sludge away from his body. Gor and Dasher fared much worse. The ooze and the humidity matted their fur into clumps, the clumps from their body and made them looked diseased, like the datang addicts back in the hovel Dasher had called home. No one talked. The blunt, sodden heat had overcame even the indomitable Gor. It beat down on them, squeezing their lungs and forced them to draw hard, laboring breaths. Thirst was a constant companion, and the never-ending darkness made the oppression complete. Everything was a predator here, including the plants. Such was the welcome mat that the Steaming Jungle, a well deserved name, had rolled out to them.

    Their arrival in the Jungle was spectacular. One could even say it was cataclysmic. The death throes of the colossal datang blossom they had found in the ruined city of the blue-green world had knocked the Grand Bridge off course. The Longtail had not thought it was possible to push a Skybridge out of alignment with the Aetheric Tether. When the Tether, which would pass through solid matter as if it was not there had everything gone well, blasted a hole past not just the datang blossom, but also the buildings and walls of the ruined city, he was sure they were done for. The Longtail could not remember much of the journey, but the Aetheric Tether must have compensated somehow, since they still lived. All he remembered of the trip was a blinding light, a humming that was just outside the range of his hearing but loud enough to have had him clutching his head in pain, and the most disorienting sensation of being stretched thin and snapping back. The stretch and snap had continued in intensity until he felt as if he would be shredded into a million fragments. There was a final paroxysm, where the glaring white seared his brain, obliterating thought, and the vibrating hum grew strong enough that he thought his bones would shatter. Blessed darkness descended soon after, when his mind could no longer take it.

    After he and the others had regained their sense and stumbled out of the Grand Bridge chamber, they had found themselves in the center of a crater several miles wide. Everything past the crater had been flattened. When the chamber had landed, it must have had touch off an explosion that created destruction around them. 

    They had no right to be alive and for that the Longtail was thankful, if not to the Old Gods themselves, then at least to the sturdiness of their creations. Despite the violence of their entry, and the fact that they had been knocked off course, the Grand Bridge had still brought them within sight to where they needed to be. The explosion had cleared enough of the heavy vegetation that they could see past their top, and in the distance was the unmistakable ethereal radiance of a Skybridge platform. A veritable beacon in this oppressive twilight - the thick foliage and impenetrable cloud covers high, high above them shrouded the land in perpetual shadows. Things could have been so much worse.  

    With their objective close at hand - close being relative, as it could still mean several weeks of hiking for them - they had set off in the direction of the Skybridge, where he hoped they would find his father. Or clues that would lead them to where Varn went next. The Longtail had shouldered Dasher and set off at a determined pace with Gor following behind. Nothing had bothered them, at least while they trudged through the crater and its immediate, flattened perimeter. 

    Once they stepped foot into the vegetation however, the Steaming Jungle showed its true colors. The flying insect that met its doom earlier was not the first of its kind they had encountered. They were moving through a patch of plants that stood about the height of a longtail, with broad, flat leaves ringed with spikes, when one of those insects had swooped down out of nowhere and snatched Dasher away. Only a well-placed shot from Gor had prevented Dasher’s death. Gor’s heat spear flashed, striking the creature right in the eyes. The insect lost its grip on Dasher and dropped him. It continued flying for a little longer before it tumbled out of the sky and fell onto one of the leaves. The leaves snapped shut like the jaws of a hungry animal, and the sour, acrid tang of acid filled the air as it digested its catch. Eager to be gone, they had hurried from the hungry plants, careful to not even so much as brush against them. 

    Not too long after Dasher’s close encounter with death, they had found a creature with too many legs. It was long and segmented, equipped with a nightmarish proboscis at its head. They held their breath and hid as it snaked through the jungle floor, hoping that it would not detect them.

    No such luck. It felt the three of them somehow, and turned towards them. It was hard to imagine how something with that many legs could move so fast, but it did so with uncanny speed. It closed the space between them in a blink of an eye. Just as they were about to make peace with death, the creature started thrashing. The patch of innocent seeming ground it crossed had, in fact, been infested with root-like appendages that had snapped upwards when it felt the weight of the creature, and wrapped themselves viselike around the insect. They watched in fascinated dread as the roots crushed the the life out of the creature.

     Strangle Roots, Gor had called them. It was an apt description, although it was hard to make out if the Strangle Roots were actual root or animal in the dark. They had given that patch of ground a wide berth, and kept careful watch for other patches of Strangle Roots after. Not an easy task with what little light there was. 

    A small thicket of broad-leafed trees laid ahead of them. The leaves were an odd, purple color, but they provided good cover. They had been going for hours, and they needed to stop. Nothing was as it seemed in the Jungle however, and so they approached with wariness, ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. At the edge of the thicket, the Longtail took several cautious sniffs. He picked up a fallen branch and tossed it into the thicket. Moments passed. Nothing happened. He tossed a second one in. Again, nothing. He nodded to Gor and Dasher, and they crawled inside in relief.

    It was damp inside the copse, but then, so was everywhere else in this muggy atmosphere. The Longtail put his back against a trunk and allowed himself a moment of respite. Soon enough, he would have check for the Grand Bridge’s direction. He thought he could scale one of the trees to get to a vantage point. The foliage overhead was so thick that the shine of the Skybridge’s Tether was cut off from view. If they lost their bearings, they would become lost in short order, wandering and stumbling about until some hungry thing ended their lives. The Longtail closed his eyes. Later. Soon. For now, it felt good to let his limbs rest. Closing his eyes felt good too.

    “We have to go faster.” The Longtail cracked his eyelids open and blinked at Gor. “This is taking too long. We need to move faster.” What was this fool talking about, the Longtail wondered. If they rushed their way through the Jungle….he waved his hand about him in a gesture that encompassed their surroundings, then made a swooping gesture. Dasher flinched, remembering the insect that had almost carried him off. 

    Gor jerked a thumb at Dasher. “Leave the cripple behind. He’s slowing us down, and he contributes nothing.” Dasher shot a pleading look at the Longtail. The Longtail gave a firm shake of his head at Gor. A ray of desperate hope shone in Dasher’s eyes, which made the Longtail uncomfortable. He wasn’t trying to be Dasher’s savior or anything. He just didn’t like Gor’s callous ways. “Have you forgotten our purpose, slum rat? No, your purpose. Every day that we delay, the trail to your father grows colder.” 

    The Longtail gave a rude shrug of his shoulders. He didn’t need reminding, but none of that would have mattered if they died rushing headlong through a hostile environment. He got up and checked the sturdiness of the trunk he leaned on. The Longtail didn’t want to keep arguing with the thug; he didn’t have the energy. Sinking his claws into the tree, he began climbing.

    “Where are you going?” The Longtail ignored Gor. “This conversation is not over yet, vagrant.” Gor’s words followed him, but he kept going. 

    At the top, he settled himself into a secure position and craned his head around. It didn’t take him long to spot the Aetheric Tether. They seemed to be getting closer. That was the good news. The Grand Bridge was nestled deep inside a thick ring of dense growth. It would be a long and exhausting push through the Jungle to reach the Grand Bridge. The Longtail scanned the area, picking out the thinnest parts of the Jungle to plot a route, committing to memory what landmarks he could find. 

    A tickling sensation ran up and down his spine and he froze. He was being watched. He could feel it. Keeping his movements slow and measured, the Longtail took a more thorough look around him, squinting hard to find what had pricked his senses. He could see nothing, just the endless stretch of eerie fungal and pod-like plants that seemed to thrive so well in the Jungle. He focused on another side of the Jungle - wait. Something. At the corner of his eyes. It was hard to see. A shape, set against the dark canvas of the jungle. He could not make out what it was. It was too far away. A darkness that seemed to drink what little light there was around it, sinking even deeper into the gloom. It didn’t move, and was still as a statue. Was it his imagination? Had fatigue led his thoughts astray? He could not shake the feeling of eyes on him though. He blinked to clear the strain from his eyes for another look.

    The shape was gone. The Longtail looked around for it, but could find nothing. The fur on his back stood on their ends and his palms went cold. The Longtail shimmied down the trunk of the tree to rouse the others. They could stay. They were being hunted, and he could not shake the feeling of eyes still on his back.

4.

    The air was thick with the smell of dragonfly spoor in the pen housing the tamed dragonflies that the Tree Dwellers used as transport. The pen was a row of long branches jutting out of a big one. Dragonflies ‘docked’ at the rows of branches, swiping their forelegs across their antenna and enormous, mirror-like compound eyes, cleaning off whatever dirt and parasites that might have attached themselves to those sensitive organs. On occasion they would buzz their tremendous wings, throwing up a rush of wind ,and lifted off flying around in circles before landing back at their favorite branch.

    The iridescent scales of the dragonflies captured the sunlight streaming through the leafy canopies, angling and scattering it in a prismatic spray of rainbow light. Mauf found his breath caught. The radiant orchestra mesmerized him and he forgot for a moment why he was here, even the ragged pain in his bad arm held up in a sling. Indeed, he could also pretend not to feel the flat, hostile stare of the Howlstone soldiers guarding the perimeter. 

    “Over here, priest,” came the voice of Captain Tasch, of the Sand Strider. The captain’s timing was impeccable. A minute longer and Mauf feared the sentries from Howlstone would chase him off. Mauf, with his arm in a sling, stepped past the guards, whose unwavering gaze unnerved him. “Did you bring what the Pilot wanted?” Tasch asked as Mauf got closer. The captain sounded grim, and the look he gave the Iron King’s soldiers was far from cordial too. He was not happy at their presence, that was clear. 

    Mauf nodded, feeling the captain’s tension, albeit for different reasons. His good hand fell on the map he had drafted for the Elder. Captain Tasch had came by the morning after the Elder had spoken to him, handing Siv’s secret notes bound in a tight package over to him, tight-lipped and grim. He had said nothing, except to repeat the admonishment the Elder had given him. “Not a word to anyone about this, priest. Not a word,” he had said.  Mauf had received the papers and did the best he could, with only one hand and the cutter’s draught clouding his mind.

    When he studied the contents of the notes, he had understood Elder Nimi’s insistence on keeping things quiet. Names leapt out at him. Foremost of which was Imru. Elder Imru. Matching the coded names to the journals had revealed beyond any doubt that the Elder was the source and end point of the irons flowing through Siv. Other names had included known crime lords in both Red City and Howlstone along with nobles and high ranking priests in the Temple, all trafficking in treated wood infused with scent and other properties, as well as illicit herbs and poisons engineered by the Tree Dwellers. Mauf had guessed at some of the names, but he could not have guessed at the extent to Elder Imru’s web of intrigue.

    Everything he had uncovered here would have been enough to charge Elder Imru with the high crimes of misusing Temple authority, trade in contraband items, evasion of duties, blackmail and consorting with criminals. With an account of activities that stretched back almost a decade, around the time Siv was posted in the Steaming Jungle, there was enough evidence to ensure Elder Imru would lose her status as Elder. Mauf had wondered often what made Siv throw in his lot with Elder Imru. Perhaps she had played with Siv’s longing for home, and dangled promises of return for the missing priest; Siv’s yearnings were quite evident from the things he had in his home, and Imru was known as a master manipulator - the Spider, she was called. Everyone Mauf knew feared her, including his foster father. 

    Mauf had always wondered what kept Elder Imru in power. His foster father, Lemnu, oversaw the Temple Archives. Elder Dhasi had enormous wealth. Elder Nimi was the naval might of the Temple, and the House led by Elder Osli was its army. Imru’s rise to power was an anomaly. She came from a noble family, but was not from the original founding group of Red City. Her meteoric ascendance had enabled her to carve a seat at the High Council. She was the youngest Elder to achieve that rank, and to do so from outside the founding group was a remarkable feat, the only one to have done so in the Temple’s history. Mauf had gulped at the amount of coins involved in her operation after a quick calculation. Elder Imru had more wealth than even the Temple Treasury, and had managed to keep all that a secret this whole time. 

    The Elder’s greatest crime however, were her attempts at mapping Skybridges and that alone would be enough to have her exiled for treason. The Temple had been deadlocked for many years over further exploration and the finding of new Skybridges. The Temple knew, of course, that there were more out there. The archives of the Old Gods hinted as much. There was a strong faction pushing for it, with Elder Dhasi’s house leading the charge. The power and wealth they could accrue by finding just one viable trade route, say, to the Eternal Caverns where Sszesskri’s people were, would be unimaginable. The opposition was fierce in its resistance, with the Fleet planting its support square in this camp. A connection to Howlstone would have ended in one stroke any need for the long, arduous journey required to transport anything to the Steaming Jungle. There would no longer be any demands to traverse the Dune Sea with sand ships that costs a fortune to build and maintain, which the Fleet charged a steep premium as a service. The Fleet would be rendered obsolete, its power and influence undermined. 

    And if a Skybridge was found that linked straight to the Steaming Jungle in close proximity to Red City….the entire power dynamics in the Red Desert itself would be rearranged. That was why the finding of new Skybridges was a contentious issue. Elder Imru had ignored all of the regulations laid down, bypassed all interested parties, undertaken the task on her own, and had kept all the knowledge and power to herself.

    No wonder Elder Nimi was up in arms and raging to find the Traveller. Not content to leave him to work on his oen, she had dropped by almost every day at the crammed, temporary study he had been planted in to check on his progress. The Traveller, Varn - It was easy enough to figure out his name with the cipher - was instrumental in Imru’s efforts and would be key in providing the evidence to unseating the Elder. After he had figured out the last known location of the Traveller, the fiery Elder had suggested - demanded, in actual fact, and with a great deal of vigor - that Mauf put to paper a draft that pointed to Varn. 

    Change was coming to the Temple, and chaos. The hearing for Elder Imru would expose everything she knew about the Skybridges, and Mauf could only see upheavals as a result. He did not like changes, or the idea of his beloved Temple in disarray.

    “Well?” Tasch interrupted Mauf’s reflections. “Stop yer daydreamin’ priest. What did you find out?” Snapping back to the present, Mauf drew out in an awkward, one handed move the crude map he had drawn for the Elder from his robes and gave it to Tasch. Captain Tasch took the parchment. “What’s this?” he asked as he inspected it.

    “A map,” Mauf began, feeling self-conscious about his cartography. It was very hard to draw well with one functional hand though. “Of where I think Va…uhh…the Traveller might be.” He remembered at the last instant to be circumspect. The Iron King’s underlings were all about them. It would be very bad for the ruthless despot of Howlstone to know about division in the Temple. “Or had gone to at least,” he finished. Tasch raised an eyebrow at him and inspected the map. He didn’t speak. Feeling the need to fill in the void, Mauf started talking again.

    “I think it’s beyond doubt that Eld...uh..the criminal was uhh..mapping Skybridges,” Mauf dropped his voice to a whisper. “It’s a serious offense against Temple interests. The other activities in Siv’s journals should be enough to convict her, but finding the Traveller, that would make an ironclad case.” Still nothing from the captain. Mauf was starting to get uncomfortable with the silence. He wondered what was wrong.

    At length, the captain pointed at the map, murmuring as well. “You say this is a map? Of where? I have never seen such a place like this before?”

    Mauf shuffled his feet. “It’s the Undergrowth.”

    “Undergrowth?”

    “It’s the expanse below the Pillar Trees. At the very bottom of the Steaming Jungle.”

    Tasch rounded on Mauf. “Below the Pillar Trees, you say?” He was incredulous. “Have you been there before?” Mauf shook his head. “Then how can this map be accurate?”

    “No, but there were some very detailed descriptions in Siv’s notes.” Mauf was feeling defensive. What did the Captain expect? No longtail had ever been to the Undergrowth. Well, except for the Traveller, of course. Still, it was little more than legends. “Of the places they were exploring at least. With the cipher, it was easy to look up, and I drew the map based on those entries. That is the last place the Traveller went to.”

    He eyed the priest in front of him. “I s’pose ye told the Pilot that her quarry is in this…Undergrowth place?” 

    Mauf nodded. “The Elder told me to draft the map.”

    The captain swore under his breath. “She musta be thinking of goin’ herself!” he muttered to himself.  “Let’s not keep the Pilot waiting then,” he sighed as he motioned for Mauf to follow him.

    Captain Tasch took them further into the dragonfly pen, weaving past globs of rank-smelling feces scattered everywhere. A few of the local longtails, made sullen with resentment and fear, were scrubbing and cleaning the pen, while more of Howlstone’s guards, cold and uncaring, stood watch. The pen was in shambles, and there was not a Tree Dweller in sight.

   “They’re not here either,” the priest remarked. “The Tree Dwellers.”

    The captain gave a terse nod. “Aye. ’Tis the same devilry that’s taken the Tree folks. They sleep the sleep of death.”

    Mauf shivered. Something odd had happened to all of the Tree Dwellers in the aftermath of the explosion and quake that rocked First Canopy City several days back. To a being, they seemed to have lain themselves onto the ground, taken off their ornamental crowns, and went into a deep coma that none could rouse them from. Mauf thought they were dead; their complexion was waxen, their skin cold to the touch and the breathing so shallow that he could not at all see the rise and fall of their chests. There was not a single conscious Tree Dweller that anyone could find. The unanimity of the Tree Dwellers’ affliction stiffened the hair on Mauf’s back. The longtails, locals and visitors alike, had carted any Tree Dwellers they could find and laid them out in the largest, still standing structure in the Canopy City. The sight of rows upon rows of unconscious Tree Dwellers, all of them like as peas in a pod without their crowns to tell them apart now, was unnerving. 

    Whatever had happened to the Tree Dwellers very much complicated their plans. It added fuel to the confusion that already struck the Canopy. Almost all matters handled by the Tree Dwellers, such as the production of food and the husbandry of the dragonflies, had came to a halt. Care of the dragonflies were of the utmost concern one everyone’s mind at the moment. They were their only way to get to Second Canopy City and the Grand Bridge that could bring them back to the Red Desert. Without the beasts they would be trapped here as the Prophecy unfolded itself. That would be very bad.

    Hence the reason why the Iron King’s soldiers were here. “Securing an important line of retreat,” were the exact words of Captain Vith. Elder Nimi had made no objections, although Mauf could not see why she didn’t put the crew of the Sand Strider in charge instead. He didn’t like any of the Elder’s crew, but it was better than the stony gazes and the readiness of Vith’s guards to reach for their weapons. 

    They found Elder Nimi standing in front of a dragonfly, securing a saddle. Her clothes were crumpled, as if she had slept in it, and there were dark circles under her eyes. She looked alert however, her movements crisp and sharp. 

    The beast she was saddling was slim and knife like. The torso was an arrowhead tapering towards the tail end. Four transparent wings stretched several meters out from its back, fluttering to help the beast keep its balance. The carapace was a bold ruby red, dotted with tiny, glinting scales that flashed a fierce orange, depending on how the light struck. The streaks resembled the burning tongues of a flame, and matched very well with the wildfire mane of the Elder.

    Beside her stood Sszesskri, who raised a hand in greetings when he saw the two of them approaching, and two others. Mauf remembered one of them - the nameless sergeant that had came to his aid at the Granite Palace’s training yard, and also the one that foisted Bek on him. The other was unknown to him. He was saddling the creatures, along with the sergeant. 

    Captain Tasch put a hand on Mauf. “Stay,” he said. He walked up to Nimi and handed her the map. “The chart you asked the priest to draw.”  She gave the leather straps a last, hard tug, and took the map from him. 

    “If you have something to say Tasch, say it.” Nimi didn’t bother looking at him as she unfurled the parchment and studied it. He had been her right hand for decades, and she knew his moods as well as he knew hers.

    Tasch hesitated, then leaned in so no one else could overhear. “Yer meaning to go. To this Undergrowth place the priest be yammering about.“ Nimi did not answer. Tasch read that as an assent. “The Old Gods take me, ye do mean to. Pilot, this be most unwise! I’ve ne’er heard of this place. I doubt there be any who had stepped foot in it, if the blasted thing even existed. Leastwise not anyone we could trust!”

    “My mind is made up captain,” her reply was curt. “Your concern has been duly noted.”

    “Ser, it’s too risky. ’Tis lands unknown, and the map in yer hands…the priest cobbled that from ‘descriptions’, he said. From traitors! He’s ne’er seen the place. No one has! What if we lost ye?”

    “That’s why I’m bringing the Stone Singer with me. He has proven to be a good tracker. More than good.”

    “Aye, I remember. He but pulled us by the scruff of our necks out of disaster after the Rock Toad chewed up the Sand Strider. But we need ye here, Pilot! ’Tis chaos all around, what with the Prophecy and the Tree folks gone to sleep. There be potent fear and worry in the air, Pilot. The whole city’s a tinderbox, like as not to go off anytime. The Iron King’s rats, they smelt this, and they’re closing in. Making their moves. We need ye here, Pilot. This be not the time to go gallivanting about for yer agenda!” The captain’s voice was harsh with the heat of his passion.

    Nimi’s ears stiffened in fury. “You forget your place, captain!” she snarled, baring her teeth. “I have decided, and you will watch your words, captain, or I will have you chained and thrown into the brig!”   

   Captain Tasch locked gazes with the Elder for a brief moment, then he lowered his eyes and backed down. “’Tis as you command, Pilot.”

   Nimi let out a sigh. Her eyes softened, and when she spoke, it was raw with injury. “I have to go, Tasch. I must.” There was a tremor in her voice. “I can’t….,” she trailed off.

    "I have to go,” she repeated.

    The captain closed his eyes. He understood. The loss of the Apprentice Pilot weighed heavy upon the Pilot. She carried, too, all the crew of the Sand Strider on her shoulders, those lost, and those that yet remained. She had neither the time nor space to grief and she had ever been the type that needed to be out doing things. All the waiting, here and in Howlstone, had eroded her control, and had not Tasch seen that slow erosion for himself?

    So he snapped a salute, even as he contemplated once more thoughts of mutiny. “Aye. ’Twill be as you will, Pilot.” Perhaps it was for the best. The Pilot had not had a touch of drink since catastrophy struck First City. There was too much she had to do for that. Perhaps this mad journey would expunge the darkness that ate at her from the inside, and she could return to the officer she once was.   

    The tension that Nimi did not know she carried drained away, and she let out a shaky breath. It was a surprise even to her how much Tasch’s support meant to her. She had been feeling trapped with the lack of progress, and her inability to make anything useful happen. She felt out of control, that a carpet had been yanked out under her feet, and it was a tremendous relief to know she could still rely on her second in command. She made an abrupt turn to her dragonfly mount and placed a hand on the beast’s muscular body, hiding the feelings that was beginning to show itself on her features. She watched the distorted reflection of herself on the beast’s mirrored scales, and felt the mighty beat of the dragonfly’s heart thrumming beneath her palm.

    “I want you to take charge of the evacuation while I’m gone, captain,” Nimi said when her voice had steadied. “Start sending as many as you can with the dragonflies to Second Canopy City. Talk to Orn. He will help you build palanquins, to transport as many as we can. And send word to Second City. Tell them to start sending who they can back through the Grand Bridge, before we get there. We don’t have any more time to waste.” 

    Tasch nodded, then stepped closer, making sure no one else could hear what he was about to say. “What about the Tree Dwellers Pilot? They are dead, or might as well be. They breathe, but none wake. What do we do with ‘em? Have we failed our mission?”

    Nimi was silent. She too was troubled by the strange sleep the Tree Dwellers were under. As much as she did not want to admit it, the old rat Lemnu and his protege were right. Doubts still lingered in her mind as to whether the Prophecy would be anything as apocalyptic as they claimed, but even if nothing like what they said struck the Steaming Jungle, Red City still faced a dire situation now that all Tree Dwellers had became unconscious. No longtail knew how the Tree Dwellers created the seeds and grains Red City relied upon to feed its population and its livestock. Red City would starve within the year without them.

   “Bring as many as you can to Second Canopy City. We’ll carry them with us back to Red City.”

    Tasch looked doubtful. “Back home? Could the Tree Folks even survive in Red Desert climes?” Nimi did not dignify Tasch with an answer, only shot him a look of pure irritation. Tasch stroked the underside of his snout. “Aye, aye. They be good as dead anyhow. No difference if they are here or there. Very well Pilot, we will bring as many as we can.” Tasch stepped away.   

    With the issue of the Tree Dwellers taken care of, the Elder turned to Mauf and addressed him, “Mauf. Explain to me your map. What are we looking for?”

    Mauf stepped forward and pointed at the center of the map, fingers shaking a little from nerves. “This is where we are. From what I could unearth from Siv’s accounts, he and the uhh, Traveller had discovered the site of a potential…,” Mauf glanced at the Iron King’s guards surrounding them, and lowered his voice, “a potential Grand Bridge.” 

    Nimi gave an impatient nod, urging him to get on with it. “Yes. Fine. Go on.”

    “The area is about thirteen or fourteen leagues northeast as the arrow flies, from the Pillar Tree. This Pillar Tree.” Mauf traced his fingers to where he had marked out the location. “From the descriptions, it could be underground, or inside a temple of the Old Gods. I’ve marked out as many landmarks as I can.” He hesitated, then continued, “The distance is as accurate to scale as I could make it, but that was all I had. It was the last entry Siv made before he disappeared.”

    “It will have to do.” Nimi rolled up the map and tucked it inside her tunic. Gripping the reins of her mount, she leapt and pulled herself up onto the saddle. “Mount up!” She called out to the Stone Singer and the two crew she had picked to go with her. They clambered up onto their dragonflies. “I leave everything in your hands Tasch,” she said to the captain before thumping her fist onto her dragonfly’s back.

    The beast buzzed its huge wings, sending up gusts of wind, staggering those around her. The dragonfly lifted itself off the ground, then darted into the air. Its speed was incredible. Exhilarating. Nimi’s heart raced at the powerful rush as she felt the wind upon her cheeks. She wanted to fly as fast as she could.

    So she did. Without waiting for the others she kicked the dragonfly, and it shot off, trailing a blaze of crimson light like a comet cutting through space. 

5.

    The Longtail flicked away the tiny slug that was crawling up the leg of his pants. The three of them were holed up in a pit formed from the knobby roots of a strange looking tree, the crown of which soared several meters above them, was a giant cap much like a mushroom’s. Gor was busy using his knife to puncture the small, bulbous insects that had attached themselves to his legs, gorging on his blood. Each prick of his knife had burst the critters like pus-filled pustules. It was quite disgusting. The Longtail had to dislodge quite a few from himself as well. Dasher had his eyes closed. He was curled up on the ground, and had a sick, feverish look about him. The Longtail wondered if the wound on his leg had started to fester. The bandage was many days old by now, and dirty from dried blood and the stinking mud they had been crawling through in this accursed swamp. The Longtail had done what he could to clean the wound, building small fires to boil water, both for drinking and to clean the cloth used to bind Dasher’s wound. It was risky. A fire would be like slathering honey unto themselves in this place, but they needed it. They could not do it often though, and he hoped Dasher could pull through.

    The Longtail poked his head out of the hollow, like a small, cautious animal, which was not that was not far from the truth, not in this place. The lifeform that they had been hiding from, an oblong shaped blob that sat atop four multi-jointed, needlelike legs standing about seven or eight meters above them, was moving out of their way at last. They had came upon the creature as they were bashing their way through the muggy depths of the Steaming Jungle to the Grand Bridge. It had been standing quite still, with long, ropey strands of hair dangling from what looked like its belly. Swarms of small, flying insects buzzed around the hair strands, getting caught in them. The alien looked benign enough, but after all the close calls they had here, they decided not to take any chances, and waited for the blob on stilts to move away. 

    It was a slow walker. It had taken hours for it to move away as far as it did but the Longtail judged the distance to be safe. He beckoned at Gor, who was watching him. Still weak, the assasin gripped his heat spear and hauled himself up with it. He aimed a contemptuous kick at Dasher, who woke with a start. The crippled scavenger rubbed his bleary eyes, got up, and fell back down again, dizzied.

    Gor gave Dasher a disdainful look. “Why do we continue traveling with this filthy animal?” he asked the Longtail. “He is slowing us down. It’s past time we leave him behind.” The Longtail locked gazes with Gor, and gave an adamant shake of his head. He went over to Dasher and helped him up. Gor let out a grunt of disatisfaction. “Do as you will vagrant, but I will shoot him if he caused trouble again.”

    The Longtail ignored him. The thug had not been carrying his own weight either. He had slowed the group on more than one occasion when his strength had ran out. Securing the saddlebags that had accompanied them since the Red Desert to himself, the Longtail next looped one of Dasher’s arms over his shoulders and supported him upright. He could feel the rapid heartbeat and the feverish heat coming from Dasher’s bony body. The Longtail was worried. Infection must have set in. Dasher would not live long if they did not treat him. They must find safety, and soon. He hauled Dasher out of their hiding hole, with Gor following close behind. 

    They had not taken more than a few paces when some instinct pricked the hair on the Longtail’s back. He whirled around in alarm, letting go of Dasher. Seeing the Longtail’s reactions, Gor dropped into a defensive crouch and readied his heat spear. Dasher scrambled back into the hollow for cover. The Longtail swung his gaze about, ears and snout twitching, his senses on high alert. 

    Nothing. Nothing, and yet his sense of dread heightened. Was the tall alien coming for them? No, it continued its ambling walk. Then what?

    An angry shadow launched itself from somewhere high above the oblong shaped alien. Its body burst apart as the shadow tore through it. The creature’s stilt like legs buckled and folded, toppling over in slow motion. Gouts of ichor gushed from the alien’s torn body, drenching the ground beneath in sticky fluid.   

    There was no time for shock. A rush of air, and the shadow slammed into the ground before them, the force of its landing knocking Gor and the Longtail over. Dasher yelped in fear, crawling away as fast as he could. The Longtail scrambled onto his feet. 

    Looming over him was a giant, covered in chitinous plates so dark it seemed to cut a hole in the space where it stood. Its body was sleek, stretching more than ten meters long, with a sinewy flexible tail tipped with a sharp, bony extrusion snaking behind it. Two pairs of strong, powerful clawed legs ringed with irregular spikes supported that monstrous body. The creature slammed its wicked scythe-like arms into the ground, and the hard, jagged bones sank into the soft jungle loam with ease. A gurgling chitter bubbled from the fiendish creature, a cruel and sadistic sound.   

    It weaved its long, segmented neck from side to side, first studying Gor, then the Longtail. Multiple eyes sat on a tapered head tipped with a pair of oversized, serrated mandibles. The murderous cutters glistened in the twilight gloom. The monster lowered its head, pushing it close enough to the Longtail that he could see his own terrified features reflected back to him on the creature’s many mirrored eyes. The Longtail backed away, trembling in fear. 

    As if sensing his terror, the fiend clacked its mandibles together in an excited chitter. Spittle dripped from the fangs that sat atop its jaws, sizzling as it hit the ground. An acrid, stinging stench hit the Longtail’s nostrils and his eyes watered. With a sudden motion, too quick for the Longtail to see, the creature reared its neck and snapped its head at him. The Longtail sprang aside, his instincts the only thing that saved him from the savage jaws of the monster slicing the air where he had just been. It was fast. Faster than anything he had ever encountered. 

   The Longtail struggled upright. The creature drew back and spat at him. In desperation, the Longtail threw up his cloak, the cloak of the Old Gods. The jet of venom hit the cloak. Droplets splashed onto the Longtail’s exposed face and hands. The droplets ate away his fur and flesh, searing, bubbling and burning his soft tissue. The Longtail winced in pain, but the cloak held. Old Gods above, the cloak held. 

    The monstrosity clacked its mandibles together in puzzled frustration. Nothing in its world had ever survived a full hit of its venomous spit. Drawing its legs in, the beast lunged forward, thrusting its arm at the Longtail, intending to skewer him. 

    Unable to react, the Longtail closed his eyes. The point of the creature’s arm struck him in the ribs. The force of the blow threw him backwards and he felt his ribs cracked, but the fabric of the cloak prevented the creature’s bladed arm from piercing through. Fighting for breath, the Longtail rolled onto his belly and tried to push himself up.

    Thwarted again, the monster’s frustration grew into anger. It glided towards the Longtail silent as a whispering shadow, an implausible feat for something of its bulk, intending to finish him off.

    Meanwhile, fear and adrenaline burned away the datang fever that had plagued Gor ever since they left the Red Desert. He grabbed his heat spear and broke into a run, searching for a clear angle to get off a shot. It was hard. The target moved fast, very fast, and was near indistinguishable from the twilight that shrouded them. The assassin leapt and climbed up the knotted roots of the mushroom-tree, clambering to higher ground. He found stability, and knelt. In one swift motion, Gor braced the heat spear against his shoulder, took aim at the head of the their attacker, and fired. The heat spear flared and almost blinded Gor. The burst of light struck the creature on the crown of its head….and dissipated.

    Gor uttered an oath, shocked and dismayed. Twice more he fired. Twice more his shots struck true, square on the head of their enemy, and melted away. It was as if the beast’s shell absorbed the light of the heat spear. The creature dipped and turned its head around in a serpentine motion, its attention caught now by Gor’s ineffectual assault. Frantic, Gor squeezed off more frenzied shots as the monster advanced unto him. Gor’s attacks splattered on the brute’s strange hide, not even singing it. 

    One lucky shot caught the creature’s venom-coated mandibles. They burst into flames. Surprised, the beast stumbled back, extending two more heretofore hidden and much smaller arms from its thorax, brushing at its face with wild sweeping motions as it tried to put out the fire. A rumbling growl echoed from deep within the beast. Enraged, the brute leapt onto the mushroom-tree’s roots, landing next to Gor and backhanded the assasin, its bladed arm whistling through the air. 

    The dull side of the monster’s arm smashed into the assasin’s chest. He was flung back as he bore the full brunt of the creature’s strike, sternum shattering along with most of his ribs. The heat spear flew from his grasp, clattering its way down as the assassin lost his grip. Gor passed out from the shock.

    Sensing a kill, the beast chittered in excitement. It bent over the unconscious assassin and raised its scythe-like arms.

    The Longtail dashed towards the monster, grabbing the fallen heat spear. He didn’t know what he was going to do with it. He had just seen how useless the heat spear was against the creature. He didn’t even know how to use the heat spear, and had never fired one in his life, but if he did nothing, Gor would die. 

    He made a gamble. All along the flank of the beast were more of those mirrored orbs. The Longtail guessed that they were the creature’s eyes, or sensory organs, like the ones on its head. Jumping and climbing his way up, the Longtail ascended one of the monster’s legs. With a running leap, the Longtail took the heat spear by its shaft, and plunged the pointed end into one of the glistening orbs.

    The spear sank in, with little resistance. The creature bucked and roared, throwing the Longtail to the ground.

    The sound was ear-splitting. The Longtail staggered, clutching at his ears. He could feel the creature’s fury thundering against his chest, reverberating through the Jungle. Panicked cries came from everywhere as the denizens of the Jungle took flight in alarm. 

    The monster thrashed in pain, spinning in circles and snapping at the heat spear buried in its side in futility, trying to get it out. The giant roared again, enraged that it could not pull the heat spear from its side. It turned its attention to the one who had hurt it. It had never felt such pain in its long life. Always, it had been the one to inflict pain, never to take it. The behemoth fixed its eyes upon the Longtail, unmoving, while long trails of venomous spittle dripped from its fangs. The ground sizzled as the acid burned through the soft earth.

    The Longtail went cold. This menacing silence was even more chilling that the wild fury just a moment ago. He took a step back. Then another. The Longtail despaired. What was this thing?! He had never faced such a formidable foe. It was impervious to the lancing fire of the heat spear. It was massive, armored from head to toe with a tough-looking shell, and could move faster than his eyes could blink. He could not fight this thing. His courage broke, and the Longtail turned and fled.

    The creature watched the Longtail ran. It slithered up the mushroom-tree and climbed onto the top of its cap. Sending out its senses, the monster tracked the Longtail’s flight. Every footfall, every ragged breath, every crushed twig and rustling of leaves. No sound and no movements could escape its senses. It gave a low rumbling growl, angry and spiteful. It will find this puny, scurrying thing. This cold, white scurrying thing that caused such pain! The creature hissed as it gathered itself. With a mighty leap, it bounded away.

    The Gloomstalker began to hunt.

6. 

    Wind rushed through her hair as it buffeted her. She could feel the sting of the rushing air as it pulled at her face, forcing it into a grin. The pit of her stomach dropped and her breath was caught in her chest while her heart hammered in exhilaration. She tightened her hold on the reins and gripped the mount underneath her hard with her legs. Straps held her in place, yet still she felt as if the powerful air currents would pick her up and fling her away as the dragonfly shot through the skies, ripping through clouds as it descended from the Pillar Tree with breakneck speed.

    It only made her excitement grew, and the grin on her face became real. She wanted to laugh out loud. She wanted to scream. She had never felt more alive than at this moment as she fell from the sky, borne on the back of a powerful beast watching the clouds as they fell away. 

   She danced with death, and it only made life more potent.

   Beside her, the sergeant from squad four hung onto his reins for dear life. There was a grim stoicism about him, as he faced down the most terrifying experience of his life. The Stone Singer and Byr, whom the sergeant had picked to go on this jaunt, trailed not far behind. The dragonflies whizzed through the air, hugging the titanic trunk of the Pillar Tree. The craggy bark on the Tree, each crack the size of canyons, flashed out of sight, along with what ever miniature ecological systems that carved a niche out for themselves in those cracks.

   The dragonflies kept flying until, at last, they broke through the upper cloud covers, smashing into the twilight shroud of the Undergrowth. Now the true nature of the Steaming Jungle laid before them, alien and uninviting. The thick, unending cloud cover above blocked sunlight from ever reaching the depths of the Jungle, casting it into eternal gloom. The air reeks of decay, and nauseating gas formed banks of fog that roiled in the distance. Within those far-off fog, unfathomable shapes swam - aerial denizens of this foreboding underworld eking out their existence both as predator and prey. 

   The heat was even more unbearable here, and the humidity closed in on Nimi like an unwanted embrace. She forced the uncomfortable feeling to the back of her mind as she scanned the ground beneath her. It was hard to make much of anything in the darkness, and the Undergrowth was dense indeed, stretching out before her like a dirty, matted carpet peppered with malignant growths. Soft, wispy luminescence dotted the landscape, casting eerie glows that obscured mored than they illuminate.

    Nimi shivered despite the heat, and despite herself. This was a foul, unclean place, not just in its physicality, but also in its essence.

    She dug out the chart Lemnu’s ward made for her, but it was too dark to read. Nimi squinted hard at the map but to no avail. She stuffed the parchment back into her tunic in frustration and tried to recall from memory Mauf’s drawings. Nimi shook her head. It was not coming to her, and she did not want to lead her team on a faulty memory. Instead, she turned around and waved for the Stone Singer to come ahead.

    “Elder, you have need of my assissstance?” Sszesskri hissed as he brought his dragonfly humming alongside her. 

    “How well can you see in the dark, Stone Singer?” Nimi took out the map again and passed it to Sszesskri. “Read the map, and see if you can guide us.”

    “To the Grand Bridge?” The Stone Singer did not take the parchment.

    “Yes,” she answered, annoyed that the Stone Singer was not taking the map.

    “Then I do not think we need the map Elder,” Sszesskri said. Nimi frowned. Before she could say anything, Sszesskri lifted a hand and pointed ahead, to her right. “Look.“ The Stone Singer’s voice was soft and low. She turned in her saddle towards the direction Sszesskri pointed, and stared. A pulsing nimbus shone from afar, like the halo that surrounded Red City at night. It was the light of a Grand Bridge. She had missed it; she had been so focused on searching down that she had neglected to look up.

    “The Grand Bridge.” There was a reverent note in Sszesskri’s whispered words. “Sssomeone had opened it, it seemsss.”

     Which meant the traitor was here, and might still be. No one else in this accursed place could have opened a Grand Bridge. She waved a circle around her head to catch the attention of Byr and the sergeant, then pointed at the shimmering column of light. They aimed their mounts towards the Aetheric Tether, and drove their dragonflies forward, covering distance with incredible speed.

    Nimi marveled at the swiftness and maneuverability of the creature she rode. There were nothing like the dragonflies in the Red Desert, and she wanted them. They would give the Fleet an immeasurable advantage, to be able to cross the skies with such unfettered freedom. It was as good as having her own Skybridges. Better, for a Skybridge only went one way. She thought about all the ways they could use the dragonflies, and how she could bring them into the Fleet, and those thoughts occupied her for awhile as they raced towards the Grand Bridge.

    “Pilot, fore and port!” the sergeant’s shout broke her reverie. She looked up just in time to catch an all too familiar flare. “’Tis heat spear fire, by the Old Gods!” Two more beams of light streaked up from deep within the Undergrowth. Soon after, a roar of maddened rage reverberated through the Undergrowth. The sheer fury in that thunder spooked the dragonflies and caused them to swerve wild. Nimi yanked her reins, hard, and brought her mount back to order. 

    The Elder smiled. Adrenaline coursed through her veins. Her quarry….she could almost taste him now. Fixing the location where the heat spear fire came from into her sights with an almost feral intensity, she lowered her body and slammed her boot heels onto the scaled flanks of her mount. The dragonfly responded, and shot forth like a crack of crimson lightning.  

7.

   Gor woke to a slam of a heavy boot to his face. Bursts of light exploded in his vision and a snarl of anger worked its way across his snout as he sprang up, intending to confront whoever had kicked him. Instead he tumbled back to the ground as a piercing agony stabbed at his chest. Pain jogged his memory, and he remembered. What in the Old Gods’ name was that creature?! He struggled back up. Was the monster still around? 

   “Glad you could join us, assassin,” a female voice taunted him. 

    Gor whirled in surprise, grunting at the lancing torture in his chest. For a moment, he could not speak, stunned as he was at the group of longtails that stood before him. There was even what looked like a Stone Singer. The others, he didn’t care about, but the one that spoke, with her mane of fiery hair, was trouble. He sat back down and reached for calm, keeping his features as smooth and impassive as he could. 

    An angry smile was stretched across Elder Nimi’s features. “A little out of your normal hunting grounds, aren’t you, assassin? Didn’t think you would be the type to be slinking through mud.”  Oh, how she savored the moment. Nimi had set out on nothing but a hope and a hunch to find proof of Imru’s crimes, and who did she have now but the Spider’s top rat-catcher.    

    “I could…say the same….about you, Elder,” Gor winced. His broken sternum was making speech difficult. How did Elder Nimi come to be here? Did something happen to Elder Imru while he was away with the vagrant? And where was that monster? Gor casted his eyes about. There were no sign of any creatures in the area beyond the four giant winged insects behind the Elder. They were saddled, and he surmised they must be mounts that Nimi and her party travelled in. Dragonflies. They must have came from First or Second Canopy City then. The vagrant was also gone from the area. He must have lured the monster that ambushed them away. That was good. It would not do to let the Elder find the vagrant here; Imru’s plans would be exposed. If the sewer rat died to the monster, then so be it.   

    The Elder broke the silence between them. “What are you doing here, rat-catcher?”

    “Slinking…through mud…as you said,” Gor breathed in defiance. Elder Nimi leaned forward. Gor drew back, thinking she was going to strike him. 

    Instead the Elder studied him, head tilted as if puzzled. “I can’t make you out, assassin. Here you are, badly injured in this unmapped hell hole, so far from home that you are on a different world literally. From the looks of you, you would be dead soon, easy pickings for whatever prowled this place, if we hand’t come by. Although,” she eyed Gor’s injuries, “it looked as if something had already tried to take a bite out of you. Why go so far for the Spider? Do you think she holds any affections for you? She’s used and thrown aside hundreds of pawns like you, assassin. Do you think she cares about you?” Gor looked away and did not answer.

    Why are you here, assassin?” Nimi persisted. “What did Imru send you to find here? I already know about the Skybridge mapping, and the traitor Varn. What else does the Spider want? Tell me.” Gor schooled his features, careful not to give anything away, although he was dismayed that Elder Nimi knew that much. About Varn in particular. Elder Imru had went to great lengths to shield his existence, and Elder Nimi still somehow managed to ferret it out.

    At his continued refusal to answer, Nimi drew back and considered him. Then she said, “Did the Spider tell you about the Prophecy when she sent you here, assassin? That a great calamity had been prophesied from the Old Gods. Enough to wipe out our colony cities, and it will strike the Jungle in a few weeks.” 

   Gor could not stop the surprised jerk of his head. Nimi let out a scoffing laugh. “As I thought. You were sent here to die, rat-catcher. No matter. There is only one place you can go,” she said while looking at the Aetheric Tether’s glow. “I will have those answers out of you, eventually, and we will find your companion too.” She laughed again at the look Gor gave her. “Oh yes, we know someone else was here. His tracks are everywhere. You could have at least given him some shoes,” the Elder gestured at the area where the Longtail had faced off the monster that had attacked them. His naked footprints were clear and legible as day. “We will find him, assasin. It would go easier on you if you talk.” Nimi then turned towards the sergeant and Byr. “Sergeant, Byr, I want you two to take the assassin back to Tasch. Tell Tasch to wring some answers out of him, but keep him alive. Watch him, he’s a slippery one.”

    The sergeant snapped a salute. “Aye, Pilot. What about ye then?”

    “I’m taking the Stone Singer with me. We will carry on towards the Grand Bridge.” 

    The sergeant hesitated at that. “Begging yer pardon, Pilot, but that be dangerous. ‘Specially in this evil place.” He shuddered as he looked about him. “Danger lurks, and ye’d be alone and…”

    “Enough,” interjected the Elder. “I have told you what I will do. Tie the assassin and go.”

    Exchanging glances with each other, the sergeant and Byr was left with nothing else but to comply. “Aye, Pilot,” they saluted in unison. 

    As the two males were about to turn and go, Nimi raised her voice again. “ And keep an eye out. The creature that slaughtered that thing, ” Nimi gave the torn carcass of the walking pear alien a pointed look, “might still be around.” 

    Byr shivered. The dead alien was about the size of a small house, and it had been sheared almost in half by one powerful blow. “Nay, we would not want to run into that,” he agreed. “We’ll be on the watch, Pilot.”

    Nimi nodded, then walked towards her crimson dragonfly and mounted it with a graceful leap. When Sszesskri had got up onto his, the Elder snapped her heels and they took off, leaving the sergeant and Byr to secure their prisoner and return to First Canopy City.

8.

    The Longtail ran for his life. He slid and stumbled through the dense foliage, pressing one hand in on his ribcage to lessen the throbbing in his sides. He didn’t know if the monster followed. He heard no signs of pursuit, but the Longtail did not lessen his pace. He had to get away. 

    He kept running. Panic nipped at his heels, and all he could hear were his own harsh breathing and the drumbeats of terror, urging him to keep his legs pumping even though he could not see where he was going. He ran and ran….then stepped on thin air. The Longtail tumbled, rolling down a slope. His momentum carried him forward, and he couldn’t stop. It seemed as if he would keep rolling forever, then smacked snout first onto something hard. The Longtail reeled, clutching at his face. 

    The pain shocked him from his panic. Fighting through a haze of dizziness, he got up, using the boulder he had slammed his face into as support. He was lucky. Foolish. It was lunacy of the highest order to be dashing blind in an alien Jungle such as this. He could have gotten himself killed running headlong into some creature or the other. Had he not already seen for himself how dangerous this place was?

   The Longtail sucked in a lungful of air. As much as he could hold, then let it out in a long, slow exhale. He needed calm, needed to think. What could he do? Nothing against the fiendish hunter. If even Gor’s heat spear could do nothing against it, there was no hope that he could stop the thing. None. He had to get away. He had to keep moving. He forced himself to walk.    

   He stopped. The fur on his back prickled again. Somewhere above him, what passed for leaves in this forsaken place rustled. The Longtail looked up.

   A hole appeared above him. As if someone had cut space with a knife and carved it away. It was the hunter! How had it found him?! It slithered down from the trunk of the pod plant where it had been hanging, onto the ground before the Longtail. It reared, stretching to its fullest height while unfolding its arms. The Longtail took an involuntary step back, his breath coming back in short, ragged bursts as fear flooded him again. His knees buckled and he fell onto his rump.

   The monster clacked its mandibles together and chittered, as if laughing at the Longtail. Opening its mandibles, the fiend let its caustic spit fall onto the ground where it sizzled. It moved towards the Longtail, body weaving in serpentine fashion. The Longtail tried to get up, but couldn’t. He opened his jaws and bit his own arm as hard as he could. The pain galvanized him and he scrambled onto his feet.

    The creature lowered its body and lunged forward with blinding speed, cutting through the air with the intent of severing the Longtail in half, giving him almost no time to react. The Longtail threw himself to the side at the last instant. The monster’s poisoned mandibles grazed him, venom burning through fabric unprotected by his cloak.

    In a single fluid motion, the beast circled to the Longtail’s back and swung an arm down. The Longtail rolled away just as the massive scythe smashed into the ground where he was, sending clods of stone and earth flying. The Longtail scrambled to his feet, turned and fled once more. 

     Outclassed, outmatched and with no tools or weapons, he could only run. He ran. Fast as he could. Air coursing through his lungs. Heart bursting. Legs burning with fatigue. His ribs hurt, spearing him with torture.

     The monster made that sinister, chittering laugh again. The Longtail turned his head back, and saw the monster hurling itself into the air with a mighty leap. It caught the trunk of an alien tree with its hooked arms and swung its torso onto the trunk with an agility that was unbelievable for its size. Slinging itself forward with its momentum, it flitted through the thicket in perfect silence.

     The Longtail ran faster. His hammering heart was about to explode, but he dared not stop.

     Unrelenting, his pursuer leapt onto another alien tree, this time putting its full weight in. The trunk bent under that mass. Borrowing the tension from the bent trunk, the beast hurled itself into the air and landed in front of the Longtail, shaking the ground with its impact. It opened its maw in anticipation.

      No time to think. He couldn’t stop. Death awaited him if he did. Gritting his teeth, the Longtail charged forward.

      Taken by surprise, the creature snapped its head down, attempting to bite the Longtail but missed. The Longtail ran under the creature, dodging the hooked arms that tried to spear him. 

      He whipped out his tail as he ran past the creature's legs. The force of his charge swung him around the monster’s leg in a turn. The Longtail dashed out from under the creature. He kept running, digging his clawed nails into the ground to gain as much speed as he could.

      The fiendish horror let out a full throated roar. It reverberated through the jungle, and everything went silent. It pivoted and thrusted an arm at the Longtail, meaning to impale him. The Longtail felt a shadow looming over him, and swerved at the last minute. That instinct saved his life. The creature's arm slammed into the ground, cratering its might. The impact threw the Longtail off balance. He stumbled, caught himself and ran in another direction.

     Straight into the waiting maw of the monster. The creature had anticipated the Longtail's movements and swept past the Longtail to cut him off. It snapped shut its mandibles around him, lifting him high above the ground.

     Trapped. The Longtail was trapped. He struggled to get loose.

     The beast began to close its mandibles around the Longtail, the knife sharp edges trying to saw through his cloak. The Longtail tried to breath, but couldn’t. The grip was too strong. He felt as if his innards were being squeezed out of him. The acrid stench of the monster’s venom watered his eyes. 

     The creature was puzzled. Why could it not cut through this tiny, scurrying thing?! Why was it not already a puddle of ooze from its poison? Was it something to do with the bright white? Frustrated, the monster clenched its mandibles together as hard as it could. 

    The Longtail opened his jaws in a silent scream. Pain. His bones…getting crushed. Could not breath..he tried..sucking in..nothing...ribs cracking….Old Gods above..couldn't see...can't hear..getting…...dark.. 

    All of a sudden, the crushing pressure around him stopped. He felt a moment of weightlessness, before the ground rushed up at him and he smashed into the ground, punching whatever remaining air he had out of him. Dazed, he could only lay on the ground trying to suck in air with lungs that didn’t work. A dull, throbbing pain radiated from one of his elbows where the creature’s maw had been sawing at him with such intensity, that he wondered if it was broken. The darkness in his vision lifted as his diaphragm began to work. The creature towered over him, but it looked distracted, head turning this way and that. Then, with a suddenness that had the Longtail questioning his senses, the creature turned and vaulted away, swinging through vegetation with that same predatory grace that it had hunted the Longtail with.

    The Longtail shifted to a sitting position. The creature was gone. He wasn’t sure why, or what happened, but he lived. He was alive. The Longtail closed his eyes and savored the moment. Then, as he curled his legs under him, he forced himself to stand up. The danger was not over yet. Whatever had caused the monster to stop must be more terrible than it was. He must keep moving. He looked around to get his bearings. In the madness of the chase, he had not watched where he was going. He looked for the shimmering of the Tether, and found the towering shaft of light much closer than before. His blind flight through the Jungle had taken him, by a stroke of luck, a lot closer to his destination. A silver lining, however small. The Longtail forced his battered body up and made his way in the direction of the Grand Bridge.

    Every step was a torture. He must have injured his leg when he tumbled from the beast’s maw. With each heavy footfall came searing pain from his elbow at the movement. The throbbing in his ribs had started to pale in comparison to the sensation coming from his arm. His eyes began to swim. The effort was getting to his head and the Longtail was starting to feel dizzy. He had to push through. The Longtail took another step, and swayed.

    He was weaker than he thought. The Longtail locked his knees to keep from falling.  A queasy feeling crept up on him. His footing was starting to slip, as if he stood on something slippery. 

    The ground shifted. A terrible groan issued forth from deep beneath the earth, as if it had suffered a grievous wound. The leaves of the alien vegetation started shaking. First as a rustle, then a cacophony as the trunks swayed from side to side. The groaning turned into a rumble and the rumbling turned into a full-throated roar as the ground started shaking. 

   The Longtail was swept off his feet. He threw out his hands in an instinctive reach to find something to hold on to, but the world around him spun and spun. Nausea became overwhelming and he emptied what little was in his guts. He couldn’t think. His mind was a complete blank and all the Longtail could hear were the screams of the Jungle itself.

    Then, in a manner as abrupt as it had appeared by, the booming thunder died off and the earth stopped trembling. The Longtail got up, dazed. What was happening?

9.

    Ignoring the burning pain in her hands as the leather straps of the reins cut into and pulled away the skin on her palms, Elder Nimi gripped the reins of her dragonfly and yanked hard as she fought to keep her mount under control. The dragonfly made a violent turn and almost flung her out of her saddle. Desperate, she wrapped the reins around her arms, anchoring herself to ride out the beast’s wild movements.

    There had been another of the damned earth shaking. The Stone Singer and Nimi herself had made a circuit around the area where they had found Imru’s lackey, to make certain that the rat-catcher’s companion was not hiding nearby while Byr and the sergeant from squad four were securing their prisoner. After the sergeant and Byr had departed for First Canopy City, with the assassin slung over the sergeant’s mount, she had made a final lap over the region with the Stone Singer, on alert for signs of anything else that might be in the vicinity. The dragonflies had became difficult to control then. They stalled in their flight, and tried to land with a determined insistence. She wrestled with her mount, struggling to keep it in the air and flying in the direction she wanted. The crimson dragonfly’s flight then became erratic and more difficult to restrain. 

    It was the Stone Singer who perceived it first. “Elder!” Sszesskri cried out. “The Prophecy, it isss happening again!”

    Nimi had not yet registered in her mind what the Stone Singer was yelling about when the earth started shuddering. From high up, she saw what passed for trees in the Undergrowth swayed and rustled, then shook as if they wanted to upend themselves. Flocks of flying things - birds or insects, she could not tell - burst forth from beneath the covers of the Undergrowth and swarmed into the air.

    The Elder had thought they would be safe. After all, it was the ground that shook not the air. Her mount had a different opinion however, and chose that moment to panic. It began to turn and swerve, diving towards the ground before jerking back up. It rolled in the air as if it couldn’t tell up from down. Nimi clamped her legs tight over the beast, fearful of falling off the saddle. She sawed and pulled at the reins, trying to steady her dragonfly. 

    The earth’s booming grew into a crescendo, like the roar of an injured animal and the dragonfly went berserk. Its turbulent movements became fiercer and now all she could do was hang on for her life. 

    Then, as sudden as the tremors had came, it died off. The beast carrying her still bucked, but it had none of the ferocity earlier. Little by little, she regained control of the dragonfly.

    “Elder!” Nimi could hear the strain in the Stone Singer as he too, fought his mount.

    “What?!”

    “A ssswarm of flying creatures, headed right for ussss!” 

    Nimi jerked her head around. A cloud of Undergrowth animals thick enough to blot out the horizon, each with bat-like wings and about the length of her forearm flew straight at them. She jerked her reins to pull her mount out of the way. The dragonfly resisted, and the swarm was upon them. 

    The flying bat creatures smashed into the dragonfly, heedless of their own safety, gripped as they were by a mad, unthinking instinct fanned by the earth’s quaking. The dragonfly reared, too late, as it realized the danger it was in and tried to escape from the aerial stampede. Nimi could spare no thoughts for her mount, as the wall of beasts slammed into her body, head and face. It hurt. She hunched into her saddle and covered her face with her arms. The Elder could only hope the mount did not plummet and take her with it. 

    Her stomach churned as she felt the dragonfly rocked. Then her gut fell out from beneath her. Nimi snapped open her eyes and found the ground rushing up at her as the dragonfly plunged. At the last moment, with a desperate wrench of its wings the dragonfly righted itself, hovering in the air. Overhead, the seething pack of flying beasts continued on its flight. Nimi let out the breath she had been holding, and relaxed a fraction.     

    Sszesskri drew up beside her. “Elder, perhaps we ssshould not tarry any further. Thisss world grows more unpredictable by the minute,” the Stone Singer hissed. “Let usss finish our business and return.”

    “Aye,” Nimi agreed. “We head for the Grand Bridge now.” The Elder kicked her mount towards the Aetheric Tether.

    It took a half day for them to get to the Aetheric Tether. The dragonflies were fatigued after long hours of flying. Their flight had slowed and they no longer ate distance with that same dizzying speed at the start of their journey. Left with no other choice but to rest their mounts least they fell out of the sky, Elder Nimi and the Stone Singer had found an open plateau that did not look too dangerous at first glance, and set the beasts down. 

   The plateau was not an actual piece of land. It was, rather, the top of some peculiar tree, its branches meshed and twisted together to form a solid carpet firm enough to walk on. The Stone Singer had mused over the tree itself, and tried to examine the plant they stood on. Elder Nimi did not share the Stone Singer’s curiosity and was not the least bit interested. Instead, she busied herself feeding the dragonflies the dried insect husks mixed with water that they had brought with them when they left First Canopy City. 

    By the time the dragonflies had recovered, it had grown very very dark. What little sunlight could penetrate the dense cloud covers of the Steaming Jungle’s atmosphere was gone without a trace, now that night had fallen. The only light visible in the abyss of the Undergrowth was the ethereal luminance of the Grand Bridge and the wispy glow from some of the Undergrowth’s inhabitants. 

    Nimi was sitting down and chewing on a jerky while staring at the pillar of radiance that was their goal when Sszesskri approached her. “The dragonflies seems to be adequately rested. Do we fly now or set out tomorrow, Elder?” asked the Stone Singer.

    Nimi swallowed the over-dried meat before answering. “We go now. As you said, this is not a place to outstay our welcome.” She got up, and in a few moments, the two of them saddled their mounts and took to the air. The pair traveled in silence. The weight of the darkness crushed any attempts at conversation. 

    When they arrived, the two of them stared dumbfounded at the enormous structure laid out before them. An entity of immeasurable power had leveled off the top of a mountain and carved out a hole several miles across. Within this space, a tower rose. It was hexagonal in shape with an opening in the middle right where the light of the Aetheric Tether shone forth and, from Nimi’s reckoning, stood at least a hundred meters or more although there was no way she could tell for sure as the tower stretched deep into the heart of the mountain. Embedded into its granite-colored walls were ledges, scaffolding and other constructions the purpose of which the Elder could not fathom, along with soft winking lights that ran up and down the tower’s facade in regular intervals. As they drew closer, the Elder could see enormous staircases and ladders connecting different levels of the tower together. There were neither windows nor openings of any kind, and as far as Nimi could see, the entire edifice was made of a single piece of stone. 

    Seldom was the Elder in awe of anything in her life, but the tower before her demanded respect. The construction was unlike anything Nimi had ever seen. Hewn from one gigantic rock….it would have taken an army of craftsmen a decade or two just to shape the monument, if they could even find and transport the material to begin with. How big could the original stone had been? Where was the quarry that they dug it from? And the power to have cut a mountaintop away…..Nimi’s mind struggled to comprehend the scope of it all, and she could think of nothing else except….

    “The Old Gods…,” she breathed. 

    “…..No……no…I think,” Sszesskri broke off mid sentence, his antennae twitching in puzzled hesitation. “I think….thisss is not the work of the Onesss who Left.”

    “What?” Nimi was confused. Which tribe from what world could have built the tower before their eyes except the Old Gods?

    “The construction is different from the Onesss who Left. The ssstyle, it is more angular. The cornersss harsher. The Onesss who Left, they like curves and rounded corners,” Sszesskri explained.

    Nimi looked wide-eyed at the Stone Singer. “Who then? Who else have the power to do….that?” the Elder waved her hand at the tower and the shorn mountain.

    Sszesskri made no reply. Nimi could not tell what the Stone Singer was feeling, not from his visage that was so different from hers, but the way his feelers drooped, she thought he was troubled. At length, he said, “Perhapsss we should find a way in that we can learn more Elder.”   

    “You do not sound eager Stone Singer.” The Elder squinted at the edifice ahead of them as they made a slow sweep above it, looking for a way in. “I thought you would be ecstatic. This is your passion, is it not? The study of the Old Gods.” She gave Sszesskri a sidelong glance, wondering how one would lift the morale of a Stone Singer. The Stone Singer had been nothing but reliable in temperament and ability thus far, and she needed him to continue to be so.

    “I am unsettled Elder. This is ssssomething I do not understand,” Sszesskri gestured towards the tower. “It is not of the Onesss who Left, of that I am sssure, and that raisesss many questions in my mind. Many.”

    Nimi had no answer to that. She had been indifferent to the Old Gods her whole life and had nothing to offer to the Stone Singer now. “I don’t see anything like an entrance. It looks like we’ll have to go in through the hole in the roof.” 

    “It appearsss so, Elder.” They aimed their dragonflies towards the Tether’s glow and began a slow and careful descent into the depths of the tower.

    The interior of the tower, illuminated by the Aetheric Tether, was featureless, unlike the facade. The Elder and the Stone Singer kept their distance from the Tether by unspoken agreement - neither of them had ever been close enough to the light of a Skybridge that they could touch it, and they did not want to find out what would happen if they did. They flew in a gentle, downward spiral, hugging the walls of the tower. Up close, Nimi marveled once again at the might of the builders of the tower they now trespassed in. There was not a single line of joining Nimi could see that suggested the Tower was built from smaller blocks. She shivered at the power that signified. 

    It didn’t take them long - or perhaps it did; it was hard to tell the passage of time, surrounded as they were by the unchanging glow of the pillar of light beside them, to reach the Grand Bridge. Either way, she had to revise her estimation of the tower’s height. It was much taller than what was visible had suggested. The Grand Bridge stood at the bottom of the tower, on a raised dais. Many times the size of a Skybridge, its imposing stature was dwarfed by the still larger, cavernous chamber it was in. Their dragonflies landed a little distance away from the Grand Bridge. Looking around, Nimi could see that the tower was built atop an even bigger underground structure. The hall about them, bare and empty with nothing in it except the Grand Bridge, stretched into the shadows where the radiance of the Aetheric Tether could not reach. 

    Nimi was reluctant to dismount. A foreboding disquiet emanated from the depths of her soul. All her years spent sailing the vastness of the Dune Sea could not prepare her for where she now found herself, deep underneath the ground with meters of rock above her. The sky had vanished, and her only way out was the dragonfly. If it flew off while she was not on it….an image of her bones, picked clean and white with age, stretched out in this silent and oppressive mausoleum floated into her mind and she pushed the thoughts away.

    She thought of her crew, and stiffened her spine. She could not lead them if she did not have the courage to lead herself. It was an odd thing, Nimi thought as she swung herself off the dragonfly, that even when her crew was not around, she could still feel them behind her, lending her strength. She heard the clattering of the Stone Singer’s clawed feet on the stone work as her own booted feet struck the ground.

    “It is not so hot here Elder,” observed Sszesskri, his words echoing through the hall before being swallowed up by the emptiness.

    Now that the Stone Singer brought it to her attention, Nimi could no longer feel the muggy heat of the Steaming Jungle. She drew her coat tighter about her. It was cold, in fact. Was it because they were underground? She studied the Grand Bridge, but saw no signs of life. That bothered her. “Can a Grand Bridge turn on by itself, Stone Singer?” she asked.

    Sszesskri thought for a moment before answering. “Before….before, my anssswer would be no...,” he craned his head, eyes following the Tether’s beacon into the heavens, “I do not know for certain anymore Elder,” he shrugged. “The Grand Bridge will open by itself if it wasss receiving a traveller. That is how Sssskybridges work. Perhaps sssomeone came, and is here. ”

    “Who,” Nimi began, but Sszesskri shook his head, twitching his feelers.

    “I think there isss something that may interest you more Elder. I can sssmell blood. The ssscent is old. Months old, but I can still senssse it.” 

    All at once, Nimi’s focus sharpened. The hunt was back on. “Where?”

    “Over there,” the Stone Singer lifted a clawed finger, pointing in the direction somewhere to their right away from the Grand Bridge. Nimi nodded for Sszesskri to lead the way and the Stone Singer took them both to the edge where the light from the Grand Bridge weakened and fell away. As soon as they stepped into the shadows, a harsh light from overhead flooded the area. 

    They froze, shielding their eyes from the glare. Nimi could see through the dazzle the outline of a prone body ahead of them. She did not approach. Instead, she dropped into a crouch, ready to spring should anything surprise her. “Grand Bridges don’t turn themselves on, so you said, Stone Singer, but the lights here seemed to have lit themselves.”

    “Another myssstery.” The Stone Singer’s antenna was stiff with tension, and the gills along his neck and chest began to flare a low, sullen red.

    “I don’t hear or smell anyone else.” Nimi’s ears were perked straight, twitching to catch the slightest sound, and her snout was in the air, sniffing. “Do you?”

    “No.” The Stone Singer’s reply was terse, and uncharacteristic of his loquacious nature. Elder Nimi commenced a slow and cautious approach, keeping her senses opened for any signs of danger. 

    As she got closer, she could the body belonged to a longtail. Male, of average height. The cadaver was still preserved enough due to the chill in this place that Nimi could see the male was a little pudgy. Not as heavy as Orn, that sorry, corrupt excuse of an Ambassador. There was a pool of dried blood around the male, along with brain matter that had leaked out of his shattered skull which was turned in an unnatural angle. His internal organs were splayed out about him. Nimi bent down and prodded the body. The bones were all shattered. The male had fallen from a great height, perhaps from the top of the tower. 

    Or perhaps he had not fallen, but was pushed. Nimi stood up. The male wore the vestments of a priest from the Temple.

    “It seems we have found Siv, our missing priest,” she said.  

10.

    The Longtail lifted his weary head. Before him loomed a massive doorway. A veritable wall of metal, set into the face of a cliff. Reaching out his good hand, he rested his fingers upon its surface. Smooth to the touch, and he could feel it humming beneath his fingertips. He remembered a door like this, made of the same unknown alloy, deep within the caverns of the moon that orbited the Cloud Ocean. A door that led to a room full of flying machines and the iron spiders that guarded them. The Longtail studied the unyielding slab that barred his entry. Studded with heavy rivets, with a thick frame around it and no hinges, it could have been an exact replica of what he had found on the moon, save for its size. Ugly. Crude. Brutish….and powerful.

    After the creature that hunted him had lost interest in him and left, distracted, it would appear, by the earth’s spasms, the Longtail had resumed his exhausting march for the Grand Bridge. Fearful that the shadowy monster might make a return, the Longtail had sought to put as much distance as he could from their battle ground. Driven into a punishing pace by panic, the Longtail had stumbled and crashed through the Jungle. Reckless, in such an unforgiving environment, more-so as night fell and the already tenebrous landscape gave way to near total darkness. More than once he had ran headlong into a predator and escaped only through sheer luck and by the skin of his teeth. Most of his retreat was a blur in his memory, but he remembered being chased down by a fungal-like tree with legs. He had never been pursued by a walking mushroom before, and would have burst into hysterical laughter had he also not been wheezing for air, fighting against the pain in his ribs with each breath as he ran for his life. Every part of his body hurt. From his elbow, which he cradled close to his body as best as he could for stability as any jarring motion would send a spike of pain lancing through it, down to the dull throbbing in his feet. The very bones themselves felt sore and ill-used from the punishing slog. 

    When he had burst through the smothering fecundity of the Jungle into a rocky region where only low lying plants grew, a frustrated hopelessness had welled within him at the sight of the sheer cliff wall that confronted him, and when he realized that the source of the Aetheric Tether lay beyond. There was no way he could scale that cliff. He had no more strength to give. With no other options before him, he had picked a direction and forced himself to walk, hoping to find way through the cliff that would lead him to his destination. The path soon ran out, ending in a sheer drop into a thick sludge many meters below, the stench of which was vile beyond belief. Resigned, he had plodded back the way he started, and kept moving. 

   A small spark of hope had flickered when, after an hour or so of slow traveling, he spied the oddity jutting out of the rock. It was artificial, a construct. A shape that had straight lines not seen in nature. He hastened towards it, as much as his battered body allowed, and stood in front of a structure that was at once alien and familiar. 

    Recalling how he had unlocked that other door, the Longtail looked for a lever he could use. He saw no such mechanism however. The Longtail took several steps back, studying the door further. Perhaps the contraption that locked the door in place was elsewhere. He began a limping trudge to survey his immediate surroundings, but his search of the area around the entrance had turned up nothing. The Longtail returned to where the barrier was, defeated by barrier and slumped into a sitting position.

   He sighed and in that quiet moment, his mind drifted. It seemed as if all he had done since the Cloud Ocean’s moon was to run from something. He had ran when the Crystal Flowers had retaliated against his obtaining a sample. Had ran from the giant metal spiders before he had found the Crystal Flowers. His trip across the Red Desert with Gor was one long flight. Boulder snakes and blade weevils. Dasher’s village and the menacing albino that led them. They had shadowed and hounded them across a field of datang

   Eluding the villagers had landed them in the blue-green world. That strange place his father had named Earth, with its ancient ruins and ghosts of a tribe long since faded away into the deep mists of time. That had turned out to be just another long escape. He had ran again, here, in the Steaming Jungle. From an overwhelming threat, it was true, but still he had ran. Fled and left his companions behind. He wondered where Dasher was. The Longtail had forgotten about him until now. Was Gor still alive? . 

    As for him, the Longtail, he was back to being alone. And he was….relieved. There was guilt. Shame, that his courage had failed him and that he had abandoned his companions, but now that he was alone again…with only his own thoughts for company….it was pure relief. No longer did he have to deal with Gor’s overbearing arrogance, or Dasher’s neediness. No more did he have to suffer the constant tension between the two, or his own anxiety towards the others, struggling to find ways to convey the words he could never hope to give voice to, miming like an idiot and relying on Gor’s “charity” to interpret his intentions. 

   All that weight, gone, and in its place….relief.

   He would die in this place, in all likelihood. Escape did not seem plausible. He was not prepared for the Steaming Jungle; he had neither food nor water, did not understand the land, and had no idea which way lay north, least of all where to go. It was through no fault of his own, brought here as he was against his will, but the road cared little for justice and fairness. Those that were weak and unprepared died, and that was that. The Longtail thought about his mother, toiling by herself on a dying farm. She would be all alone if he died…. No, that wasn’t quite true. She had been alone long before this - ever since he had set out on his journey. She had been the first one he had abandoned, not Gor or Dasher. He had abandoned her so he could go on this wild chase across the stars to find his father, who had himself turned his back on them. And did he find his father? No, all he could find were traces. The Longtail had, bit by bit, given up hope in the long, futile search. At the end of it all, he had nothing to show for it. Elder Imru had rekindled some of his hope, but all he had found was that stack of journals in the……

    The Longtail sat up. He still had the notes he made back on Earth. Could there be some sort of clue in them? Reaching into his satchel, he dug out the book he had brought with him. It was too dark to read however and he lit the oil lamp in the saddlebags he had managed to take with him before he had taken flight. Flipping through the pages, he searched for anything that resembled a hint. Nothing. There was a brief mention of an archive of some sort that was Varn’s purpose in the Steaming Jungle but there was nothing about a metal door in a rock wall. The Longtail returned the book back into his satchel, but his mind was racing.

    He thought back to the cave where the Crystal Flowers were. That perfect hemisphere with no visible way in. He had found a separate entrance there, a sort of pulley car such as one might expect to find in a mine.

    What if there was also another way in?

    Pushing himself back onto his feet, the Longtail explored his surroundings anew. He set off with a slow, limping plod, holding the oil lamp high, swinging his eyes back and forth between the cliff wall, the ground, and even above him. He walked in one direction then back the opposite way, widening his search with deliberation.

    He found something on his third circuit. He must have passed by the spot a few times already. It was several meters from the doorway, behind a bend and was invisible even if there was light aplenty for him. All the sign he had was a puff of air that brushed against the skin of his toes. A puff that was just a tad colder than the rest of the sweltering heat that blanketed him. The Longtail dropped to his knees. Setting the oil lamp aside, he ran his hand through the soft, spongy roots that threaded the graveled loam, digging around to find anything out of the ordinary.

    His claws struck something that was hard. Encouraged, he scooped the soil away and found the corner of a metallic artifact. Heart thumping in excitement, the Longtail swept the area around it clean of dirt and soon a squarish gate built into the ground showed itself. The roots were in his way however, and he tore at them, chewing through the roots with his teeth when he could not tear them out with his hand. The juices were bitter and stung, but he did not care. He spat the foul taste out of his mouth and continued working with fervor. 

     At length, the Longtail stood away, panting in exertion. The roots were cleared. After a moment’s rest, he bent down and ran his fingers around the gate, searching for a handle to lift. There was none, but the Longtail found a gap where he could slide his fingers in. Planting his feet into the ground, he bent and attempted to push the gate up. Grunting with effort, he forced the hefty weight up with his uninjured arm. His eyes popped with the strain. The gate went up inch by inch until it was just above his shoulders. 

    He couldn’t raise it any further. It was too heavy. His position was awkward and he could feel his fingers slipping. Without thinking, he set his other arm to brace the load. His elbows burst into fiery pain, and the Longtail almost buckled under the gate. He threw his shoulders under just in time. Tucking his legs beneath him, the Longtail heaved and tossed the gate away. It swung open and fell on the other side with a loud crash, revealing a hole in the ground. 

    Weary, the Longtail stumbled over to pick up the oil lamp and held it over the pit. It led to a tunnel, made of the same alloy as the door in the cliff wall and was big enough for him to crawl through,. Wasting no time, the Longtail lowered himself into the burrow and began to crawl. The dull throbbing in his injured elbow prevented him from using it, so he pushed himself forward with his legs, sliding on the side of his good arm in an awkward shuffle with the oil lamp in front of him. 

    The metal that made up the tunnel was chill to the touch, and a welcome reprieve from the heat. It was also pitch black inisde and the Longtail was very glad to have the oil lamp, grateful that it had somehow survived unharmed after everything. Things would have been so much worse without the lamp giving him light so that he could see. Although his muscles ached with the strain of unfamiliar movements and the roots dug into his arm, the situation seemed safe enough for now. 

    The Longtail had thought, for a very long time, that his father had been in pursuit of the mystery of the Old Ones. Indeed, that was the case in his early travels, but Varn seemed to have turned his study towards the Others and he wondered why. What was the connection between the Old Ones and the Others? He had seen their handiwork on the moon of the Cloud Ocean and also, he suspected, what was their ruins on the blue-green world. Now, hidden away in the depths of the Steaming Jungle, he had found another legacy of the Others. Both the Old Gods and the Others seemed to be everywhere. Were they one and the same?

    Notions rose and fell in the Longtail’s mind as he pondered, each more disturbing than the last. At last he pushed aside that ancient riddle. The enigma of the Old Ones and the Others would have to wait for another time. Something else had caught his attention. 

    It was imperceptible at first, but he detected a soft, rhythmic vibration in the tunnel about him. It reminded him of the thrumming he had felt under his fingers at the metal gate, and if everything he had learnt about the Others was anything to go by, it meant that he was near a place of interest. The Longtail hastened his pace.

    It was hard to tell how much time had passed in the darkness, and he did not know how long he had been moving when he found himself in a junction where the tunnel split into two directions. The chill coming from the shaft on one side was stronger, as was the humming, which he could now hear with his ears. Lacking any other clues to go on, the Longtail squirmed into the that branch. 

    He was rewarded in his decision. A dim light could be seen radiating from the floor of the shaft at the far end. Heartened, the Longtail put out his lamp and stowed it into his satchel and hastened his crawl. He soon reached the source of the light - an opening that led to a much larger corridor below. It was sealed by a loose grill and the Longtail pushed it open with ease. The grill fell with a loud clatter, and the Longtail froze, listening for any signs of trouble. He remembered the metal spiders in that large chamber with the flying machines from the Cloud Ocean’s moon.

    Nothing happened as long moments passed. Ever cautious, the Longtail eased his head in. Satisfied that the corridor was empty, the Longtail wriggled his body around and let himself drop into the corridor below.  

    As soon as his feet hit the ground, the lights came on. It was the same silent ghost that lived within the hall of the flying machines. The Longtail expected it, but it still unnerved him nonetheless.

    The hallway he was in was a mix of heavy stone and metal, in a state of disrepair. A thick layer of dust coated everything, and the masonry, although superb, where each block of stone was fitted and lined to perfection, was pitted and cracked with age. Whole sections of walls had fallen in, pushed apart by the slow and inexorable growth of the plant life in the dark underbelly of the Steaming Jungle. Metal tubings ran along the walls, in rows and columns, disappearing and coming out of recesses that were so deep that light was unable to penetrate the shadows that veiled their depths. Corrosion had eaten away at the tubings and parts of the tubings were so weakened that a thick ooze leaked, running down the walls and forming puddles on the floor. The Longtail was careful to keep away from the slime; he did not know if it was toxic, nor did he want to find out.

    The air was still, and smelt of disuse and the long march of time. The Longtail wondered how old this place was. Judging from its state, it was far more ancient than the abandoned structures he had found in the caverns of the Cloud Ocean’s moon.  

    His more immediate concern was to figure out how to get to the Grand Bridge. He had lost his orientation while wriggling through the tunnel and he was no longer sure in which direction the Aetheric Tether laid. Taking mental note of his environment so that he could remember where he started from, the Longtail started down what seemed to be the least decayed section of the hallway, hoping it led to somewhere vital.

    The corridor soon gave way to a roundabout that split off into more passages. Hanging from the ceiling, a large plaque caught his eye. On it were writing, and he was excited to see that the script resembled those of the Others. Digging his father’s journal out from his satchel, the Longtail began to decipher the script. He was glad that he had the foresight to make a crude translation in the room above the chamber of flying machines.   

    Most of what he translated made no sense to him. There were letters he could not figure out as all he had was a very crude cipher, but also the meanings of some of the words were just lost to him. The pathway he had emerged from was labeled “En-ineerin-“. Even if he had the full word, the Longtail doubted he would understand what it meant. The make of the term itself was alien. Another was “Reactor”. Did that refer to someone? And to what was that being reacting to? 

    When the Longtail had translated all the labels, he decided to head towards the passage with a label that suggested the existence of an archive. If Varn’s purpose was as he had documented in his notes, then that would be where the Longtail would find his father, or his traces. 

    Following the corridor in time led the Longtail to a decrepit foyer. It was spacious, or used to be, before part of the ceiling collapsed, burying a significant segment of the foyer beneath a rubble of stonework. It was dark past the hole in the ceiling, but the Longtail could see just enough to get a sense of how extensive this underground domain was. At one end of the room were a series of full length windows, perplexing the Longtail by their existence in a location built beneath the earth. All that lay beyond the windows were rock, and was about as far from an enticing sight as it could get. The Longtail did not pay it much mind, for his attention was drawn to an entryway half buried by the rubble. 

    The door that had once sealed the room had fallen by the side, revealing the space within. Soft, winking lights glowed in the unlit chamber, their pale radiance illuminating the faint outlines of rectangular blocks. It was all very familiar and the Longtail was reminded at once of that basement he had fallen into during his time on the blue-green world. If he had any doubts remaining that the Others and the ruined city on Earth were linked, the sight of those artifacts this deep into the heart of the Steaming Jungle swept them all away. 

    What quickened the pulse in his veins however, was what laid near the entrance. A makeshift cot, several leather-bound tomes, along with a crude writing desk made up of the earthen chests similar to the ones Varn had used for supplies in his camp on Earth. He was here. His father. Varn! Wild hope that his father might still be here beat in his chest and the Longtail broke into a run, stumbling into the room.

    No one. He moved up and down the room, searching in between the rows upon rows of blinking artifacts in the vain hope that he would find Varn hidden from sight and crouched over his study. No one. His fevered longing died with each row that turned up empty. 

    In time, the Longtail gave up the search. Clarity returned, and with that he could see that the camp here had been abandoned for some time. Dust had made a fine coat over his father’s belongings. He could still detect faint tracks on the floor however, and that suggested Varn might not have left so long ago. If he hurried, he might….

    The sudden burning in his eyes took him by surprise, as tears welled up and threatened to flow. The Longtail sank to the cold stone floor, crushed by a sudden flood of disappointment. Despite his self-denial, he had dreamt that this time, he would at last catch up to his father. He had so wanted to find Varn here. To put an end to this fruitless pursuit across the stars. He was so tired. How much longer did he have to run after the tail of a male of whom he had no memory, let alone even a single conversation of kinship? 

    The Longtail drew in a shuddering breath as he sought to bring himself back under control. Varn was not here, and that was that. His stomach rumbled, reminding him to take care of himself. He lifted the covers of the clay chests and found rations, jars of oil for his lamp and even water, sealed in skins made from waterpouches inside. He packed a few oil jars away into his satchel, certain that it would be useful in the future. Uncorking a waterpouch skin, he took a healthy swallow, ignoring the stale taste. He stuffed dried fruit cakes into his mouth and chewed with methodical resolve.

    After he had sated his hunger and thirst, he opened Varn’s journals and settled in to study, to find clues that would lead him on the next hunt. He could not give up. Not yet. 

11.

    Sszesskri rose to his feet. His examination of Siv’s corpse had revealed nothing of the reasons that brought the dead priest here. All the Stone Singer had found was a brooch - an encircled quill, which showed that he had belonged to the House of Wisdom. One of Elder Lemnu’s, and from the Temple Archives like Mauf was. There had been no signs of struggle, or wounds. He had fallen from great height, as the Elder had said when she had done her own inspection earlier.              

    As if his thoughts had summoned her, the Elder’s booted heels rang, announcing her return from her exploration. “There is more to this place it seems.” She lifted a finger at where she came from, towards the very edge of the chamber housing the Grand Bridge. “We can’t see it from here, but there’s a ladder that goes down over there and a walkway. It leads further in.”

    Sszesskri nodded. He was not surprised. “The dragonflies?”

    The Elder jerked her head at the Grand Bridge, where she had secured their mounts at the closest thing to a post she could find in this empty room; the pedestal that controlled the Grand Bridge. Squatting beside Siv’s carcass, she sccoped up his brooch and pocketed it. Leverage, she thought. Who knows, she might be able to corner that old rat Lemnu with this. If she could find even more evidence that could strengthen her case against Imru, all the better. “Let’s go,” she said to the Stone Signer.

    “Wait,” Sszesskri buzzed. “Who, or what, do you sssseek here Elder? If you don’t mind my asking.” There was an urgency in his hissing speech uncharacteristic of the Stone Singer, and his gills flared a little brighter than usual. He pointed at their surroundings. “Thissss…this place isss beyond anything I could imagine, Elder! Sssuch might, in its construction! How was it possible that a tribe had enough power to rival the Ones who Left themselvesss, and unknown to ussss all this time!” He took a step closer to her. “Is thisss a secret of the Temple, Elder? What more hidden knowledge do you know?” There was a touch of wonder, mixed with consternation in his voice.  

    Elder Nimi did not speak. Only looked at the Stone Singer, head cocked as if considering him. At last, she said, “It is as you said, this is a Temple secret. I must ask you to hold your curiosity yet, Stone Singer.” She turned away. “Come, there is more we may yet find. I do not wish to stay here longer than is necessary.” Nimi repressed a shudder. This place made her skin crawl.

    “As you wish, Elder,” came Sszesskri’s reply.

     Nimi detected a note of dissatisfaction in the Stone Singer’s answer. She could not blame him, she supposed. The Stone Signer was a scholar and like as not resented his curiosity being thwarted. It could not be helped. He still answered to the Iron King, and it was unwise to trust him with everything.

    Giving the matter no further thought, Nimi made her way to the ladder she had found during her investigation of the room. Gripping the handles, she descended in short order. The walkway was dark and she could hear it creak under her weight. Keeping her treads light, she crossed the footbridge. As she neared the end of the walkway, the ghost lights that had turned themselves on earlier switched themselves on again and flooded the area with the same harsh light, illuminating a corridor that continued beyond the walkway.  

    Unlike the platform that held the Grand Bridge and the tower that housed it, time had left its mark on the corridor. The stone that made up the body of the passage was old and scarred. She could see lines gouged into its surface by the slime leaking out of corroded metal pipings that ran along the walls and ceiling. Even as she watched, spurts of the dark brown gunk bubbled forth from pipes that had fallen away or cracked open. There was still life, of a sort, that clung on within the crumbling walls of this place, and it was waking up. 

    Standing at the threshold, she hesitated. A reluctance, born from a mix of uneasiness and some primal instinct that whispered of danger, held her. Doubt washed over her. Like the Stone Singer, she felt out of her depth. She had sailed into uncertainty many times in her life and triumphed despite all odds but what awaited ahead was unmoored from everything she thought she knew about the world. The grandeur of this ancient site, faded though it may be, still held enough sway to force her to acknowledge her own insignificance. That, she did not like. Not one bit.   

   “Elder?” The Stone Singer’s query broke the Elder out of her spell. 

   “It looks old.” Useless statement, she thought. It was obvious that the place was old, but the words gave her cover and helped her ignore the queasiness in the pit of her stomach and the way her legs wanted to go in the other direction - anywhere but into the corridor. Faking courage sometimes had a way of bringing out the real thing. Sometimes. She walked in.

   The Stone Singer, oblivious to Nimi’s internal struggle, answered, “Aye.” Sszesskri reached out to touch the stone and metal pipes. “Aye, it issss old. The Onesss who Left, they do not build like this. Their legaciesss do not crumple like thisss.” There was a thoughtful note in the Stone Singer’s declaration. Nimi didn’t know what he meant, so ignored it and kept walking.

    The passage was short. It led to a location that felt a lot like a waiting room, like the antechamber outside the ceremonial hall where the useless Head Priest, Pairud-Sha, would hold his sermons for the public. There were remnants of what could pass as benches and seats throughout the middling sized room. For the tribe that had built this fortress within a mountain, it was in all probability considered not much bigger than a closet by their standards. The interesting thing to her was that from size of the benches, the builders of the ruins was close to the size of a longtail. Bigger, maybe by a full head or two, but not much more. At one end of the wall, there was also a set of windows which looked out to nothing but darkness and rocks. Why would anyone build windows in a place that only looked out to nothing, she wondered? The puzzle propelled her forward to take a closer look.   

    As soon as she approached, a disembodied voice echoed throughout the room, startling her into a defensive stance. 

    “Stone Singer, to me!” she cried as she spun around looking for the source of the voice. Someone was here after all!

    Sszesskri stopped his examination of the room and was at the Elder’s side in two large bounds. The voice continued to speak, the words of which were incomprehensible to him. Elder Nimi’s face was taunt. She smelled frightened, and the dread in her scent added to his own trepidation.  

    “Do you understand what it’s saying?!” she cried in a scratchy voice hoarse with fear.

    There was no need to specify which ‘it’ she referred to. “No Elder, I do not.” Like the Elder, he too tried to locate the source of the voice. It seemed to be coming from everywhere. His feelers picked up a faint disturbance in the air. It grew stronger, like the distant thundering of a herd of sand mules running in the Red Desert. It was a rumbling in the ground. It was… “Elder,” he raised his own voice to be heard over the din approaching them, “the Prophecy, I think,” he faltered in his speech.

    Two orbs of light, floating in the darkness that lay behind the subterranean windows caught his attention. Sszesskri’s mind blanked as he tried to make sense of it. The orbs grew larger as he watched, brighter, and the vibration resonating against his feelers and the tremors he felt through his feet became stronger in tandem. He felt a sudden yanking of his robes.

    “Stone Singer!” the Elder yelled into his face. She had seized him by his lapels and pulled him down to face her. “The Prophecy, is it happening again?!”

    “No!” he answered. “Something comes, in the darkness, there!” He pointed towards the glowing orbs. 

    Letting go of him, Elder Nimi whirled and saw the two circles of light bearing towards them from the shadows, like the eyes of a great beast in a nightmare. Her own eyes widening at the sight, she turned and grabbed a fistful of Sszesskri’s robes again. ““Away from the windows!” she yelled, pulling at him. “Go!” Together, they leapt away from the windows and ran for the corridor that took them here. 

    They did not get far. As the rumbling Sszesskri felt grew louder and crescendoed, a loud, high pitched screeching of metal clawing against metal followed. The Stone Singer dropped to his knees, overwhelmed by the clamor. Nimi clutched at her own ears, staggering. The sound was unbearable!

    Then, with the same abrupt speed as it had arrived, the torturous racket stopped. Shaking her head to clear her dizziness, Nimi lowered her hands, wary of any more surprises. The spectral voice continued its alien oration overhead. She could now see past the windows into what looked like the interior of a very large carriage, with seats, and lit with the same harsh lighting that had greeted them since they entered the tower. With a hiss, the windows slid open.

    “Not windows,” Nimi muttered to herself. “Doors. Those are doors.”

    “Indeed, but doors to what?” The Stone Singer had heard her. His hearing was acute, no doubt about it. The din earlier had struck him harder than it did her, judging by the muted flaring on his gills and the downcast way his antennae hung.

    Elder Nimi took a deep breath and set her jaw. “Only one way to find out,” she said through clenched teeth as she marched into the carriage. 

    As far as carriages went, it did not seemed to be made to be comfortable. The seats were as hard as wood, and spaced far apart. It was such a waste of space. The carriage could have carried a lot more were the seats built closer together, Nimi thought. It was also empty, and the emptiness bothered her far more than anything else she had seen. There was no driver. The carriage had drawn itself. She shivered, and not from the cold.

   “Stone..,” Elder Nimi began, wanting to ask the Stone Singer to search for the driver. She refused to believe that the carriage had drawn itself, although she did not know how she would react if they did find the driver. All thoughts of the driver were thrown out of her mind however, once the Stone Singer stepped through into the carriage. The doors started to close behind him. Nimi bolted towards the door in a desperate attempt to hold it open. There were no knobs to grasp, and the surface was too smooth; her hands could find no purchase. The Elder pounded her fist on the windows in a vain effort to shatter it so that they could get out. The windows did not so much as budge.

    “Please ssstand back Elder,” Sszesskri hissed as he drew back his arm and extended his claws. He threw a punch at the windows with his considerable strength. His sharp claws scratched the windows, drawing faint lines on its surface, but not much more. He launched another assault, but it was useless as the first.   

    Their ordeal was not yet over. Nimi was thrown off her feet as the carriage rumbled and pulled itself forward with a jerk. They were trapped, and were being carried to only the Old Gods knew where.

12.

    Using a charcoal pencil he had found in his father’s belongings, the Longtail scribbled onto a piece of blank parchment, breaking down Varn’s estimates to better understand it. It was complex, and the Longtail was not sure what he was looking at. The frequencies derived from Varn’s estimates looked wrong on a fundamental level. It would not open the Skybridge to anywhere, and yet….why would his father have spent his whole life chasing after something that made no sense? He went over the estimates again, but unless the workings were subtle beyond his ability to understand, he could find nothing erroneous. It was the assumptions his father had based the estimates on that he could not wrap his head around. 

    Assumptions that the Longtail guessed Varn had found here in this archive. He had tried at first to understand what it was his father had sought, but even if he was half as much the scholar his father was, his limited grasp on the language of the Others doomed that effort from the start. The concepts encapsulated by the assumptions were foreign to him. Words like “geometric dimensions” and “singularity” abounded. He understood the individual terms, in approximation at least, but could make no sense when the appellations were taken together.  

   It was clear to him though, where his father had intended to go next; there was but one way to put to test Varn’s own workings after all. Varn would have had to find a Skybridge where he could test the frequencies, and at the other side of the Skybridge, the Longtail figured that would be where he would find Varn. The Longtail copied the frequencies down.  

   A rumbling in the walls caused him to look up from his work. At first he thought the earth shaking had came again. The vibration seemed have a directional source however, and appeared to be approaching with great rapidity.  His ears pricked up at the sound of screeching metal. Instincts told him to hide, and the Longtail scooped up his notes, stuffing them into his satchel. He slipped into the darkened repository with its winking lights and hide amongst the blocks that looked so much like tombstones.

    The rattling and screeching rose in volume, getting louder by the second until it came to a halt just outside. The Longtail’s heart pounded. His field of view was obstructed and he could not tell what manner of beast had dropped in on him. Another metal spider? Or the creature that hunted him. Had it discovered where he was and was now here to finish the job? The Longtail strained his hearing and sense of smell, hoping to get a hint of what was out there.

    “Old Gods help me. First the sand-blasted thing trapped us and took us away, then it released us into this wreckage! What is this place?”

    The Longtail stopped breathing. The voice was feminine, authoritative and sounded annoyed. The last thing he expected to hear was Red Desert speech. Who was it?

    “I am uncertain. This issss all unknown to me, as you know.” There was another! And the sibilance….could it be? A Stone Singer. He had never seen one before. The Longtail buzzed with excitement. Almost without knowing, he had gotten half way up, surprising even himself, his caution forgotten in his elation at finding others in this ruins.

   “I am aware of that, Stone Singer,” the female voice snapped. “The question was not aimed at you.” He was right, it was a Stone Singer he heard!   

   “My apologiesss, Elder. I feel….uneasy.” 

    The Longtail froze and hunkered back down again, cursing his recklessness. An Elder! A female Elder at that! Was it Imru? No, it did not sound like her. That left only Elder Nimi, First Pilot of the Fleet…here, of all places! Elder Imru might be dangerous and manipulativ, but Elder Nimi would crush him without a second thought if he got in her way, and he had damned near gotten himself caught. If his vocal cords still worked, he would have moaned. Stupid, stupid, stupid!

    “I hear something Elder. There issss someone here with ussss. I ssssmell him.” The Longtail’s heart sank like a rock. He had heard stories about the legendary senses of a Stone Singer. There was a sudden silence outside, and for a wild moment, he thought that two interlopers had moved on or somehow had decided they were mistaken.       

    The next words that came crushed any such hopes. “I know you are in there, renegade. You can either come out yourself, or be dragged out. Your choice.” It was the female. Elder Nimi. There was a feral tone in her threat that filled the Longtail with dread. There was no other way out except through the doorway. He cursed himself again, this time for not having taken the passageway he had came from; that would have led him back to the junction where he had other options to run to. He had trapped himself in here like a sand-blasted fool! 

    “I said, come out now!” Elder Nimi roared. The raw fury in her shout was a palpable force, and he feared the Temple Elder would send the Stone Singer in for him next. They were formidable fighters, and he could not hope to escape unscathed. There was no escape. With no other choices before him, the Longtail stepped out of the shadows.

    Nimi blinked, her wrath abated for the time being by confusion. The male standing before her was not who she had anticipated. She had thought to find the traitor here, perhaps with a little more gray and more wrinkles on that haughty expression in her memories. Instead, the male that had came out from the darkened room through the half-collapsed doorway looked nothing like the self-centered, arrogant rat that had spent his time in the halls of the Temple Archives looking down his snout at everyone, acting as if he was more clever than everyone else. The male was much younger than the renegade should be for one thing, hard as it was to see through the filth that caked him from head to toe. He looked broken, one hand cradling his other arm and limping as if his sides pained him. And his tail. Swinging in the open in a manner both obscene and vulgar. Did he have no decency?   

    There was something familiar about him though, and a faint memory tickled at the back of her mind. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” She threw the questions at the male like daggers.

    Despite the desperate situation he was in, the Longtail almost laughed. This was a scenario that had played out once too often in recent times. Will he ever be free of this farce? For a brief, defiant moment, he thought of just doing nothing, but decided against it. The red-maned Elder was not known for her patience, and the Stone Singer beside her looked more than capable of backing her up if it came to violence. The Longtail opened his jaws, pointed at his mouth and shook his head.

    The Elder bristled. “Do you mock me, rat? Answer me!” The male stayed silent, and repeated that same gesture. Nimi’s blood began to boil at his insolence. “Are you mute?!” The male nodded with vigour, his relief plain to see even through the dirt that caked his fur. Taken aback, Nimi’s recollection blossomed, and she remembered.   

    Some years ago, that old rat Lemnu had raised a ruckus. An archive of the Old Gods had been found, he had exclaimed. In pristine condition, and by a vagabond explorer demanding a ransom in irons for it. Lemnu had demanded that the Treasury paid for it. Dhasi had protested at the overreach, of course, and the two locked horns over the matter with bitter vehemence. In the end, a Council Meeting was convened to settle their argument. Nimi herself had paid it little heed at that time, judging the whole issue beneath her attention and had not bothered to show up at the Council Meeting. She only heard about it later on; how they had decided to capture the explorer instead, and how the wily vagabond had slipped through the net that Osli had laid for him, until Lemnu, whose patience had ran out, cornered Dhasi into coughing out the coins, and struck the deal with the vagrant.   

    When the vagrant had presented himself in the Temple, he had turned up unwashed and filthy, with his bare tail swinging about - the Temple was abuzz for days afterwards with his scandalous appearance. However unkempt his appearance, the vagrant had been too clever to carry the archive on his body. He had taken the coins, then led Lemnu, accompanied by Dhasi and Imru, to a spot of his own choosing where he had hidden the archive. He handed over the object of the deal, then disappeared without a trace. Dhasi had complained about the incident afterwards, nonstop, until Osli threatened to shut Dhasi up with force. Nimi had thought the whole thing a tedious affair, and she was glad to have stayed out of most of it.

    Only, the same vagrant now stood before her eyes. And Imru was with Lemnu when the vagabond had brought them to where he hid the archive. Dhasi’s insistence at being present for the exchange was understandable, but Nimi had thought it strange at the time that Imru wanted to be there as well…..and now Nimi could not help but make the connection in her mind.

    “Did Imru send you? The Spider. Did she?” the frost in her own tone startled her, but the male’s reaction at her questions were telling. He blinked and took a step back, face puzzled. Wariness then suffused his bearing, and he gave a careful nod.

    The Longtail had no warning. Before he could register what was happening, he felt the soles of a boot sinking deep into his stomach, causing everything he had eaten and drank earlier to rise up his gorge. He flew back, crashing into a wall and crumpled onto the ground. Out of the corner of his eyes, the Longtail saw a blur of motion and flung his arms up to block a kick aimed at his head. He caught it - with his bad arm. The Longtail opened his jaws wide in a soundless scream, which was cut off when a fist pummeled his snout. Stars exploded in his vision as sharp burst of pain lanced up his nose, bringing tears to his eyes.

    The Elder stood over him, her eyes blazing with a fury that was incomprehensible to him. What did he do? The Elder drew back her leg. Alarmed, the Longtail curled into a ball, covering himself with his good arm. The hardened tip of the Elder’s boots drove into his sides, where he had already been injured. The force of the kick broke through his guard and smashed into his ribs. He almost blacked out from the pain. The Elder reached down, grabbed a fistful of his tunic and hauled him upright, slamming him against the wall. She jammed her elbows onto his throat, right where his trachea was, and held him there as he fought to breathe. The Longtail flinched from the cold, merciless glint in her eyes.  

    Something inside Nimi had snapped the moment the disheveled male had admitted the Spider’s involvement. There was a loud, hollow booming inside her that pushed thought away, and before she knew it, she had thrusted out her leg at the male’s unprotected abdomen. It was as if she had stepped outside of her body, and she watched as she launched herself at the youngling, aiming for the weak spots she knew he had; the arm he cradled, and the way he stood favoring one side of his ribs. A ball of burning pitch deep in her belly wanted him to hurt, and to hurt bad. She hauled him upright after beating him down and jammed her elbow into his throat, intending to choke the life out of him.

    But the look of bewildered hurt in the youngling’s eyes as she locked gazes with him shocked her out of her rage. A slow, rolling wave of disgust started to color her anger. What was she doing? Loosing herself and beating up an already battered youngling. This was the action of a bully, not a commanding officer.

   Fire still raged within her however. Her wrath, as yet more proofof Imru’s scheming surfaced, only blazed brighter, not less. That witch’s fingers were everywhere, it seemed, and far from the satisfaction she thought she would have when she found what she needed to bury the Spider, all she felt was frustration. Just how deep did Imru’s plots go? For how long had she been planning while she and the other Elders ran about playing at power games, squabbling amongst themselves? Not knowing galled her, and smug superiority Nimi imagined was on the Spider’s face as she flung her web across the worlds was a bitter pill to swallow.

   And this male before her? What was his part in all of these? 

   There was an odd sensation rubbing at the skin of her elbowthat she had shoved onto his trachea. Nimi loosened the pressure she placed on him, and pulled down the collar of his tunic. The sight of the grave burn scars that greeted her left little doubt that he was indeed a mute.

   She didn’t know what to do next. Dropping him from her hold, Nimi sat on a large chunk of broken stone and stared at the youngling for a long time. The youngling, relieved at the cessation of her violence, averted his gaze and kept still, like a small animal poised to flee should a larger animal attacked.

    At length, she said,”I will ask you questions. You will nod yes, or no. Is that clear?” After a brief hesitation, the youngling nodded.

    “Do you work for Imru? Are you one of her lackeys?” the male gave a quick, almost eager, shake of his head. So, Nimi thought, not one of her underlings then. A mercenary? “Are you here of your own will?” 

    The question was hard for the Longtail to answer. Did he come to this thrice-damned, sand-blasted world of his own accord? He supposed he did, but did he have a choice? The seductive Elder had dangled a prize in front of him, a prize he found hard to refuse. Yes he was under lock and key at the time he was captured, still….the only thing that kept him where he was and led him here was his yearning to find his father. He gave a reluctant nod.

    Nimi saw the conflict in the male. Imru had some kind of hold over him. If she could know what it was, it might shed more light on the Spider’s intentions….and if the damned youngling wasn’t mute, she could have gotten it out of him. The Elder bit down her frustration, and considered her next question. She thought about Siv, and about the renegade that burnt down Red City. She thought of Imru’s pet hunting rat, and the set of footprints of someone facing off a monster. Someone with no shoes. Nimi looked at the youngling’s feet. Caked with mud and lacerations, wrapped with only worn leather straps, the youngling’s soles were hardened by years of walking barefooted. She glanced at the makeshift campsite near the entrance to the room the youngling had emerged from - a campsite that had been abandoned for quite some time, from the looks of it. 

     The Elder leaned forward. “Do you know what world you are on?” A nod. At least the youngling seemed clear headed. “Did you come to the Jungle alone? And have you been here long?” A shake of his head. Good. “Was it with Imru’s assasin? Her right hand - Gor.” The surprised nod the male gave her satisfied her, for now. She stood up, and as she did so, bits of loose gravel fell from the crumbling ceiling like sand and dusted her. She slapped it away with absentminded irritation. Nimi doubted they would learn anymore here. They would bring the youngling back, along with the tomes strewn about the campsite. Between these and the confession she would wring from the assassin, she thought she could gather more than enough proof to call for an Inquisition.

    “You are now my prisoner. We will take you back to First Canopy City where I will decide what to do with you.” The youngling looked up at her, and his eyes widened in fear. Nimi grew annoyed. She had not mentioned torture, or any violence. Was the mere mention of being a prisoner enough to quail this youngling? Where was his spine? “Behave and nothing will happen to you, don’t -“, No, something was not right. The youngling was not looking at her but past her.

    “Elder!” The Stone Singer’s shout was the only warning Nimi had before he barreled into her, tackling her onto the ground. A giant bladed claw, shaped like a scythe, slammed deep into the ground where she had just been standing. A soft chittering noise echoed from above, and Nimi’s fur stood upright at the pure malice dripping from that sound. The Elder pushed the Stone Singer away and sprang to her feet. Out of the deepest umbra of the shadows cloaking the space beyond the collapsed ceiling, a nightmarish vision emerged.

    It was jet black and it was one with the darkness. When it moved, it was as if the shadows moved with it. It was huge. Too big to fit through the hole in the ceiling, which was a mercy, but its jagged, knife-sharp arms were long and thin enough to get through. Nimi watched as it pulled back the arm that was sunk deep into the group, tearing up chunks of solid stone in the process. Drool fell from its crested, armored head, scouring the rock and burning furrows into the surface. The choking stench of burning limestone filled the air. 

    Their gazes locked, and the Elder could sense the wicked intelligence radiating from the beast’s many glistening orbs. Its visage reminded her nothing so much as that of a spider; alien, menacing and above all, a predator. Her hands itched for a good weapon, although even a stout axe could not cut through the thick plates covering the creature. 

    Nimi spared a quick glance at the Stone Singer. He was crouched low, eyes locked on the monster and talons extended in full. It was a rare sight to see one of his kind in battle, but alas she doubted they would prove more than an annoyance to the threat looming before them. This must be the creature the mute youngling had tangled with in the forest clearing where they had found Imru’s assassin. The horrified recognition on the male confirmed it. Fear made her heart race as she wondered if they could take down a beast such as this.

    But the creature dismissed her. Instead, it turned its malevolent focus onto the youngling. In a flash, she understood; it was on a vendetta. The beast was here to hunt down the youngling. Nimi could not let him perish, not while she still had her own vengeance to take!

    “You! On your feet and run!” she roared.

    Galvanised into action, the youngling scrambled upright and bolted down a corridor. Its prey fleeing, the thwarted beast let out an enraged shriek. The shrill, piercing cry battered Nimi’s eardrums and she staggered. The creature rammed itself into the structure of the ruins, trying its utmost to tear through the ceiling and chase after the male. The violence of the behemoth shook the very walls of the ruins, sweeping the Elder to the ground, but even the terrible strength of the monster could not break the stonework. It gave one last frustrated shriek, then withdrew into the shadows and disappeared. 

    Sszesskri hurried over to the Elder, reaching out a hand to help her up. “Are you injured, Elder?”

    Nimi brushed his concern aside, getting up on her own. “I’m fine,” she growled. She started towards the direction the youngling had ran, then stopped. She could not let the youngling die. She wanted the answers she was sure were in his head. The abomination that had just ambushed them was a terrifying foe however, and there was little chance that she would live through another encounter if she went after the male. Everything she had learnt here would be lost with her if she died.

    “Stone Singer,” she said, determined and grim. “Pack everything you see here and take them to dragonflies. Secure Siv’s body and wait for me there. I’m going after the youngling. I need him alive. If I’m not back in an hour…no, make that two, return and give everything to Tasch. Tell him to hand them over to the Fleet’s House Patron, and that they must convene an Inquisition for Elder Imru! Do you hear and understand me, Stone Singer?” Her voice was hard as flint.

    “Yesss Elder, I hear your words, but…” Sszesskri began.

    Nimi didn’t give him the chance to finish. “Good.” She wheeled on her heels and raced after the youngling.

    “Elder, wait!” Sszesskri cried out, but Nimi was already gone.

13.

    The Longtail ran. His feet hurt with every pounding step he took. His elbow flared with agony and he was nauseated from the beating he had just taken. He wanted to sink to his knees and throw up everything he had eaten, but kept his tired, burning muscles moving. Of all the sand-blasted, rotten luck in the Inner and Outer Worlds, how was it that the red-maned Elder could find him in the middle of nowhere? And that evil beast. The thing was relentless! How did it even managed to get into the ruins with its bulk in the first place?

    No time to think about that now. He had to get away. He stumbled through the corridor as fast as he could, then skidded to a halt when he reached the junction that connected to the archive, lost for a moment as to where to escape. Time was short and he could feel its sharp teeth nipping at his heels. The Longtail didn’t have the luxury to stop and choose. He made a dash for the corridor opposite the one he just emerged from. Anything, as long as it was away from the beast that stalked him. 

    It didn’t take long before he began to doubt his own choice. The passage was even more run-down than the ones he had been in. The gunk that leaked from the corroded pipes were everywhere, covering much of the ground and clustering in thick clumps. The ooze had eaten away the very walls of the ruins in the centuries in which it had laid dormant, revealing the machine-like innards that lay beneath the facade. Even the ghost lights that had illuminated the rest of the ruins were weak and fitful here, flickering on and off, never exceeding a dim radiance. The air was redolent with the odor of oil and acid, and the Longtail had to be careful where he stepped least he put his bare feet onto the slime. He did not want any of the stuff that could consume rock to touch his skin.  

    Breathing hard, the Longtail leapt and hopped his way through the tunnel. His legs, his entire body, shook and trembled with fatigue, but he dared not stop. The Longtail pressed on.

    A subtle change came over the tunnels the deeper and further the Longtail went. It became warmer. He noticed it only when he found himself exerting harder to draw breath. The gunk was less viscous, covering a bigger area. He had to take larger and more exhaustive jumps to find clear spots to walk on. The soft bubbling on the substance and the evil, powerful smell it released made him even more wary of touching it.

    The corridor in due time opened up to a grand and imposing cavity hollowed out from the mountain. The walls were rough hewed, as if the Others had decided that this cave was not important enough beyond digging it out and thus neglected to finish it. The ceiling stretched high above him, and the floor was plated with sheets of sturdy foil. Somewhere far below, he could hear the slushing of water, or fluid.  

    In the center of the room was an edifice - a spherical body several meters in diameter, with scores of cylinders sticking out of it. By some unknown power, the sphere floated above a pedestal taller than he could reach without a rope or a ladder and lined with pipes that ran along the pedestal’s body and the ground where they radiated outwards like a web. The sphere spun in a gentle rotation and arcs of light sparked between the cylinders. It shone with a cold radiance that lit up the otherwise gloomy cave. Fireless lamps mounted on the cavern walls provided weak, secondary illumination. 

    Entranced, the Longtail moved closer to the sphere to inspect it. A strange and uncomfortable heat emanating from the sphere stopped him from getting too close however. All of his fur had stood on its end. Every brush of movement against his fur stung and brought about strange popping noises. It was like being a very cold day up in the peaks of a tall mountain. It did not seem prudent to go further and the Longtail stepped away, intending to find an exit.  

    He had not taken more than a few steps when a terrible sound rocked the chamber. A section of the cavity’s roof blasted open, and great chunks of rock came crashing down onto the plated flooring. The metal groaned, bending and twisting under the impact that knocked the Longtail to the ground.

    As he staggered to his feet, he heard a familiar shriek. A sleek, powerful shadow dropped from the hole in the ceiling that had just been blown apart, slamming onto the ground. The Longtail looked up in dread as once again, his nemesis stood before him. The fiend that hunted him and dogged him with astounding persistence.

    Fear flooded the Longtail……but also anger, and resentment. Why won’t this thing let him be?! He opened his jaws and shrieked a soundless defiance at the creature. It was a scene that would no doubt be hilarious to a bystander; a mute trying to scream, but the power of his own fury rocked him, and all of his fatigue was washed away in that instance. The Longtail embraced his rage, and charged towards his tormentor.

    The Longtail had no real plans. He didn’t know how he could take down the behemoth in front of him, but he also spied the shaft of Gor’s heat spear the Longtail had stabbed the creature with still stuck in the creature’s flanks. And he knew that it was useless to keep running.

    The Gloomstalker hissed in delight at the cold white thing’s futile rush. It smelled the anger and the frustration pulsing from it, but most important of all, it smelled the fear that wound in and out, wrapped over and under the soft thing’s cold white glow in red throbbing pulses. The Gloomstalker cackled in glee. The cold white thing was not all cold and white after all, and at last, at last, at last, at last, the cold white thing would pay for disturbing its sleep, for causing it pain and blinding one of its seeing organ. Ohhhh, it’s going to enjoy breaking smashing slicing limbs, its toy, and then burning it with its drool, and play play play. The Gloomstalker could almost feel the sharp vibration of the cold white thing’s agony. Snapping its arm out in a sweep, the Gloomstalker caught the toy square in the middle and sent it flying across the burrow.

    The Longtail smashed into solid rock, the shock of both his landing and the creature’s blow stunning him. Dazed, the Longtail stumbled away from the cavern walls, away from the monster, to find some breathing space.  He turned to look behind him, and the beast was…gone. The Longtail spun, searching for it. A bloodcurdling chitter reverberated through the cave, chilling the Longtail and his heart started to race. It was still here, but where? He made a frenzied hobble towards the levitating sphere in the middle of the room, dodging between the hunks of fallen debris, in the hopes that it could provide some cover, and getting as close to as the uncomfortable heat as he could. The light spilling from the sphere gave him the only advantage he had and allowed him to see in the ill-lit chamber. Whatever the creature was, the Longtail was certain about one thing. Darkness meant nothing to the beast.

    He circled the sphere, turning this way and that. He could not afford to stay in one place; it would just make him an easy target. A soft chitter chimed from behind. He whirled around. Nothing. His breathing became heavy and loud even to his own ears. He tried to soften it, paranoid the fiend could hear it somehow. The Longtail kept circling. 

    Something flickered at the edge of his vision. So fast he almost could not react in time. The Longtail threw himself to the floor, praying he did not get hit. A sharp whistling overhead told him how close he was from getting decapitated. The monster’s jagged arms sank deep into the meshing of the floor, cutting a hole into it. The radiance spilling from the floating sphere seemed to cause the creature discomfort as it shied away after getting too close, raising its other arm over its head as if shielding itself. It yanked its arm out of the floor, backing away from the sphere. 

    Taking advantage of the beast’s distraction, the Longtail picked himself up and sprinted for the heat spear. He ran under the body of the fiend, swerving between the creature’s moving limps to the side where the heat spear remained pierced like a splinter where he had struck the creature. The Longtail leapt, flinging himself towards the spear and reaching out in a desperate attempt to snatch the spear. 

    The monster jumped away, pulling the heat spear far out of his reach. The Longtail crashed onto the ground, grunting as his breath was knocked out of him. The floor beneath him shook and he looked up to see the night-black behemoth thundering towards him. The Longtail got onto a crouch. As the creature closed in on him, he dove under the fiend’s belly once again, gasping as he landed on his bad elbow. The pain dizzied him, but he scrambled onto his feet as he sought for the heat spear.

   Wise to the Longtail’s antics, the Gloomstalker sprang away again, raising both its arms up high. Exposed, the Longtail braked and turned in a sharp angle, then ran as hard as he could weaving in and out of the debris, knowing that the creature was about to strike. 

   The creature stabbed one of its arms at the Longtail, meaning to pin him like a longtail would an insect specimen. It missed by mere inches. Heart thumping like a herd of stampeding sand mules, the Longtail pivoted and sprinted in another direction. The monster brought its other arm down. The Longtail felt rather than saw the attack, and ducked behind a large boulder. The monster’s attack smashed into the debris, shattered it and sending the pieces flying. The impact knocked the Longtail off balance and he fell. 

   The behemoth exploded into gleeful chittering, certain that it had its prey at last. It closed in. The Longtail forced himself to get up and ran. Roaring its disappointment, the creature gave chase.

   Exhaustion battered the Longtail, as much as the flying debris raised by the fiend as it continued its relentless assault smashing into the debris that littered the ground. The missiles struck him from all directions, hitting him in the head and body, bruising him. It was hopeless. The creature was too fast. It gave him no opportunity at all to get the heat spear for a chance to fight back. Even if he could get his hands on the heat spear, would it do any good? Memories of Gor’s futile attacks flashed through his mind; the way the heat spear’s projectile had struck the creature’s carapace and left not even so much as a singe mark. The way it had…the way it had…

    The Longtail stopped short and he almost paid for it with his life. The creature lunged forward at the sight of the Longtail’s pause and snapped its mandibles at him. Only the Longtail’s keen reflexes had saved him as he jumped to the side at the last possible instant. The monster’s fearsome head flashed past him, and the Longtail got a good, close look at its multitude of alien eyes reflecting his image, its glistening mandibles, and a smaller vicious looking inner jaw that dripped with potent venom. 

   A venom that had burst into flames when a stray shot from Gor’s heat spear had struck it.

   Vague plans started to form in the Longtail’s head. He kept moving to buy himself the space to think. The Longtail dug into his satchel and felt around for the jars of oil he had stuffed into his satchel earlier, that by some miracle was kept whole in the midst of all the chaos. If he could only get close enough to douse the creature’s head with the oil and lit it somehow…! He spared a backwards glance at the creature, which had climbed atop a pile of debris. It drew its head back and spat a jet of venom at the Longtail.

   He drew his cloak up in the nick of time. The venom splattered over his cloak, sliding over the ancient material. Droplets splashed onto his exposed feet. His flesh bubbled as the corrosive poison ate his flesh. The Longtail hissed at the agony. He clamped his teeth over his sleeve and tore it off, using it to wipe off the venom. The monster drew its head back for another shot. Alarmed, the Longtail hobbled away as fast as he could, looking for cover. It was then he saw that the way to the entrance was clear.     

   The Longtail resisted the urge to make a run for the exit. His strength was flagging and the fiend, a cunning foe. If it sensed his intentions and blocked the exit, he was done for. Instead, he dashed from cover to cover, hiding behind rocks big enough to shield him from the venomous spit, all the while getting as close as he could to the exit. The creature continued spitting poison at the Longtail. It was clear from the way the toxin would land near him but never on him, forcing the Longtail to jump this way and that, that the creature was toying with him. 

    Anger filled the Longtail once again. Anger at the implacable monster, at its cruelty, and his own helplessness. The Longtail was close to the exit now. He could flee. He could flee….but he also wanted to hurt the thing, to give it a taste of the pain it had inflicted on the Longtail. A plan began to coalesce in his head. He reached into his satchel and pulled out the jar of oil and the last of his heat stone. Opening the jar, he tore his other sleeve off and stuffed it in as a wick. The Longtail then stepped out from his cover, staring at the creature. 

    The Gloomstalker chittered in amusement at the toy’s defiant challenge. It knew the white thing was hurt and was tired. It could see the uneven way the toy’s glow pulsed, the fear and the sour stink of its fatigue hidden beneath the cold white. It had been a good hunt. The white thing had hurt it and it had refused to die many times. It was stubborn, more stubborn than any other soft warm thing it hunted for food or for sport, oftentimes both. Soon though. Soon, the cold white thing would collapse, as so many others had before it, and the Gloomstalker would peel away its skin, tear its limbs prod it and poke it and melt it. It clacked its mandibles in anticipation.

    The red threads beneath the cold white thing’s glow pulsed a little redder and it took off. The Gloomstalker chittered, happy that the hunt could continue. It tracked the movements of the toy….and saw that it fleeing towards the cold black that led out of the burrows. Too late, the Gloomstalker realized its mistake. Murderous spite burned the Gloomstalker at the thought of the toy slipping away over and over again. Screaming its frustration, the Gloomstalker gave chase.

    At first the Longtail thought to slow his pace to bait the creature, but he underestimated the strength of its fury and its speed. The swiftness with which the monster bore down towards him put fright into the Longtail’s steps and he sprinted for the tunnel exit. Within seconds, the fiend had closed in. Unfurling its arms, it swiped at him. The Longtail ducked, stumbling in the process. He caught his balance and his heart almost stopped as the oil jar slipped from his fingers. Fumbling, he managed to seize the jar before it fell. 

   He got up and ran. The creature was hot on his trail. Just a few meters more! The monster’s arm slammed into the ground in front of him. The Longtail skidded to a halt, evaded the obstacle and continued. He could hear a loud clack as the creature’s mandibles snapped shut over the empty space he was at just a split second ago. His feet touched the threshold of the passageway, and he leapt. He was in!

    Frustrated, the monster slammed its body against the tunnel that was too small for it to enter, knocking bits of gravel loose. It snaked its head inside, trying to get to the Longtail, to catch him with its jaws. The Longtail scrambled backwards, heedless of the ooze that was getting onto his body. The creature’s maw was right in front of him now, snapping at him. The Longtail thrusted his hand into his satchel and pulled out his last remaining heat stone. He smashed the heat stone against the wall. The brief flash of light blinded the fiend for a moment. The Longtail pressed the heat stone against the torn sleeve wet with oil, and it ignited. He raised the jar, planted his feet, and flung the flaming missile towards the monster.

   The oil jar struck the creature on the head, shattering. The flaming oil drenched the creature. When the flames touched the volatile venom that coated its mandibles, the fire erupted, sheathing the creature in a blazing halo. 

   Screeching in alarm and pain, the monster swung its head in a wild attempt to put out the fire, bashing the walls and ceiling of the tunnel. Pipes burst from the behemoth’s struggles, and more of the gunk gushed out. This too caught fire; whatever it was, it was flammable as well. The fire spread fast, and the ooze that got onto the Longtail’s tunic and pants blazed. The Longtail tore off his cloak in panic and slapped himself all over with it, trying to smother the fire. The creature jerked its head back out into the chamber beyond, capering in a mad dance to shake the fire out. 

   It careened towards the floating sphere, arms slashing about in berserked hysteria. One of the creature’s arm ripped a deep gash across the sphere, and an ominous light poured forth from the sphere. The light pulsed in an unsteady rhythm. The arcs that sparked between the cylinders embedded on its surface grew bigger and the tendrils longer, until it was shooting out in a range of several meters.

    Not good. The Longtail’s mind blanked with dread. Whatever was happening was not good. The fire in the tunnel grew as well, and the noxious fumes began to choke him. The Longtail turned and ran.

    Feet pounding into the stone ground, he ran as hard as he could, not caring about avoiding the gunk anymore. The smoke stung his eyes, and he coughed. He did not stop. The Longtail held his breath and kept running. 

    A loud shriek echoed down the corridor. It was a howling that was filled with pain and drenched in fear. Fear was something that the Gloomstalker was unfamiliar with. It dealt fear, it never felt it. Never. And now that terror had at last came for it, the Gloomstalker drowned in the black tide of panic. It gave one last howl.

   The creature’s screams cut off. That frightened the Longtail more than its yowling had. He summoned the last dregs of his strength and urged his burning, aching muscles to move faster. Faster. Faster!

   A thunderous booming came from the direction of the chamber with the rotating sphere, where the monster was. It roared through the tunnel, and then a tremendous force picked the Longtail up and flung him through the air, extinguishing the flaming ooze as all the air in the tunnel was pushed out and away. The Longtail crashed into a wall, and he blacked out.

 

14.

    Nimi cursed as she slipped on the slime and banged her knees onto the hard stone ground. Shifting the weight of the unconscious youngling on her back, she hoisted herself up and groped her way forward. It was dark. All of the strange ghost lights had gone out, and the low-grade humming that permeated the ruins had fallen silent. Whatever had happened after the thunderous racket that had brought down an entire corridor had also killed off the last of the specters that haunted this place.  

    Chasing after the youngling had brought her to a junction that split off into several other corridors. Not knowing which the male had fled towards, the Elder had done brief probing forays into each, but had decided against further investigations; the ruins felt extensive and she did not want to run the risk of getting lost forever in the catacombs. She made the decision to return, and would have to make do with what they had found at the campsite. 

    The Elder had been on her way to rejoin the Stone Singer when a bestial roar blasted through the tunnels. She pivoted and raced towards the direction of the sound without a second thought; the creature must have caught up with the male, and now that she had a lead, the Elder found that she could not allow the creature to carry out its clear and murderous intent, even if she had little in the way of plans to fight off a monster like that. 

    Such were her thoughts, but the ooze covered corridor where the beast’s cry had came from slowed her progress so much that she was certain all she would find at the end would be the multilated corpse of the youngling. It was far too difficult to carry on, and she was about to turn back once again when a rumbling of such magnitude and power swept through the tunnels, throwing her to the ground. She thought in that moment that the entire corridor would collapse, crushing and burying her alive with the immeasurable weight of the mountain above. 

    The structure had held, even if enormous cracks had split the stonework and torn apart much of the pipes, letting out more of the same foul-smelling ooze. The lights had also gone out at the same time, and the ruins fell into complete silence. In that instant, Nimi knew with a deep-seated certainty that the confrontation between the beast and the youngling was over. She did not know who prevailed, but she had hoped it would be the youngling.

    Nimi did not know she had found him until she had tripped over his crumpled body. He was unconscious, and his breathing shallow. She could not wake him no matter what she did, although she did not think he suffered any mortal injuries. Faced with no other choice, she had lifted his body on her back, gagging at the unwashed, fetid smell coming from him and carried him out.

    All the books and journals were gone from the campsite by the time the Elder returned after a long and tedious trudge. She dared not wait around however, and pressed on. The Stone Singer had carried out her orders, but she had also told him to fly back to First Canopy City if she was gone for too long and it was impossible to tell how much time had already passed. She felt the keen pressure of a hourglass about to run out of sand.                

     The Elder took to the tunnel that the carriage that ferried them had traveled in - she had waited for the carriage to show itself like it did before, but nothing had happened. Impatience had propelled her to jump into the dark passage in an attempt to walk back to the Grand Bridge.  

    It was quite a hike. The carriage had covered a much greater distance than she realized, and must have moved at a far greater speed than she thought was possible. A peculiar railing of some sort laid onto the ground had caused her to stumble and trip several times, which slowed her progress further. The youngling’s stench did not help matters. The first thing she was going to do if - when, she corrected herself. When she got back she was going to soak in a long bath to wash off the stink. She kept her pace with grim determination. 

    Her heart had sank when she spotted the glow of a light in front of her. Nimi remembered the ‘eyes’ of the carriage. They had been floating balls of light too which came at great speed, and she would be crushed into a pulp with little ceremony if the light did indeed announced the carriage’s arrival.    

    But this light was slow. It moved at little more than walking pace. Heart in her throat, she risked a holler. “Stone Singer, is that you?” Her hailing boomed in her own ears and she jumped. The closed off space of the tunnels amplified her voice. turning it louder than she liked, and the sound bounced through the passageway with a life of its own. She cringed at the ruckus and hoped that this accursed place did not have another monster hidden somewhere that it could throw up.

    Relief flooded the Elder as the answering cry came echoing back. “Elder! The Onesss Who Left be praised, you are alive!” The bobbing light ahead of her sped up as the Stone Singer hurried to the Elder. Nimi dropped the male from her shoulders and sat down with a sigh. Adrenaline faded, and all of a sudden, she could feel every screaming muscle and aching joints. She closed her eyes in a moment of respite as she waited for the Stone Singer.

    “Elder!” 

    Nimi cracked her eyelids open at the Stone Singer’s presence. Forcing her tired body to move, the Elder stood up, locking her knees so she wouldn’t tumble over in front of the Stone Singer. The Stone Singer carried an oil lamp as he approached and the Elder understood the source of the floating ball of light. She raised an eyebrow at the sight of something meant for desk use however. “Did you pack an oil lamp with you when we left? A torch or a lantern would be better.”

    “Nay, Elder, “ Sszesskri replied. “I found this amongssst the things you told me to recover. It appearsss our interloper was well equipped for a long stay. Sssspeaking of which,“ Sszesskri looked down at the body beside the Elder. The Stone Singer could still sense body heat and his heart beat from the unconscious longtail, although his pulse was weak. “Isss he the one you were looking for then? You never answered.”   

    “Close enough.” Nimi was grateful for the Stone Singer’s stalwart back, but she had to remember that he still worked for the Iron King. Besides, the light the oil lamp casted on the Stone Singer’s insectoid features made him look even more unnerving than usual in the darkness and made her less inclined to confide in him. Changing the subject, she asked, “How far are we to the dragonflies? Did you secure them?” 

    “Yessss, and it was a close thing. There was a quake, a sssevere one, although I am not sure if it wasss of the Prophecy. The lightsss had died soon after, along with everything else it ssseemss. I assssume that meant the matter of the creature that ambushed us was resolved?” 

    Nimi shrugged. She hoped so too. “I didn’t see it happen, but we should not tarry. Give me the lamp Stone Singer, and help me carry him. I’m spent.”

    “Of course, Elder.” Sszesskri handed the oil lamp to the Elder as he slung the male over his shoulders with effortless ease.

    “Let’s go. I need a bath.”

15.

    Elder Nimi stood in the large open area before the Grand Bridge of Second Canopy City in Fhr My’mr, watching as Captain Vith’s soldiers herded the city’s residents into the Grand Bridge chamber in large groups. 

    Tasch had done the impossible. He had managed to orchestrate the evacuation of First Canopy City, and most of the population had been moved to Second City by the time she and the Stone Singer had returned from the Undergrowth weeks ago.

    Events had not been not without their troubles however. The earth tremors had became more frequent as time passed, with each quake more serious than the last. They had watched as the crown of another Pillar Tree that neighbored Fhr My’mr - about a day’s flight away on dragonfly - sank beneath the roiling cloud covers during one such quake. All the mutterings of ‘rights’ and ‘autonomy’ from the stubborn locals had melted away to be replaced by fear. There had been a riot, as the locals rushed for the Grand Bridge in a panic-strickened attempt to escape the Steaming Jungle. Blood had been shed by the Iron King’s soldiers under Vith as they stood against the stampede. Vith’s guards were merciless and brutal in their suppression of the crowd, and cowed the civilians in short order.

    Nimi wished that hadn’t happened. Tasch was in First Canopy City when the riot struck. He still had to co-ordinate efforts in Tr Y’mn, and had sent Vith ahead to organize the other half of the evacuation in Second City. Nimi could not blame Tasch for that decision; they were so short handed. If anyone was to blame, it should be her, for leaving everything in Tasch’s hands. There were no gains to be had wallowing in regrets however. She did what she had to. Capturing Imru’s hunting rat and the nameless male, along with recovering all the other evidence they had found, was well worth it.

    She felt a gaze upon her and looked up. An older female, huddling in one of the groups awaiting their turn to enter the Grand Bridge, was giving her a poisonous, one-eyed glare. Her other eye was swollen from a deep cut above the brow. Doubtless a victim of one of Vith’s overzealous guards. Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. Perhaps she lost someone as well.

    Nimi looked away. She was not here to suffer the recriminations of the residents. The Elder was here to wait for Tasch. The Captain should be arriving within the hour with the last of the refugees from First City and as many of the sleeping Tree Dwellers as they could bring. Of far greater import however, were Imru’s lackey and the youngling. It had been well that Vith was not in First Canopy City when the sergeant from fourth squad and Byr had brought Gor back to First City. They had been able to keep the existence of what they found in the Undergrowth a secret so far, and the evacuation was a perfect excuse to stone wall Vith. The longer they could keep the Iron King in the dark about their discoveries, the better.  

    A buzz of murmuring from the crowd caught her attention. Several hands were raised and pointing at the sky. She looked up, and in the horizon, a flight of dragonflies approached, bearing, eight to one, a massive palanquin. Nimi’s shoulders drooped in relief. Tasch.  

    She watched as the dragonflies wheeled about the open square, the largest flat, empty space they could find in Second City, for a place to land. Several crew of the Sand Strider rushed forward, holding colored rags of green and red in their hands and waving them about in their improvised method of guiding the dragonflies while Vith’s soldiers rounded up the civilians, driving them out of the way. The first few landings had been a disaster, she had heard, with more than a few broken bodies left at the end, when the dragonflies had been unable to synchronize their landing together and the palanquins crashed. Her crew had adapted though, and used a version of the Fleet’s ship to ship signaling. The Elder could not contain a swell of pride when she heard that.     

    The team of dragonflies lowered themselves, and landed the palanquin. Outpoured the remaining refugees of Tr Y’mn, their faces drawn and haggard. They were sorted and led away by her crew with an efficiency they had honed over the past weeks.  

    Wagons filled with chests and containers came next, and then Tasch. He searched the crowd, and striding towards the Elder when he saw her handwave.

    “Greetings Pilot,” he hailed as he approached. “Pleased to report that we’ve all left First City. The crew be quite ready to see the back-end of this fly-infested hot house and go home.”  

    “You have done well Tasch,” Nimi said by way of reply. “You have done as much as could have been expected of you, and more.” The Elder then murmured, “our guests?”

    Tasch lowered his voice to match the Elder’s volume. “Aye, they are here, safe and sound. I have them hid in one of the wagons. Kept the Stone Singer busy, as you asked, so he’s got no chance to be talking to anyone he shouldn’t be. Set a pair of eyes on him at all times too, as his ‘assistant’. The young priest?”    

    “I had him cataloging the Library here,” Nimi answer. “It was quite a haul. Scented logs, seeds, herbs and poisons from the Tree Dwellers’ garden. Even purified datang, the Old Gods only knew how Siv got his hands on that. Our dead priest had been using the library as his own personal warehouse. Did you get anything out of the assassin?”  

   Tasch shook his head. “Tight-lipped, that one. Wouldn’t talk at all, although we got a reaction out of him when he saw the other male. I think you guessed right that they were both working for Elder Imru.”

   “And how is he? The youngling.”   

   “Beat up. Have injuries that’d make you ache just by looking.” Tasch rubbed his chin. “Must have had it pretty rough. Don’t think he’d be using his left arm much from a while.”

   “I meant, can he talk?” Nimi asked, impatient at Tasch’s meandering. “…..You know what I mean,” she waved a hand in irritation as she remembered that the youngling could not speak.

   Tasch did understand her. “Can’t get anything out of him Pilot. Not for a while at least. He’s still drifting in and out and ship’s cutter says he’ll be like that for a bit.” 

   Elder Nimi was silent as she gave the matter some thought. Then, having came to a decision, she said, “Have them all moved to my estate as soon as we return to Red City, Tasch. Including the materials we recovered. They are our upper hand, and I mean to bury the Spider with them.” Her eyes gleamed as she spoke. Tasch said nothing as he saluted her.

    Captain Vith, of the Iron King’s personal guards, watched the Temple Elder and the Sand Strider’s commanding officer bent their heads together whispering, as the throng of refugees from the other city shuffled past him. He knew that they had recovered something during the Temple Elder’s ill-advised jaunt beneath the clouds. He knew that he had been sent away from the other city to keep it secret from him. He had went along with their transparent attempts at guile, playing dumb. His mission was not to spy after all.

    Someone bumped into him from the back. “Beg pardon, Your Grace!” He nodded at the nondescript rat dressed in rags backing away, then turned his attention elsewhere. 

    After an appropriate length of time had passed, when he was sure no one was watching, he unfolded the slip of parchment the rat had left in his hands. 

    “Be ready.”

    The beginnings of a feral smile tugged at Vith’s lips at the two words, which he smothered. He was ready, and so were his soldiers.

 

16.

    Filled with nervous energy and unable to keep still, Mauf shifted his weight about. He wondered what the delay was. Standing on his tiptoes, he tried to see what was going on up front past the sea of shifting bodies in front of him. It had been a long time in coming but at last, at long last, they were heading back. Mauf was squashed to the back of the Grand Bridge chamber, again, and had been there since early morning. It had been hours, and he could not wait to be gone from this accursed place and be back amongst his beloved books in the Temple Library.   

   He had been keyed up ever since arriving in Fhr My’mr. The Elder had tasked him to catalogue what was in the Library here in Second City, another job he was sure was meant only to keep him occupied and out of the way of the Elder. It suited him, though he couldn’t get much done. No one in the entire city had their mind on any kind of work, and neither did he, despite his initial amazement when he saw what Siv had used the Library in Second City for. All that contraband…the purified datang alone would give Elder Nimi a huge leverage over Elder Imru. 

    Everyone was on edge. The tension in Second City was almost unbearable with the Grand Bridge so close, and the impending fulfillment of the Prophecy. The tremors had gotten much more frequent, and he wondered if anyone had noticed that the city was no longer even level - it tilted just a little, as if the Pillar Tree itself was listing. His writing materials had kept rolling off his desk. 

    Mauf had swallowed that observation. Bury it as deep into his psyche as he could. After witnessing the collapse of another Pillar Tree, not a soul in the city dared to give voice to the dread beating at their hearts, for fear that it would draw the attention of the Old Gods, and they would quicken the Prophecy somehow. Mauf snorted in derision at the superstition. These peasants knew nothing about the Old Gods. After a brief hesitation, he mumbled a quick prayer to the Old Gods. Just in case.  

    More time passed. He could stand it no longer and tried an awkward a hop, in the hopes that he could see something. The longtail that stood beside him glared at him in irritation, and Muaf glowered back in return, but he subsided.

   He loosened the collar of his robes and adjusted his sling. The heat was driving him mad. The Steaming Jungle was hot enough already on a daily basis, but the press of bodies made it so much…..

   He felt as if someone had yanked the ground beneath him away. Unbalanced, he fell, knocking into the longtail with whom he had a staring contest just a moment ago. Still others fell on top of him, and the weight of the crowd pressed onto his fractured arm and ribs. His eyes bulged in pain, and he opened his mouth to scream and curse. 

    A deafening booming that climbed into a roaring crescendo cut him off. The Prophecy! Heart leaping into his throat, he squeezed his eyes shut, praying to the Old Gods to not let this be the end. Fearful moaning rose around him, sharpening his own dread.

    The rumbling went on and on, and the trembling grew worse. A loud crack thundered, and an ear splitting creak followed by another resounding crack as a part of Fhr My’mr somewhere broke off and fell. A youngling started crying.

    The tremor subsided. The tension was as thick as congealed grease. Mauf was suffocating. How much longer!?

    The bold, confident call of Elder Nimi came from the front. “That’s enough! No more loading. Close the gates, we’re leaving now!” 

    Mauf let out the breath he did not realized he had been holding. He almost fainted in relief, as the Grand Bridge hummed, and the gentle glow of the Aetheric Tether wrapped its soft fingers around him before the Grand Bridge bore them all away from the doomed world. 

 

Epilogue.

    Something deep inside his lungs twitched, and he coughed by reflex. A dark, greenish cloud exploded from his jaws, and his one good eye watched as it thinned and drifted away in the hot, humid air. He could not see very well anymore. Something grew out of his other eye, blocking his vision. That should be painful, but it wasn’t. He could not feel much of anything either. He was numb all over.

    That bothered him. Why though? He could not remember. Who was he, anyway? Why was he here? A faint memory shimmered through the fog that clouded his mind, then disappeared. He tried to summon that shimmering again but the gossamer threads wisped through his mental efforts. 

    Distant, clashing thunder distracted him, and he looked up. He was on high ground and he could see out into the horizons of a dark and foreboding landscape. Blurred images of himself climbing up and up to this piece of rock flickered through his mind, and was gone, ephemeral as morning dew. Out in the distance, across a dead plain riven with snaking coils of churning lava that glowed with a sullen, angry glare, a jagged mountain rose from the hellish depths of the molten sea beneath like an accusing finger. Huge gouts of lava burst from the ground, setting fire to everything that it touched. Plumes of smoke rose all over the horizons. A large crack opened like a wound in the earth, and he watched as the crack crawled forwards in his direction.    

    The ground he was sitting on started to shift, then convulsed. All of a sudden, he was thrown high up into the air as a primeval force beneath the earth heaved. He fell back and landed in an awkward position, cracking his head against a rock. He felt something wet flowed down his scalp, and saw a thick, green liquid that dripped from his snout onto a filthy body covered with long strands of a sticky, weblike substance. The strands, or rather, roots, curled around wet, pulsing globes that looked like they were growing from beneath the furry body. He stared at the body in fascination. Was it his? He could see a stump where a thick cluster of the globes grew around. He racked his head for a moment. Oh yes. That was where his leg was supposed to be. He remembered loosing it, in a flash of white light.      

       Another rumbling started. This one grew without stop. The ground beneath him bucked and things fell around him. Leaves and giant branches, all came crashing down. Fissures appeared in the ground and a moment later, he felt his elevation drop. The earth started tilting, and he began to slide and tumble. The angle of the tilt became more extreme, and he went head over heels until he struck the edge of the torn ground and fell off. 

        A spark lit up his mind, and he remembered who he was. Dasher. That was his name. So called because he was the fastest runner in his village. Then he closed his one good eye as he plunged into the hungry furnace of the fury that had slept beneath the earth which had awoken after a million years to tear through the upper crusts of the world once known as Venus in violent rebirth.  

End of Book One

 

To Be Continued….