It was cool that morning, the wind cold against his nose and hands, toying with the edges of his cloak. Chenuk flexed his fingers then curled them around the grip of the crossbow, the wood and metal a comforting weight in his arms.
The first rays of the Lightbringer had tinted the walls of the tower pink, slowly lightening as the bright orb rose above the Ramparts and began its daily passage across the sky. There had been a few glimpses of the renegades on the balcony, a couple of the demon. Pending orders, nobody fired, but a hush had descended amongst the troops as they stared at it. It scanned the horizon, then looked at them before retreating inside again. The second time it was doing something to its arm, again looking to the horizon.
"I wonder if they're still alive in there," the trooper next to him had muttered. The query had percolated through the ranks. Dozens of gory descriptions of what may have happened to the northern plains Trenalbi arose.
Chenuk shuddered. He'd been involved in the chase through the temple, the royal guards behind them making sure the regulars didn't falter. The third trooper ahead of him on the stairs had been crushed when the roof came down on him. Chenuk had gotten off lightly with bad bruising and ringing ears from the blast that kicked him backwards down the stairs.
Scorched his face fur also.
The gaping wound in the side of the tower was still there, a hole three times Chenuk's height, choked with debris. Against the sky it was a jagged gouge out of the otherwise vertical walls of the tower. It stood like a single finger above the palace roof, higher even than the watch and semaphore towers. He didn't know why the priests had ordered it built, they had their own inscrutable reasons, he didn't really care.
"What is that thing?" the trooper beside him hissed. "Where'd it come from?"
"We found it in the central plains," Chenuk replied without thinking.
"You were there?" The other's ears perked up in interest. "How'd you catch it?"
"Just stuck it in a cage," Chenuk replied.
"That's all?" the soldier was disbelieving. "It does that," he pointed at the hole in the tower, "and it just lets you stick it in a cage? Didn't it also kill a priest?"
"Two," Chenuk corrected.
"Two?!" The trooper stared at him.
"Uh-huh," Chenuk flicked his tail. "That thing, whatever it is, it isn't an animal. I tell you, some of the stuff it had with it..."
"You two!" A captain roared at them, making all the warriors within earshot snap to attention. "Shut it!"
Chenuk licked his chops and turned his eyes back to the tower. His palms were sticky, sweaty. Mother! He'd storm the Hub alone if so ordered, but by the Gods, they'd have to find someone else to tackle that tower! If it were down to him he'd burn the place and have done with it.
Of course it wasn't left to him.
There was a disturbance around the stair to the rampart. Royal guards were pushing up, forming a cordon around the Trenalbi in colour-splashed regalia, armour too ornate to be practical.
"This stinks," that warrior beside Chenuk hissed. Chenuk said nothing, but his own tail twitched in annoyance.
And he groaned inwardly when the messenger, glittering in his ceremonial armour of office, halted at the peak of the tower's shadow and hailed the occupants.
The silence of the dead cloaked the rooftop. The distant sounds of the town, cries of flyers, came loud. Then there was a Trenalbi on the balcony, hanging back to keep archers from getting a clear shot. It was that male from the cage, Chenuk saw, although without his fur and no longer wearing his stolen armour, instead wrapped in a robe. The skin of his furless head was grey, like the stone of the walls. Briefly Chenuk wondered if his own looked like that and fervently hoped it didn't.
"Sekher Che," the messenger called. The male in the tower shifted warily and the intermediary continued: "I bear an ultimatum from the High Lord and the Holy Council. You are willing to hear me out."
Above them the fugitive male conferred with someone behind him, then turned to shout, "Go ahead! I don't have anything better to do."
The messenger scowled, then replied, "His Highest has been most exceedingly generous and offers these terms. You may accept or reject them as you see fit."
"You and your companions will be granted your lives, supplies, and safe passage to the border of your choosing. In return you will surrender the creature into our hands. Alive. It will be unarmed and rendered harmless."
"And how would you suggest we do that?" the northern Trenalbi retorted. Chenuk would have sworn he detected amusement in that statement.
"That's up to you," the messenger replied stiffly.
"And if we decline?"
"You will watch your associates flayed and impaled above the palace gates. You yourself will be treated to some time in our lower dungeons, from where I can assure you, you will not emerge a whole male. Then you will join your friends."
"Sounds like real fun."
"I'm so glad you think so," the official smiled icily, then bared his teeth. "So what is your answer?"
"Hai! Don't we get some time to talk it over?"
"What's to talk about? You drop that thing out here and you go free; Or you end up sitting on a spike. Your choice."
"I... We can't!" the bald male was looking flustered, scared. "It'll tear us apart! We can wait for it to drift... we might have a chance."
"You have until Pan tomorrow. Then all deals are off. We come and get you."
Chenuk frowned as he watched the Royal Guard bustle the messenger back down into the protective depths of the palace, then he looked to the tower. No. He didn't like this.
"So now what?"
An exhausted Sekher slumped down in the desk chair. "Gods. I don't know."
Chaiila glanced surreptitiously at the creature. It was huddled in a corner, creating incomprehensible sorcery in vivid colours that burned in naked air above its wrist. "I think we could take it. It bleeds. If we hit it together, hard enough..."
"No," Sekher stopped her before she went any further. It gnawed at him. That was an idea he had entertained; seriously, but he couldn't sell his creature out like that. "No, we can't. We owe it."
"Owe it?!" She barked incredulously. "And just what do we owe it? If that thing hadn't been along they wouldn't have spotted us in the first place! Good riddance I say!"
"Hai! It helped me!" Sekher protested. "I won't betray it. Besides, would you really want to deliver something with that kind of power into their hands?"
"Power?" she gave a peculiar little half-smile. "If it's so omnipotent, then why doesn't it just spirit us out of here," she clapped her hands, "like that? Huh? Its power does seem a little... limited, does it not?"
"Perhaps," Sekher's lips pulled back from his teeth as he grinned at her, "but that thing was friendly to me. It helped me. I owe it." Then he surprised himself by hissing, with more passion than he believed he felt, "I'm not going to hand it over."
Perhaps surprise flickered in the female's hard eyes, also intrigue: maybe. Then she lashed her tail around and commenced preening it. "You seem to have stuck a claw in its interests." She was silent a time, then: "I should tell you that they would doubtless kill us even if we were to surrender the creature."
Sekher had entertained that possibility. "At least they can't make me into a cushion," he muttered, inspecting his furless arm. Was there stubble? He wasn't sure. So, if he died, would his spirit be doomed to wander the ether bald?
"They can wait," Chaiila snorted, not improving his spirits.
"What of you?" Sekher asked. "They don't seem to know you're female. Would they..."
"They would," she confirmed. "They have... specialists for females." Her tail twitched so violently it almost escaped her hands. For a split semibeat she was transparent as crystal: afraid. Light from the door behind Sekher slanted dully over his shoulder, making her horizontal pupils flick to small squares. Then the window was shut and she hung her head. "Che," she said. "I fear I must ask a boon of you."
He dipped his own head. "If it be in my power."
She heaved a breath, glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice, "If I should be unable, please, see to it that Nersi... that they cannot take her."
Sekher's guts twisted, clutching him in confusion. "I... I... Is it our right..."
"Please." It hurt her to beg him like this, he saw. "Please, Sekher. She would never last in their hands, and she would suffer terribly. It is right. It is the only way."
Beyond her, Nersi was motionless on the bed, eyes focused on that here-not-here of Drift, the white of her nictitating membrane half-extruded. Maybe she was hearing them, but somehow Sekher thought otherwise. Small she looked: frail, vulnerable, and Sekher's ears wilted as he realised Chaiila was right.
Pained, he closed his eyes and gestured assent. No words. Chaiila also had no need of them.
And there was the faint scent of salt, old clothing, a presence at his shoulder. Storm-grey eyes met his as he looked up, furrows in the smooth brow. As white as ever its apparel was, but its skin was dusty, a streak of blood there, the matted fur a dirty brown, tangled.
Was it aware of what they'd been discussing? If so, there was no glimmer of anything comprehensible behind those round pupils. Chaiila was bristling slightly, not even trying to conceal her unease around the thing. It shifted uncomfortably, rumbled softly to her and pointed a finger at Nersi, took a hesitant step towards her then turned, as if seeking confirmation. Again it gestured at the Drift-bound female.
"It wants to go to..."
"I know what it wants!" Chaiila snapped Sekher off. "Why? What does it want WITH her?!"
"Why don't you see?" Sekher suggested.
Chaiila glared at him, abruptly whipped about and faced the creature, then swept an arm to usher it through to her cousin. The instant the creature was abreast her it froze with a swordtip at its throat.
"Perhaps it can't talk," Chaiila hissed, "but this it will understand." Then she leaned forward to growl at the creature, "Harm her, hurt her, and I carve you another mouth." She lowered the sword point but not her guard and stepped aside to let it past.
Understandably cautious it sidled past her to sit at Nersi's feet. Chaiila leaned against the wall, arms crossed with naked sword dangling, watching it. Slowly it pulled aside the coverlet and bared her legs. The bandages, once clean white and yellow; lively, bright colours, were crusted and stained with rust-brown. The creature gently lifted her leg and began to remove them.
Chaiila shifted undecidedly, gripping her sword.
The bandages were tossed aside. Beneath them, the wound was swollen red and white, half scabbed, a pale fluid welling out. The creature sucked air in through its teeth. Its clawless fingers gently explored the puncture, working out the sepsis. Nersi mewled and shifted, finally starting to focus on what was leaning over her and Chaiila moved to sit at her shoulder, to keep her calm.
"What's going on? What's it doing?" Nersi was wide eyed, trembling under her cousin's hand.
"Calm," Chaiila soothed. "It's trying to help." She stroked Nersi's shoulder and Sekher could almost hear her adding, 'I hope'.
Nersi panted and watched the creature.
Once more it adjusted something on the face of the device strapped to its left forearm, and aimed it at the wound. For a heartbeat it held it steady, then Nersi yelped in sudden pain, "It burns!"
Chaiila rounded with a snarl, but the creature had already lowered its arm and was inspecting the wound. Still an angry red, it was, but the swelling had subsided, the dark fluid seeping out coloured to clean blood. From another pouch the creature produced that small grey slab and touched it in a certain sequence. It slid open, produced a small mirror-lined draw on which a droplet of blood was smeared, then closed again. Seemingly satisfied, the creature tore a blanket and again waved its arm over the strips. Nersi tensed as it touched her leg and patted her calf, making its noises all the while until she relaxed enough for it to wrap the bandages. For a final time it passed its forearm over the limb and with a gentle stroke of her fur stepped away.
Chaiila examined the medical work, then grudgingly admitted it was quite satisfactory. "How does it feel?" she asked Nersi.
"Ah... Hurts a little. Not as much as before."
"Huh!" Chaiila's head went back. She was eyeing her cousin suspiciously, as if she didn't want to hear that.
"You worry too much," Nersi laughed, plucking half-heartedly at the furs she lay on.
Chaiila's ears lowered. "With something like that around, how can I not?"
"No, you couldn't, could you," Nersi smiled, then licked her lips, a gleam in her eyes. "Is there any water?"
And Chaiila flinched, then spat and turned to where the creature had taken its place in its corner, watching them. "Hai, you have water."
It stared at her.
"You know, water," she mimed drinking.
It cocked its head to one side. One side of its mouth twitched and Sekher himself fought back a smile.
"Water," Chaiila repeated, starting to sound a little annoyed. "Come on you ugly, mange-ridden lump of shen shit! Water!" she snarled, then went for her sword.
"Hai! Stop!" Nersi cried out in alarm, then in reproachful tones said, "You always were too quick with that thing. Try having a little more respect."
"What?" Chaiila looked offended. "To that?"
Nersi gave a weary smile and while miming, said softly to the creature, "Please, may I drink?"
Immediately it rose and went to her side, producing the water flask. Chaiila gaped then huffed in indignation and disgust.
"Hah!" Sekher barked. "I don't think it loves you, Chaiila."
"The feeling's mutual," she snorted. "Pet monsters. Gods, I don't know; things are just getting too weird." She sucked air, dropped her rear on the desk and began wiping down her sword blade with a rag. It was a habit, Sekher guessed.
"Nervous?" he asked.
She gave him a look that singed his tail. "I'm waiting to die!" she said in level tones, then snarled, "What do you think!"
"Haaaa... No." She raked claws through her muzzle fur, down her throat, and stared glumly at her cousin, sitting up in bed examining the creature's hands and fur. "I'm nervous." She grinned: "I don't think I've ever been so nervous."
"K'streth," Sekher murmured.
"What?" Her eyes narrowed. Then: "Huh, right. Perhaps I have. I never did get a chance to thank you for that, did I."
"I think you just did."
"Yeah, well... I guess I just postponed it," she sighed.
"I'm grateful," Sekher said. "It beats rotting in a cell. I'll maybe get a chance to take a few of them with me." He studied her anew, noting how she averted her eyes. "You didn't come all this way just for me, did you."
She swallowed. "Did you know someone by the name of Twistfur?"
Oh Gods, oh Gods.
And she caught the expression on his face. "He was my sire. My true-sire. I know it's not usual, but we'd always stayed in contact. My true-mother left me at the crèche and that was that. But he always came to see me. I... I think I was closer to him than anyone else. I saw his squad get you away, then later heard that Rim troops'd captured a Tsuba Highborn. I followed you. I found out what happened."
"He..." Sekher croaked, swallowed. "He stopped the arrow that would have got me. I'm sorry."
"It..." she trailed off and turned away from him. Sekher caught a glimpse of her nose: wet, as were the scent-spots on her cheeks, leaking her grief.
The irreparable loss of her town, her home. To have held it so long, bottling it with bravado. She deserved this release.
Nersi gently pushed the creature aside and left it standing there, looking confused, whilst she welcomed Chaiila with gentle touches and soft words. They curled up together in a loose embrace, Chaiila's muzzle buried under Nersi's chin. There was soft murmuring, comforting, then they were quiet and slowly their breathing slowed, synchronised, as they slipped into Drift.
Sekher pitied her, also felt a twinge of jealousy. To be able to huddle up with other bodies, sharing warmth, protection, comfort, reassurance.
He sighed and readjusted his cloak, trying to block a lonely draught.
The movement alerted something inside him. A part of him, not a consciousness, registered possible danger, increased his heartbeat, respiration, pulled his self out of Drift.
Sekher blinked, shaking his head, the nictitating membrane pulling back and clearing his vision. "Huh? What..."
A cool hand clamped over his mouth, silencing him. The odours of salt and drying hay were strong in his nostrils. It was still dark, a dying glow of embers in the fireplace. The sparse ruddy glow flickered on an alien silhouette leaning over him, flat planes and bone structure accentuated by drastic shadow. It anxiously glanced toward the balcony before lifting its hand.
Sekher breathed deeply, forcing himself to relax, to draw his claws in again. Ai, but his muscles were stiff from sitting in the chair. Before him the creature crouched down, lowering itself to his level. It rumbled softly, pointing towards the female and nudging Sekher to get him moving.
Chaiila's and Nersi's rousing queries were the same as Sekher's, cut off at the same point when he urged them to silence. Chaiila had reached for her sword, alarm blossoming across her face when she realised it was not by her side. "What's going on?" she hissed.
"Ask that," he whispered, jerking a thumb toward the creature. It was standing just inside the balcony door with the armour on its left forearm glowing softly. Every so often it would glance out the door as if looking for something.
Chaiila and Nersi both gave Sekher questioning glances. He spread his hands in a shrug.
Cloud was low that night, a light mist in the air, cool against Sekher's muzzle. Through the dampness Sekher could see the blurred red glows of braziers, eclipsed at odd intervals as Rim warriors moved in front of them. They were still down there.
Huh! Perhaps they'd gone home for the night... Of course they were still down there!
Yet there was no sign that anything untoward was transpiring. It was as quiet as a twelve week gone corpse.
He turned back to the creature. "What're you up to?" he murmured.
It twitched, looked up from its work and grinned at Sekher. They were small, square teeth that Sekher found difficult to be threatened by; nevertheless he decided to take the better part of valour and stepped back. It shook its head, then touched its forearm.
Without a flicker its brilliant white clothing changed to a pitch black. Sekher gaped wordlessly. Chaiila muttered a hasty warding mantra, grabbing her sword from the desk.
A dark shape against the night fog it stepped out onto the balcony, hugging the curve of the tower wall to further confound any eyes that might be looking. Long fingers flickered, seemingly caressing its left wrist, and it growled.
A line of red light snapped into existence, a reed-thin bar of red light spearing towards the balcony, originating somewhere in the foggy distance. At times that thread of light looked solid enough to touch, at other moments it faded, vanished, reappeared with the drifting clouds.
"Gods," Sekher whispered, awed.
The beam shifted smoothly until it had pinpointed a spot on the wall several spans to the left of the door. Hurriedly the creature retreated back into the room, closing the balcony door, ushering the recalcitrant Trenalbi to the far side of the room where they huddled around Nersi, agitated and confused.
"What's going on?" she hissed, wild-eyed. Tendons on her arms stood out as she clenched her leg, trying to get up. Chaiila pressed her back again, grasped her cousin's hand and glanced at the creature, awaiting its next move. It growled at its lower cannon, which duly growled back. Outside, beyond the thick tower walls, came a faint howling, a roar that within a heartbeat grew to a crescendo then a powerful impact, the amplified sound of swordstrike on stone, shook the tower, jolting showers of mortar and the dust of ages loose. A penetrating whine, a screech of metal biting against rock, set Sekher's teeth on edge as something on the other side of the wall tried to claw its way through.
Then there was silence.
A decabeat later; distant shouting.
Six strides and the creature was across the room, pulling the door open. It glanced out then frantically beckoned to Sekher and Chaiila. Chaiila balked.
"Come on!" Sekher hissed, tugging her arm. Reluctantly she came.
The mist was a godsend, but still they stayed low, hidden from Rim eyes and weapons by the balcony parapet. Imbedded in the solid stone of the wall to the left of the door was what could only be the source of the noise.
A stubby cylinder, as long as Sekher's arm and half as wide, pressing against the tower like a bloodsucker on a herdbeast. The front end was slightly crumpled, four armatures spaced around its circumference splayed out, drill-bits on the end bored deep into stone. With a sharp Thum-Thummp the thing split lengthways, two halves of something that wasn't metal rattling to the ground. The inside of the thing was a glittering array of compressed struts and reinforcing braces, black boxes and cylinders, all packed into the tiny space. For what purpose Sekher couldn't begin to guess.
Then the creature detached a piece of the thing, a small rectangular assembly of metal that it pulled out... and left hanging seemingly in midair.
Sekher stared, not entirely surprised. There'd been too much strangeness for him not to be inured to some extent. He blinked, peered closely, and finally noticed the thread running from the back of the cylinder and off into the darkness, a minute thing, no thicker than a strand of fur. The condensation beading on it gave it a mercurial sheen.
From the device hanging from the thread the creature unraveled a black strap, adjusted its length until it was a long loop, long enough to loop under a Trenalbi's shoulders, as the creature showed it wished to do.
Chaiila understood then.
"No!" She backed away. "Not a chance! On that?! Sekher, it's demented!"
It stepped forward to offer her the loop and she snarled, teeth bared and ears flattening back, drawing her sword in a gleaming arc. She struck, aiming for its head.
The creature desperately flung up an arm, ducking. The sword glanced off its arm, making the beast gasp, staggering it to one knee. Chaiila gave tongue to another yowl and swung around for another strike and Sekher was unable to say exactly what she was aiming for, the creature or the thread, but it was the thread she hit...
And the blade was sliced in two. Chaiila stared in shock at the ruined stump she was holding. The commotion she raised had set off something amongst the Rim troops, already milling in confusion from the creature's sorcery. More lights flared, torches and lanterns, orders were shouted, then came the sharp snap of arbalests.
A bronze-tipped bolt as long as Sekher's leg caromed off the top of the balcony parapet into the tower wall, striking a shower of sparks and just missing Sekher who belatedly ducked. Smaller projectiles rattled off the rock.
Faster than Sekher would have believed possible in something with its bulk the creature seized Chaiila's arm, disarming her with a twist of its wrist, then snarled at Sekher, gesturing curtly.
Sekher pressed himself against Chaiila, looking into her panicked eyes. The strap settled around both of them, Sekher hooked it under his arms, around him and Chaiila.
Then it touched its wrist armour.
A distant cough, from far out in the fog, growing to a rumble, a roar, then a scream like the fury of the wind. From the distant night streaks of fire appeared, arrowing down onto the palace rooftop. Gouts of flame and smoke billowed. Explosions thumped, hammering the air with a pressure that was more than a sound.
Screams sounded. Pain and terror and something not quite Trenalbi. Blue fire belched skywards from the temple as priests tried to defend against an attack they couldn't see.
The creature slapped Sekher's shoulder and assisted the shaking Chaiila over the side of the balcony railing. Then with a lurch the solid stone dropped away and they were hanging by a thread, the tower falling away behind them, fading into the mists as they gathered speed. Chaiila twisted and kicked, screamed, "NERSI!"
Sekher fought to still her, afraid she would dislodge them, afraid she would draw the attention of the Ch'sty Rim soldiery.
Although they seemed to have troubles of their own. Below them, a brilliant green line lanced arrow-straight from the mists to flicker across the battlements, vanish in a drifting cloud, then flash into sight again. Violent fires burned across the rooftop, pyres of sparks and flames where siege engines had been, gaping wounds blasted in the roof and walls, also billowing flames and smoke, other places seemingly melted. The figures of Rim warriors were everywhere, so many sprawled unmoving.
Then they were over the town: far below and dark.
Chaiila was digging claws into his hide as she clung to him. "Nersi," she whimpered.
Sekher clutched her tighter as they picked up speed, the wet wind howling around them setting them spinning first this way, then that; like a plumb bob on a line. The hum from the assembly clipped to the thread grew.
Gods! How fast were they going? More importantly, how were they going to stop?
Then the river was behind them, the water lost in darkness, when the ground came up out of the mists. Fields, the top of grain, blurred past ten body lengths below their dangling feet. If they hit anything at this speed...
But the ground dropped away again as the thread began to curve gently upwards, and as they climbed they slowed, more than the incline should account for. There was a braking mechanism somewhere on the thing Sekher guessed. Or else it was magic.
The ground reappeared again, the flank of a hill, much slower this time: the speed of a fast shen, running speed, then walking.
"Ready?" Sekher asked Chaiila. She grimaced in return.
Without warning, from the fog ahead, an angry beam of green light snapped past them, making both Trenalbi duck instinctively. Then a pale shape materialised from the darkness and banks of clouds before them: Much, much taller than a Trenalbi, many long legs raising it high off the ground, bulky body, glittering dark eyes set in a small head that pivoted to stare at them as they inched to a halt and dangled from the thread attached to it.
End Godsend part 6