There was a dull, warm taste in his mouth.
He moved an arm, clenched a hand: pain.
It wasn't really a coherent word. Rather it was a croak, barely audible.
"Che! Hai! Che, you alright?"
Hands touched him, fluttering and uncertain. He groaned again and spat blood before cracking an eye open. Chaiila was looming over him. "So," he rasped, "We dead?"
"What?" she was momentarily taken aback, then laughed, "No. Oh Gods no!"
"Oh," he grimaced. "I feel like it."
He tried moving then. Muscles protested as he sat, but nothing seemed broken. His cloak was gone and it was a while before he realised he was laying on it. The stubble of his fur was curled, as though by heat, some of it crumbling away as he brushed a hand across his stomach. His skin burned anew. Chaiila's face was swollen, an eye almost shut, also her pelt was curled and crisped at the edges. They were both covered with a fine sprinkling of dust and dirt and pale ash.
"Copulation! What happened? That light... Where's Nersi? The Rimmers..."
"Calm," Chaiila interrupted. "Nersi's fine. She's over there, seeing to your... daemon."
"My..." Sekher turned to see Nersi beside a prone figure in white, then he saw what lay around them and gaped in dumb shock.
Trees were still burning, throwing a pall of smoke high into the air to mingle with the cloud that lay over the whole river valley. Tumbled lumps, still smoking, were all that remained of Rim troopers, while here and there wandered stunned and burned shen, whining in pain. Somehow Sekher found his feet and stumbled over to their protecting boulders. The scene beyond was beyond comprehension.
The river was dammed, slowly filling a circular lake three hundred paces across. Around that the ground was scorched black. There was hardly enough left of the Rim ambush to make charred lumps on the ground. Smoke rose in stately columns from the siege engines. Sekher could see a few survivors moving, a very few. If there were more they had since departed.
The Red river was running true to color.
Already carrion hunters were appearing on the scene. Graceful black and red-crested Spearflyers were circling overhead, twisting in the air as they wound spirals lower and lower to the burnt carcasses strewn along the river. Their clacking and screaming arguments often exploding in a flurry of fur and torn wing membranes.
An area of over a kilopace in radius. Destroyed. Levelled. Annihilated.
Sekher collapsed against the cool granite, not willing to believe what his eyes had just seen.
"You were right," said Chaiila softly. "It is a daemon." Seth'Nai, their daemon, was sprawled in a loose tangle of limbs, unmoving. Whatever it had loosed upon the Rim forces wasn't selective. Nersi sat beside it, touching the head with its long strands of fur.
"It's alive?" asked Sekher.
"I... think so," she replied uncertainly. "Its... pulse is hard to find."
Sekher knelt and put his muzzle near the creature's face. He could feel breath against his nose. So, it WAS still alive. He sat back and studied it. The scratches down its cheek were caked with dirt and scarlet blood was smeared across its features.
Nersi dabbed at the blood with a scrap of cloth, exercising a tenderness that disturbed Sekher. "You're too rash, cousin," she admonished Chaiila. "It was trying to help you."
"How was I to know," grumbled Chaiila. "It... it TOUCHED me!" She sounded - Sekher marvelled - almost insulted.
"It saved your tail," Nersi corrected.
"Huh!" was the dark female's reply. "I don't suppose you want to leave it?"
"Just a thought," Chaiila hastily reassured her cousin. "Anyhows, we're on foot now... with a wounded daemon to boot. I suggest we perhaps start moving downstream, find somewhere to 'borrow' some shen. First though," she sighed, "we try to get THIS sorted out."
In its effort to shield them the creature had taken the brunt of the blast. Nearly ten bodylengths it had been hurled, bouncing off rocks not doing it the least of good. While Chaiila went off to see if she could scavenge some weapons, supplies, or even transport, Sekher and Nersi settled Seth'Nai out and did their best to check for broken... whatever it had. The creature's garments hampered their efforts, but there was no apparent way to remove them. The limbs felt strange, the joints... wrong, but as best as they could determine there was nothing broken. Nersi produced a torn black cloak that they wrapped the creature in.
The Lightbringer was gone beyond the distant Ramparts, the Daughters high in the night sky casting bluish light across the landscape. Three of the Guards moved in their slow, stately climb almost directly above them. On the ascent; it was still early. Was that where his creature had come from? The Guards? It made sense of a sort, he supposed.
To the north the Hole, the bottom of the Well, was a vast disk of white specks that shimmered and twinkled, numbers too great to count in three days. The spirits of those who had passed. There would be a few hundred more lights there this night, Sekher mused.
A cloud drifted across the Hole and Sekher sighed, his breath glittering in the air. Gods but the temperature dropped at night on the plains! He pulled the smooth folds of his cloak closer and lolled his head to look at the pale face of the creature, pale like the faces of the Daughters.
"Nersi," he said as they both watched the pale features, "Why did you do this? Come with Chaiila? You aren't Small Guard, are you."
She scratched her neck, then gave a rueful smile and began grooming the tip of her tail. "No, not me. When we evacuated the city I came with her. She was sworn to look after me, an honourbond, but she also had to find you. I came along to help her. To tell the truth, I was looking forward to meeting the male who got her so..."
Sekher cocked his head, puzzled.
"Who saved her life," Nersi finished rather lamely, ears drooping. In the awkward silence that followed she dampened a cloth with saliva and dabbed at the blood drying on the creature's face. It stirred, recoiled from the female's touch with a yelp, eyes snapping wide open and fingers clenching into fists.
"Calm! Calm!" Nersi urged, patting its arm. And calm it did, blinking at her and Sekher while its breathing slowed. "Good, good. It's alright," Nersi crooned.
"Gods," Sekher spat in disbelief. "It totally destroys a few hundred troops and rearranges part of a river, and you treat it like a lap-pet!"
"Try kindness," she growled back at him. "Perhaps it can understand that."
Chaiila stepped into their midst with an armful of sharp edges and other clutter. She glanced at the creature. "Oh, awake now, is it. Here," she dumped the assorted ironmongery on the rocks with a racket that sounded like a suit of armour falling down a staircase. "Take your pick. It's like a noble's armoury out there."
"You went a little... over the top, didn't you?" Sekher observed, eyeing the pile. Chaiila had scrounged everything from bronze swords down to little daggers and bladebreakers.
She gave a negligent toss of her hand. "Take what you can use. We chuck the rest. There's enough stuff lying around out there to equip an army."
"It was," Nersi reminded her.
"Huh! Well, some of it was melted anyhow. Bows were ruined."
"Any food?" Sekher asked.
She grinned, running her tongue over sharp teeth: "Plenty." From a piece of scorched cloak doubling as a sack she pulled pieces of shen haunch. "Tough," she confessed, "and overdone, but scrape off the char and underneath they'll be fine."
"Shen... meat!" Nersi bit each word off, then spat it out. "That stuff is... Gods, even the Wharf Taverns didn't stock that!"
"It's edible," Chaiila said. "And we don't have time to be hunting down a five-course banquet. Someone's going to come to see what happened. Can your Seth'Nai travel?"
The creature in question had produced its water flask, drank deeply, then passed it on to Nersi and Sekher. After a moments deliberation it tossed it at Chaiila and clambered to its feet; somewhat unsteadily. She glanced once at the flask. "Thanks. I'm not thirsty."
When she threw it back, it was harder than need be. Seth'Nai caught it against its chest then tucked it away into the concealed pocket on its side; slowly and deliberately, as though hurting. Sekher wondered whether perhaps it had come out of that blast worse than he had.
"It can walk," he said. "I don't know how far..."
"Doesn't matter. We can find a settlement and buy some transport."
"You've got money?"
Chaiila hefted a bulging pouch that hung from her belt. It rattled when she shook it. "Have now."
"Their bodies were ash," Chaiila stilled Nersi's outburst. "They had no need of it. I suggest you take what you think you may need, and we'll get moving."
Sekher picked up a leaf-shaped shortsword. It was a simple weapon, standard issue, but it was steel, with halfway decent heft. He sighed, wishing for the superb craftsmanship and balance of his Shern'ae blade, but that was gone forever. To supplement the shortsword, instead of a shield, he took a small bladebreaker; also steel. Nersi took a second shortsword while Chaiila had already found her weapon: a long, straight, well-forged steel cavalry blade - doubtless officer issue - settled across her back in its harness.
"Hai, Che!" she called. "You going to wear that?" she asked, eyeing the silver poncho.
He looked down. The moonlight made the material flare icy blue. "A bit conspicuous, huh?"
"Like shit in a soupbowl." She tossed him the battered old cloak Seth'Nai had been using for a blanket. "Try that."
The coarse weave promised to chafe, so he donned it over the daemoncloth. It wasn't too hot: the wind still wound up under his clothing, crawling across his naked skin with cold tendrils. He shuddered and shook his head. To be naked-skinned all the time, how could anyone live like that. He cast a sidelong glance at Seth'Nai and inwardly hissed in disbelief.
So much power in such an ugly shell. The paths of the Gods are twisted indeed.
And when Chaiila wanted to head east...
"Haahhrrrr!" Chaiila snarled, her ruff whipping about as she tossed her head, baring teeth at the creature that blocked her path. It hastily backed off and she swung her attentions to the other Trenalbi: "CHE! What does it want!"
"I don't think it wants us to go east," he said, half amused at the thing's efforts to stop the stubborn female. It continually caught at her arm, was shaken off and forced to turn to the other Trenalbi before returning to her.
"Well, where would it have us go?" Chaiila demanded.
"West, I think," Nersi said. She got the thing's attention and pointed West. It bobbed its head furiously and tugged at her hand.
Chaiila went very quiet, sucking air in a low hiss, without another word she spun about and continued east.
Seth'Nai caught her arm again.
"GET AWAY FROM ME!" Chaiila howled and a dagger was in her hand.
For a second the creature stared, then its face darkened, lips drew back from small, square teeth and it roared back. Smoothly it sank into a crouch, right side toward the female, arms up at odd angles.
"Chaiila! Don't!" Nersi urged her cousin.
But Chaiila's head went back, ears lowered as she recognised a challenge. Not male to male, nor female to female... it was female to an unknown. At first she hesitated, then moved forward in a graceful standard Rain opening: jab, jab, claw, spin kick.
Which the creature all blocked just as effortlessly. Chaiila hesitated then floated into more patterns: Light, Wind, Thunder, and Storm. All the creature somehow batted aside before redirecting Chaiila's blade, seizing her arm, and twisting. She howled in pain. The dagger spun away in a glitter of moonlight on metal to clatter on riverbed rock. Chaiila twisted free and tried to dart past to recover the weapon. The creature caught her by the ruff and hooked a leg behind her knee. She yelped as she fell, landed hard on the rocky ground, then was lying staring up at the creature's grinning face, its hand poised above her throat. Sekher could see both were panting, the puffs of breath mingling then dissipating in the night air.
It wouldn't kill her? Would it?
"Chaiila!" Nersi called. "Don't be a fool."
Slowly, Chaiila closed her eyes and laid her head back, exposing her neck. After tense heartbeats the creature lowered its hand and smoothed patches of her rumpled fur before standing; somewhat stiffly and with a hand pressed against its side. Chaiila stared up at it, then let out a deep breath and sat up: "Alright, alright. We go west."