Chapter 17 - Aellea
Arata, Jomiko, and the rest of the party had been forced to make camp for the rest of the night, mostly because the griffins themselves needed a break.
During said pause, they were contacted by Leaf, who let them know Agathon and Shinyaki stopped at Aellea.
That was good news for some and bad news for others. Sanpu and Fuun’na weren’t great fans of the ‘one-with-nature’ deal and Kazuki was of the opinion that meant they were hooking up with someone else. But Arata and Pixa missed the city and Jomiko and Miyabi just wanted to catch up, once and for all.
They all trained some more while staying in the camp though no one sparred against each other. At daylight, after some three hours of sleep, they lifted flight, hoping to be at Aellea before sunset.
They managed to make that schedule. All of them had dark rings around eyes, except for Kazuki, for having slept so little and trained so hard in the past few days. They made it in the time they wanted and, hopefully, that would be enough.
Aellea was a shining beacon in the middle of the island. The city was notoriously made out of pure white stone. Contrary to Fairgrifen, it didn’t have massive walls protecting it. It stood atop an enormous mountain and thus had the pure height, as well as the wildlife around it, as its defense. The mountain was, after all, covered with a forest that surrounded both it and its base.
Even though the true forest city would forever be BellHall, no other race could boast such closeness to the wild as the Lan. The Lan, being part beasts, had no need to make a show of their closeness. Unlike the Fea who felt the need to dress in leaves and live in trees in order to feel one with nature, oneness with nature came naturally to the Lan.
That allowed them to also respect civilization. They built their main city out of stone but left it open for any who would wish to enter it, especially the fauna that inhabited the forest surrounding it. This meant more guards watching the city’s borders.
Their city was circular, as were their buildings: stone spheres half-buried in the ground, with little half-buried spherical doors and spherical windows. All the spherical constructions were irregular, though, ones wider, others thinner, some tall and some short and some agglomerated together. The whole city was masterfully built to seem like it was a gathering of natural rock formations that just happened to be perfect for living in.
Their biggest buildings, like the imperial palace, weren’t big in terms of height, but width. The imperial palace was home to the emperor who had sole authority over all matters pertaining to his side of the island, and it covered roughly eithy thousand square meters of floor space. The ceiling was adorned with a statue of a very complex chimera, a being made of several beasts, standing tall and proud. The beast was the core of Aellea’s flag, the symbol of the Lan race and all its diversity.
Aellea’s economy mostly thrived on the shoulders of all the farming fields surrounding the mountain, set up along a river that spiraled down after originating out of the palace itself. The river poured down the mountain, across a couple of waterfalls, until it finally reached the bottom where it widened and made its way across the island to meet with the sea.
Beasts wandered the city as freely as citizens, even being allowed to go inside peoples’ homes. However, for some reason, there seemed to be a consensus among the beasts: they generally behaved.
Emperor Skullerbee was the regent of the time. He had around fifteen siblings and twice that in cousins. Despite the size of the imperial palace, it was always brimming with life and family matters due to the size of the family itself. That said, strangely enough, the emperor and empress had no actual progeny except for two Lans they had controversially adopted.
Except for the two, a fox and a swan, the Skullerbees were Bee Lans. All of them sported insect-like antennas and transparent wings, and a circular and round butt that had a huge sting in its tip, which they could reportedly shoot at great and menacing speeds. Known to have different shades of yellow skin, they had tree fingered hands and feet, their eyes had several irises and their cheeks were reportedly always pink, making them seem like they were always tipsy.
The family did have a reputation for being jolly which was overall the trademark of the Lan race. Not the jolly per se, but the honest and straightforward way of being; they behaved like they felt like and damn the consequences.
Arata was nostalgic about seeing it again but Pixa had missed it the most.
“So wonderful to see home again.”
The setting sun was reflecting off the city, such had been their travel time. An orange light enveloped them in a way it made it difficult to look directly at the city.
“You can see it, can you?” Miyabi complained, protecting her eyes.
“We just need to move out of the light,” Arata voiced, moving to the side. They followed him and managed to finally set eyes on the city unhindered.
“Still, I’m impressed these griffins can fly at this altitude,” Kazuki noted.
“They’re trained to handle sandstorms, a little lack of air pressure is nothing to them,” Miyabi remarked, always spiteful towards Kazuki.
“Visibly,” he simply agreed, wanting to avoid an argument.
“Contact Leaf,” Jomiko finally spoke, “tell ’im we’re here and we need to know where to head to.”
“Right,” Miyabi agreed, casting the communication spell. “Leaf? We’re arriving at Aellea, are you still there?”
“…hum hum. Northeast? Ok. A big house. Looks abandoned. Alright, we’ll meet you there.”
“What’s he talking about? Most every house looks abandoned,” Fuun’na commented.
“What do you mean? No, they don’t,” Pixa reacted.
“Well, any house I see smelling of manure and invaded by animals, I’ll assume it’s empty.”
“How is it empty if it has animals inside, huh?” Pixa questioned, poking in her direction.
“Ha!” Sanpu reacted, laughing. He pointed at Fuuna, “she got you there.”
“Shut up.” Fuun’na smacked him, blushing hard.
“All I’m saying is you shouldn’t be a smartass before me, it never works out. Just wait for me to say something and then follow my lead!”
“I can be a smartass by myself! If I really want too,” she blushed harder.
“Sure you can, little sis,” he said, massaging her cheek.
“Don’t patronize me!” She slapped his hand away, making him laugh.
They expectedly had no problems getting into Aellea which was a notable contrast to Fairgrifen. They found stables and left the griffins there. The stables were actually an open space, just with a fence around it. Aellea had its customs but it respected its visitors and their need to keep their tamed beasts from disappearing into the forests beyond. At the same time, they wouldn’t corral them into a small compartment.
The sun still had much to set, but because of the height, half the city was already under night’s veil. It didn’t matter much, though, as there were candle lights in the street to give some visibility. That also contrasted Fairgrifen, which was constantly well illuminated by either the sun or moon, so it only needed artificial light during sandstorms, and even then they didn’t use fire, they used luminous crystals that they charged themselves.
They followed the dim fires across the streets, passing by mostly Lan and beasts.
Arata caught glimpses of Fea here and there, and he also saw a couple of Pans, Juns and Reis. Most interestingly, he caught a glimpse of a Xia. The majority of street walkers were indeed Lan and if ever there was a place where Xias and Sen could pass by unnoticed, it was Aellea. Amongst all the physically different Lans, ranging from bird and fish, to mammal, reptile and insect, a being with wings didn’t exactly pull curious gazes.
Xias were, as usual, like Juns, with the exception they had feathered wings, and in rare cases, halos atop their heads. Their skin colors came in all kinds but their wings were usually white; when they weren’t, they were a very light tone of whatever color they showed. Sen were believed to be their counterparts, if only because they came from the opposite direction. Xias had a kingdom in the sky, Sen had a kingdom under the surface, in the so-called underworld. Also, Sen were a lot less diverse. Their skin was red, their hands crustacean, resembling claws - which was something they shared with crab Lans - but then they had pointed ears and long and thick reptilian tails.
While Xias were forthcoming, sociable and all-around nice people, as well as religious and visually attractive to the point of divine, Sen were quite the opposite. They hardly talked, they were unsociable and they were even physically weirder, which is to say more different, than the Lan and Rei.
Arata was surprised to see a Xia walking around, looking lost. It was a young man of milk-colored skin, black-haired and eyed, with white wings that were nonetheless sort of small. Most oddly, he was walking around in a one-piece orange suit that ended on his knees in the form of a skirt. Oddly but not unexpected since the Xia had a thing about disliking pants. The upper part of the suit, though sleeveless, covered his chest.
“Look, a Xia,” Jomiko called out, pointing.
“It’s seriously rude to point like that,” Kazuki noted, looking away like he didn’t know them.
“Wow, haven’t seen one in ages,” Pixa commented. “He looks lost,” she worriedly added.
“Don’t even exercise the thought, we don’t have the time,” Kazuki pointed out.
“Oh c’mon, look at him…”
“I agree with Kazuki,” Jomiko said in a tone that forbid discussion, “wing boy’s gonna have to do by himself. Where to next?”
“Through here…” Pixa said, leading them around a house and across two others.
They walked along the streets while watching the light growing dimmer and dimmer, and the streets emptier and emptier. Even some of the beasts were starting to leave the city while others were lying down under candle posts, or next to walls, for the warmth and security.
There were all kinds, from quadruped predators twice the size of a griffin to biped amphibians who were lucky to reach knee-height. Sanpu and Fuun’na were visibly bothered, keeping a suspicious lookout, perceiving every beast as a possible threat. The rest of them seemed fine with the environment.
“Seriously, would it be so evil to put up a fence around the city? To keep the rest of the food-chain outside the perimeter?”
“We don’t think of them as the rest, Sanpu,” Arata explained, “we make our homes like they make their nests. And we protect them like they protect their territories. Sometimes yeah, this pack or that alpha think they can make Aellea theirs, and we prove them otherwise. It just doesn’t register in our minds, our culture, that we should put a wall between us and other living beings.”
“Oh, so that’s why you live in the wild--oh wait, you have houses,” Sanpu argued.
“We’re fortunate enough to have the minds and bodies that allow us to fashion stone and steel, so we build houses and weapons, yeah. Our brain is our advantage, our sharpest claw, but that doesn’t give us the right to treat them differently than even the Xias. Build a wall, and pretty soon, only those who can work our language and spare some coin can have access to the land we claim ours. That’s just wrong to us.”
“Well it’s crazy to us,” Sanpu said. “Mental even,” Fuun’na added, in complete agreement with her brother.
“This is the place he talked about,” Pixa stated, interrupting the conversation.
They looked up at what was an apparently abandoned house of wares. It was big enough for half a dozen rooms and high enough for two floors, far as the windows showed.
It had an eerie feeling to it.
“This doesn’t feel right,” Kazuki mentioned.
“What do you mean?” Pixa asked.
Arata was feeling it, too. Jomiko felt a shiver run down her spine. She looked around and noticed there was nobody around and they were pretty far from the nearest house.
“Call Leaf, Miyabi,” Arata asked, looking at the warehouse with suspicion. Kazuki grabbed the handle of his sword, which propped curiosity in the blood twins.
“What’s this now?”
“It’s called paranoia,” Miyabi said, tuning in with the communication spell. “Leaf? Yeah, we’re just outside, is everything ok?”
She listen and then turned it off, telling the rest of them, “he says it is.”
“What did he say, exactly?” Kazuki asked, still cautious.
“’Sure, c’mon, hurry it up,’” she quoted with hands impatiently tapping on her hip.
“Leaf would’ve come out to meet us,” Kazuki pointed out, sharply.
“Or be on watch already. He would’ve seen us coming,” Jomiko added.
“Call Ringo,” Arata told Miyabi.
“What? C’mon, I--”
“Do it,” Jomiko reinforced.
Miyabi sighed and focused on spellcating. She opened her eyes in surprise. “I…can’t reach her.”
They all looked at each other in silence, aware of what that meant. She was either dead or unconscious, and that meant the two had been caught, themselves driven to a trap.
“We need to go,” Arata alerted. He turned around to walk away.
“It’s too late,” Jomiko stated, clenching her fists.
“We can’t go into a battle unprepared, let’s go regroup and--”
Arata heard the wind cut above his head. He flinched and back-stepped in reaction, avoiding a dagger. It stabbed the ground with such force and firmness it shoved the blade half-way in.
His peripheral vision caught a shadow in front of him and so he looked up at it.
A Sen was in front of him, crouched. They all turned and drew their weapons in preparation, the warehouse standing behind them.
The tall female Sen stood up and opened her arms, showing daggers in both hands, while her tail played with another one, oscillating it from one side to the other.
She was wearing a sleeveless, shoulder-less top, black with reddish patterns that went down into a black skirt that was over her dark and slightly transparent leggings. Her eyes were black, as was her hair which was long and loose against the high winds.
She looked at them seriously, staring attentively.
“It’s too late.”