of Beasts and Man

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Who Needs Saving?

At long last, after what felt like an eternity, the Mordos finally separated from the flock and made their way down a side street. Strix was wondering if they ever would. She came to terms with nobody noticing, all too lost to their own joys and glee to care that an active kidnapping was happening under their noses and beaks, but she was starting to question if they were ever going to meet up with the rest of their murder right in the middle of the celebration. Even then, she doubted any of the birdbrains would even notice an extortion or torture session. Rather, that they would accept it as part of the show and wouldn’t care otherwise. Considering the amount of would-be knife jugglers piercing their own hands and shoulders, the bodies of practicing sword-swallowers, and the charred remains of fire-eaters, she had little doubt it would just be seen as another event waiting to be patched up.

But they did disperse from the gathering. They left it all behind, following the straight road down to the rows upon rows upon rows of warehouses. They were split into a nine-by-nine grid, with the center being a nature park, packed to the brim with inventors this day, allowed to practice their craft outside of their estates. They weren’t anything too grand; bits and baubles, little more than frivolities, aimed for the entertainment of children and the easier going. Even then, there was easily a stone’s throw in between that park and any of the warehouses, to the point that Strix could see the shiny baubles rising into the air, little more than glinting specks against the reddening sun heading west, but couldn’t hear the gears nor crowd admiring them.

The Mordos headed right at the divide, passing four rows before heading down the fifth, just one away from the end. Fili and Avin were hot after. A bit too hot for Strix’s liking. She had to hasten, go ahead of Claire and Spack and gain on them as they fluttered around the corner without even a glance back. Those fools were only a stone’s throw away, able to be spotted if the Mordos simply looked back, which, thankfully, they never did, not even as they opened the door to the fifth warehouse down the row. They entered and slammed it shut, disappearing just as quick as they came... but the two... eager Natorei had rushed to it. They were ready to grab the handle, tear it asunder.

Stopped.

“What t-” Avin began. Fili was less than eloquent but started to exclaim the same idea, both silenced as their silver casks closed. They floated over to Strix, rotating towards her as they did, and were slowly opened before her- before snapped shut by the blue fairy’s outburst. Even bound inside again she could hear her shrieks and shrills... dying away. They languished, held as long as they could, but they had to give up at some point –too long by Strix’s standards. Avin was out, shaking his head at the rumbling cask, his arms crossed. “Is that spell airtight? I can’t imagine she has much left if it is.”

Unfortunately, the spell was, but Avin was off the mark. She wasn’t close to being out; she was. Completely. Easily five minutes prior, and yet it was still rumbling with her weakened shrieks... Strix gave it a minute longer, to the point only the smallest tremors quaked the cask, and let it fall away –and, with it, the blue Natorei inside. She tumbled towards the ground, still blithering, still arguing, even as her light dimmed away.

Spack caught her, closing his hand over her immodesty, but no good deed goes unpunished. His feathers sparked, his fingers burned as the Natorei erupted out of his grasp, jutting a finger between his teary eyes.

“How dare you!” She shrilled. “How dare you touch me! I’ll have you know I’m a faithful woman, and love my Oxen Free!” Avin snorted, turning her ire his way. “What! What’s so funny?”

“You being a faithful woman-”

“I am now! Why do you think I came all this way? I want this done and over with so we can go save him!”

“So you foolishly push ahead without thinking of what may be there? I raised you better than that,” Strix said, shaking her head as she fluttered by Spack. “What can you tell me about this area?”

“Eh, nothing much. This is the warehouse district, and that’s exactly what it is. People store their inventions that no longer work, that they plan to work on later, or that they just grew tired of.”

“Why would the Mordos come here?”

“Take a look around. Nobody at all. It would be weeks, months, possibly years to know what may happen –or seconds, depending.”

Strix hummed, and started to ascend towards the roof of the copper box that was the warehouse.

Only to stop, and glare at Avin and Fili.

“You two stay here,” she ordered.

“But mom-” Fili began.

“No. Stay here until I return. That way, neither of you can do anything... stupid.”

“Oh yeah? Like what?” Avin said... Strix didn’t even acknowledge that question. She simply continued her ascent, ignoring him repeating it. She would not give him ideas, and time was of the essence. Swelabeth was inside, with the two Mordos and possibly more, so she needed to find a way in.

Homes, buildings may come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They may be made of clay, of wood and stone and straw and brick and carapace and shell and even metal, but there was one immutable truth to all of them: they were not perfectly sealed. There was always an imperfection, a kink. Due to the nature of the beast, it was often around the roof. A roof the same size as the house would inevitably allow water and wear to tear it apart, so there was always a lip, always an excess to fly in between. From there, it was simply finding the way through and into the building.

The Zephyrian warehouse was no different. In fact, she was surprised to have found it so easily. It turns out letting foliage grow so wildly, no matter how pretty, will find a way to latch itself onto buildings and, from there, break through. She simply had to follow one such roof down, and saw the gathering of Mordos around Swelabeth.

There were thirty of them, all about the same build, though she could not tell the females and males of the species apart. Even in the dusk of the warehouse, the males had much more prominent feathers, the red glistening like fire, wavering with their natural oil, while the females had a soft blue to theirs. The females outnumbered the males five to every one. They were a complete murder of Mordos, circling the white Zephyrian inside that warehouse, sparingly packed. Along the left wall was what Strix could only say was a display of gilded gliders, each one in a different state of decay until the very top was little more than rust. The bottom one was pristine, with every step of its life shown, all twenty of them, going up. Along the right wall were some wire shelves, emptied, while the rest was empty.

The two Mordos that brought Swelabeth in held her there, bracing as the blue-feathered Mordos before her splashed her with a bucket of water. She spluttered and squawked, panting hard and louder than the bucket that was dropped beside her, clanking, echoing in the dark warehouse. She settled almost instantly, and... seemed to relax.

“Oh. It’s you,” she said. “How are you doing, Nia Tal-”

The Mordos slapped her across the face, silencing her.

“Not another word out of your saccharin mouth,” the Mordos said. Her voice was softer than expected, seeming to lilt, to sing even as venom laced through her words. The warehouse rumbled with their ruffling feathers, closing in on Swelabeth. “The time of talk is over. It’s time to pay.”

“I... don’t think it is, no. I said you would be compensated when my experiment was a success-”

She was slapped again, angry squawks rising as the feathers became a storm of their own.

“Whether it be a success or not it no longer matters,” Nia stated. “We demand our reparations, for the wrongful deaths of our children, of our husbands and wives and even elders who you swayed with that honeyed tongue.”

“And, I told you, you would all be paid handsomely when it was finally a success.” She stated, again... then cleared her throat, laughing sheepishly. “Sadly, none of them have as of late... Writer’s block. Who would have thought?” She continued to laugh a minute or so more, lost to that ever increasing gale of feathers, and cleared her throat again. “Look. I’ve been working on something... big. Something the likes of which no Zephyrian has been able to do before. All I need is a bit more time, then I can pay you all. Tenfold what I promised, in truth-”

“If you can pay us that, then you should have no problem giving us what we are owed,” Nia said. “We want nothing more to do with you. Not another of the Mordos shall be used for your twisted, maniacal plan.”

“It hasn’t been that many-”

“We used to number in the hundreds. Now, we aren’t sure we can even make it in this city... We’ll have to migrate to Balvot, join the murder there, and in three generations or so, will be able to return... Pay up now so that we may part ways.”

“If you are so worried about this, you can just leave. I’m not going to hold you to your obligation if you truly want out of i-”

“You seriously do not know when to quit, do you?” Nia shrieked, her palm ringing louder than the two before on the Zephyrian’s cheek. “Pay, then we leave. It is either currency, or blood.”

She stepped to Swelabeth’s right, and gestured before the white Zephyrian. The Mordos parted, and it seemed Strix was mistaken. There was... were other things in that warehouse. They were simply kept low, and under tarps, one of which was lifted to reveal... an “experiment”. Whatever it may have been was forgotten long before. It was more machine than man in that crude metal form, raking and sparking on the cage. It couldn’t even stand upright, forced to hunch not because of its restraint but by the metal fastenings on its back, holding a strange, red gem. It pulsed, as if its heart, but it was the wheels on its side, spinning and crackling away, that gave it power, singing at its bare, ragged yellow back. Its had four arms, whirring and crackling as well. Every single finger was replaced by a spinning band of razors, worn down by the bars, oh so thin on the inside but holding on the out by blue runes, dimming.

The last one faded and it shoved its head against it, and even that wasn’t spared a bit of dignity. No creature alive had a head like that, more jowls than skull, eyes replaced by crude, black gems, burning with such ire, such hunger as it trotted out of its cell at long last. Its “legs” were chopped at the thigh, replaced with four, spidery tips, clacking tentatively through the Mordos, but it wasn’t because of fear.

No... its eyes were locked on Swelabeth, and burned even brighter.

“Oh, hello, Ridley,” Swelabeth said, chuckling, but hearing her voice only made those eyes blaze, the red gem on its back almost white-hot, churning, crackling with lightning. “You’re looking good, all things considered... Funny, though; I thought I removed your life stone.”

“I added it back,” Nia said. “You should have hid it better than putting it on top of the cage.”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time. What if I got bored and wanted to work on him more?”

“Do our lives mean so little to you?”

“You all volunteer. I don’t force it, but I will not bat an eye or lose a second of sleep if it means sacrifice is needed in pursuing discovery and the advancement of science. It’s not that I don’t value your lives... If anything, I value them more than you do. I don’t throw it away for the promise of money but use it for the good of all.”

“Take a good hard look at the thing before you, pigeon, and tell me if what you did to him was for ‘the good of all’... Forget the money. For your actions, death is the only true payment.”

The Mordos squawk, feathers flying as they seemed to dance, filling the air with an eerie song. The “experiment” froze for a moment, the wheels on its back crunching, tensing, released with a bolt of lightning as it jumped, pouncing upon Swelabeth-

The crowing stopped. The song died. The feathers settled, and all eyes were on Claire. She stood before Swelabeth, rubbing her foot, bouncing on the other. The middle nail had been chipped, broken off into the head of the “experiment”, sprawled on the ground beside.

“What the heck was that made of?” Clare exclaimed, still rubbing her foot. Her tail, meanwhile, wrapped around the red gem on its back, and, with a soft pop, it was pulled out. The “experiment” went limp. Claire eased her foot onto the metal floor of the warehouse, hissing as it jerked back up, but tried again, wincing as she forced it to settle. “There. Now it can finally rest in peace... So. You’re Swelabeth, right, or did I drop in on another death cult that happened to be going the same way as the one I was tailing?”

“You wouldn’t know how many times that has happened to me,” Swelabeth said, standing. The two Mordos that had held her had reeled back from the Faun’s entrance, and all eyes were on them.

“You morons!” One of the Mordos shrieked.

“Why didn’t you tell us you were followed?” Another sqawked.

“We didn’t know. I swear,” one of them said, but was lost under the angry crows and stream of insults flung their way, all silenced as Nia held up her arms. She approached Claire, holding her hands together, purple, beady eyes twinkling.

“Please. Faun. You must understand,” she said, and gestured towards Swelabeth. “We were lied to, convinced to take part in something we did not understand nor were allowed to truly understand... This... thing came to our district four moons ago and began to sweet talk us, told us we could be a part of something grand, something that would change history as we know it... She promised us it would be ‘mostly safe’, ‘harmless’, and that we would be paid handsomely in return... So many of our kind agreed without a second thought... Mordos are naturally curious, inquisitive, but we often don’t have the tools or rights to work in the towns, and now the tribe in Agutrot has been reduced to the number you see before you... So many are dead, and where’s our recompense?” Nia fanned her arms, squawking again, as if pleading. “Please. Help us. Don’t let this monster get away.”

Claire hummed- hummed! How could she only hum at a time like this? Strix simply sat on the most broken glider, appalled at the fact that Claire didn’t outright say no. She must have heard everything she heard, saw everything she saw, so how could she even consider their offer?

Claire’s tail twitched, still thinking it over, much to Strix’s disgust, and looked over her shoulder at Swelabeth.

“They make a good point,” she stated, and that was where she crossed the l- “What can you offer in return for me helping you, instead?”

Strix stopped, frozen in mid-air, watching the white Zephyrian.

“Ah. So that’s why you followed us,” she said, sighing. “I knew it was too good for somebody to rescue a damsel in distress without wanting something... I’m not going to offer anything. Your help would be appreciated, but no longer needed at the present time.”

“Well, that’s just ru-” Claire began, but Nia squawked, causing the others to do the same.

“You idiots!” She shrilled. “Why did you let her go?”

“Too late,” Swelabeth said, and slapped the right side of her chest. Strix hadn’t paid attention, but the white Zephyrian was wearing a rather colorful dress. It was blue from the waist down, but had a copper-toned top, almost golden against her feathers. However, as she slapped it, the top started to glow, burning bright blue runes into it. The metal expanded, covering her arms and legs in the copper suit before a second, black layer formed over. It condensed on her left arm, red runes pulsing around as it molded into the shape of a cannon, and finally ended with closing her head in a helmet Strix never saw before. It entirely closed on her head, with only a talon-like window of some strange, green glass to look through.

She grasped that cannon with her right hand, and Strix could see that some kind of energy was building in the barrel, whining louder and louder. She swiped her finger along one of the runes, and the warehouse seemed to explode. The gliders fell off the wall, reduced to a heap of slag in the molten metal pool left from that cannon’s blast, leaving a hold big enough for a Terra Force ship to glide through on the back wall.

Swelabeth charged up another shot, aiming it after the Mordos as they squawked and scattered, fleeing towards whichever exit they could find, even if it meant through the molten metal. Their screams echoed down through the streets, their shrieks of pain and agony bounded through the warehouse, but nobody would know nor care what happened there.

Only Nia kept her composure, and shoved Claire against the entry, squawking angrily.

“How dare you help her!” She shrilled.

“Hey! You heard her,” Claire said, purring. “She didn’t need my help... Are we going to fight? It’s been a while since I had a good old rough-and-tumble.”

Mordos was about to answer, but found her sudden lack of a head made it quite hard to do so. She fell to the ground, twitching, while the wall beside Claire glowed softly, the remnants of the shot Swelabeth took. She tapped her chest again, and the armor receded, showing a rather smug Zephyrian on the other side.

“Looks like I saved you, instead,” Swelabeth said. “Now, mind telling me why you, your friends, and that drunken idiot Spack followed me here.”

“I didn’t need your help,” Claire grumbled. “Taking away my fun...”

“Oh. In that case, I could kill you.”

“That would be fun, but I think a certain Natorei would be a bit irked that you would die trying.”

“You mean miss silver up there?” The warehouse door, having been flung open in the Mordos’s escape, allowed the others of the group to meander their way in. Swelabeth shook her head, chuckling as she looked upon Fili and Avin. “Oh, you two... It’s a good thing Mordos aren’t exactly the most attentive. One-track minds when ordered. You were fun to watch... though...”

She stomped towards Spack, her eyes, once so free and joyful, now filled with fire and hate as she ripped the gauntlet away from him.

“What did I tell you?” She exclaimed, putting it on, herself. The end sparked with lightning, bounding between the two prongs there. “Not. In. A. Million. Years!”

“Now now,” Spack said, chuckling as he held up his hands. “Is that any way to treat your would-be rescuer?”

“You only followed because you wanted something –and, no, I don’t have any booze.”

“Why is the rum always gone?”

“To keep your smelly arse away!” She huffed... and waved the lightning gauntlet towards Strix as she finally descended beside. “What is it you want? Never seen you in these parts, and Spack doesn’t exactly have a good taste in people.”

“Why do you say that?” Strix said. “After all, he said you two were friends.”

“That’s putting it loosely. Almost fallacious, but it’s also how I know. As you can tell, I’m not exactly well-liked, and I like it that way... Anyways, if you are going to bore me, I’m just going to go.”

“We need to use your workshop for a t-”

“Nope.”

She started for the door, making it out and halfway down the block before the others finally moved. Spack squawked, holding his hands out, chuckling sheepishly.

“Come on, Swel,” he said. “We simply need to use it for a spell, then w-”

“Remember the last time I let you ‘use’ my workshop? You know how long it took to repair my dynamo? How did you even break it like that!”

“Very carefully, I assure you... Look. They need it. Bad.”

“And what, pray tell, do three Natorei and a Faun need with my workshop? Last I checked, none of them had an iota of understand the Craft, and I will not allow them to muck it up. Besides, the Faun owes me information. I saved her life, after all.”

“I never a-” Claire began, cut off by Strix.

“I’ll repay that debt, then,” she said. “How much do you know about the Scylla?”

That gave her pause. She stopped, in the middle of the street, the crowd and the main road just a bit further along.

“The Scylla, you say,” she said, cooing a little as she rubbed the bottom of her beak. “In hindsight, that would make sense. Only for something as impossible as the Scylla would Spack dare to show his face in this town.”

“I’m not that noted-” Spack started to interject.

“There are eighty-seven kids looking to meet their father and kick him where he should have been kicked a long time ago, and triple that many lonely women looking to claw it off.”

“And that is why I don’t drink-”

“Spack-”

“As much. Drink as much.”

She huffed again... but shrugged her shoulders.

“Fine. You may use my workshop... however, I have a condition.”

“And that is?” Strix said.

“I wish to experiment on the Scylla.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Strix-” Spack began.

“No. That is one thing I cannot agree upon.”

“Mom,” Fili whined. “We need to get to Baha.”

“I understand that, but the Scylla isn’t a trinket or a bauble. It’s an important piece of history, one-of-a-kind, and I won’t let someone paw over it as if it’s mere novelty.”

“And I wouldn’t,” Swelabeth said, cooing, agitated by such a declaration. “Contrary to popular belief, I have a gentle touch... I have failed on every other mode of transportation, every other subject, and I think I know why: Size. Gilded gliders can’t handle it, but something large and durable like an Aqua Alliance dreadnought should handle it no problem... I don’t intend to go about it willy-nilly; I will plan it out, inspect the Scylla thoroughly, and proceed from there... It’s either that, or you have to find a Zephyrian artificer who Spack hasn’t spurned.”

“Are there any?” Avin blurted... He cleared his throat. “Uh. Ignore me. Inside words and outside-”

“No. There aren’t. Not a single other,” Swelabeth answered.

“And why is that?” Strix said. Was it just her, or did the crowd get louder?

“Because, as much as I would love to strangle him, he’s my nest brother... It’s a long story, but we look out for each other- rather, I look out for him and deal with his messes while he just creates more.”

“The perfect relationship,” Spack said, chortling. “In any case, it looks like our hands are tied. If you want the Scylla airborne again, you’re gonna have to agree to her terms.”

As much as Strix hated to admit it, he was right. Their hands were tied. These were the only two Zephyrians they could trust up here, and if they were going to get off here in a timely manner, with minimum complication, they had no choice but to go with them... It would have been easier to swallow if it wasn’t for the screams. Now she was certain: they were getting louder.

And closer.

People flooded down the street, screaming in terror. Fili, Avin, and Strix ascended above the crowd, seeing that the main road was bathed in purple ichor, swarming after the fleeing masses. It seemed to rise, to become lurching creatures, their eyes filled with red, leaving behind a sea of fire and blood.

The mob shoved into each other, knocked one another down, feeding them to those shadows as they tried to escape, but it only aided in increasing their numbers... passing by them. The shadows didn’t even seem to notice, even as the ones that walked broke into a sprint, the ones that flew darted towards the center of that chaos.

Strix could see Anni, Ponitius, Bethilius, and Gaz there, standing firm before the darkness, and, in its center, a dark figure rose. Just looking upon it made Strix’s stomach drop, her heart sink into it and send it falling to her feet.

It can’t be, she thought, and landed on Ponitius’s shoulder as they caught up.

“Glad to see you made it to the party,” he said, trying to add brevity to the situation. However, she could hear his voice shaking underneath it, as well as hear the knives jostling in his sleeves.

“What’s going on? What is this?” She said.

“Seems the lad isn’t the only one with the darkness.”

The darkness in the middle shuddered, and a thousand gems... no, eyes opened on its jagged body, glittering as it cackled.

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