of Beasts and Man

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Fatal Flash

Strix wasn’t sure there was anyone left in Agutrot. She wasn’t certain if there was any more life to be had in those blood-choked streets or crackling heights, nor did she care to know. All she wanted at that moment was to get to the workshop and behind some form of bulwark, something between her and that army of darkness flooding after. What was once originally a trickle, two or three, became a swarm, making Fili’s lichtspeers look like toothpicks in that sea of rippling darkness. Their howls shook her to her very core, not out of fear but pain from the misery and anguish those wails were steeped in, chilling her bones and making the light surround her thicken to stifling.

Perhaps that was how so many fell so quick, frozen in place by those agonized screams only to join them, torn asunder and added to that congealed mass. They passed several survivors as they ran down the road, those that were cold enough, callous enough to use their own allies as a dog to a growler, kicking them to the beast so that they could live if only a bit longer. Just like the growler, though, it wasn’t enough to stem the tide, the carnage and rampage long enough, and even the hardest of hearts breaks down without a clear goal beyond the most basic of needs. So they fell.

Not from lack of trying, either.

Claire exclaimed, turned to a growl than yowl as a Zephyrian squawked. Strix didn’t see them; they reached the split, the workshop not far now, and the birdbrain came around the corner, trying to grab her, throw her into their own wave, gushing up the street after. The Zephyrian brandished an odd contraption, much akin to Swelabeth’s lightning gauntlet but had an iron piston at its end. Unlike Swelabeth’s, though, Strix doubted that metal skewer aided at all –case and point.

The Zephyrian couldn’t even squawk, his entire body tense, sparking and crackling from the tips of Swelabeth’s gauntlet, and was fed right into the flood. They didn’t slow, though. There wasn’t even a breath, a bump in its current, rolling towards the group. It joined the other river, now flowing as one, crashing, faster, towards Strix and the others.

Every breath Strix took was torture. Every flutter of her wings turned into moments, languishing, forcing her to take in every single last detail. They were so close, the door still open, but dread started to seep into her chest. What good was it to run into a building comprised of glass? How would such fragile material stop this primal tide? What good was a door at that point!

They were on the sidewalk. It was four steps away, four, thick, copper edges. The Zephyrians clacked up the first one. The beasts breath was on her nape. They took another, and Strix could feel the shadows’ teeth. Three, her wings started to falter, giving into those hallowed wails. Four, her wings did, forced to glide and hope it was enough to make it into the door.

When another thought occurred: What if they closed the door? They didn’t need them. Spack knew where the Scylla was. Those two birdbrains could easily shut the door on them, give them a moment as the swarm tore them apart to gather their tools- but how would they get back... Maybe that was the cruelest irony of all, the true play, the joke that fiend set up: Futility.

However, the door was not shut on them. Strix wasn’t sure where Swelabeth ducked off to, but Spack stood by the door, waving them in. His inky black tongue lulled out of his beak, panting, and his beady black eyes were so... alive. The others practically fell into the entry, slid across the smooth, white tiled floor, giving their last, and Spack gave his, shoving that door shut as hard as he could muster. His beak erupted with the call of a great eagle, slamming that bastion closed and held as it rumbled and shook under the force of the wave behind it.

Strix picked herself up off of Bethilius’s back, and looked to the left. Swelabeth was at the far wall, covered in knobs, cranks, and diodes much like the Scylla’s, squeaking and clacking as her fingers stumbled across. The glass flashed with each press, their runes bursting out, blasting back the darkness as it crashed against, making those panes ripple with their shrieks. Far above, metal shutters started to lower, but every hit stunted their descent, and, if she tried to push, the glass would try to crack.

“Could really use your help over here, ya drunk!” She screeched, still turning the cranks, and Strix finally saw that it was sparking and creating energy for the runes. “Can’t turn them all at once.”

“Tell me which ones,” Avin said, buzzing over.

“Can you handle two? They’re a bit stiff. Been a while since the last city blackout. Those things must siphon energy.”

“I think I can mana-”

“I’ll handle one,” Fili said, but was pushed aside by Strix. “M-mom-”

“You’ve done enough. I’ll help from here,” she said, and her and Avin both manned a crank. Swelabeth wasn’t kidding; it took everything she had to get it started. Maybe it was because she was tired, fatigued, but it was a mountain of its own to climb, and she didn’t get any rest as it came back around.

The door cracked, claws swiping through, trying to tear at whatever they could reach, but another flourish of knives cleared it long enough for Fili to patch it- only to have to do so again and again. The metal shutter was lowering, but it was still only at the fourth story out of six.

“When I say so, step out of the way!” Fili boomed, her voice shaking more than the energy spreading before her.

“Fili! You’re pushing yourself too hard,” Anni exclaimed.

“You really should listen to your mom on this one, lass,” Ponitius added, but Strix could see that he was down to the kitchen knives in his coat.

“We don’t have much choice,” Fili said, her blue light fading fast, poured into that ever growing wall of light. It threatened to fall apart at its edges, but held, even as she started to droop. Anni caught her, held her up, as the last of the light faded from her form, revealing her true, ebon form. She had on a soft, peach dress, ruffled and sullied, while the rest of her was covered in dark scales, giving way to the four red eyes on her jagged face. She growled, her pointed teeth gritted, and her wings sparkled with a bit of blue as the wall of light before her flashed. “Now, Spack!”

Spack dove to the side as the door gave completely. Shadows started to pour in, gnashing and clawing and rending.

Blasted back, burned away.

A thick column of light seared its way through the dark river, scorching, leaving nothing in its wake as it continued on. The air jingled with it, muffling those damned screams, stifling them as more and more perished to their ever-flowing beam of light. Its end lazed out the door, just passing through its frame, and expanded when it went out into the street, given full reign and power. The city, once consumed by the darkness, finally had some light.

The shutters finally closed over the door, and all three on the cranks collapsed, huffing with relief. Anni hopped over to them, cradling Fili in her hands, and Strix quickly joined her. She held her child, hugged her against her bosom as the young, naive Natorei clung to consciousness. Her breath was ragged, thready, eyes already fogged, yet a single dot of light still shined in those eyes, reflected in Strix’s.

“Are we safe?” She croaked, making that light waver.

“Yes, dear,” Strix said, stroking the young lass’s hair, straightening out those blue braids, twisted, pulled into four tight ponytails, falling around her legs. “The barricade is in place.”

“Good... good-”

“Eh. You did fine, I guess,” Avin said, chortling as he fell into Anni’s hands, as well. The light in Fili’s eyes sparked, crackling a bit hotter as she turned to glare at Avin, but the pink Natorei simply sighed, patting her forehead. “You always love to be dramatic, don’t you? You could have simply erected a wall in front of the door for a minute. Heck, you had it prepared, but no... You just had to go Astra’s Fury on them.”

“Ollie would have done the same,” she said, growling a little. “He would have given everything he had to keep us safe.”

“Ah, because he would absolutely adore one of his... friends? Squeezes? I’m not even sure what you are to h- headaches! There we go. Like he would have really appreciated his headache dying in his memory... Actually, he just might.”

She growled again, raised her hand towards him... but let it fall, the lights in her eyes taken by her lids. Everyone was silent, listening... sighing as they heard her snores, thankful that they were not only there but softer than normal. Swelabeth stood, and eased Fili into her palm, cupping her as she carried her into the next room. The others followed, leaving the entry and its white tiled floor through a diagonal archway into a hallway, giving way to plush, red carpet. Strix wasn’t sure what fur or beast it came from, but it had a soft glow to it, allowing them to see even in the umbra that now gave them peace.

The hall had several doors along it, each one pitched and turned diagonally. They seemed to be labeled, white squares centered on each one, but without power the runes that were most likely etched on them were cold. It was a good call they saved her, for even Spack was looking a bit puzzled, crowing and crocking his head as they passed door after door.

“Had an expansion done recently?” He said.

“Last month,” Swelabeth said. “Added an entire new wing, as well as parsed the older rooms. Once I figured out my problem with runic expansion, it became far easier to triple the space in each room –when there is power, of course.” She stopped at one of the doors on the left, after passing what felt like several dozen prior, and entered. Spack remained still, blocking their path, and only turned to the side as Swelabeth returned. Empty handed. She closed the door gently, and pushed by Spack, returning up the hall. “There. She’ll be able to get a wink or two before we leave.”

“That was awesome,” Anni squeaked at last, giggling. “I didn’t know Natorei can do that.”

“Fili was always exceptionally attuned to Astra,” Strix said, her tone soft... turned hard as she smacked Avin. “You! You should have shown her some gratitude. She saved our lives, almost at the cost of her own.”

“I did- ow! Stop h-hitting-”

“You didn’t have to be so mean,” Anni said. “She did that for us.”

“H-ow was I being m...mean? I was being my- self.”

“For once you should have been a good person,” Strix stated. “What if she died? Would you have been able to look at yourself if those were the last words you said to her?”

“Do you even care?” Anni said.

“Of course I do,” he exclaimed... groaning as his words rumbled through the house. “I mean... of course I do... I was worried sick. Still am, but what good was it for me to show that worry... Dammit, yes! I would have been able to look myself straight because it’s what she would have wanted. What good would it serve for me to be a blubbering mess like the rest of you... Besides. She’s fine, so let’s hurry up and find the tools.”

“Speaking of,” Strix said, turning... and flying after Swelabeth. She and Spack had a good bit of distance on them, almost halfway down the hall. Swelabeth shook her head, closing the door she was at, and started for the next when Strix flew right in front of her, burning bright.

“Do you mind?” She squawked.

“Found your tools yet?”

“That’s what I’m looking for... Once I remember which room was routed where, I can give it enough power for Spack to go in and get them-”

“And then what? How are we going to get out of here?”

“I have a shuttle.”

“A... a what?”

“You know our gliders? It’s like that, but meant to house multiple people... I keep trying to market them off to the masses, but no one believes they’ll take off. ‘Too slow’, they said. ‘Why bother when you can have multiple gliders?’ Jokes on them now!”

“How so? Sounds like we’ll just be an easy target.”

Swelabeth cawed, as if threatening her to continue that line of thought, but Strix already said all she needed to.

“Because,” she said, “it’s enclosed, plated, unlike being on the back of a glider. Now, you’re wasting time.”

Swelabeth “pushed” passed her, her and Spack continuing their search while the rest of them were left to return to the entry. As much as she hated the fact, she wasn’t much help here, either. All she could do was sit there, watch the pair of them check the halls, the doors, all the while the metal rang with the crashing of the dark tide outside, renewed.

“H-hey,” Anni blurted. “Avin, are you crying?”

“Of course not,” he said... sniffling. “It’s just the rain.”

“But... we’re inside.”

“It’s just the rain.”

Strix smiled, shutting her eyes as she leaned back against the cool, glass wall, allowing her body to relax, even if it was a moment.

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