Bang. Bang. Bang... Bang. Bang. Bang... A rhythm. Consistent. Enduring... Suffocating. Smothering. Misery...
Strix bobbed her head to it, succumbed to it, lost to its beat. Her head bounced against the glass, pushed off by each bash, while she kept her gaze locked on that hallway. Those blasted birds still haven’t found the tools; they already overshot their estimated time by three fold. Minimum.
Not that she was complaining. The others had drifted off to sleep, as she had for the briefest of moment. Let them indulge in this respite; Astra knows they are going back into that chaos soon enough. Especially dear Fili. The girl had heart, but she didn’t take into account that this was only the first hurdle, arguably the easiest one at that.
It’s why she held back, and why she hoped Ponitius would have done the same. He must have known, so why did he waste all his good knives? Especially his knives; she could regain her energy with a nap and a bit of food, but when were they going to stop at a town to restock and rearm?
As much as she hated to admit it, Bethilius had the right idea and understood, just like her. He didn’t even draw his sword yet, its edge still pristine, its metal unsullied. He’ll be a great asset in the journey back to the Scylla. As would Durnst... and that mangy street cat. Perks of being pugilists.
Strix knew that Claire was merciless, but never saw nor heard her raise her claws to anybody in Narvaal. She didn’t know she could fight; she assumed she did. After all, why would she take so many risks when she gambled if she couldn’t back herself up, but she was also prone and known to run. Seeing her and Durnst in action, if ever the two came to blows, she doubted Durnst could win. He was great against groups, but he always lacked the subtle touches for one-on-one. Meanwhile, Claire seemed to weave between the two with such grace, as if dancing to the song of brutality that the heart did drum when in a fight. Though she took that comparison with a grain of salt: that was the Durnst she knew.
It seemed almost another lifetime since then, back when it was only her, Durnst, Dervalan, Bethilius, Ponitius of course, and Sarr, traveling the Barator Sea on the Falchion. They made ends meet with the odd job or nine, but their hearts were all set on one thing and one thing only: The Scylla. Such a goal, a grand dream such as it, was not only shared with the six of them, and though the number of factions have shrunk to the one they founded, they had their share of knocks along the way.
She sighed, and found herself almost smiling, remembering those days. They weren’t easy. They had their fair share of scrapes, but they always managed to pull themselves out of it... Well, most of the time. What was taking Sarr so long to return to his form? What was he off doing now... Was he staying near Fielsden? That old lecher always had a taste for the nubile pages of Ignes, which in turn they had a flame for him –both figurative and literal. Literal in most cases; Ignes’s ladies and madams did not care for how he tailed them, after all... She huffed, edging on being a chuckle, as she remembered him screaming and apologizing as he flew by the general store, a volley of fire trailing after him. One of the ladies stopped by and almost shot her before seeing she had a silver light instead of white. Minor distinction, but it made all the difference in Natorei culture.
It’s why male Natorei avoided her, after all... It’s not her fault she was born quick-silvered. It wasn’t as though she did anything wrong, but she was forever cursed from the day she rose from the petals of that lotus with that aura of silver. One tried to defy that curse, tried to show her an ounce of happiness, and he died for it... Alas, because of his war to make her happy, he passed the quicksilver to his mistress, and she died as Avin’s petals flourished. He was alone... and needed her.
She didn’t even care that he had a lover on the side. She was happy, and that happiness beget not one but two children, with one being of her blood and the other being half of her love’s. Which was why she knew Avin wasn’t being mean to Fili when he said what he did. He was right; that was normal for the two of them. He always heckled her, she always emasculated him, and that’s how it should be. They were brother and sister... At least, as far as they knew.
One day, maybe, she’ll tell Avin about Rylix. Some day, but it would not be this day. She chanced a glance his way, on the other side of the doorway. The “rain” had stopped awhile back, and he was passed out in Anni’s hands. She was holding him to her chest, the little pink tip of her nose twitching still as she, too, slumbered away. Gaz and Bethilius were to her left, while Ponitius, Durnst, and Claire were to Strix’s.
Which Ponitius was faking it.
He sighed, heavily, and allowed himself to truly relax as Strix fluttered over, landing on his shoulder.
“Something on your mind?” She whispered, though had to raise it to at least be heard over the clangorous hymn. “Or can’t get into the beat?”
He scoffed, sneering as he kept his eyes locked forward. Not at the hall but on the wall beside.
“Not my kind of music,” he said, and nodded to that wall. “Does that look off to you? Why have a perfectly good, straight wall and then build a hallway that runs diagonal to it?”
“That’s what you’re focused on?”
“Well, I figured you were worried enough about the birdbrains for the two of us, so decided to put my mind to better use.”
“By examining a bit of odd architecture... You do realize where we are, don’t you?”
“And that’s exactly why I found it peculiar. They have limited space as it is, so why make it even more tight than it needs to be?”
“They did mention leaving in a shuttle. Maybe it’s concealing a staircase up to the... top...”
As she uttered it, her heart faltered, and a cold sweat broke out across her skin. If there was a way to the top, after all, that meant there was a way for them to come down. Bang. Bang. Bang... Bang. Bang. Bang... A rhythm. Consistent. Enduring... Suffocating. Smothering. Predictable.
Her aura grew, brightening that small, dark corner a second before letting loose a pale, green orb, aimed for the top of that corner. The banging, the clanger continued as it lazed through the stifling air, the darkness that brought her so much comfort now bearing down on her once again. Her heart thumped in her ears, overpowering that clangorous cadence, and she could hear something else under it now. A scratching, a scraping on metal.
The orb reached the top of the corner, at that right angle.
And shined on a purple eye.
It disappeared, and the beating stopped, replaced by shrieking metal and anguished wails. The others woke with a start. Avin shot up into the air, spluttering, gasping as he saw that light orb up in the corner and the sparks of metal as dark, ragged claws sundered it. Three sets, four, five; more and more forced their way through, ripping, rending it faster and faster as rasping breath and rotten flesh filled the air.
“What in Terra’s name-” Gaz bleated, silenced by Bethilius’s neigh.
“Why didn’t you warn us sooner?” He said, pulling out his sword.
“Don’t look at us, sleeping beauty. We just found out ourselves,” Ponitius said. He, too, bolted to his feet, and was fishing through his jacket, groaning with each pocket, with every belt and hoop and fold that he checked. “Looks like I’m out.”
“What do you mean you just ‘found out’! Look at that. You mean to tell me none of you heard this?”
“They only picked up the pace when I lit them up,” Strix said. “It was as if they were watching us. Waiting for us.”
“Those things are that smart?” Gaz exclaimed.
“Must have been that thing giving them orders.”
“Of course it is!” Bethilius said, nickering and snorting. He was starting to froth at the mouth, his sword jingling as every part of him shook. “Strikes me as the kind to toy with her prey.”
“Didn’t she say she wanted us alive?” Anni chided in. “For when we meet back with Olivier?”
“Who knows what goes through a mind of something like that.” He clomped his foot, and started for the hallway. “Enough of this! I’m going to ‘help’ our feathery friends find the f-”
“What’s all the ruckus!” Spack squawked as he practically flew out of the hallway... and knocked Bethilius onto the floor as he did. He squawked even louder as he looked up at the ceiling, seeing the shadows tear through the metal. They had given up going straight down and were now tunneling through the metal around it, stopped by Avin, Strix, and their light barrier. If they made it any wider, though... Strix shook her head.
“Find those tools yet?” She bellowed.
“Aye. They are in 2E. I simply need to generate power to it, then we need to find the shuttle case-”
“It’s not up above!”
“Of course not,” Swelabeth said, standing at the arch to the hallway.
“Do we have time for you to assemble it, then?”
“Assemble? It’s already done.”
“Then how are we going to get it above!”
“It’s compressible. Just like our gliders.”
“What are you doing here?” Spack exclaimed, grunting as he turned the crank. It whirred softly, the lights, the diodes beside it flashing. One was ringed in green, growing stronger, brighter with each turn of the crank. “Get back there so we can get moving!”
“I’m rather thankful she was here to explain t-” Strix began, but was cut off as more of the metal above gave. Her silver aura pulsed, shining, almost painfully, as she poured more of it into that barrier. Swelabeth disappeared down the hall again, but Spack didn’t stop pumping that crank. His eyes were locked on those shadows, on that ever-growing wall of light that separated him and the others from them.
He rose his left hand a moment off the crank, letting it slow, and the lights flickered off. However, they were lit once more as he continued to crank, a new diode pressed and surrounded by green, but it wavered as those claws above broke through the barrier.
“You okay, Avin?” Strix called out, huffing, panting hard. She flashed again, closing the hole that was punched through, but another formed further down the line. “Avin!”
“Y-yeah!” He said, his pink almost white as he mended that hole. “They hit harder than expe-”
He cried out as he was flung back into the wall, and his half of the light barrier above was extinguished. Strix cursed, trying to fill the gaps, but shadows managed to make it through. It was only a handful, but any were enough to make Spack falter on the crank and make those lights dim.
Swelabeth shrieked from down the hall, and stormed up it as she rubbed her right arm –rather, what was left of it. It was cut above the elbow, as if it had simply been removed. There wasn’t even any blood, just a perfect, black nub... No... it wasn’t black; it was blank.
“Do you mind?” She shrilled, and shrieked again as a shadow jumped right down in front of her. It was facing Strix and the others, however, as she screamed, its entire form rippled, and simply “turned” itself around. It started towards her, but howled in even more agony as Bethilius cleaved into its shoulder.
“Get back to the room and get whatever you need!” He bellowed, pulling his blade free. Black blood splashed against the wall to the left, followed by its body as he spun on his heel. He met another shadow’s claws, sparks hissing in the air as the metal shuddered and clattered, but he shoved it back. He thrust his sword through its middle, twisting it around, and pulled up through its collarbone, shoving it to the ground as well.
But that was two. Two in a swarm, slowly breaking through.
Avin picked himself up again and rose once more. His pink aura was iridescent, bathing the room in its glory, but the brightest flame goes quickest. It dimmed fast, the parts of the barrier he maintained weakened again, and Strix was already stretched too thin as it was.
“Come on, Swel,” Spack grumbled, still chugging away. His feet slipped on the floor, and the crank would most likely need removed before his hands could be, latched on so hard that the bright feathers on his knuckles were paled. He didn’t even let up as one of the shadows lunged at him, pinned to the wall by Bethilius’s blade. He walked over, pulling it free, and wiped the blood off on Spack’s jacket, glowering at him. “Was that really necessary?”
“You’re welcome,” he said, and wheeled about, skewering another shadow-
He froze as another tried to pounce on him. He could still feel its breath on the side of his face, by his milky iris. Its claws had scraped along its back, now flung into the pile growing before Spack as he continued to turn. Claire sighed, cracking her knuckles, and patted Bethilius’s right shoulder, winking at him.
“You should be more wary of your blind spots,” she said, and he could hear her purr under the wails and clanger. Her tail flicked, and she spun, catching another in the chest, knocking it across the room.
He scoffed, but heeded her advise. He kept his head always turned towards that rift, rippling as more and more clawed their way through. They had ripped the entire wall off at this rate, and it looked like a thousand purple jewels shining beyond that failing gate of light, simply... waiting, knowing it was futile. Again, Strix cursed Fili’s lack of foresight. Sure, she annihilated a few hundred thousand, Durnst, Bethilius, and Claire can hold off a few hundred, at most, but all of that was a drop in the vast sea that now crashed down upon them.
Swelabeth returned, but Strix wasn’t relieved at her return. Instead, she was a bit confused. And furious. The Zephyrian had a leather roll of some kind tucked under her left arm, while in her right, fully intact again thankfully, she had a golden case. It was little more than a gold box with a handle, barely bigger than breadbox.
“We’re good,” she said, which only made Strix even angrier.
“That’s what we risked our lives for!” She shrieked. “That puny box?” She shook her head, wincing as the wall flashed. Avin wasn’t kidding: they were strong, stronger than she even gave credit. She, also, had the sneaking suspicion that they were holding back. “Did you get Fili?”
“Have her tucked safely with the tools... Okay, Spack. Open the stairwell.”
“I don’t think that’s wise,” Spack said.
“Just do it, you ninny,” Anni said... come to think of it, Strix still wasn’t sure what to make of this Faun. First impressions, she classified her as... bubbly. Bubbly but harmless. However, that was a loose label, given her... relations. If she was Claire’s friend, then there was no way she was harmless.
Spack heaved a weary sigh, a deluge to follow as he continued to crank, and hit the diode at the very top of the console. The wall clicked, hissed as blue runes flashed through it, pulling it away from the house. It was like a slide, hidden under blue runes on top of it, and from their light born flickering steps, crackling with each turn of the crank.
The barrier faded from the rest of the wall, but Strix made sure one was erected around the others, herding them towards those steps as it created a perfect line down it. It was a more concentrated area, easier to handle, but no harder to maintain as more and more shadows slammed against it, freed of the nook they carved for themselves. Even then, there was a gathering at the very top of the steps, simply waiting with gleaming, hungry eyes.
“Move aside,” Avin said, taking over for Spack on the wheel. “I can fly up once everyone else is taken care of.”
“That’s comforting to know,” Spack stated, chortling, panting as he peeled his hands off the crank. The steps completely vanished as he did, the wall started to close again, stopped as Avin spun it. “At least you’re willing to join us for the slaughter.”
“So negative,” Anni said, squeaking as she bounced on her heels. “Okay! Is it my time to shine?”
“Just do whatever it is you’re planning to do and get it over w-” Gaz started, and even the shadows were silenced by the howls that rose in the building. The darkness, itself, rippled, and from it wolves tore through, coated in purple ichor. They shook it off, showing the green runes on their silver coats, matching the gleam in Anni’s eyes. She smiled, widening, her buck teeth changing, growing longer as her entire body morphed. Her fur became scraggly, almost mangy, as she grew three sizes, and her once wiry tail was now full and bushy, swishing as she looked up at the barrier and the prey beyond.
The light barriers, after being held for so long, gave. The room was now only illuminated by those blue runes on the steps and the lights on the console, shining in the green and purple eyes. The green ones flashed, and the purple quickly faded, snuffed out as the greens only grew in number. Anni rushed up the stairs, growling and squeaking as she slammed into that gathering, screaming in true terror as they were carried wherever awaited above. Swelabeth and Spack wasted no time following after. Gaz was next, which Durnst and Claire covered him. Strix waited for them to reach the top before she nudged Avin, and the pair fluttered to that opening, reaching it just before the wall fully closed.
Their lights illuminated the way, but they could already see the top, lit by the fires that spilled into the heavens, cleared thanks to Anni. She could hear her and her pack above, snarling and ripping into the shadows, but also Durnst, Claire, and Bethilius grunting, fighting as well. The stairs simply opened to the top of the building, a launch pad, and center stage to the chaos and mayhem around.
Swelabeth was in the center, opening that case, humming away. Strix flew over, and was not so pleasant about removing the leather roll from under her arm, unfurling it... to see Fili actually there, nestled in between such strange contraptions. She was still asleep, snoring away, much more pronounced than it was when she first fell asleep. She had a good bit of her blue back, as well, hidden again as Swelabeth snatched and rolled up the satchel.
“Do you mind?” She exclaimed.
“Yes!” Bethilius answered for her. He had three shadows ran through on his blade, all of them still trying to reach for him, shoved off as he kicked them over the edge into the ever-encroaching horde. “Hurry up and get it airborne!”
“I’m working on it-”
“Looks to me like you’re complaining! Hurry! Up!”
Swelabeth shook her head, and continued to unpack that metal case. It was opened, revealing even more small cases to open, but also a white button in its center. Runes pulsed softly around it, white, nowhere near the blue they needed to be, which the other cases shown to have even more cranks.
“I’ll need to get it charged up,” she said.
“Do it, then!” Gaz bleated, shaking his head. “No no no! This was NOT worth the money. I should have turned you all in when I had the chance-”
“What’s that?” Claire said. “You want to be flung into the shadows? I can do that!”
“No. Allow me,” Bethilius said, reaching for the Faun’s gray beard.
“On second thought, let me help,” he said, and crouched, turning two cranks at once. Avin helped with one, leaving Swelabeth her own. The runes slowly grew blue, pulsing brighter, faster towards the button, but that didn’t mean Strix could sit idle. Though the pack tore into the shadows, Anni and the others tried to keep them at bay, some slipped through the cracks, knocked back by Strix’s light. She kept a strong front, kept her silver as pristine as she could, but she was reaching her limit. She hadn’t pressed this hard in a long time; every part of her ached from the strain, from every “punch”, and she doubted she could keep this up too long.
She looked out over the city, bathed in fire and smoke, but was daunted by the silence that held it. Aside where they were, the rest of the town was now completely and utterly dead, in all sense of the word. No one stirred. Not a single being existed outside of their little patch.
It took her a moment, but she found the Scylla, off to the west. She could see on its deck, and saw that it was cleared. For the moment. She could see Dervalan on it, a giant gray block of muscle, as well as a flash of red, darting and weaving its way across it, stopping the shadows from getting on top.
There was a loud ding, and Strix looked back just in time to see Swelabeth hit the button. The runes flashed, and smoke rose as she ducked back. The others were a bit slow, but managed to avoid the golden... block that rose out of the smoke. It was, quite literally, a cube of gold, like a mini building on top of the building. It didn’t stay that way, though. The gold quickly changed, closing in on itself, becoming the shape of a glider but... covered? It was as if somebody put a roof over a glider.
A door formed on Strix’s side, and opened to show an empty, yet plush, interior. It was lined, wall-to-wall, with soft, blue fur, the same kind used in the house. Swelabeth whistled, pulling everyone’s attention, and they rushed in. Strix then Anni were the last ones in; Anni was back to her original size, but her eyes still glowed, the pack still fighting off the shadows.
Swelabeth swept in behind her, and the door shut. Strix watched her take the seat in the front, surrounded by so many diodes and a strange looking wheel, and gasped as the world around her shifted. There were no windows, save for the visor in front of Swelabeth, and Strix could see through that that they were flying. It didn’t take them long from their to make it to the Scylla, set upon it with such grace and elegance, and they were ushered out, once more in the middle of chaos and mayhem.
Squall approached... as well as that strange flash of red, which turned out to be a Terrahn. Swelabeth and Spack, meanwhile, hurried over to the closest engine, the right one on the bow.
“Took your time, didn’t you?” Squall said, and nodded to the woman in red. “We have a new member.”
“I’m not arguing about help at this point,” Strix grumbled, but was cut off as Ponitius bowed to her. “What are y-”
“It’s nice to see you again, madam,” He said, smiling as he stood upright again. “Might I know your name... or at least one of them?”
“Possibly, but I know you go by Ponitius.”
“For now. What about you?”
“Delilah.” She offered her hand, but it was already occupied, laden with a leather belt filled with knives. “You seem a bit lacking, my dear.”
“A real charmer, you are.” He took the belt, already loosing two of the fine blades into four shadows, pinning them to two others that made their way up over the rail. “This all you have left?”
“Then we’ll just have to share.”
“Fine by me, but I would much rather be airborne. Now would be preferred.”
“We’re working on it,” Spack grumbled. “Older than expected... we’ll have to use the Argonyte-”
“That’ll completely fry them!” Swelabeth shrieked, turned to a squawk as sparks blossomed from the engine. “You see? Jasuum at most. Neanderthal...”
“I take it you’ve had one helluva time here?” Strix said.
“It was pretty bad,” Beatrice grumbled, lumbering over. “I don’t even know why I was here.”
“You can leave any time you know. Go ahead.”
“... I said I didn’t know. I wasn’t saying I want to go.”
“Little lady did a lot of work,” Delilah said, making the demure Faun perk. She shot Delilah a dirty look, while she was smirking at her. “Oh? Didn’t want your secret given away.”
Delilah took a breath. Beatrice’s face turned dark, the look in her soft eyes showing an evil Strix never thought possible in the lass, but all faded as the engines whirred... faltering. Swelabeth cursed, scratching her head with one of the longer, spindlier contraptions.
“Blast it all!” She shrieked. “They should be working now.”
“Hold on.” Spack said, and took the item from her.
“No wait d-” Swelabeth began, but was silenced as the engines all glowed at once, shooting the Scylla up into the air. Everyone lurched a step, but Squall hurried to the console and wheel, leaving the party to clean up the stragglers.
It wasn’t long before they were sailing over the edge of Agutrot, glowing in the rays of dawn. The town was silent, the shadows melting away, leaving it desolate, forgotten, barren... Delilah leaned on the rail, looking out at it, shaking her head.
“And so another town falls to The Plague,” She said, piquing Strix’s curiosity. No small feat; she was more than ready to go pass out, but this gave her the energy to question, to ponder.
“This isn’t new?” She said, floating by Delilah. “This has happened before?”
“A few times, actually.”
“How long ago did it start?”
Strix had a feeling what the answer was, but dreaded hearing it all the same. She shook her head, and told the crew their next priority was Olivier and that she was going to bed. As much as she loathed it, she needed rest. One thing was for certain, though: her mind wasn’t going to. Olivier, The Plague, and that cursed chest of his; they were all connected, but she wasn’t certain the chest was the root. There was something else going on, and only when she had him would she be able to start piecing it together.