The trio landed on a rocky peak above the ancient city. It was nearing sunset and the white towers were made bloody, the plant life black, and the swirling steam petal pink by the red sun. They had spent the rest of the day, after hearing Rainsoft’s story, flying over the city, first from a distance and then as closely as they dared, looking for ways in and signs of life. Now, they clung to the spire above the city and looked down upon it. Thornfire pointed.
“There below us, the warm river Rainsoft found when he escaped,” the mage spoke, slowly, perhaps hoping Rainsoft would be able to follow. “It exits the city through several metal grates at the base of the southern walls and winds away from the city until it plunges into a hole in the rocks and vanishes from sight. Did you see the great gates on the western side? The talis never bothered to shut them when they won the city. Probably they couldn’t figure out the mechanism. I expect Rainsoft exited through those gates.
“There are also two back ways. You saw where the city touches the surrounding mountains on the northern and eastern sides, I expect. There are tunnels through the rock that open into the buildings that abut them. One of those tunnels is how my brother and I used to visit the city.”
“Will we use those tunnels for getting in?” Hawkwind asked.
“Probably. They will have to be scouted to see if the talis hang around them. They’re higher up in the city. The talis tend to stay to the lower areas, nearer the hot water, and I’ve never seen talis there before, but it’s best to be cautious. Let’s check them tomorrow.”
Hawkwind saw Rainsoft give a firm nod from the corner of her eye, and she wondered again how much he was coming to understand spoken language.
“Thornfire,” she began nervously, “how are we going to do this? The Stones are deep in there, aren’t they? And we have no idea where your brother is, do we? There are sure to be talis around. How many? How can we just wander through the place searching?”
“Calm yourself, Hawkwind,” Thornfire soothed. “I’ve wandered the place before. There are ways; we just have to be careful. I will grant you,” he gave her a dubious look, “I have never seen the Stones.”
“How do you know they even exist? They’re just a story.”
“It’s not just a story. It’s in our history.”
“Not all history is true,” she told him, thinking of all the things she’d read and heard people claim. “Most of the griffins at South-scree even consider Northnest and its creation a myth.”
“History may be falsified and bent to reflect the writer’s preferences, true, but the hot water is still there,” he countered. “The Stones must be there. Perhaps tomorrow we can get a glimpse of them. It’s getting late. Let’s go back to camp now. The talis will be leaving the city with their store of heat in their bodies to hunt. We mustn’t be caught out in the open.”
Hawkwind spent that night in her own room. She still valued Rainsoft as a dear friend and companion, possibly more than any griffin she’d ever known except her grandmother and sister, but the irresistible urge to be with him had faded. Her heat was over, and it relieved her. Something like that would only get in the way of her focusing on sneaking through an ancient city full of giant finned snakes capable of hypnotizing her to retrieve a magic rock.
When she woke up after a night of half sleeping and shivering, however, she wished she’d slept with Rainsoft simply for the benefit of sharing his body heat. She resolved to ask to curl up with him at night from then on, as long as they were on the mountain. She didn’t think he’d have any reason to refuse.
“Perhaps you should sleep with Thornfire, or the children,” Hawkwind suggested to Starbright as the golden griffin emerged from her own room yawning. “It would be warmer.”
“Good idea,” Starbright replied.
Hawkwind covertly eyed the young female. It didn’t seem that Starbright had cared about or even noticed that Hawkwind had awakened as a matriarch and had a tryst with Rainsoft. She supposed that was natural. Hawkwind herself had never paid any attention to the habits of matriarchs. Males had been totally uninteresting except as platonic companions before two days ago. Perhaps Starbright truly had been oblivious. Hawkwind wondered if Starbright would ever earn the place of matriarch for the Star Line back at South-scree.
There were no remains from the previous night’s dinner except what had been cooked and hidden under gravel by the campfire stone for the children. Hawkwind still felt full, however, so it was no hardship to get up and going without something to eat. Thornfire and Rainsoft were sitting by the campfire stone, writing things to each other.
“Rainsoft says that during his escape, he estimates he saw about a dozen talis,” Thornfire shared. “Of course he never encountered the hot pool at the base of the city, and that is where most of the talis are likely to be.”
“Do we have any chance of killing a talis?” Hawkwind asked, sitting down with them.
“I don’t think their scales are immune to our bills or claws. If we could avoid being hypnotized, there’s a chance.”
“No one has come up with a way to do it?”
“You fancy fighting one of those beasts with your eyes closed?” Thornfire countered. “They strike as quickly as any serpent, when they’re warm. That is a hopeless battle. Perhaps Rainsoft could do it, if he were very careful and fast, facing only one of them. The odds would improve if the talis were cold. They’re slow when they’re cold.”
“What defenses do we have then?”
“The smell,” Thornfire reminded her. “Talis have a strong, musky scent, although I suspect that Rainsoft may not be able to detect it, since he spent his whole life among them.” Thornfire started writing in the dirt again. “What do talis smell like?”
Rainsoft shook his head. “I never noticed a smell,” he wrote.
“So you and I, Hawkwind, will have be aware of the scents around us.”
Starbright, perhaps wanting to feel useful, started writing down everything that was being said.
“Talis also have poor distance vision, as I mentioned, but they still have an uncanny ability to detect other creatures. I confess that I don’t know how they do it, if it is by scent or hearing, or vibrations through the ground, or something else. At any rate, we must move silently and as light of foot as possible. Our scent, unfortunately, we can do little about.”
“Have you ever fought one?” Hawkwind asked.
“Any time one showed a hint of detecting me, I fled. I’ve never faced one in battle.”
Rainsoft gestured, “I will fight.”
“They are strong, and they strike rapidly,” Thornfire said slowly, giving Rainsoft a firm glare. “Fighting is dangerous. I don’t want you to die, and I cannot help you. I must not look at them.”
Rainsoft nodded reluctantly.
“Maybe I will be immune, too,” Hawkwind hoped, “and then we can fight together.”
He gave her a little smile and she returned it.
“We should get going,” Thornfire suggested. “We’ll scout the upper areas today, and see if we can get a glimpse of the hot pool and the Stones. Tomorrow we will leave early in the morning, at the coldest time of day, after the talis have spent their warmth hunting and are at their weakest. Hopefully we won’t encounter any talis today, and we’ll formulate a plan how to approach the situation tomorrow.”
“The camp will be ready for you when you return,” Starbright said cheerfully. “Be careful, all of you, and come back safe.”
“All right, let’s go,” the mage instructed, and led them to the sky.
“It’s open; that’s not a good sign,” Thornfire observed in a whisper.
A thick wooden door, nearly bleached of its color by however many winters and summers, was propped open against the rock wall, leaning crookedly from old hinges.
“Wing and I always shut it when we left, for security. The talis aren’t good with doors,” he went on.
“Why did you and your brother come out here anyway?” Hawkwind breathed.
“I sought the libraries,” he answered. “Magic lore lost for centuries may be preserved here somewhere. My brother has an uncanny ability to commune with animals, understand them, and control them. He had the idea that he could do something about the talis. We were both young, especially Wing; we had the crazy idea that we might find a way to take back Snow-in-lee.”
Thornfire shook his head, like an old horse swaying in its pasture. “We were fools. I realized it eventually, and gave up, but he never did. I refused to keep returning with him. One time, he never came back.”
“Do you think he’s alive?”
“I don’t know. If he is, I expect he is a prisoner of the talis now. Let’s move forward. Keep scenting for talis. I will regularly flick my tail. If I stop moving, and stop flicking, it may indicate that I’ve seen a talis. If that happens, get ready to run, and dig your bill or claws into me. A sharp pain can break the hypnotic effect.”
They crept around the doorjamb and into the dank tunnel. With silent, slow steps they moved forward. The tunnel was only slightly larger than a full-grown griffin. If they did encounter a talis, it would be difficult to turn around and run, even if they weren’t hypnotized by it.
The tunnel was not long, and shortly they came up to another door, this one only partly open, wide enough for a griffin to squeeze through. Hawkwind and Rainsoft waited while Thornfire cautiously peered through the gap, tail slowly flicking up and down. He cautiously looked around the back of the door, and then moved into the room beyond. Hawkwind and Rainsoft followed.
“Hawkwind, do you smell it? It’s faint now. It will be much stronger if a talis is near.”
She took a deep breath and caught it, a rich musk of sweat and clay earth and something else that stank sourly.
“I smell it, I think,” she answered softly.
“Good,” Thornfire murmured. “If it ever rolls over you in waves like to make you sick, you are far too close to a talis. This room is unchanged from the last time I saw it.”
The room had no door into the rest of the building, or if there had once been one, it was long disintegrated. Hawkwind glanced out the doorway, seeing an empty hallway except for some moss and grasses growing up between the stones. She crossed the room in about six strides. It too was mostly empty but for debris of old rocks, boards, and sacks slowly rotting in the corners. Mushrooms grew up from the piles in a few places. The room was lit only by light coming in through the door-less doorway.
“Let’s keep moving,” Thornfire told them.
He led them into the hallway. Occasional doorways opened into more rooms on each side. Thornfire stuck his head into them, checking them, and Hawkwind followed suit. They looked much like the first room had, but sometimes with more wreckage of things that might have once been furniture. The rooms had windows also, all unglazed, but Thornfire didn’t lead them into any of the rooms to look through the windows until they came to a turn in the hallway, where a ramp led downwards.
“Wing and I thought this was probably a residential area, possibly for those who defended the city: sentries, guards, and the like, since it’s near an entrance,” Thornfire explained. “The ramp leads down to more floors of rooms like these, and to a large hall. We think that was where guests and traders who entered this way would be received and occupy stalls for sale of their goods. Before we go that way, come take a look here.”
The group clustered at one of the windows.
“You can see part of the hot pool, and there, Hawkwind, your first look at a talis,” he said. “You’re far enough away, here, that it can’t entrance you.”
It looked bigger than she’d expected, even from such a distance. It was lying at the edge of the pool with the water lapping over its long, scaled body. At the moment, it looked quite peaceful.
“Are they all blue and brown?” she asked.
“It looks that way now, from this angle, with this light,” Thornfire explained. “As it moves, the light will play over its scales and its color will shift. Even though we’re far away, you probably shouldn’t look too long.”
Hawkwind moved her gaze away from it and shook her head. Had she been slightly hypnotized, or just curious at seeing one for the first time? She couldn’t be sure. She didn’t want to believe that she was vulnerable to talis enchantment, even though she knew it was very likely. Griffins such as Rainsoft were exceedingly rare, according to Thornfire.
“Onward,” Thornfire prodded, leading them back out the room.
They went down the ramp to the bottom and cautiously into the big hall.
“Wing and I have already picked through all this wreckage,” Thornfire whispered.
Indeed, there were piles of wood, canvas, stone, broken pottery, bits of metal, and other materials scattered all around the room. Hawkwind tested the air. The scent of talis was slightly stronger, but not enough for her to fear there was one nearby.
“I am walking the path that Wing and I usually used. If he had to flee and was killed during his escape, I’d expect his body first to be along this path, if the talis didn’t eat him, which they probably would have,” Thornfire explained. “Still, there might be signs of a struggle. We’ll go next to the balcony where he often observed the talis.”
“Thornfire,” Hawkwind called in a whisper, “was your brother immune to the talis’ hypnotism?”
“Very much so,” he replied. “It’s one reason he felt more comfortable here than I did. This way.”
They took a narrow staircase up a tight round tower, emerging onto a snug balcony. Below them, the hot pool was clearly visible, but a portion of it vanished back among more buildings.
“We can’t see the Sun or Moonstones from here,” Hawkwind murmured.
“I’ve never seen them,” Thornfire confessed. “They’re deeper into the city, at the center. We’ll have to find our way there without getting caught.”
“And then find a way to steal the Stones and make it out without getting caught,” Hawkwind added. “How heavy will they be?”
“I can’t tell you. I don’t know what kind of rock they were carved from, a heavy type or a light type.”
The talis were soaking lazily in the pool below, their long finned bodies waving gently. From here, closer, Hawkwind could observe the ever-shifting colors of their scales. There had been times, back at Northnest, when she’d seen the wastewater the kitchens threw out. Often she saw a film on the water, like liquid rainbows ever shifting and shining. There was an aspect of that when she looked at the talis, combined with the flutter of a thousand autumn leaves in the wind flashing gold and ochre and rust and butter yellow against the bright blue of a midday sky. She wanted to watch forever.
“Don’t look too long, Hawkwind,” Thornfire warned sharply, but quietly.
Hawkwind tore her gaze away from them.
“There is no evidence of my brother here. Let’s keep moving.”
The trio descended the tower, checking for scents and the sound of movement with every step, but this, too, seemed to be an area of the city that the talis had found no use for, and did not occupy.
“We’ll go to the library,” Thornfire whispered.
They moved into another building and up some stairs. The scent of talis diminished. Thornfire led them now to a grand doorway. The doors, made of some kind of metal that had tarnished over the years, stood slightly ajar, just enough for the griffins to slip inside. Hawkwind stopped and stared in awe.
“I’ve never seen such a room,” she remarked, “even in Northnest, and there were large rooms there.”
“This was the mages’ library,” Thornfire said, neck arched and wings slightly mantled, as though he somehow took credit for it.
It was a long room, stretching along one side of the building, with wide windows all along it. The ceiling was high, looking down on the wreckage of shelves and desks.
“Generations of mages stored their research here, though I do expect that they also kept some spells to themselves, written only in their own grimoires,” Thornfire went on.
“Even though this was supposed to be a place of education and sharing?”
Thornfire offered her a smile. “No mage gives away all his secrets. For example, despite all my reading here, I’ve never found the book that explains the Stones.”
He walked into the depths of the room. Hawkwind and Rainsoft followed, watching as the elder lifted heavy layers of canvas, glancing at the piles of books hidden under them.
“You emptied all the shelves?” Hawkwind wondered, noticing that among the disintegrating bookcases was not a single book.
“I have done my best to save them,” he answered. “Being on the shelves, exposed to light, air, and any rain or snow that blew in, they were fast deteriorating. There are far too many for me to move back to South-scree, even in a lifetime, and even if I had some place to put them. Piling them up in the darkest, most protected corners, and covering them was the best I could do. I did take a few. Perhaps someday,” he didn’t finish his thought.
Thornfire flicked his wings to resettle them. “At any rate, there is no sign of my brother here either. I thought, if he expected to die, and wished to leave his pendant for me to find, he might have left it here, knowing it was my favorite place in Snow-in-lee, but I don’t see it anywhere.”
The mage sat and beckoned Rainsoft and Hawkwind closer.
“And now, the easy places are exhausted,” he said. “From here, the only other places I have explored, I did so with great risk, as they are areas I or my brother have encountered the talis in. There are other areas of course that we never ventured into, either because they were true talis territory, or because they looked structurally unsound, or just uninteresting. Most of the upper area of the city is nothing but empty rooms with bits of wreckage, like you’ve seen, and most of the lower area the talis live in.”
Rainsoft raised his hands and gestured. “My family: I want to find them.”
Hawkwind translated aloud for Thornfire.
“I hope we can rescue them,” Thornfire nodded seriously. “I need to search for my brother in deeper areas of the city, too. The problem is all the talis around. We need a way to get them out of the city or at least distracted.”
“They’re here because of the hot water the Stones make,” Hawkwind affirmed. “We have to steals the Stones first, don’t we?”
“You have summed it up nicely,” Thornfire praised.
“The talis will know,” Rainsoft countered, with Hawkwind again as interpreter, “someone took the Stones.”
“They aren’t that bright,” Thornfire said cheerfully. “If we can get out without getting caught or seen, they will be confused, yes, maybe even angry, but they won’t know what to do about it. It will take them a long time to formulate the thought that someone stole them. It would take even longer for them to come up with the idea that if they investigate and search that they might be able to find the thief and take back the Stones. Such a thing would probably never occur to them. They will simply observe that the Stones are gone, that the water is draining and no longer so hot, and thus Snow-in-lee becomes of no more particular use to them than any other location in the mountains. A few might remain, but they won’t congregate here any more.”
Hawkwind shrugged, “we have to steal the Stones at some point anyway,” she agreed grudgingly.
Thornfire flexed his pectorals. “Let’s see if we can find a safe part of the city from which we can see the Stones, and get as close to them as possible.”