According to Thornfire, he’d never explored this part of the city. For a few hours now, Hawkwind, Rainsoft, and Thornfire had been clinging to the roofs, jumping across spaces between buildings, and scaling walls. The architecture of the city surrounded them like a stone forest, and they leapt from branch to branch like rather large winged squirrels. They had decided moving about on the exteriors of the buildings—where the talis had little hope of climbing—would be safer than sneaking through rooms and hallways where they might encounter a talis at any moment. Now the trio crouched together on a gutter cloaked with steam and looked where Thornfire pointed.
“Down there,” he whispered. “This looks like the source of the water: the original spring. I think those are the Stones.”
A few stories down was a circular pool made of stone blocks that merged almost seamlessly with the natural stone they were set on. From the pool, spouts on four sides let the water drain into series of connected pools that wound away among the buildings, including into a rather large main pool. From the center of the source pool bubbled up fresh, hot water that sent steam up in warm, wet clouds carrying the scent of sulfur. Directly above that roiling center hung two stones the size of melons, one above the other. The bottom one was half submerged in the water itself. Both Stones were dark, like black seeds in the midst of all the white water and mist, so they could be discerned even through the veil of steam.
“How are we going to get them?” Hawkwind mused.
“See? They are suspended there by long lines, chains, I think,” Thornfire said. “If we find where the chains are tied off, we just pull them up.”
Hawkwind followed the lines with her eyes. There were four, suspending both Stones in a sort of two-storied harness.
“Four lines, and three of us,” she remarked.
“We won’t be able to pull them all up at once. We pull three, someone goes and pulls the fourth, then repeat,” he said.
A variety of potential problems ran through Hawkwind’s mind, but they wouldn’t be able to tell if any of them were likely to occur until they actually tried it.
“Let’s do it,” Rainsoft gestured, jabbing his bill towards the pool confidently.
“I’m ready, too,” Hawkwind murmured.
“Up we go then,” Thornfire led them off.
They climbed up, following the lines until they found where they were attached to metal brackets clamped to stone pillars. It was a few stories higher yet, at an altitude where the Stones had become difficult to see. There was a ledge to stand on, although it was thickly covered with moss and other tiny plants growing in the gaps between the stones. There was nothing to wrap the lines around to hold them as the griffins pulled up the Stones.
The buildings kept going up higher another few stories above them to where some kind of bridge crossed over the gap. From there, Hawkwind also saw an array of heavy chains dangling down in the center of the steam chimney and ending at about eye level. They had heavy, wicked looking hooks on their ends and seemed to be coated with rust.
“The two of us just pulling up a single line each may be able to manage,” she said, “but the third that has to run back and forth between two lines won’t be able to do it. There’s nothing to hold the line once it’s pulled up so he or she can let go to go to the other line.”
“That’s a problem,” Thornfire agreed. “I worry about the Stones slipping out of their harnesses if we are only able to pull up three lines, and can’t keep the balance exactly right.”
“What about those hooks? Can we lower them and hook the Stones, and pull them up?”
“Let’s go up there and see what the setup is,” Thornfire agreed, “but those hooks may not be well suited to grabbing the Stones.”
The three griffins climbed up to the bridge that crossed over the steam chimney, from which the hooked chains dangled like wind chimes. As she pulled herself over the edge and got her feet under her, Hawkwind felt her feathers starting to prickle. She glanced around quickly, but saw no danger. As she walked out onto the bridge, her unease grew.
Most of the city was covered with moss and lichens, but here, a bare trail led to the bridge, as if it was used perhaps not frequently, but from time to time, enough to keep all but the most stubborn of lichens from growing on it. She followed the path with her eyes, back to an open doorway. When she reached the place where the chains were crudely wound around the bridge, she saw that the stones in that area were dark, as if permanently stained with shadow.
“Thornfire, what are these chains for?” she blurted.
He, too, was staring at the setup, feathers slicked. “I don’t know,” he confessed.
Rainsoft was as still as a statue beside her, as if he’d stopped breathing.
“I have a bad feeling,” Hawkwind stuttered. “I don’t like this place.”
“What you are feeling is an echo that lives in the rocks and metal here,” Thornfire explained slowly. “I can feel it clearly, for it is a type of magic, just as I can feel the magic in Stones down there. The magic of the Stones is bright and steady in my mind, like a lantern flame in calm air. This, however, is sharp and aching and laced with the fear of the dark. What you feel are layers of pain and death. It burns me inside to be near it, for it is not a type of power I am attuned to drawing upon. You two it will make uneasy and ill and frightened.”
“Pain,” Rainsoft gestured, “death: whose?”
Thornfire’s eyes closed as though he watched an innocent who had been safely hidden step into a battle, and he could do nothing to save him.
“Griffins’, many griffins’ deaths,” he answered, although Hawkwind felt like she hadn’t needed to hear it said. She’d already known, only she hadn’t wanted to see it.
“That’s why they keep the griffins here,” she whispered. “Death magic will power the Stones?”
“We griffins are slightly magical by nature. I doubt very much that’s how the original griffin mages did it, and I don’t know how the Stones work, but I think it plausible.”
That’s why the Stones were dark. That’s what had stained the bridge. That’s what had created such a thick coat of what she’d thought was rust on the chains. That’s why the hooks were so big and wickedly pointed. She wondered: did the talis kill the griffins before they ran the hooks through their bones and hung them to bleed out? The horror of having the thought and the visions it created almost made Hawkwind lose her last meal. She purposefully did not look at Rainsoft.
“I don’t think these hooks will aid us in getting the Stones,” Thornfire was saying, although a buzzing in Hawkwind’s ears made it hard to hear him. “I have another idea. Let’s go back to the mossy ledge.”
She numbly followed Thornfire off the bridge, and they waited until Rainsoft had spent some moments in stillness, staring at the stain, and joined them. He didn’t say anything. They fluttered back down to the ledge and avoided looking at the hooks.
“It’s risky to pull up the Stones without the fourth line while the lines are aligned like this, sort of north, south, east, and west,” Thornfire explained, pointing, and Hawkwind focused on his words to dispel her lingering nausea. “No matter what three lines we choose, one side will have no support and the Stones could tip easily, but if we can break one line off from its bracket, we could pull up the lines in a sort of north, west, and southeast configuration, for example, and be much more stable.”
Hawkwind nodded, and Rainsoft was nodding, too.
“Once the Stones are level with this ledge,” Thornfire went on, “one of us pulls while the other two let out slack, until the puller has brought the Stones to the ledge.”
“I think it could work,” Hawkwind agreed.
The confused tilt of Rainsoft’s head led Hawkwind to try to translate with word, gestures, and drawings clawed into the moss, while Thornfire searched for the weakest looking line and bracket. Eventually, the young griffin seemed to understand, and they sat in uncomfortable silence for a few moments, waiting for Thornfire. Hawkwind’s eyes were drawn to the rusty hooks, and she fought away the vision of Rainsoft impaled on them, struggling and dying, as soon as it inevitably assaulted her mind.
Impulsively, she leaned over and preened his neck feathers. He made a sound like a nervous nestling and returned the favor. The moment ended as Thornfire hopped back over to them.
“They’re all pretty solid,” he said. “I’ll have to use some magic, see if I can melt the links. It’ll take a while, so wait a bit.”
The mage went to the nearest line, crouched down, and extended a finger to hover just above the spot where the line attached to the bracket.
“I’d like you both to come hold the line,” he instructed.
Hawkwind and Rainsoft huddled down with Thornfire, holding tight to the line, while he worked his magic. She looked down at the steamy pool below. It seemed devoid of talis, and she wondered if perhaps it was too hot for them, or maybe they, too, avoided this place of death, although they didn’t seem to have had a problem with creating this place of death. At least it meant that the griffin trio wasn’t likely to be discovered, unless the talis came out to execute a captive griffin while they were there.
“Hold tight, it’s almost through,” Thornfire announced, and Hawkwind tightened her grip.
She could feel the new unsteadiness in the line, and when it broke the sudden partial weight of the Stones hit her arm, but it wasn’t that much: three lines still held it.
“Hawkwind, Rainsoft, who shall hold this line?”
The shift in his posture, although subtle, immediately informed Hawkwind of Rainsoft’s intent, and Thornfire nodded.
“It is yours then, Rainsoft. Do not drop it. I will do the pulling. It’s magic; I’m magic. I’m best suited to handling the Stones until we know how safe it is. Hawkwind, let’s get in position.”
Hawkwind glanced back as she walked off, watching Rainsoft adjust his line so it was equidistant from two others. She claimed one of those two, and Thornfire claimed the other. Her hands were shaking as she gripped the line. If the Stones fell, they would plunge deep into the hot spring. Although the lack of magic input would mean they’d eventually stop working—someday achieving the goal of helping to disperse the talis—the spring had been natural to begin with, just smaller with lower water flow, and Hawkwind imagined it would remain active. There was no telling how deep it was. The Stones would probably be impossible to retrieve. Gone with them would be her chance of having a safe place to live with her human wards at South-scree. Hawkwind clenched her jaw. This had to work.
Through the mist the three griffins made eye contact and balanced back on their hind legs with wings and tails extended and bracing for balance against the ledge and walls. Purposefully exaggeratedly, Thornfire lifted an arm and lowered it to the line. Hawkwind copied him and matched his slow pull. A quick glance confirmed that Rainsoft was doing the same. Far below, the Stones shivered in their harness as they moved a fraction skyward. Hawkwind fixed her gaze on Thornfire then and synchronized herself with him: hand over hand, pulling steadily. The loose line she gathered, she trapped under a hind leg.
Silent but for the subtle rumbling bubble of the spring below and the soft scratching of the fine chain between claws and mossy rock, the procedure continued until the Stones in their harness stood taut and level with the ledge the griffins perched on. Hawkwind looked out at them, almost close enough to touch. The darkness stained on them was rusty and curdled: old blood that the mist had not been able to wash off.
Thornfire jingled his section of slack line to attract attention and made another exaggerated pulling motion, this time horizontally. Hawkwind and Rainsoft nodded and stood ready to release line as he would pull, moving the Stones across the chimney and to his ledge. With enough slack now, Hawkwind was also able to adjust her positioning slightly, and Rainsoft did the same, making three equal angles around the central Stones, and keeping them equal as Thornfire drew the Stones to his ledge.
After several more cautious minutes, Hawkwind saw Thornfire close his hand around the line adjacent to the harness the Stones sat in. Then he backed up and set them down on the mossy ledge. Hawkwind released breath she hadn’t known she was holding, let her line loosen, and rushed to his side. Rainsoft arrived not a second later.
Thornfire looked up at them, face shining with delight and awe. “These are the most magical artifacts I have ever encountered, items of legend thought lost to us forever. Hawkwind, Rainsoft, it is thanks to your help and all our caution and bravery that they have been recovered.”
One, the one that had been lower in the harness and sitting partially in the water, was mostly clean, although the bottom half along with the harness appeared encrusted with some kind of mineral. Heat radiated from the Stone.
“That’s the Sunstone,” Thornfire confirmed. “It will be hot to the touch so be careful Hawkwind.”
The Moonstone was thickly coated with blood, especially on the topside, but had no other remarkable feature.
“If you pass your hands near it, you may feel a strange sensation,” Thornfire said. “I think it’s harmless. It pulls things to it. Solid things aren’t affected much, but air and water—and blood—will be drawn close and stick to it if they can. Rainsoft, you can probably safely carry it in your hands, but I do have bags.”
Thornfire took off his pack and drew out two leather sacks. He handed one to each of his companions. Hawkwind stared down at the Sunstone. She could feel the heat from it beating on her, even through her fur and feathers, making her need to blink more to keep her eyes moist. Below the Sunstone, the moss it sat on was already browning.
“I can’t believe someone made something so powerful,” she murmured. “This must be something like a hundred times hotter than the ones you and Starbright make.”
“And self-sustaining for a hundred times longer,” the mage agreed. “Whatever craft was used to make these Stones is long lost. What remains is merely a shadow of what our mages once knew.”
She lifted the Stone by its fine, metal chain and spread out the leather bag below it, then lowered it into place.
“Hopefully, the bag won’t burn,” Thornfire said.
“I’ll keep an eye on it as we fly. We are flying back now, aren’t we?”
“I suppose we should. The Stone should be safe at camp.”
Rainsoft had his bagged, too. They crouched to leap—and then a wave of stench washed over them. Thornfire crouched, wings slightly spread and trembling. Hesitantly, Hawkwind mimicked him.
“Talis,” he breathed. “Don’t look around, Hawkwind. Listen for the sound of its scales on the stone.”
Rainsoft hadn’t crouched, but instead cast his gaze around. Hawkwind kept her eyes down, on the bag holding the Sunstone, but even without looking noted that the steam had started to clear. She could no longer hear the subtle bubbling of the spring below. Had the talis noticed the difference in their water already, and come to investigate?
Rainsoft lowered himself into her line of view. “Below,” he gestured. “Two.”
“Against the wall, everyone,” Thornfire said, voice barely audible.
The ledge was not very wide. If the talis looked up, they might be able to see a bit of griffin. The trio edged sideways with as much silent care as possible, flattening themselves against the wall. Hawkwind heard a hiss from below, and the sound of water splashing. The stink continued, growing a little stronger. After some minutes, the splashing stopped and Hawkwind thought she detected the faint scraping of scales on stones. She wasn’t sure, as she’d never heard such a sound before. The smell began to lessen.
“They’re moving away,” Thornfire whispered. “I expect they’ll investigate further. We need to leave.”
“They’re gone,” Rainsoft gestured, looking cautiously down at the spring.
Thornfire hopped upward, climbing swiftly up the wall, with sweeps of his wings for additional lift. Hawkwind and Rainsoft buckled their leather bags through belts on their harnesses, tugging them to be sure they were secured, and followed. The weight of the Stones pulled down on them, but it was not grounding. They joined Thornfire on the bridge and Hawkwind looked down below at the spring. The water moved only slightly, a few ripples coming forth, and the steam was now only the lightest veil.
“It’s time to go anyway,” Thornfire said. “Sunset will be soon enough. Can you both fly with those Stones?”
“I think so,” Hawkwind answered, and Rainsoft nodded his agreement.
The breeze brought them another whiff of talis scent and Hawkwind looked down at the bridge below her feet, fixing her eyes there despite the surge of need to look around for the enemy.
“Where is it?” Thornfire asked.
In front of their faces, Rainsoft gestured, “many below.”
“They noticed more quickly than I had expected,” Thornfire muttered.
“Will they see us up here?”
“If they come up here, they will. I don’t see why they would think to investigate the bridge unless they could somehow guess that griffins had stolen the Stones, but logic is not something talis always ascribe to.”
A chorus of hissing and raspy growling came from below.
“Do you think they’re talking?” Hawkwind murmured.
“They must communicate somehow, I suppose,” the mage answered. “They do have some organization to their society, and they came up with a way to power the Stones. Thornwing might know more, if I ever find him.”
Rainsoft made a series of nearly violent gestures. “They aren’t worth knowing about, except how to kill them,” he said.
“I’m inclined to agree,” Thornfire grunted.
“More,” Rainsoft suddenly added. “More below.”
The reek of them grew and Hawkwind’s skin prickled. The sound of their scales scraping over stone buzzed like a steady waterfall of sand.
“They are angry,” Rainsoft told them.
“How heavy are the Stones? Can you take off with an upward leap?” Thornfire asked.
“I’d rather run into it or leap off something,” Hawkwind confessed.
“Let’s try climbing that tower.”
Thornfire led them off at a crawl, past the shadow of old blood on the bridge and the crusted chains, towards a doorway into a square tower. The stench of the talis grew until Hawkwind began to feel nauseated by it. She kept her eyes on the ground, letting Rainsoft do the visual scanning; she had no idea how close the talis might be now. They could be searching the area, about to discover the trio at any moment. It certainly smelled like they must be close.
They reached the doorway and Thornfire took a cautious look inside. He ducked back out immediately.
“Not this way, up the outside,” he ordered.
“What’s in there?” Hawkwind gulped.
“Skins: it seems a popular place for the talis to come to shed. You can look if you want, but briefly.”
Hawkwind took a quick glance inside. It seemed that the stairway going up had partly crumbled, leaving lots of irregularly shaped rocks scattered around the room, as well as a remaining stub of several steps. The floor was coated with old, stinking fragments and flakes of talis-skin, packed down into a rotting mat that broke up in places into clumps. It looked like the talis might use the irregularly shaped stones to rub against for removing their old skin.
“Let’s go,” Thornfire summoned.
Hawkwind started to pull back out when a distinct scraping came from the other doorway into the tower. A long, dark shape began to emerge from the deeper darkness of the door. Her brain abruptly stopped communicating with her body, and she got one dazzling glance at the talis before someone yanked her back and slapped her across the bill. She stumbled, dazed, and shook her head.
Rainsoft screeched in her face, and the message was clear: climb. Thornfire was already halfway up the tower and not looking back. Hawkwind followed as a cry somewhere between a hiss and a shriek boomed from within the tower. Rainsoft was right on her tail as she propelled herself up the rough tower. Below, she heard a furious rasp of scales over stone and a hiss of fury, but she didn’t dare look back.
The brief glimpse she’d gotten was burned into her brain. The talis’ head had been long and triangular, wide jawed, with iridescent spiny fins blossoming from the base of the skull all around. The eyes were small, too small to see iris or white, if they had any. The head had risen from a long, muscular neck further festooned with rigid fins along the spine. That neck had transitioned smoothly into a long, thick body in heavy curves along the floor. The whole body had glimmered like oil on water, rainbows shining and shifting across it. Hawkwind hadn’t been able to look away. It seemed there would be no immunity for her from the hypnotism of the talis.
The cries of the frustrated talis bounced up to her as she climbed as quickly as she could. Between the sheer tower walls and the destroyed stairway within, the top of the tower should be safe for them. From there, they could do a dropping leap to get airborne, and leave the city behind for another day, but now the talis would know there were free griffins poking around. They might even make the conclusion that griffins had stolen the Stones, Hawkwind supposed.
Thornfire was waiting when she climbed over the edge. Rainsoft heaved himself up less than half a breath behind her.
“Not the best thing that could have happened,” Thornfire panted, “but we’re all alive. Hawkwind are you all right?”
“Just a little shaken,” she admitted. “I couldn’t look away. Rainsoft saved me.”
She almost stumbled as the dark griffin nudged up against her, pressing into her body. He nibbled her neck feathers and crooned at her. Seized by a sudden fluttering panic at his actions, Hawkwind stepped away, flicking her feathers. She glared at Thornfire when she caught him smothering a chortle.
“We should go before they find a way up here,” the mage said prudently. “Don’t look down. We fly for the camp.”
He launched off without another word, and Hawkwind followed him close enough to nip his tail. The Stone was a burden, but she’d carried heavier weight in the past, and with strong strokes of her wings she made height and followed Thornfire in a wide loop around the city and back towards the cliffs where their camp lay. Rainsoft followed her.