Those that passed through the port town of Errus, whether it was from the stars or from the Sennebron Sea, thought the same thing: it had seen better days. The dirt roads leading to and from the town had been ground to the finest dust under the many footfalls that had travelled them. Stone hovels, long since abandoned, had been chipped and worn down, battered by relentless storms from the sea. However, that wasn’t to say that the townsfolk that still resided there didn’t have anywhere to live. On the outskirts of the port town, small metallic shelters stood at the edge of a nearby thicket, allowing them easy access to the town. Twin rows of plain vendor stalls made up the town’s marketplace. Here, for brief periods of time, traveling merchants sold their wares for those handful of natives who had decided to stay in Errus.
Standing between the twin rows, in the very heart of the marketplace, was a water fountain fitted with a giant bowl. Erected in the middle of the bowl were four stone gargoyles that had been shaped and carved to resemble dragons said to live within the Sennebron Sea. The four sea serpents coiled around one another, twisting their bodies as if they were battling. Their heads, with mouths opened wide to bare their fangs, faced a different direction. There was a time when the dragons gave the gift of water to the people of Errus, but now, they no longer felt the flow of water rising in their gullets. The fountain now only gathered storm water.
The only building that appeared to be well cared for was the shipyard. A large, hexagonal, metallic sight compared to the other structures. The obsidian surface gleamed beneath the cobalt sunlight, reflecting onto the murky waters of the Sennebron. Wood and stone jetties, also a sorry sight compared to the harbor, poked out into the waves, splinters and holes crumbling into the depths. They once were home to fishing vessels, delivering their catches to the merchants. After the hurricanes and storms, the jetties were left to decay with their debris.
A small mandira sat just beyond the town square, its light charcoal stone nearly faded from the tests of time. Dull emerald ivy coiled around crumbling pillars like snakes slithering upwards on a rotting log. A scorch mark stained the left side of the stone roof. A lightning bolt had struck the mandira with a fury that so few in town had ever witnessed. Lumps of smoldering rock had been sent flying into the air, frightening the people of Errus. The storm passed and left a hole the size of a wagon wheel in the mandira roof. There had been attempts to patch it up, but the stone had become so damaged, it was beyond any hope of repair. Sitting above the threshold of the mandira, carved into the stone and painted white, was a four-pointed diamond. Even to the sharp eyes of an avys, the citizens that remained knew that the building was a safe haven.
Inside, the mandira fared no better than the exterior. Cobwebs lined the rafters above, snaking around the supports. Cracks, thick and thin, zigged and zagged down the perimeter of the rooms. The scent of something musty hung in the air. Years of water damage had warped the hardwood floors beyond recognition, turning it rotten and soft. The boards creaked at every step and with every step, they threatened to give way and trap visitors’ feet in a shallow pitfall.
A red blotch could be seen on one of the walls and its baseboard. At first glance, many thought it to be blood, a sign of a grisly murder within the sanctuary, and become frightened. Upon further inspection, they would find tiny violet spotted mushrooms growing in the blotch and recognize it not as blood, but as moss that was commonly found growing in the Thetmar Woods just outside of Errus. Knowing the spotted mushrooms could only grow on the red moss, visitors would find great relief and think themselves foolish for such horrible ideas. Sitting next to an archway leading further into the mandira was a small bookshelf. At the slightest breeze, dust bunnies shuffled along the moldy wood grain, passing tomes whose leather bindings had become so faded, the writing was illegible.
Aurelian eyes, wide as dinner plates, watched black storm clouds as they rumbled across the sky from behind grimy window panes. The clouds blocked the sunlight, nearly casting the entire village into an early evening. The only illumination the mandira had was the soft white glow emanating from the diamond crystal that hovered in the center of the nave. Kiath could see the blurred reflection of the diamond in the surface of the filthy window. It was enough to cast light for the majority of the nave, but Kiath felt the mandira could use a more natural light.
With a flick of his scaled wrist and a strike of a match head, small orange flames began to dance atop candles strategically placed around the nave. He sighed, content, waved his taloned hand to extinguish the fire that crept closer to him with each passing moment, and listened to the brass bell above him as the tempest wind rattled it fiercely. Normally used to ring out the start of service, the frequent storms changed the brass instrument into an alarm.
Kiath closed his eyes. The rumbling thunder, the howling wind, the ringing of the bells, and the rain cascading in through the hole in the roof. The entire mandira had been filled with a cacophony conjured by the storm outside. Yet, there was something else, a sound that the avys could not explain.
With a light frown, he tilted and turned his head to try and hear it. A soft, scratching sound. It was there, then it disappeared, and in its place was a sound he recognized. The rusted rings on the mandira doors were creaking, knocking against the aged wood. Someone was trying to come in.
“I’m coming!” Kiath said loudly as he glided across the nave. He knew the doors had become difficult to open over the years and there had been many times members of his congregation needed help to come and go. He reached out, but before a talon could curl around a ring, the door suddenly flew open, startling him.
A cloaked figure stood just beyond the threshold of the mandira. It was small, the size of a child, and the hooded cloak was clearly meant for someone of a taller stature. It covered the features of the visitor completely while most of it trailed limply on the muddy ground behind it. The figure remained in the threshold until the next thunderclap made it scurry inside the mandira and fly into the surprised avys.
Quickly overcoming his shock, Kiath looked down at the tiny figure and laid his talons on what he could only assume were its shoulders. The fabric of the cloak was torn and stained with mud. He dropped to one knee and found himself looking into the feline face of a nyako child.
“What are you doing out in this storm, little one?” Kiath asked gently. She didn’t reply, but Kiath could see the terror in her ice blue eyes. Was it the storm she was afraid of or something else? Keeping his eyes locked onto hers, he reached down to take her hands to comfort her. He felt a wetness on her paws, at first dismissing it as rainwater, but it felt strange to him. Thicker. Warmer. He looked down and gasped. Her paws were caked with fresh blood. It had already dripped onto the floor between them. Even his azure robes had been smeared crimson.
“What happened to you, little one?” Kiath asked. The nyako suddenly flinched and turned her eyes to the open door. Kiath could barely see movement underneath the oversized hood. Her ears, he surmised. She hears something.
The nyako broke away from Kiath and sought refuge behind one of the pews around the diamond. She looked at the door again, then to Kiath and shook her head. She didn’t need to speak; he knew what she wanted.
“Worry not,” he said calmly. “I will take care of this. You are safe.”
With a deep breath, Kiath strode towards the doors of his mandira and looked out into the darkness. A hulking figure was lumbering towards the mandira. It was taller than the doorway to the mandira with a body as wide as the double doors. Its limbs were tree-trunks covered in black fur. Tall pointed ears and a straight snout sprung from a massive head. Kiath felt his body tense as the creature stopped before him. He recognized a mishakai, having seen the occasional one from a distance, but never had he met one face to face before.
Great Jopara, he prayed, may your fire give me courage tonight!
“Welcome, friend!” Kiath raised his talons over his chest and tented them to form a diamond. It was a common greeting for those of the faith. “Quite a tempest, isn’t it? Have you come seeking shelter? Or perhaps something troubles you and you seek counsel?”
The mishakai wore a great hauberk and a half-cloak. The rings of the mail shirt were slick from the rain and seemed to shine as a lightning bolt streaked across the sky. The half-cloak was mustard yellow and hung from his right shoulder. It flapped theatrically against his broad body in the wind.
“You!” the mishakai snarled, pointing a claw at him. “I am called Kumaku! Have you seen a fugitive pass through?” His low voice was demanding.
“A fugitive?” Kiath echoed.
“I’ve been tracking one for some time now,” the mishakai explained. “There’s been a reward offered for the capture and I aim to collect!”
“Oh, so you’re a bounty hunter then!” Kiath exclaimed. “My, that sounds like dangerous work, but looking at you, I would say it’s more dangerous for the people you hunt!”
“Have you seen anyone?” Kumaku pressed. “Someone not of your village walking about?”
“No, I don’t believe I have. There’s not many people left around here and those that are here I know them all quite well.”
“Are you certain?” The mishakai leaned over the avys. His great size forced him to bend backward. “This fugitive is a frightened thing. They might have come to you asking for help. Some food? Money?” His cinnabar eyes darted towards the open door. “Shelter, perhaps?” Kiath pursed his beak. He was curious as to why such a brute would be out looking for a child. It was possible that she was a fugitive and there could be a reward out for her, but it was not his place to judge those who entered his mandira. He was meant to help those who needed it and the frightened nyako in his house was in dire need.
He took a step back from the mishakai and straightened himself. “Brave hunter, I am a servant of Jopara and I help those in need if they ask for it.” He smiled warmly and patted the hunter on his shoulder. He pretended not to hear the threatening growl and instead gestured to the mandira. “The House of Jopara is my home, a school for those who wish to learn, and a shelter for the weary traveler who doesn’t wish to drown in the rain, but I’m afraid that I haven’t seen anyone but you tonight. Perhaps your fugitive made their way to the shipyard?” he suggested, turning to the hexagon in the distance. “Ships come and go regularly. If you ask me, it would be a wiser move for a wanted criminal than a house of worship that’s likely to fall at any moment.” As Kiath looked to the shipyard, the hunter turned his gaze to the doors of the mandira. His sharp sight easily found jagged lines in the wood and the tiny muddy footprints leading inside. He could even smell the nyako’s blood over the rain. The paraclete was lying.
“Should you see someone you don’t recognize, come and find me.” The mishakai turned away from the mandira and began to walk towards the shipyard. “It’s dangerous to harbor fugitives. You could end up dying for being kind.”
“I will keep that in mind.” Kiath waved after Kumaku as he left the mandira. “Please, do feel free to come again! The brilliance of Jopara shines upon everyone, no matter who they are!”
The hunter snarled at his words. The paraclete had not only hidden his prey, but he had lied right to his face about it! He wanted to grab Kiath with both of his meaty paws and twist his head around until bones snapped and it hung limp against his body. He could have done that easily and grabbed the nyako afterward, but killing a figure of religion wasn’t wise. He needed a plan to draw her out.
That was fine with him. Any bounty hunter could go wild in a place to capture a prize, but a smart hunter had to be patient. He had come this far in tracking her down and now he knew where she was. He had all the time in the world.
Once the mishakai had disappeared from sight, Kiath hurried inside the mandira and shut the door behind him. He ran his talons over his scalp as he listened to the rapid beating of his heart.
I just stared down a mishakai of all things! A mishakai! I looked him right in his eyes and I lied! How am I not dead right now? He took a deep breath to try and calm down, but he found himself shuddering. mishakais aren’t native to Errus, so he had to have come from Drogton in the north. Why would he come chasing a child all the way down here?
Kiath saw the nyako standing in the middle of the pews. He stepped towards the child and watched her step away. She was afraid of him. “Don’t be afraid, little one,” he said gently. “I’m not going to hurt you. This mandira is a safe place.”
The child shivered. The cloak was large enough to wrap around her at least twice over, but it was soaked through and filthy. She needed something warm and dry or else she was going to catch her death.
Kiath took a cautious step forward. He expected the child to back away again, but she stayed in place. He took another step. She stayed. He soon found himself standing as close as they had been when she first barreled her way into the mandira. He ran his hand along the top of the hood in an attempt to comfort her. He could feel her ears twitching underneath.
The nyako pulled her hood down. She had white fur with black streaks weaving around her body. Her rounded ears twitched at the sound of thunder outside. She was a pitiful creature with tears running down her face, her mouth twisting as she sobbed. Kiath gently turned her head and found a small mark on the left side of her neck. It looked as though it had been carved into her skin and inked in a deep red. It was a tattered wing, curved and small. A branding mark, Kiath realized.
“You were a slave!” Kiath shook his head and held the nyako close to his chest. He carefully stroked her hair. “You poor child. Do not worry, little one. You’re safe here. I promise you that. Do you understand?” The nyako buried her head into his robes and nodded. “Good. Now, do you have a name?”
“Astra,” she said so quietly, Kiath had to move closer to hear her properly. “M-my name i-is Astra.”
The paraclete gave the cub a soft smile as he patted her head. Taking her by the hand, they steadily made their way to a small room at the back of the mandira. A wooden desk rested against the wall near the doorway, accented by a tiny stool. Kiath led the child inside, guiding her to a small cot. A small fire crackled in an aging hearth nearby, keeping the room warm. The paraclete gently lifted Astra onto the cot, covering her snugly with a blanket. Her wet cloak was strewn on the floor in front of the fire to dry.
“You...won’t let them get me, Kiath?” Astra inquired timidly, pulling the blanket up to her chin. The paraclete chuckled as he turned on his heel back to the nave.
“No, my dear,” he replied, his eyes shining in the firelight. “Get some rest, and may Jopara and His angels watch over your dreams.”
Astra curled up beneath the blanket. Exhausted, her eyes closed quickly. Kiath stepped out and approached the diamond. It hummed softly as it bathed him in its soft light. He knelt before the crystal and looked into the light.