The Skies of Aurlin
Author: Caela Kings

Chapter 8
Wolves

III.

She was just waking up. It was still raining; the sky was a sickly type of grey. She didn't say anything as she rose, just hefted her pack and began walking. Despite her sleep, her eyes were dull, her shoulders slouched. She was walking slowly.

The trees lost their dark-green hue as I progressed, turning a myriad of reds, yellows, and browns. Even the coniferous firs, as if premature winter had befallen it. The air was musty and slick as I flew under the canopy. Thankfully, for Iythara, a rudimentary path formed, an ill-kept thing of thin, tan stone. Years had cracked the tiles and reduced some to mere rubble. Dried, yellow weeds grew between them.

Smells like death,” Iythara mentioned as she heard a slight rustling in the undergrowth. I couldn't help but agree—not only were the red shadows eerie, but the static of Eldritch was only growing stronger as we progressed. The buzz of Iythara's home was almost half compared to this. I would have shivered if I could while flying. From what I had noticed, the Eldritches often warded away animals. It touched some deep instinct within them which made them flee.

The rustling came again, louder. Iythara stopped, looking as an alert cat. She took another step, a hesitant, light one, making no noise as she walked. A large creature stepped from the woods, shaped vaguely like a deer. Its shaggy fur hung from loose skin a smoky tan, shading to a burnt orange at its hoofs. It sported a greasy black mane and tail and ruby antlers. Its nose was surprisingly large, and its mouth drooped in a perpetual frown. Its tongue was black as it lapped up some liquid from the ground. I'd never seen its like before, nor any sort of deer brave enough to be near such a large Eldritch.

Iythara's hand dropped to her sling, but she paused, considering. She was as put off by its appearance as I was, but the hesitation benefited none of us. A pebble rolled under her foot and the stag looked up, drooping brown eyes like that of an old hound's. It snorted, studying Iythara intently. I fluttered onto her shoulder to get a closer look. The deer had a disconcerting presence, similar to the static air, though not nearly as pervasive. The look in its dark eyes was far too intelligence.

But it did not appear aggressive. It went down to one knee, as though it were bowing to the two of us. Its head lowered, the red antlers pointed forward like spears. Iythara gave a thoughtful frown. I could tell she'd spent a good amount of time in the forests, around animals. Though she'd never been this far, no deer would act as this—normally. She approached it.

A howl cut through the air, and the deer stood sharply, ears back, nostrils flared, tail and mane bristling. It gave a trumpet of its own, neck bulging as it expelled the baritone note. A large, grey dog galloped down the path, giving another resounding bark. It stopped and hopped backward as the deer reared. The creature's fur stood on end, making it appear much larger; red spines were visible now, sticking out haphazardly along, hidden in the folds of its greasy fur. But by now, the dog's master arrived—a square-shouldered man wearing a lose, grey robe. He waved a red scarf over his head and shouted a panicked, wordless exclamation. The dog calmed as the man placed a hand on its angular head, and the deer, more interested in this newcomer lowered itself back to four legs. It snorted again, then stomped. It opened its mouth, supposedly to trumpet again, but instead a fog of faint, green fog came forth. The man waved the scarf all the more fiercely, and the deer backed off slightly, then bowed its head.

The man smiled for a moment, then wrapped the cloth around the deer's head. The creature reared again—or, attempted to. But now sightless and bound, it could do nothing but thrash upward. Its neck bulged as it attempted to howl or breath its mist, but the cloth, now held tightly around its muzzle, would not let it open. It continued to struggle in various ways, but the strange man was able to keep a steadfast grip on the thing. He hauled it forward, turning to Iythara.

You must not be from around here,” he said, yellow eyes glinting. “This is a Bane's Deer and you are lucky its not breeding season, or you would be dead right now.” He laughed then, and it was not a pleasant sound. “They keep poison sacs here, hidden in their neck under their fur. The poison goes to more spines in their shoulders, ankles, and tails, and they can breathe it as an acid.” He gave the thing an appreciative look, even grabbing a handful of its fur.

But... it's a deer,” Iythara managed to mumble. Then, belatedly, “Who are you?”

Of course it's a deer!” he exclaimed, ignoring her latter question. “But this is Moonmire, dear. Nothing here is short of vicious. Can a deer outrun a flying manticora?” Iythara paled. “Ah, so you've heard of those ones, eh?” he asked. “They're nicer than you think. Just terribly hungry. Anyway, that's why the Bane's Deer has so many defenses—spines in the feet to attack anything from behind, and in the tail. Acid not only to be able to eat any plant in this forest, however poisonous, as the low nutrition in all the plants means he has to eat, a lot. But when given the opportunity, he can eat can eat meat too, and bones, or anything truly if he pleases, especially if he senses he needs the protein. But he's a scavenger, mostly, so he doesn't have many weapons in the front besides his breath. So, once his mouth is closed and I am on this side, he's a helpless little thing. They're easily tricked too, by size.”

The man paused, thankfully. “I'm rambling, aren't I?” His dog came closer—on further examination, the large beast appeared to be part wolf as well. He patted its head fondly.

Iythara seemed cowed. “A bit.”

Sorry,” the man mentioned. “You look terribly hungry. But, just a moment.” He took a step closer to the forest, releasing the Bane's Deer from its restrains. It galloped away with a high-pitched trumpet. His sharp gaze turned back to Iythara. “Anyway—are you hungry? Tired? It must have taken you a mighty long time to get up here. You have the look of a Step on you.”

A Step?”

The Steps—the hills past Midmoon?”

Iythara frowned.

The healthy forest,” the man supplied. “The dark one.”

Nightside?”

Is that what you call it?” he asked. “It's better than Midmoon, I guess. What is in the middle of a moon, anyway?” He shook his head as Iythara gave him an uncomfortable look. “Never mind. What is your name?”

Iythara.”

He smiled. “ 'Little cat'?” he asked. “Did your mother do that on purpose?”

She looked horribly confused. “I... wouldn't know.”

Ah, well,” he said. “I am Cane, and this beautiful bitch is my Tran.” He turned at his heels, walking along the path, large dog-wolf trotting beside him.

Iythara wavered. I think, under normal circumstances, she would not have followed him. However, I did come down to a single fact: this Cane had food.

So she sprinted up beside him, and he commented, “Pretty bird you have there.”


It was a collection of buildings, all small things of grey stone. They were in much the same condition as the tiled road—well made at one point, but now in a state of dejected decay. But these had a sort of civil look to them, if one studied it. None of the cracks or injuries affected necessities. In fact, the buildings were still as functional as any newly made cathedral. Or even moreso, considering anything distracting had already been stripped away by the elements.

But this was by far not the oddest thing. Despite the near constant buzz of the air, the ting along the wind, the taint of the soil, none of the people I saw harbored any of the deformities Iythara did. They were bare of any spurs, white hair, or patched skin. They almost seemed...

Normal.

But still, they looked like wraiths. The grey robes appeared a uniform, though there weren't many people around. They talked in quiet, closed circles, a couple with similar grey half-wolves trotting about.

What is this place?” Iythara asked, voice little more than a breath. For a moment, I wondered why she was so awe-stricken. Her eyes were far away, lips parted just slightly—then, I realized all she'd ever known were those rough hill-caves. An actual building must have been the stuff of legend.

Or, perhaps, it was the people as well. The unmarred, unscathed people.

Moonmire, little cat,” Cane said. “This way.” He led her to one of the buildings, picking himself carefully over the various bits of rubble strewn about. The door was a rickety thing and creaked as it opened to a small, but surprisingly well-kept room. It was bare, sported little more than a table and a few woven baskets in the corner. He dragged a chair over. “Sit.”

I'd rather stand,” Iythara said. Compared to Cane's voice, her's was weak, like wind struggling to blow on a hot day.

Cane gave her an odd look as he ruffled through the baskets. “If you're eating my food, you'll sit at my table.”

Iythara continued to stand. With a sigh, Cane tossed an orange fruit to her. She caught it and examined it thoroughly before taking a bite.

So,” Cane said. “Do those hurt?”

What?” Iythara asked around a mouthful of fruit.

The spikes.” Cane pointed. “Do they hurt.”

Iythara shrugged. “Sometimes.” He frowned.

Why are you here?”

That caught her attention. “Lately, strange animals have been wandering into my village's land. I'm here to find out why.”

Cane took the seat he'd previously laid out. He seemed extremely curious and I was reminded of a mathematician I know of, who'd get the same spark in his eyes when encountered with an interesting tidbit.“And they sent you?”

Yes...”

And gave you that mark on your cheek?”

Iythara's back straightened. “Yes.”

The bird?”

You can't give someone a bird,” Iythara replied. “Why are you asking these questions?”

There's sometime odd about you, little cat,” Cane said. “Bane's Deer aren't the most timid things, but they rarely attack a human so boldly. You must taste incredibly good.” He laughed; “But the question is—why?”

Iythara frowned. “I don't want to taste good...”

Cane shook his head. “It hardly matters. But I'm afraid I don't have the answers you seek. We've been wondering for some time why the animals of Moonmire have been venturing down to the Steps. However, if everyone down there tastes so good, we might have an answer.”

Why are we different, though?” Iythara asked. “Why don't you...”

Have what you have?” Cane supplied. “The skin? The white?” He took a moment to think through his answer. “Have you ever noticed how, when all other animals flee, wolves always seem to remain unaffected?”

Iythara nodded.

Well, we call ourselves the Wolves. Welcome to Moonmire, little cat.”


San gave him a strange look. “Good morning, Feld.” Feld snorted, avoiding her gaze and search the dining hall. It was as large as the ball room, edged in gold, trimmed in satin, and filled near to the brim with Aurlinites. Early morning light streamed in from the monstrous windows fitting in arches along the domed ceiling. The tables themselves spanned the length of the room, and the aroma of freshly cooked food wafted though the air. Small doors lay in the floor, where the subtle cooks rose form their kitchens with silver trays laden with breakfast. Amongst them, a few nobles specialized in cooking brought out their own work, chatting with other nobles with the same profession. That was one of the main purposes of the Gathering, to allow the transference of ideas and thoughts.

“How did you find me in this mess?” Feld asked, but the biologist ignored him.

“You look remarkably tired,” she mentioned. “Have you been sleeping well?”

“Quite well, thank you.” He tried not to frown, knowing it would only make San's behavior more unbearable. It was not that she was an unpleasant person, but she was too curious for her own good. Not of the world around her, but of people. Conversations with her were trying and her questions invasive. Only if he were feeling horribly sick would Feld have confided in the noblewoman, but the mundane drowsiness of this morning was nothing he'd concern anyone with.

“Have you seen Ali?” he asked.

“Not today,” San replied. They'd been at the Gathering for a total of three days and Feld still had no idea how to navigate a place filled with so many people. It was nothing like when he was a child—but he'd also been much shorter and much less noticeable. Ali had reassured him that after the initial week, once everything was sorted, it would be much less chaotic, but Feld had trouble imagining any sort of order instilled in this place. The only thing that sat still was the Regent, you looked a marble statue on his humble throne, as well as his honor-guard—a group of five men, all Risen servants, as a noble cannot wield iron.

San had been talking, though Feld missed most of it, “...thinking of observing them while... Feld, are you listening?”

“Not at the moment.”

She snorted. “Perhaps I should talk of something more interesting."

“Have you seen Ter?” Feld asked. He seemed knowledgeable enough, and not so preoccupied as Sovan or Warren during the large event. However, the enigmatic servant was out of sight for more of the time, and when he did show himself Feld barely had the chance to speak a few words to him before he made a disguised retreat. It was as though Ter could sense his thoughts and wanted nothing of them.

The din hushed a tad as a lutist waltzed before the Regent, playing a small, dainty tune. Even from here, Feld could hear the musicians friends shouting criticisms between their friendly laughter, pointing out an off-tune note, though Feld could not detect any of them.

“The servant?” San asked, eyeing Feld. “You must be sick. Might I feel your forehead.”

Feld took a step to the side, giving a slight cough. “Are you sure you don't want some breakfast, San?”

She nodded. “That is a splendid idea, Feld,” but instead of leaving the poet in peace, she took his arm in hers, and half-dragged him forward. Feld nearly tripped on his own feet at the unexpected lurch; he gave San a venomous glare, but she took no notice.

“I heard from a friend of mine there would be a young maid playing the harp today,” she mentioned, using the term for an ungraduated queen. “I'd love to hear her—can we sit up front? Oh!—look, there's Ali. Hello, dear!” The noblewoman waved to Ali, who turned halfway, giving the two a small smile.

“Don't you look like a cat with a mouse, San,” she commented. San rolled her eyes.

“Did Fella tell you about the little maid who's going to play for us?” she asked as she pounced on three free seats. “She's supposed to be divine.”

“She did not,” Ali replied, “but I'll take your word for it.”

The two women continued to talk, taking no heed of Feld's presence. Not that he minded—in fact, he preferred to be left out of their mindless chatter. They were like a pair of squirrels clucking in one's ear. Feld' wasn't sure how two females in the same room could ever be sufferable, and despaired at the thought of how many were in the room right now. There were nearly a hundred Aurlinites in the room, so he estimated around thirty women. The ratio was not always so even, but the Gathering hosted every woman in Aurlin, while only a few select men—and he wasn't counting the small children waking just now and heading to their classes. Gladly, a new class graduated each year, each with around two or three women with the possibility of a queen among them—but a generation died each year just the same.

Just the thought of all the people made him claustrophobic. It was terribly hot in the room—the reason, he suspected, why he no longer had an appetite—the tables crowded; even the air seemed physically cluttered as the din which rose from every direction. It had grown quieter to let the musicians play, but as the nobles grew bored of the soft, unclimatic songs, the noise rose once again.

By this point, though, both Ali and San had stopped talking. A young, honey-haired girl stood where the musicians once were, gazing out at the golden hall in awe. Children were rarely allowed in places such as this, and the rest of the school sported the same white walls and dark accents the rest of Aurlin did—she must have been mystified. She gathered her wits about her, however, and began to play a sad little song on her harp. It was light, flitting, and possibly better than the others in Feld's opinion—though it may have been because he was able actually hear it now that he stood near the front. He noticed absently that the Regent was no long seated in his throne—or anywhere near it, it seemed.

“I'll just be a second,” he murmured, standing. Ali flashed him a nod and small smile, though little more than that as she continued talking with San—and most of the nobles seated adjacent to them as well. A quick glance around the hall revealed a small door to the left, just outside the press of nobles. He doubted it was for actual traffic—there were the large, entrance doors for that, across the hall—but it wouldn't hurt to try it.

The crowd was not nearly as intimidating as Feld had originally thought, though he was still grateful once he was out of it. However, as he reached for the silver knob, he paused. There were voices coming from it, barely audible through the thick wall and over the crowd. Feld leaned closer, instantly curious.

“Are you nearly ready, my lord?” a small, feminine voice asked, followed by a tense moment of violent hacking.

“I'm ready when I say I'm ready,” a raspy voice replied, obviously meaning for there to be more venom in his words, though his bout of coughing left them weak and faltering. “Water,” he ordered with a sigh. This voice sounded vaguely familiar to Feld—but he couldn't place it. He frowned. Probably some miscellaneous noble he'd met earlier, stricken by some illness and embarrassed by it. It was not considered good manners to accompany someone while sick considering infection—though, if one could hide it well enough, others would not mind.

“Here you are, my lord.” A pause. “Are you fit to go back in?” This was not the inquiry of a common servant; it held a strange, but genuine concern which left Feld baffled. True, he'd heard stories of nobles who'd befriended others during their schooling, only to have on graduate and the other demoted to the life of a servant; a bond may still be held between the two, but he'd surely never seen it.

“Of course I am!” the man said, but the exclamation sent him coughing again. “I will; that is a fact. I am no invalid, bound to his bed, pitied in public and scorned by his fellows.” he said, stronger this time.

“Yes, my lord. I apologize, my lord.”

“Go back to the kitchens, Nel,” he said. “I can manage myself. Perhaps I can find some intelligent conversation here, instead of sitting up—”

“Sir?” this voice came not from behind the door, but behind Feld. The poet gave a start, turning and finding the Ter standing straight and poised, watching him with those intent eyes. “I apologize, my lord I did not mean to startle you.” His blue eyes held a strange light and they flickered for a moment towards the door. Feld shook his head.

“Why are you here, Ter?”

“Lady Sanginette told me you were looking for me, sir,” Ter said. “Might I ask why?”

Feld frowned. “You've been to the Gathering before. I figured you'd be of assistance.”

“My lady has been here before as well,” Ter said. “As have good number of your friends, my lord. More Gathering than me, I should think.”

Feld shrugged. “You're better company and I don't wish to bother them. Do you know how easy it is to stay clear of over-crowded rooms?”

“That is usually the point of a Gathering, sir,” Ter replied, an edge of confusion lacing his voice. “To be near as many people as possible.” Behind him, the harpist struck a foul—and annoyingly distracting—note.

“I know,” Feld said, frustrated. “But is there a way?” He heard another bout of coughing from behind the door and struggled to keep his curiosity down. Who is that? “Did you hear that?” Feld asked.

Ter stopped short—he had been talking, Feld realized. “Hear what?”

“Nothing. What were you saying?”

“The Avitorium is always a sanctuary,” Ter said. “As would be any of the observatories if my lord can find one empty. There's a good chance most people will be in whichever ball room the night's even is based, though, so you should not have any trouble then.” The servant's frown deepened, as if he'd just spotted a stray speck of dirt on some noble's shirt, but refused to say a word.

“What?”

“His Lordship, the Regent, could take your absence as an insult, my lord.”

Feld snorted. “How would he even know? In this crowd—I could be anywhere!”

“You would be surprised, my lord,” Ter said, shifting his weight. Uncomfortable. Feld felt his suspicions rise. He remembered how the Regent had acknowledged Ter—with what he'd finally decided was the servant's true name; one never kept the entirety of his name if he did not graduate. Instead, he was given a three-letter version of it.

“And you would not be surprised, Ter?” Feld surmised.

“No, my lord.” Ter's eyes flashed. Every servant made an oath never to lie to a noble—but he certainly knew he did not have to say everything. He was smart; he could be more subtle, Feld knew. But he didn't need to be in this case. Feld was already getting a strangely foreboding feeling about the servant. It would be better simply not to ask.

“How long has that girl been playing?” Ter asked, looking over his shoulder. The maid was in the sort of trance players had when concentrating on an especially hard piece. Her hand slipped again, striking a high-pitched, inharmonious hum. Feld frowned. He wasn't be evasive, but genuinely confused.

“Too long?” Feld asked.

“She should be back to her classes by now,” Ter mentioned. “They wouldn't sacrifice more than a bit of her learning—she already needs to be extremely gifted to be taken out for a few moments; and it doesn't seem like she's very good at the moment.” He winced at another note, though Feld could only just detect a bit of fault in it. Ter abandoned him for the moment, addressing one of the other servants in a hushed tone. She shrugged and pointed to one of the musicians who gave her a pointed look before sighing and rising. This noble was abnormally tall and of stocky build—a combination which must have startled the poor girl when he addressed her. She jolted, looked at him, frowned, then continued to play.

“Disobedient child,” Ter murmured. “That other man has already talked to her—to no avail.” A ripple went through the crowd, just a slight wave of uncertainty. The musician's voice grew all the more insistent, but the harpist chose to ignore him instead and continue playing. However, she struck more foul than pure notes. The musician shrugged and looked to his companions.

One of the harp string's broke, striking the girl along the arm as it lashed outward. She didn't seem to notice it.

A member of the Regent's honor stepped forward, bodily grabbing the girl. She screamed, a piercing sound like the cry of a dying young bird. Blood rolled down her arm, three drops of it splattering on the floor as she was taken out of through the right door, one in symmetrical placement to the one Feld had just retreated to. It slammed shut with a crack which resounded through the now silent hall.

 

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