Re: Communication (PG-13) [Chapter Sixteen Now Posted]
A solid body was smashed against a stone wall. One of its horns snapped clean off, falling to the floor and rolling a short distance away. Ice cracked audibly, bits of it flying everywhere.
With the impact still ringing faintly in Solonn’s bones, he withdrew his horn from the side of his attacker’s head. He pulled back, panting, staring down at the broken form before him.
In the next moment, his victim dissipated into thin air.
“Well done,” Zdir said from nearby. “And that goes for you, too, as always.”
The other one to whom she was speaking was Oth. It had been puppeteering the “glalie” against whom, or rather which, Solonn had been training, just as it had been doing for him and the other fugitives in the months since it had volunteered the idea.
The ice dummies were conceived to reduce the amount of injury and thus need for recovery experienced by the fugitives during their training, though they did still continue to include some sparring against one another for the purposes of increasing their elemental power.
Though the glalie could manipulate the dummies themselves, Oth’s telekinesis was significantly stronger and ultimately proved better suited to making the artificial glalie move with the same speed and force that the real things used.
Oth was unquestionably grateful to be able to provide this service for them. Solonn was glad for it, as well, and not only because of its usefulness in training. Throughout all this time, the claydol still hadn’t regained the ability to teleport; being able to do another sort of good for the fugitives in the meantime seemed to be helping Oth to finally stop casting blame upon itself for this fact.
“I think that’ll do for now,” Zdir then said. “Back to the chasm, everyone.”
While Grosh had abandoned the place where he’d been waiting, the Virc fugitives and the claydol among them had stayed put for the most part, only venturing out of Grosh’s home to hunt.
They descended into the chasm a couple at a time as usual. Shortly after they had all made it down, <I am receiving a report from Zilag,> Oth announced, at which everyone gathered around it, awaiting whatever news it had to relay this time.
Thus far, the news had been largely good. Zilag’s reports from Virc-Dho told that the Sinaji had stayed out of Virc territory since the initial attack on the temple and the snowgrounds. The Security Guild had indeed swelled their ranks as rumors had suggested that they might, adding to the likelihood that the Virc might be sufficiently defended in the event of another strike. And while neither Zilag nor Hledas were quite ready to assume that the guild no longer kept eyes upon them, the authorities had avoided being overbearing toward them all this while.
After a few minutes, <A hunting party apparently had an encounter with two exiles yesterday,> Oth told the others. <All of the Virc survived. Beyond that, there has been no trouble among the Virc.>
“That’s good to hear,” Zdir said.
“Yeah,” Narzen said. “Sounds like two fewer problems for us to deal with.”
The fugitives had had to deal with some of the Sinaji themselves during their time up in Shoal Cave. They had had a couple of run-ins with them during hunting excursions, which had left a couple among their number with some new scars and had partially depleted their stores of the revival herbs that they’d dried and frozen.
On top of that, the hole in the ground that had become the fugitives’ erstwhile home had proven that indeed it wasn’t impervious to being found by outsiders. A pair of Sinaji hunters, having gotten separated from the rest of their party and lost following a skirmish with a gang of walrein, had stumbled upon the hole in the ground and opted to descend into it. They had been struck down almost as soon as they had appeared, and once they had been identified as Sinaji, their fate had been sealed.
Following the report from Zilag, the evening proceeded as most evenings since taking refuge in Grosh's home did, with the five glalie conjuring ice for themselves and conversing in lowered voices among themselves and with the claydol. At some point, “All right, let’s resume,” Zdir said, at which everyone who wasn’t already hovering rose and gathered behind her to begin filing back up into the cavern above for some more training.
She had barely begun to generate the ice platform for them to ride on when she immediately dissipated it. No one questioned her actions. They all heard the faint voices coming from outside just as she did.
The tension in the chamber where the fugitives now warily and watchfully huddled together seemed to harden the air, making it difficult to breathe. Solonn stared into the adjacent room, keeping himself as still as he could manage, his heart pounding. Its pace only quickened at the sound of ice slithering audibly down the walls of the chasm leading toward them.
As every other glalie alongside him did likewise, he tapped into his sheer cold ability and put it on standby, hoping to the gods that if it came down to his shot saving their lives, it would succeed. The rigorous training that Zdir had put everyone through in the past several months was intended, among other purposes, to put the advantages of the knockout attack firmly into their figurative hands, but both the Sinaji and the Security Guild were well-trained, too, and so there was always the lingering doubt that it had been enough.
The fugitives waited for their uninvited guests to descend sufficiently, and Solonn was less than fond of the suspense. He accepted it, though, understanding well why they waited. Zdir had explained how it was better to get a clear line of sight before attempting to strike, how it was preferable not to knock out whomever was generating the ice platform from below and risk the bodies riding on it crashing down before their innocence and what should be done with them could be assessed, how the intruders should be allowed to come down far enough to make getting back out and bringing knowledge of the fugitives’ location with them more difficult.
A silver of deep blue light framing the lower halves of gray-and-white bodies lowered into view. The eyes watching it maintained their color, the turret-hands pointed toward the approaching intruders holding their fire. No sense in striking at shielded targets.
And then there the intruders were. Just a few feet away, three glalie in a triangular formation and a fourth actually sitting atop their heads were staring with wide eyes behind protect auras that were due to fade at any moment.
“Wait, don’t strike!” the foremost of them cried out. “We surrender! We don’t want to hurt you!”
“Oth,” Zdir prompted, not missing a beat.
<We must subject you to a psychic scan to verify your claims,> it said.
“What?” another of the intruders said in response, sounding more than a little alarmed at that prospect.
But, “Fine, fine!” the one who was being carried said, nodding rather frantically, raising an unpleasant noise as the armor covering her belly scraped against that which covered the heads of the ones underneath her. Then, as a few seconds passed with apparently nothing happening, “Is it done yet?”
“No,” Zdir said.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” the intruder who had spoken first said, then winced slightly as if fearing that she might be pushing it. A second later, her protect shield fell, as did those which surrounded the others among her party.
“That,” Zdir responded, at which Oth drifted forward. The rest of the fugitives maintained their stare at the intruders, ready to strike again at any moment.
Oth rose and stopped in front of the glalie who was still perched atop her party members’ heads, and said glalie made a valiant but not entirely successful attempt at concealing some degree of unease at its presence. Solonn narrowed his eyes at her, hoping that her discomfort wouldn’t lead her to try and attack the claydol.
Meanwhile a faint and familiar discomfort of his own reared its head, but it was fleeting. The scan was voluntary this time, after all, and the awareness that he still might have to strike in order to save his friend at any moment was taking up too much of his mind to allow for much else to linger there.
Eventually, <Our visitors are Moriel La-Virj—> Oth pointed toward the glalie whom it had just scanned. <—Evane and Viraya La-Zyar, and Alij Van-Zaria.> It swept a hand from left to right over the other three as it named them off. <Moriel intends no harm to any of us, and from her knowledge of the others, it appears unlikely that any of them do, either. They are all deserters. They have all fled from Sinaji territory, and all of them have expressed strong disinterest in re-affiliating with them.>
Moriel watched Oth as it moved backward away from her, then turned her gaze toward Zdir. “…Can I please come down from here?” she asked tentatively. “This is really rather awkward.”
The set of Zdir’s brows suggested that she was at least somewhat deep in thought, but nonetheless she spared a nod for Moriel. Acknowledging this, Moriel extended a sheet of ice downward between Evane and Viraya’s heads, descending the ramp she’d just made toward the stone floor and then making it vanish in a cloud of vapor.
“You can come forward as well,” Zdir told the others, who did so a bit hesitantly.
“Will we need to have a scan, too?” Alij asked.
“Possibly,” Zdir said, “but probably not. For now, I’d like for you to tell me what finally convinced you to leave the Sinaji.”
“There’s something wrong with their leader,” Moriel said. Her response was met with a derisive noise from Narzen, which she ignored. “He hasn’t been acting like himself. Not since they were invaded. Some enemies of theirs got in and out without anyone even noticing, and ever since then… I swear, the leader’s gone crazy. He’s been babbling something about ‘repayment for the blood of the rannia’, whatever that means.”
“And something about the honor of the ‘Vanished Ones’. Maybe they’re the same thing,” Evane supposed out loud.
“Maybe,” Moriel concurred. ”All I know is that he didn’t even sound like himself anymore, and neither did the ones closest to him. And there near the end, before we got away, they were threatening us, threatening our lives. And they made good on it with some of us.”
“We’re not the first to try and get away from them,” Viraya said morosely. “Just the first to survive trying.”
No one said anything for a few moments after that. Then, “Understandable that you’d want to get away from such a climate,” Ronal said. “But I do find it troubling that knowing that these people had been involved in murders and kidnappings wasn’t enough to convince you that you should want nothing more to do with them.”
All of the apparent defectors turned to him with what looked like genuine shock. “What… When the hell was this going on?” Moriel demanded.
“Right before that invasion you mentioned. Are you telling us that you honestly weren’t privy to these doings?” Zdir asked.
“We had no idea,” Alij said hollowly.
“None whatsoever,” Moriel said. “You can have the psychic look in our heads again if you don’t believe us.”
“Sanaika and his gang have had a bad reputation in Virc-Dho for a long time,” Narzen said. ”Surely you knew what sort of people you were involved with from the start.”
“Whatever reputation they had down there is news to us,” Evane said. “We haven’t lived in Virc-Dho since we were children. Not since the humans took us.”
“So that’s what became of you,” Zdir mused aloud.
“You knew they’d gone missing?” Solonn asked, only for it to dawn on him as soon as the words left his mouth that of course she’d had the means to know such things. The Security Guild, and by extension the Council, had found out when he’d been taken. The same was likely true of all abductions, he figured.
“Mm-hmm. And I know the names of Virc-Dho’s exiles. None of theirs are among them. So,” she then said to the deserters, “I suppose when you finally got back here, you encountered Sanaika’s people first?”
“Yes,” Evane said. “A clefable brought us here—teleported us to just outside these caverns, under the sun. The Sinaji told us that Virc-Dho had become corrupt. That their leaders had been overthrown and anyone who acted against them was being attacked and driven out. There was a lot of fighting going on up in these caverns when we arrived, and the Sinaji told us that we were only safe at all with them. Since no one else seemed to win when they took the Sinaji on, we believed them.”
“They trained us,” Moriel said. “Trained us in case the Virc showed up and we had to defend our new nation against them. We made them regret it.” She smiled, but there was something rueful in it. “We had to use every last trick they taught us, plus spring a few surprises we picked up on the outside. It was just barely enough… well, mostly enough.” The light in her eyes dimmed considerably. “Wasn’t enough for Kanjara, but…”
“Well,” Zdir said at length. “We are willing to provide sanctuary to you if you’re willing to accept it.”
“Yes, yes of course,” Moriel said; the other three nodded in concurrence. “Thank you.”
“Now, considering the training the four of you have undergone, we would also appreciate it if you were to aid us in any confrontation with the Sinaji that we have in future,” Zdir told them.
“Of course,” Moriel repeated. She lowered her head slightly, averting her gaze. “It’s… the least we could do.” She shook her head and sighed. “I regret ever having had anything to do with them.”
“We all do,” Viraya said. “I would definitely have liked to have given them more of a… parting gift, but… well there were only five of us against nearly three dozen of them.”
“Three dozen of them and some unseen mind-controller,” Narzen said.
“I suspected as much,” Evane said, and she sounded distinctly uneasy. Her eyes shifted toward Oth. “It would explain why some of them have been acting so strangely.”
“The fact that we know next to nothing about this psychic, or whatever it is, that they have in their midst is still a strike against us,” Zdir said. “But the numbers of the Sinaji being as they are is welcome news. I had allowed for the possibility that there could be thrice the number you’ve reported.”
“It’s a good thing there weren’t. We wouldn’t have had a chance if…”
Alij’s voice faltered, a look of vaguely troubled confusion on his face as, from above, a strange, continuous grinding sound from above came rumbling downward through the stone overhead. Solonn, Oth, and Zdir, meanwhile, looked notably less perplexed.
Eyes wide, Solonn shot a look at Zdir, feeling a thrill of hope surge through him. “Gods, that sounds like…” He found that he couldn’t quite dare to finish the sentence. “Is it… could it be possible?”
<Conceivably. Perhaps he found a way to return somewhere in Mordial,> Oth said.
“What’s going on?” Evane asked, sounding a bit concerned.
Solonn stared up toward the wonderful, presently invisible possibility that had just reared its head, hearing the sound slowly grow fainter as its source kept moving onward. He’s not coming down here, he reckoned, suddenly unable to help further entertaining the notion that yes, he was indeed hearing what he hoped to be hearing. He didn’t doubt that they would still be able to track the source of the sound by its sheer loudness and catch up with it easily, but he wanted to know if he was right about what it was, and he didn’t want to wait. ”We’ve got to go check it out,” he said.
“Agreed. Come on,” Zdir said with a dip of her head toward Solonn, then led him into the chasm leading upwards. Solonn promptly set about forming the ice platform that would lift them out of there, his eyes blazing and his heart racing as he willed it to ascend as fast as it could.
Please let it be him, please let it be him, please…
The two of them reached the top, and the sight that greeted them halted Solonn’s thought processes at once.
There was Grosh… and there was a small, multispecies army alongside him.