Torch in the Darkness: Part Seven
Art by ellbot1998
“What are you saying, Azra? Nobody’s ever just stumbled across Shadow! This place is practically cut off from the rest of the world!” Tochino spread his arms out wide to accompany his speech.
“There’s a first for everything.” Azra glared at him, and turned to me. “Show yourself. Harsh actions won’t be taken if you mean nothing against us.”
If I was supposed to fight a villain there, then that must have meant I had something against this “Sunset’s Shadow” of theirs. But I didn’t want harsh actions to be taken, so I was intimidated into staying in the dark. Several moments passed in silence.
“Come closer,” the shadow one persisted.
“Why should I?”
“Harsh actions will be taken.”
Sighing, I decided to walk into the gentle illumination of the torches. The sentinels gasped.
“You’re a Creator’s Age Xweetok!” Tochino uttered.
“I knew that.” I rolled my eyes.
“That is not for you to know.”
“Tell us, and also why you are here.” Azra held out her staff. I narrowed my eyes at Tochino, suddenly deciding on a plan.
“What a handsome pelt you have.” I turned my back on Azra.
“Oh, why thank you!” Tochino held up his head in pride.
“I love the way your feathers are preened, and your eyes are the silkiest shade of brown.”
“Really, you’re flattering me.”
“I wish I had such a pair of beautiful wings like yours!”
“Okay, so what about me?” Azra interjected. I scowled at her.
“Get out of my range of vision, you dirty old raven.”
She yowled and leapt at me, completely abandoning her staff. My body was small enough to run under hers while she was midair. I grabbed the weapon she had dropped.
She, on the other hand, crashed into Tochino. The two began clawing and snapping at each other in a tangle of limbs and wings, completely forgetting about me. I used the time to observe the gate to see how it opened.
It lifted upwards when I put my paw under it and I pulled it skyward. Ducking under it, I dashed as far away from the guards as I could, to gain distance while they fought. Two Eyries and two really big sticks were behind me: How many more would I have to make my way around?
As the torches were only placed around gates, I had to use the walls as my guide. After another twenty yards or so, I saw the light of a similar gate. A slim Red Techo alongside a brawny Orange Tuskaninny served as guards, issued the same uniforms and weaponry as the first two sentinels.
“Who is there!” the Tuskaninny bellowed, more of a statement than question.
“Come to the light.” The Techo beckoned with his hand, the other one twirling his staff.
The duo didn’t seem like the type to argue over matters like appearances. As the darkness allowed my species to remain a mystery, I was thankful for it. I lifted a single, trembling paw into the light while I tried to think up a new course of action to sneak past them.
“WHO IS THERE!” the Tuskaninny roared. At that moment, I thought up a nickname for him: Buffy.
“Not everybody can identify somebody by their paw alone, you know,” His fellow guard quipped.
Deciding that I had no choice, I chose to walk into the glow of the wall torches. They both stared at me: The Techo was doing it because, well, you know what I am; the Tuskaninny probably did it merely because I was trespassing.
“Who are you?” the Techo asked.
“I’m, uh, the niece... of the guy who hired you, I mean.”
I mentally slapped myself. There was no way I was anybody’s niece: My parents had both been single children, and also if you were my aunt or uncle (if I had one), then you would be related to Xweetoks.
“Uhh... He is a Xwee-tok, like the boss,” Buffy said, none of his facial features besides his mouth moving.
“First off, that’s a girl; second, the boss would have told us if somebody was visiting; and third, the boss doesn’t like outsiders knowing too much about him. You shouldn’t blow his cover like that,” Aleck (what I nicknamed the Techo) scolded Buffy.
“Uh... Kay’. What should we, uh, do with him?”
“I’m a girl!” I snapped. Neither acknowledged the fact that I said anything.
“Well, take her prisoner! What else?” Aleck grabbed my arm slammed the gate open with his free hand. “C’mere, you know I don’t like this dirty work.”
“Uh, yes,” Buffy said as he picked me up and slung me over one shoulder. The Techo opened the gate more to allow Buffy through and then followed him. The gate slammed shut behind us.
“Now, let’s make quick work of this, shall we? We mustn’t keep our post unguarded for too long.” Aleck walked sideways as he talked to Buffy. I suddenly knew what to do.
We went through several similar gates before we went down a steep staircase. The walls, floors and even ceilings were large stones embedded in the earth. A musty scent, like that of fertilizer, hung in the air. As we progressed, other workers passed us by often, usually staring at me. I didn’t try to escape on the way through. My captors were unknowingly bringing me closer to my ultimate goal: deeper inside. I suddenly told myself to focus.
They took me through a chain of staircases and chambers before we reached a very, very long hall. Two long lanes of cells ran down it. I looked at several dismal-looking faces as I was carried; every one of them looked as though they were good at heart.
One particular set of dreary eyes caught me. I gave way to a quick gasp as I clawed at my Tuskaninny captor. The stupid oaf had held me close to his face, and so I viciously clawed at his features. He whined and dropped me, his flippers flying to his aching cheek. I was free from his hold. I yanked my key off of my neck and jammed it into the lock on Cerulean’s cell, desperately hoping that it would fit the keyhole.
I turned it and threw open the door while I thrust the key around my neck again. Cerulean wobbled back and forth as he stepped out, as though he was going to collapse any moment. The Tuskaninny was still wailing at his injury, and the Techo had disappeared.
“Hurry!” I grabbed one of Cerulean’s wings and tugged him after me. He forced himself to run as fast as he could, although he still lagged behind me significantly.
“Catch them!!” Aleck had returned, and at least half a dozen strong-looking guards were behind him. I gasped and ran faster, letting go of Cerulean. I barely heard him whisper under the pounding footsteps of the squad gaining on us.
“Creator... Give me the strength...”
He suddenly surged ahead of me as soon as the words left his lips.
It was at that moment that I truly believed.
The Creator was no figment of the foresters’ imaginations.
I could then let loose my full energy without having to worry about leaving Cerulean behind. He was far ahead of me, and I actually struggled to keep up with the starved Xweetok. When we reached the end of the hall, there was a staircase leading down. It was the only way to go, so we went.
It led to a floor of cells exactly like the one we had left, and there was another below it, and so on. The more I forced my body, the farther back the guards became. Cerulean had no problem with the running, it was just me. I lost count of how many floors we dashed through before we came to, what else, a dead end.
At the end of the lines of cells, there were no stairs. Cerulean stood on his hind legs and put his paws on my shoulders as we turned to face the squad. Has he forgiven me? I think he’s letting me know that I can trust him... I, too, got on my hind legs, although Cerulean still stood over me by a full head-and-a-half. Standing like I did as a Huntress didn’t reassure me as nearly as much as my fellow Xweetok’s comforting grip.
Time seemed to slow down. The guards considered us cornered, which we were. They progressed towards us slowly, all taking their steps simultaneously, like they always do in books. Every step they took forwards, we took one back. Their bodies formed a barricade. There was no making it around them. I was about to consider things over, settled. We had failed.
That was when Cerulean, still holding me close, didn’t take a step in reverse. I looked over at him, and I noticed that his back was against the wall. Time sped up again when he grabbed my arms tightly, surged forward and jumped.
His wings beat violently, thrashing against the murky air. The huge, violent noise reverberated in the space. We were off the ground, and ascended a few more feet into the air. The squad reached for us, trying to grab one of us, but we cleared them. Barely. My tail had slipped out of the grip of one of them.
Right when my feet hit the ground, I bolted, Cerulean following and soon passing me. Our chasers made more commotion than ever. Going up the staircases was much harder than going down. But still, we had to press on... I pushed myself harder, ever harder, while Cerulean appeared to be running on the Creator’s strength.
When we had ascended all of them, I saw Cerulean out of the corner of my eye, lashing around to go into another chamber branching off of the hall. I followed suit. The chamber led downhill, which was a relief.
It was such a shame that it meant the guards could go faster, too.
We pushed forward with all of our might. The two of us practically careened down the hallways. We began to tire: one had traveled nearly nonstop; the other had gone without food for the whole time, motionlessly passing the days. Spying another two sentries up ahead of us, I forced my paws to fly even faster.
There was no gate this time. Cerulean quickly broke into flight and soared over their crossed spears. I slipped under them successfully.
Finally, the passageway stopped short. It opened up to reveal a somewhat large room. An oversized canopy bed, carved from grey wood, was centered on one wall. It was the only object in the room, and was complete with droopy red curtains. When we darted inside the bedroom, we startled a Christmas Wocky who held a tray with some food on it. It clattered to the floor, and several dishes broke.
“Stand back, you bumbling guards, this is my fight,” a fierce yet laid-back voice ordered. Everybody except Cerulean and I edged to the back of the room, with their backs against the wall. Two of the scarlet drapes parted, revealing the form of a slate-grey beast. He walked on two legs. His ragged ears twitched every few moments. His tail was merely a stub.
A full seven seconds passed before I realized that the beast was a Xweetok.
“Who are you?” Cerulean arched his back and walked forward two steps.
“Ah, Cerulean and my own little Chix are here. I was expecting you two being right here later, but you are very punctual, Chix.”
“That doesn’t answer my question, and how do you know who we are?” Cerulean answered with a snarl. My face flushed red with anger at being called Chix.
“So many questions, so little time,” the twisted Xweetok teased. Cerulean hissed. “Getting ferocious now, are we? Fine, fine. You must already be familiar to me, actually. My name is Valence, and when the Creator has used enough force to mutate you to this extent, you have plenty of residual magic on you to see what is going on in the world. Of course I know your names.”
“What?! You shouldn’t be here! I thought the Creator banished you!” Cerulean snapped.
“That is but what most think, and repeat to their children. She put me in a prison here instead of driving me off, but I escaped. I have been running on residual magic for a few millennia now. I believe that Serace used his share of the residual magic to make the first Hunters.”
Cerulean’s eyes widened and it was clear to me that he was trying not to show fear.
To be continued...