Chapter 81: Phoenix
Sheep in brown pastures,
Wolves in sheep's clothing.
~ Miyara Miwa
... and we began to fall to the jagged rocks below.
I grabbed for the net, it ripped in my hands and I fell again. I just grabbed onto the bottom edge of the net and hung there, looking for the others. Everyone else had also managed to grab onto the net in various places except for Ravena, who remained floating in mid-air, using the Crystal.
And my cousin, returned, who flew back and forth on his beastman wings.
We climbed back up to the cave assigned us, and Kyosuke flew in closer. We two waited, he in the air and I on the net, until the others all entered the cave. Ravena remained hovering outside the entrance, and as I turned, I saw why. A beastman, this one a snake-man, entered the cave after us. Ravena has a horror of snakes, and stayed away from it.
As I stood on the edge, I reached in reflex for a katana that was not there. I let my arms fall and waited for the thing. The others were safe behind me, Ravena hovered outside the cave well away from the snake-thing, and Kyosuke flew in circles nearby.
It had clambered across the net with ease, much faster than we could, and it stepped smoothly into the cave. The thing was armed and armored, and it flashed wicked-looking fangs at us. It asked who Kyosuke was, and I told him, "He is my cousin."
It rested its hand on its sword and asked me "Is he a devotee of Nergal or Tzeentch?"
"Certainly not this Nergal being, but if anyone, Tzeentch." I felt like I was telling an uncomfortable truth instead of a lie. I was certain he cared nothing for Nergal, but the events since our Crystal-dreams leave me wondering mightily about Kyosuke's true beliefs regarding Tzeentch.
He stood close, almost touching me, and not coincidentally placing his long, sharp teeth an inch from my throat. "Are you sure?" the thing hissed with menace.
I stood my ground, showing him he could not intimidate me, and answered cold as ice, "Yes." I considered whether it would be possible for me to draw his sword against him before he could draw it himself.
But he stepped away and turned to Ravena, floating in mid-air, and pointed at her, asking, "How are you flying?"
She moved back a little, and answered, her voice wavering just a little, "By the power that is within me."
Kyosuke stopped flying around in circles and hovered nearby. The snake-thing told her "it" was against the rules, and she answered that Tzeentch gave her this power. Again, uncomfortable truths instead of convenient lies.
He hissed at her, and she gave a little more ground. "In that case you should not claim it as coming from within." She shrugged. After all, technically both of her statements were truth. His parting shot was that magic is strictly forbidden here. He leapt to the net and crawled across it and away quickly and agilely. Ravena waited until he disappeared into another cave elsewhere, then she entered the cave and walked inside with the others, shivering a little.
Kyosuke remained hovering at the mouth of the cave, in front of me. With all the eta within, we had no privacy, but I was certain none of them could understand Nipponese.
He reported to me. He had a long fight in the sky with a demon who flew riding upon another demon that he called a sky shark. He failed, but since the hole was ably defended, he believes it to be vulnerable in some way. Otherwise, why would they bother defending it? Hosei said it might just be a hole where demons live, but none of us believe that. It matches too closely Ravena's Crystal-dream.
I told him quickly that I had to surrender the "item", but they apparently had no interest in it. And of course, we can all feel exactly where it is, and any of us can recall it to ourselves when we want.
Kyosuke had remained hovering outside the cave, giving his report to me formally. I had just a moment to realize where he was headed. He said to me, "I have failed and I am becoming a creature of chaos." Still holding Caramela's dagger, he cut across his stomach, and ceased flying, falling to the ground. I thought he was a little premature, but if he felt now was the time, I could only honor his decision. I also prepared to fly out to him and perform my duty as his second, should he need one. I rather thought the fall to the ground below would take care of it.
Ravena, on the other hand, was horrified. As I stood at the edge, watching my cousin plummet to the ground, she summoned an air spirit, had it pluck my half-eviscerated cousin out of mid-air, and had him deposited gently at her feet. Still, my brave cousin made the second cut on the way back up before the dagger dropped from his weakened hand. I reached for my katana, and again realized I didn't have it. Perhaps one of Ashe's axes... But it would not be necessary. I saw him breathe his last breath.
But then Ravenna healed him, Peter restored her, and she healed him again. In less time than it took to draw my own breath, Ravenna took Kyosuke from death to full health.
That was unprecendented. I hesitated, lost. Did that count? Or was it as though it had never happened? I was not prepared to have to watch the whole thing again.
In the meantime, Peter had at least partially restored Ravena, and she stood over my perplexed cousin. "Don't do that again. Your mission is not finished."
I nearly smiled at that sight, Ravena berating Kyosuke like a small child neglecting his duties.
Kyosuke asked her, in a resigned manner that signalled he knew it was a useless request to make of her, "Don't do that again. You have no concept of honor."
She merely told him again that he was not done yet and he shouldn't leave.
Kyosuke sighed. While I agreed with him that these westerners have no concept of honor, I believed her. I don't think Kyosuke is done yet, either.
I sat on the ground next to Kyosuke, who looked a trifle defeated. "Yours was a small failure, not a large one, since you did not lose the item. We still have it, and can still do what we need to with it."
He nodded agreement, but reminded me that he is dishonored by turning into a beastman. As if I had not noticed or forgotten that matter.
I acknowledged that truth, and told him, "It may well be that taking care of the item will clear your condition and return you to normal."
"Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not." He looked at me with a plea in his eyes, and I nodded. He looked relieved and we both stood back up.
When this is all done, if it is necessary, I will loan him the Miyara wakizashi I carry, ensure he carries through with no interruption, and I will stand second to him. That was my silent oath to him, and he trusts me to care for the Miyara honor.
What now? The other cultists here are quietly afraid of us. We were supposed to hide our powers and pretend to be simple cultists like they, but that hasn't worked out well so far.
A woman stepped into the cave from the net. She had probably once been attractive, as far as westerners go, but she was a ruin now. She introduced herself in a rough voice, that again held a small hint of the voice she once must have had. She had arrived to tell us the rules of this place. I wondered if we hadn't quite broken all of them yet.
But we didn't really get any more rules to break. She spoke for some time and said nothing that made any sense whatsoever. Essentially, we were supposed to do whatever the great master said and to embrace and wait for death to take us. This wasn't a death cult so much as a cult devoted to apathy and formless decay. This was stupid even for western barbarians. Of course, this also means that we can possibly use the Crystal to cause weird things to happen, and these people would never think it wasn't the all-powerful Tzeentch. After she left, I quietly told Kyosuke my idea, that we could sow confusion, or kill someone who needed killing, and these cultists would just accept it and say "Hail Tzeentch, Master of Change".
Kyosuke asked me why we were even here, and I explained that he and the White Faerie's vision had been right. Suluruku led us here, because the head of this cult "talked with Tzeentch". Here, maybe, we could find a hint to destroying the item.
I turned to Suluruku, who had rejoined us, and asked him the best way to get to talk to Malusalus as quickly as possible.
"It's best to call him "Great Master". Follow his teachings, and I believe that if you can avoid appearing to be a threat while still coming across as ... interesting, he might ask to see you. But I remind you that if he believes you are a threat, he will never see you willingly."
Kyosuke and Sun had a brief conversation with one of the eta that made no sense, but I watched where he went. We were in the cave farthest to the right, as seen flying in the air and facing the cliffwall. He headed for a cave slightly to the left and closer to the top of the cliff.
I told everyone, in Nipponese and hoping that Hosei or Sun could quietly explain to whoever didn't understand me, "I suppose the first thing is to try to appear non-threatening, interesting, and to seem devoted to their strange ideas. If that doesn't seem to get us anywhere, we'll have to try a more direct approach. But first, I want to try Suluruku's way." Ashe asked me for how long, and I told him I didn't know. It would not be long, though, because I had little patience for this stupidity.
We sat down and contemplated the glory that is Tzeentch. Or at least looked like that's what we were doing. Others came and went, and I watched who went where. The crowd of eta in here, which included some beastmen, granted us a little more space, with something between fear and appreciation for our chaotic nature.
After about an hour, the snake thing returned with a twin, and Ravena scrambled away, hiding behind Ashe. It did her no good, as they looked right at her. What was this about? And again, could I draw one of their swords before they did?
One of them hissed to her,"You need to come with us. You must come with us." She briefly closed her eyes and almost visibly settled herself. She gave me a look that said I'd better make sure nothing happened to her, and reluctantly agreed to come with them. Ashe stood with her. One of the snake things turned to face him, hand on his sword, almost eager for Ashe to do something. The other one again told Ravena to come with them. I sharply told Ashe to sit back down, and he did. The snake thing gave me a measuring look, but then swung into place behind Ravena. With one in front of her and one behind her, she swung onto the net and they climbed away. She gave me a frightened, beseeching look as she left. I watched which cave they took her into.
I turned to Suluruku and asked where they might have taken her. I told him, "I won't be happy if I have to avenge her death." He looked surprised, and replied, "I don't believe that they will ask her to make the great change, as they call it, right away. It's more likely they'll require some sort of penance from her. If she is properly contrite, they will use her as necessary."
That wasn't as reassuring as he seemed to mean it to be, but at least I probably hadn't let her go to her immediate death.
After a while, a horrible scream, of someone in a lot of pain, maybe being killed horribly, echoed through the cut and through all the caves. The agonized scream continued for a minute or so, then faded away. The eta that huddled in the back of the cave took no notice of the blood-curdling scream, as if they've heard it before and will again. At its first sounding, I was afraid it might be Ravena's dying scream, but before I leapt to my feet, I realized that whoever, whatever, it was, it was not Ravena's voice.
Time moved on, slowly. Eventually, some of the eta from the back moved forward, carrying buckets on yokes around their shoulders, and left the cave. About ten minutes later, they returned, their buckets full of something that appeared to be gruel. The eta at the back fell on the buckets, fighting for their food like animals. The weakest of them got nothing. Recalling the scream, I didn't want to contemplate what might have been in those buckets.
We spent a hungry evening. Hosei was certain they would haul him off like Ravena if he fed us any of his fish, so he threw any that appeared off the cliff.