Torshael and Tayne's Story: A New God for a New Mission

Chapter Twelve

Written in Collaboration with Dragonflight


The journey north was, largely and somewhat surprisingly, uneventful. At least, they were not attacked nor did they run into anyone on the trip. Tayne kept up his sniping at Tekasynos, though it was more with the air of one teasing another specifically to get a rise than out of any true malice, and he made a point of keeping everyone as toasty-warm as he could manage during the night, switching off with Haiiro on warmth-and-watch duty. Torshael tried to keep the peace and keep Tekasynos from losing faith with the lot of them, even managing to draw the infernal into somewhat-amiable conversation now and then, while at the same time going over strategies and tactics in his head during the remaining long silences. Haiiro could hear him thinking about it, though he rarely interrupted. There weren't even any major storms or animals to contend with, and they made good time. 

Haiiro, himself, was a little concerned about quite possibly making an attack on a probably impenetrable fortress. He loped along the snowy flats and into the foothills, making sure he was largely unnoticeable, wondering just what they were getting into. A pair of fairly young supernals, a largely magicless infernal, and a young kirin-kin who specialized in information gathering rather than assault were hardly an impressive foe to a black fortress. Still, turning back wasn't an option, so they would make due with what they had. At least he was useful at combating the ever-increasing cold and snow in their trek towards the mountains.

Despite much heavier snowfall on the second and third day, it only took them until mid-morning of the fourth to reach their destination. It could have been less, if Haiiro had pushed himself and sacrificed energy for speed, but he thought that arriving rested would be wiser. Little more than two hours from the hollow under a hill where they'd spent the night, on the way up another slope, Haiiro slowed to a walk and stepped up the power that kept him hidden, stepping down the power that kept them all warm. The way he appeared invisible might not have been magic, as far as he knew, but the use of his element certainly was. Tayne seemed to agree, for when landed on his rump, tacitly taking part in that twist of perception that hid Haiiro and his passengers from sight, his paws were cold enough to feel through his scales.

Haiiro stopped at the crest of the hill and looked out across a broad, gently-descending valley, covered in snow and leading right up to the jagged foothills of the even more jagged mountains. Through the swirling snow, Haiiro could just make out some crags which, though deliberately made dark and matching the mountain behind them, weren't quite natural. The towers, for there was a whole series of them, were a touch too reflective, and the snow piled up on them differently than it did against the dark stone behind them. If one hadn't known they were there, however, it would have been entirely possible to miss them. It didn't appear they there was anyone there, and the valley itself appeared deserted, but there was still a mile or two of distance between them and the towers.

::Here we are,:: Torshael told them all needlessly. ::Rather more formidable than a sketch on a map.::

::Perhaps we should approach in the air,:: Tayne suggested, all sign of teasing gone from his mental voice. ::Easier to avoid attacks, probably not as likely to be anticipated.::

Haiiro shook his head, and projected the image of all three of them sliding off his back to let him fly on alone to Torshael. ::Don't be silly, Haiiro, we're not about to let you--:: He interrupted with a sense of impatience, and the implication of circling in the air. ::--oh, investigate and then come back to us?:: At Haiiro's nod, Torshael glanced behind him at Tekasynos and Tayne, as if for thoughts. The former said nothing, which probably indicated agreement, or at least lack of disagreement; he didn't say a whole lot unless he disagreed, really. The latter nodded encouragingly and leapt down, landing lightly in the snow and bounding down the hillside a short ways.

::Everybody off,:: Torshael reiterated as Haiiro knelt to make said getting off easier. ::Be careful, though, won't you?:: Haiiro tried to infuse the smile he shot over his shoulder at his bond with the assurance that he would.

Once both pairs of feet had hit the snow and they'd moved back to join Tayne, Haiiro launched himself back to his hooves and then into the air with a flurry of snow that would probably have been lost in the snowfall even if he hadn't been cloaked in his perception-altering power. It was a cold, unhappily long flight against the wind to the towers, but Haiiro was pleased to get a good look at them once he got there. It seemed almost too easy, especially for the lair of someone who was known for her use of magic, but he counted his blessings for the moment.

The five towers themselves were actually made out of the same cold, black stone as the mountain behind them, and they only reflected differently from having been hewn, carved, and smoothed out. They were surrounded by a series of tiered walls that finally culminated in the towers themselves, and they were "decorated" with monstrous, icy statues that sent a chill down Haiiro's spine. They were not, as might have been assumed from a distance, abandoned: windows were set into the stone, and here and there one glowed with light that was impossible to miss against the dimness of the rest of the valley. There wasn't any movement that he could discern besides that light, however: no guards, no servants, no animals.... Just those horrible statues.

One tower was markedly taller than the others, and Haiiro guessed it to be the main, central spire, probably the home of Ishtar herself if she followed the pattern of most rulers of such domains. He circled it from what he hoped was a safe distance, looking for the best place to land upon his next approach. It looked like he had very few choices: either land on the walls between those creepy statues, or land in a courtyard between the walls and the towers themselves and make use of the larger entrance there. The latter, though horribly exposed and obvious, looked like the better choice, given he couldn't see any openings into the towers from the walls big enough for someone his size.

Giving the towers one last circle around, and the ice-bound sentinels on the walls one last wary look, Haiiro wheeled and made his way back to the rest of the party. The three were quietly standing in the snow, Tayne having not deigned to tease anyone, Torshael having been preoccupied by keeping track of his bond's progress, and Tekasynos watching as Haiiro cupped his wings and landed, cantering a few paces through the snow to stall his momentum. The infernal looked almost as relieved as the supernals at his safe return. He paced down the hill a ways, out of sight of the tower, before explaining what he found.

"It looks like the courtyard is the best way to get in, if you want me to stay with you," he concluded. "And I don't like the look of those statues. I don't know why, but they bother me."

"I don't like the idea of just walking up to the front door like we were invited," Tayne rumbled.

"Well, if you want to be technical," Haiiro pointed out, "we were invited."

"Tekasynos," Torshael said, "I know you don't remember much, but you're the only one who has had experience with this Zu person, so any advice you might have will be useful. Do you think she would have led us into a trap, or have left the door ajar for us, so to speak?"

"I have no idea what this person is like," Tekasynos answered slowly, after a moment of hesitation. "At least, not like this. But if it's any indication of her attitude, judging by her drawings and how she delivered her message, I wouldn't put it past her to 'leave the door ajar'."

"I wish we knew more about her," Tayne growled. "But he's probably right. And we don't really have much of a choice: if we want Haiiro with us, we need to use that courtyard entrance. It just strikes me as a perfect set-up for a trap."

"Well, if it is, we'll just have to be ready," Torshael stated. "Shall we go?"

Haiiro obligingly went down on his knees again to let everyone climb up. "The longer we stay unnoticed, the better," he commented. "Even if it is a trap, having us coming in largely by surprise ought to give us an advantage."

"One can only hope," Tekasynos muttered to himself, but at least he didn't complain to being stuck between a pair of supernals, one of them clawed and fanged and weighing three times what he did.

Nothing stopped them as they approached, circled once cautiously, then landed. In fact, nothing seemed to even have noticed them-- which, after all, was what Haiiro wanted. Nothing seemed to have changed, except for a lack of light in one room in the central tower, which had been lit before. Whoever had been inside must have moved further in, or doused the light for a nap; surely he hadn't been seen. The courtyard, at least, looked completely untouched: even given the current snowfall, it didn't look as if anyone had set foot in it in hours.

Haiiro landed as close to the huge, shut doors as he could manage, leaving behind only a few paces of cloven hoofprints. A brush of his tail filled them with snow as he passed. He stopped, nose not quite touching the ornately carved doors; they were of some kind of dark wood, and were just barely tall enough to admit him, probably more out of intimidation than consideration for tall visitors. He could sense the chill of them without even having to brush them. He gave his mane a little shake then, tentatively, pushed at them with his nose. They swung open easily.

The doors revealed not a mass of guards with arrows pointed at them, but an echoingly empty entrance hall and chamber beyond. The floor was pale marble to the black of the walls, with more grotesque statues adorning niches in the walls and torches fitted into sconces on the walls here and there, glowing with white fire that, for all its color, gave off no heat. In fact, it actually felt a little colder inside, though with the wind cut by walls it wasn't quite as cruel a cold. Even so, Torshael was shivering within moments, with Haiiro and Tayne unable to use their magic to protect him from the chill, though he bravely made no complaint. Tayne and Haiiro had enough respect for him not to comment.

::That light wasn't visible from outside, was it?:: Tayne sent, instead. ::Think it just... turned on when we came in, or was it somehow blocked from outside?::

::Unless only some floors are protected, probably the former,:: Torshael replied, his mind-voice only a little shaky despite his violent shivering. ::There were other lights, in other windows, after all.::

Haiiro stopped in the second chamber. He had four paths he could take: up a grand, spiraling staircase along the outer wall; down a darker stairwell through an archway on the current level; and through one of a pair of archways flanking the stairs down.

::We probably shouldn't split up,:: Tayne answered his questioning gaze over his shoulder. ::We'll just have to pick one.::

While Haiiro deliberated, Tekasynos-- unsurprisingly-- had nothing to add to the decision. Instead, he removed his fur coat and draped it hastily and unceremoniously over Torshael's shoulders, in front of him. Haiiro heard echoed through the soul-bond, ::You're shivering louder than our footsteps,:: which, though not true, was an obvious cover for an actual act of kindness.

Torshael, shrugging the coat more snugly around him, turned in his seat, Haiiro guessed to give the infernal a grateful smile. He certainly felt grateful, and a little pleasantly surprised. His shivering stopped almost immediately, as if the coat were not only fluffy and thick but bespelled with warmth-- which, actually, it might have been. ::I shall endeavor to be quieter. Thank you.::

Some small part of Haiiro, which was not wrapped up in choosing a direction and worrying about detection, was positively tickled by the gesture; he liked seeing signs that their little group was actually getting along, instead of just putting up with each other. He didn't have time to indulge it, however, and decided that systematic exploration was probably in order, so he started through the left-hand archway that stayed on the first level. His hoof-falls chimed softly on the stone floor, the sound echoing in the silence-- though given anyone not in contact with his person wouldn't be likely to notice him or the sounds he made unless they were demi-gods or somesuch, all it did was reinforce the feeling that they were utterly alone.

The eerie decor extended to the hall through the archway, as well, which was decorated with scenes etched into the stone surfaces like one might hang paintings. One showed a giant serpent coiled around a sphere, another something that looked like a fallen angel, and more, all displaying obviously symbolic images, though not all of them were clear exactly what was being portrayed. At the end of the hall was a large room full of strange objects on display, such as the pitch black orb on a pedestal just through the door or the ice-encased staff opposite it. Many of them all but visibly radiated power, and it set Haiiro's teeth on edge, wishing he could put a back hoof or a horn through some of the objects to destroy them.

At the other end of the room rose another staircase which, judging from its position, probably led to one of the outer towers. Haiiro had just turned around to start back the way he came-- they probably didn't want the outer towers, after all-- when he stopped short, ears twitching. He thought he'd heard something....

::What?:: Torshael asked tensely.

As Haiiro stood frozen just outside the archway back to the hall of inscrutable symbolism, it became obvious even to those without his enhanced senses: footsteps, approaching from behind, coming down the stairs. He sidled aside as slowly and carefully as he could, giving whoever it was plenty of room to get by him if that was their goal, and he felt Tayne tense and flex his claws on his rump, scratching harmlessly over the scales. Torshael waved a hand sharply and silently, and the claws retracted-- mostly. Though he knew he didn't need to, Haiiro held his breath, eyes glued to the stairwell as the steps grew louder and the stepper slowly, finally, came into view.

::Isn't that... Zu?:: Tayne sent among the four of them.

::If that's her name... apparently so!:: Torshael replied.

It was, indeed, the woman who had signed her name "Zu" on the map and childish drawing of Tekasynos. She had, somehow, gotten out of the City of the Sun in secret-- a forced or public escape would have been cause for the Order of the Dragon to contact Tayne, and they hadn't heard a peep-- and returned here. Now, she was dressed all in black and, with her dark hair and eyes, her pale face looked positively ghost-like in the white light of the heatless torches. She wore a black-sheathed short sword on her belt, strapped tightly to her thigh, in a very unobtrusive fashion. In fact, Haiiro's sharp eye caught a small arsenal of weapons, all mostly-hidden on her person. She seemed completely unaffected by the cold-- and she seemed completely oblivious to their presence, as Haiiro noted with a slow, relieved exhalation.

Zu-- it seemed simpler to refer to her by the name she'd given them-- moved straight to one of the displays, one of a box with its wood stained darkly standing on a pedestal. Without batting an eye, she lifted the lid, put in her hand, and withdrew an ornate, unsheathed obsidian dagger, with carnelian or jasper or some other opaque, red stone set into the hilt and pommel. She glanced over it only once before shutting the box and starting right towards them-- or, rather, the entrance they came in from.

::Thoughts?:: Torshael asked.

::Keep quiet and follow her,:: Tayne replied immediately. ::We have no real reason to trust her, yet, but she might lead us somewhere important.::

Since Tekasynos again had no comment-- though he looked a little unnerved as he watched Zu approach and then pass them-- and Haiiro was tentatively in favor of the idea, follow her they did, back through the hall and then down the stairs Haiiro had passed up originally and, actually, had not intended to explore unless he'd had no luck elsewhere. Not only was it predictably colder as they descended below ground level-- the walls were slowly encroached upon by ice as they descended-- the steps were tricky for his hooves, only barely large enough for him to get purchase, and the stairwell was cramped. His passengers even had to duck down. At least Zu didn't seem to be in any particular hurry, so Haiiro had time to place his hooves with care.

By the time the stairs leveled out and turned into more of a tunnel, the walls were entirely coated in ice, and still Zu kept going.

::I don't like this,:: Tayne muttered. ::There's hardly room to move in here.::

::For Haiiro, maybe, but I expect you could do just fine if you needed to,:: Torshael told him.

Just a few steps later, the concern about Haiiro's size and the amount of space in the passageway became moot, for it opened abruptly into a massive chamber carved into, with, or by the ice that lined its walls. There was enough space for Haiiro to spread his wings, launch into the air, and fly a few laps if he wanted to. And yet, the feeling of being trapped did not lessen, because more important than the size of the room was that it was not empty. Standing on an icy ledge, several feet above the ground, was a woman with her back to them. She was clad in dark robes of black and blue, with a mass of pale blue hair wound in intricate braids and almost dainty-seeming pale, feathered wings on her head.

They'd found Ishtar.


Chapter Thirteen

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