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

Chapter Thirty-Five

Written in Collaboration with Dragonflight


Passing through the gate felt like nothing more out of the ordinary than stepping through a doorway into another room. Nothing seemed different or strange or even out of place-- it really did seem like he'd just stepped into another room. Haiiro stood in a circular alcove at the end of a hallway, all done up in pleasant pastels. He moved cautiously down the hall, towards the open room at the other end, lit by windows looking out into a beautiful forest and pristine lake, a serene scene. It looked... familiar, somehow, and it took realizing that Soul Catcher was looking at him from a doorway topped by a pale blue crystal to pull himself away from trying to figure out where he'd seen that view before.

Soul Catcher looked striking here, wherever here was. She was covered in some strange, pale, ethereal armor, which hovered about her rather than resting on her shoulders like something natural. A pair of pearly, armored dragon-wings, ghostly and translucent, sprouted from the back-plate. Haiiro heard Chi's familiar, friendly chirp, though the little dragon was nowhere in sight.

Then he realized she was scowling at him. His first instinct was to murmur an apology and scuttle away-- but how would that do anyone any good? He steeled himself against her disapproval and said, "I just want to help. Please?"

"It's your neck," Soul Catcher replied dubiously. "Though it'll be mine, too, if I let anything happen to you."

"It's my own choice and my own responsibility, not yours," Haiiro said softly.

Soul Catcher turned back to the archway. "Your friends can come up to this point, at least. Beyond this is under Ishtar's control."

"Hence, the ice-colored gem," Haiiro realized. That made sense. He sent an absent thought back to Torshael that they could come through and wait in the entry hall. "Do you have any idea what to expect?"

"Not a clue," Soul Catcher replied. "I'd wager it will be quite cold. I've never been in here before, but it's made from the stuff of our dreams." She pointed to the doorway on Haiiro's right, marked with a green crystal. "If you went through mine, you'd see the jungles of my homeland. Ishtar, though.... It's a bit unnerving to consider what could be here. The entrance here is sealed, but I'm going to break it-- though I wholeheartedly expect she's going to have some very unpleasant things beyond that. Especially if you're right, and her phylactery is here."

Haiiro nodded grimly. He could imagine a few horrible things that a necromancer and ice mage would use to guard her hidden soul. Father, I think I might need your help more now than even before, he thought. "Then we'll just have to be ready," was what he said aloud.

Soul Catcher nodded once, moved her hands briskly once, and said an accompanying couple words that Haiiro couldn't understand. He took an involuntary step back at the explosion of light from the doorway. There was the sound of crashing, breaking glass-- then blessed silence. Haiiro rubbed at temporarily blinded, watering eyes.

" ... I'm still going first," Soul Catcher told him.

"Be my guest," Haiiro replied. "I can't even see anything yet. I'll be right behind you."

"My apologies... I should have warned you."

"Right," Haiiro said under his breath, half-certain she'd done it on purpose so he had to lag behind. By the time he'd hurriedly blinked the after-images from his vision, the cat-woman was gone. He took a deep breath, and stepped through the rippling sheet of air after her.

The instant he stepped through, Haiiro was very nearly buffeted off his feet by a powerful wind, edged with ice and full of snow. He leapt back up into the body he was born in, braced on four legs rather than two and steadied by much more weight, and started plowing forward, head down, to catch up to the dim form that was Soul Catcher. It was freezing-- below freezing, surely-- and he upped his body temperature hastily to combat it. She, at least, didn't look nearly as cold as she should have, either in control of her own body heat or protected by her armor, somehow.

Through the wind and snow, it was almost impossible to see very far, even with the benefit of Haiiro's extended senses. He strained through the blur of the weather, but could only see endless white and dark, ominous shapes in the distance. He guessed those were where they were headed.

I would hate to be Ishtar, he thought, starting that way. To have dreams like this!

"She enjoys it," Soul Catcher's voice ghosted over the wind, "That's why it's here."

Haiiro paused, hoof raised, at the answer to his unspoken thought. For a moment he considered, then guessed Chi must have been listening-- wherever he was-- and told her. Then I don't want to be her, even more, he thought sadly, and put his hoof back down again.

"Feeling's mutual," Soul Catcher replied, and took a step, herself.

Then the ground started to tremble. Haiiro braced himself, wings half-open, and kept every sense he had as open as possible, waiting for whatever attack, or whatever, was coming.

The ground split with a tearing, rumbling sound, snow spilling into a newly formed chasm. Haiiro stepped back once as something clawed its way out of the hole, something made of bone and scraps of muscle and scaly hide, frozen together with ice and magic. It was bigger than Haiiro, vaguely dragon-shaped, and its dark eye sockets glittered with malevolent light, like Ishtar's dead eye. Haiiro dropped his extended hearing when its jaw opened, just in time: it screamed, a high-pitched, bird-like sound that was quite loud enough without magical enhancement. He answered the scream with a breathed gout of flame. It turned away, like someone turning its eyes away from a bright light, then gaped its jaws in a silent laugh before lunging straight at him. Haiiro braced himself, flames flickering around his muzzle and ready to parry teeth and claws with horns and hooves, hindquarters bunching for a rear and a good kick-- but before he did more than push himself off the ground, there was a resounding crack, and an ethereally-clawed fist came down on the bone-beast's head.

Soul Catcher?

Well, far be it from him to turn down aid. He lashed out, then, with both front hooves, aiming to crush the beast's skull. They made another sharp cracking sound on impact, but when he reared back for another blow, there weren't even marks to show where they'd hit. Soul Catcher took advantage of its distraction to grab a horn and cling there, feet perilously close to its teeth and her free hand at its eye.

Its eye? It had shielded its eyes from his flame. Maybe those glimmers of magical light were somehow vulnerable. Haiiro aimed a hoof for one, the one not near Soul Catcher's hand.

The beast gave a screech as Haiiro's hoof connected and threw its head back, an attempt to recoil, but the chasm behind it blocked its path. "Soul Catcher, let go!" Haiiro cried. She dropped off instantly, landing and rolling off the impact in the snow. The bone-beast raised its claws, but Haiiro lunged for its other eye, this time with his flaming horn, and struck true.

There was another screech, and Haiiro shuddered, flesh twitching with a shock that vibrated its way all the way through him, from the horn down. He locked his knees against it, but then it was gone, and the bone-beast clattered to the ground in a pile of bone, sinew, and rotted flesh. "High One," Haiiro breathed, giving himself a vigorous shake. His fire went out and he side-stepped the creature's remains, dipping his nose to Soul Catcher. "Are you all right?" he said, loudly over the wind.

"We're fine," Soul Catcher answered, just as loudly. "What about you?"

"The worst I got were the shudders for a minute," Haiiro assured her, then paused, not sure he'd heard her right over the wind. "Who's 'we'?"

"Chi and myself, of course."

The color of a giggle interrupted his thoughts, a familiar sending from the small dragon, and Soul Catcher's vambrace... wiggled. Haiiro stared at it a moment, not sure whether his eyes were playing tricks on him, but then it made sense: Chi had followed her through the portal, and vanished not into nothingness, but into protection for Soul Catcher. "Ah," he said, smiling a bit at his now much-smaller friend. "Well. Can you fly, or will you ride?" he asked, looking across the chasm the bone beast had crawled from.

"It would be best for us both to be mobile," Soul Catcher nodded. "We can fly."

Haiiro bobbed his head and backed up a few paces, aiming for a running start. With all the wind and snow, he'd need it. He waited for Soul Catcher to, as she had previously insisted, take the lead-- as much because he didn't want to trample her or cover her in flying snow as out of the knowledge that she'd want him to, then took three leaping strides to the edge of the chasm and launched himself over it and into the air.

The chasm itself, as he looked down, was oddly regular. The bone-beast certainly hadn't made it, but rather probably opened it. Had it simply been stored down there, or was there more to the hole in the ground than there seemed? Haiiro sent a sense of "wait" to Soul Catcher-- and Chi-- as he hovered over the chasm and stared into it as far and as carefully as he could manage through the swirls of snow. There was definitely something down there-- some sort of structure or wall. He relayed the image back to Soul Catcher, along with a questioning feeling. He thought it was worth investigating.

"I'm game," Soul Catcher called, smiling. "Shall we check it out?"

Haiiro nodded and lofted down into the artificial canyon in response, looking for a safe place to land amidst the stone structures he could only barely make out. She descended beside him, rather than ahead of him, this time-- whether a sign that she actually trusted him to look after himself, now, or she was simply being more cautious, he didn't know. He hoped it was the former.

As the walls of the chasm rose up around them, the wind died down considerably, and the snow fell lazily rather than furiously. The room below came finally into focus: a room, rather than a building, with straight-cut walls marked with dried, bloody runes and an open floor large enough for the bone-beast and then some. It gave Haiiro plenty of room to land, and he touched down with four muted clicks, folded his wings carefully, and looked around for any kind of trap or guardian. All he saw was an open doorway in the far corner, large enough for a person but definitely not a kirin-dragon.

Soul Catcher landed beside him, taking a look around, herself. There was an echoey growl-- from Chi-- when her eyes lit on the bloody runes. Haiiro could agree with the non-verbal sentiment, though he kept it to himself, shifting down again and-- scrambling to grab falling fabrics as his clothes almost didn't make it back with him, and certainly didn't make it into their proper places. It was only his second time shifting back, intentionally, into his new human body, and he had to mess it up-- here, of all places! He couldn't look at Soul Catcher, his arms full of clothing, too embarrassed to see whether she was going to laugh.

She didn't. Thankfully. "Are you all right, Haiiro?" Her voice had the curious sound of someone facing the other direction, and talking just a little louder to compensate.

"I'm all right," he mumbled, hurriedly fishing his trousers out of the pile and tugging them on. "Just... not so good at this shifting thing, yet."

"Ah," Soul Catcher replied. There was a smile in her voice, and Haiiro flushed with further embarrassment. At least she wasn't laughing. She even sounded a little understanding-- not that, that wasn't embarrassing enough-- when she added, "Let me know when you are ready to continue."

"Getting there," he said, quickly shrugging his tunic on and flicking his little wings to get it settled while he started buttoning it up. "You can turn around, if you want."

Soul Catcher did turn around, and there was that smile. It wasn't a mocking one, Haiiro noted with relief in the brief glance he afforded her. "I'm sure you'll get better at it with practice."

"It's only my second time trying it," he admitted. "The first time was just for practice, and I wound up with everything backwards...." Which had been really quite uncomfortable. At Soul Catcher's gently amused expression, Haiiro had to admit that the idea was rather funny. Maybe someday he'd look back on his misadventures with shifting and laugh. That probably wouldn't be for a while, though.

"I'm certain you're doing better than I could," she told him.

"Tayne told me all sorts of stories about how badly Torshael used to shift, when he was just a hatchling and still learning," Haiiro admitted, grinning some as he settled the long vest over his shoulders and stepped into his shoes. "It usually turns into a 'who can tell the most embarrassing story about the other' war whenever Torshael hears him, though."

Soul Catcher chuckled. "I'm certain that would be worth hearing sometime."

"It is," Haiiro agreed, tugging the long plait of his hair free from the clothing. "All right, ready," he said with a brief sigh for his own delays.

The single doorway led into a hall of pristine white stone, the floor slick with ice and the temperature just as frozen as ever. Haiiro kept a hand on the wall and his tiny wings spread, anything to help him keep his balance on the slippery surface. At least he had good shoes, even if they weren't the boots that came with his winter clothes. Thankfully, the icy corridor gave way to a room that wasn't quite as slick to walk on. Surprisingly, it wasn't dark or unpleasant at all, lined with bookshelves and lit by a large fireplace that, while the blue flames gave off no heat, was still remarkably lovely. The decor gave off the sense of expensive, but not unappealing, taste.

"Ishtar must have made this place before she got so... the way she is now," Haiiro commented.

"Probably didn't bother to change it, if she was just using it for storage," Soul Catcher replied dryly. "By chance," she added, peering at the nearest bookshelf, "do you know what this thing looks like?"

"I don't have the faintest idea," Haiiro admitted, drifting over to the fireplace and examining the flame a moment before turning to frown at the rest of the room. "But it ought to-- to feel like necromancy. And if all else fails, Father could try to give me a clue...."

"Fair enough." Soul Catcher, unlike Torshael and Tayne, seemed to have no doubts about whether or not Yulaan might decide to inspire his son directly-- odd, considering Torshael and Tayne were technically messengers of their own god. "If I were Ishtar," the cat-woman mused to herself, "what would I hide my soul in...."

"Something icy," Haiiro quipped dryly, earning a laugh before joining her in taking stock of the room. Looking at the bookshelves, however, produced no feelings shouting "undead" or "unholy" or even "spirit"-- and no desire to investigate further. Haiiro stayed where he was, letting his eyes rove rather than his feet, but the only thing he was at all interested in was the fireplace.

I hope this isn't just me subconsciously thinking I'm too cold, he thought, and turned around, crouching to take a closer look at the blue, heatless fire and the black stones that it sprang from. There didn't seem to be anything dangerous about either, and it didn't hurt at all when he cautiously passed his hand through the supposed flame.

It did, however, direct his attention to the stone wall behind the fire. He peered through the flames, rolling back his sleeve and reaching through again, this time reaching for the back of the fireplace. The stones there were cold-- unsurprising-- and he felt along them tentatively, first trying to find something with an aura of necromancy, then looking for some sort of crack or break. There was nothing, no creeping feeling, and the stones mortared together well and snugly. He withdrew his fingers with a disappointed sigh-- then smothered a yelp as the wall he'd just been exploring dissolved into nothing, revealing a dark and shadowed alcove.

"Uh, Soul Catcher," he said softly. "I think I found something."

Found something, he had: something unpleasant. There was a body back there, a skeleton of some sort, bones gone black from the cold. It was curled up, hunched over, long, spidery fingers clutching at something half-hidden by its hand bones.

Soul Catcher came up behind him, crouching to peer into the alcove with him. In the cold place, he could feel warmth radiating from her armor-- Chi, protecting her from the freezing temperatures-- as she looked over his shoulder. "And I imagine that would be a newer addition to her choice of decor," she said, nose wrinkled in distaste. "How do you wish to proceed, Haiiro?"

Well, she'd moved beyond insisting on going first, it seemed. Haiiro wasn't sure whether he liked being respected, or was nervous with the deference. Still, he frowned into the alcove, trying to think of how best to go in after it. "I don't think there's room for both of us to go in at once," he began. "One could wait out here, maybe hold onto the other's foot or a--" Well, they didn't have any rope, but fabric would work.... "Or my vest, and if something goes wrong, can pull the other out. I mean, it can't just be that easy, going in and just taking it...."

"Well, I imagine when someone touches whatever it is, we're going to have to deal with one of the following things: nothing, something from behind, something from in front, or both." Soul Catcher sounded amazingly light-hearted, as if the guessing was fun for her. "Where would you like to stand?"

"Well," Haiiro frowned, thinking, "you probably need more room to move than I do, to deal with something-- armor and claws and such. I'm no warrior, really, I just breathe fire at things; I guess I'll go in, and you can wait for something out here-- or haul me back if I get into trouble." He leaned back out of the fireplace to shrug off his vest.

"Fair enough," Soul Catcher agreed. Chi even commented with an echoey chirp, an encouraging sort of sound. Haiiro smiled at bit at... er, the shoulder piece of the armor, not sure just what would count as Chi's face, then offered the end of his vest to Soul Catcher.

"Here goes nothing," he said, holding the other end and ducked into the fireplace.

Despite his care, he still managed to scatter a few of the coals, or whatever the black stones holding the fire were, in his passing. He had to hunch, and his horns scratched the ceiling once or twice, but it could have been worse: he could have been as tall as Torshael, and have to walk more than bent double. He approached the curled skeleton warily, one step at a time, senses stretched to catch the first hint of movement, noise, change in temperature or smell, or shift of floor or walls. There was nothing as he walked, nothing as he paused to look around and consider how best to take the skeleton's prize, nothing as he took a steadying breath and reached, nothing as he hovered just before closing the last inch as quickly as he could and snatching up the thing that, hopefully, would be what could defeat Ishtar.

Nothing happened then, either. Haiiro took only a brief glance at what he now held-- a badge of some sort, like what a noble family might use to display their crest, made out of some blue metal and gold, fashioned like a serpent coiled in a circle and eating its own tail and etched with runes-- before hurrying back. Just holding it gave him the chills.

Except he only got two steps before something cold and dry closed around his wrist.

The skeleton had moved.

Actually, that had been one of the things Haiiro had half-expected to happen, and it certainly wasn't the worst. It made his skin crawl, maybe, but not nearly as badly as the thing he'd taken, and certainly not so badly that he couldn't think. He gave a fierce yank on his arm, throwing all his slight weight into it, in his first attempt to get free. All that did was drag the skeleton closer, and another dry, fleshless hand shoved at his shoulder, as if the bones were trying, with their slight weight, to knock him over. He kept trying to backpedal-- if the skeleton came with him, so be it!

But then, to his horror, the bones closed around his wrist swelled and filled out, until they were fingers, not just bones. He looked up and the skull, now turned to to face him, had sprouted long, silver-blue hair and clothed itself in Ishtar's face. Or, rather, half of her face, for the dead eye and ice-sheathed bone were the same as when he first saw it, at her fortress.

"That's not yours, little boy," her voice crooned from the dead thing's mouth.

It couldn't really be her. She couldn't really be here. Haiiro reminded himself that before he could really panic. It had to be some kind of spell attached to the animated skeleton. He scrambled back, holding tight to the ornament in his hand and crying Soul Catcher's name in the hopes that she'd pull him back out, and remembered the bone-beast. He spat a ball of fire directly at her dead eye.

Ishtar-- no, not Ishtar, just her puppet-- hastily turned her head aside-- he'd been right, her dead eye was vulnerable, just like the bone beast's!-- so the fire caught her mock-flesh and sizzled in her hair. For his trouble, she twisted his arm painfully; for a skeleton, even a skeleton swathed in false flesh, she was strong, and it hurt.

But-- it was-- the wrong kind-- of hurt? In a single moment of clarity before the feeling of "hurting" really sunk in, he looked down at the source of the freezing, prickling, stinging pain and yelled, as much in surprise as injury. His fingers, though still wrapped automatically around Ishtar's phylactery, were black and dead, the flesh rotting beneath a new skin of ice. It crept up his wrist like a frozen infection, and all he could do was stare dumbly and stumble back-- scattering the rest of the blue fire's coals, and landing awkwardly on one wing-- as Soul Catcher kicked Ishtar's doppleganger off of him.

Most of her. Her hand still clung stubbornly to his wrist.

And that was when it really started to hurt.


Chapter Thirty-Six

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