The evening sun warmed Kirelon as he perched on the outstretched limb of the tree in his heavy cloak, idly toying with the spy glass in his hand. The cliff plateaued here, forming a wide platform filled with all manner of vegetation. Great solid-looking trees dipped their roots deep into the earth, and small ferns and bushes covered everything, giving the entire place a sense of vibrancy and life. Kirelon saw a lao-mene, about two feet long, crawling about the grass and foraging for food. The crustacean was segmented into three parts, each segment hexagonal in shape and hosting a variety of scurrying little legs. It had two large antennae and an equally sizeable tail with a small razor-sharp blade at the end of it constructed of hardened carapace. Though lao-mene were usually harmless--as they were almost exclusively vegetarian--if you got too close to a colony or backed one of the creatures into a corner, they could tear off large chunks of flesh with their sharp tails. They were rarely bothered, except by the most desperate of hunters, as there really wasn't much meat on them in the first place. Their carapace was valuable, however, so every once in a while a team of lowborn was sent out to find and kill a few of them. It was not a task that anyone volunteered for.
The tree upon which Kirelon sat was the largest of those in the clearing, and was covered in clinging vines that gave the Speaker convenient handholds to reach the higher branches. Behind him, bathed in light from the setting sun, lay Olcaen, the westernmost of the two peaks upon which the city of Argosson was built. He often came here--to his secret place--to sit in the tree, watching the sun go down and thinking. He had found it one day as a child while climbing Olcaen's higher reaches, scrambling up rocks and trees as quickly as any other creature of the highlands. His parents had always been busy with court affairs, and he had been mostly left to himself as a young boy. That had stung at first, the lack of care his parents showed in where he was or what he was doing. But he had grown out of it, and now that he was spending so much time in the city dealing with his responsibilities and wading through politics, he wished--at least somewhat--that everyone was still as apathetic about his whereabouts.
He'd always had his aunt, of course. All through his childhood, she had been there: encouraging him, playing with him, teaching him. In many ways, his aunt Meles had practically raised him. Kirelon didn't really resent his parents for their lack of interest in his life, but it had driven a wedge between them. One he didn't think would ever go away.
Kirelon's aunt Meles and her husband loved to travel, and had spent many weeks away from the city, exploring the mountains on their personal airship in the company of a top-notch hired crew. Meles was adventuresome--the rest of the family seemed to think she was too adventuresome for her own good, but Kirelon had always loved hearing stories of his aunt and uncle's travels, the strange places they had found, the hidden wonders in the mountains, the incredible creatures. It was dangerous, of course, and so Kirelon had never been allowed to come with, but that didn't stop him from asking. Over and over, Kirelon would beg to go along, and would be firmly shot down by his mother. Apparently, she had cared enough to be there to forbid him from doing anything truly exciting.
Immediately, Kirelon regretted that thought. His mother didn't deserve that. She was kind, considerate, an amazing woman. She...was just busy. But she was the queen. The monarchy were supposed to be busy.
On one of their trips, Meles and her husband Heromites decided to go further than they had ever been before. Kirelon remembered her excited explanation as she told him of the wonders they expected to find. They would go to the edges of the map and beyond. Three days into the journey, they had been overtaken by pirates. From reports Kirelon and his parents got back from a lowborn hunting party that witnessed the battle, the crew were easily slaughtered where they stood, Dominated by a Puppeteer aboard the pirate ship and forced to kill one another. The airship was then looted, burned, and crashed into a peak. There had been no survivors.
The day he got the news of his aunt's death had been the worst day of Kirelon's life.
He looked down at the spy glass in his hand. This was all he had left of her. She had given it to him when he was nine, a birthday present. Remember to always look closely, she had said to him. To try to see to the heart of a situation. There is a reason for everything--you just have to find it. Those words had stuck with him, for some reason. He could remember each syllable, every slight inflection his aunt had used when she had spoken that day. Where time would usually stain a memory, leaving it muddy and unclear, those words were as clear as glass in Kirelon's mind.
After she had died, he had tried to find a reason. There had to be a reason, he surmised, for why she had died. There was a reason for everything. But the months passed, and he never found one. He began to pull away from everyone. What had once been an outgoing, enthusiastic young boy had become a disgruntled, isolated young man. He spent all of his time in his secret place, brooding and sometimes crying. He had never told anyone of the dark thoughts he'd had during those days. He eventually came to the conclusion that there was no reason...for anything. It was all random, a callous accident that gave no thought to who it would destroy as it exploded. The bottom of the cliffs hadn't seemed so far down, and his self-imposed isolation started to make him think that everyone in his life had ceased caring about his existence.
He had been ten.
It took two years to come back. Because of the efforts of a group of persistent young men and women--his childhood friends among the nobility--he had slowly returned to the enthusiastic young man, the one who tried to find a reason for everything. The one who found connections in the most meaningless of events and was passionate about the answers to the hard questions. Life started to have a purpose again. But the scars had remained. Not even time healed the deep hurt he had felt at his aunt's death. She had been his closest friend, and in some ways, she had been more like a big sister. During his adolescent years he had begun to spend more and more of his time with the friends who had brought him from the brink of suicide--and soon they all became inseparable. They frequented the mountain passes and spent many a day hiking in the highlands and many a night sleeping under the stars. When it was too cold or dangerous to spend outdoors, they amused themselves by sitting in their favorite cafe and simply talking. Their conversations ranged from playful teasing to deep philosophical discussion, and Kirelon had deeply enjoyed every minute of it.
Kirelon sighed, remembering those days with fondness. Unfortunately, his friends had all moved on. Kirelon had become more and more involved in his duties as a Speaker, and the others had followed their own paths, becoming artists or craftsmen in the Middle City or joining the military. The pair that he had been closest to, Tral and Lis, had gotten married a year ago, and then left with a major exploratory expedition to the south, one of the first Argosson had sanctioned in decades. The day of their wedding had been the last time Kirelon had seen any of his old friends. After that, he had become so absorbed in his work with the Lower City that he had ceased having any semblance of a social life. All he did was work--and look after Danas and her family.
Kirelon felt his blood start to grow hot as he thought again of what Tharyon Ubeires had said about her during their argument hours before. The Master Speaker didn't understand--none of them understood. He had promised Danas' father that he would look after her--that he would look after all of them. It wasn't out of some perverted romantic interest that he was constantly watching Danas. He deeply cared for them--for all of them. He had watched Vatos' children grow up--Danas, Penod, and their younger sister, Eline, who had been born five months after Vatos' death. He knew all of them intimately. Unfortunately, they didn't know him, and he had never really tried to interact with them any more than he had to. Somehow, he didn't think Vatos would have wanted him to try to have a real relationship with any of them. The man had still hated Speakers with everything in his being, at the end. Kirelon had been there, of course, when they had killed him. He had retched afterward, but he had forced himself to watch. He was responsible for the man's death, after all.
The sun was almost out of sight now, a slim line on the horizon. The emerald surface of Anillend was still watching from the slowly darkening sky, and stars began appearing in that black canvas, twinkling as if in counterpoint with one another as a part of some complex song that was communicated with light and not sound. Kirelon's thoughts began to turn to other topics, as dark as the void above him. He began to wonder if Vatos had been right. If the nobility was so unwilling to change their views of the lowborn, so comfortable in the way things were that they didn't want to shift a single law in favor of their slaves, then were they really worth saving? Kirelon's grandfather had spoken of the journey they would have to take for change to happen, a journey in which he was going to have to lead. But what if the nobility weren't the ones to take that journey with him? Maybe Vatos should have been allowed to continue with his rebellion. Maybe things would be different now if he had. Kirelon might be dead, sure, but so would the rest of the Speakers. None of them cared about the lowborn, despite every tenet of their order being set in place to help the Lower City. Kirelon had become increasingly dissatisfied with everyone in the Upper City, Speakers, nobles, priests alike, and had come to the conclusion that there was very little of anything resembling compassion among any of them.
Maybe... Kirelon hesitated, not entirely sure where he was going with this line of thought. Maybe...he needed to start with the Lower City. Maybe he needed to work from the bottom up, inspiring the lowborn to overcome their oppression and rise against it. Maybe he could--
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of rocks falling somewhere to his left, higher on the mountainside. That was a normal enough sound for the highlands, but for some reason it sent a shiver rippling across his skin. All of the sudden, he really felt the chill of the night air, and realized how dark it actually was. Maybe I should start back... Kirelon thought, starting to climb down out of the tree. But then another sound caught his attention. The lao-mene, which had been calmly foraging up and down the clearing and along the cliff, suddenly screeched a trilling sound and hid itself under a pile of rocks. Kirelon glanced up at where the rocks had fallen, trying to see anything moving--but there was nothing to see but shadows. There was something out there, though. Something that had alarmed the foraging crustacean and sent it into hiding.
Kirelon tucked the spy glass he had been holding into his satchel and began to swing out of the branch to the ground below. And then something solid slammed into him, and a flash of hot pain tore up his chest and into his shoulder. He was falling... He hit the ground hard, and the wind was knocked from his lungs, leaving him laying there stunned for several long, agonizing moments. He gasped as the pain in his chest and shoulder flared up again, and as soon as he recovered, put a hand to the area. He felt something warm and wet--blood. He was bleeding. Something had attacked him and tore a gash up his torso. He rolled on to his back, trying to get some sense of direction, and then began to lift himself off the ground, wincing from the pain.
He heard a growl, and instinctively rolled to the side as the thing attacked the space he had just been. Kirelon reached out with his mind, trying to Link with whatever it was. Linking was almost impossible without a clear line of sight, however, and though he saw a flash of movement, it quickly flew away, flapping what looked like enormous wings and lifting into the air so fast that Kirelon wasn't entirely certain it had been there at all. Kirelon lunged to his feet and started running for his airship, which was tied to one of the trees at the edge of the cliff, but then decided against it. If this thing could fly, it wasn't the wisest decision to put nothing but flimsy wood between himself and the valley far below. Instead, Kirelon turned and ran towards a ravine that cut further up into the mountains. It was steep and sheltered with overhangs, almost a tunnel instead of a path, and hopefully it would provide him with cover against his flying hunter.
The Speaker tried to pinpoint the creature's location as he ran, but it seemed to have disappeared for the moment. The stars were out tonight, so there was some light, but they weren't particularly bright, and the thing had moved so fast that Kirelon didn't know if he would be able to see it in time when it attacked again. The best thing to do now was try to get to higher ground. If he could get above the thing, then he could Dominate it, and then he would be safe. Anyone with the proper training could Link with someone--above or below them--but the power to Dominate was in the hands of the man at the higher elevation.
Another primal growl came from somewhere above him, and Kirelon increased his speed, on the verge of falling with each frantic step across the uneven ground. The pain in his torso throbbed in time with his pumping legs, and his breath came in ragged wheezes. He reached the ravine just as a violent roar reached his ears, almost on top of him. He ducked beneath an overhanging rock and was rewarded with a scraping sound and a frustrated howl as the creature pursuing him bounced and skittered across the stone. Kirelon did not slow, ducking beneath overhangs and between large boulders as he slogged up the ravine. His muscles were on fire now, and his wound was a blazing inferno, but he did not stop. To stop meant to die.
Finally, as Kirelon wormed his way between two huge rocks, he turned his eyes skyward and caught a clear glimpse of the creature chasing him. It was crouching on a cliffside above him, staring at him with yellow eyes, its muscles tensed in preparation to take flight again. It was about nine feet-long, with tan fur covering every inch of its toned body and four powerful-looking legs. It had a long, slender tail that whipped back and forth with menacing intensity, and two leathery wings sprouting from its back, curled up as it stood upon the rock above, a jagged claw at the end of each of the appendages. Its paws also carried jagged claws, about an inch in length, and its face was regal and proud, with small ears that were flattened with seeming irritation. It opened its mouth to bare its fangs at Kirelon, and in that instant, the Speaker remembered what kind of creature this was. It was a Hedera.
Kirelon had only seen a Hedera once before, years ago, and even then only from a distance. They tended to avoid people, and were very rare near Argosson, to the point of being non-existent. To see one this close to the city was extremely unlikely, and yet, here it was. Kirelon swore silently as he realized the gravity of his situation. Hedera were very dangerous. Hyper-intelligent, and with near-perfect vision and hearing, they were the deadliest of hunters, capable of extraordinarily complex strategy and problem-solving. And, Kirelon remembered with a shudder, they almost always hunted in packs. So far, he hadn't seen any signs of other Hedera, but he suspected that was part of the strategy. The rest would be waiting close by for the right moment to strike.
The Hedera roared with rage, and then leaped off the cliff, spreading its dark wings like night itself. Kirelon tried to squirm from between the rocks, but the crevice between them narrowed and made movement impossible. Instead, the young Speaker ducked beneath the boulders and crawled into the space created there by the junction of the rocks and the cliff wall. The Hedera hit the rock above with a scrape, and began growling as it clawed at the stone. After a moment of trying to squirm through the crevice itself, the huge beast loped away, hissing irritably. The silence that followed was terrible. Kirelon was trapped. It was getting darker and darker as all of the remaining light from the fading sun vanished into the abyss. The stars began to disappear as clouds began to overtake the sky, and a distant rumble of thunder did not help Kirelon's uneasiness.
He couldn't just leave, that was for certain. The Hedera had much better vision than he did, even in the deepening blackness that was slowly becoming night. For all he knew, there could be a dozen of them out there, waiting to tear him limb from limb as soon as he tried to escape. But he couldn't stay, either. It was getting progressively colder in tandem with the fading light, and he was not dressed for a night in the mountains. He had a cloak, of course, but it was not terribly thick, and sleeping in this crevice was not a very good idea. Other things almost as dangerous as Hedera roamed these mountains, and without a fire--which would scare off most predators outright--or even a weapon--which would be able to scare off the rest of them--he was truly defenseless.
Kirelon sat there wrapped in his cloak, holding a portion of it pressed up against his chest to stem any blood that was draining from him via his wound, for what seemed like hours, surrounded by rock and darkness. He kept hearing growls and the pattering of clawed feet, and so he knew that the Hedera was still out there, pacing back and forth, waiting for its prey to emerge, but there didn't seem to be any of the extra noise that would signify more Hedera. For that, Kirelon was grateful.
Finally he heard a loud growl and then the beat of the creature's powerful wings as it soared off. Kirelon waited, wanting to be sure the creature was gone, but he didn't hear a thing except for the normal ambience of a night in the highlands: the chittering of insects, the scrape of rock upon rock as stones fell, and the drone of the wind. Kirelon grew wary. Why would the Hedera just leave? It had barely tried to get him, half-heartedly scratching at the rocks once and then pacing for hours. And where was the rest of its pack? If they made a concerted effort to reach him, they could have done it, and Kirelon would be dead. But there was nothing. The Hedera was gone. He was about to crawl out when his ears caught another sound, his heart leaping in his chest again. It was a measured cadence of something that sounded like footsteps. The wind had picked up a bit, so he couldn't quite make out the sound clearly, but it did seem like footsteps. He continued to wait, tensing in preparation for flight as the sound came closer and closer. They were footsteps--boots on stone--and there was the flickering light of a lantern. Who was out here in the middle of the night? Soon it sounded as if the footsteps were only a few feet away, and Kirelon realized with a shiver that he was as trapped now as he had been before. If this mystery person found him, and had any ill intent, he was doomed. Unfortunately, most people who would wander about the mountains in the dead of night were probably very dangerous and did not have the best of intentions.
The light grew closer and then Kirelon was momentarily blinded as the lantern poked into his hiding place and shone directly in his face. He winced and pulled back, wishing he'd had the good sense to grab the sword from its place on his airship. He decided on an impulse to try for his freedom, and kicked out with all his might, hearing glass shatter as he knocked the lantern from his intruder's hand. Despite his now destroyed night vision, Kirelon almost leaped out of his spot between the three rock surfaces and through the crevice's opening, barreling over whoever it was that had found him and then tripping over a jutting rock and tumbling down the ravine into he was stopped by another large boulder. He lay there for several moments, stunned and breathless, before he opened his eyes and found the light in his face again. He cried out, holding a hand up as if to ward off the inevitable blow.
"Kirelon?" a familiar, dusty voice said from behind the light.
"Grandfather? Is that you?"
"Yes," Pethres said, his voice neutral. "It's me."
"Thank Chridius," Kirelon said, a wave of relief washing over him as he slowly got to his feet, ignoring as best he could the painful aches and scrapes from the night's experiences.
"Thank Chridius, indeed," Pethres said, as if to himself. "Why are you out here in the middle of the night, Kirelon?"
"I could ask the same of you, grandfather."
"You could, but that doesn't mean I would answer. Besides, I asked first: what were you doing here, Kirelon?"
"I just came out here to think a few hours ago, sitting in a favorite spot of mine on the slope. It started to get dark, and I was about to leave, but something attacked me. A Hedera. It chased me up the ravine and probably would've killed me if I hadn't found that crevice."
"Yes, it probably would have," Pethres said. "You're welcome, by the way. I was the one that chased it off."
"What?" Kirelon said, still squinting at the light. "How?"
"I Dominated the thing and compelled it to fly that way." He made a vague gesture southward. "I didn't stay Linked with it for long, but it was enough to get it to leave. It might have left on its own, given a couple more hours. It was quite frustrated when I got a hold of its mind."
Kirelon nodded. "It kept pacing back and forth all night. For some reason, it seemed like it was alone. I thought Hedera hunted in packs?"
"They do," Pethres said, sounding concerned. "Odd, if there was just one. Are you sure the others weren't just hiding?"
Kirelon shook his head. "If there had been more, you would have seen them, at the very least. Besides, with an entire pack of Hedera, they could have figured a way to get at me if they really wanted to. No, for some reason...there was just one." He gave his grandfather a look. "So, you scared it off? I thought you weren't good at Domination."
"I'm not," Pethres said. "As I said, it probably would have left anyway. I just encouraged it."
"Well, thanks anyway, grandfather. You had great timing. I didn't think I could take much more of sitting in that crevice, slowly freezing to death."
"Where is your airship? We should be getting you back."
Kirelon pointed back down the ravine. "A clearing down that way. It's not terribly far. What were you doing out here, grandfather? It's the middle of the night. I had a good excuse, do you have one?"
Pethres hesitated. "If you must know, I was gathering a--"
The light disappeared as both Kirelon and Pethres were knocked to the ground. A roar tore the night apart once more in a bone-shaking thunderclap, and as Kirelon struggled to rise, he was slammed back to the earth by some leathery appendage. Through the flickering light of the dropped lantern, Kirelon saw that it was a great, bat-like wing.
The Hedera had returned.
The great beast stared down at them through the lantern's glow, teeth bared and eyes afire with predatory exultation. Kirelon knew, in that instant, that he was going to die. And then there was a small twinkle from the corner of his eye, like a piece of metal reflecting light. Kirelon heard a grunt, and then the Hedera hissed in anger, reeling backward. A blue-hilted dagger was protruding from its eye, and it beat its wings as if that gesture would rid itself of the pain. Kirelon took the opportunity and rolled, ending up next to the discarded lantern. He grabbed it and forced himself to his feet, despite his terror and pain, and then turned to see his grandfather pulling out another of those blue-hilted daggers and sending it whistling towards the Hedera with a flick of the wrist. This time it caught the creature's wing, tearing a small hole in the fragile skin and jamming in one of the long bones that made up the appendage's structure. Kirelon stared. This was his grandfather--the old man who spent all of his time behind a closed door surrounded by hundreds of dusty books. His grandfather was fighting a Hedera. And winning.
The great beast continued to roar and growl and snarl as it tried to dislodge the needle-like knives in its body, while pressing forward to attack the two men. Pethres did not hesitate or flinch as he drew another dagger from somewhere within his tana and flicked it again at the beast, taking it in the leg. The Hedera nearly collapsed as its leg gave out. Kirelons' grandfather seemed to know exactly where to hit the beast to cause the most damage. There must be a pressure point or something right there on the leg, Kirelon thought as he watched his grandfather in awe. How long has he been able to do this? Who is my grandfather, really? Kirelon had never thought of the chamberlain as anything more than a strange old man who liked reading. Apparently, that perception was wrong.
The Hedera was almost in a blind fury as it stumbled about the ravine, knocking over stones and ripping out vegetation with its great wings and legs. Finally, as Pethres' last dagger stabbed right into its chest, it gave up and bellowed a final angry cry, then launched itself as gracefully as it could off of a large boulder and soared away into the night.
Kirelon watched as grandfather's posture returned to normal, becoming more stooped and less confident. Kirelon hadn't even noticed the old man's shift in stance, so focused was he on the Hedera, but now that he looked back, he could remember flashes of Pethres, standing tall and firm, flicking daggers at the most dangerous beast in the world as if it was simply target practice.
"Grandfather," Kirelon said after a moment of silence. "That was amazing. Where did you learn to do that?"
Pethres turned to him, his face mottled with anger. "You don't deserve to know the answer to that question, boy. You're lucky I was here, or else you would be dead and your corpse would be stripped to the bone by now. What are you, a child? You just stood there! Show some backbone, Kirelon."
Kirelon stood with his mouth agape, confused and slightly ashamed. "I..." He didn't know what to say. What could he say? "Grandfather, I didn't even have a weapon!" he blurted finally.
"And what kind of an excuse is that? You're not always going to have a weapon, you fool. You don't just stand and stare while someone else fights your battles for you."
Kirelon sighed. What would I have done if I'd had my sword? Nothing useful, I imagine. I barely know how to hold it, much less how to kill something with it. "I'm sorry, grandfather. I don't really know how to fight all that well. I haven't really had occasion to."
Pethres swore then, a bitter, vulgar word that made Kirelon blush to the roots of his hair. "Then what in the name of Chridius are you doing out here by yourself? It's not safe."
"Grandfather," Kirelon said, growing a trifle irritated. "I've climbed all over these mountains ever since I was a boy. I know how to get around, and how to avoid the wild animals. Most of them are harmless."
"Things are changing, Kirelon," Pethres said through clenched teeth. "The mountains are getting dangerous."
"Well, I can see that, now!" Kirelon almost shouted. "How was I supposed to know there would be a Hedera out here? They never come this close to Argosson!"
"I don't have time for this," Pethres said. He reached out and took the lantern back from Kirelon's hands, then turned and stalked back up the ravine. "Find your own way back to the airship."
What has gotten into him? Kirelon thought as he watched his grandfather leave. Just a minute before he was as calm as could be. And where is he even going? He never told me why he was out here... The blackness began to envelop him once more as the light from the old man's lantern got farther away. Once Pethres turned a corner, Kirelon was left with only what meager stars were twinkling in the partially clouded sky to guide him. The young Speaker picked his way back down the ravine and to the clearing where he had left his airship, still thinking about the events of the previous several hours. His inner turmoil over the needs of the Lower City and the Council's refusal to do anything about it had come to a sort of equilibrium, and he felt calmer now, more able to think rationally about the whole situation. In hindsight, the way he had acted in the council chambers had been immature and wildly inappropriate, and he probably owed his parents and the entire council an apology. He wasn't going to get anywhere if he acted like a spoiled child, least of all forward.
He reached his secret place and found his airship waiting for him, still tied securely to one of the trees closest to the cliff's edge. He climbed aboard and rummaged around in his things for a tinder, flint, and his lantern, then lit the wick and set the light on a hook on the mast, illuminated the area to make it easier for him to get his ship prepared for flight. He untied the rope, hoisted the sail, and then pushed off, heading for Argosson.
It took him the better part of two hours to navigate in the dark around Olcaen and back to the city proper, even with his lantern, which he focused into a single beam with its leather hood to light the way ahead. When he finally moored the ship in the Clouds and made the way to his quarters, it was only a few hours until dawn. He was thoroughly exhausted as he pulled the fur blankets over his aching body, and didn't even bother to take off his scale boots. Moments later, he was asleep.
He awoke to a crash of thunder that shook the walls and made his entire body vibrate. He lay there trembling and sweating, unsure for a moment of where he was or even who he was. Then a bolt of lightning arced through the sky outside his window, permeating the room in brilliant white light for a split second. Kirelon gasped, his eyes going wide.
There was a man standing beside the bed, holding a slender sword to Kirelon’s throat.