He set a slow pace, and this time it wasn’t merely for the human’s sake. He was exhausted though he showed no sign of it. It wasn’t a physical exhaustion, not this trek was hardly enough to tire him, it was a magical one. The fade was strong; it was taking time for his magic to restore now that he’d returned to Acrothene. He’d hoped that at least for their trip from the Western Rises to recover from his own draining and then cast the translation spell on Casey, the spell he’d cast on himself to be able to understand the Upper Worlders would last for a few more days so he could have continued to converse with her without needing to switch her over to speaking Arcana, Acrothene’s language. Kestrel’s arrival though had changed all those plans. Instead he’d had to cast yet more magic when his body had only recovered a little leaving him at near empty once again.
Well he was lucky that no one knew that spell anymore. After all everyone in Acrothene spoke Arcana, the idea of other languages had long become a distant concept to them. So what was the point of a spell to learn them? No, there was no way Kestrel noticed what kind of spell he used, but she had noticed the spell certainly. He’d have to come up with more lies to feed her though she didn’t really seem to believe them. She certainly hadn’t bought the amnesia story Grin made up. Really, not one of his better lies. But the bird brain just had to arrive then, what was she even doing here? He was fairly certain she’d had a mission more toward the Center Region than this. Well she’d explain herself later, when Casey wasn’t around no doubt since she would not trust any information of even slight relation to their group around a human. Though he wouldn’t put it past her to hear he’d been seen and fly off to find him if she didn’t find her job important. He’d spoiled her far too much, her discipline was poor and her silly infatuation with him was getting out of hand. No matter though, she still obeyed direct orders and her loyalty was unquestionable. If he told her to speak of this to no one she would.
Not that in her wildest speculations she would come close to guessing the truth of just where Casey had come from. She’d lived her whole life in the Lower Levels; Acrothene was the only world that existed for her. But too many stories reaching other ears might be bad. He wasn’t sure how thorough those Upper Levelers education really was nowadays.
Plots and plans pooled through his mind as he and Casey made their slow descent. She initially had continued to voice doubts about continuing without waiting for Kestrel but now she was too focused on navigating her way in the darkness which was surely not something she was used to considering the world she came from. He wasn’t worried about it; he knew Kestrel would find them. There was no need to waste time waiting for her to report back what direction to head. Whichever way shelter was, it was first of all down. So he pushed Casey to keep moving, ignoring her occasional grunts and swears as her already bruised body was pushed on through more climbing and on occasion falling. The Western Rises were not too bad compared to some of the other areas which existed in Acrothene but Casey was obviously not used to any kind of vigorous activity.
So their progress was pleasantly if frustratingly slow to him. Thus they hadn’t progressed too far when he heard the sound of wings which told him Kestrel was returning. It was how he’d known to jump out of the way of her attempt to tackle him when she appeared the first time. Like then her wings beat swiftly marking her to be in a hurry, but the beat was slightly off from before. Less driven and more… panicked. This would not be good. It had been far too short a time for Kestral to have found someplace for them to stay considering what he knew of the terrain of the Western Rises, and he was quite familiar with them. Still it had been a few years since he last visited, perhaps something had changed, and from Kestrel’s quick return and panicked pace it wasn’t something good.
Grin tensed and held out a hand to Casey to stop her progress behind him. “Kestrel’s back, wait.” He said simply his eyes searching the skies and quickly finding the white blur that solidified into the young woman as she approached. While her face was collected and dead pan he could tell something was off. He’d known her almost her whole life so it was easy to read her. “You found someplace?” He asked calmly as she hovered in front of them, stirring a wind in the otherwise still air.
“Yeah, it definitely fits the bill you asked for.” Kestrel said nonchalantly. She wouldn’t let herself appear uneasy in front of a human of course. Still she leaned in closer, clawed feet scrambling for a purchase to whisper a quick message. “You’re going to want to see this I think.” With message passed she pushed away, giving up attempting to stand on the steeply sloped ground. “Ugh this place is ridiculous! I don’t see why in the world you even came here! It’s so difficult to find a place good enough to stand!” She complained loudly, hiding her feelings behind a mask of whining.
“Agreed.” Casey sighed, slipping a little downward as she tried to sit. Kestrel gave her a disgusted look which Casey ignored as she regained her balance. “So which direction are we heading?” It seemed the young woman had gotten over her initial shock enough to speak in Kestrel’s presence, something which she hadn’t been able to do earlier. He was amused at how clearly her expressions showed on her face. She was on poor footing not just physically. But she was trying her hardest to appear like it was all no big deal to her. Grin wondered how long she could keep that up.
Smiling at her efforts he turned to her with the answer she likely least wanted to hear. “Well down of course.”
It took them longer to get there than it had taken Kestrel to arrive and come back but they didn’t have the advantage of flight. Several times on the way down Kestrel had to practically carry Casey down some parts to her disgust. She made a big deal after each time of wiping away at any part that had touched the human girl, something which judging from her face was causing growing bitterness in Casey. By the time they reached the spot the two were doing nothing but glaring at each other. It was utterly immature and ridiculous but at least they were keeping it to only dirty looks. Grin already had one unexpected guest on his arrival to Acrothene, he didn’t want to attract any others since they were highly unlikely to be allies.
Their destination though stopped all the glaring as all three of them stared at what was before them. A huge chunk of solid rock was completely ripped through revealing a strange structure inside. It was hard to decide which deserved more importance, the gashes or what they had revealed.
The structure was only partly revealed but it was obviously some kind of long abandoned and buried ruin. A few of the elegant columns had been broken when the stone which had covered it ripped open but most of the structure seemed intact. There had been a good five feet between the stone which had hidden the ruin and the start of the man made parts. It seemed to have been carved right into the side of the structure, beautiful architecture that was definitely the result of expert stone mages. Probably an elemental considering how naturally and delicately the work was done, the untouched stone around it completely at peace with the worked stone.
A line of columns spread across the threshold to the structure with beautiful arches spread over them. Both columns and arches were covered in realistic carvings, tiny figures and small creatures showing off great feats of magic and the beauty of magical beings and nature. Particularly in the arches was a repeated theme of the heavens, the sun and moon and stars. Beyond the boundary they made was a forum, open space about 15 feet deep and 20 feet across. Like the columns and arches it reached upward about two stories high, a neat rectangle of open space with nothing on the smooth stone floors. The three walls though were different, they were covered in carvings except one dark square on the far wall which was an open hall leading into the mountain. Unlike the columns though these carvings were not decorative art, no what was carved into the walls from ceiling to floor were runes. A writing older than Arcana. These runes all glowed with a soft yellow light. This light illuminated the scene they were witnessing since the it was too vast for them to have seen it all if it had remained as dark as it had been.
The structure itself was rather small and not really the problem. No the thing about the spot that was so vast were the tears in the side of the mountain. Grin examined the gashes which had opened up this ruin to the air once again and noticed that while the first layer of stone, a good 3 feet thick, had been brought up with magic, but the next 10 feet had been natural growing of the stone over it. If not for whatever had ripped the mountain apart this place would have likely stayed hidden for all of time. So what had torn through the stone in this way to reveal it? 13 feet of solid stone torn through at such a size…
“Those, those look like claw marks…” Casey said voice barely a whisper as she stared up. Yes, only one gash revealed the ruin, there were more above it, spaced out so that it did indeed appear to be claw marks, like a monster had run horrendous talons across the surface unexpectedly revealing the treasure within. The smallest cut was wider than he was tall at the widest point, and long as at least two of him. The one which had revealed the ruin, well it was a whole lot bigger.
“Do you think this is related to those rumors?” Kestrel asked inching close to Grin looking nervous as her eyes unlike Casey’s watched the darkness around them rather than the devastation in front. “It doesn’t really matter to our purposes I guess but this would definitely be proof that it is true…”
“Whatever caused this has provided us a very convenient place to stay.” Grin said ignoring Kestrel’s implications. They would talk about it later. “Let’s not waste the opportunity.” He stepped under the arches, entering the open space that began the ruin. He handed his bag to Kestrel who had followed him, her own small talons making soft clicking on the floor but leaving not even a scratch on the hard stone. Another tell of the ability of whatever had opened this place up. Besides size it no doubt also had great strength. “I’m going to examine these, feed the human.” He said almost absently as he moved to the walls. He only half heard the following conversation as he examined the glowing runes, gloved fingers moving over them with a gentle touch.
“’Feed the human’? He talks like he’s not human himself.” Casey grumbled obviously indignant at the treatment of being something like a pet. Kestrel’s tone in her reply was utterly disgusted.
“He isn’t of course you nit wit human. Seriously? Either you really are clueless or just a terrible actor.”
“What? You mean, but I mean he looks, um, er, I’m sorry?” Casey stumbled through responses. “Well then, um if it isn’t rude to ask, what is he? And you too?”
“Ugh, why do I have to deal with this. Stop asking stupid questions. I mean it’s obvious just looking at me that I’m a harpy, really the act’s getting sickening, just stop it. And if you can’t tell what he is there’s no way I’m telling you.” Kestrel spat and then growled what probably was not entirely meant to be heard by the human girl “Not while your wearing his clothes you slut.”
“Oh yeah, a harpy, of course. Ha ha.” Casey’s voice was reeling with the revelation. “So I guess we’re camping here until the sun rises?”
“So-un? What?” Kestrel this time was the one confused.
“Um the thing in the sky?”
“Sk-i? Oh Light, you really are broken, it’s not an act. You’re talking nonsense and weird stuff.” Kestral’s voice went from confused disbelief to pitying horror. “Here, this is fooood, you put it in your mouth and chew it, like this-“
“I know what food it! Give me it!” As the two girls snacked no doubt on the dried food which had been in his bag there was finally some silence though it didn’t continue past an exaggerated gulp sound from Casey. “Ugh, the taste… Well beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Sorry this isn’t some Upper Level delicacy highness.” Kestrel grumbled around her own mouthful.
“Kestrel, don’t talk with your mouth full.” Grin said stepping away from the wall to head over and grab a bite himself. Kestrel’s face flushed a little red and her eyes went to the floor in face of his admonishment.
“Yes sir. Sorry sir.” She said dejected before Casey’s curious eyes. The girl obviously found something interesting about what was happening, but from what he’d learned of her during their short time together so far was that she was curious about everything so he didn’t pursue what she was thinking about now. Instead he moved to the walls on the other side. He was pretty sure he knew exactly what this place was and now it was more his own curiosity that had him reading. It was always so interesting to see what words people wanted to last forever.
“So we’re going to sleep down in there right? It certainly seems flat enough.” Casey said breaking the silence. Grin’s head snapped over to her, she already had taken a move toward the hall but froze at Grin’s reaction. “What? Did I say something stupid again?”
“It would be best not to venture too far within the structure.” Was all Grin said and Kestrel immediately tensed herself as if preparing to deal with some enemy that awaited them down that dark passage.
“But… It’s too bright to sleep out here.” Casey said a little blankly, obviously confused. Kestrel looked at her like she was insane as she must have sounded to the harpy. Grin suppressed a smile at the confusion Casey’s Upper World statements must be causing. That amusement died though as Casey continued. “And, well what if the thing that made those comes back?”
Real fear laced these words and at them Kestrel stiffened again though for a different reason, obviously feeling some of that fear herself. Grin looked where Casey motioned, the huge gash they’d had to walk through to get to this space. If it was as he and Kestrel suspected then he certainly did not want to have a run in with it now, not when he was still weary and nearly empty from his trip to the Upper World. No, he needed at least a good few hours rest before he could deal with any disasters. “Alright then, but we do not go in too far.” Grin allowed and Casey at least relaxed immensely. Kestrel remained on guard though.
Unlike the entrance with its glowing runes the inside of the structure was dark, only light coming from the runes at the entrance lighting up the inside. This dim light though was enough to tell that these walls were different. They were not carved in any form, but paintings barely even faded despite the long centuries that must have passed. No doubt it helped that this place had been sealed so thoroughly. The scenes where a history, Grin didn’t have any particular interest in these. He doubted it was accurate anyway.
When Casey grabbed the back of his shirt, her human eyes no longer able to pick up any of the light which traveled down the passage, he stopped. He had barely even noticed the growing darkness, he was used to moving through the dark since so much of this world was encased in it. His other senses were as much what he used to navigate as his eyes if not more so. Kestrel likewise was trained, he trained her himself. Well this was good of place as any. “We’ll stop here. Let’s get some sleep. I’ll take first watch, just to be careful.”
“Are you sure? We’ve barely entered, wouldn’t it be better to-“ Kestrel said moving to head past Grin.
“No.” He said shooting out his arm to stop her. “We will not head any farther in. This is fine”
Kestrel gave him a questioning look, but shrugged and nodded. She too realized that Casey couldn’t see if she was being this unguarded.
“Kay. That’s cool. I’m passing out now.” Casey peeped, exhaustion heavy in her voice. She sunk down to the floor and just curled up. Grin wondered if her grabbing him hadn’t been solely do to a loss of sight but also to put inability to remain standing on her own seeing how fast she slipped into sleep. Kestrel though did not follow her example. She waited awhile though, sitting crouched forward, wings tucked around her body warming her up as she looked at the human confused.
“What’s cool? There hasn’t been any change in temperature. At first I was sure you were joking about the memory loss thing but now… She definitely talks like a crazy person. What in the world is with her?” She said looking up at Grin who remained standing, her eyes completely trusting.
“Nothing much. I just was curious so brought her along. It was really rather immature of me really considering my age.” Grin said with a smile as he reflected on his own actions.
“Why couldn’t you have gotten curious about a guy instead.” Kestrel muttered shooting Casey a look. Her breathing had become deep and even, she was truly asleep. Kestrel’s eyes sharpened and when she turned her attention back to Grin it was all business. “Weird girl aside, those claw marks, they were caused by the Beast right? Rumors have been flying through the Outer Ring of a wild creature has left the Darkness and has been terrorizing remote ranches and farms. Nothing has been confirmed, but everyone is scared. And of course the Guard does nothing but guard just sit inside Acrothene on their asses. It’s not really our business but-“ Kestral bit her lip, frustration all over her face. “It makes me sick.
“If these marks were caused by the Beast from the rumors there’s finally proof something is out there. Of course not like the Guard would come out here to see but the Border Guards would do something, they are not nearly as bad. If we report it to them, and then they would check out the marks, and then they’ll make a report to the Guard… Uuuugh that’s going to take way too long though!” Kestrel said more talking to herself by now than to Grin. “Still we got to do something about this. If the thing is really what made these marks the Border Guards are way too under manned and under powered. I mean, I know it’s not our job but, but-!”
“I understand Kestrel.” Grin said smiling. “I’ll see if I can adjust my busy schedule to fit it in. Besides, something like that would be great publicity wouldn’t it?”
“Thank you sir.” Kestrel said smiling bashfully.
“So that taken care of, what in the name of the Light are you doing out in the Western Rises instead of where you were supposed to be?” Grin said smile gone as he turned a cold eye to the young woman. She jolted a little and looked away unable to meet his eye.
“Eeerm, well you see…”
“Report.” Grin said in the strict tone of a superior officer.
“Well I was supposed to be working in the Outer Ring you know, which is why I know all the rumors about the Beast, but it kind of got boring since there is nothing really out there not like Acrothene and really its not like my continued presence would have really helped out and there were others of our people that were there and I think I probably was getting in their way rather than helping out-“
“Your rambling, I said report.”
“Ehh, well I kind of just decided to track down this Beast myself. I was flying around when I smelled your delicious scent and just had to see you! And isn’t it such a good thing I did? I mean imagine you trying to head down the Rises without my help carrying that dead weight human along with you?” Kestrel rambled on.
“Right, right. You shirked responsibilities in order to fulfill your own pursuits and then abandoned those when you came across a distraction.” Grin said.
“You don’t have to put it like that.” Kestrel said dejected.
“Would I rather instead said you planned to find the Beast which has been causing such a stir, defeat it all by yourself, drag it back to the Outer Ring to show off how powerful you are, and try to impress me and the others with your feat and thus get yourself the more ‘important’ missions you’ve been asking for. But! While wandering around with no idea where to find this Beast you got distracted by a man, a man who last time we were together I believe you called a bastard by the way.”
“So you heard that…”
“Yes, and that man happens to be me who is your superior. Rather than having the shame the gods gave to pixies and returning back to your job you recklessly headed straight to me abandoning your original intentions as well as your original mission. And now that you’ve seen what this Beast is capable of you are having second thoughts on your whole little plan. Would you rather I put it like that? Hmmm?” Grin said smiling at her cheerfully but she refused to look up at him.
“No, no thank you sir.”
“Well then next time I recommend you think about your actions before you act on them. Not that you will, you never do.” Grin said with a sigh.
“Hey that’s not fa-!”