COMING OF AGE: PART ONE
"And what of her contraptions?"
"Those do make me uneasy, and that is a fact."
"Why should being able to glide or fight determine whether or not one is a full member of the clan? Those skills are not so important!"
"Oh, but they are. How can we protect our home if we can't glide or fight?"
"But why should those who CAN'T glide or fight be denied a voice on the council?"
"Whether it be yuir toys that carried the night for ye or no, they will nae be there to help you in the fourth trial."
"I'm so tired of all of you telling me how strong I'm not! I can do this myself. I don't need any help. So just LEAVE ME ALONE!"
"Me, a warrior? Hardly."
"You should not have left her. You and I both know that she could not pass this test alone. Few of our rookery possess stamina of that degree!"
"I give my aid to those who desire it! I will not force it on anyone, even those who need it. Go back for her, if you are so concerned. I do not think she will be pleased to see you."
"If we hurry, we can reach the goal before the elders get here! Won't they be surprised to find all of us there ahead of them?"
Scenes of Roland's band and the gargoyle warriors accompanying them ambushing Angel, Diomedes, and their rookery, minus Goliath and Asrial.
The battle was, by anyone's standards, a rout. Judging by the tales that my winged friends have shared with me, Iago was the only one of Goliath's rookery to fight with any sort of composure (however, I tend to attribute this fact more to the gargoyle's overly suspicious nature than to his combat skills). Had the entire rookery been present, it might have spelled the end of the Wyvern clan. Indeed, it might have spelled the end of Wyvern itself, for these were no ordinary brigands. Along with the rogue Roland and his thieves were a number of gargoyle warriors--and leading these warriors was a gargoyle of surpassing strength and skill, perhaps more formidable a warrior than any other. A warrior I have named Atalanta...
It was, Roland had to admit, a pleasing sound. The cacophony of dull thuds and pained shouts of his hated rookery brothers and sisters being clubbed into unconsciousness was music to his misshapen ears. The music was made all the sweeter by the knowledge that he was getting paid for this. Beating his rookery siblings senseless was an activity he'd gladly have done for free--not that there was any point in informing his employer of that fact, of course.
Roland smiled wistfully as he watched six of his employer's gargoyle warriors tackle an olive-green gargoyle with oily black hair, and thus ending the only real resistance they had met so far. Roland wished that he could have taken a more active hand in the affair, having only had time for a few drubbings before backing off, but someone had to supervise, after all. Besides, there would be plenty of time for that later. Soon, revenge, sweet, sweet revenge would be his. He would treat each and every one of his brothers and sisters to the delightful suffering he had given Asrial weeks ago... Roland frowned thoughtfully. Something still bothered him about that event. Even after years of anticipating his revenge, he simply hadn't enjoyed Asrial's treatment as much as he thought he would. Even bloodying her pretty, pretty face had brought him no real joy, a task that should have been more pleasant than any other. Clearly, he had merely not had enough practice. His session with Asrial had been executed somewhat hastily, with the knowledge that he wouldn't be able to remain hidden forever. Of course, THIS time he would have the leisure he needed to do it right.
Thinking of Asrial did bring one other fact to the rogue's attention. Asrial was plainly not among the gargoyles captured. After a quick inventory (Roland had spent years memorizing the faces of his brothers and sisters) he determined that one other was gone as well, the brawny lavender one. Roland sauntered over to where a group of his men were standing in a circle around a netted and barely conscious Thersites, laughing and kicking the gargoyle from time to time. Grinning broadly, Roland shouted, "Hey now, don't be too rough on him, boys! I want him to have some life left in him when it's my turn to play!" The brigands laughed ribaldly, and stopped their abuse. Thersites weakly tried to crawl to his knees, but a backhanded blow from Roland sent him into unconsciousness. Roland dusted off his hands and continued, "But seriously, men, I've taken a head count, and we're a couple heads short."
"You want us to grab them, Master Roland?" growled a black-haired thief with a ragged scar running from his ear to the tip of his blunt jaw.
"Very good, Brutus," Roland smirked, "You CAN use that head of yours for more than just growing hair. Yes, I want you, and eleven others of your choice to wait behind for the two stragglers."
"Why so many, milord? You think they're gonna give us trouble?"
"The male might. The female shouldn't be any problem--one of you could probably take her down alone. But the male is one of the strongest of the clan. But both will be tired--they'll have just completed the toughest endurance test of their lives. Strike fast, strike hard, and take him by surprise, and you should be able to overwhelm him."
Brutus nodded, and turned to leave. Before he could, though, a thin, wiry brigand known as Twig, asked, "Why don't ye ask her Most Royal Highness tae lend ye one of her loyal servants? A gargoyle'd help even th' odds a bit more, don't ye think?"
Roland pondered this. 'Her Most Royal Highness' referred, of course, to the formidable gargoyle who had hired them. Chafing at her arrogant and short-tempered attitude, Roland's thieves had quickly dubbed her the Queen of the Gargoyles, though none used that title in her presence and escaped unscathed. "I'll tell you why, Twig. It's because I don't trust her, I don't like her, and I'd rather drink hot iron than deal with her more than necessary. With my men on the job, I can be certain that MY orders are followed. Not hers. All of you know by now what it means to disobey my orders, right?" Roland grinned nastily at his men, many of whom swallowed nervously at the sight.
"Of course, Master," Twig hastened. "There's nary a one among us that'd dare disobey yuir orders."
Which was, of course, exactly how Roland liked it.
Contrary to what she had been told many a time, a good cry had not made Asrial feel better. She did not know how much time had passed since she had collapsed upon the rocky beach, but her misery was still as strong. Asrial sat and gazed out to sea, tears marking a wet trail down each cheek, and wondered what to do.
"Rookery sister!" a voice called. Asrial turned her head slightly, just enough to make out a lavender shape gliding in for a landing. "Hello, sister," Goliath hailed gaily once he had touched down. "The others and I were about to start some flying drills, and we were hoping you would join us! You could use a little practice-"
Goliath was cut off, as Asrial's tears became sobs once more. Goliath's gaiety changed to solemnity in a heartbeat. "Why do you cry, my sister?" Asrial made no reply. Goliath's innocent offer had renewed her agony, and she found it difficult to speak. Goliath cautiously approached and placed a hand on her shoulder. Asrial jerked slightly but made no effort to pull away. "Why are you so upset?" Goliath asked.
"Do you have to ask?" Asrial choked out miserably. "I'm going to fail the Rite, no matter how many drills I attend!"
"That is not true!" Goliath answered, though with a trace of hesitation in his reply.
"It is true!" Asrial insisted with a sniffle. "I know it, you know it, and the elders know it! I heard them. They're so sure that they're talking about holding me back another year while the rest of you become adults!"
Goliath was appalled. "That could never happen, my sister! It would be a clear violation of clan law and tradition! The rookery stands and falls as one, and that is as it should be!"
"No, it is not!" Asrial replied glumly. "The elders are right. The rest of you shouldn't have to be punished just because I'm such a failure-"
"You are not-"
"Don't say it! I AM a failure! I can't pass a simple gliding exercise. These claws-"Asrial held up a handful of talons, "These claws are only good for climbing, and barely that! I'm far too weak to wrestle, I can't run very far at all, and when I can keep my face out of the dirt, I'm the slowest glider of the clan! All the evidence points to one thing: I am a worthless, incompetent failure of a gargoyle."
Goliath tried another tack. "Surely there must be something that you can do well? Think, my sister! You've told me everything that you cannot do. Tell me something that you can!"
Asrial laughed bitterly. "There is one thing, but that thing is half the reason I'm the failure I am today. My inventions."
"Inventions?" Goliath asked.
"Stupid, worthless machines made by an equally stupid and worthless gargoyle."
"I've never seen these inventions," Goliath said, interest clear in his voice.
Asrial lost a bit of her black bitterness. "Well, you're the first I've told of them," she answered, a little shyly.
"May I see them? Perhaps they can be of help."
Be of help? Asrial wondered. Her inventions were the problem, not the solution! But Goliath's enthusiasm was catching, and showing Goliath her workshop sounded a good deal more worthwhile than sobbing on the beach. Asrial nodded to her rookery brother, and led him to the cliff side. "My workshop is in a cave above," she said, and began to climb. Goliath soon joined her.
Asrial's workshop was slightly more than halfway up the steepest of the cliffs flanking Castle Wyvern. The young inventor was always exhausted on those instances when she was forced to climb up to it from the base of the cliff, and today was no exception. However, her workshop was, perhaps, the one place Asrial never minded exhausting herself to reach, and so, as she pulled herself, aching and breathless, over the edge of the cave entrance, Asrial released as sigh of contentment. But in spite of her joy, Asrial still felt a distinct twinge of envy when she noticed that Goliath wasn't even breathing deeply.
Asrial lay sprawled at the cave entrance, and flung a tired arm vaguely towards her work area in a sardonic gesture of direction. "Welcome," she said between breaths, "to the source of my sorrows."
Apparently ignoring Asrial's fatalism, Goliath extended a hand to help her to her feet. Asrial waved him off. "Thank you, but I'll just rest here a moment, if you don't mind. Have a look around. I'll join you before long."
Goliath nodded, and turned to examine the workshop. Asrial knew her workplace like the back of her hand, and without even looking knew what Goliath was seeing. The cave was a fairly large example of the recesses dotting the cliffs of Wyvern, extending a good dozen or so yards into the cliff side. In the center of the cave was a large, rough-hewn wooden table, carved by Asrial herself (thoroughly exhausting work, but well worth the effort). This table Asrial always kept immaculately clean, save for when she was using it.
The table, however, represented the only clean object in the entire cave. The floor was littered with inventions, some large, some small, and most half-finished. None of them were abandoned, of course, but whenever Asrial thought of a new idea, she would pounce on it, setting aside her other projects temporarily. Her reasoning was that any half-finished device would itself be enough to remind Asrial exactly what she was thinking when she created it, and thus, she would be able to finish it when she returned to it later. An idea, though, lacked any such physical representation. So, Asrial had to work swiftly to apply that idea to wood and metal, before it had a chance to disappear forever. (Unfortunately, this practice had become one of Asrial's most deeply ingrained habits before she had a chance to learn to write, and long before she discovered the concept of taking notes to preserve those fleeting ideas in a less bulky manner.) This wasn't to say that she had never finished a device. On the contrary, several finished machines littered the floor as well, just as haphazardly as the unfinished.
Along the right wall, a number of thick nails had been pounded into the rock, and from each nail hung a different tool. There were tools of every size and description, including hammers, chisels, saws, tongs, files, and many unnamed tools that Asrial had created herself to fulfill some specific task. The tools were arranged in no particular order, a hammer here, a thingamajig there, but with the heavier tools closest to the floor, where they were far less likely to harm some intricate device should they fall.
The opposite wall was blackened by soot. The source of the soot was a small forge, constructed of stones and mortar, along with a bellows. Asrial did not use the forge frequently, as it was hot, tiring work, but there were times when she needed to shape metal--perhaps to create a new tool, or some oddly shaped part that was, nonetheless, vitally important for one of her devices--and the forge served her well in that regard.
Farthest from the cave entrance was the newest, and perhaps most dangerous addition to her workshop. A natural, waist-high shelf of rock that Asrial had once used as a resting place for a number of her inventions had been cleared off to make room for her alchemical experiments. Asrial had discovered the concept of alchemy when she stumbled across a book on the subject in the library. The text was hopelessly complex, but she was able to puzzle out a few of the simpler reactions demonstrated in its pages--just enough to convince her of two things. First, that alchemy was very dangerous, and second, that it was far too fascinating to give up for that reason alone. Perhaps she would one day be able to discover that which even the greatest alchemists had failed to: The formula for transforming lead into gold. (Lead was, in Asrial's opinion, a much more useful substance than gold, but even she was forced to admit that gold was a great deal more beautiful.)
Thoughts of her alchemical experiments reminded her of something. "Rookery brother," she called, "please stay away from the-"
BAFF! A greasy black cloud of smoke roiled upwards from the back of the lab. "-clay bowls in the back." Asrial climbed shakily to her feet, and was forced to giggle at the sight of Goliath, surprised white eyes blinking at her out of a face covered with soot.
Asrial grabbed a towel and strode across the cave, avoiding every scattered gadget with practiced ease. "What was that?" Goliath asked, accepting the towel.
"To be honest, I'm not sure," Asrial shrugged. "When I started making it, it was supposed to be a powder that burns very brightly. Instead, I got something that burns without a flame to start it, and makes a lot of smoke."
"Without flame?" Goliath asked.
"Right," Asrial answered. "All it needs is to be tapped. See?" Asrial reached out and touched another clay bowl, whose contents abruptly erupted into another cloud of smoke. "You must have nudged it. I'm not sure what I did wrong. I thought I followed the book's directions exactly. But I've been trying to see if I can do it again. This fireless burning is very interesting."
"A book?" Goliath asked, surprised. "You can understand the humans' books?"
"Yes, I can," Asrial answered, with a touch of pride.
"And they taught you to do this..." Goliath seemed lost in thought for a moment. "What else do these books tell you?"
"Oh, what do they NOT tell me?" Asrial sighed, staring off into space her eyes full of unfocused wonder. "Tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, mechanical theories, legends of the Third Race and its dealings with the First and Second, the philosophies and religions the humans have developed to explain their own existence..." Her eyes fastened on Goliath's. "If you can but think of a subject, I would wager that a human somewhere has written of it. There is even a fair chance that a book on the subject rests within the very library of Castle Wyvern."
Goliath thought a moment. "My rookery brother and I were having a discussion the other day about human fighting styles in other lands...might there be such a text?"
"Might there?" Asrial giggled musically. "My brother, many humans spend even more of their time thinking about fighting than do gargoyles. Were you to select a book at random from the library, there is a good chance that you would come away with a book like you describe. But there is so much more to learn, if you could only read the words."
"Then, perhaps, I should take the time to learn how..." Goliath said. Asrial's eyes widened, but before she could say anything, Goliath continued, "But that is a concern for another night. I am here to try to help you, not you I." Goliath reached down and picked up a machine that looked to be finished. "Please, tell me what this is?"
The device in question consisted of a number of pulleys, connected to each other by a tangled mass of ropes. Asrial took it from Goliath. "This? This is my lifter. Here, I'll show you how it works." Quickly untangling the ropes, the device resolved itself into two sets of four pulleys, with a hook on each set. Asrial hung one set from a ring placed in the ceiling, and hooked the other to a broken anvil, one of the few objects scattered on the floor that was not a device of some kind. "Can you lift that anvil, my brother?"
Goliath walked over to the dull black object and eyed it dubiously. It looked extremely heavy. The brawny gargoyle bent down and grasped it. Indeed, it was very heavy, and Goliath was only able to lift it a few feet before dropping it to the ground, panting.
Asrial looked impressed. "You ARE a strong one! That anvil has to weigh three or four times as much as you do!"
"Perhaps...in a few years...I will be able...to lift it properly," Goliath gasped. "How did you ever manage to get it into this cave?"
"Watch," Asrial answered. She began to draw on the rope. Goliath watched as the ropes tightened around each of the pulleys, and then, amazed, as the broken anvil first left the ground and then slowly rose toward the ceiling. Goliath's eyes flashed to Asrial. The young gargoyle was methodically pulling on the rope, amassing quite a pile of it behind her, but looked not at all strained.
After she had lifted the anvil twice as far as Goliath had managed, Asrial released the rope. The anvil dropped like the massive chunk of metal it was, pulleys squealing as the rope was drawn back through them, until it struck the stone floor of the cave with a clunk. Asrial dusted off her hands and said, "With more pulleys, the lifting becomes easier, but requires more pulling. The humans have been using lifting devices like this for a long time. Castle Wyvern itself was built using them, as I'm sure any elder could tell you." Asrial suddenly looked crestfallen. "But to a gargoyle, it is a useless toy. How often does a gargoyle find a weight that needs lifting that he or she cannot lift alone?"
"But that is just what you need!" Goliath answered. "Do you recall the climbing test of the Rite?"
Asrial immediately grimaced. Any gargoyle could climb with ease, but the climbing test required that the gargoyle climb while burdened with his or her own weight in stones. Years of skipping out on training had done nothing to improve Asrial's upper body strength, as she had discovered to her chagrin many times in the past few weeks. Then her expression brightened. "Are you suggesting-"
"The rules of the trial do not specify how you bring the stones to the top of the cliff, so long as you do it in only one climb," Goliath nodded.
Asrial laughed, and climbed onto the anvil. "Why, my weight barely makes a difference at all!" she cried as the lifted herself and the anvil into the air. "I could do it with only three pulleys! Perhaps just two! What a wonderful idea! What else can we find?" Asrial added, finally beginning to realize the potential of her accumulated machinery.
"This looks like a weapon," Goliath said, indicating a contraption of wood, metal, and twine as long as Goliath's arm, and as wide. "A crossbow, in fact."
"It is a crossbow of sorts," Asrial answered.
"Why is it so large?" Goliath asked.
"Well, humans use crossbows mostly because they require less effort to draw than regular bows do, even though crossbow quarrels do not strike as hard as arrows do. But I know that any gargoyle is strong enough to draw the sturdiest of human bows--even I can. So, I thought that I'd try to build a crossbow that was as difficult to draw as I could manage. This crossbow can fire as far and strike as hard as most longbows."
"And it could make short work of most straw dummies, don't you agree?" Goliath asked.
Asrial smiled realizing that, with a few alterations, the large crossbow would, in fact, help her to overcome the decimation test in record time. "That it would."
As the young inventor continued to sort through her gadgetry, she couldn't help but wonder at her good fortune. How could she have been so blind? How could she have thought that these devices were useless? Asrial had constructed most of her inventions for their own sake, because she had found some concept in a book that she wanted to try, or because some idea struck her on its own. But she had never considered the possibility that they might have other uses as well. Obviously, she had needed a fresh perspective, and a good, stiff dose of self-confidence, and Goliath had given her both. She owed the male a great deal, whether or not his ideas were enough to help her through the Rite.
The first thing Hudson became aware of when he finally regained consciousness was that he was tied up. Clearly, this implied that someone was holding him captive. While this was not a state Hudson had frequently found himself in over the years, he still knew very well how to act under such conditions. First, never let your captors know that their captive is awake before you're good and ready. So, Hudson continued to lie perfectly still, feigning unconsciousness. Second, check and see whether or not your captors know how to tie knots. Subtly straining against his bonds, Hudson soon determined that they were very well tied, and that the ropes were quite strong. Third, try to determine as much as possible from your other senses before using your eyes. Hudson could tell that he was lying on packed earth. His ears told him that a steady wind was blowing, but, as he could not feel it, he decided he was in a shelter or tent of some kind. His nose could pick out the scent of unwashed men, and of gargoyles as well, though which scents were prisoners and which were captors, he could not tell. He could hear talking coming from outside the shelter, but the bits and snippets of conversation he managed to pick out were thoroughly unenlightening.
Hudson sighed. Fourth, when no other source of information is handy, it rarely hurts to ask. Hudson summoned his anger, sat up and roared, eyes flaring white. His eyes soon focused on a greasy-looking, unshaven human, who was standing by the entrance to the shelter (the shelter was, in fact, a tent). The human flinched, but otherwise showed no reaction to Hudson's rage. Clearly, this human was made of pretty stern stuff. "What is th' meaning of this?!" Hudson demanded. "Who are ye? Why have ye taken me?"
The human's only response was to lean out the tent door and call in a raspy voice, "Hey, Master! The brown, older one is awake!"
A few moments later, a spiny, clawed hand brushed open the tent flap, admitting a hideous figure all too familiar to Hudson. "It's you! Th' Rogue!"
"At your service," Roland answered, with a mocking bow. "Did you have a nice nap?"
Hudson ignored the question, choosing instead to scowl deeply and ask, "So, have ye come tae do tae me what ye did tae th' young lass?"
"I'm hurt that you think so little of me!" Roland answered in a pained tone of voice. "I would never treat the leader of my former clan so poorly. My dear brothers and sisters, on the other hand..." Roland trailed off, a malicious gleam in his eyes. "But you, I have no grudge against. In truth, I am but a humble mercenary. You would not even be here, were my men and I not being paid handsomely for your presence."
"And what coward holds yuir purse, then?" asked Hudson.
"I hold his purse," a powerful alto voice responded. The tent flap opened once more, and a truly imposing gargoyle entered. "And you would be wise to choose more careful words than 'coward' to describe me." The newcomer was the tallest female Hudson had yet to meet, possibly even as tall as Goliath. While she was not as thickly muscled as the lavender gargoyle, she appeared nonetheless to be extremely powerful, her muscles rippling underneath her tawny yellow skin. The gargoyle's wings, though caped, could be seen to possess only one rib apiece, a rarity among gargoyles without webbed wings. Each of her winghands possessed only two fingers, curved toward each other like pincers. Her face was beautiful, but it was a fierce beauty that implied that looking beautiful was not high on her list of priorities. Her horns were saw-edged blades, a hand's span in length, pushing through thick hair of nearly the same color as her skin, though, perhaps, a shade darker. Her hair was long and unbound, falling behind her back to where her tail began. That tail seemed particularly long and thin, almost whiplike, and it ended in a bony knife edge that had clearly been sharpened. The imposing gargoyle wore a battered, but clean bronze breastplate on her chest, covering a tunic and short skirt of soft leather. Her forearms were encased in bronze bracers from the wrists to the elbow spikes, which ended in blunt, bronze points. Over one of her shoulders could be seen the hilt of an enormous, jagged sword, as well as the feathered ends of a quiver of arrows. On her other shoulder was slung a huge longbow. Around her neck, oddly, was hung a thin golden chain ending in a beautiful teardrop of turquoise. For a moment, Hudson thought he had merely imagined the necklace, so out of place it seemed on a gargoyle with such a plain disregard for personal decoration.
The gargoyle who would be named Atalanta spoke again. "But I will forgive you this once, for you are correct." The female warrior's face darkened. "The methods by which you and your young charges were taken were almost unforgivably cowardly. Were it not absolutely necessary, you would NEVER see me dealing with scum like this." Atalanta gestured offhandedly towards Roland. The thief tensed slightly, but any other reaction to Atalanta's blatant insult was hidden by the mask he used to hide his hideous face.
Hudson hid his disappointment. He had hoped that his capture had been a lone one, but it seemed that the participants in the Trial of the Warrior had been taken as well. "And why would ye be 'taking' anyone at all? I don't know ye, and I cannae think of a reason why our clan should be an enemy of yuirs."
"No, you do not know us," Atalanta smiled. "But we know you. Our clan has had our eye on your clan for some time. And we liked what we saw. Your Castle Wyvern appears to be an ideal place to live. So, we have chosen to take it. Once the current occupants are removed, of course." A homeless clan, then, Hudson decided. A wandering clan of gargoyles that had finally decided to settle down. A pity that they chose Wyvern for their new home.
"And, of course," Roland suddenly broke in with a dark smile, "when her clan learned that I knew exactly when the leader of Clan Wyvern and an entire generation of the youngest, strongest warriors would be away from the castle, and vulnerable, well...let us merely say that my services suddenly seemed very desirable. And this isn't the first time that her clan has been 'desperate' enough to work with 'scum like me'."
Hudson could practically see Atalanta's hackles rising. "Silence, wretch!" Roland bowed his head with mock subservience. "Whatever the case, thief, we will not be needing your 'services' much longer." Atalanta addressed Hudson once more. "Tomorrow, you and your fellow clan members will spend the night in the care of the thief and his men. I will take my warriors, and together we will crush what gargoyles remain at Wyvern. Without a leader, and lacking so many fighters, I anticipate it will be an easy battle," Atalanta finished, a trifle sourly. Clearly, an easy battle was not her greatest desire.
Roland suddenly looked a tad uncomfortable. "Wait a moment, lady. An attack was never part of the plan-"
"I am making it part of the plan," Atalanta answered, a trifle impatiently. "For too long, our clan has contented itself by just watching, never doing. That will change, with the setting of the morrow's sun. Wyvern will be ours by the following dawn."
"And what of the humans who make the castle their home?" Hudson asked, curiously. "Surely ye donnae think they'll welcome you with open arms? They care little enough for the gargoyles they have."
"The humans do not concern me," Atalanta scoffed. "Any who interfere will die. Any who question our presence at Wyvern will die. It seems quite simple to me."
Hudson wasn't so sure. Killing humans, he knew, was seldom a simple matter. The fact remained that there were many more humans than gargoyles, and that humans didn't turn to stone with the rising sun. Even if Atalanta were to destroy every human for miles around Wyvern (especially if she did, in fact), humans would cause problems for her later. However, Hudson doubted that Atalanta would care to have this fact pointed out to her. It seemed quite obvious that she considered humans to be beneath her notice. A movement caught the corner of Hudson's eye, and he focused on Roland, who was frowning with concern. The spiny gargoyle appeared to share Hudson's misgivings to at least some degree.
Hudson turned back to Atalanta. "Ye cannae possibly think ye'll get away with this, do ye?"
"I don't see why not," Atalanta shrugged. "None of you are expected to return from your 'Trial of the Warrior' until well into tomorrow night. By the time anyone suspects there is anything wrong, it will be far too late for them. And the castle is woefully low on warriors. After all, you and an entire generation of your clan's warriors-to-be are all conveniently tied up here."
"An entire generation, minus two," Roland corrected.
"What?" Atalanta asked distastefully.
"Two of them had not arrived by the time we attacked. I left a group of my men behind to catch them when they do finally arrive."
"Bah, I wouldn't trust your men to catch colds," Atalanta sneered. "But two gargoyles can hardly make a difference. Should they come here, they will be taken. If they return to the castle, they will die in the battle tomorrow." Atalanta abruptly turned to leave. "I have many things to plan for tomorrow's attack," she said.
"Wait," Hudson said. "Should ye succeed in taking Wyvern, what of our eggs? Would ye destroy them as well?"
"Of course not!" Atalanta said sharply, turning at the waist to glare at Hudson. "To destroy a clans eggs would be...barbaric." Atalanta grinned again, and this time, Hudson could get a clear look at her razor sharp fangs. There were far too many teeth in that grin for Hudson's liking. "Do not worry about your eggs. They will not be the first rookery that my clan has...adopted." Atalanta laughed at Hudson's horrified look. "Farewell, leader of the Wyvern Clan. At least, fare as well as you can under the circumstances." Atalanta strode out of the tent.
"Is this what ye wanted, lad?" Hudson bit out at Roland, who by now was looking very disturbed. "Yuir former clan slaughtered, and its eggs taken? And the humans exterminated like vermin?"
Roland looked taken aback for the briefest of moments. Then, angrily, he shouted, "I do not owe you, your clan, or the humans anything, my EX-leader!" Perhaps a trifle hastily, Roland exited the tent with a flourish of his cape, snarling, "I have my own plans to make."
Hudson sighed, and settled back, his mind plagued with worry. He wondered which were the two gargoyles Roland had mentioned were still at large. Whoever they were, he wished them luck. They were going to need it. All of them were going to need it.
While not every invention in Asrial's workshop turned out to have a practical use, the young inventor and her companion found many that did. Some were extremely obvious, once the possibility of using her inventions for practical applications had been pointed out to her. There were some that even Goliath could see no possible application for, but Asrial, nonetheless, set aside for use in the coming Rite.
The weeks passed, and the gargoyles of Asrial's rookery trained harder and harder for the tests they would soon face. Asrial, too, attended a number of these training sessions, partly to get her concerned rookery siblings off of her back, and partly because Goliath asked her to. Participating in the training that she should have been doing all along seemed a small price to pay for the tremendous favor her lavender friend had granted her. However, whenever she had a spare moment, Asrial returned to her workshop to practice using her devices. The elders, whenever one or more happened to catch sight of Asrial dashing from place to place, rarely failed to shake their heads in pity and disappointment. Asrial could barely retrain herself from grinning in response. They were all in for a big surprise. She hoped.
The day that the Rite of Adulthood was to begin finally arrived. The first test was, perhaps, the easiest for the young gargoyles to understand and execute. The decimation test presented each participant with a simple straw dummy. (The dummies were crude enough so that they could have represented either humans or gargoyles, but nevertheless, enough humans were made uneasy by the event that the elders had long ago agreed to hold that particular trial a good distance away from the castle.) Points were awarded based upon the skill and technique used in decimating the dummy, but the most points were granted for speed. Asrial intended to be the fastest of her rookery.
"What is that?" the Leader of the Wyvern clan asked, as Asrial dragged her oversized crossbow into position.
"It looks like a crossbow," answered his mate and second.
Hudson scowled at her. "I know what it looks like!" he replied impatiently. Addressing Asrial, he asked, "What do ye intend to do with that, then, lass?"
"Destroy the dummy, of course," Asrial answered, grunting as she pulled on the windlass, dragging the cord taut and locking it into place.
Hudson shook his head sorrowfully. Already Asrial was off to a bad start. She was not the first gargoyle to try to use a weapon in the decimation trial, but all those that had tried quickly found that claws were the most effective weapon a gargoyle had. And a crossbow, no matter how large...poking holes in a straw dummy would do little to harm it.
"You may begin, girl," Deborah commanded.
With a fierce smile, Asrial flipped the trigger on her large device. Impossibly fast, the enormous shaft hissed through the air to plunge into and through the straw dummy. But here, Hudson's prediction failed. For on the tail of the oversized quarrel, Asrial had attached a pair of iron hooks, and these hooks snagged the straw of the dummy's midsection, ripping it free of its wooden mounting and sending its makeshift limbs fluttering to the ground in a hail of loose straw. Quarrel and torso continued to sail through the air, until the quarrel struck a tree and buried itself to half its length in the wood. The remnants of the dummy's torso smacked into the tree and burst in a shower of straw.
"By the Dragon..." a grey elder with a prominent beak whispered, staring with saucer eyes at the carnage left in the wake of Asrial's device.
He was not the only one gawking. Hudson and Deborah, along with many of Asrial's rookery siblings (including, to her immense satisfaction, Iago) were wide-eyed with amazement. Hudson abruptly cleared his throat. "Well, it seems that ye've passed, girl. And then some."
"But, she used a weapon!" protested young Iago, beginning to glare at Asrial and her large crossbow with a fair bit of envy.
"Aye, that she did," responded Deborah. "And if ye manage tae use a weapon as well as she, so be it. But th' fact remains that that dummy will nae soon play the pipes again, and that is all we asked of her."
The decimation test was only the beginning. Asrial proceeded to pass test after test with fair ease. She was the first to reach the bottom of the hill in the downhill racing test, the small, wheeled platforms she wore on hands and feet speeding her to victory. She was the first to get a fire burning in the fire starting test (Asrial was especially chagrined to think that she never imagined using her crank-operated Firestarter in the fire starting test). She was the last to carry the stones to the top of the cliff in the climbing test--it took time to load every stone into a basket, and then to climb the cliff without them to mount pulley and rope at the top of the cliff, time that her rookery siblings used to climb burdened with their own loads--but she did bring them up.
There were a few tests that not even Asrial's inventions could help her pass. For the flying test, Asrial was forced to depend on her own skill, skill that had been improved only slightly by her last-minute training. She did equally poorly on the uphill race, her wheels proving useless for the task. But the tests she passed far outnumbered those that she did not, and she passed many of them with astounding scores.
Finally, the sky began to lighten with the coming dawn, signaling the end of the Rite of Adulthood. The young gargoyles, every one exhausted from the nights exertions, gathered around the leader of the clan. "Lads and lasses, there comes a time in the life of every creature, whether it runs on four legs, stands upon two, or rides the wind, that that creature must prove able to survive alone. The life of a gargoyle provides no exception to this unbreakable law. But the life of a gargoyle does provide one thing that few other beasts can promise: ye have yuir clan. While ye must be able to stand alone, so long as ye are true tae yuir clan, ye'll never have to. Protect yuirself, protect yuir home, and most of all protect each other, and know that yuir brothers and sisters will do the same. That is what it means tae be clan. That is the Gargoyle Way."
Hudson's eyes passed over the expectant young gargoyles, his gaze lingering on Asrial for only the briefest of moments. "Stand or fall, ye are clan. In victory or defeat, ye are clan. As a rookery, ye must succeed as one, or not at all." Hudson's eyes dropped to the ground for a moment. "It shames me to admit that I had almost forgotten that simple truth. But in spite of my doubts, it is with great pleasure that I proclaim ye this night--all of ye--to be hatchlings nae longer! Welcome to adulthood." Hudson smiled wryly, "Ye'll soon wish ye could go back."
"Isn't THAT the truth," Thersites muttered, rubbing his sore wings to try to bring some life back into the tired muscles. But no one could hear him. Everyone was far too busy cheering loudly, crying with joy and embracing each other warmly. For they were now adults. More importantly, they were adults of the clan. As long as they had each other, they would never be alone.
As Goliath finished his narrative, he was pleased to see that Asrial was smiling at the fond memory he had just invoked. "Do not forget our leader's words, my rookery sister," he said. "You are a part of the clan--a valuable part, as you have shown time and again. Your clan will always be there to help you when you need it, but you must be willing to accept that help when it is offered. Where would you be now, had I not helped you those many years ago? And what would have become of me had you not been there to help me from time to time in the years following? It is only by working together that we survive. 'That is what it means to be clan. That is the Gargoyle Way.'"
Asrial sighed. "You're right, of course. I shouldn't have let the others get to me like that--particularly since they were only trying to help. It was foolish of me to think that I could single-handedly conquer a test that hardly anyone could pass alone."
"It took a great deal of courage for you to try," Goliath offered. Then he smiled an impish half smile. "A great deal of courage, and a great deal of stubbornness. But you can hardly be faulted for that. There is not a one of us that is perfect, and our kind has never been short on stubbornness."
"True," Asrial answered ruefully. "I am just glad that I have someone to recognize my stubbornness before it sends me marching off of a cliff."
Goliath stood and offered Asrial his hand. She accepted it, pulling herself to her feet. Rather than releasing his hand, however, the young inventor surprised Goliath by pulling him into an embrace. "Thank you for being there for me, my brother," she murmured in a heartfelt tone. Hesitantly, and with a touch of awkwardness, Goliath returned her embrace.
After a moment, Asrial released Goliath. Shifting her attention in the quick manner she was legendary for, Asrial whirled on one heel to face the cliff wall, leaving Goliath a bit befuddled. "Well, we'd best get started, if we're going to stand any chance of reaching the goal before morning," she stated brightly, thunking a handful of claws into the rocky wall. "I have my strength again, and I've held you back long enough. Let's move!"
"Of course," answered Goliath, quite relieved to see his rookery sister back to her old self. He joined Asrial on the cliff wall, and the two of them began to climb.
The thief who went by the name Brutus crouched quietly in the low hanging branches of one of the trees that surrounded the area where the Wyvern gargoyles had been captured earlier that day. Brutus was not his true name, of course. Barely any of Roland's thieves were known by their original names, having discarded them in favor of names or nicknames they either chose for themselves or were saddled with by the other thieves. The scarred thief had chosen the name Brutus because he liked the primal, brutish sound to it, and had fought for the right to keep it (many had felt that 'Scar' would have been more appropriate, but Brutus was quick to point out the error in their judgement). He was a man who liked to start fights, and was far more likely than most to finish them. But he wasn't a man known for his patience, and right now his was wearing pretty thin.
"Any sign of 'em, Patch?" the black-haired thief called up to the one-eyed thief in the branches far above him. Patch (a thief who hadn't been lucky or tough enough to win his own name) had lost one of his eyes in a bar brawl many years before, but he more than made up for the loss with eagle-like vision in his remaining eye. The fact was a mixed blessing, however, as it meant that the man was nearly always chosen for lookout duty, as was the case that night.
"Sorry, Brutus, nothing," Patch sighed.
Brutus growled, and began to pick the dirt out from beneath his fingernails with the point of his dagger. "I don't think those two strays are coming," he muttered, loudly enough for the concealed thieves to hear. None bothered to answer. None needed to. Each of the thieves knew as well as Brutus did that no one was going to leave until one of three things happened: they captured the delinquent gargoyles, Roland came to release them from their duty, or Armageddon began.
Brutus glanced downward and was quite annoyed to discover that his fingernails were now dirt-free. It seemed that he was going to have to find some other way to pass the time.
"Brutus!" Patch's voice hissed quietly, "Someone's coming!"
"Is it the strays?" Brutus asked eagerly.
"Can't tell. They're still too far off...wait...Yeah, they're gargoyles, sure enough. One big, and one small, just like the Master said. If these aren't our catch, you can have my eye!"
"Get ready, everyone!" Brutus whispered loudly. "On my mark, we strike. Take down the big one first, and the small should be easy pickings!"
After a brief rustling, the thieves had blended almost invisibly into the trees and shrubs. Nothing could be heard, save for the nocturnal creatures brave enough to remain in an area that had seen both humans and gargoyles as recently as this clearing had. After a moment, those night voices were joined by two others, one pitched high and the other low. "I am so exhausted, my brother," the high voice gasped between ragged breaths. "I can't go another step."
"Be strong, rookery sister," the lower voice replied, also showing clear signs of fatigue. "The clearing is but a short distance ahead. We will make it!"
"Nuh...can't...do...it..." came the reply. There was a thump, distinctive of a body striking the ground. "Go...on...brother..."
"I will return for you," the other answered wearily. "I cannot carry you now..."
Brutus nearly laughed out loud. These gargoyles sounded even more exhausted than the bunch they had taken earlier that day. Brutus lifted his hand, preparing to signal the attack. After what seemed an eternity, a lone gargoyle stepped into the center of the clearing. Brutus brought his hand down with a decisive jerk.
Before he even had time to gasp, the huge, lavender gargoyle was beset by a dozen club-wielding humans. He crumpled to the ground beneath the first strike, and the rest of the thieves crowded in to drub the helpless creature into unconsciousness.
It took Brutus several minutes to notice that in addition to the enthusiastic shouts of his men and the moaning of the creature they were attacking, there was something else. A periodic thin squeal, followed by a heavy thump. Almost like men striking trees...
Brutus breath was abruptly taken away as he was jerked into the air by his shirt. A face filled his vision, a feminine one, but twisted into a rictus of rage, eyes glowing a malevolent shade of crimson. Brutus was amazed to realize that he recognized that face, though the last expression he had seen it wear was one of fear. "You! I thought the Master killed you-" The mouth opened, displaying sharp, ivory fangs, and Brutus's captor howled a catlike banshee cry. Brutus tried to scream, but could only manage a sort of thin squeal as he was propelled through the air by the creature's throw.
Brutus's ears registered a heavy thump--uncomfortably loud, as it was his own body striking a tree. But Brutus was made of sturdy stuff, and the creature, for all her ferocity, was not terribly strong. Brutus crawled shakily to his knees to take stock of the situation. Three others were laying at the feet of trees, though two of them were groggily starting to regain their footing. The eight remaining atop the large gargoyle had paused a moment, startled by the terrifying scream of the female. "Don't stand there like ninnies!" Brutus coughed hoarsely. "If she has her strength, then-"
It was, of course, far too late. A low, rumbling chuckle emanated from the crumpled lavender gargoyle, and a pair of burly arms shot out to grasp two of the motionless thieves by their necks. Rising from the ground like some nightmare demon, the mammoth gargoyle stood, sweeping Brutus's remaining men to the ground with a powerful sweep from each wing, even as he lifted the two terrified thieves caught within his massive talons into the air. Goliath threw his captives to the ground, where they lay perfectly still, and whirled to face the six he had knocked down. He bore down on them, talons curled into vicious claws and a low rumble emanating from his throat. Some of the fallen thieves stood to face him, while others tried to crawl away, but neither tactic was successful, and each joined their comrades in unconsciousness as Goliath gave them a painful taste of what they had had in store for him.
Brutus had seen enough. He turned and started to crawl away, only to be brought up short by a pair of clawed, reddish-orange feet. "This one is still awake, rookery brother," the female's voice spoke. Brutus's eyes flashed to where he had seen the two others starting to recover. Both were unconscious now; probably the female had taken them out as the giant fought the rest.
Brutus's breath was once again taken away, this time as the lavender one lifted him into the air. "Then he shall be the first to die," he hissed, wrapping a clawed hand around Brutus's throat. "They will all die for harming my rookery brothers and sisters!"
"Hurk!" Brutus hurked, as his captor slowly began to squeeze.
"No, my brother. You mustn't kill him," the other implored. "He can tell us where the others are, and who has taken them!"
"I'll never talk!" Brutus wheezed. Roland did not deal kindly with traitors.
"Oh. Really?" the female blinked dejectedly. Then she brightened. "Well, maybe one of the others will talk! Especially after we kill you! Go ahead, my brother, he's all yours."
"Wait!" croaked Brutus. After all, Roland wasn't here, but another even bigger gargoyle was. "Um, I changed my mind. Where should I begin?"
"Sister, when you put your mind to it, you can be surpassingly devious," Goliath chuckled as he and Asrial hiked towards the camp where the thief had informed them held their rookery siblings. "Pretending to be exhausted to catch the thieves off guard was a brilliant idea."
"The looks on their faces were truly priceless!" Asrial agreed, laughing. "It was very foolish of them to think that we wouldn't notice that none of our rookery brothers and sisters were in the clearing. And I thought that last thief was going to faint when you pretended that you were going to kill him."
Goliath sobered suddenly. "Pretended?" he growled darkly.
Asrial stared at him in horror. Then, Goliath's grim expression twisted into a grin. "I, too, can be devious at times, can I not?"
"Oh!" Asrial said indignantly. But then she laughed. "Not bad acting. My brother."
Goliath laughed as well, but then grew somber again, this time in earnest. "All laughter aside, my sister, we must plan our attack on the Rogue's camp." Asrial stiffened suddenly, and Goliath glanced at her with concern. "Sister?"
"It's...it's nothing, rookery brother," Asrial answered hesitantly. "You were saying?"
"No, it is not nothing," Goliath answered. "Roland frightens you, doesn't he?"
Asrial could see no point in lying. "Yes. Yes he does. More than anything." Asrial clutched her arms close to her chest and shivered involuntarily. "You have no idea what it was like, hour after hour alone in that tiny cave with...with him. Hour after hour of pain." Asrial shuddered again.
Goliath paused a moment. "No, my sister. I do not know. And I hope that I never find out. But the fact remains that Roland did capture our brothers and sisters, and if we do not hurry, your fate will undoubtedly be theirs as well. When we attack, it is quite possible that we will face him again. Will you be able to do this, my sister? I can hardly fault you if you decide to stand aside-"
"No, I have to help, my brother," Asrial answered. She smiled uneasily. "'That is what it means to be clan. That is the Gargoyle Way.'"
Goliath smiled in return. "It is indeed."
It wasn't until the sky began to lighten with the coming dawn that Goliath and Asrial finally reached the camp. The two of them were crouched on an outcropping overhanging the huge cleared area that had been created to make room for the many tents of the thieves. The captured rookery sat huddled at the center of the camp, thoroughly tied and guarded by a few humans. "There," Goliath pointed. Asrial looked and saw a tall female gargoyle standing in the center of a large circle that had been drawn in the dirt. Evenly spaced around the circle, three other gargoyles stood, apparently waiting for something. Unlike the gargoyle in the center each was carrying a weapon. A small crowd composed both of humans and gargoyles stood even further back, watching expectantly.
"She's huge!" Asrial breathed. "Almost as big as you!"
"She must be the formidable one the thief told us of," responded Goliath. "The one who hired the Rogue and his followers to capture us."
"What is she doing?" Asrial asked.
"I think it is a challenge of some kind," Goliath asked, "or perhaps just a competition. I believe she intends to battle those three other warriors."
As Goliath spoke the words, the gargoyle in the center of the circle snarled a command, and the three others began to approach her. One of them, a gargoyle carrying a spear and shield, stabbed at the female, who twisted around the shaft and grabbed it, pulling its wielder off of his feet. With a bit of ungentle assistance from one leg, she whipped the spear holder through the air, causing him to land well outside of the circle. Continuing the motion with fluid grace, the powerful gargoyle swept the legs out from underneath a sword-carrying gargoyle who had hoped to use the distraction caused by her unlucky comrade to score an attack. Her hopes were as vain as those of her other comrade, whose head connected with hers with a resounding crack, sending both spiraling into unconsciousness. The victorious female cried out in victory, spreading her wings and holding a clenched fist in the air.
"Did you see that?" gasped Asrial. "That was over so quickly!"
Goliath nodded. "She is clearly a dangerous opponent. Quite possibly the most dangerous warrior in that camp."
Asrial turned her gaze back upon the camp. "Even without her, there are so many enemies down there... Scores of thieves, and at least a dozen gargoyles that I can see. How can we possibly defeat them?"
"We cannot," Goliath answered simply. "They are far too many, and both of us are tired. We have but one chance, and that is to free the others. They can aid us in the battle." Goliath glanced worriedly at the lightening sky. "But not tonight. Dawn approaches far too swiftly. Even had we time to free the others and defeat the thieves, we would never make it back to the castle before sunrise. Whatever of Roland's thieves remained could easily capture us--or worse--long before the sun set once more."
"Tomorrow, then?" Asrial asked. At Goliath's nod, she began to look thoughtful. "Hmm, chances are that they will know that we're still out here. After all, they'll likely send someone to check up on those thieves we thrashed, and we didn't make a great effort to hide them."
"I'll admit that a dozen tied-up thieves hanging from tree branches like ripe fruit could be considered less than subtle," Goliath admitted wryly.
"Exactly," Asrial answered, apparently missing Goliath's irony. "So they'll know that we're either still around, or on our way back to the castle. They might be prepared for an attack. We can use that expectation against them." Goliath cocked an eyeridge quizzically. Somewhat apologetically, Asrial continued, "I haven't really thought that part through yet, but I have a dozen ideas forming. I'll know by tomorrow. In the meantime, we need to find someplace to spend the day--someplace the thieves aren't likely to find us."
"I spotted an area at the base of a cliff a distance back that should suffice," Goliath responded. "The undergrowth was dense there, and cluttered with boulders. If we turn to stone while crouching, it would take blind luck for a thief to stumble across us."
"We'd best get moving, then," Asrial answered. The two of them quietly withdrew.
Though still early in the evening, the last remnants of the day's glow had disappeared, leaving the frigid night illuminated only by the Solstice moon's bright light. That glow illuminated Roland's camp where Atalanta's followers prepared for the night's immanent invasion, refreshed by that day's stone sleep. Near the center of the camp, the thieves' cloaked leader regarded Atalanta with a frown.
"So, yer still going to go through with this fool plan of yours, are you?" Roland asked, disgust clear in his voice. "You have to realize that you no longer have the element of surprise."
"Only because YOUR thieves were too incompetent to take the stragglers!" Atalanta snapped. "Twelve of your mighty thieves against two exhausted gargoyles, and who is the victor? I knew you and your followers were pathetic, but even I did not expect this."
"Their failure will not go unpunished," Roland answered coolly. "But the fact remains that your score of gargoyles will fare rather poorly against a castle prepared for your attack."
Atalanta looked as if she was going to reply, but then bit it back, choosing instead to clench her fists and glare hatefully at the master thief. Finally, she said, "Wyvern is still relatively undefended. If we hurry, they will only have a few hours to prepare before we attack. The stragglers have only a few miles lead." Then Atalanta grinned, displaying the sharpened teeth that rarely failed to unnerve her friends and enemies alike. "Besides, if your thieves reported truth, the stragglers now know where we are. It seems likely that they might attempt a misguided rescue of their brethren."
"Don't be absurd," Roland scoffed. "I know the missing ones only too well, and neither of them is stupid enough-"
THUNK. Roland and Atalanta glanced downwards to see a spear quivering in the dirt between them. Neither of them a stranger to surprise attacks, the two sprang for cover, Roland pausing just long enough to pluck the spear from the ground and take it with him. "Hide yourselves, men!" Roland roared. "We're under attack!"
"Take cover!" Atalanta commanded her own warriors, "And prepare to counterattack!"
THUNK. Another spear landed, though nowhere that the two of them could see. Soon another fell. Roland took a moment to examine the spear he had taken. The shaft was little more than a crude stick, but the spearhead... "It's one of my men's knives!" he exclaimed. "One of the knives the strays took when they defeated my ambush."
Atalanta looked contemptuously amused. "Still think the two are too smart to counterattack?" Standing, Atalanta could see two distant shapes flying away from the camp into the distance. Atalanta screamed, "Attack, my warriors! They are but two gargoyles, the strays Roland's fools failed to take. Attack now!" She whirled on Roland. "I will take half of your thieves," she informed him. It was clear that it was not a request. "They will spread out on foot, while my warriors take wing. If the quarry keeps to the ground, your men will find them--I don't honestly expect your men to be able to overcome them, but they will slow them down long enough for my warriors to converge."
"Half?" Roland asked. "That will leave the camp dangerously undermanned-"
"Fool! We can see them both fleeing now, and they would not have had time to gather reinforcements. You are wasting my time. Now, command your men!"
Roland glowered darkly for a moment, but then suddenly smiled. "Very well," he said, turning to inform his men of Atalanta's plans. "Dangerously undermanned indeed," he chuckled, once out of Atalanta's hearing.
"Well, now, what have we here," Twig murmured.
"What've ye found, Twig?" another thief asked, coming up beside him.
"Take a look fer yuirself," he replied, holding out a segment of rope. One end of the rope appeared to be securely tied around a slender tree, while the end Twig held was burnt. "There be ropes like this hangin' from at least a dozen other trees here. I think they be the ropes the strays took from our men."
"As I see it, these trees were used as catapults, with fire burnin' through the ropes tae spring 'em." Twig gestured to a few other trees. "Most of these slim trees were used tae fling somethin' at our camp."
"The spears?" the second asked, eyes rounding.
"Aye, I'd bet good money on it. And two thicker trees were used tae fling somethin' AWAY from our camp. I have a fair idea what."
"Should we turn about, then?"
"Nay, the Masters orders were very clear. Follow her Majesty's commands tae the letter. Until she tells us otherwise, we travel this way."
"As ye say, Twig," the other shrugged.
A short time later, Atalanta was stalking in a tight circle, fuming with rage. "Are you certain this is where they landed?" she questioned a dark blue male.
"Here, or hereabouts," he replied. "We should find them soon enough. They can't have gone far."
"Then why isn't there any sign of them?" she demanded. "They can't have had time to cover their tracks-"
"My leader!" a voice suddenly called. An orange female with a large, hooked beak burst into the clearing. "Look what I have found!" In her hands she carried a few sticks of wood bound together in a crude fashion. But crude or not, the assembly could, from a distance, easily be mistaken for gargoyle wings...
"Gather to me, warriors!" Atalanta called in frustration. "They are not here! We must return to the camp immediately! We'll gather Roland's men on the way. The Wyvern gargoyles must not be allowed to escape!"
Crouching behind a tent, Goliath could hear the conversations of the dozen guards standing watch by the compound within which the gargoyle's captured brothers and sisters were being held. A flicker of movement caught Goliath's eye, the barest flicker of a hood and cape. But when he turned to look, there was nothing. As no alarm was sounded, he attributed it to the nervousness he was feeling. Turning back to the guards, he suddenly realized that they were familiar.
"I can't believe Roland took it so well," one with a patch over his eye was muttering.
"Yeah," said another. "After the way we botched the job last night, I was expecting 'im to thrash us within an inch of our sorry lives. Instead, we get this cushy guard duty! I don't get it."
"P'raps 'e's got other things on 'is mind," still another suggested.
"I wouldn't be so chipper were I you," a burly thief with a ragged scar growled. "Roland was smiling when he gave us this post. It's never a good sign when the Master smiles."
"Ahh, I just think he was glad that th' Queen 'o the Gargoyles was leavin' th' camp. Ye know how he hates her. Gaaak!"
"Hey, where'd Danno go? Mmmph!"
"Tinker? Hey! Urk!"
Goliath dropped the unconscious thief to the ground, where he landed with a thud. Having used up the element of surprise, he turned to the remaining thieves, fingers curled into claws, wings spread menacingly, and eyes aglow. "Who's next?" he growled darkly.
The one with the patch paled. "Not you again."
"Take him, men!" the scarred thief commanded, fear plain in his eyes.
With a chilling howl, Goliath tore into his attackers, sending them flying in all directions. The fight was over almost before it began.
From a shadowy corner nearby, Roland chuckled to himself. "So is treachery rewarded. For giving information to my enemies, Brutus and his men sample the fruits of their poor judgement." Roland turned to peer into the distance. Though it was many miles out of sight, Roland always knew where his onetime home lay. He sighed. "I had so hoped that I would finally have my revenge...Consider this my last favor, Wyvern. But for now, wouldn't want 'her majesty' thinking I wasn't doing my job." Shouting, Roland called, "Everyone, to the prisoners' area! We have an intruder!" With that, Roland melted into the shadows. He was no coward, but he knew that the gargoyles of Wyvern had a special grudge against him--particularly the lavender male who was even now freeing the others, starting with the fiery haired blue female. It would be best to lay low, at least until his employer and her warriors returned. As he waited, he couldn't help but to wonder where the clever female was. Probably couldn't stand to get close to an area where Roland himself was. Roland smiled at the thought. She had good reason to be frightened. He was far from through with her yet.
To her immense delight, Atalanta returned to find the camp a battle zone. What members of Roland's band had remained behind were fighting a desperate battle against the newly freed Wyvern gargoyles. Though the thieves slightly outnumbered the gargoyles, it was clear that Roland's men were outmatched. "Let's show these thieves how warriors fight! Attack!" With that, Atalanta screamed a feline battle cry and dove, smashing into an orange Wyvern male and carrying him several yards before smashing into a boulder. Atalanta stood, but it was clear that the gargoyle she had tackled was out of the fight.
For the first time in days, Atalanta relaxed, finally able to engage in her favorite activity. She was tired of the subterfuge, tired of the devious strategies. Now, at last, she could fight. She glanced around and soon spotted a blue-grey male with white hair, who had just finished thrashing a half-dozen of Roland's thieves. "Time to warm up," Atalanta chuckled. "Attack me, blue one!" she called. Deliberately ignoring the weapons on her back, she lifted her clawed hands into a ready position, "Show me how the gargoyles of the Wyvern clan fight!"
Othello snarled, eyes flaring, and charged her. Atalanta caught his first thrown punch and grabbed him by the arm, flipping him over her shoulder and into the rocky soil. Before Othello even had time to draw another breath, the warrior lifted him to his feet by his hair and struck him across the face several times. Atalanta finished with a swift kick to the midsection that sent him flying to the ground once more. To her mild surprise, the gargoyle moved weakly and climbed to his feet, a thin trail of blood dripping from a split lip. Growling, he lunged at her once more, and actually managed to knock her off her feet. But Atalanta rolled with him as she fell to the ground, and kicked him away with both feet the moment she had ground to brace herself against. Her opponent arced through the air to land headfirst. This time, he didn't move.
"Yesss," she hissed contentedly. She climbed to her feet again, face positively glowing. "Now the blood is pumping. Let's finish this!"
Atalanta chose her next victim, a stony grey gargoyle with curved horns, and challenged him as she had Othello. This gargoyle proved even easier to bring down than the blue-grey one had, collapsing after only a round of Atalanta's abuse. A brown-skinned female with ram's horns was the next down, followed by her dark green rookery sister. Five Wyvern gargoyles down, and Atalanta had yet to break a sweat. Taking stock of the situation, it could be seen that the Wyvern clan was barely holding its own against the combined might of Atalanta's clan and Roland's men. If she were to take down a only few more gargoyles, the battle would be decided.
The next gargoyle to fall under Atalanta's gaze was a grey-green, beaked male with a twisted horn. "You! Face me!"
The gargoyle looked startled and glanced over his shoulder to make sure he was the one spoken to. "Face YOU?" he asked incredulously. "That sounds like a terrible idea."
"It wasn't a request," Atalanta smiled, eyes flaring.
"Um, couldn't I face him instead?" Thersites stuttered, backing off a step and gesturing at an especially burly member of Roland's gang, a man he probably wouldn't have considered fighting had Atalanta not been the alternative.
"No," Atalanta replied, tail swishing.
"Really, he looks much more a match for me, while you, well, you'd just be wasting your time! That's it! You're an obviously stronger fighter than I, so it'd be a much better idea if you were to use all that strength and skill on someone who needs it. Yeah, that's it."
"You," Atalanta said pointedly, "talk far too much, and fight far too little."
"You know, that's what my brothers and sisters have always told me." Thersites suddenly looked hopeful. "But you know something?"
Atalanta stopped, somewhat puzzled by Thersites's change in attitude. "What?"
"Sometimes all that talking does the trick."
Atalanta whomphed as the air was knocked out of her by hundreds of pounds of snarling lavender gargoyle. The two of them rolled across the ground until Atalanta stopped them by snagging onto a stable-looking rock with her tail. Atalanta, now on top of her attacker, quickly shifted her position so that she was pinning her attacker's arms down. "Well, what have we here?" Atalanta smiled, studying her temporarily immobile opponent closely. She didn't have time to look long. Goliath slid a leg between them and kicked Atalanta away. Atalanta landed comfortably on her feet, and Goliath stood, wings flared and fingers clawed.
"Not bad," Atalanta said. "But what else can you show me?"
Goliath charged, and threw a punch, much as Othello had. Just as she had with Othello, Atalanta caught the fist and prepared to throw Goliath. But Goliath had anticipated this, and braced himself. Now, the female lacked the leverage she needed, and in the moment of surprise she experienced, Goliath grabbed her arm instead, and swung her into a tent. The tent collapsed, and Atalanta was temporarily tangled in the canvas, giving Goliath time to gather Atalanta, tent and all, and throw her once more. After an ungraceful landing, Atalanta tore herself free of the canvas in time to deflect a swipe of Goliath's claws with her wrist guards. Her block of the second swipe following the first was not as sure, and Goliath's talons raked her upper right arm, leaving a trio of shallow gashes. Atalanta struck Goliath a powerful blow to the stomach that sent him reeling back.
"You're GOOD!" Atalanta gasped happily as she stood. "Perhaps your cowardly brother was right. I HAVE been wasting my time with these others. No one has bloodied me in years! First point to you."
"This is not a game," Goliath growled pointedly.
"Is it so wrong for me to enjoy my work?" Atalanta asked.
"Yes, it is," Goliath answered.
Atalanta shrugged. "Too bad." With that said, Atalanta took the offensive for the first time that battle. Moving incredibly fast, she twisted around Goliath's waiting arms and rammed into him with her good shoulder, throwing him to the ground. As Goliath began to climb to his feet, she kicked his head hard enough to send flying to the ground once more. Working quickly and efficiently, Atalanta knelt beside him and slammed his head against the ground, knocking him senseless.
Standing, Atalanta placed a foot firmly on Goliath's chest. "That, my powerful friend, was truly a pleasure," she told the groggy gargoyle. She studied him once more. "So handsome, too. I wish I could keep you. But I'm afraid that's just not an option." Atalanta pulled the huge, jagged sword from its sheath on her back. "You won't be our prisoner, however. After a fight like that, you've earned the honor of dying by my hand, at the very least." She lifted her sword, and prepared to bring it down on the helpless gargoyle's neck.
When Asrial arrived, she could see that she wasn't a moment early. The formidable female she and Goliath had seen the previous dawn was preparing to execute her lavender rookery brother. Thinking quickly, she grabbed a fist-sized rock from the ground and threw it. The missile impacted with Atalanta's head, causing the tall gargoyle to falter. Atalanta turned her head to look at Asrial, an annoyed expression on her face. "Hey, musclehead!" Asrial called desperately. "Why don't you try picking on someone who can fight back!"
Atalanta's eyes widened slightly and she snorted derisively. She turned back to Goliath and prepared to strike her blow. A second rock followed the first. "What's the matter? Are you afraid to face me? I challenge you, warrior!"
Goliath had apparently recovered enough to speak weakly. "No, my sister. You don't know what you're saying!"
This time, Atalanta's expression was one of serious annoyance. "Stay put," she commanded Goliath, smashing the hilt of her sword into his face and sending him spiraling into unconsciousness. "And you," she snarled at Asrial, "have made a big mistake." Asrial turned and began to run away on all fours. "No, don't you even IMAGINE that you're getting off that easily." Atalanta sheathed her sword and began to pursue the young inventor.
"I sure hope this works," Asrial muttered to herself with a worried glance at the frightening figure pursuing her.
The little runt was fast, Atalanta was willing to give her quarry that much credit. But she wasn't nearly fast enough. Slowly, but surely, the tawny yellow warrior was gaining. In only a few moments, she would be upon her, and then she could return to more important things. A tiny, nagging part of her mind asked her why she was bothering with this insect when there were many more valuable targets back at the camp. She shoved that thought aside. The girl had challenged her, however unwisely, and insulted her honor as well. For the sake of that honor, Atalanta was required to drag her sorry carcass back to the camp, dead or alive.
Atalanta's train of thought was brought to a jarring halt as she abruptly tumbled painfully to the ground. The ground seemed particularly rocky, and Atalanta winced from a number of minor cuts and bruises as she stood. What had happened? Atalanta glanced at her left leg, and found that it had become tangled in a mass of vines that she had somehow failed to notice. Disgusted, she tore the mass free. A pity it hadn't been her prey who had tripped. That would have brought the farce of a hunt to a much quicker close.
Standing, Atalanta could see that Asrial had gained a bit more headway, but had stopped, apparently distracted by Atalanta's fall. Pleased, Atalanta took another step towards her. She staggered as her leg sank into the leaf-strewn ground up to the thigh. A flash of pain caused her to wince, and she pulled her leg free. Carefully feeling around her ankle, she quickly determined that it was sprained, not broken. Good. She had fought on far worse than a sprained ankle.
Her self-diagnosis out of the way, Atalanta had time to study the ground. Hidden by the dead leaves and branches common in the winter woods was a deep, narrow hole--a hare's dwelling, perhaps. Inconveniently, the ground around the hole was slanted towards it, and the earth around its edge was loose, making it far too easy to slip into. "Of all the infernal bad luck!" Atalanta cursed.
Fortunately, Asrial was still standing where Atalanta had last seen her. Unfortunately, she was smiling. Atalanta's eyes flared, and she took off once more, limping slightly now. Eyes never wavering from her prey, she didn't see the collapsing tree until it was upon her.
Now severely bruised, Atalanta clawed her way free of the dead leaves and branches. "Is the entire forest trying to stop me?!" she howled in frustration.
Her ears perked at the sound of feminine laughter. It was that girl. She was LAUGHING at her. "Is that what you think this is?" Asrial mocked. "Chance? You truly are an imbecile, aren't you?" But Atalanta didn't hear the words. Incensed beyond speech, she shrieked and charged once again. "Follow me!" Asrial called unnecessarily, running unhurriedly into the deeper woods.
Atalanta pursued as best she could, but time and again her progress was painfully halted. Rounded stones scattered around a bend in her path, just out of sight, that caused her to skid into a thorny hedge. A vine suddenly strung across her path at neck height to throw her choking onto her back. An inopportune rockslide at one of the many points that Asrial's path led Atalanta close to the rocky cliffs that were common in that area. After a number of these painful mishaps, Atalanta's raw fury died away, and her common sense began to take the fore. Her luck couldn't possibly be this bad. Clearly her quarry was causing these incidents somehow, traps that she was springing time and again in her headlong pursuit. It was time to slow down, travel more carefully. It was time to track Asrial, rather than pursue her blindly, with a careful eye open for the many traps that undoubtedly still awaited her.
Atalanta carefully unslung her bow and slid an arrow into place. Eyeing the area around her, Asrial's path was easy to make out. A little too easy, perhaps. She clearly wasn't trying to lose her pursuer, but to lead her. Atalanta smiled thinly. She was prepared for her tricks, now.
To Atalanta's satisfaction, she was able to follow Asrial's trail without springing another trap, though she did find several vine tripwires and cleverly concealed traps along the way. Soon, Asrial's trail led into a rocky chasm, with sheer cliffs on each side. Atalanta frowned. A chasm was a classical locale for an ambush.
"Very impressive!" Asrial's voice echoed throughout the chasm. Atalanta turned in every direction, but she could not make out the direction from which the sound was coming. "I had expected you to spring a lot more of my traps before figuring things out. Here, try this."
Atalanta caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of her eye and whirled to fire an arrow. The arrow thunked hollowly into a massive tree trunk, which continued to swing unabated towards her on its rope. Atalanta's eyes widened and she only had time to gasp before the wooden pendulum slammed into her, carrying her through the air until smashing her into the cliff wall. The trunk swung away once more, and Atalanta dropped to the ground, coughing painfully. Her bow was snapped in half.
"Good shot," Asrial said cheerfully. "That tree never saw it coming."
Atalanta climbed to her feet (an activity she felt she had had to engage in far too often that evening), and raced in the direction from which the trunk had swung. "She must be there," she muttered. "I didn't trip anything, so she must have pushed it herself!"
Atalanta began to climb determinedly up the cliff wall, and soon came upon the origin of the tree trunk--but all that was there was a makeshift wooden brace, and a few ropes leading off in several directions. "You didn't think I was going to make it that easy, did you?" asked her tormentor. "With a proper arrangement of ropes and makeshift pulleys I could be just about anywhere. But I happen to be over here!" Another rope shifted in a direction towards Atalanta's left. Whipping her head around, Atalanta caught a glimpse of a reddish-orange shape waving to her. Then, a cracking noise brought her attention back to the cliffside. The section of rock she was hanging on was very loose. All that had been holding in place under Atalanta's weight was a rope. A rope that was no longer there. Atalanta gasped, and tried to yank her talons free as the rock slowly tilted backwards. She succeeded, but not before the rock finished working itself free. Rock and gargoyle plummeted to the ground below. Atalanta groaned, and shoved the boulder off of herself. Her entire body ached, and she was certain that a few ribs were broken. But they would heal. The important thing was that Asrial was still in sight, and Atalanta intended to finish her, no matter the cost.
"Wake up, lad. Th' fightin's over." Goliath groggily opened his eyes to see his leader's brown-skinned bulldog face gazing down at him.
"Over?" he repeated weakly.
"Aye, when we started tae get the upper hand, th' Rogue called for his men tae retreat. Without the thieves, the gargoyles we were facing were badly outnumbered, and soon had tae retreat as well. We've won, lad. Thanks tae you."
Goliath sat up suddenly. "And what of my sister, who helped plan your rescue?"
"Eh? I've nae seen her..."
"I saw her," Iago's oily voice called. "She challenged their leader, and then ran off into the woods. The leader followed. I would have tried to help her, but I was embroiled in battle." The olive green gargoyle shrugged.
"Their leader? She'll tear our sister to pieces! We must rescue her!" Ajax exclaimed.
"I would not be so certain that it is our sister that needs rescuing," Goliath mused. "Nevertheless, we should follow." Goliath headed towards a cliffside and began to climb.
"Now, what do ye suppose he meant by that?" Hudson asked. The others looked to be just as puzzled as he.
"Do you know what I'm going to do when I catch you, you wretched--oof!" Atalanta's eyes were not quite successful in focusing on the tree branch that had swung into her chest. With a wild swing of her sword, she hacked the branch off at the base and staggered forward once again. "Wretched...wretched girl? Do you? Aaaah!" Atalanta screamed in pain as her twisted ankle was twisted further, by yet another hare's hole. Atalanta pulled herself free. "Running...running out of ideas, are we?"
"Actually, I didn't put that one there," Asrial's voice called back. "That's a real animal hole. Anyway, you were saying? What are you going to do to me?"
"I'm going to skin you alive," Atalanta answered, chuckling dementedly to herself. She licked her lips, as if she could taste Asrial's blood already. "Yes, that's it. Skin you alive. I'm going to tear off your skin in one-inch strips. And then--urgh!" Atalanta crashed through the sticks and leaves that had been covering a large hole in the ground. A moment latter, a small boulder that had been teetering on the brink fell in after her. A few moments after that, the boulder appeared again, as Atalanta slowly pushed it out. It was particularly difficult, as one of the warrior's arms had been broken earlier by a particularly nasty trap involving a cliffside and a number of rolling logs, but eventually, the rock rolled to the side, and Atalanta crawled out.
Atalanta climbed painfully to her feet, and continued to limp forward. "And then...and then I'm going to tear off your wings and beat you to death with them."
"Actually, I'd probably already be dead after the skin thing," Asrial supplied.
Ignoring her, Atalanta continued. "And then I'll hang your cold, lifeless body by its innards from the tallest tree in the forest for all to see, and for the ravens to devour."
"Well, you'll have to catch me, first," Asrial said. "Fortunately, I'm right here!"
There she was. Only a few feet away, standing by a tree close to the edge of a cliff. Just three steps, and she would be close enough to grab her...
TWANG! Atalanta's stomach rose into her throat as she was hoisted into the air by a snare. Her sword fell from her fingers to the ground with a clatter. For a moment, Atalanta just hung there, barely even breathing. Then, summoning what energy she could, she took a swipe at the rope binding her foot (by some stroke of good fortune, it was NOT the sprained one), but couldn't quite reach it. She rested a moment, and tried again, this time succeeding in nicking the cord. The cord unraveled and then snapped. Atalanta fell to the ground and lay there a moment in a dazed heap, unable to do more than breathe. Then, she climbed to her knees and began searching around herself for her sword.
"Looking for something?" Asrial asked. Atalanta's head snapped upwards, and she saw Asrial casually swinging her lost sword. "Oops," said Asrial, casually lofting Atalanta's sword off of the cliff's edge.
"I don't...don't need that to f-finish a scrawny thing like you," Atalanta hissed stumbling towards her quarry.
Asrial waited until she was close, and then stepped aside. Atalanta was unable to recover in time, and smashed face-first into the tree Asrial had been standing in front of. She staggered back, a thin moan coming from her throat. She turned, spotted Asrial, and attacked once again. Again Asrial moved, but Atalanta somehow summoned the sense to expect it. She lashed out with her tail and wrapped it around Asrial's leg, jerking her off of her feet, and gashing her slightly with the bladed tip, even as she herself tumbled to the ground once more.
"Ouch!" Asrial said, examining her leg.
Atalanta, laying on the ground panting, wheezed, "It's only the beginning, you know. That scratch...only the beginning. Changed my mind. Not going to skin you. Too easy. No, I'm going to let you live. But first, I'm going to scar you. I'm going to destroy your pretty face, claw your wings, tear your limbs, scratch out your eyes, and leave you covered with so many scars... You'll be a monster only that freak Roland would consider taking for a mate."
"You know, you're the second villain to mention how pretty I am. Where does that come from, anyway?"
"Enough, talk," Atalanta said, climbing to her feet. "Fight me! Now!"
Asrial gave Atalanta a critical look. "Okay," she said, finally, and rushed at her.
Atalanta could hardly believe it. Eagerly, she met Asrial's charge...and was shocked to find herself knocked to the ground. She tried to kick Asrial away, but she simply didn't have the strength. She managed to strike Asrial across the face, but the younger gargoyle only faltered a moment before snarling and returning with a blow of her own.
"Would ye look at that?" the grey elder remarked with incredulous awe. None of the others gliding alongside him could even speak, so shocked they were. Alighting among the trees a goodly distance away, the Wyvern gargoyles stared with unrestrained amazement as they watched their weakest rookery sister determinedly slugging it out with Atalanta--and clearly winning.
Asrial brought her knee up into Atalanta's stomach, and then punched her in the face, sending her spiraling to the ground. Coughing, Atalanta climbed to her feet. "You...I'm going to destroy you..." Atalanta trailed off as she saw the rest of Asrial's rookery standing around them. She turned back to Asrial, and for just a moment, looked as if she was going to attack them all. But then she changed her mind, choosing instead to make a break for the cliff edge. "This isn't over, girl!" she called as she leapt from the edge and caught the wind. "I'll be back for you, make no mistake about that!"
"Lass!" Hudson called, "Ye...beat her?"
Asrial's eyes were still on the departing shape of Atalanta. "What?" she said distractedly. "Oh, yes. I suppose I did."
Asrial's rookery brothers and sisters crowded around her, with cries of "That was amazing," and "How did you do it?" and other words of congratulation mixing into one cacophonous noise. Had Asrial not been Asrial, she might have noticed that many of her rookery brothers, formerly rather indifferent to her, were eyeing her with an appreciation that went beyond mere admiration of her impossible victory. Nevertheless, she was enjoying the attention.
"Lads! Lasses!" Hudson interrupted. "I know ye want tae hear the story, but 'tis the Solstice, and we've a festival tae be gettin' back tae--and an Ascension tae attend!"
A great cheer arose from the assembled gargoyles, and they prepared to launch themselves from the cliff's edge. "One moment," Goliath rumbled. The gargoyles around Asrial parted, and allowed their largest brother to approach. He was carrying Atalanta's sword. "I found this on an outcropping over the cliff's edge. It must have been dropped during the struggle." He handed it to Asrial, and cocked an eyeridge wryly. "To the victor goes the spoils, I believe."
Asrial took the sword and eyed it critically. "You know, I think I'll keep this. To remember tonight by." She smiled. "Not, I think, that I'll ever be able to forget this, no matter how scatterbrained I might be. Well everyone? Shall we go?"
"Before these young lads and lasses Ascend," Hudson spoke to the assembled gargoyles (and a smattering of humans, including Brother Edmund, Prince Malcom, and, oddly, the well-dressed courtier in white who had been staying at Wyvern, among others) of Wyvern, "I'd like tae say a few words regarding last night's incident. We all owe the fact that we can be here tonight tae two of ye--I need hardly point out who. If not for their bravery and cunning, we'd all be prisoners, and Wyvern would be besieged, or even conquered. Our rescue was nothing short of miraculous." Hudson closed his eyes guiltily, "Miraculous, but also a humble reminder. Twice now, I've doubted a certain young lass's ability. Twice, I've been certain she could not possibly succeed, simply because she lacked the strength and fighting skill of her brothers and sisters. But each time, she succeeded in spite 'o me doubts, though not in a manner I had expected. And this time, she helped save the lot of us while she was at it." Hudson's eyes opened again and a hard, determined glint appeared within them. "I'll not doubt her again. She has proven herself time and again, and tonight, she has more than earned the right tae be called a Warrior. And so, it pleases me to announce the Ascention! All of ye, take wing! When ye land again, ye'll have joined yuir elders as Warriors!"
Everyone cheered as Goliath, Asrial, and their rookery stepped off of the edge of the cliffs around Wyvern and took to the air, spiraling around and catching updrafts to take them higher still. The gargoyles weaved in and around each other in a beautiful and colorful display. Gradually, one by one, they each landed, Warriors at last.
The attendees began milling around, socializing and chattering excitedly about the new status of the Ascended rookery. "If I could have yuir attention!" Agamemnon's voice suddenly boomed. The chatter quieted, and heads turned to face the elder. "Ahem. I've prepared a short speech in honor of the new warriors of our clan." Ignoring the stifled groans from a number of locations in the audience, Agamemnon began, "As I see yuir bright, shining faces looking forward-"
"I am truly sorry, my brother," Hudson interrupted. "But I'm afraid yuir speech will have tae wait. We must hold a session tae discuss the presence of this new homeless clan--and as they were on the verge of attacking us already, we haven't a moment tae lose."
"Very well," Agamemnon sighed disappointedly, ignoring the stifled cheers from a number of locations in the audience. "I suppose we could assemble them again later." Once again, a number of stifled groans were pointedly ignored.
Standing somewhat apart from the main group of revelers, Goliath and Asrial were standing together, gazing out over the water. The night was clear, and the moon shining brightly against the waves. "It is a lovely night," Goliath mentioned.
Asrial blinked, "What? Oh, yes, it is."
"You were thinking of something?"
"Actually, yes. I was wondering how large a piece of glass it would take to make the light of the moon seem as bright as the sun. Very large, I think.
Goliath chuckled. "You are always thinking of some clever new idea. Do not ever change, my sister."
"That was a sweet thing to say," Asrial smiled. "Thank you."
The two stood quietly a few moments longer, before Goliath broke the silence once more. "I wanted to thank you."
"Hmm?" Asrial answered. "For what?"
"Earlier tonight, after their leader had defeated me...It's quite possible that you saved my life. I wanted to thank you."
Asrial turned to look at him, and their eyes met. She smiled again. "You're welcome," she whispered. The two of them gazed at one another, each lost in the other's eyes.
"Oh, and I suppose you two are going to kiss now, right?" Thersites's voice called out with mock disgust. Asrial and Goliath broke their gaze to see that Thersites, Othello, Desdemona, and a few others of their brothers and sisters had gathered around and were grinning at them. "After all, that's how brother Edmund's stories usually end. Or do you think you'll need a device for that, sister?"
"Hmm," Asrial said, inspecting Goliath's face critically. "No..." she said slowly. Asrial threw her arms around Goliath and pressed her lips firmly against those of her startled brother. She dropped to the ground again with a somewhat sly smile on her face. "...I think I can handle that all by myself." With that, Asrial strode away, leaving Goliath with a reddening face to endure the chuckling of her brothers and sisters.
It had been quite a night, and Asrial was glad it had ended happily. Now, she could finally change out of her ridiculous linen clothing and into her more sensible tunic... But with a glance over her shoulder at a still blushing Goliath, she changed her mind. Now that she thought about it, the linens weren't so bad after all. She'd change tomorrow...Maybe.