“They get a surprise round…”

“Everyone cover your ears!” Ira shouted, setting her fingers to the blue strings of her harp. She strummed her harp in a frantic tempo, inhaled, then sang a single, high-pitched note.

The air in front of the huddled Pilgrims compacted, then burst out in a ring of purple-hued vapor. A loud ‘crack’ echoed through the room, hurling the blind, bloodstained butcher birds back into the far wall. One of the Butcher Birds fell to the ground twitching, neck twisted at a nauseating angle.

The roaring sound from Ira’s Harp staggered even the Pilgrims who’d clamped their hands over their ears. As the noise died down, the butcher birds let out loud plaintive cries, staggering to their feet and swaying like drunks, their heads bumping into the walls.

“…il….em…” Ira whispered to Corax and Dragon Face.

“What?” Corax whispered, trying to shout over the ringing in his ears.

“What?” Dragon Face cried out, shaking his head back and forth.

“Kill them while they’re dazed!” Ira repeated urgently.

Corax bobbed his snout up and down in confirmation, then prowled forward with his sickle sword. Dragon Face frowned underneath his copper mask and started to follow the mysterious dinosaur. V’vendy rested a hand on the Wrestler’s shoulder, looked up at him and locked eyes.

After a breath of a moment, Dragon Face nodded and stepped aside. V’vendy walked up to the stunned, eyeless butcher birds, drawing her curved dagger.

Corax raised his sickle sword over the neck of one Butcher Bird and decapitated him in a single swing. In the same instant, V’vendy seized the last living Butcher Bird and cut it’s throat.

No one spoke for a time.

“Could I be untied?” Vincol asked at last.

Dragon Face crouched down and untied him.

“Free at last,” Vincol exclaimed, stretching out his limbs and patting the pockets in his tunic. “So…are they dead?” He asked, starring at the dead birds.

“Indeed,” Ira said, grimacing and fingering the snapped end of one of her blue Harp strings. “Eyeless birds like these must be meant to hunt in darkness; they depend on their ears to find their prey. Once I realized thatt…it was like slaughtering helpless cows.”

Uuco stroked his mustache in thought. “I confess, Lady Ira,” he said slowly, “I didn’t rightly reckon you could cause that much destruction!”

Ira turned a cool gaze to Uuco. “Then revise your reckonings, Lightning Swayer,” she declared. “I, the Lady Ira, am a Harper of the Royal line. Through gifts of blood and song, we are charged to command the castes of these lands–the Swayers, the Harvesters and Herders, the Priests and Merchants, the exalted Gnashers and the lowly Thugs. With song we rouse you in war and soothe you in peace. Our melodies guide your to a greater purpose, and smite you if you stray…”

With lofty precision, she slid her Harp back into its case. “So no more backtalk, if you please,” Ira concluded, turning her back on the elderly Uuco.

“Uuco! Vincol!” V’vendy said, peering down at one of the dead Butcher Birds. “These birds have been branded! And a strange brand it is!”

“Strange?” Uuco exclaimed, perking up and rushing over. “Strange is my middle name! At least I think it is…”

V’vendy brushed aside a patch for feathers so Uuco could see. The bird indeed had a brand burned into its flank. The brand was a simple eye icon, a circle and oval superimposed on each other. Uuco blinked, and suddenly the circle within the oval had become a twisting spiral…

“Ah!” Uuco cried, kicking at the dead bird and rolling it over.

“Uuco the Witness!” Dragon Face called out, rushing in with clenched fists. “What is it?”

“Nothing, nothing!” Uuco replied, breathing heavily.

Corax glared at him from across the room. Uuco sweated under the heat of the dinosaur warrior’s gaze.

“Alright, fine!” Uuco muttered. “I give!” With shaking hands, he reached up and adjusted the leather strap that bound the inscribed clay tablet to his back. “I’ve seen that, er, brand before. By chance. It’s a cult symbol. A real nasty cult that twists the flesh of animals, among other things.” He looked around the chamber they were in, peering with suspicion at each of its dark, yawning doors. “And I’ll bet V’vendy’s lucky feather hair that they’re in this labyrinth with us!’

V’vendy raised a hand to touch her downy white hair. “I…don’t like to gamble…” she mumbled.

“How did you run into this cult?” Corax asked, head-feathers standing on end.

“Er…” Uuco fidgeted. “Can’t rightly recall. My memory’s not what it was!” He insisted. “I’m old!”

“Then let’s keep moving,” Ira said grimly, loosening her short sword in its sheath. “With luck, we won’t run into them until we’re ready!”

%%%

The Pilgrims ran into them before they were ready.

After many twists and turns through the underground (yet aerial) complex, and a detour that lead to a dead end and a abandoned privy, the assembled Pilgrims stumbled into a huge mausoleum.

Curving arches and thick pillars supported the ceiling of a voluminous chamber, walls covered with the crystaline Gryphon murals the Pilgrims had encountered in prior travels. Cubbys in the walls were lined with glazed urns and the mummified bodies of dead warriors, glad in moldy rags, tarnished weapons and funeral offerings displayed at their sides.

The large floor was broken up by four round holes that must have led to dirt when the tomb was buried, but now opened up to the sky. By looking through them, on could catch a vivid of the ground below.

The center of the room was occupied by a stone pedestal occupied by a fleshless skeleton, clad in rags: a long tapering sword made form a silvery, gleaming metal lay on his right side, and a dagger with serrated, jagged tooth-spikes on his left.

“Whew-ee!” Uuco exclaimed, rubbing sweat off his brow. “About time we got some fresh air!”

“Indeed!” Dragon Face rumbled, inhaling until his belly swelled. “Breath is the source of life and vigor! A deep breather is healthy and wise, as my master used to say!”

“Fascinating,” Ira remarked. She glanced at the stone pedestal in the center of the room. “Vincol,” she called out, nodding at the village chieftain and folk magician. ‘If you would, check out that funeral arrangement in the center.”

That thing?” Vincol muttered. “It could have traps…or curses! Or more of that wicked zombie sludge! Why me?” He asked.

“Because we’restill cross with you for almost getting us killed,” Ira explained.

Uuco grunted in agreement.

“It’s true,” Corax confirmed.

“Fine, fine,” Vincol grumbled. “No one mentions how I almost got killed too…”

He walked forward, squatting as he passed by the holes in the floor to keep from stumbling at the worst time. He walked over to the dead skeleton and looked over his body.

“No black sludge here…” he muttered, fishing through the rag scraps that bound the ancient skeleton together. “Ooh!” He exclaimed, fishing out a necklace or gold rings and stone beads. “Loot! And this too–!”

Vincol picked up the dagger by the side of the corpse and held it up. Pulling out a sprig of mint, he rubbed it between his fingers, traced the strokes of a glyphin the air, and conjured purple mana-light. The dagger gleamed brightly, reflecting light with the keenness of a clear lake or well-burnished bronze.

“There are Swayer glyphs on this dagger!” Vincol exclaimed, peering at subtle tints in the blade’s metal. “They say…”

Vincol brought the dagger closer to his face, and sounded out the words written on it.

Sword…destroyer…not, that’s the wrong tense. It says Sword…Breaker?”

A door in the north wall of the mausoleum burst open, and a squad of armed men charged into the mausoleum. They carried spears and war axes in their right hands, and oval wicker shields in their right. Each warrior, man and woman, was clad in short cotton trunks that exposed their bare, muscular legs. Their hair was groomed identically, growing long out from the backs of their heads, cropped close by their ears and temples.

They all wore tunics with the symbol of the eye, an eye that seemed to acquire more details and features the longer you stared at it.

“We are the Seekers of Awe!” The leader of the armed group exclaimed in a gravely, yet sleepy sounding voice. “And we’re, like totally gonna reward your curiosity with fistbump…to your face!”

Ira hissed under her breath. “Pilgrims…!” She declared. “At arms–!”

“No way, dude!” The leader of the Seeker of Awe exclaimed, charging at Ira with long loping strides. “Ain’t gonna give you time to plan!”

He reared back and threw his spear at the Harper. Ira ducked left: the spear flew by, it’s leaf blade carving a gash in her side.

“Ira!” Uuco cried out He ran forward, threw himself into a roll, and came up casting lightning from his outstretched hands.

As before, the lightning attack flew high, missed the Seeker of Awe, and scorched a chunk of the archway overhead.

“Whoah!” the Seeker of Awe exclaimed, mouth gaping. “That’s, like totally gnarly, little guy!” He changed course mid-stride and leapt through the air at Uuco, throwing himself into a midair spin. One of his twirling feet slammed nto Uuco’s temple heel-first. The elderly Nobble hit the floor hard, choked, and then slipped into unconsciousness

“Uuco!” V’vendy cried out, drawing an arrow and loosing it at the Seekers of Awe. He raised his oval wicker shield, and the arrow lodged itself in the tight weave of wood and leather point first.

The other Seekers of Awe caught up with their leader and raised their shields around him, forming an impenetrable wall.

“Whew!” The Seeker’s leader exclaimed, bouncing up and down on one leg. “You’ve got some bodacious moves, Pilgrims!” He smirked. “But you’ve got no idea how to hunt in a packs!”

Corax charged at the shield wall of Seekers, swinging his weighted tail at their shield wall in an attempt to break their formation. The Seeker locked their shields together, slid back a inch or two, but held their ground. One of them slashed at Corax with their axe, nicked the tip of his tail

Seekers closed their formation and advanced, stabbing and slashing with their weapons, forcing the party towards one of the holes in the floor that led into empty sky. Dragon Face snatched up the unconscious Uuco before he could get trampled, carrying the limp Nobble under his arm.

“What are you doing here?” Ira shouted, batting spear thrusts to the side with her short sword. “Did you cause this town to fly? Why attack us?”

“Who cares, dude?” The Seeker’s leader replied, crouched behind his shield. “Take it up with our boss if you survive: he told us to snap up any rats that wandered down here!” He grinned mirthlessly. “But you want to get deep about it…we’re the predators. You’re the prey! And that’s all!”

“Whoa!” Vincol cried, hopping away from the swing of an ax and teetering on the edge of the hole. “You guys are maniacs This…this is madness!”

“Not Madness!” the leader of the Seekers of Awe roared with a sudden passion. Darting forward, he raised his shield and lashed out with his foot at Vincol’s stomach. “This is Evolution!”

Dragon Face side-stepped, sank down on his knees, and caught the Seeker’s leg between his arm and ribs. The Seeker’s leg smacked into the wrestler’s flesh with a loud ‘thud’, but Dragon Face didn’t budge an inch.

“Whoa!” the Seeker’s leaders exclaimed, trying to yank his leg back. “Hidden Gods! Do you oil your whole body? Hard Core!”

“You said you’d harm anyone who wanders down into this hidden city,” Dragon Face said softly, lips peeled back in a snarl under his copper dragon mask. “What about children?” He asked.

“What about children, dude?” the Seeker’s leader said, raising his axe to strike down Dragon Face and free himself. “Prey is prey! Children? They’re just easier to run down…Ow!”

Dragon Face clenched down on the Seeker’s leg, crushing it between his thigh and elbow. “HOW DARE YOU!” He shouted. “HOW DARE YOU!” He set Uuco down, then rested an open palm over his navel.

“Uuuuu…..!” He hissed, breathing deep until his stomach swelled. Motes of purple mana flickered into existence around his lips as he sucked in the wind. He twirled on one leg, dragged the Seeker’s leader out of formation, swung him around like a sling, then hurled him back into his fellow Seekers. “Stance of the Wolf King!” Dragon Face roared, veins standing out on his neck and arms as red-hued vapors rose from his body.

The Seeker’s leader flipped around in midair and landed on his feet. “Nice trick, dude!” He shouted, raising his shield. “Real gnarly! But you’re not high enough on the food chain to…!”

“Please shut up!” Vincol shouted, hurling a familiar rune-scribed clay flask at the Seeker’s shield. The flask exploded into a gout of flame and foamy acid, eating holes in the wicker shield and scalded the flesh of those Seekers of Awe that were nearby.

And with that, the momentum shifted. V’vendy drew two arrows, knocked them to her bow, and shot at the ceiling. Her arrows curved and and descended in an arc, flashing past the shields of two Seekers and sinking into their necks.

Corax ducked down, opened his needle-toothed maw, and coughed up a beam of red-hot energy, slamming a Seeker back across the room and overthe edge of one of the holes. That Seeker fell with a scream and vanished from sight.

Ira hacked and chopped at one of the Seekers with her short sword. The Seeker blocked and parried her blows deftly with spear and axe, dipping low to hack at the Harper’s legs. Ira hopped up over the sweeping strike then blew on the round lead balls in her hand. “Clobber him!” They zipped from her hands like flies and collided with the Seeker’s skull, pummeling her head over and over until she collapsed

That left only the leader of the Seekers, who found himself cornered by the Pilgrims he’d head on the ropes moments before.

“Yikes!” He exclaimed, grinning mirthlessly. “You guys are are hot stuff!” He turned and tried to run.

Dragon Face exhaled and raced after the Seeker, tearing across the ground with blinding speed. He leapt high, wrapped his legs around the Seeker’s neck, and threw him over his over his head with a twist of the waist. The Seeker hit the ground hard. Dragon Face tackled the Seeker before he could rise, grabbing his arm and pinning it between his arms, chest and knees.

“Whoah!” The Seekers exclaimed, struggling uselessly against Dragon Face’s grip as a pissed off looking Ira, Vincol, and Corax approached him. “Don’t stab me! Don’t be like that, Bros! Sises!”

“Looks like this predator forgot…” Ira declared coldly.

“…that prey can be dangerous too,” Corax hissed.

Their blades flashed down, hacking and slashing at the Seeker’s flesh. Vincol finished him off with a stab from the dagger he’d picked up.

And so ended the Seekers of Awe.

As everyone took a moment to catch their breath, they heard a loud cry and moan from the door the Seekers of Awe had come from.

The cry of a child.

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