Chapter 100 – No, Not Morbid
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Chapter 100 – No, Not Morbid.

Ueana woke to small snowflakes falling lazily around them, a fresh carpet over the layers that were already there. Except for directly on them of course. The heat from Callisto and herself would have easily melted them on impact, but Lily had stretched one of her wings over them, the leather and scale shelter helping keep in more of the warmth, instantly noticeable as she folded it back. Kitni yapped in annoyance as he snuggled further into her, Ueana giggling as she extracted him out, gave him a pat, and then put him on the ground. He was growing and had four legs. He was more than capable, even if he then proceeded to give off a pitiful whine, looking at her with pleading eyes. Fleur was the first to stand up, stretching, smiling happily as her tail swished behind her. She made it all look so natural, like she’d always been that way. Ueana was next, having a look around her and at the activity of the camp, the miners already up and started on their daily routines, grumbling with steaming cups in their hands, a few nervous glances in their direction. Then Coorie, who stumbled as she took her first step, straight into Ueana’s arms.

“Sorry,” Coorie mumbled, a faint smile on her lips, as she let herself sink into Ueana. There was no guessing as to what was going on, the bond telling them, just as it had for Fleur, that Coorie was indeed fine. Just a bit tired.

Well, quite a bit. At least they weren’t going to be doing any flying today. It was all ground stuff. Underground to be more precise.

“Are you going to be alright?” Ueana asked, shifting herself so that she could provide better support.

“Yeah, I think,” Coorie mumbled back, closing her eyes. “It really is quite brutal. You got lucky, being out for it all, waking up changed.”

“We all were.” Ueana replied. “But there was more than just that going on at the time.”

“True,” Coorie said, opening her eyes again. There was a sparkle to them, flecks of red and white dancing in amongst the brown. That hadn’t been there before. “Let me try something.”

Pushing herself upright, Coorie concentrated, power flowing around her. She was reinforcing herself, Ueana realised. That could work, the magic augmenting the body when used in that way. Coorie breathed out, steady and calm, the magic settling around and within her.

And forming a pair of ethereal fluffy ears on her head. Fox ears, just like theirs.

“Those are so cute!” Fleur exclaimed as she bounded over, almost knocking Coorie over as she wrapped her in a big hug, “It really is going to happen. All three of us!”

“Lemme go,” Coorie mumbled as she squirmed out of Fleur’s grasp, then giving her a light kiss as an apology on the way out. She then reached up, her hands passing through the ears, and then around them as she seemed to sense their location and shape, a smile forming on her face.

“They look good on you,” Ueana also complimented. “But don’t overdo it. Reinforcement has it’s limits.”

“I know,” Coorie stated with a sly grin, wrapping her arm around Ueana’s. “Let’s go find Kyril.” She was going to make the most of it. Ueana couldn’t blame her for that.

Unsurprisingly, Kyril had not returned. She’d been down there for a couple of days already, so whatever it was that she was up to, she was very absorbed in it. At least she wasn’t in any kind of immediate danger, as if she had been, her familiar would be on the opposite side of calm, not being in a position to aid her rider. Which also made it rather odd. Why had riders been sent to deal with an infestation in a mine? That was usually a task that would be given to whatever ferals were around and available, given that rider’s familiars couldn’t go into the mine with them. A question that she did ask of Asher.

“Politics, and the unusual nature of the infestation. Wisps and some form of mutated bat I think I heard. Push them out of the mines, and suddenly they’re in the air. And there we have the definite edge.”

“But surely there would have been some indication that they were there beforehand. Creatures don’t just appear...”

“It seems that these ones didn’t, the mine suddenly hostile a couple of days after the pulse.”

That indeed was rather odd. She did think about asking about why then had it not been a joint effort, but Asher’s first word kind of covered that as well. She’d had more than enough of politics to last her her entire life.

They ate as they headed in, their familiars remaining where they had been, quite comfortable and mentally within reach. Ueana had no idea if there was a range limit for her being able to talk to Callisto, but at least for the moment she could still feel his presence strongly, and he seemed happy. The mineshaft was illuminated by lanterns, a combination of mana fed ones and oil, shadows dancing over the glistening rough cut walls, a well worn track under their feet. It felt cold and enclosed, regular puddles whenever they passed by the reinforcing beams. Travelling through a natural cave was one thing, even in the depths of the Basat Line, but a man-made one that looked like it had been excavated in a rush, was another thing entirely. She was not liking it at all, and would be more than happy when they were done talking to Kyril and could leave. It was just a pity that she hadn’t already emerged.

Something else was odd though. Strange. A sensation prickling at the back of her mind. Something familiar, but at the same time not, and she couldn’t quite place it.

Then the tunnel split into three separate passages, with no indication at all of which way they needed to go. Perhaps they should have asked for more details from the miners, but she doubted that they actually knew. Asher stopped, deep in thought as she just stared ahead of them, her magic flowing around her.

“You can feel it too, can’t you? That presence?” She eventually asked, turning to look at them.

Ueana nodded, the others as well, even Armur.

“Where do you think it’s the strongest?”

Ueana closed her mind and concentrated, focusing in on the sensation, feeling around her with her magic. And then it clicked. She knew what it was. The presence of an ancient. Not as strong as when she had felt them move around the deep dragons, nor what she had experienced at Fox’s temple. It was considerably weaker, but it was still from one of them. And she could feel the point of origin, clear as day. She opened her eyes, pointing down one of the tunnels, the others indicating in the same direction as well.

“One of them has something here,” Fleur stated, a grin on her face.

“Good to know that I wasn’t wrong,” Asher said.

“Why would you be?” Ueana asked, a little confused. “You’re just as sensitive to their movements as we are, and considerably more powerful too.”

Asher raised an eyebrow, and gave her a confusing smile, like she was in on something that they weren’t. “Am I? Do you have any way of telling, of comparing? The power of the ancients still flows through you all, the changes a clear indication of that. You aren’t the same as you were before. And that’s ignoring your bond.”

“You have decades of experience on us. That is just as important, if not more,” Coorie said back, still on Ueana’s arm.

Asher laughed. “I’ll give you that,” she agreed.

The chosen passage headed sharply down, weaving its way further into the earth, the air still sharp and cold, a small stream of water flowing past them on the edge of the tunnel. It was dark, none of the lanterns were lit along this branch, Ueana and Fleur summoning flames to illuminate the area around them. There was no more rails, and loose rocks were scattered all around, fallen from the packs of the miners as they had brought the ore soaked rocks up from further down. But it also looked like this passage hadn’t had any use in a while. There was evidence of the infestation, guano from the bats, scorch marks from wisps that had taken exception to life in general, but the debris was everywhere. It hadn’t been cleared out for safe travel along the passageway, and it wasn’t fresh. At least it wasn’t giving them any issues, and Kitni was more than happy to pat a few stones around when he was feeling bored, or hoping for an additional snack. And sorely disappointed when he didn’t get anything.

And then the passage suddenly changed, going from rough to pristine, almost a work of art, the seams clear as if they had just been stuck together. Smooth rock walls and ceiling, rectangular in shape, strips of moss growing along the side of the floor, a water channel on one side, flowing with the runoff from the tunnel behind them. And otherwise dry, the dampness on the walls gone. It was kind of nice, and familiar, the presence of the ancient now much stronger. Ueana could feel herself relaxing. Sure, they were powerful and an unknown, and almost anything could happen, but she’d experienced this before. Walking into one of their temples.

There was nothing else that it could be. And they knew that they were coming, the subtle shift in their presence all to clear.

Ueana extinguished her flame as they reached the end of the passage, the bright light framing it as some kind of celestial doorway, exiting into a large cave, bathed in greens, blues, and yellows. It felt welcoming. Nice. And it was completely filled with butterflies. Everywhere. Not at all what she had been expecting, in the depths of the earth.

It was large, more so than Fox’s temple, probably more so that the summoning temples as well, and they were far too large in the first place. A paved raised path ran through the middle of the cave to a massive tree that sat in the exact centre, reaching up to the heights of the cave, leafy branches stretching wide. The floor around it sloped down a bit, then flattening out till it reached the edges of the cave, the entire area covered in a purple grass. Water, sourced from who knows where as it wasn’t coming from the tunnel, pooled into a couple of small ponds on one side. A shrine, not unlike the one in Fox’s temple, sat underneath the tree, the statue of a butterfly sitting proudly there. Well, that was her best guess. It sort of looked like one, but it had eight overlapping wings, and its face was somewhat more feral. But it only had two antennas, which was normal.

At least the butterflies, which were fluttering all around them, and everywhere in the cave, looked normal. As much as she could tell anyway. They were in every colour of the rainbow, in a wide variety of sizes, and somewhat mesmerising to watch. Weaving patterns in the air, or sitting peacefully on almost every surface that wasn’t the raised path. Some were responsible for the light, their bodies glowing as they flew around, their contribution vanishing when they landed and closed their wings.

And in the middle of it all, butterflies flittering around her, stood Kyril, still looking the same as when they’d last seen her. Swirling tattoos on half her face, all manner of piercings, and her black hair in a mohawk. Her gear sat nearby, tidily stacked and sorted, a pile of books resting on one bag. Her bone armour dismissed, bare feet in the grass.

“I figured that Starlight would send someone eventually, but I doubt that is you,” she stated as she started walking over to them, seeming to manage to avoid stepping on any of the butterflies.

“We have seen her, yes, but no, we’re here for own reasons,” Asher replied, folding her arms. “She trusts you. This place has obviously caught your interest. How did she not know of it?”

“That’s easy,” Kyril answered as she crested the slope, joining them on the path, a brief surge of energy flowing around her as she summoned her armour. “It wasn’t here before. I’ve been in these mines before, and that passage just ended in a small dug out area. They’d given up on this area, the mythril density not enough to make it work out, focusing elsewhere. But now, it is as you can see, like something placed where perhaps it once should have been, had things not changed around it.”

“And the other riders somehow missed it?”

Kyril chuckled dryly. “They didn’t want to be here in the first place. Finish the job, then leave. The only reason I found this was because I was doing a detailed scour of the mine, to make sure that we didn’t miss anything important. Sudden infestations just don’t happen, and yes, I’d say that this place somehow did influence it. Doubt it’ll happen again soon. You know what this place is though, I assume?”

“It’s a temple,” Fleur stated, before Asher had any chance of replying. “Or a shrine. To an ancient.”

Kyril looked at them, nodding. “That is my understanding. I assume that you found another one then? Or perhaps something that was more than that?”

“You saw these, didn’t you, back at the delegation?” Ueana said, pointing to her ears.

Kyril perhaps blushed a little. It was hard to tell in the light and with her tattoos. “Yep. They’re even more cute than I had thought. But I didn’t see them on the other two, and yet they have them now. Well, Fleur anyway. Coorie’s still a work in progress?”

“All things in time,” Corrie purred.

“All of you though,” Kyril said, gesturing to them all, “you carry their mark, that of the girls. And you three, something so much more. Even the little one,” she added, pointing to Kitni.

“We found Fox’s temple, and the ancient itself.” Ueana didn’t want to state exactly where though. It was something that she wanted to keep to herself at the moment, not that it was really that accessible. Or at least, it hadn’t been. “Before the pulse. There was more than just her there though, there were others as well. And they all knew.”

“You look good. I’d say that it worked out for you. Makes you all very unique though, and reactions, well, let’s just say that I’ve been through enough myself.”

“Yeah,” Ueana said glumly. A reminder that she currently didn’t need.

“So you’ve been studying the temple then?” Asher asked.

“Yes. This is an opportunity that I don’t want to miss. This place is ancient, and yeah, dedicated to an Ancient. There is a lot to learn, and the butterflies are rather pleasant company. Not ones to judge at all. Even if their patron is a little bit, unusual.”

“Has the ancient talked to you?” Ueana asked. She had felt it move just before, but that was it. No talking like Fox, and the other.

Kyril shook her head. “Not at all? Did Fox to you?”

“Yeah. You know it when they do.”

“It was kinda of scary,” Fleur chimed in. “Voices everywhere.”

“Or just in my head. I heard them back at the palace too,” Ueana added.

“Well, you are special. You do bear their mark. It’ll mean something.”

“Yeah,” Ueana said, smiling to herself. It meant a lot more than that, but she had no desire to mention the bond.

“So, what exactly are you here for then?” Kyril gave them a questioning look. “I assume that you were looking for me?”

“Yes. We’re looking for someone,” Asher stated, taking back over, “and the only clue that we have to their whereabouts is a ring. We were hoping that you could have a look at it and give us your insights.”

“You’re being rather hopeful.”

“You saw my ears!” Ueana said, a little frustrated. “Before they were there, before we’d even found Fox! And the ring, it ain’t normal.”

“Fair enough. I usually try and keep it to myself, when I see things like that. Just makes life easier. But I couldn’t help myself that time. That whole trip was rather nice, all things considered.”

“It changed our lives.”

“Perhaps then, one of these days, you might tell me more. I’m not as weird as you think I am,” Kyril said, giving her a knowing look.

Ueana looked away, feeling embarrassed. She hadn’t said anything out loud.

Kyril laughed, amused. “You wouldn’t be the only one, though you fall squarely into my camp now. Show me this ring then, and we’ll see if I can glean anything.”

Asher got out the ring, handing it over to Kyril. Who promptly gasped, dropped the ring in shock, caught it before it hit the ground, and slammed it back into Asher’s hands.

“#%$#. What in the hells have you managed to acquire.” Kyril glared at Asher, more than a little spooked. “We can’t have that in here. I’ll have another look, but outside. Starlight owes me one for this.” Not giving them any room for argument, she turned, going back down the slope to her gear, packing everything away into the bags and hoisting them over her shoulders.

Ueana just looked at her, rather confused.

“Wherever it’s come from, whoever it belonged to, it’s nasty,” Kyril stated as she walked past them, towards the exit. “Come on. Looks like my plans have changed a little, and I’ll be seeing starlight today after all. The miners better keep their paws out of here though.”

The walk back out of the mines didn’t take long at all, Kyril marching at a fast pace, the rest of them almost scurrying to keep up. Apart from Asher, who was taller than then after all. It wasn’t any warmer when they emerged from the mineshaft, though the sun was now shining, the light blinding as it reflected off the snow. The miners were still going about their things, their familiars still snuggled up together, with Lizabeth and Bonebreaker sitting just behind them. Kyril’s dragon on the other hand was standing up, looking at Kyril with worry as she exited.

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” she said dismissively, rubbing her hands along his flank as she walked up to him. And then stood there, staring at their familiars. “Okay, I didn’t quite expect that. They’ve changed as well.”

“Well, they are a part of us. But it’s more than what you can see.”

“Yes, I gather that. Dragon’s don’t usually snuggle, even those of lovers.”

Ueana shrugged. “Eh. Ours do.” It just seemed natural that their dragons did, because they did as well, and they were more than what they had been.

So far so good then,’ Callisto said with a hint of amusement, stretching his wings and then folding them back, nuzzling into Lily. It was both kind of weird and kind of cute, seeing a dragon do that.

Dumping her bags beside her familiar, Kyril walked to an open patch between the dragons and then held out her hand for the ring. “Let’s try this again.”

Asher handed the ring over.

Kyril stood there, concentrating, as her magic flowed around her. She stood there for a few moments, before frowning and throwing the ring back to Asher.

“I’m surprised that you can even carry that thing. It’s still just as nasty.” Kyril put her hands in the snow, picked up a big clump, and gave them a vigorous rub.

“Can you tell us anything?”

Kyril walked over to her familiar again, fished around in one of the saddlebags after knocking all of the snow off it, pulling out some smoked meat that she proceeded to eat as she slumped against the dragon. Kitni walked over to her, looking at her with pleading eyes, Kyril chuckling and chucking the fox cub a strip. Which was gone in seconds, Ueana sighing at his antics.

“You found yourself an interesting creature. Cute too.”

“He’s kinda family now.” Ueana had now idea how she would actually explain that one away if someone decided to try and probe too deeply. Probably just not. She was under no obligations to provide answers.

Kyril just nodded. “He bears the same marks.”

“That ring,” Kyril finally started, once she had finished eating, “is a collection of magic. Pooled together, held in that ring, bound by another’s magic. And it’s not nice stuff. It reeks of blood, decay, and death. Of things that are, but shouldn’t be. It’s been gathered, from all over the place, one by one, each individually added. Almost like a map. I can feel the pull of each thread, towards different locations, seeking to return from where they came. It’s not like it’s hiding it’s nature. You should be able to get a sense for the pulls, even if nothing else.”

Asher frowned, staring at the ring for a bit, before eventually looking back up at Kyril. “You’re right. It’s there, when you know what you’re looking for, though I can’t sense any of its nature.”

Kyril gave her a tired smile. “That’s probably a good thing then. I’d have long buried it or tried to destroy it if I had to carry it around. I’m surprised that the owner hasn’t tried to reclaim it yet.”

“They have once already I believe. I’m counting on them trying again,” Asher said, a dangerous glint in her eyes.

“Better you than me. I’ll stick to the butterfly temple I think.”

“Thanks,” Ueana said, both relieved and worried. At least they had a more concrete lead now. A destination or few to go to.

“I can’t say that it was a happy interruption, given what that ring is, but hey, it is nice to see you again, and what you have become,” Kyril said, looking at Ueana. “But, you do owe me. Stories, of what you have been though, that changed you so. The next time we meet.”

“Sure. We can do that.” Whenever it happened to be.

They have another lead now ^^

And lots of butterflies. Well, Kyril does anyways.

The next chapter (101 - Wandering Rider) will be out mid next week as per the usual schedule.

If you'd like to read ahead (currently by an extra 3 chapters), or just support my writing, please consider supporting my pateron. It means a lot. As well as the advance chapters of Soul Flames, it also has the first chapter of both Wolf Mother (a Soul Flames side story), and two chapters of What Lies Within.

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