Rapidly, we move over the rocky terrain of Starkbluffs, all the while hearing booming echoes from miles away. Even with the battle in the distance that flows and ebbs in intensity for several hours, I see Johnny's focus refuse to break. He constantly searches all the pillars we come across for signs of life.
Several times we do, in fact, find life, beasts, monsters, and the like, many of which have Sigils, but none are humans. It feels barren, bereft of humanity, but despite that fact, every step I take feels like eyes are watching me. And not just one pair, but many. No matter where we go, that feeling remains.
I bring it up to Johnny as Silas and Blake are getting jealous of Lennox's stone skin which causes him to be immune to the sharp rocks below our feet.
"You feel that too, Johnny? The eyes?"
He nods, and I can see his eyes rapidly scan the towering pillars of stone, a morsel of gold within the irises.
"I do. Humans are not all that live here. We merely lay claim to it. Like Sinscreak and Lawless Lake, though, Maddox makes the other prominent species in the latter bend to his will. But Howard is not as domineering as the Sea's Shadow, Maddox Adkins. Bado, the original inhabitants of Starbluffs, live atop the stone pillars and within the higher portions. Humans commonly live on a subtle balance set on the lower parts, but they seem to all be gone."
I gaze up at the seemingly endless spires of sandy stone; I can't help but feel small and insignificant in the presence of the towering stone pillars that surround me. The wind loudly whistles through the gaps between them, and I know, deep down, that the Bado are watching me from above, their piercing eyes following my every move.
Johnny's words make me remember these creatures, his description sparking memories from my readings.
I've read stories about these creatures, humanoid thunderbirds with two legs and sparking blue wings, who once ruled this land. They are parallel to humans except for their wings, beaks, and claws. The birdmen were feared and respected by those who first came here, and many believed they possessed innate control over lightning. Now, we know that's not true, however. Just like us, they need Sigils; the only difference is their seven tribes each know ways of creating warriors that can control that unreachable element just as Hura does
There is a difference between them and the demon because they only use lightning and thunder, making their Sigils far more focused and powerful. Once upon a time, they ruled this Territory. It's even named after them, the most potent Bado being referred to as Starks, beings that even Pillars used to struggle against. Now, however, the Bados have retreated to the safety of the high cliffs, and the humans have taken over the land.
It's even said that their once seven tribes were just as powerful as the entirety of humanity. Still, being sandwiched between demons, Nahullos, and us, they were slowly brought down from that peak. Now, each tribe is in shambles and only fights back when their spires, or Nests, are provoked, the once mighty Starks, equivalent to our Pillars, being brought from an impressive eight to a depressing zero.
Despite the uneasy and undeclared truce that exists between us, I can't help but feel a sense of wonder and curiosity about these creatures. They are intelligent and isolative, keeping to themselves and rarely venturing down to the ground. Yet, I can feel their presence here or there, small groups being in at least each spire, and I know that they are still the true rulers of this land, watching and waiting for the day when they can reclaim what was once theirs. Or perhaps, these aren't even Bado and instead are the wild beasts of the region, or maybe, they are even Hunters or Outlaws waiting to strike. I'm not entirely sure which I prefer. Best if we stay cautious, though.
I have sympathy for losing one's homeland, however. These Bados used to have a whole civilization built upon the tops and vicinity of the spires, and now they are forced to hide. But their eyes are uncomfortable even still. I try to ignore it as I follow Johnny and keep my watch out amidst the echoing sounds of combat miles and miles away. It's honestly impressive how loud they are. I didn't know anything could consistently be that loud.
But it doesn't matter. I use Temper as we walk to entirely focus on my eyes, disregarding every other sense. I trust everyone else to be able to hear and watch out for danger with their ears. But I want to help Johnny look for any signs of Sacate and the other people who tried to follow Johnny even after the fight at Rustbank.
The world goes silent, the moving winds and drafts between the spires of stone fading into nothingness. The world loses its fragrance, the rocks, sand, and remnant smell of lightning strikes turning mute. The world even loses its feel as it becomes harder to walk without the sense of hitting the ground, but I get used to it after a few moments. In response, however, everything becomes sharper in my sight. Color gains depth just as shadows gain light. Wherever I look, it feels as though I can see ten times as much detail and ten times as far.
I take a deep breath and focus, my eyes scanning every inch of the towering stone structures, rock and stone rapidly shifting under my moving pupils. Suddenly, I spot a faint symbol etched into the side of a pillar, almost imperceptible to the naked eye. My heart races as I realize I might finally be on the right track. I press on toward it, my eyes darting from spire to spire, searching for any more hidden clues like the one Johnny found.
Waving to Johnny, I move toward the symbol I found, inspecting the carving on the spire's wall closer with Dakota beside me. It appears to be pointing us to head further west. Johnny approaches me with everyone else on his heels, and I momentarily release Deafen to hear him speak.
"Good eye, Wyatt. That practice must really be paying off."
I widen my eyes. He knew!? That whole time!?
"You–" he laughs, almost doubling over and showing more emotion than usual– "You really think I couldn't tell? Don't take me for an idiot. I let you practice because it was harmless, and you've healed a lot. Don't let it go to your head, though. You're still not allowed to fight yet."
I hang my head low in sadness at the fact that I still cannot help and feel embarrassed, thinking I was hiding what I was doing. But after a second, Johnny pats me on the back, walking west where the symbol points.
"Don't feel bad either. You've given me another area to improve in with Temper. Perhaps, my eyes can be improved without the tight mechanical use of my skills. Come on, let's go find the others. I'm sure Primrose is worried sick about you."
His last sentence gets a chuckle from me as I move forward, raising my head back up. Primrose? Worried about me?
My words end with another thunderous screech from far, far away. They're still fighting? The conflicts have been getting further and further apart, some even reaching upwards of an hour, but it's almost been a full day. How are they still fighting?
Silas whistles in amazement as he looks out toward the north where the screeches are coming from, the man obviously impressed by the battle.
"My oh my. Johnny, what did you say his name was? The Pillar?"
I spark up and answer as Johnny is focused on searching. Don't want to distract him too severely.
Silas nods toward me in thanks before speaking out loud to whoever deigns to listen, more monologing than searching for a dialogue.
"Quite the man. The council members don't play around; he's likely running away as we speak, which is why the clashes are further apart. May Her Majesty bless the man, allowing him to live."
We go silent momentarily before Johnny flares up, pointing at a faraway pillar.
“Found another one… but this points backward… hmm…”
Johnny spins around, his eyes roaming the dozens of pillars around us. I follow him and look around, spotting another symbol in a pillar not far away, only a few hundred feet. I point it out to him as he can see better than me, and he distinguishes where it points to.
Then, he follows each symbol with his fingers in the air, finally pointing to a location where Sacate must have led the other group.
"If that points this way, that one that way, and this one that way, they all meet up on that spire right there!"
Upon discovering where the others must be hiding, we all move right for it, Lennox giddy to find a Bado for some reason.
"Let's go! I wanna see a birdman!"
I snort and pat him as I move in front of him.
"Our friends aren't Bado, Lennox. They are normal people."
The Stoneclad resembling a gargoyle, puffs out a disappointed noise from his mouth.
I move quickly toward the spire pointed to by the symbols as we all begin to circle the spire looking for a cave or inlet inside the stone structure. Fortunately for whoever wants to live or hide in them, most are at least partially hollow, dug out by either humans or Bado over the course of many years.
But on the ground level, we are unable to find any. So I'm the primary investigator along with Blake as we are the most agile. At the same time, Johnny watches out for us in case we step on the territory of any Bado.
We look at each other, confused, as Johnny puts his chin in his hands, his untrimmed beard from weeks of travel touching his skin.
"Hmm… The symbols should lead us to where they are hiding. But there is no entrance. Maybe… Wyatt?"
I take my attention from searching the spire to Johnny.
"Yeah, what's up? You got an idea?"
Johnny nods, and I can see his eyes scale the stone spire.
"How high up do you think you can climb? You've told me you're quite good at it and have a skill for it, right?"
Unsure but still willing to try, I nod back at him, evaluating the height of the spire. A quick glance tells me it's at the minimum thirty stories tall, perhaps more. And this is just one of the shorter spires. One in the far north that lights up from here is probably close to a hundred stories with stone made of a unique white resembling terracotta. We've mostly ignored Palecrag, favoring moving away from where the Blight Raven was likely fighting.
But this one is only around three hundred feet. That ravine in Bonedunes was close to seventy, right? That wasn't too hard with Chainlink Boots. I'll just have to be more careful. It's far more windy, so I can't climb like I did before, walking sideways without a worry.
However, I find it odd that he's asking me and not Blake after all his insistence on my safety. So I question him on it.
"I think I can climb to the top. I've done something about, uh, maybe a quarter of the height before without difficulty. But why me?"
"Good–" Johnny points to Blake as if designating a role– "She's afraid of heights, and I don't think Silas nor myself have the skills for this. My hands are fast, not necessarily strong. If he falls, you catch him, okay? I'll keep my gun ready in case anything comes from the top."
Blake agrees to the designation, pulling out her bandages from her sleeves that extend outward. I don't know how reassuring that is, but if she can restrain a demon with those, she can probably catch my dumbass if I fall. I also didn't know she was afraid of heights. Never really came up, I guess. How did Johnny know?
I get the urge to ask him, but with everyone waiting for me, I don't. They get annoyed at me asking too many questions, and with Lennox, I'm not the only one who vies for that annoyance. So instead, I remove all the skills making up Temper so I can use all my senses to climb more accurately.
So, without further ado, I begin my climb, funneling more Ether into Chainlink Boots, the swirl of my unique brand of Ether increasing the strength of the spiked chains at the bottom of the boots. Then, with my one hand, I Whet the fingers and push Ether throughout my body for Adrenaline Surge, using the increased strength and stopping power to make small handholds into bigger, more comfortable ones.
A thought comes to mind as I break my fingers into the rocks. I should really advance Adrenaline Surge somehow. Eleanor's book spoke of the fundamental advancement and the other three side paths that are known, Adrenaline Control, Hyperactive, Dynamism, and Salvent. They each focus on parts of the skill, namely, burst strength, reflexes, extended strength, and a minor boost to healing and defense due to the strengthening of the body, respectively. Adrenaline Control is the most basic using only two types of Ether manipulation, with the other three being more complicated versions with three.
I wonder if I learn them all, could I combine them somehow? Maybe. It'd probably take a while, but that's for later. Now that I'm about ten feet up, I need to focus on the climb, even with my Chainlink Boots giving me stable footholds the whole way.
As I climb the massive spire, my hand and feet find purchase on the rough stone surface. The higher I go, the more the wind howls around me, tugging at my clothes and making my ears ache. Sweat beads on my forehead despite the chill, and my muscles ache with the effort of pulling myself upward as I rise higher and higher, searching for an opening in any direction.
My fingers and toes cling me to the side of the towering spire, feeling the rough edges of the stone digging into my fingertips. As I look out to the region below, my heart races with a mixture of surprise and exhilaration. The view from up here is breathtaking, with the surrounding landscape stretching as far as the eye can see. The jagged peaks of other spires pierce the sky, and I think I can even see the faint outlines of the Bados perched atop some of them, watching over their territory. Their silhouettes of a man with wings are unmistakable, yet I'm still unsure. Of course, it could be a trick of the eye at this distance.
The wind whips past me, threatening to knock me off balance, but I hold on tightly, not wanting to lose my grip. It's a dangerous place to be, but I can't help but feel a rush of adrenaline alongside the similarly named skill as I hang on the side of this spire and take in the stunning vista. For a moment, all of my worries and concerns fade away, and I'm left with nothing but the raw beauty of the world around me.
But as another resounding screech comes from miles away, at this height, I can see in the distance a light. Or, more specifically, a lack of light. The sun's light reflects off most of the spires with glimmering light, but toward the north, one small portion of my vision is left dark with snippets of silver deep within. That must be where the fight is happening. It is incredible how far it can be heard, even if Howard specializes in sound.
After that noise, I return to the climb, going further until I reach a jutting outcropping of stone that obscures my vision and blocks my way. Looking around, it doesn't seem all that easy to go around with the outcropping extending quite far. So, I push some Ether into my hand while focusing intensely on Chainlink Boots to hold my weight. Then, with a Leash made of Ether, I throw it backward and up, latching it onto the top of the outcropping.
Once it seems secure, I roughly pull on it with my hand, careful not to fall. It seems stable, so I crawl my way up the outcropping using it in conjunction with Chainlink Boots. Once I make it up, I land on a small perch of stone with an inlet into the spire before me.
I approach it cautiously, peering inside the dark cavity. The walls are rough and uneven, but I see hints of something deeper within. I even spot a few feathers on the ground, large black metallic feathers far too large for any typical bird. Bado feathers, likely. I want to see what's inside. Did Sacate find an abandoned nest of Bado? And how did he even get all those people up here?
Before stepping in, I yell down to Johnny with my hands cupped.
"I found a way in! Should I explore it!?"
He looks up at me and yells back.
"Find a place to tie the rope in your backpack around, but don't go too deep! Worst case, you can pull us up!"
Inwardly I nod and turn back toward the dark cavity.
A deep breath of air fills my lungs as I step inside, my vision not made of chains struggling to adjust to the darkness before I use Nightvision, which gives my normal vision the ability to see. The air is musty and thick, and I can hear the distant fluttering of wings. Bado? No way. It has to just be an ordinary bird. I move forward, and the walls close around me, and I have to twist and turn to make my way through the narrow spaces. All the while, I look for anything that could serve for me to wrap the rope around, but I don't find anything.
Just before I turn around to go and pull them up, I emerge into a wider chamber similar to a cliff, only inside a stone structure tens of times larger than any building I've ever seen. I can see the partially hollowed-out spire from within; a complex of rooms, bridges, and passages stretches before me, carved into the stone itself, spiraling down the behemoth of rock, just waiting for me to jump down. I can see glimpses of light filtering in from above, where the spire opens up to the sky. Didn't know the tops had holes. Interesting.
I get distracted by the visage as a flutter of wings rings out in my ear. I look around but don't see anything below. The fluttering wings grow louder, and I can hear faint whispers in the air. Finally, I take a step backward and catch a glimpse of movement above me.
A woman, no a Bado dressed in shabby clothing, hovers above me, flapping wings of shining black steel with streaks of blue to keep afloat.
Dumbfounded, I look at her as she looks at me, an unknown expression coming upon her.