As a noble, Phelara was born blessed.
By the grace of the Sky Father, she possessed the multi-coloured plumes unique to her lineage, promising beauty, magic and intelligence.
Last night, when the Sun Father had kissed the Tree Mother, she and her sisters had awoken to a great roaring conflagration, whipping the flock into a headless frenzy.
Phelara's first instinct was to order the den mothers to gather the chicks and the unhatched eggs. She then commanded her brood to strike the green and sappy branches so that they fell into the flames rather than be caught alight. In the past, when the sky had punished the tribe with lightning, the strategy had worked.
Yet, somehow, against all reason, the blaze grew fiercer. No matter how the priestesses called upon the air and wind, the burning boughs smouldered.
"This is no natural fire! It's magic! Find the priests of the stone cities!" The Cloud Father had called out, wise enough to recognise the fire's supernatural origins. At their leader's behest, the whole flock, Phelara included, had fanned out to flush the men of the mountains from their hiding spot.
"Here!" a veteran warrior had trilled. A group of city-kin had broken through the canopy and were rapidly making for the open air. "That one! The wielder of fire!"
Before Phelara could answer her brood-mate, a net of sticky vines had tangled the warrior's wings. Preoccupied with saving a hen, Phelara helplessly watched as the stricken female tumbled into the flaming forest.
"Sister!" Phelara screeched in anguish as her sibling's confused cries echoed. Many of Phelara's ungifted sisters lacked her aptitude. The bronze-feathers were inferior daughters of the Sky Father, but they were her sisters all the same.
"After them!" the Cloud Father hooted, his voice ringing from treetop to treetop, reverberating through the air.
The warriors gave chase, lead by Phelara and a few others. Along the way, they notified the surrounding Copper Claws, told their suffering through songs of agony and distress. Flock by flock; the tribes mobilised until they were innumerable!
One after another, they peeled the mountain-priests from their pack. Unlike the feather-kin, these "humans" were inexpert fliers, obfuscating their retreat with magic, and hiding whenever they could. But the tribe was relentless, so long as Phelara's kin persisted in the chase, it was inevitable that her flock would catch the culprits. Then, they would crush their bones, eat their flesh, and drag out their innards to feed the Tree Mother!
Phelara's final salient recollection was cornering another city-kin.
Instead, the sun rose.
For the kin of the sky, whose instincts were tied to the ebb and flow of Father Sun and Mother Moon, the phenomenon was enough to send the flock into turmoil. Phelara was no different, her dark pupils had contracted violently, owl-blind by the early sun, while her mind struggled to reconcile reality and instinct. When finally the dire radiance enveloped the flock, Phelara could do nothing.
Haplessly, her sisters tumbled from the sky. The lucky ones were disintegrated. The unlucky ones burst into flames. Those like Phelara plunged into the forest below, made insensible by the heat.
When she regained consciousness, she was but one of many, keening in the charcoaled ruins. Her eyes were blinded, seared by the radiance. She was bereft of her proud plumage; her skin wept, smeared with ash.
Every measure of her being was in exquisite agony, and that was before she sensed the strange magic syphoning her soul.
Phelara couldn't see, but she knew it was a charm of undeath. The same rot and decay utilised by the troll-hags of the deep forest.
Should the spell succeed, the accursed abomination would secure their souls to serve its ancestors, preventing the sky-kin from returning to the blue expanse.
It was a final indignity, one that filled Phelara's bosom with anguish.
Then, the Sky Father heard her plea.
Still conscious in the belly of a blessed beast, she realised she had been eaten.
Then without warning, broken, mangled and covered with mucus, she was abruptly re-birthed into the world, as helpless as a new-born chick.
In her delirium, a panacea had suffused her body, more potent than anything she had ever consumed, exceeding even the Cloud Father's blessing. Unbidden, her body healed and her bones mended; when finally her mind recovered, she gazed upon her saviours.
Why had they saved her? That was the question pressing at Phelara's scarlet-feathered throat. The Cloud Father had warned his Priestesses that the kin from the mountains sometimes took young chicks from their nests for sport. As for the fates of those poor sisters, none could know.
Very slowly and with great care, Phelara lifted her plumed head from the soot-stained earth.
She then spread her emerald wings, laying on the ground in a gesture of supreme supplication.
"Hello there," a female voice articulated from above. It was a tall city-kin female who spoke. She was a stranger, and yet Phelara felt familiarly drawn, as though something indefinable connected them.
"The Sky Father blesses," Phelara intoned carefully with clicks and squawks, keeping her pitch low and her teeth hidden. She caught the female's scent, and Phelara knew as sure as her wishbone that here was an extraordinary being.
The old tales had told of such creatures.
She was in the presence of a Godling.
"My name is Gwen." The female waited until Phelara lifted her head. "This is Petra. That's Ariel and Cali, and the one who saved you is Golos."
A pair of nostrils large enough for Phelara to stow a clawed foot sniffed her body. Reflexively, she quivered in Golos' presence. Like the female, Golos was also a Godling. From their scents, Phelara discerned, they must be siblings.
"Golos, not so close, you're scaring her." The female called "Gwen" pushed the scale-kin away. "Change to your human form."
Phelara gaped while Golos shrunk, not even the Cloud Father could change his shape.
"So," Gwen commanded Phelara. "Your name?"
"Phelara," she replied. "It means she with the illustrious feathers."
"I can see why. They're beautiful." The Godling shook her wing-digits.
Confused, Phelara bowed her slender neck. A pair of ivory hands then brushed over her plumes. Phelara quivered; she couldn't help but gaze upward at the green-eyed female with wonder.
"This one I like," the Godling called Golos spoke. There was an unmistakable scent of musk. "She has Father's colours."
Phelara remained bowed.
"EEee!" A four-legged Godling that bore the same scent as the female nudged her in the chest.
"Shaa!" A serpent coiled around Phelara's clawed feet. She suppressed an instinctual desire to swoop. Unlike the furry Godling, this one did not smell of anything.
"Gwen," a second female inquired of her leader. "What do you intend to do with this... thing?"
Unlike their alpha, the female called "Petra" smelled strongly of earth.
"I want to hear your story, Phelara," the Godling demanded. "Tell me how you got here, and where you came from."
The more Gwen interacted with Phelara, the more she liked the demi-human. Aesthetics aside, the bird was polite, respectful, and guileless.
Haltingly, the Sky Priestess relayed her tale.
When her discourse had been delivered, Gwen mulled over the occurrence. From the sounds of it, Richard was to blame, Jiro was the chief culprit, and Inti was the hand of deliverance.
Perhaps it was because Phelara had a human face, or maybe it was because of the Necromancy, Gwen felt especially empathic and sensitive to the Harpy's plight. It was sanctimony, of course, but her sympathy for the moment was genuine.
Now empathetically invested, Gwen instructed Caliban and Ariel to conduct search and rescue, as they had practised in Burma. By the time Phelara provided a summation of the territories between here and the Temple of Mama Killa, a total of twenty-two mangled individuals huddled in the impromptu clearing.
Initially, there were twenty-four survivors. Caliban, unfortunately, had gotten overexcited. As for number twenty-three; Golos had pulled the unlucky bird from beneath a fallen log, but left its legs where they lay.
Once the moment ripened, Gwen requested Petra revive the surviving Harpies.
"...Fine." Petra's concern was for what the Proctor's would think, though she did acknowledge that the same trick had worked wonders in Kachin.
As expected, a few more ragged-looking Harpies retaliated as soon as they were hale. In response, Ariel swatted them down, confirming the pecking order.
After a few reassuring squawks from Phelara, the flock fell into line.
"Copper Claws! Kin of the Sky! I have something to say." Gwen found herself a stump, stared down at the surviving squadron, then began to speak.
"QUIET!" Phelara screeched at her peers, mothering them into submission. "Listen to the Godling!"
"TOMORROW…" her voice projected through the clearing. "Tomorrow we shall travel through Amazonia. Tomorrow, we shall press upon your home."
"SCREECH!" As one, the flock burst into a clamour of croons.
"EE!" Ariel let loose a wailing warning.
"SHAAA!" Caliban flailed a tentacle.
The mob quietened, though a few of the dumber specimens continued to rile themselves.
"We come in peace!" Gwen told a white-lie, hoping that Jiro and the rest of the Explorers didn't choose this moment to visit.
The lesser Harpies wouldn't have it. Not even Phelara could keep her rag-tag siblings in check.
"SHUT IT!" Golos opened his mouth. A line of vivid lightning shot straight through the congregation, obliterating two Harpies in the span of a wink.
The woods grew suddenly silent, harmonious but for the sound of cracking timber.
"We mean you no—"
Gwen cleared her throat, making a mental correction to the script.
"We INTEND no harm! Unlike the soul-stealing mountain-kin, we come from Shanghai! For our quest, the tribe of Fudan wishes to transgress through your home to reach the ruins below. By my word and the grace of the Sky Father, your nests, your trees, your brood, will remain untouched by our passing."
Her captive audience hearkened, a flock of quails attending to a fox.
"I ask for your trust, and to that end, you have two choices. You could fight us, and indeed, it is your freedom to do so. BUT, should that be your choice, there will be- VOID SPHERE!"
With a whip of her fingers and a liberal dash of vitality, Gwen fired an all-consuming sphere of Void that first expanded to consume an enormous stump, then erupted as a dark nova, displacing a dozen more.
The resultant vertigo was palpable. Several of the Harpies grew suddenly ill.
"CONVERSELY-" Gwen allowed her dragon-fear to manifest in its entirety. "You can guide us through your domain as peaceful guests. That way, I win, you win, we all win. WIN-WIN!"
"We shall guide you," Phelara grovelled. "Just your eminence?"
"No. It'll be myself, Petra here, Gogo, and a few others."
"Not…" Phelara paused. "Not the…"
"The Desecrator." Golos was feeling helpful.
"Not the Desecrator." Phelara and the flock bobbed like hens. "Not the Desecrator, nor her flock. Not on our life."
"Not a soul from the mountain-kin's pack?"
"None." Phelara was adamant. "Especially the Sun God."
"I shall meditate on the matter." Gwen knew she had to consult with Tei on their latest intelligence. As for the Cuzco allies, she felt unimpressed by the challenge left by Kusi, not to mention there was the matter that Cuzco was arguably ahead on CCs. "Phelara, guard your flock. Golos, you stay and make sure they stick around. Don't you dare think of eating our feathery friends."
Golos eyed the females contemplatively.
With a glance, Gwen retrieved her Familiars, then placed a hand on Petra's shoulder.
"Let's see what Tei thinks of all this," Gwen informed her cousin. "After centuries spent fighting Necromancy. I am sure he'll take to Kusi very kindly."
"Very well." Inti inclined his perfect chin. "I understand your apprehension. Thank you for not reneging our non-aggression pact."
"It is we who should be thankful for your understanding." Gwen extended a hand. "Regardless, I promise you that the relics of your people will receive the greatest care from us."
"May the best team win," Inti intoned.
Cuzco and Fudan's leaders exchanged handshakes.
Before the conference, Gwen had expressed her concerns for the unusual magic demonstrated by Kusi, stopping short of the N-word. After consulting with her fellow members of Fudan's "flock", it was clear that close-cooperation was no longer possible. Openly, Tei had expressed that as one whose family spent generations putting the undead to eternal sleep, he refused to work alongside Kusi. Rene's dislike was likewise pronounced, citing that were it not for the Northern Front, she would be richer by two cousins, an aunt, and a grand-uncle. Lulan reminded Gwen that her beloved Master had died at the Front, eliciting from her vice-captain a heartfelt apology. Finally, Petra expressed that she distrusted the three girls from Cuzco and that Inti was slicker than a snake oil peddler.
In the end, "splitting the party" became a unanimous decision.
Having then agreed on limiting their continued cooperation, both teams proceeded with the Dungeoneering.
Once the Magi-tech engineers tethered the data-slates to the Divination Engine, a topographic projection of the region came into view. Tica gave her annotations, then Richard filled-in what Tica had left out.
In the time since the teams' recovery, Cuzco Tower had reported that the three teleported members were safe and recovering in the infirmary. This resolved the tension somewhat, enough at least for Tica and Richard to recount their adventure. According to the duo, it was during the final incursion into the temple itself that the parties had been discovered, leading to their hasty escape through the canopy, followed by many hours of hide-and-seek until they were close enough to receive Inti's salvation.
Richard sighed. He had envisioned that Gwen would nail the flock with an Ariel-charged Maelstrom or a Void Vortex.
As for the temple-Dungeon, the Dungeoneers had their work cut out for them. The golden halls of Mama Killa's abode were now a troll-fortress, its ancient walls converted into a grotesque ziggurat, at the top of which the trolls offered their live sacrifices.
"Are trolls religious?" Gwen enquired.
"Amazonian trolls worship the Dark God of the Forest, Kernunno," Tica demonstrated her expert knowledge. "It's a proto-religion atypical of demi-humans. They believe that Amazonia was created for their benefit alone and that they are the offspring of Kernunno, who sowed his seed to form the trolls. For a fort of this size, anticipate two hundred warriors, ten shamans, and over a thousand slaves. In all likelihood, a Hag Coven leads the fort."
"A coven?" Gwen inquired.
"A trio of Hags, lead by an arch-Hag..." Tica described the rare troll variant. "...highly adept at using magic, capable of debilitating spells that cause rot, disease and ruin."
"A trio of Hags, eh?" Gwen pursed her lips thoughtfully. "The wild and withered variety?"
"Yes, I suppose." Tica shrugged. "They are consorts to the Chieftain, and also his advisors."
Their attention returned to the map.
"The fire your man had set should have cleared the vegetation somewhat," Inti explained, pointing at the eastern quadrant of the temple city. "The canopy and the emergent layer should be significantly diminished. We intend to make our entry from there."
Looking at the Harpy's home, Gwen felt a pang of guilt, followed by a stab of hypocrisy. Like many bleeding hearts in her old world, she was the sort who loved her wagyu so long as she didn't pet the calf. As a fellow "deforester", she wasn't sure if she had the credentials to critique the slash and burn of an entire eco-sphere for ease of access.
"We'll arrange our entrance ourselves." Gwen motioned to Inti. "For now, let's say Fudan takes the western quadrant? Is that agreeable?"
Topographically, the temple complex was rectangular, with the old temple in the middle. To split the task in twain, therefore, was entirely agreeable.
"One more thing." Gwen allowed a sliver of Essence to permeate her presence. "We will be proceeding through the Harpy's lair close to the ruins. Due to Miss Kusi's cultural Spellcraft, we humbly request that Cuzco does not disturb the Indigenous inhabitants."
The conference table grew silent.
"If possible, we would like Cuzco to bypass the main nesting site of the Copper Claws," Gwen continued, her tone neither boastful nor pleading. "You may need to fly around, meaning your detour is longer. Is that agreeable?"
"Why such love for the demi-humans?" Kusi's voice came across with undisguised hostility. "Are you allying yourselves with man-eating Monsters?"
"Speak for yourself, Necromancer," Rene snorted. "I'd rather party with a Harpy than a Death Mage."
"Our ancient craft isn't Necromancy!" Musi snarled. "You ignorant raka!"
"Says the sha-bi!" Rene grew instantly hot. "Your kind should be locked up in Tianlanqiao."
"Let's hope we don't meet in the temple."
"You better hope."
Tei attempted to calm the situation, but the grave keeper's presence failed to douse the flaring temper. Tica watched by the side, seemingly amused by her teammate, while Jiro attempted to pull Rene back.
"ALRIGHT!" Gwen spared no expense in filling the room with her presence, causing even Inti to turn a shade lighter. "SHUT UP! All of you. Cuzco, I request that you avoid the Copper Claw's nesting site. If you wish to proceed, I can't speak for the risks involved."
"Is that a threat?" Musi stepped in, a finger touching her daggers.
Gwen's orbs glowed. Did these indigenous girls really think Fudan were ripe avocados ready for the plucking?
"You call that a threat?" Lulan stepped up. A two-metre slab of jade-green iron materialised mid-air. "This is a threat."
"Stop! We agree!" Inti checked the girls' retorts, placing himself as a barrier. "Cuzco will make the detour."
"Much obliged." Gwen inclined her chin, hiding her dislike for the Shaur siblings. "We'll do our best to ensure you won't be delayed. I promise."
"The promise of an outlander?" Kusi had to have the final word.
"Enough!" Inti snapped, then bowed his head. "I am very sorry, Miss Song. Please pay them no heed. Cuzco SHALL bypass the Harpy den, one way or another."
The sibling's objection was stared down by Tica, the undisputed queen of Inti's future harem.
"Thank you." Gwen found the prince as agreeable as the sisters were disagreeable. "Allow me to apologise for our misgivings in advance."
Ignoring their detractors, the teams' leaders soon agreed on their divergent routes, ultimately descending upon the fort from the east and west.
When Gwen brought her Dungeoneering team to greet their Harpy guides, she found the colourful pheasant surrounded by more of her kin. In the intervening three hours or so, Phelara had been busy.
"What's happened?" she alighted onto the soot-strewn earth.
A series of unintelligible squarks that translated into "She comes" and "It's the sister" and "I want my turn" addressed Gwen's arrival. When she shooed the bird-women away, trying to find Phelara, she heard a parting of ruffled feathers.
"Phelara?" Gwen spotted her favourite bird in a wholly unexpected condition, one involving her Wyvern.
Golos sat in his demi-human form, raw as a peeled onion, erect as a flagpole, looking happier than a bear with a stomach full of salmon. Beside her Planar Ally, Phelara appeared as though she had been put through the wringer. Here and there, she was missing tufts of feathers. As for Golos, either he had been vigorously punching a downy pillow, or he had done the Discovery Channel special.
"Wow." Rene licked her dry lips. "A wyvern's club has a spiked knob."
"It's the tail." Gwen's face flushed a brilliant scarlet while her fingers tingled. She had told Golos to protect the Harpies, but instead, she had set loose a cock in a henhouse. Or perhaps, was it more akin to commanding a dog to guard the hens, and only to find—
She slapped her cheeks to clear her head.
Phelara wobbled to her feet. Beside her, a few other hardy specimens helped one another to stand, strained by their weakened knees.
Gwen pinched her brow.
"Golos. Put on some pants."
Golos materialised a shawl.
"Phelara? Have you decided?"
"Yes." The Sky Priestess nodded, arching her spine in avian supplication. "We would like to invite Lord Golos to our domain."
"I'll need a week," Golos intoned with great anticipation. "Maybe two."
"YOU need to work," Gwen intervened. "No work, no play. I need those trolls gone, and relics recovered. Else, I'll send you back to Ruxin, and you can explain your failure personally."
Sighing, Gwen briefly explained their plan, stating that she had secured a deal to avert further damage to Phelara's village.
"Yes!" Phelara declared, now more helpful than ever. "The Cloud Father will show you where the trolls are weakest! Where the Hags sleep! We often raid one another. The giant-kin foray into our domain and take our young and our eggs for nourishment. Father may even know where these relics of the mountain-kin may be hidden. He has been our leader since the fort was manned by 'humans', many seasons ago!"
"Excellent." Gwen patted the bird on the head. "Well done. I have rewards for you if your Cloud Father can help us. For him as well, you can tell him that."
She then turned to her Wyvern.
"Gogo." she slapped Golos on the back. "Cheer up! Not only do you to get to eat trolls, but you also get to tango! Just remember, dead trolls, recover relics. Work well, and I'll keep you manifested. FOR TWO WHOLE WEEKS."