Yordeen continued updating the Atlas, marking one Settlement after the other from its surface. The lower realms were becoming bare of any safe grounds to house in. Those that remained, she wasn’t sure how long they would hold with the speed the Nightmares were going through them. It was completely possible the Settlements still on the map were already gone, and word hadn’t arrived yet. It may never, not with how well fed the Nightmares must have become, their numbers should have swelled with each Settlement they claimed.
“Archivist” called one of her many helpers “I’ve brought more for you to review.” The servant then placed a tray on her table filled with shards. Yordeen didn’t speak, merely waved the women away as she sank back into her seat. She spent a long Sequence staring at the new messages, her sleep had already been disturbed by the many scenes she’s witnessed. The prospect of her adding more, kept her fixed in place.
She forced herself to move when another servant brought more shards for reviewing. Yordeen scowled at the servant, who kept her vision focused squarely at the floor. Yordeen sighed, as he leaned forward pulling the tray of shards towards her. Not stopping till it was close enough that she could sink comfortably into her chair. Only then when she couldn’t find any more distractions to keep her task away did she connect to a shard.
She was running, bunched up with others, none making the slightest effort in hiding their movements. No point she realized a moment later when the echoes of Nightmares sounded from behind them. So hurried was their flight that when Nightmares formed ahead of them, those in front sent hastily crafted Chants to split the horde apart. Just enough for them to pass through, and leave the problem for others to deal with. The Chanters were at the head leading the charge, so Yordeen knew that things were desperate. The Holder of the shard thoughts echoed in her mind “Settlement Dacloe lost, Ancient confirmed to be in amongst the horde. Heading for the nearest Sanctum.”
The vision ended then, and Yordeen breathed in relief that nothing too horrific had been added to her mind. She tossed the shard to the side and grabbed another. She was blinded, as the fool who made the message began it right when the Givers light was put to use. Her annoyance and sending of curses ended when the Nightmares came into view. No, the Ancient, she was about to cut the vision off, but the wielder turned and ran from the scene. Yordeen kept it going but was ready to disconnect the moment something startled her again. A voice spoke within her mind “Settlement Ghoe lost, as is Lodeal, three or more Ancients have been seen moving with the horde, heading for a Sanctum as we're unsure if any Settlements remain in this section.”
She tossed the shard aside as it ended, and rubbed her face. She wanted to scream, but she had appearances to keep. Those under her wouldn’t hold up well if their Backer started acting completely distraught. She stayed slumped in her seat and did something she had neglect for a long time. “Giver, bless me with the strength to see this through.” She repeated that mantra over and over, long enough for her worries to recede. She stopped when another tray was placed upon the desk, breathing out slowly Yordeen grabbed a shard and continues to do so long into the Rounds.
By the time she viewed through one and half trays her mind was rattled to its core, the list of names growing so long that she was having a hard time remember them. Grunting she moved towards the Atlas and began marking off names. Most were to be expected, new Settlements two or three Cycles old, but there were some she had once thought safe from breaching. By the time all the names on her list had been marked off her jaw clenched, she muttered her mantra till the panic settled. She thought the lower realm was looking bare before, now it was looking empty. Whole sections of the circle were blank, the Nightmares acting as one attacking everywhere. Except for the Sanctums, and those Settlements close to them. Those sections were so barren of any Nightmares that it was eerie all on its own.
“How long then, how long.” She muttered, lost in thought as she studied the map. Once all of the Settlements of the lower realm were gone it wasn’t hard to guess what would happen. A tide of well-fed Nightmares, accompanied by champions will come surging upward. The Sanctum tunnels may even come under assault for the first time in Cycles. She shivered at the thought that somehow a breach could occur, that she might not be so safe after all.
‘No, no, the Giver and Anointed will swat away these pests, when the time is right these vermin will be laid low.’ She breathed in and out, focusing on her mantra. The sound of another tray being placed on her desk snapped her back. She turned her head, eyeing the servant who was already scurrying away.
Puffing out breath her shoulders sagging, she moved back to her seat, the mounds of shards glistened in the light. ‘What’s the point? At this rate it all say the something, Settlement lost, running for our lives.’ It was rather worrying that none of the messages had asked for aid, not that they would have gotten it. It spoke or showed just how fast these safe zones were falling. That they couldn’t even last long enough for help to arrive.
That knowledge should have spread throughout the lower realms by now. People will be abandoning Settlements. The ones with the most Worth would head for the largest Settlements, maybe even try to re-enter a Sanctum. Those of lesser stock will group together and offer services to anyone they can.
Maybe then they’ll call for aid? Those left will be close enough for men to be sent. The Anointed in those sections could use it as an excuse to form more flocks. Yordeen pulled trays closer to her, reentering the visions for another Round. Her thoughts were proven mostly correct, as a majority of shards reported Settlements collapsing. Some of which had to be extremely new as she hadn’t heard of them before, nor did the Atlas have the names marked down. They must have been the latest flocks sent out to test grounds. ‘Someone on high must have cursed them, that’s an unfortunate spot to be thrown into, couldn’t have asked for worse timing.’
Contrary to what she expected the low Worth weren't fleeing towards the largest well-known Settlements but Sanctums instead. She understood why now, that most of those outside didn’t have any idea what Settlements were left, so they’re picking targets they know will be there when they arrived. ‘They could be hoping the Sanctums will know where to send them?’ In most cases that would be true, now though?
She hummed away the weariness that was trying to take her. She would soon have to send a thorough report on events. The Anointed would then send messengers to heckler her for Rotations, normally this news would please them. Some much empty land available, they could send out as many flocks as they wanted. But with Ancients up and about, that changed everything. The Anointed will want to keep people, have a large surplus of individuals they could throw at the enemy if the times called for it. She sighed and pulled out a large shard from the table drawer.
Standing over the map, she began her own message, detailing everything she had seen, what she thought could happen, actions to take, and for the first time she asked that the Anointed of the Sanctums to actually do something to aid their people below. She believed in the Wards of the Sanctums, knew they would hold against an army of Ancients. But that didn’t mean she wanted to be around for that threat to occur, for her faith to be tested. This risk had to be squelched now before the Nightmares numbers swelled to heights unseen, and they truly do have an army at their gates.
“Again, again!” screamed a chorus of voices, as his children circled around him, tugging at his robes.
“One more,” Dailin said, “Then papa has to go.” He was assaulted with cries of no, and other sounds of displeasure, all of which were quickly whisked away when he levitated his kids up into the air. Their laughter echoed loudly, and he used this distraction and the fact they couldn’t get to him. To walk towards the door, he put them back on the ground once he was close enough to leave in relative peace.
The servants and other Maidens will keep them entertained, plus the multitude of other children that ran about this complex. “Enjoying them Heart?” Dailin turned to look at Younna, sending her a smile “Of course Love, they laughter helps raise my mood.”
She smiled in turn, and hugged him, her large stomach pressing heavy against him. He felt movement, a foot pushing against the side. “How’s the new batch going, not giving you too much trouble I hope?”
She huffed “Your children are very active” rubbing her stomach “Always kicking, and moving about. If not for the Worth they bring I wouldn’t find the strength to continue on.” She pouted at him, leaning in close.
Dailin gave her a look of caring. “Oh Love, would you like me to hum to you? Sing you a song?” She snuggled into him “Later, with my sisters.” She laughed “They would be rather cross with me if they found out I had you all to myself.” She pulled away from him “Especially with how little time we’ve been having together.”
“I’m sorry dear, the patrols take up so much time now, we venture out farther every Rotation just to come close to making our Quota.” Something that had Aethin growing increasingly distressed about, he could only stand to be outside for so long before he begins to have a meltdown. Dailin really detested dealing with those.
Younna hummed, her eyes distant as she played a finger across his chest. “Be careful” she finally said as the silence dragged on. “Once the children are assigned tasks, they’ll quickly bring in enough Worth to cover all our basic needs.”
Dailin smiled “I wonder what I’ll do then? That’s a lot of freed time if I no longer need to run around to make ends meet.” Younna snorted at him “Ha, don’t you worry, every speck of that time has already been planned out, we already have looked into new Maidens that we’ll work well with.” Dailin smile began to tip, the idea of being with a multitude of women was fine, but the prospect of having no time to himself, a moment of calm, was less so. “What? I’m going to spend my waking Rounds laying with one Maiden after the other?”
Younna gave him a confused look “Well, of course, we’re making a clan Heart, that takes many able hands, which we lack. Don’t worry you can handle it, your body seems to have an endless flow of vitality, once the incense gets you going.” Dailin groaned, he hated the stuff, mostly because he could barely remember anything that transpired while he was under its effects. That and he was horribly sore afterward, ‘Thank the gods for healing magic.’ Without that he would be bedridden after every session with his Maidens.
He sighed “and what about after the clan is a decent size, will I still be spending my days the same way?” Younna stared at him for a long moment “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a bond-mate complaining about intimacy before.”
“I’m not!” his voice coming out louder than he wanted “I’m not, Love, you know I can’t stand being under the effects of that incense. I like to remember the time I spend with the ones I care about, rather than it being a vague haze.” Younna look became softer, and she began rubbing his face “I know Heart, once things are established, we can have sessions without it, we’ll take things slow. But till then, you’ll just going to have to find ways to stay aware while under it.”
He stared into her eyes, fondness held within “alright Love, I’ll try to figure something out” he pulled her into a hug before pushing away. “I have to leave, it's getting close to my patrol, I'll come over once I return.”
“You better, or we’ll come get you” she gave him a predator smile “Plus you’ll stay the Rotation, there’s no point of you leaving to go sleep alone in a small room.” He smiled weakly at her ‘I enjoy that time alone, no distractions.’ It was when he made the most progress on improving himself. “As you wish Dear.” He kissed her and left, his stride quick as he looked to the clock and saw he was leaving later than he liked.
He weaved through crowds effortlessly now, a skill he was forced to pick up quick if he wanted to arrive anywhere on time. It only got worse as the months past, the crowds were growing more packed, the miles sized dome becoming uncomfortably cramped. There would be a flock soon, no way around it, the thought gave him shivers. The patrols were becoming a net loss now, with how long he spent out there hunting Nightmares that have just vanished. He would have joined a Hive hunting expedition, but even those have dried up. The Nightmares were gone for the most part, and no one was happy about it. He would have stopped going at outside altogether if it wasn’t for the fact Aethin sister refused when Aethin had asked.
‘Grow up quick kids, we're going to need each other to survive.’
He arrived at the summon with time to spare, the group he approached was small and filled with, well newborn. The lack of glowing bits was an easy tell. Even he had them now, his eyes glowed as did his chest. The light slowly spreading outward. Aethin was there, and he looked visibly relieved to see him arrive. “There you are Acolyte, I nearly thought you weren’t going to show.”
“What, and risk the wrath of your Sister, no, my Maidens held me up again, they're very demanding,” Dailin said smiling, as he approached Aethin and locked hands. It wasn’t as embarrassing now to do in front of others.
Aethin smiled “You should be happy about that, your worth something to them that will get you farther than any amount of tasks you run off to accomplish.”
Dailin huffed “Can’t disagree with you there, not with how things are right now. It hardly worth going on these patrols anymore.” Aethin hummed at that, Dailin looked at him “I take it your dear sister is still refusing to let us search for other tasks?”
Aethin smiled weakly, his ears bending downwards “She told me to stop asking, that things will pick back up and I should be happy she wastes her time helping me.” It was Dailin turn to hum and he dropped that particular subject. He offered a prayer to the gods, that the men who laid with that women were treated well afterward. He doubted they would get much affection from that lady.
He looked at the clock that was hovering above the gate, it was almost time for them to leave, yet their group was half the size it should be. At least for what he was used to, empty tunnels or not, he didn’t like the thought of being outside with so few. Especially not with newborn ‘Oh gods what if this is their first time outside? Am I going to be playing babysitter?”
Their Taskmaster seemed just as thrilled about the turn of events as the rest of the veterans here. The man displayed his discontent openly a common trait that all Taskmaster shared. He went on an adventure to find out why after the third one he had. Finding out that taking on the assignment as a Taskmaster was more of a punishment than anything. Normally for a Mentor that was failing at their tasks, or, Dailin looked to Aethin, so lazy that they can’t bother to get the job done. Maybe Aethin sister really did love him then, since by all accounts it should be Aethin leading these patrols. Though he was grateful the man wasn’t, it would be him doing the job then, with Aethin hiding deep within his trance.
The Taskmaster breathed out loudly as he counted heads again, afterward he looked around to see if anyone else was headed in their direction, there wasn’t. He grunted, his jaw moving in a way that he must be grinding his teeth. “Alright newborn, it appears we’re going to have to actually rely on you bunch to pull your weight. Raise your hand if this is your first patrol.” All of their hands went up, and the Taskmaster spewed a slew of curses. “Alright, alright” the man rubbed his temples “The lot of you pick one of the veterans to tag along with, do as they do, and for Giver's sake don’t hit one of your own with a Chant.” With that he turned and motioned for them to follow, Dailin and all the other veterans frowned as newborn moved closer to them.
The walk to their exit gate was relatively peaceful, if someone removed the newborn heckling them with questions of the outside. “So this is going to be easy then? No real moments of danger?” asked a newborn that’s been nagging Dailin.
“Yes! For the tenth time, yes, everything is going to be fine, no running for our lives.” Said Dailin, his speck of patience wearing out quickly. The newborn looked at him confused “But sister says patrols are dangerous, death waiting for you around every corner.”
Dailin sighed and side glanced Aethin, who was ignoring him completely, having submerged himself within his trance the moment questions began to be fired off in their direction. Taking a deep breath “They are, lucky for you, things have changed recently, the Wardless tunnels have become barren of Nightmares.”
“Oh” the newborn perked up, his ears lifting from his shoulders, and for once he stopped playing with his fingernails. “Don’t get too happy about that newborn.” Said one of the other veterans, whose taking this whole babysitting thing very poorly. “We’re going to be wasting most of our Rotation hunting the soulless beast down, travel real far out away from the wards to do so.”
The newborn shivered, his ears went limp again, and to Dailin surprise the newborn grabbed his free hand before he had a notion to pull away. His hand clamped tight around Dailin own. He glared at the child “I need that hand to perform chants newborn, please let go.”
The newborn looked up at him, giving him doe eyes “but you don’t need it right now? We’re safe.” Dailin glared at the child, but the newborn grip only tightened.
“If you’re going to hold my hand, then no more questions, and you’re going to let go the moment we’re outside.” Dalin said, already thinking of chants he could use to cut the boys arm off if it called for it.
The newborn smiled at him “Of course, I’ll be good.” Dailin let out a long drawn out sigh as he looked upward following in Aethin footsteps and letting his mind wander. It was going to be a long Rotation with these newborn huddling around them for protection. He would teach his children better, they would be ready for this world if he had any say in the matter.
As they reached the final gate, the constant noise from the newborn ended, replaced with palpable dread as they stared at the door. The Taskmaster snorted at the children before opening the gate, he headed forward, the veterans following behind. The newborn Dailin was holding hands with began to pull away, but Dailin pulled him forward. “This task isn’t going to complete itself, the faster we get this done, the quicker we all can go home.” The newborn didn’t answer him, maybe didn’t notice that Dailin was by his side, talking. The child was looking ahead, eyes wide, trembling from head to toe, and breathing frantically. Dailin glanced back and saw the rest of the child were in similar states, ‘Gods their just as useless as my group of newborn brother and sisters. I can’t rely on these kids watching my back’
Turning he called out to the Taskmaster the man still walking forward “Taskmaster, perhaps we should leave these ones behind? It will do us no good with them amongst us.” The man turned around saw the newborn stuck in place, and did a hard eye and head roll, his voice bellowed “Get moving newborn, I don’t have all Rotation.” He glared at them when they didn’t respond, his voice grew louder in turn. “I know all your names, fail me and I’ll have a curse mark placed on your records. Let’s see you try and get assigned to another patrol after that.”
It got Dailin moving, plus the newborn he was dragging along, the child even afraid of going outside, still refused to let go of him. Slowly the children followed them through the gate, they flinched when it closed behind them. Dailin hoped he hadn’t looked as they did when he took his first steps outside.
He pulled back his hand, trying to break free from the newborns hold. “Let go newborn, now I do need a free hand.” The child ignored him, his eyes darting around. They turned to him when Dailin hummed and the air around him began to ripple. The child yelped in alarm, quickly pulling away, while Dailin flexed his hand working out kinks that had formed.
A clap rang out, amplified with a chant so it echoed loudly throughout the whole passage. Everyone turned to the Taskmaster, a well-formed frown marring his face “Normally I would assume those here know the needed Chants to survive and get this task down, but with you lot, I’m making an exception. First, raise your hands if you can form a barrier.” Dailin, Aethin and the rest of the veterans did, but only a few of the newborn followed suit. The Taskmaster grimaced “How about moving your soul into a chant made by someone else?” Everyone hands went up for that, the Taskmaster, and all the veterans breathed in relief.
The man asked a few more questions before they headed off, but overall it was clear that the newborn would merely serve to add their mana to a construct the veterans made. It was the best for them anyway, as Dailin had to assume they’re probably just as slow at casting as he was when he first started.
Their progress away from the gate was a crawl, as the newborn were like him when he first journeyed through these jungle invested tunnels. They were tripping constantly, fear-stricken when they thought a Nightmare was hiding behind foliage, and they made all sorts of racket with their movements. A good thing for once, since they were trying to lure Nightmares in. The sounds of bumbling prey should bring at least something towards them. But as they walked, they were meet with continued silence, even the smallest of Maggots were absent. They walked through a forest lacking any form of moving life, and yet he was still afraid, the whole time outside his heart pumped rapidly. The lack of Ward light that he had become used to, made the jungle more menacing than he knew it was.
But worse of all was the lack of song in the air, he was aware of it now, the mana in the Wards letting out a very low tune. Maybe it was only the Sanctum tunnels that produced it, but his body had become very fond of that sound. That constant reminder that he was sheltered from the threats outside, and now it was gone, and his body was having a fit over it. He understood why these people huddled together so close, it did help. Though he would never mention it, he was thankfully Aethin was by his side holding his hand, the body contact made things less stressful.
The silence continued to stretch on, Dailin ears began to ache at being keep flexed for so long. He reluctant lowered them, the crisp sounds coming muddled. The newborn continued wearing themselves out, nervously looking in every direction rather than relying on their superior ears. Not that it matters, even far from the gate, things were still barren, the place left undisturbed for so long that Dailin couldn’t spot any signs of Nightmares. The Taskmaster calling for a halt “Send some waves, let’s see if there’s anything at all around here.”
They churned stone making the ground quake, even mimicked the Taskmaster enhanced clap. They kept it up for a solid minute before forming a loose circle, Dailin ears snapped back upwards as he focused on hearing even the slightest of sounds. They stood there, still as statues for minutes waiting, all they got for it was single Maggot that poked its head around a corner. It got a look at them, then scurried away as fast as it could. All those who were familiar with patrols gave various forms of ruffled noises, the newborn merely stood there still waiting for things to go horribly wrong. They had been (some still were) shaking like leaves, and only now did their complexions start to recover. The poor souls had gone sheet white when he and the veterans began their ruckus.
The Taskmaster breathed out heavy “We’re walking out further, maybe another Round away from the Gate, we’ll try again then.” Dailin had seen this coming, it was the new norm now, he spent most of his days walking around for hours just looking for Nightmares.
One of the newborn cried out “But, that's too far, what if something happens?” The Taskmaster's head snapped around, his voice venomous “That’s why we're heading out there, newborn, so something does happen because if we head back without killing anything we’ll have wasted our time for nothing. More importantly, I’ll look bad, appear as if I failed in my forced Task, and I’ll be cursed before I let that happen. So get moving newborn, for I’m sure some of this applies to all of you as well.”
None of the other fleshlings voiced a complaint, even some of the veteran looked uncomfortable, as the Taskmaster words could be applied to all of them in truth, the patrols did show you’re Worth easily, but in truth, only those desperate actually wanted the job. Slowly the host followed after their Taskmaster, walking away from the gate for longer than an hour, close to almost two. Even this far out, walking through passages long left neglect they still hadn’t run into a group of Nightmares. ‘If this keeps up we are going to head back empty-handed.’ He would be fine, with kids and Maidens wanting him, he could afford a patrol going wrong every once in a while, Aethin he wasn’t so sure about. He kept his personal life very close to the chest when it actually came to things important. The newborn, he felt some sympathy for them, if what Younna said was true, they’re the ones getting close to being kicked out to make room for more worthy individuals.
After living within safe walls for a few months Dailin understood just how cruel of a punishment that is. Especially if most Settlements meet the same fate as the one he was born in. ‘Gods let my children escape that fate, let them live safe within Sanctum walls for the rest of their days.’ Dailin knew it was a tall order to ask for, but he prayed for it almost every day anyway.
Dailin ears flinched as he heard the scraping of stone, and as one the patrol froze in place. The sound echoed out again, this time from a different location, some of them smiled as they formed up. Without prompting they made the ground churn. They only kept the lure going a few seconds just long enough for everything around them to know that prey was near. Then they waited, the newborn frozen in horror, while Dailin and others formed barriers around the group.
People smiles began to sag as time dragged on, that instead of a swarm they were hoping for, they instead got a small group of Maggots. They fired off the shielding in panic as the things began to turn around and leave. A little over a dozen of the things were cooked while the rest fled, afterward the halls delved back into the levels of silence that had become the new norm. The group grumbled as a whole, while the Taskmaster went about counting. Dailin tried to think positive, they at least had some kills under their belt now, though he still wished the Nightmares would return, which gave him mixed feelings. It wasn’t bad that they were gone, he was quite thrilled about the fact that these patrols weren’t deadly anymore. But it left him uneasy, the nightmares vanished, either on their own or by something else that either scared them off or ate them. If there was something that could make food out of Nightmares he really didn’t want to be the one to deal with it.
“We’re walking another Round, we’ll head in the direction those Carvers ran to.” Said the Taskmaster, his temper beginning to mellow some. Dailin ear twitched when he heard muffled cries from behind, the newborn taking the news poorly. ‘Gods, how will they act if we’re actual swarmed? Throw themselves to the floor wailing for their mothers?’ Dailin hoped that the next patrol he wouldn’t be rounded together with this bunch again, the last thing he needed was him holding off Nightmares while his support was curled up on the ground behind him.
Aethin squeezed his hand, and Dailin looked up as Aethin became aware of their surroundings, he did a quick look around and frowned. “How much longer Acolyte? My Maidens have been very crossed with me of late, and these elongated Patrols aren’t helping.” Dailin stifled a sigh, and made sure his voice was apologetic “Rounds maybe, we just now encounter and killed our first bunch.” Dailin pointed towards the burnt husks they walked by.
“That’s it? We’ve been out here for Rounds already, and that’s what we have to show to for?” Aethin said in disbelief. Dailin patted Aethin hand “Yes, unfortunately, thing seem to be getting worse with every passing Tempo.” Dailin had thought last week it couldn’t get worse, but life was proving him wrong again, he had never thought things would get to the point that the Nightmares would disappear almost completely.
Aethin grimaced and unlike before where he would have claimed things would get better, he instead remained silent before throwing himself back into his trance. Even though he didn’t need to, it’s not like they were in danger, but Dailin understood these trance moments were Aethin way to coup with things. But it didn't seem to be working as well these days, Aethin mood and demeanor were slowly getting worse. It made Dailin gut raw with worry, thoughts that maybe Aethin was getting ready to be kicked out at the top of the list.
He brushed aside the fears as best he could, and focused on himself, or more accurately on the mana that was entering his body through his skin, and every time he breathed. Most would seep back out of him, his frame unable to hold anymore, but if he focused he could use that access before it left him. It wasn’t easy with him moving about, staying aware of his surroundings. But he kept a clear thought in mind as he moved the access mana, willing it to become part of him, to lengthen or strengthen the pathways the mana traveled through his body.
He breathed out, merry as the mana that once would have left him, now became part of him, making him more, a little better than before. He continued this process tuning out his walk towards the more infested areas. Though he had to break his concentration from time to time, either to listen to the Taskmaster or a noise that would grab his attention. He stopped completely when the sounds of Nightmares became frequent enough. Their Taskmaster motioned them to stop, and they listen to the chipping of stone echoing around them.
Dailin had yet to understand what the little monsters were digging for, there was already an endless maze of tunnels to travel through. The things didn’t need to make more if their only goal was to move towards food. The Taskmaster pointed to the walls and gestured for them to get to work. A quick mixing of stone had the Nightmares go silent, they stopped and hurried into positioned when the Nightmares began screeching in their foreign tongue. Barriers were flung up around them, while the newborn even scared were aware enough to send mana into the newly made constructs. The shieling was decent in strength by the time Nightmares came racing towards them, throwing themselves against the obstacle. Maggots mostly, but there was the occasional Stinger in the mix, poking at the shield.
Dailin had hoped the flow of Nightmares would be more, but soon enough the tide stopped, they waited, prayed that more would arrive, but none did. The taskmaster gave the order, shielding went red and screeches of war turned to cries of pain. In a matter of seconds, the realm fell back into silence, the smells of cooked meat wafting in the air, which got his mouth to water. The action and thought had his mind grimace in disgust, he had no interest in eating bugs, even if it smelled of greasy pork.
Dailin felt a pair of hands lay upon his back, and when he glanced he found the newborn that had claimed his hand was hiding behind him. Even with the Nightmares dead, the child still looked on around them as if death was still about to take their lives. Sighing “The threat is gone newborn, you can relax some.” The child looked at him, moved away as he nervously picked at his fingernails. “You’re sure?”
Dailin looked around, listened to the environment, the ever stretching void of noise. “The silence gives me proof of my claim, any Nightmares left would have given cries of retreat, or called out for aid, instead we hear nothing.”
The Newborn started to calm, or at least appear less coiled, for all their startled looks, Dailin was having a hard time not being cross with them. None of them had any business being out here. If the tunnels were as active as he had first started these newborn would have been an equal threat to their lives as Nightmares. The clans they belong to must have thought this a good training exercise, at least Dailin hoped. If clans began dumping their unwanted into patrols even after the Nightmares returned. Well, he could only hope that his only kids were working then, so he wouldn’t be out here dealing with the mess.
The Taskmaster spoke, apparently sure that he got the number of their kills. “We’ll walk a little further out, if we don’t run into any more pests, we have no choice but to head home.” They moved forward, the veterans eager to get their task over with. The newborn dragged behind, both reluctant, and slowed as they tried to avoid stepping into the muck that was the Nightmares. Dailin smiled, all too familiar with their plight, but one he had found the solution to. Wrapping a thin layer of barrier over his feet he stepped into the bile without care, not a single trace of the vile marking him. A trick he would teach his kids, as he was sure they would be just as repulsed by the dealings of death.
Their trek down passages the nightmares had torn their where through yielded nothing. The Taskmaster had them turn around shortly after, heading for home. They could have ventured farther from the city, but it would do them no good, even if they found Nightmares. The Anointed as they're called, only cared about tunnels close to their home. Even the tunnels they had claimed their kills was stretching the limit of how far the Anointed considered their responsibility.
The walk home was uneventful, but the veterans kept their guard up, the newborn, not so much. Eager to get back to safe grounds, their strides were long, and more than once the Taskmaster yelled at them to stay in formation. Dailin spent the time praying that he wouldn’t be assigned with another group of this nature again, almost to the point of begging. He didn’t want to die after all, not after the effort he’d put in. Especially not because of scared children who failed to offer support against an uncaring enemy. Aethin stirred awake, none too pleased at first glance that they were still in unsafe tunnels, but his mood improved when Dailin told him that their patrol was over.
“That’s good to hear, though it’s unkind to know we wasted most of our Round searching again,” Aethin said.
Dailin eyed him “The alternative is us returning home with nothing to show for it, I doubt your sister would be too pleased.” Aethin shivered at the mention of her “No she wouldn’t, but that’s not what she wants in truth, as long as I’m showing effort in providing for my family she will hold her wrath, for now at least. But if this unnatural calm continues she might find something else for us to do on her own.” Aethin shuddered “I wouldn’t put it past her if she sent us to cleanse a Hive.”
Dailin studied Aethin, beginning to see just how little his Mentor knew of things going on, or more likely that he didn’t look into ways to earn Worth. “Don’t be too worried about that Mentor, those tasks have all dried up, just like this tunnels, Nightmares have seemingly abandon their nests to go elsewhere.”
“Oh, that’s, unheard of, I may have been hasty in brushing your worries aside Acolytes. The Nightmares are up to something, or grouping into a large horde, which I don’t have to tell you would be very bad.” Aethin said, nervousness mixing with his words
“Will we be sent out to find them? Maybe clear them out if needed?” Dailin asked his own worriers creeping up to the surface. Aethin stayed quiet for some time, his eyes distant. “Normally I would say yes, a patrol would be sent out to scout Nightmare movements. But for something of this scale, I’m not sure, if this keeps up they might just form a flock to go figure out what’s going on.”
Dailin breathed deep, the mention of flocks always brought a chill into his bones. It got worse as he thought of being part of such a task, his group being sent searching for a horde of hungry maws. Dailin was thrilled when the Gate came into veil, the light of Wards pushing his growing fears aside. He and everyone else relaxed as they entered, the subtle song of the Wards entering his ears helping his muscles loosen. The newborn looked near collapsing as their once rigid forms sagged, and the bundle of energy they been showing outside vanished. That didn’t stop Dailin and the other veterans from speeding down passages in their race to spend the rest of their day on things other than work. They stopped at the crossroads to quench their hunger before the Taskmaster forced them onward again. Of all of those in the group, he seemed the most eager to be down with them.
It was a shared outcome as they passed other patrols, no one looked happy, and to Dailin concern he noticed other groups had a number of newborn amongst them as well. The clans as a whole must have seen this as a gold opportunity to train their young. ‘Gods maybe they're readying them to be sent out in a flock?’ Dailin shivered he didn’t want to be outside these tunnels permanently, he’d grown too comfortable with the quality of the Wards if he had to go back to the one's Settlements used. Well, it would be a long painful ordeal for him. Such thoughts plagued him all the way back to the Sanctum, not even the Wards song could help ease his worries.
The group broke apart the moment they passed the city entrance, as newborn tumbled away, and veterans raced off to complete other duties they were bound to. Even Aethin broke contact with him without saying a word as he moved hurriedly in the direction of the brothel.
Sighing Dailin headed for the estate of his Maidens, pushing and weaving through crowds that grow worse every day, every scene fueling his fears, as the Sanctum was overdue for a Flock to be formed.
It was late by the time he arrived, and the area was quiet as he pushed open the door into his Maidens section. It stayed that way till he entered the main chamber and heads turned his way, squeals of delight erupted as children who should have been in bed, came racing towards him. A multitude of arms wrapping around his frame, all calling out.
“PAPA,” some said “Where have you been,” other asked, “Float us in the air” was the majority as they jumped around him. He gave them a tired smile, “Just once” he said at the same time he levitated them up with strong currents of air and barriers. Their cries of delight echoed through the chamber, Dailin flinched at the ear piercing sound.
A ting of a bell rang, and Dailin looked at the table where the childred had heralded from. “Finally back I see,” said Younna her eyes lids half open. He smiled lowering the children as he walked over to the table and sat next to her. “Sorry for the late hour Love, it was another fruitless task, we spent most of our time walking around again.” He moved closer to her, wrapped an arm around her shoulders, she, in turn, leaned into him. Humming at his answer they stayed quiet as the children surrounded them. Getting into chairs, or lying on the floor they returned their attention back the shards they carried, full of all sorts of useful lessons. Dailin wrinkled his nose at the site ‘How well behaved you all are when I’m not the only one watching you.’
Younna voice grabbed his attention “Heart was there Newborn amongst your number this Rotation?” Dailin chuckled “More than half the Patrol was, our Taskmaster was rather unpleased.” She pulled away, looked into his eyes “What about other groups did they as well?”
He gave her a troubled look “Yes Love, those that I paid attention to all had Newborn with them.” Dailin placed his hand on hers “Do you mind telling me what’s going on? I’m starting to worry, just a little.” She turned away from him, and called out to their kids “To your bed's younglings, you all of much to do next Rotation.” Heads turned their way, some looked ready to complain, but Younna looked at them and they held their tongues. Dailin waved at them as they departed, a warm smile on his lips. He felt colder after they were gone, now alone with undesired worries clawing their way out.
He looked to Younna his smile gone, she didn’t meet his gaze as she stared into the table’s surface. He moved closer to her, once more pulled her into a hug where they remained sitting in silence for a time before his lover was ready to tell him the unwanted news. She sighed, her frame pressing heavily into him. “When you were outside, how was it? Were things just as empty as before?”
“Yes, it’s getting worse actually, the tunnels now are bare of any moving life, we have to venture far now just to find a single Carver. We would still be out there hunting if it wasn’t for the fact that we were forced to travel far enough out that any kills didn’t matter.” Dailin kissed the top of her head “If this keeps up we won’t be able to find anything all.” Dailin laughed “it’s gotten bad enough that every task out there to eliminate Hives are gone, the nightmares have all vanished.”
Younna shifted pulling far enough away so she could hold his face in her hands. “Why would you know that fact? Were you planning on doing something foolish?” her tone was tense, not angry but close. Dailin gave her a warm smile, as he moved his hands to rub her shoulders. “No Love, merely looking at my options, these patrols don’t offer much Worth now. I would have asked you first before signing myself to one of those tasks.”
Her stance softened, and the hard look she’d been giving him fled. “Good. You’re a good bondmate” she said her tone caring “I wouldn’t have let you go, and if you had tried I would have dragged you back here myself when I found out. Your above such things, those tasks are for the unwanted, unneeded, you have far too much to offer.” She removed her hands as she fell back into thought again.
Dailin grabbed her hand “What is wrong Love? You don’t need to hide trouble from me, I can handle it when it’s necessary.” She leaned against his shoulder, placing her head against his. “I and my sister have heard troubling rumors of late, things aren’t going well for the realms below us. They speak of Nightmares swallowing one Settlement after the other, and showing no signs of slowing.” Dailin felt his heart start to speed up.
Younna rubbed her head against him “We can’t find out how many, nor the names, as those on high are being very tight-lipped. We only heard this much because of people claiming to have listening in on conversations, or viewing shards they shouldn’t have.”
“That’s troubling, but I can’t so I’m completely surprised, our missing Nightmares had to go somewhere, though I don’t like the fact that they're becoming well fed,” Dailin said as he squeezed Younna hand. He felt her head shake “It’s not just our sections Heart, I made contact with sisters I speak with in other Sanctums, they report the same occurrences for their patrols is happening as well.” Dailin’s eyes went wide, and he fought the fears that were trying to take him. “You think the Nightmares will eventually mount an offense against our Sanctum? Once they're fed enough?”
“I don’t know Heart, perhaps?” Younna said “But that’s not what I’m worried about, if the rumors are true, eventually the large Settlements will call for aid. The Anointed may actually send help for once if the Settlement is close enough.”
“A flock!” Dailin said with a start “Their readying the newborn aren’t they?”
Her tone merry “Ah, a bond-mate with a head on his shoulders, the Giver blessed me.” She chuckled some before becoming somber again. “But yes Heart the larger clans are readying the unwanted for their first experience with Nightmares.” Dailin thoughts instantly went to his own children, but no, they were still too young, they may avoid this. But Dailin himself, he could feel the dread building, he knew this would come eventually. He had hoped it would have been later, much later, when he was confident in his abilities.
Dailin trying to make his voice sound level “Maybe we should have these Maidens you found to your liking lay with me now before” he paused “I’m sent outside permanently, I ‘am after all” a finger pressed against his lips. He looked down as Younna stared into his eyes “hush my Heart, there will be none of that, your above these concerns, my worry was for our children, not you.” She removed her finger “Speaking of which, you’re staying here from now on, this is your home, we are your family. The offer has been sent to your Backer Aethin and his clan, they still haven’t sent word but it won’t be long.
Dailin was left speechless, all his dread and worries over the past months, gone. Younna smirked, then finally laughed, as she rubbed his ears. “Is this really so surprising to you Heart.”
Dailin looked away embarrassment marking his cheeks “A little, I’ve been running around doing low tasks since I’ve been here, I live in the lowest wards. That almost a guarantee of being sent outside.” Younna shook her head, her laughter dying down to small chuckles, she leaned in kissing him. “That’s because of your Backer if they wanted they could have assigned any number of high tasks to make your life easier. You have the soul for it, the will, I don’t know everything but you’re merely suffering the effects of being Aethin Acolyte. It has nothing to do with your Worth Heart.” Dailin rested against the back of his chair, his mind emptying of the stress that been plaguing him, save for one. “What if they refuse to trade me?”
Younna huffed “They won’t, but if that really does happen” she gave him a terse look, and squeezed his hand tight “you will discontinue your service to them, and come into our fold, there’s nothing they could do then.” Dailin smiled at her, still confused by the concept that he wasn’t a slave but a floating worker, looking for someone to hire him “of course Love.” She smiled lovingly “Good, once that’s done we can finally get things in order, no more of you wasting your Rotation hunting pests that aren’t lurking about anymore.”
Dailin breathed out peacefully ‘no more Patrols. No more running around to perform lowly tasks. No more doing Aethin share of the work!’ he looked to Younna “So now that were family completely, what would you have me do?” Younna looked away, her own cheeks beginning to redden. She pulled his hands laying them on top of her extended stomach. “Tonight, you’ll to sing to me, and my sister, and easy my burdens,” she said as she rose pulling him with her as she walked to the grove. Smiling Dailin wrapping her in a tight hug “Of course Love.” He said before the room was submerged in a calming tune.