Wild Horses

Julian unstraps the hunting horn at his side and eyes it for several long moments. It is pale alabaster in colour, carved with huntsmen and horses and hounds. He sets it to his lips and sounds it, a single bright note shivering across this alien place. Nothing appears to happen for long moments. Then, in the far distance, back toward the entrance that allowed them into Mandorways, on the other side of the boundaries between, a cloud of dust occurs. As though something has heard that note and is racing toward it at vast speeds.

"I have sounded this horn before." Julian says as he lowers it. "On the banks of the river where I woke, shortly before we found each other again, Aurora. Nothing happened then."

"I know," Aurora says, eyes riveted to the oncoming commotion. "Although I wouldn't say nothing happened; it did bring me to your location. But perhaps it wasn't the time. Assuming what's coming our way is in fact part of this third task. We should be prepared though," she says while fingering her blaster rifle. "In case I was wrong. Is everyone behind the wards?" She looks to make sure that it is so before looking up at the silvery sphere.

"Ghostwheel? As soon as you can give me a reading on what's responding to the horn, let me know."

If Aurora has reset the parameters of the ward to enclose all, then indeed, they are all inside the shimmering energies of the wards. "My long-range scans indicate the environmental disturbance appears to be a herd of horses, Aurora." The Ghostwheel reports. "Horses that are breaching the energy boundaries between the dimensionals of Mandorways with ease."

"Horses?" questions a bemused Aurora. "Were they over there all along?"

"Unknown variable." Ghostwheel says. "My query is, why are they summoned by the sound of Prince Julian's horn?"

Julian is eying the carved horn that he holds again, clearly contemplating various different theories, in silence. The dust cloud in the far distance, high above them on the inner curvature of the massive Dyson Sphere that encloses them all, grows larger and closer.

"How many are we talking?" Aunna asks. She's finished with bandaging her arm and approached the others: hand casually on pommel, gaze to the distance. Where once there had been dull politic was now a spark of genuine interest.

"Scans indicate hundreds at least." Ghostwheel replies. "The lead stallion is.. steel grey and…" There is a slight pause. "The morphology of the lead stallion is similar to my records of Morgenstern."

Julian looks up at this comment, then toward the dust cloud, an odd expression in his dark blue eyes.

Aurora looks blankly at her AI, and then to her husband. Unsurprisingly, this name meant nothing to her. Not attached to a horse at any rate. "Morgenstern?"

She looks like she's about to inquire further, but remembering how he is, Aurora just sighs quietly and goes back to watching the approaching herd.

The thunder of hooves on packed earth becomes audible long before the herd comes into their sight. The cloud of dust announces their presence, also, before the lead stallion appears on top of the hills that surround the Tower of the Sun. There he pauses for long moments, as the others of his herd also halt, peering at this place. From this distance, it is clear that the massive lead stallion is one of the largest, if not the largest, of all the herd: his coat is steel-grey, yet the others of his herd run the whole spectrum, of both pastel and metallic and striped colours.

Aurora gapes at the sight. "I used to raise horse. I thought I had a pretty good idea what was out there. Is this place like the equine Noah's Ark? Because I have never even imagined pastel or metallic horse. A live one."

Just off Aurora's flank, Aunna replies "I have." Then she moves off, alongside the shuttle, eyes fixed on the herd.

An intake of breath occurs from Julian. "If not Morgenstern, then his descendant, at least." Says he. "I have to let him see me, Aurora. Is it safe to walk through your wards?"

"What?" she shakes herself from staring at a striped horse and looks up at him. "Oh, yes. For you it is."

The other woman strides some distance away from the rest of the group. She moves like a jungle cat, clearly restless, as she surveys the band of horses. All at once she stops, raises her fingers to her lips, and whistles, trill and true. It is queerly melodic, like the cry of a hawk in the desert. Then she waits.

Aurora watches the two of them and then looks back at the horses, biting her lower lip. They obviously have, or expect to have, old friends among the herd. They weren't thinking about just how they were going to get them back to the station. She looks up at Ghostwheel worriedly and fell into thoughtful silence.

Ghostwheel. We are too close to the Logrus to use Pattern safely, aren't we? I am going to need to transport horses from here to the Fury. Will this shuttle we have now fit through the bay doors? Otherwise, I am going to have monger a spell to allow them to breathe in the vaccum of the shuttle
bay while we return to our shuttle.

The black crystal should insulate the Pattern from the Logrus. And vice versa. The Ghostwheel replies on their silent channel of communications. The shuttle we have now will not fit. A spell that large will take time to build, and will not hold long against the forces of the Logrus.

The steel grey stallion again accelerates on seeing Julian, who makes no further sound, he merely stands there in sight.

Another of the horses detaches from the herd moments after Ariaunna whistles, a horse apparently fashioned from purest gold, mane and tail of purest white platinum. The stallion, not as massive as the dark grey steel leader, races toward her: built for speed, lean and long, where the grey is built for raw strength. Sparks are left behind as his hooves strike the earth, as he outraces the grey, an aura of alien enchantment shining about him. Long before the grey reaches Julian, this horse reaches Ariaunna, and
circles about her, shifting from hoof to hoof, eyeing her as though trying to determine if she is real…

The rest of the herd remains at a distance, wary of approaching too closely, each one shimmering with the same aura of alien enchantment.

No one but the Shamans and the hawk could catch the soft sigh from Aurora as her eyes drop from the Ai to the scene unfolding before them.

The Bird-Shaman appears somewhat in awe. "The mythical Horse-Clan." Says he to his warriors, in the ancient dialect of Thari. "Truly, we are living in the End of Days."

"Horse-clan?" Aurora as asks the Elder in his tongue. "Share the myth with me, please?"

"The myth says they were born from crystal eggs long ago, blessed by the Serpent and the Unicorn, the Lord and the Lady." The Bird-Shaman says. "It is an old story taught to our children, that if they are greatly fortunate, they could befriend one of the Horse-Clan, to ride far and wide through all the worlds there are."

Aurora looks from Julian to Aunna and back to the Shaman. "I think they are reconnected with friends they thought lost." She herself hasn't had a favored companion in many centuries by the time she had left her previous life, and she doubts muchly if Europa is among those creatures before them.

She steps outside the wards to get a closer look at the new arrivals, but staying well out of the way of both of them.

Aunna, meanwhile, has left the wards and approaches the golden bay without fear; her voice pitched low as she spoke another language Aurora does not understand offhand.

"Hau kola, Sagr," she seems to say. "Mushtae, sodelavek."

She examines the horse carefully with eyes and hands, running her palms across his coat and down his legs each in turn as she made her way around him. He watches her continually, turning his head first
left and then right to follow her circuit around him, ears constantly twisting to follow her voice. When she stands before him again, she blows out a breath; he scoops it up with dilated nostrils, and returns the greeting. Then he sighs, and rest his forehead on her chest.

For the first time since she'd woken, Aunna smiles. In it is genuine serenity. She bows her head, and cradles the horse's muzzle in her arms, silent.

Swallowing the lump in her throat, Aurora turns from Aunna's reunion. She feels she is intruding on a private moment she has no right to. Instead she succumbs to the awe that is her husband's equine friend. This close and he was almost too much to wrap her mind around. But it is close enough to study the alien enchantment that shimmers over the entire herd.

"Aurora, this is Morgenstern." Julian introduces the steel-grey stallion, who looms over the petite redhead like storm-clouds. He is not out of breath after running to this place.

"Morgenstern, this is my wife Aurora." He says to the stallion. Both stallion and man seem a little more relaxed now than before. As if something missing has clicked into place.

Aurora has been around horses forever. For most of her existence, they were the only form of transportation. She had bred horses on her ranch in California. She thought she was perfectly alright with them. But this one was large enough to literally bite her head off. But he was also her husband's horse. More then that, he was his friend judging by his change of demeanor since the stallion's arrival. She takes a step closer after giving Julian a smile and lets Morgenstern get to know her.

After several moments of silence, Aunna speaks.

"Julian," she says. Her head has lifted, and she's let go of her horse. The bay snorts, shakes his neck, and rests his chin on her shoulder. Her gaze is once more on the herd. "Are you familiar with Glemdennig?" she asks.

"I am." Julian says, one of his hands yet resting on the steel-grey neck of Morgenstern, who is sniffing Aurora's fire-gold curls (she is short enough that he has to lower his head to do this).

Aurora giggles at the horse's actions. She reaches up and strokes his neck while the other two talk about another horse she knows nothing about. Morgenstern disturbs her fire-gold curls with another sniff as she does so: his neck feels warm but hard beneath her fingers.

Lifting one arm, Aunna makes a small gesture toward the band. "Would you say that striped one resembles him? And if so, could it be possible that one of these shuttles might contain his master?"

"Yes." Julian says, interest sharpening his gaze. "I do not recommend approaching Glemdenning without Benedict there." He adds.

Aunna smirked, but made no reply. Instead she tugged her horse's ear playfully and turned her attention to Aurora.

"The way I see it," she said, "we have a couple of choices. Either we all go into the Tower and hope the alleged survivor doesn't have a platoon camped here when we come out," (a vague thumb's up, followed by index finger like a kid playing bank robber) "or someone makes sure alleged survivor isn't able to do that. I'll leave it up to you, but if a girl can have a say, I'm a fan of option two."

Aurora looks over from trying to figure out exactly how one climbed on a horse as tall as some houses she's seen. She blinks a moment to process.

"I believe option two would be a wiser choice myself. Do you have a plan?"

"Yep," she says with an almost dreamlike quality. She purses her lips in a repressed smirk and nods, her focus once again on her horse. He'd taken his chin off her shoulder at Aurora's voice, and fixed the
assemblage of people with a surly expression. Aunna straightens his long platinum forelock, fearless of the flickering ears and swishing tail. "I say we have Windseeker and Ghostwheel scan the shuttles for manifests if they haven't begun already. Chances are one of them holds the greatest General Amber ever knew—" She cast Julian a quick glance as she stepped around to Sagr's shoulder. "No offense to present company meant."

"None taken." Julian says in reply, his hand still resting lightly on Morgenstern's neck. Morgenstern snorts one more time, ruffling Aurora's firegold curls, then raises his head to stare at the herd in the distance.

Gathering a handful of mane in one hand, she vaulted onto the horse's back with gravity-defying ease. Sagr wheeled to the side with a snort, arched his neck, and struck the ground repeatedly with one forefoot.

Sparks emanate briefly from the ground where his hoof strikes.

Aurora quirks an eyebrow and looks up at Ghostwheel. "If you can do as she suggests, please proceed, Ghostwheel."

"Affirmative." Ghostwheel replies. "Query: search to cease on discovering Prince Benedict?"

Zuithnel has remained in hawk-form. She is perched on top of the black-crystal-bus that flew here.

Windseeker remains hovering near Ariaunna and Sagr. The Bird-Shaman and his warriors are speaking among themselves, quietly and unobtrusively, so as not to interrupt the discussion of the Builders that walk among them.

Aurora scrunches her nose while thinking. "No. Just let us know where he is and then continue searching. We will want to know who is under all those hills any way. Can you contact the Fury and get word to Kieran that we'll give him a complete report when we get back, but everything is fine so far. Also, if you can let Avarya know she might want to rejoin us if we're going to be here for a few days or longer."

There is silence for perhaps fifteen seconds. "Status synchronisation swapped with Megarea." Ghostwheel says. "Megarea reports there has been a development. A Prince Benedict has arrived there with companions. Kieran is speaking with them now."

Aurora blinks. "Really? Huh. How is that for timing?" After a moment, she continues: "I would still like the buried shuttles scanned. We still need to know who is there before waking them."

She peers around Morgenstern at Julian thoughtfully, then adds to Ghostwheel: "See if Megarea can tell us what universe that Benedict is from."

"Query: execute these plans?" Windseeker says to Ariaunna, where she sits astride Sagr. Sounding strangely… jealous?

The woman pulls a perplexed frown at the other group. "No," she replies to the sphere. "Hold action. I may need you to come with me."

"No information." Ghostwheel replies to Aurora. "The Benedict arrived in an alien transport unknown to the records. Kieran is speaking with him and his companions now. Please be advised that our communications channel experiment employing the black crystal appears to have a side-effect of synchronising the timeflows between there and here. I have terminated it for the moment."

The redhead winces. "Good thinking. How much time do we have now?"

"Thirteen days."

Sagr dances in place, eager to go. Aunna hails Aurora.

"You're still planning to catalogue these shuttles, right?" she asks.

"Yes," Aurora nods. "And since there's a Benedict on the Fury now, one of you may as well see if his horse will come to you."

"Unless he's from my realm, I would not dare," Aunna replies. "But I will ride out and catch up with the alleged survivor, hopefully before he calls up a strike force to lay siege to our location."

She wraps her right hand into the base of her mount's mane; he responds by bounding rabbit-like to the left, executing a sharp pirouette to the right as Aunna adds "Windseeker, with me", and
leaping into full stride in barely a blink. Within moments, horse and rider are disappearing over the exploded hill back toward the shuttles and beyond, the black sphere zooming behind them.

The speed that occurs as Aunna, Sagr, and Windseeker depart is perhaps frightening, blowing dust from the earth: Sagr's full stride proves to be faster by far than the gallop he employed when he was unsure Aunna was real, and the sonic boom that occurs as they pass the speed of sound itself is
audible to Aurora. Julian blinks as the aftershocks fade. "She must have driven her father crazy." He comments. "Ghostwheel, let me know if she gets into trouble and needs assistance. So. Are we exploring this Tower or not, my love?"

Aurora just blinks at the dust cloud a moment before looking up at her husband. "Yes."

She gestures towards the shuttle to float the cocoon and out, then locks it down. With it bobbing behind her, she looks to the Bird People. "Would you care to enter the Tower of the Sun with us, or wait for our return?"

The Bird-Shaman appears surprised, then awed, in that order. "We would be honoured to enter with you, Fire-Hair Builder." He says respectfully.

Aurora chuckles at the nickname. "My name is Aurora. You may call me that."

Then she takes Julian's hand and they return to the entrance of the Tower. She releases his hand then and steps back between the spirals. Morgenstern follows, as do the Bird-Shaman and his two warriors.

Ghostwheel remains at Aurora's shoulder.

Zuithnel remains perched on the shuttle, where Teluidhe and her cocoon remain.

I am back. I wish to enter now, along with my entourage. With me is a cocoon holding a young man infected with the plague. We do not wish to leave him outside defenseless.

ENTER. The massive voice responds. The great double doors of the Tower again begin to open. She reaches back for her husband's hand again, makes sure the cocoon continues to follow her, and steps forward with eagerness and trepidation…

TOC - The Builders' Last Stand

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