A Patchwork World

She swims towards shore. Once there, Aurora shifts her clothes back to what she was wearing before. She can always dry off in this heat easy enough, but the swimming shoes she's wearing won't do a thing for these rocks. Once she's out, she directs the cocoon to follow her. The cocoon obediently does so, though the tethered spell of levitation will not last forever. She will have to put it down soon.

"Do need help, my darling?" she calls to Julian. She can't imagine wearing that armor all the time.

Julian clambers from the water with surprising ease. "No, just catching my breath." He turns to face back they way they had come. "I do not like leaving people behind, I hope Ariaunna got out." He looks around and back to Aurora. "I will see if I can find a way up from here." Julian moves to follow the rim of the water, seeking a way out of the depression.

The rocky walls of this place prove to have been carved by hands, human or otherwise. Perhaps it was once a communal swimming pool, fed by an underground aqueduct? Either way, there are 'stairs', rising from the black greasy sulfuric waters edge to an unknown location above. Ghostwheel soars higher into the sunlit sky. Trusting that her AI would say something if there was a danger, Aurora moves carefully up the rough hewn stairs so she can set the cocoon down.

Julian slips ahead of her, giving her a very slight smile over his shoulder as he readies his bow again. He proceeds carefully upward, and keeps an eye on the rim of the basin for the Lion-creatures, lest they be got in an ambush with only one mode of exit.

His wife wrinkles her nose at him but proceeds at her own pace up the rise. "The AIs said it was safe here," she calls after Julian. "And Ghostwheel is overhead. You can stand down a little."

She eyes the cocoon. They needed to talk about this, but until she was sure, she was reluctant to. This not being able to open the damned thing was twisting her already tight nerves into a fray.

"Ghostwheel," she says suddenly. "How are we on time?"

"We have used 2 minutes of ship-board time since entering Mandorways." Ghostwheel reports. At the top of the stairs, they find ruins: two massive statues rise from the earth, both depicting nude women, though they are not human women. A rivulet of water runs from a fountain beyond the two statues down beside the stairs and into the murky waters below. This appears to be fresh water. There are grape-bearing vines growing from the ruined statues.

Aurora just blinks at Ghostwheel's answer. They could get all kinds of stuff done if it stays that way. When she turns her attention to the scene before them, she inhales through her teeth. "This is beautiful," she says quietly. She takes a moment more to admire it then unslings the cocoon locator and switches it back on to scan this area.

"Alert: approaching lifeform detected." Ghostwheel says as the cocoon locator pings and reveals no cocoons within range.

She trades the locator for a blaster. "Can you be any more specific?" Aurora asks warily. "Type and direction?"

Julian checks to see that he was using the smallest arrowhead that he has, and looks over his shoulder at Aurora. "And you said to stand down." He very nearly smirks, and then turns back to the path ahead, alert for trouble and changes. He is wary for an ambush, and looks for the most defensible positions as they go.

"Uncertain on type. Approaching from the other side of the ruined statues." Ghostwheel responds.

After she enters the plaza that contains the fountain of water, the woman-creature carrying the water-pitcher stares at them both in alarm. She appears halfway between bird and woman, with brightly coloured feathers.

Aurora starts in surprise. She had been expecting another Frankenstein-esque nightmare. She just catches herself from exclaiming, which might have startled the bird woman even more. She smiles without showing any teeth. "Greetings," she says in the older Thari she has picked up from the manuals and Fury computers. "We mean no harm."

Julian's eyes narrow, but he does not draw back on his bow. He slips to one side, so Aurora can be seen, and lets her be the diplomat while he eyes the bird-woman with a little suspicion. "Another shapeshifter?" He glances at Aurora when she speaks Thari, and then turns his attention to the bird-woman and their surroundings.

The globe of the sun high above has begun to darken, casting long shadows across this place. The bird-woman gasps as Aurora speaks and drops her water-pitcher, which shatters into shards about her feet. "Speak you.. the Old Speech?" She says in archaic Thari, her voice a fluting thing of birdlike music.

Aurora glances nervously up at the sky then back to the woman. "Yes," she replies cautiously. "I do. I am descended from the House of Sawall and the House of Barimen. My name is Aurora. Might I know yours?"

"Shivaralanerenthanae of House Mindorae." The bird-woman says, shifting her weight from foot to foot. "Bird Clan you not. Elders I take you?"

"Alert: two further lifeforms approaching at speed from same direction." Ghostwheel informs in modern Thari. "They scan as similar but masculine."

Aurora starts to worry about Julian's reactions to all this. His patience for diplomacy were well remembered from their previous life together, and she was fair certain of his opinions of the Chaos of his past.

"No, I am not Bird Clan. Elders — yes." At least the Elder representatives of their Houses. "We will not be here for long. We are only resting before we move on. How is it that you are here? Our records seem to be lacking information, as we thought there was no one left."

"Always here we have been." The bird-woman says, the skirt of the strange dress she wears swirling about, as she continues shifting her weight from foot to foot. As though considering the wisdom of running away.

Two bird-men emerge from the same direction as the bird-woman did: they are wearing armour and carrying recurved bows. Both have curved blades at their waists, and both appear grim as they eye these strange arrivals. The stripes on their feathers are similar in colour and definition to those of the

"We are not staying," Aurora repeats again for the benefit of the men. "We are just resting here for a bit and then we will move on. We will stay right here if it makes you feel better."

Shivaralanerenthanae speaks to the two bird-men in an alien musical language that bears little similarity to Thari. "Wish to know, my brothers do, how you appear within our Clan home without being seen by our sentries?" She says in the archaic Thari. Neither of the two bird-men relax in the slightest.

Julian eyes the bird-men as he used to eye particularly large pheasant that wandered to close to the walls of the keep. "Tell them the truth Aurora, but these two are beginning to look less and less friendly to these eyes." He turns to her, and speaks French, "If we are leaving them to be consumed by the disaster. I do not think we can afford to get too close." Julian pauses, "We should find out how many they are…"

"They are only being as watchful as you are, mon Julian," replies Aurora in kind. "And they will no more be consumed then we will. I will have Ghostwheel scan for numbers."

Ghostwheel? she sends through her link. Long rang scan for life forms.

Of the same bird-type?

Yes. For now

Aurora turns and looks to the two men. "We came from the pool. We will be leaving the same way. We do not wish to cause you trouble, and we have no interest in anything but a place to rest for a bit, and right here is fine. We will move no further into your land."

I detect five hundred and eighty four. A pause from Ghostwheel. Five have detected my scan and are now shielding against me.

Startled, it takes Aurora a moment to reply to her AI. That many? How many different life forms are here?

Shivaralanerenthanae translates what Aurora replies to her for the men, for it seems only she speaks the Old Speech. The two bird-men are eyeing Julian in much the same way as he eyes them, apparently not considering Aurora a threat. At last one of them speaks. "Stay here you will while Elders are fetched?" Shivaralanerenthanae translates for Aurora.

Aurora eyes all the tense testosterone overlords and then nods to the woman. "Yes. If it doesn't take too long, we can wait."

Another bout of translation occurs in the bird-like language that is not Thari. Shivaralanerenthanae swiftly departs the scene.

The magical energies of this place are strangely different: less chaotic, more orderly, as though they have been cleaned in an unknown way. I detect approximately three hundred and seventy thousand different forms of life ranging from bacteria to herbivores to predators. Ghostwheel replies. Some of them appear capable of shaping magical energies and those are harder to detect.

Really? Are they humanoid, these magic shapers?

Aurora looks up at her AI in surprise before she very calmly closes the small distance between herself and her husband. "There are just under 600 of these bird people according to Ghostwheel," she says in French. "Interestingly, five detected his scans and blocked them. I have him checking on other forms of life here. I am going to feel out the magic energies here. Just in case. Right now they don't seem to be threatened by me, which gives us an element of surprise if it becomes necessary."

Julian nods and continues in French, "I believe we should continue as we have been then. I am the obvious threat, let them think that you are not." He looks up and looks around them. "We should not linger. We do not know what's happened with Ariaunna's end of things, and we are on a timetable."

Not all. Those lions were employing magical energies to camouflage themselves and speed their reflexes.

What? Lions? Where? How many?

"Ghostwheel says only about two minutes have passed on the Fury since mission start. Our timetable is not as tight as we feared it would be." Aurora pauses and tilts her head to the side as if listening to something only she can hear. Then she suddenly stiffens. "Ghost says there are lions."

The lions that assaulted Julian and Ariaunna while we were inspecting the cocoon.

There is a pause before she adds; "Oh. Nevermind."

As Aurora speaks these words, a contingent of ten further armed bird-men approaches, escorting five aged beings. Three are men and two are women. All are garbed in brightly coloured robes that match the colours and stripes of their feathers. "My daughter says speak the Old Speech you can, visitors." The oldest-looking one says in archaic Thari after he eyes Aurora and Julian. "You are not of a Clan known to us. Why have you come here?"

Aurora steps forward, clasps her hands in front of her, and bows to the Elders. "We did not know these lands were inhabited, Honored Elder," she says as she straightens. "We had only stopped here to rest a moment before returning from where we came. Had we realized these lands were yours, we would have sought you out to make ourselves known and seek permission for our rest. We seek not to cause trouble or harm. If our presences disturbs you, we will leave now."

The five old ones glance toward each other. They converse in their own language. "Are you Builders?" The oldest one asks at last, in the archaic Thari.

Aurora blinks and glances at Julian before she replies. "I am not certain what that word means to you. I will need to know before I can reply correctly. Some have called those such as us Builders of Worlds."

"The Builders of our myths are like you." The Elder replies in the archaic Thari. "Featherless and with strange servants. They built all things."

Aurora is about to say she doesn't have strange servants, but then recalls that she actually does. Somewhere.

"There have been more born since the Beginning. I am a few generations from the Originals," she says, thinking of Dworkin and Suhuy.

Ghostwheel continues to hover nearby as Aurora speaks these words. Smoke becomes visible on one horizon.

"The prophecy speaks of the return of the Builders." The aged bird-man says.

"Really?" Aurora asks curiously, her gaze shifting back from the distant smoke that is strangely blurred, as though it is occurring on the other side of a translucent barrier. Also on the other side of that translucent barrier, the vehicle Ariaunna found buried beside the spring becomes visible, soaring through the sky. "What else does it say?"

"The Return of the Builders heralds the End." The aged one says. "The End of our ancient Task. But only if you pass the ancient tests and are pronounced True Builders."

"And these are?" Aurora asks. "Although I am not certain we have the luxury of having the available time for testing at the moment."

Ghost. How are we on time?

"If the Pillar of the Sun accepts you, then you are True Builders."

We have used 2.5 minutes of shipboard time.

Mark time at the half hour.

The communications linkage initiates and the voice of Ariaunna speaks. "WaysTransit One to Aurora. Come back?"

She blinks, not expecting the things to work across dimensions. "Aurora here."

"I'm approaching three klicks south of your position," she continued. "ETA: Seven minutes, give or take."

"Excellent. Try not to scare the natives. They're nice bird people." Aurora says cheerfully in modern Thari. "Also, we have loads of time. Only 2.5 minutes have elapsed on the station since we started this adventure."

There was a brief pause before she replied. "Noted. Out."

The comm clicked.

"May we see this Pillar," Aurora asks respectfully. "One of our party may be willing to try. At least one other is on their way here now. Please do not be alarmed by her arrival."

The aged one simply points at the massive spire in the distance, on which hangs the fiery globe that lights all things in this alien place.

Aurora looks at it and smiles ruefully. "I should have known," she says as an aside to Julian in French. "Just as you know that I am going to do this thing."

She gives her attention back to the Elders and bows again. "I will like to attempt this test. It would be an honor to free you from your Task."

"The journey to the Pillar of the Sun takes many cycles. The Clan was departing in five cycles, but we will speed things."

Aurora looks in the direction of the black shuttle and smiles. "We may have a faster way."

Ghostwheel. Can you contact Windseeker and see if she knows where Avarya and the others are? The cocoon will need guarding until Aunna and the shuttle arrive.

Windseeker says two of the others are with them. Avarya is flying back toward the springs.


Avarya will be at the springs in 30 minutes. Ariaunna will be here in 2 minutes.

The comm crackles. "WaysTransit One," Aunna hails. "Current location thirty-seven point niner, four, three, niner, zero, three; negative eighty-four point six, three, seven, seven, eight, four. Bearing north northwest to thirty-seven point niner, six, niner, niner, two, one; negative eighty-four point six, eight, zero, four, one, two. ETA: Two minutes. Over."

"I see you," Aurora replies. "Out of curiosity, how many people will that craft hold?"

The click of empty air is the only answer that Aurora receives. From eyeball estimates, the craft is large enough to hold tens of people. She huffs quietly and turns back to the Elders in front of her.

TOCThe Builders

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