AN: I lied! Enjoy the result of a month's vacation (or not. That's cool too)!
Did you know you can now add up to four characters to a story's property list due to the site's recent updates? It's true! Now, please excuse me as I try out different writing styles.
To end any semblance of confusion, the 3 time sections (Cypi, Storm Hawks, and Perry) occur roughly at the same day. The Condor flies at lower speeds, higher altitudes, and frequently rests on spots of land to conserve fuel energy, which makes travel several times longer.
ATTENTION! There is no inspirational music because I am no longer inspired by anything! Also, dancing is forbidden! That is all.
"Great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of selfishness."
Dedicated to S, the only one who could stare death down and laugh in its face.
In loving memory of M, who always found reason to smile;
Congratulations on beating cancer!
The explorer stared at the Sky Knight with his one good eye, leering unpleasantly underneath the mass of hair. Time certainly had not treated the man well, preferring to gouge lines across his face with wild abandon and toss him in a sizable pool of mud whenever possible. So much had changed in so little time that it made it nearly impossible to recognize the book writer, save for his mop of shaggy blond hair, his ever present scraggly beard, and the torn but still recognizable waterproof khaki jacket.
"Aerrow," he snarled. "How good to see you alive and well."
"So you did manage to find your way here like the rat you were!"
Domiwick chuckled and allowed the still-flaring blade to drop by his side. Adjusting his makeshift eye patch, he sneered, his worn lips merely making his expression feral.
"Thanks to your friend Piper, yes. Her breathing apparatus certainly helped bring me good fortune," here, he gestured with his good arm at the piles of gold and rare gems nestled within a nearby thicket. "And," he added, his malevolent glare darkening, "a curse as well,"
As if reading the man's thoughts, he tightened his grip on the twin blades, throwing cursory looks at the deranged explorer.
"She gifted me the ability to reach the Far Side first, allowing me to make my mark here, but left me no exit. I've been rotting here for weeks."
A slash, a parry, a blow. A measured grunt escaping the lungs of a body firmly entrenched in a defensive position.
"Can't you get out the way you came?"
Domiwick let out a mirthless laugh that bounced eerily off the trees, easily distracting the boy. Dislodging his weapon from the Sky Knight's hold, the rogue adventurer smoothly blocked the latter's next attack. Thrusting the pointed end towards the recovering teen, he clucked his tongue in disappointment when it failed to meet its mark, instead finding itself once again trapped in glowing metal jaws.
"Underwater tunnel's closed, mate," Domiwick managed to spit out in between desperate tugs. "Beastie's been feeling a bit hungry."
"Don't act so stupid, Aerrow. Even if you don't believe so, the ocean's full of monsters too terrible to name or describe... many a times they all thought me a wounded fish..." Shifting his eye patch, he continued. "You must be overjoyed to see me like this, Aerrow. Weak, half-blinded," here, he lifted up his ragged shirt slightly to reveal his starved body, ribs visible under a thin sheet of skin. "How pleased you must feel to know that the first shore I washed up on nearly killed me."
"I came here to find my friend, not pity you."
"Pity me?" he chuckled melodiously. "You'd do best to watch yourself, dear boy!"
The crook of his leg snaked around the back of the boy's knees and tugged, bringing the red-haired Sky Knight down in one fluid motion. Using the latter's now-compromised position to his advantage, Domiwick raised his blade, intending to finish off what he started with a single blow. Much to his dismay, however, Aerrow rolled away, sprang to his feet, and leaped into the tree branches, where the sizable height gain made for a significant advantage. From there, the duo played a deadly game of cat and mouse.
The wildlife did much to cover both auditory and visual cues, their cries overlapping the sound of the Storm Hawk's movement.
"You have to do better than that!" came the disembodied voice from amid the rustling leaves.
"Where are you, you little brat!" Domiwick cried, turning to and fro, helplessly scanning the dimly lit area.
A rock struck his face from the side.
"No, over here!"
And another from the other.
"Right behind you!"
Patience wearing out in three... two...
"In front of youuuu~!"
At one point, Aerrow saw it fit to give the poor man a break and allotted small glimpses of his armor and cheeky grins, exposing a limb a second too long before dashing away again. And like a horse to a carrot, the older male followed, however frustrated his efforts may be. So the game continued, the disgraced explorer cursing and swearing as he "chased" the Storm Hawk's voice in vain...
...That is, until he grew cunning and waited for the young lad to emerge from the vegetation again. From there, he quickly sliced away at the rough bark, felling the aged tree and allowing gravity to pin the teen under branches.
When Aerrow's eyes stopped rolling inside his head, his pupils found a jagged edge not two inches from their very tip. Clearly, the man felt no need to repress his animalistic whims this time. This time, he was out to kill.
"That was a pretty lil' game you played back there, 'eh? Well, now it's my turn. We're going to play... tell the truth."
"Very original, if I do say so myself," Aerrow huffed, shifting torso away from the center-most part of the wreckage, only stopping when the irate novelist added his weight to the trap, almost crushing the adolescent's ribs in the process.
"Now, I'm only going to say this once, so it would do you good to pay attention."
"Good..." Domiwick leaned forward, his one good eye acquiring a rather unpleasant sheen to it. "Tell me where the Oracle is, and I may let you escape and both of us will get on with our lives."
"She's not here," Aerrow smirked triumphantly. "Back in the Forbidden City, I freed her. She's gone, Domiwick, gone."
"Liar!" he snarled, digging the point against his neck; Aerrow winced as the blade cleanly cut through a layer of skin and nicked several blood vessels. "It is said that this blasted realm is her true home! This cursed city keeps her most valuable treasure yet, the Borealis stone! You would do good to spill the beans or kiss your head goodbye."
"That is the truth, Domiwick! Face it; you're never going to see her or lay your hands on the stone- ever! Not if we have anything to say about it!"
"We?" came the laughing reply.
"Yeah..." Aerrow smirked, looking up to see a hungry beast swoop down, talons outstretched and ready to steal the man away as a future meal. "We."
Domiwick squealed sharply, ducking and rolling to the side. And just like Aerrow predicted, the momentum of the winged predator coupled with the sheer force of its impact was enough to shift the fallen tree enough and free him, allowing said object to tumble away. Enraged, the man leapt over the dislodged trunk and struck. A quick turn of the neck, and a branch was sliced clean away in his place.
Bob and weave. Weave and bob.
Turn by turn, strike after strike, the writer's attempts at hitting his opponent grew frustrated to the point where all the boy needed to do to evade certain laceration was to step back and turn his body ever so slightly, allowing the blade to just whip by his armored skin. Eventually, the latter ran out of room and, frankly bored with how the situation was playing out, stopped the last would-be assassination attempt with his weapons. The well-toned muscles in his arms held back the thinning man's wrath with little difficulty. Both knew the former was tiring fast, and the small skirmish would come to a quick end soon.
Aerrow grinned, idly scanning the skies for the flagship carrier that bore his bloodline's legacy. Unexpectedly, however, he dropped to his knees, gasping for air as a sudden onslaught of images and unfamiliar sounds hit his senses like an oncoming roller-coaster.
One moment, he was facing a borderline insane man, and the next, he was staring Cyclonis down, pinning her lithe form to the ground and using his weight to immobilize both her legs.
"A life for a life!"
And then... pain.
His vision distorted suddenly, as if caused up in a great seizure. Blues and purples blended together, blurring in a haze of color. From there, unrecognizable memories and voices filtered in, always cycling through.
Aerrow tried to push the tide of whatever this way away, a futile effort best redirected to a more fruitful expenditure- finding a specific rock in a lake, for instance.
Reality flickered in and out of existence, interspersing itself between the shrieking women and the tortured cries of several thousand children. Domiwick stalked towards him, leisurely taking his time for whatever asinine reason his illogical mind could conjure.
And for a moment, his face became the Dark Ace's, ever-smug and domineering.
The world broke through, shattering the paralyzing illusion as if it were glass. Keeping low to the ground, Aerrow attached both blades at the hilt and staved off the hastily made attack, just before the point lanced his heart.
"No more... I will rid you of the world, you insolent child!"
He pushed, the blade slipping incrementally and digging deeper into the boy's skin. Red rushed to the surfaced and pooled, spilling onto the nearby foliage below. This was it. This was the last moments of his life. So driven by self-preservation, Aerrow pushed back, determined to spend the last seconds in combat.
And suddenly, just as evil was about to triumph over good, a tremor of great magnitude shook the terra, followed by a pneumatic shock-wave of unprecedented size. Terrified, as such event shouldn't occur at any point in time, a wave of wildlife swarmed the area, batting the air above and trampling the ground beneath. Aerrow and Domiwick exchanged glances, their near-fatal battle all but forgotten.
One thought ran through their heads in that instant- run.
So they did, the former loudly cursing his misfortune and the latter taking care to avoid the growing cracks that now graced the formerly undefiled terra's land. A cascade of jewel-encrusted precious metals clinked as they tumbled into the abyss below. Aerrow leapt across a widening chasm, looking back in pure shock as the man who would betray the Atmos for a crystal stop in his tracks and scramble for said objects, wildly swiping at the falling material.
"Come with me!" Aerrow found himself crying out, throwing an arm out to reach over the void despite his understandable unwillingness to do so.
"You fool! They are imbued with the power of the City of Ancients! I could be king!"
"Forget about them! They're lost!"
The light haired explorer cast one last despairing scowl at the teen before growling a single word.
And then he disappeared, leaping after said treasures.
But the deranged man was gone and he was all alone in the sea of blurred shapes, fighting against the current. So he ran, moving towards the edge of the panicked crowd until the end of the landmass forced him to stop. Even then, a few or more broke away from the throng as well, nearly turning him into fertilizer in their alarmed state.
Trapped, his eyes darted to and fro, trying to spot his teammates.
Nothing but the edge greeted him.
Taking one last look at the deranged, charging animals, Aerrow steeled his nerves, took a deep breath, and leapt over the cliff, trusting nothing but the air to cushion his fall.
"Let me help you!"
Impossibly sharp nails raked against dark skin, leaving no less than seven sleek trails of blood in their wake, criss-crossing her cheeks. The crystallographer's body snapped back as two feet forcefully thrust her abdomen into space.
"I don't need any help, especially from you! You've already taken my powers, now I command you to stop!"
Indeed, she could feel her essence intermingling with hers even as the ground met flesh, carrying traces of her sadistic nature and cruel mannerisms with it. The anathema to her own spirit, Cyclonis' caused her queasy guts to twist about in abject horror. Unlike Aerrow's, which usually gave off a comforting aura, hers felt overbearing and suffocative. Like a grand staircase, they spiraled, twisting parallel lines connected only by threads of purple and blue. Through this tenuous bond, Piper thrived, her body unconsciously sapping the other's strength. Now, as they wrestled, they pulsed, clashing violently.
Cyclonis ran. Piper stumbled, then leapt into the air and caught her with scarred arms, using her body weight as leverage. Tumbling, the former landed on her back- hard. Clearing her vision with a shake of her head, she was met with furrowed brows and a set of piercing eyes.
"That was stupid, Lark, sacrificing your life to save mine!"
"A life for a life," she snarled back. "I am no longer in your debt."
The empress' thin legs wrapped around the other's waist, quickly turning the tables. Smugly, Cyclonis quirked her brows, earning herself a venomous glare and a low hiss from the girl as her reward. It faltered however, when a sharp, stabbing pain inexplicably shot through her side, causing her stance to falter long enough for the younger mage to slip from her grasp.
Instantly, she recoiled away, cradling her wrist as if she had just touched flame. It throbbed in agony- a small spark of whitish blue fading away from the very tips of it. She shot it a withering look, displeased with the new discovery. It appeared as if harming- no, merely touching the girl would suck what was left of her rather pitiable life out of her. Panting, she scuttled away, back to the farthest recesses of the room, persperating slightly as her internal temperature spiked once more.
"I no longer owe you my life. Leave. Me. Alone!"
Piper approached, stubbornly rebuffing any attempts to change her mind otherwise.
"You don't get it, don't you? You're so proud that you can't accept even the slightest bit of kindness directed towards you, even if it will help both of us in the long run. You've been so blind, I'm astounded that my patience held out until now!"
"You don't get it, do you?" Cyclonis parroted in increasingly shrill tones. "This isn't just a matter of pride!"
...and crashed against each other, joints snapping as bone met bone and flesh struck flesh.
The great, newly formed chain jerked, pulled to and fro by both sides. Pulled terse and stressed far past its capabilities, minuscule cracks decayed into great glowing fissures. Little by little, the connected bond flaked; separate entities became one and boundaries blurred beyond recognition.
It was by accident that the agitated adolescent brushed against her equal's arms and triggered something new, something dark and lovely and cursed- something forbidden by the masters of the Binding itself..
The world exploded in sapphire and amethyst. Instantly, transparent forms swirled above in the air, creating a wonderful vortex of color. The singular band expanded to allow comely crimson and halcyon honey, vibrant verdant and passionate peach alike, allowing both teens to see every speck, every shade possible within the visible spectrum stretch into eternity. And nestled within the spectral fluid, the future lay ahead, as clear as day and yet like a dark crow flying through the blackest night.
Entranced, the duo forgot their spat and leaned towards it, even daring as to reach for it. The mass quivered in expectation, almost as if it were alive. Their fingers brushed against the very edge of its form...
...And then the gateway slammed shut with a resonating clang, effectively shutting both of them out.
Puzzled, both Cyclonis and Piper exchanged confusion. No words were said, yet the air was saturated with speech. Three seconds passed, and then...
The world exploded around them, cleaving through the multiple layers of reality with a single blow.
She was Cyclonis, and Cyclonis was her. When they locked eyes, they gazed into an infinite continuum of good and evil, dethroned empress and Storm Hawk. Piper gasped and tried to move away, only to find the other's body responding to her will and vice-versa instead. Locked within an alien mindset, it seemed simply maddening how their opposite thought, each mind an enigma, an unsolvable puzzle to the other. Despite their odd situation at the moment, nothing in the world could have prepared either girl for what happened next.
"Mommy... Why won't you move? Why won't you get up‽"
"-stay with me, Lark, and whatever you do, whatever happens, don't let go!"
Ghostly wails that were neither mage nor Master caused the very base of the superstructure to tremble to its very core. Rapidly flitting in and out of their vision were extremely fragmented memories, reduced to nothing but a second's phrase or action. Had it been a dream, circumstances would be obviously different. However, even as reality came crashing down around them, they drowned in visions both false and factual.
"-an unprecedented scale, the order of the destruction of Terra effectively paralyzed Atmosia's free market system-"
"-ascension of a new Master Cyclonis has forced the newly elected members of the Sky Knight council-"
"-stia in ruins! Twenty injured and five unaccounted for-"
Pressure mounted, forcibly pressing against their skulls. Clasping their heads, the demonic screeching that had been ever-so present during this situation intensified. Like nails on a chalkboard, it grated against raw nerves, pushing their connected mental states until one of them snapped.
Shrieking like a banshee, Cyclonis was the first to break the inadvertent bond. She lunged, and Piper was knocked back into her body, stars twinkling and dancing in her vision. Staggering drunkenly, she retreated, carefully edging out of the raging crystal expert's sight.
So this was how it was to end- alone and helpless, with only his fondest memories with his teammates to look back on. Aerrow could feel his body begin to fully embrace momentum, reaching terminal velocity in a matter of seconds. An earlier attempt to engage his wings failed miserably, the metal scraps reduced to nothing more than useless pieces now. He closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable impact. It was the only thing he could do in light of his current situation.
Exhaustion easily caught up to him, settling into his bones and turning his eyelids as heavy as lead.
'What was it like after death?' he wondered, listening to the whipping wind as it sped past, robbing him of precious oxygen. 'Would it be as gilded as the elders always said it would be, covered in gold bricks and joined as a single landmass?'
He dared not answer.
'What would happen to his team- no, his family? His home? Would they make it out alive? Would they succeed where he failed?"
His mind teetered on the edge of unconsciousness as the ground rushed towards him.
And he would have died and his legacy cut short, if not his body impacted a very familiar stringy substance instead, gently scooping his falling body out of the air and carrying him away to the far edges of the horizon.
In happy disbelief, he let his fingers wind themselves into the net, soon snaking them onto his torso, gently patting it rhythmically. Yep; still alive and kicking by the looks of it.
From within the cockpit, his trusty co-pilot navigated the Condor, having risked life and limb to ensure the deployment of the safety mechanism in the first place. Waving a paw, his friend could only gape in awe before slowly returning the gesture.
Five minutes, a crash landing (coupled with an expected freak-out courtesy of Stork), and near strangulation by each of his teammates later, Aerrow was back on the airship, his wounds treated and bandaged tightly. Situated in front of a childish drawing of the observed Far Side (now complete with red marker drawings of the Condor), he paced nervously.
"He was ranting about the Oracle and a stone... the Borealis, I think he said. Something about the Far Side being her true home...
"We don't have much time! Stork, Radarr, Junko, head out to where Domiwick was last seen and track him down. He can not be allowed to reach the Borealis Stone- whatever that is. I'm guessing it's a weapon of some sort. If I'm right about that, the entire Atmos could be in trouble."
"Ah, question," Stork interrupted raising a green finger. "How do you propose to find this... Domiwick? He could be anywhere, especially after his little disappearing act."
"We already know that the last time we thought he was dead he survived. We also know that he's attracted to ruins- places where powerfully important... shiny... magical thingies can be found."
"So we just have to travel to the few intact ruins scattered here," Junko completed, offering his friend a toothy grin. "C'mon Stork, maybe it's only less than 20 places we have to visit."
The merb remained unconvinced. It wasn't that he particularly cared about death anymore (he certainly wanted to avoid meeting it at all costs until he finished planning his funeral, of course) nor was it that he lacked empathy for his fellow Storm Hawk. Rather, it was the absolute certainty of failure in the mission that concerned him. Aerrow's lack of constructive foresight left the team flying by the seat of their pants in a land where the slightest of missteps (namely, the thoughtless expenditure of limited reserves) could earn one's place within another's stomach. It wasn't that he was a bad leader, so to speak, it was just that he was a rather incompetent leader without a second-in-command to check and improve upon his hastily made plans.
At long last, the green-skinned male nodded once.
"Start with Terra Lacrimans. The heavy-hitters that seem to be there may be guarding something."
The merb flinched, Junko gulped, and Radarr whined. Unwillingly, they nodded, trudging towards the hangar bay.
"Finn, you're with me."
Aerrow ignored said reply. "I need you to help me dissect the notes Piper took of this place, along with several Atmosian myths. Maybe there's something in here that could reveal whatever Domiwick is looking for- the Borealis stone... crystal... thing."
"Oh joy," he yawned. "Reading. Very exciting."
"Would you rather be stuck touring around the Far Side with the rest of the guys? Besides, it'll help us find Piper and just think of how impressed she'll be when she finds out that you actually read a book,"
"Hey!" Finn straightened up, glaring at his leader's smirking face. "I read! I read a lot!"
"Alright, fine." the marksman sighed, deflating considerably and allowing himself to be pulled along by his leader. "I don't read as much as Piper says I should. But this better help us get her back."
"It will!" came the grinned response. "Trust me!"
Something was wrong- very wrong.
At random moments, her necklace would act up, sending out brilliant white sparks that didn't hurt necessarily when she touched it but felt insanely uncomfortable otherwise. Glowing blue ovals would sometimes spring into existence near certain stone arcs that had hundreds of crystals- embedded ones that stubbornly remained attached to the wall no matter how much she pulled, at that. And sometimes, despite the better half of her warning her not to do it, she'd stick an arm through it and eventually the rest of her body, ending up in an entirely different room altogether with the pathway snapping shut behind her with a near-silent hiss.
Piper shivered, her skin rising into tapered points. Rubbing her chilled flesh, the Storm Hawk shook off the last remains of the relatively new mode of travel. 'Portals,' she decided, felt weirder than the time she had to crawl through the sewage system of Zartacla to scope out the building before the mission the next day. At least there was this nice static-y feeling whenever she passed through them.
Aimlessly walking with no direction in mind, she lost track of how many hours she'd been wandering the ruins, wondering how far the actual structure stretched underground. To be truthful, she felt obligated to enter the rifts whenever they appeared, as if some life force within the building was showing her where to go. Something at the back of her mind berated her for wantonly walking through unfamiliar territory with no way to retrace her steps. She ignored it; Cyclonis probably wouldn't care if she was gone for an hour or two... or three... or four... At the next blue-tinged opening, however, something strange and foreign to this area touched her- fresh air.
Blue hair rustled in the breeze. Air that could only be funneled through...
'Of course!' Piper thought, ducking into the ellipse. 'How else would people survive in here?'
Discrete ceiling perforations weren't all there was to the inner chamber, however. Standing in front of her was an enormous set of double doors, both covered in long-settled dirt. Puzzled, she wiped away the grime, holding her great great grandmother's necklace close-by in case the spacial tear felt the need to appear once more. Extremely ornate details surfaced in the roving blue rays, ranging from intricate stone masonry to gold-encrusted panels. Her curiosity piqued, Piper approached it, seeing as there was no other entrance or exit made available at the time.
"I wonder what's behind this...?" she breathed, soon interrupting her train of thought with a face-palm. "...Oh wait, a way out. Duh."
Grunting, she squared a shoulder against one such door and dug her feet into the ground, shoving. It creaked and budged only in molecule-sized increments, its mechanisms unused and uncared for. Dust blanketed her features, covering her in fluffy white particulates. Undiscouraged, the girl merely threw more of her weight onto the structure. Then, with a wretched groan, it collapsed, tumbling to the ground in a flurry of sand and sandstone amidst her voiced "no, no, no, no, no!"'s and assorted self-deprecation. Hacking and half-blinded by the swirling cloud of brown, Piper shielded her face with both arms.
When the dust settled, the sun cast its brilliance upon the decorated interior, which looked as if a storm had swept through it, had a tornado decided earlier that day to invade an ancient ruin and destroy priceless pieces of art and history. Inside the dilapidated inner chamber were numerous clay jugs meant to hold burial ashes, all scattered around in pieces. Similarly, fragmented wood scraps littered the flooring, all but rotted. The majority of the enormous space was no more, its stones and foundations mercilessly shattered in favor of creating a door for nature's wrath. Invasive vines of ivy stretched along the walls, casually complementing the growing moss scattered about. All in all, it appeared as the very epitome of disaster. But there, in the center of all this, was a blossoming tree, as healthy as could be despite its rather drab surroundings.
And as if it belonged there, a white hawk was perched upon it, standing no more than three feet tall. From there, it's regal feathers fanned out, effortlessly capturing the multicolored rays and adding a sense of royal magnificence to his form.
It twisted its neck and regarded her with a pseudo steely gaze. True, he had heard tale of this young girl even before the events with Krow, but he had expected a more rugged type of adventurer in part of her employment as a navigator and close combat fighter. Still, basic expectations were met, and no notable complaints surfaced upon cursory inspection. The genes had done their job; Piper would be a great leader.
"Welcome home," he greeted, "Oriole."
"Welcome home, Oriole."
"My name's not Oriole," Piper corrected, approaching the anomaly with wariness evident in each footfall. "It's Piper, and this is not my home."
"I understand that, but on the contrary, it is the name designated to you by name of myth and blood. The fair Oriole, guardian of the lost and keeper of the eternal flame, two titles that have been passed on by your mother, and the mothers who came before her."
The nerve on the navigator's temple twitched in agitation. "Okay, for the last time, my name is Piper, not Oriole. I am just a Storm Hawk who participates in defending the Atmos against threats to its sovereignty, especially Cyclonia, not a guardian or a keeper of anything..."
Claws softly clicked on wood as the bird hopped from branch to branch, bobbing its head back and forth.
"My apologies; it would have done your ancestors a great disservice to refer to you by your common name rather than the one they have chosen for you. Very well, Piper of the Storm Hawks, you shall be identified as such. Is there anything you would like to inquire?"
A soft sigh moved the air, followed by muffled footfalls.
"I don't mean to be rude, but how did you get here? How did you know my name?"
"Isn't it obvious?" he scoffed, puffing out more than a few chest feathers and ignored the scathing look the young girl shot him. "I flew here. Took me several days and killed my bones to find you, but well, I did my job."
"I was taught to treat everything I came in contact with respect, but you're kinda... toeing the line here."
The talking bird raised a wing, opened its beak and... stopped, speechless. "You're absolutely right," he reluctantly mumbled after a moment's pause. "Forgive me. Twenty six hours of continual flying does not do well for one's psyche. As for your other question, well, you're part of the Storm Hawks. You helped liberate the majority of the Atmos, so... you're famous- sort of... Any other questions?"
"Yeah..." the navigator trailed off, now eyeing the predator suspiciously. "Who are you?"
Unexpectedly, the bird took flight, flapping madly towards her. Instinctively, the navigator threw both arms out to protect her face. A horrible screech ripped from the creature's vocal chords, a blinding white light flashed and...
...a shower of feathers gently floated to the ground.
Confused, the First officer could only gape slack-jawed as a ridiculously-dressed youthful man stood before her. Wreathed in attire similar to his aviary form, he humbly bowed his head, allowing the elongated plumage to briefly graze the stone flooring.
"I am the White Hawk, as you have seen by my previous form. Other titles many people include 'Shahrokh, Master of the Skies'. Perhaps you have heard tale of legends past?" She shook her head. "No? Ah, well. I believe you know Arygyn the Skeelur?"
"Ah good! We're getting somewhere here! Anyway, I do not mean to be a non-sequitur, but do you have the-" he stopped, his eyes coming to a rest upon a familiar blue object hanging around the Storm Hawk's neck. "Ah, of course; how else would you have gotten in here! Anyway, Arygyn was undoubtedly one of my best pupils, if I recall correctly. He often has been an ally in many of my expeditions. Both of us are special As the White Hawk, my duty is to protect the bearer of the Borealis crystal- you, in case you haven't noticed- and then guide the way to the sacred treasure." Piper opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the bird-man's hasty request. "Please, in interest of time, follow me."
Soundlessly, he morphed back into his diminutive form and flew into a doorway (that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere), earning an annoyed huff from the girl in the process. Against her best judgment, Piper followed, the issuing blue light from her pendant bouncing up and down the walls. In the relative darkness they traveled; only the echo of her footsteps and the faint wing-falls of the changeling dared to follow them.
Now, Piper liked to think herself as the most sensible of the team, always rationalizing before emoting, shoved away in the little nook of hers to work. After all, the team depended on her support to hold itself together, much like how interconnecting pieces of a building would interact to keep itself in one piece. Vary rarely (especially after the Lark incident) did she feel the need to throw caution to the wind. So when she followed this strange-bird man, she did so with little hesitation, feeling quite exhausted and wondering why she cared to care anymore (she suspected that maybe, just maybe, with each passing minute she stayed here, her sanity wore that much closer to the brink of madness).
"I'd rather not tell you this, but Atmos is on a slippery slope, a crash course of sorts since your team's... departure."
"What happened?" Piper found herself questioning aloud; "I thought the terras would re-orient itself after the collapse of Cyclonia. Well... granted that following Cyclonis on a whim and leaving the Atmos without guidance was not the brightest of ideas, but..."
"But the problem is that it has guidance," the White Hawk reasoned. "It has the wrong kind of guidance. The elders of the Sky Knight council and the Guardians are no longer in tune to the demands of the modern world. Their ideas are noble, and their wisdom true, but I'm afraid passivity no longer has a place in the upcoming battles."
"Yes, well... Arygyn has informed me that some people- former Cyclonians, I suspect- have the bright idea to reinstate the totalitarian government your team felled and take off where the current Master Cyclonis left off. You know, the whole 'conquer the world' bid that worked out so well the last time. But... who am I to judge the collective IQs of incompetent ex-generals and Talons."
He stopped, hovering right where the single hallway diverged and spawned two extra tunnels. In all respects, all three appeared identical, save for the varying symbols, each related to a certain aviary specimen adorned above each parabola's apex.
"Where do I go from here?" Piper questioned, resting her hands against the exquisitely carved material.
"Well," the White Hawk offered. "You must choose your own path, just as others have made yours prior to this time. Think of it as a rite of passage!"
"My pleasure," he mock-bowed.
A finger wagged in the darkness, moving past the splitting paths and back again. "Uh... let's see here... eenie... meenie... miney... MOE!"
And with that, the dark-skinned girl disappeared. Only the White Hawk was left, perched by a broken statue, counting off with the claws of a foot. "Three... two... one..." ...Until Piper ran out again, screaming as saber-toothed bats flew after her.
"Not moe! Not moe!"
She ducked, the dozens of nocturnal creatures whizzing mere centimeters above her hair. Sighing, the bird-man pointed to the center path, nudging the now-prone girl towards it with relentless wing sweeps. "Well, there goes that. Come on, come on. Let's not get our pants wet. They're just bats, for land's sake."
So they continued until yet another doorway stood in their path. This time, however, it was made entirely of stone and looked as if it weighed a minimum of three tons, therefore impossible to manually move. Piper grumbled under her breath and eye-rolled.
"I knew I should have expected this... What's behind this door, anyway?"
"It is your ancestor's legacy... well, a mere fraction of it, actually. They're scattered across the Atmos, actually."
Indeed, as if in confirmation, the dust gave way, cascading to the ground in brown waterfalls. Soon, the remainder of the structure glinted dully in the stone's blue light, a small collection of crystals huddled at a corner. True to its rather mysterious but annoying nature, the aperture retained no markings as to where the crystals may be inserted.
Piper huffed. Of course. Trust a spooky old ruin to actually make things easy for her. She almost wished for deadly traps like those seen in the Forbidden City instead- at least she knew how to get past them.
"Don't mind that old thing," White Hawk grunted. "It's a ploy to dissuade even the most persistent of robbers. Just try to channel your energies through your Borealis crystal, and you should create a portal to the other side. Just concentrate... focus... and imagine creating a channel to the other side."
"Ori- I mean, Piper, you are one of the most brilliant crystal mages I have ever met. It doesn't matter if you don't know what the other side looks like, you can do it!"
So she slid her eyes shut and focused, feeling her natural energy reserves rise to the challenge. Once more, the same adrenaline rush she had experienced upon first binding with Cyclonis slammed her body's systems into overdrive. Her hands visibly shook with the process. A soft azure light appeared at the door frame gently spilling out in curly lines to spell out a string of words in an unknown language. She pressed harder, growing visibly exuberant at her progress. And then, the flow stopped, just like that, the stream redirecting sharply in an attempt to return to whence it came from.
Piper immediately cried out, wringing her arms to rid them of the seemingly insurmountable pain created by the whiplash. To say that her skin was on fire would be an understatement; to simply say it was painful would have earned you a swift roundhouse kick to the face. It didn't just feel like she stuck her hands in lava, it felt as if she was being electrocuted and stabbed by a thousand knives at the same time. Once the burning subsided, a peculiar mark branded itself onto her skin on the back of her left hand, softly glowing a telltale red in a growing pool of blood.
"Argh... What is this...‽! Hey, ow! Don't put your claws there, that hurts!"
"Sorry," he moved. "It's a- hey, now! Don't do that, you're going to get-! Oh... You just had to do that, didn't you?"
"Of course," the navigator mumbled, literally licking her wounds. "Burn feels... more tolerable if I do. I think it has something to do with some natural painkiller in saliva, or something"
"That's still unsanitary," he grunted, wrinkling his 'brows' in disgust. "Anyway, it's not your family crest but rather a stylized raptor- the tag Rapture has chosen to identify you, if you will. You're lucky you only got branded by the door- most folks back in the old days were either crushed into paste, chased down a long, winding shaft by a twenty-foot tall, impossibly round boulder, or-," he rambled, seemingly taking a slight degree of pleasure in describing how the unfortunate souls were shredded and put together in entirely different combinations.
Piper pulled a face and held her hands palms out to signal the bird-man to stop. "Okay, okay, okay, I know. I get it. Do you know anything about the Binding? Not this one... the one between two people."
"I am over two hundred years old! Of course I know something about that dreaded practice!" He softened, given his audience's startled response to his outburst. "Well, indeed I'm old... and crotchety. Immortality is a double-edged sword, after all. Ignore little old me and ask away."
"Cyclonis will kill me when she finds out, but..."
"Cyclonis?" The bird nearly fell off its perch in shock. "The Master Cyclonis?"
Blood rushed to the girl's face. "Well, yeah. She kind of bound to me while I'm still bound to another and then this weird thing happened between us when we touched, and..."
The White Hawk shook its head frantically. "No, no, no, no, no! Of all the dumb things to do, she had to do it."
"She did it to save my life," Piper hotly protested.
Exasperated, the bird-man shook his head.
"The Binding technically is an evil force, designed to be taken up by experienced handlers only. It was used as the ultimate weapon in the War of Worlds, spreading death and destruction far past defined borders; the Wastelands is a lesser known result of the war. Although originally a purifying ritual event meant to foster harmony by the keepers of Clearwater, it was twisted in form by many rulers, each for their own ends- the creation of super-soldiers powered by the very crystal technology you see in your world these days."
"But what does it have to do with-?"
"The ritual normally is performed by people of similar backgrounds and perspectives- auras, basically- essentially tying homogeneous links together in one continuous rope. You and Cyclonis have very different auras- obviously- and the Binding reacts to this by forgoing the normal process and instead poisoning not only the one who performed it in the first place, but the object of the binding itself. If either of you have bound to another before, the progression of this leech will kill both of you within a month- not even three weeks! What you did merely expedited the problem!
"But... I suppose..." he trailed off, surely sifting through hundreds of years worth of information with distracted flaps of his wings. "I think it impossible to change a Cyclonis- it wouldn't be right to change anyone according to your will either way-, but... perhaps... if you learn and adapt to each other, it may work."
"Yes, adapt. I have yet to garner even the slightest idea of what it means to you- only one other pair has ever gotten into the same situation as you have done, after all-, but adapt by all means unnecessary Even in the end, when the last dew drops of your life spill from the great leaf of the world, you persevere clinging on with every bit of strength you have in your body! I apologize for this unwanted speech, but I simply cannot fathom one of the brightest young woman known- infamously, I may add- in the Atmos to risk her life to curry strength in yours."
"You don't have to rub it in, you know."
"I know," it smirked. "I've got a thousand more zingers at my disposal if you're willing to hear it. Ready? Okay! Why did the crystal mage-"
"No, no," Piper backed away. "You don't have to do that. It's fine- really. I just need to know how to get trough this door, end all of this ancestral... nonsense!... and let us get on with bot of our lives."
"Ah, suit yourself," it replied. "Try again. Now that you've properly been identified as a member of your lineage, it should-"
The stone shifted under the girl's influence, now ringed in blue light. It surprised the Storm Hawk, for what had used to be a difficult task was now considerably easier. Perhaps it was because the entire process was small potatoes in comparison to what Shahrokh told her- if what he was telling her about the Atmos was true, however. A small vermillion pinprick blossomed into existence shortly afterward, feeding on both lines of mutual energy flows. Within seconds, it exploded to a three foot radius, taking on a ghastly orange-ringed appearance in the process. Simultaneously, a great shiver ran through the land; both bird and girl flinched as structural supports gave way and the level above collapsed.
Warily, Piper stepped through, Shahrokh involuntarily squawking in surprise in her ear at the sudden movement. Nothing was there save for a ritualistic pedestal most likely used for sacrifices Hovering a mere foot above its apex, however, a lemiscate-shaped object hummed, spinning above its stony altar. Although it appeared to be wreathed in flames, only a comfortable temperature range issued forth- surprising, given the intensity of said fire.
"Oh my land... Is that...?"
"No way," Piper breathed, fighting the innate urge to bolt towards said object and scoop it into eager arms.
"Go on," the White Hawk urged. "Take it. It's yours."
Still, something stayed her hand- an unconscious doubt gnawing at the edge of her mind that now fully manifested itself in light of her new royal status. Was it the Sky Siren, who had almost doomed the entire team by playing on their wants, or was it the sheer impossibility of finding a legendary stone, much less this one? Looking back now, she could not tell.
Heeding nothing but the cautionary niggle in her brain, Piper obeyed, wrapping her fingers around its strangely cool surface. It responded to her touch, gently pulsing in tune to her heartbeat. Pure red energy connected with hers, thrumming happily as if it had been a wayward son returning home to joyous parents.
"Now what?" she breathlessly sighed, cradling the crimson Helix crystal.
The bird-man grinned as impishly as his beak would allow, even as the stone ceiling creaked worryingly above them. "Now, we portal out of here before we're turned into pancakes and set the world right."
Her stomach rumbled loudly, the noise bouncing hollowly off the walls. Cyclonis held it and hissed muted death threats under her breath. How many hours has it been? A fist smashed against a wall and its owner howled in pain. Cradling her reddening knuckles, she almost felt sorry for driving her pairbonded rival off in a blind fury. For all she knew, that brat could have gotten herself killed with the intention of letting her die a slow, painful death.
She coughed, not entirely surprised when droplets of red mingled with phlegm. Cyclonis groaned, feeling her fever-induced headache grow more unbearable with every passing second. Sure the binding produced negative (and sometimes lethal) effects, but that didn't stop her from blessing the Dark Ace with her prowess all those weeks ago. How she managed to stave off the symptoms for this long, she didn't know (although she suspected it was partly due to her growing insanity); all she knew was that she absolutely hated this place.
"Blasted Rapture!" she seethed.
The stonework beneath trembled in response before lying still once more.
She blinked, steadying herself before snarling, "Must be imagining things."
Even as the last tremors fled her attention, deep within the bowels of the ruins, something awoke.
Cyclonis' ear twitched as her ears captured the sound of tons of weight toppling to the unfeeling ground. 'Nothing to worry about,' she mumbled to herself, pressing her back against the wall in the case she proved herself wrong. The noise didn't cease, however, and the young woman thought herself lucky for not being that close to its source. To her surprise, however, the wall next to her burst open with a flash of sapphire light, a distorted ring forming in the company of painted caricatures.
From the opening, near-blinding light issued forth. Situated smack-dab in the middle, Piper stood, a proud-looking hawk carefully rested upon her wrist. Nigh gale winds swept forth, whipping hair and feathers alike and bringing life back into the massive structure. The oval-like opening pulsed a reassuring blue once more, glowing as bright as the sun and fully illuminating the structure.
Shielding her eyes from the onslaught, Cyclonis barely had enough time to blink before a stronger gale force revitalized the ancient site, blowing the entire site clean of accumulated dust and grime. One by one, the rate increasing by the second, hidden light sources flared to life. And then, the glare softened, and winds died down to a gentle breeze, softly caressing her body. When the light faded to tolerable levels, her jaw hit the floor.
She couldn't believe it; the very thing she had sought after for years was now clenched within this ingrate's hand- the nerve of this girl!
Said girl strutted confidently towards the dethroned Master, offering a cheesy grin in return for a darkening scowl. "Sorry to keep your royal queenly-ness waiting," Piper 'apologized'. "I found exploration a much better use of my time."
Pretending to examine her chipped dark-painted fingernails, said royal squared her shoulders and replied. "While I appreciate your acknowledgement of my superiority, I still find your reason dubious. Care to explain why you have one of those overgrown rats with wings on your shoulder?"
Piper opened her mouth, but the race was lost as soon as the White Hawk popped its head over her shoulder and quipped, "So this is the Master you were talking about!"
"Well, well, well. Master Cyclonis. So wonderful to finally meet your acquaintance. Don't you have the personality of a coffee mug?"
"The White Hawk," Cyclonis gaped, gently prodding every inch of the creature in awe after hastily stumbling away in shock.
"Yes, thank you for the recognition," he grunted, hopping away from the teen's curious touch onto Piper's other shoulder, "but I really must excuse myself from the... attention... We mustn't dwell on things past and instead focus on things to come. I shall explain along the way."
Cyclonis blinked, unable to decide whether to steal the Helix crystal for herself or to force answers from the (admittedly small despite ancient writings) talking bird right here and now.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" the changeling snapped, launching into the air. "Let's go!"