Chapter 1: Part 1: Daius
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Part 1 - Daius
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Zhar didn’t know whether to keep her eyes off or on the beast.
He was hideous in a way that made her uncomfortable - though it wasn’t a physical hideousness. In terms of looks and at a first glance, one might think he was a charming creature of wonder and magic. But two seconds in his presence would make anyone uncomfortable.
There was a feral energy about him, dangerous and dark. It made her stomach churn with discomfort and she felt physically ill whenever their eyes would meet.
There didn’t seem to be any sort of intelligence behind those burning blue flames, just the feral animosity of a wild animal, brought up in a kill-or-be-killed world. It was a wonder to most in the flock that Mocha was able to get a hold of him, but the fluffy bird always seemed to have an aptitude for taming wild beasts. Well, considering his mate of choice, it was no wonder that he brought yet another wild beast under his wing. Though, Vespira had dozens of years of experience in social circles before secluding herself for however many years until she joined the flock.
This Devil, however, seemed to only know the ways of the beast. He seemed incapable of presenting himself as a stryx of intelligence, only communicating through non-verbal sounds and body language. There was rumour of him speaking an archaic version of the desert people’s tongue, but whenever approached, the beast would just hiss and flare up, baring sharp fangs and almost foaming at the mouth in rage.
And this was the stryx Zhar was tasked to complete her tributes with.
She almost groaned aloud just thinking about it, but Mocha was leading the pair through the desert and she knew he would chastise her for it. He seemed to be quite fond of his guard dog, for reasons she and most others in the flock simply couldn’t understand.
When she had first heard that the Devil of the Dust was to be her tribute partner, she almost immediately withdrew her application. It was a tradition in the flock, however, to complete a stryx’s tributes in the place of their birth. A silly tradition, Zhar thought. Tisiphone tried explaining the meaning behind it ages ago (something about understanding where you come from and how it’s led you on a path towards where you are now), but she was only barely listening to it back then. There was really no need to listen to her anyway. Almost no one had even heard of the Suvnice desert, let alone hailed from it, so she assumed it would be unlikely for her to complete her tributes while she stayed inside the flock.
It just so happened that Mocha and Avira had picked up the beast from his area a few months ago, and while they couldn’t be entirely sure, it was at least some sort of place of origin for him. She didn’t really know what to make of the idea of having lived in the same general vicinity with the beast for a long while before joining the flock, but they were pretty much living in the same building now,, so she supposed the idea of that didn’t mean anything anyway.
They began their long journey just four days ago. It was a long and arduous trip that was done mostly during the night. The Devil had some difficulties at first acclimating to the long night flights, but adjusted to it after the first two days. Zhar would’ve noted how ragged he looked, but in all honesty there was barely any difference compared to his regular ratty appearance.
They were in the last stretch of the trek to the desert now. Flying over canyons, they slowly approached a familiar set of looming mountains. She barely realised the smaller stryx leading the expedition had slowed to speak over the wind.
“We’ll be there shortly,” Mocha chirped to her, glittering eyes watching her steadily. “We’ll take a break for a few hours before starting the first rite.”
Zhar crooned to relay that she had heard the information, and glanced over to the Devil who was already staring at them, beady blue eyes glaring into hers. She snapped her eyes away and flicked her head in discomfort. How awful...
As Mocha had said, they arrived into the desert still under the cover of night. The almost-full moon blared down on them like a watchful eye, and the stars littered the sky like small diamonds that one could almost snatch at any time. There was a familiar coolness in the air, and the scent of sand and dust settled into her nostrils as they flew over looming rocks. Every now and then, the sand would shift and shudder, and Zhar would strain her eyes to see anything, but there was nothing but the rocky dunes of the desert.
They settled atop a large butte, one that she had remembered frequenting when she was still living in the desert. It was a safe and somewhat cozy place, with its large platforms and domineering rocky spires that stabbed the sky like knives. There were many places to curl up and rest on the butte, most of which were out of the way of the sun, so it was a marvelous place to settle down for the day. The stone below her talons was rough and cool and she crooned at the feel of it on her skin.
Mocha had sorted a fire, but neither Zhar nor the Devil seemed too interested in it. Mocha didn't seem to mind though. He just perched next to it and started preening his fluffy feathers, most torn and ragged-looking from the long trek there.
Zhar also began to preen, every now and then glancing at Mocha.
He was much smaller than her, but he was always quite confident and calm, and despite being the second-in-command, he was the most endearing and amiable amongst the three higher-ups.
She had often wondered why he was in the rag-tag, bloodthirsty flock to begin with. His demeanour seemed quite soft, and he was rather gentle with those in the lower ranks. Though, she was only a grunt in the mob, and didn’t often see him in action.
“We’ll do the death drop first.” Mocha’s mellow voice startled her. He was staring at her gently, fluffy feathers settled and more tidy now. She glanced over to the Devil, who was busying himself looking over the desert from the side of the butte like a watchdog. He seemed fixated on something on the dark horizon, but she chose to ignore him.
“Do you need some help to decide on a path?” She asked, bringing her fiery gaze back to the right-hand. She hadn’t been in her birth place for a very long time, but she still at least knew the general layout of it. Memories of racing through the dunes after prey littered her memory, and she began allotting a pathway in her head.
Mocha shook his head, the long, fluffy feathers on his cheeks wobbling in an innocent and animated manner. “No, I decided on the track when we were flying in.” His gaze turned to the fire and he closed his eyes to momentarily enjoy its warmth. Zhar pushed away the small jab of disappointment in her chest. She would have enjoyed traversing her old territory again, but this was an official venture, strictly at the command of the boss himself.
Her gaze slipped down to the glittering ring tied to Mocha’s neck by a silver chain. She tilted her head at its silvery magnificence and how, even though the light of the fire was warm, the metallic ring shone a clear blue-silver.
“A gift from my wife,” Mocha interrupted, catching her startled stare. “Though I have no idea where she got it, and I often find myself a bit too nervous to ask.” He chuckled to himself. Zhar found herself at loss for words at his - now what would you call it? Warmth?
Yes, warmth. Like the sun on a cold morning.
She shook her head. Perhaps this was the charm that wilder beasts found themselves falling victim to. “It is beautiful,” she commented, not entirely sure what else to say.
He sighed in a somewhat dreamy fashion. “I find myself extremely lucky.” He was using the talons on his wing to fiddle with the ring while he stared at it. Zhar shook her head, a soft smile threatening her beak.
“From what I’ve heard, I’m certain the feeling is mutual.”
He gave a toothy smile to no one in particular.
The sun was just teetering on the edge of the horizon, light spilling over the edge and casting vast rays of light over the glittering gold sand dunes. Mocha was perched upon a large boulder, wings tucked in and body bunched around his feet, which were only barely visible through his fluffy feathers. “Now, as you know, I’m not allowed to intervene in any way during these events.” He was going through the rules again, much to Zhar’s chagrin. Of course, his full attention was on her. The Devil was busy cleaning himself next to her, unbothered by Mocha talking. “I will only be leading for you to follow, regardless of... if your life is in danger.” There was hesitation in his voice that made Zhar’s brows furrow slightly, but when she looked at him, he seemed as bright and chirpy as ever. She supposed this is where he was terrifying as a right-hand.
He seemed unbothered by the fact that the two in front of him could lose their lives. He was still his upright and warm self. Her tail twitched uncomfortably at the thought of this.
“Alright!” Mocha chirped finally, standing up and shuffling dust and sand from his feathers. The Devil’s head snapped up, and he immediately got up from his lax position (Zhar half expected him to wag his tail and pant like a dog.) “Let’s get to it.”
The death drop. It was a nickname that those in the flock came up with years ago as it became more popular to do in the Daius tributes. It was usually a maneuver used in Nokt tributes, but thanks to a few speed demons in the flock it became more popular to do among recruits during the races. Stryx would fly up to a dangerous height where breathing became difficult, and then plumet towards the ground. It was then their job to use that incredible buildup of speed to avoid any object along the race course. Any wrong move could result in a broken wing - or in more unfortunate cases, having a wing be torn clean off. It was a sport to witness, and many in the flock would go wild when watching it. Pulling up too soon would result in failure of the race, and pulling up too late would… usually mean death.
But Zhar had practiced among the hawks of the flock and gotten as many tips and pointers as she could from older and experienced flyers. She knew what she had to do and how she had to do it, but…
She glanced over to the Devil. Did he even know what was going on? How was he possibly able to understand any of what they were doing? He was sniffing around unbothered, and she felt an uncomfortable stone rest in her stomach. Regardless of how she felt about him, witnessing his death wasn’t exactly on her bucket list, nor on any of her lists other than maybe ‘Things She Would Rather Not Witness’.
She wasn’t able to think too hard on it as Mocha began his ascent into the sky. The Devil followed without much hesitation, and she followed in suit, deciding to push the questions to the back of her mind.
Once they had reached what Mocha deemed a suitable height, they drifted for a short while as Mocha positioned them at the start of whatever track he had created for them. Zhar found herself panting, lungs struggling to find an apt amount of air to fill themselves with. The sun, though just rising, glared at them past the horizon - a heat she was familiar with but not accustomed to. She couldn’t help but glance at the Devil who floated beside them without much of a care. Her heart thumped in her chest heavily, and she swallowed a thick ball of saliva (something that was steadily dripping down the side of the Devil’s mouth, though she decided her focus was better to be wasted on other things). She shook her head and took a deep breath. Focus…
“Alright,” Mocha said in a low and unfocused voice. Zhar’s heart stuttered, but she tightened her jaw. “Three… two…”
He didn’t bother to finish as he folded his wings into his body and dropped downwards. The Devil followed easily without any hesitation. Zhar slowed slightly as she watched them go. As per Mocha’s advice, she waited a few seconds to avoid crashing into their smaller bodies on the way down. The seconds felt longer than they should have, as her heart thumped loudly in her ears. She finally took just a short moment to inhale, before she too tucked her wings in and began her drop.
For just a short second, the wind in her ears stopped. Her breath was caught and the air around her stilled. And then suddenly it all came rushing in again. The sound was deafening in her ears and she strained to keep her eyes open as the three gained speed at a worrisome rate.The ground that had seemed so small and insignificant just a minute ago began to loom in front of them.
Nerves threatened to make her wings spill out from her body, but she forced them to stay tight against her body. As they drew closer and closer to the ground, she found herself frantically glancing towards Mocha, who seemed too focused to pay attention to the two. Her breaths became frantic and she found it difficult to grasp at the crisp air that rushed past her warm face. Her heart thumped, threatening to jump right out of her chest, and her wings began to ache after being held so tightly against her body, but still she kept them closed.
Son of a goat, Daius! She cursed in her head, her eyes watering as the wind continuously dried them. I hope your feathers remain wet from the rain!
Just when she thought it would end, Mocha let out a startling loud set of clicks and slowly opened his wings out, evening out to glide alongside the ground. Zhar barely had time to react properly. The force of the wind threatened to pull her wings all the way out, and she strained to control them. Her heart leapt into her throat as she found herself having to compensate for her large size, her talons scraping along the sand. She cursed aloud then in a terrified rumble. “Blasted phoenix above!”
She managed to shakily even out and regain a bit of height, but immediately had to dodge a large boulder - which the other two maneuvered around with ease - rolling in the air to avoid losing speed.
She snapped her beak, anxious anger threatening her focus as the three whipped around rock formations, slowly approaching a canyon. Her heart stumbled as each rock raced by, the tips of her wings grazing the wall of the plateau as they entered a crevice barely large enough to fit her wingspan. Thankfully, with the speed she had built up she was able to flick her body around without stretching her wings out fully and risk injury. She was only vaguely aware of their positions - Mocha leading, the Devil hot on his tail and her lagging behind a bit in third and last place. She didn’t feel too bad about it though - she had barely enough time to register each obstacle and twist in the track as she went. If she ended this race in third place with all of her limbs attached, she would be happy.
Her body tingled and twitched with adrenaline, and if she were more aware of her own body, she would have noticed how little feeling she had in it, as though she were only capable of understanding the basic forces of gravity. The sun illuminated the top of the plateau now, and cool shadows were cast through the crevice they raced through. As the fear began to drain from her blood, she was able to notice the small stream of water they were racing against.
The two followed Mocha as he began gaining height and they cleared a waterfall and a large pool of water at the bottom of an even larger waterfall. Zhar had no time to fawn over the lush green plants crowded around the water as the group took a sharp right turn to follow the face of the cliff of one of the mountains they had passed when first arriving at their destination. It was here that the speed from the descent began to recede. Heart thumping in her chest, Zhar took this opportunity to use her powerful wings to gain speed over the chiro that was trailing behind Mocha so carefully.
Her sudden burst of speed made the two in front of her stutter in their flight, but where Mocha regained composure and managed to build enough speed to stay ahead of her, the Devil chattered noisily and shifted out of the way of her domineering body, falling behind her in a flutter of hisses and annoyed clicks. She didn’t need to turn her head to listen to him struggle in her massive wind current before finding the tails of her wind he could comfortably ride along.
They once again began an ascent alongside the mountain. Beneath their beating wings was what seemed to be some sort of path up the mountain that they were following, most likely worn by animals that ventured the mountain.
All of a sudden, Mocha drifted upwards and flared his wings out, slowing down completely. Zhar followed him, and the sight of a large lake surrounded with greenery met her eyes. They were right on the edge of the desert, and from this view, they could see the butte they had rested on in the far distance.
Mocha fluttered his wings until he was on the ground safely next to the lake. The two following him made less-than-graceful landings as they thumped onto the ground in a messy and exhausted fashion. Zhar’s legs were shaking with adrenaline, and her tail kept twitching as though still in flight. Her muscles constricted and relaxed as though lightning was racing through them, though she felt very nearly on the brink of collapsing.
She warily glanced over to her tribute companion, and was reassured to see his fur standing on end as though he had been electrified. He was panting and chittering noisily, wings and legs shaking, ears twitching as though overwhelmed. She was sure her feeling of relief came from the fact that he, too, had at least the capacity to understand this staggering feat of chaos, and his suffering of the event brought her satisfaction in reward for her having to put up with him throughout the previous few days.
She couldn’t even begin to imagine what could possibly be going through his head. Thinking back on it, she wondered if the choice to follow Mocha through with it all was out of complete mutual respect and trust, blind or otherwise.
She shook her head in an incredulous manner.
If so, he was more intriguing than she originally thought.
“Well done!” Mocha said to her, his voice coming out a little breathy with exhaustion and… relief? “You surprised me towards the end there!” He laughed, feathers that had fluffed in adrenaline finally settling. “Reminds me of when I was younger. I think you both have earned a fine drink after that work.” After the words had left his mouth, he bobbed over to the water to take a few big gulps of water.
Zhar stared at his almost unfazed demeanor. Perhaps the fear she felt towards the Devil had been misplaced.
Mocha was perhaps a much larger monster than she had imagined.
The flight back to the butte was much calmer than when they had first arrived. Zhar attributed this to the fact that she could have nearly died just a few hours before.
The sun beat down on their backs as they floated along the dry wind currents, the day now in full swing. She could tell Mocha was struggling with his thick blanket of feathers, but he didn’t make note of it.
As they floated above the sand dunes, Zhar heard a rumbling chitter come from the Devil. She glanced towards him, and then to a shuffling sound that radiated from beneath them. Below them, a small pack of bipedal lizards trailed along with them in their shadows.
Zhar looked up at Mocha, who hadn’t yet taken notice. “Should we grab dinner?” She asked. There was a shifting sound, like sand rushing about. The Devil’s chittering became dangerously low in tone as Mocha looked back.
“Should I leave you both in charge of hunting?” He asked brightly.
“Yes sir, we’ll just grab these-” As she glanced down, she stopped.
The creatures had disappeared from beneath them without a trace. She looked back to find their footprints, but they had stopped completely behind them.
Zhar narrowed her eyes as the Devil’s anxious chittering became quieter, though his fur stood on end and his eyes scanned the ground agitatedly.