Chiro took a breath, and swallowed. Then she looked at Agatha from where she crouched under the table, Veleus in view. They were in position. Now Agatha had to get in range. The Gunslinger gave a cocky little grin and shoved her hat down on her hair, business time mode. She stepped onto the floor of the room in the innermost ruins of Tumen. The perfectly circular, perfectly unmarred, pure white stone floor. And-
The young monk’s eyes widened. Memories came flooding into her. Across the way, Agatha’s face mirrored her shock, and she knew, she knew, she knew she was seeing something of Chiro’s just like Chiro was seeing something of hers-
FOOTHILLS, THE PILLARS OF THE SUN MOUNTAINS
SIX YEARS AGO….
Thumpthumpthump went rapid feet on a stone floor and then a yelp as someone hit a rug, skidded, and nearly crashed into the opposite wall, shooting right past Dhaza’s workroom door and barely avoiding the dead end of the hall.
That would be her youngest, then. With the kind of smile known to all parents (part exasperation, part fondness, part worry) she sighed and dropped one more reagent into the flask in front of her. The potion smoked, turned a bright blue, and began to smell strongly of cinnamon. Quickly she capped it and sealed it with wax. Just in time, too, as a little blonde head poked around the doorframe.
At nearly nine years old, Chiro had yet to gain her full height and weight. The growth spurt that hit Jerbani ratfolk in their adolescent years hadn’t taken effect yet, and as such, the kit barely reached over a foot tall, compared to her mother’s three foot five. Wide green eyes blinked as Dhaza took off her protective goggles and mock-frowned.
“Now, Chiro, what have we discussed about my workroom?”
A grimace. “….Not to make sudden noises because you could be handling sensitive chemicals and stuff,” she mumbled, ears back in genuine abashment. “And if you explode one of us is gonna have to do the bookwork.” A second face, more amusing now, because if there was one thing Chiro hated it was lessons that required sitting still for long periods. “Sorry, Mum. I just, I was so excited cause it’s nearly storytime, and you weren’t there, and I was wondering if we could have the story of the Great Escape again-”
Dhaza chuckled. “Come here, kit.”
Chiro did, and Dhaza wrapped her in a hug. Sometimes she worried about her youngest kit. Jitchi, Fril, and Tram were much more… well, like a Jerbani ratfolk ought to be. Jitchi would be married before the season was out, if the young man in question and his family had any sense at all. Fril had a great head for numbers and trade, which made both Dhaza and Arzot proud parents indeed. Even their only boy, Tram, was a capable miner, if perhaps a little prone to butting heads with his father now that he was coming of age. Little Chiro was a surprise, and continued to do so, ever since the day Dhaza figured out she was with kit again.
With no interest in trade, or mining, or even alchemy, Chiro had yet to find her place in things, and sometimes it worried Dhaza. But there was still time, of course. Something in her mother’s heart knew that the kit was going to do… something. Nobody knew what, though. When she wasn’t outside exploring or reading adventure books or badgering her father to let her go on the next caravan to Eto, Chiro was prone to daydreaming and strange questions.
“Mum, do goats see things the same we do, or do they do it different cause they have oval eyes?”
“Why do rivers only go the one way? What’s to stop them from turning around?”
“Do you think fish know if they’re wet?”
But there was no denying she was smart, and very stubborn when she wanted to be, and her sunshiney personality made her reasonably well-liked, if not entirely understood, by most of Burrowtown. Never let it be said that Chiro was surly or unruly, like some kits. No, never. She just… had a disturbing knack for finding trouble or strange situations.
“Mum! I love you and all but storytime. Come on! Jitchi wants to hear about the Two Tales but we did that last time and Tram is needling Da again and doesn’t care and Fril said she was ok with anything so can we please have the story of the Great Escape?” Chiro tugged on her hand, and Dhaza rose, smoothing back the kit’s ears and grinning.
“Well, we did do Two Tales last time.”
“YES! Come on come on come on!”
Laughing, Dhaza let herself be pulled along to the living room.
Burrowtown was exactly that: a small colony of Jerbani ratfolk, nestled in the protective shadow beneath the Pillars of the Sun. The gently rolling scrubby hillocks and rocky outcroppings made perfect cover for them, for all the houses were dug, not built, into the ground. Natural insulation kept them warm at night and cool during the day, with skylights of carefully positioned glass providing illumination for the living room. Of course, there were some buildings built at surface level; there had to be, for things like the goats and chickens, and the carefully maintained gardens bordering the Crooked Leg Creek. But the majority of the colony were not farmers nor shepherds. The Mine provided them with raw ore, but also with salt: precious, precious salt that could be traded in Eto for other goods and sent up the Pillars.
It wasn’t the nomadic life of their ancestors, but it was a good one, and she grabbed her fancy eyepatch, the one with the embroidery Jitchi did, and slipped it over her bad socket.
Such lives of peace were not bought easily, though.
Their burrowhome was furnished with handwoven rugs and shelves carved into the rock. Pillows lay before the fireplace, most already occupied. Arzot smiled and rose with a grunt to greet her. The limp was bad today, she noted, and made a reminder in her head to make him more of that pain potion.
“We’re doing the Great Escape,” Chiro informed everyone. Jitchi sighed, but acquiesced. The kit went to sit on a cushion as Dhaza herself placed her back to the fire, letting it illuminate the room while simultaneously darkening it to a more atmospheric level. A log popped behind her.
Chiro leaned in, all wide green eyes and anticipation. She loved this story. It was her favorite, always had been. It both warmed her heart and broke it at the same time: Chiro would, all gods willing, never know the real suffering that went into the tale. She would be safe, here, in Burrowtown.
The old scars on her back twinged, echoes of a pain more than twenty years past.
Dhaza, matriarch of Burrowtown, cleared her throat and set her voice to a speaker’s cadence. A hush fell over the family, expectant and thick with magic in the air as she wove the tale of her people.
“A very long time ago, our people, the Jerbani ratfolk, roamed the deserts as free as the wind,” she intoned. “We were nomads, wanderers of the sand dunes, following yearly routes to our oasises and trading along the way, as our people were wont to do. We among all other ratfolk were shaped by the desert, forged in the heat. We were given long legs and furred feet let us outrun our enemies even on the shiftiest sand dunes. We were given big ears to hear predators sneaking up on us, and keep us cool even in under the merciless midday sun. We were given eyes to see in the dark as well as in the daylight, and fun as golden as the tombs of ancient human kinds. We traveled by the stars and sheltered in the shade of the crooked yern tree, at peace and happy.”
“Until they came, and took us, down, down into the Underdark. We fought, but we were small and few, and they were large and many, riding strange beasts and bringing unnatural blackness with them that even our eyes could not see through. We were slaves, there.” Dhaza kept her voice steady, rock solid, even as Arzot glanced at her, his hand unconsciously on his mangled thigh muscle. The old sting was only that, though.
“And so it was for generations. All we had were our stories and our hope and the memories, the stories of stars like treasure scattered across the indigo sky and the howling desert wind and the sunwarmed seas of sand.”
“Until, when chance came, we seized it as one and fled the Underdark, slaying many of our captors as we did. And we ran and ran and ran until our feet were bloody with it to reach the sun again. One in four died on that hellish journey through the dark, following a map they could barely read and staking all their lives on a wild hope. When they finally entered the surface world, it should have been a cause for celebration.”
“It wasn’t. That place was cursed and inhabited by the cultists of Rovagug: worshippers of the Destroyer, the Unmaker, the Enemy of the Gods, the Worldbreaker, he whose domains are chaos, evil, destruction, and war. They ambushed us as we rested that first day and hunted us for three more in the ruins by the Pyramid of Kamaria. We fought as best we could, but we were exhausted and half-starved, and they were given dark gifts by their unholy master.”
“It would have been our end save by happy chance.” Chiro sat up straighter, ears perked, all her attention on the tale. Dhaza continued. “A group of monks from the School of the South here in the Pillars of the Sun was also in the area. They were monastic ascetics and scholars, dedicated to pursuing physical and mental perfection like their patron god, Irori, who not so incidentally opposes Rovagug (and also Asmodeus) as his domains are healing, knowledge, law, and strength. And as our people fled from their new tormentors, they appeared. With nothing more than their bare hands, they helped us fight back and turn the tide! Eventually, their leader killed the Cleric of Rovagug, and sent the rest scattering to the compass rose. Now, the Jerbani had been slaves for generations at this point, so we had never seen monks before. Naturally we were both grateful and very intrigued. They too were interested in us as well, not having seen our like before. And they offered to escort us to the Pillars of the Sun, where they were based, to see to our wounds and let our people rest after their journey. Now, we are a people who honor our debts, and though we had but little at the time, we swore to repay them for their kindness.”
“Along the way, both sides came to see that friendship and cooperation could be mutually beneficial. We’re an enterprising sort, after all, and when we discovered both a spring of fresh water and a streak of salt at the base of the mountains, an accord was reached. The School of the South Wind protects us and this area from bandits and evildoers and monsters, and the Jerbani have a home to raise their litters in peace and thrive. In return, we assisted the monks in establishing trade in the nearby city of Eto, with them as the… front, and our know-how behind the scenes; for as gifted as ratfolk are in trade, it is much easier to do business with Big Folk when you have Big Folk of your own. We also provide them with salt from our new mine at competitive market prices. Burrowtown, as the new place was dubbed, grew quickly, and today it stands as a reminder of our promises and friendship, and what can happen if you never, ever give up on your dreams. The Jerbani are a free people once more, and though we do not wander the dunes or sleep under the stars anymore, we are safe, happy, and content.”
Quiet settled in the wake of her voice, the spell of the story slow to dissipate. Chiro’s eyes reflected the firelight, even if she was a million miles away, probably fighting Rovagug cultists.
“Thank you, Mother,” Fril said, smiling. “That’s a good story.”
“It’s the BEST!” Chiro declared.
“And now! Time for kits to go off to bed! You all know the drill. Stories, then sleep,” Dhaza said, standing back up off the cushion and stretching. Arzot did the same next to her, and their tails lazily intertwined.
Tram huffed but peeled himself off the doorframe where he’d been lounging with calculated adolescent coolness and disappeared around the corner. The girls came to hug their mother and father once before scooting off. Chiro sighed.
“Alright, alright… Night Mum. Night Da!” She scampered forward and gave them both brief, strong hugs, before turning around and running off.
Sleep safe and well, kit, she thought, and shook herself. Of course she will. Why wouldn’t she?
This is Burrowtown, Dhaza thought firmly. We are safe. We gave up everything to be safe. There are no monsters here.
TANG! TANG! TANG!
Skivvin paused a moment, wiping his brow and briefly leaning on his pick. The hard metal helmet he wore had a candle in a holder on top, invention of his family that he sported proudly (and it did NOT dribble wax or burn his ears, no matter what that busybody Takoq thought!) and kept the area illuminated. He didn’t need the light to see, but it helped find the salt veins by the glimmer in the rocks. Skivvin also wore goggles and a bandanna to keep the salt from stinging his sensitive nose and eyes. Around him, other pickaxes TANG TANG TANGed about their work.
“New vein looks good!” said Djal. She briefly rolled her shoulders. “Maybe a new support here, you think, Gibba?”
Supervisor Gibba eyed the area critically. “I think you’re right, Djal.” Skivvin barely resisted the urge to roll his eyes as Djal visibly preened. What she sees in him… dammit. He struck the wall harder than was strictly necessary. Just because Gibba’s tail is long and fluffy-
Everyone froze, including Skivvin, as his pick burst through the not-nearly-as-solid-as-he-assumed rock wall and into some sort of area beyond.
“Uh… Gibba?” he said, uncertainly, as everyone waited. Collapses were infrequent…. but still quite deadly.
Gibba approached warily, Kubo looking after him. “…Looks solid. Don’t think it’s going to fall… Can you get it out?”
“Uh, maybe? I think- I think it went THROUGH. Like-” Skivvin yanked back, and stumbled a little as the pickaxe came free, leaving a small dark hole in the wall. Everyone stared at it. “…Like there’s something beyond.”
The crew looked at one another. The hole. Each other.
Then they all grabbed their picks.
Working together, they created rough “door” in the stone mine wall half again as high as they were tall and big enough for two to walk abreast. Gibba shined his lantern inside.
“What in the-”
Over a dozen bright green dots suddenly flared to life in the darkness.
It took Skivven one fatal second to realize they weren’t dots, but eyes, eyes in the dark, followed by a horrible HISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!
The screaming stopped almost as soon as it started.
Chiro looked covertly around the corner.
The delightful smell of freshly baked berrybuns tickled her nose and made her eyes water. There they were, sitting unattended where Mrs. Bessel left them to cool in her windowsill. Her burrow was built into the side of the hill, and thus, she had a real kitchen window that opened and everything. She said it was a human style. Chiro thought it looked silly… but it did leave berrybuns in easy access.
Somewhere behind her lay a book of arithmetic, abandoned in the dust “accidentally”.
Taking one more look around, she darted across the hard-packed dirt street and behind a boulder- just as the door to the mines opened and Djal burst out running full-tilt down the road.
“DHAZA! DHAZA! SOMEONE GET DHAZA RIGHT NOW! MONSTERS! MONSTERS IN THE MINE!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, and heads popped out of doors and around corners and up from their work as Djal flew to Chiro’s house and pounded on the door, still screaming about monsters.
Chiro gaped, berry buns entirely forgotten. It seemed almsot like a joke, except the expression of fear on her face was very real.
Monsters in the mine? What does that mean?
I should get home! Maybe I can find out what’s going on!
Burrowtown resembled an anthill now, with Djal’s alarm kicking it quite solidly into frantic action. The poor Jerbani could barely stammer out her story (and frustratingly, no one would let Chiro near to hear it, either) but whatever it was… It’s got Mum real upset. I’ve never seen her like this before.
Now banished to peeling tubers in the kitchen for dinner, and thus safely away from Adults Having Conversations, Chiro scowled. They keep treating me like I’m stupid. I’m not. I wanna know what’s going on. They’re putting me with the kits! I know Mum worries, but- I’m almost nine. In a year or two I’ll be legging and growing the rest of my height! I could help somehow, instead of just doing more lessons, more boring numbers and alchemy that smells funny and never goes right. Instead of peeling tubers, I could be a real member of the colony! I could help!
….I hate peeling tubers.
“…one to the school…”
One droopy ear perked upright. Chiro paused in the middle of peeling, listening intently. Footsteps. and- Soft voices. Oh!
Tuber forgotten, she crept to the door and pressed her ear to the keyhole.
“-coming soon, right?” someone said. It sounded like Yuma. Someone’s tail flicked anxiously across the stone burrow floor.
“As soon as they can, which knowing them, they’re already getting ready to leave. Monks.” An impressed, but slightly skeptical noise. That’d be Srik; he didn’t like nonratfolk at all. “They can move damn fast when they want to, strangeness aside… as long as they want to. Otherwise they just philosophize everything to death. Glad they’re with us though, I’ll tell you that.”
Chiro’s eyes widened, and she barely suppressed a delighted squeak. Monks! Real monks! Coming here!
The ratfolk appreciated the value of space, and the School of the South Wind was up on the mountain, so while the two were neighborly they definitely weren’t in each other’s business more than needed. I’ve never seen a monk before! They always leave so early for Eto and go back the long way, not through the village. The monks are coming! Wow! What kind of monster is this? It’s just like in the story!
“…wish we knew what it was though. Djal’s a mess. Just something about eyes in the dark and statues.”
Statues? What kind of monster has to do with statues?
“Yeah. I heard they broke into some kind of… cavern, and after that, she just gets all…” A rude, cuckoo noise. And then the sound of someone hitting someone else upside the head. “Ow!”
“Be respectful! Jerbani died down there!”
Chiro edged away, thinking hard.
What IS it? I wish I knew! I haven’t ever read anything about monster statues. Nobody seems to know. But if they knew… they’d know how to fight it. The monks are human, right? Humans are big and bumbly, and make all kinds of noise, according to Da. And they can’t even see in the dark! Will they be ok? Will they be in trouble? Monks are supposed to be great fighters, but how can you fight what you can’t see?
Chiro sat in the chair, ignoring the tubers. Her attention was on something far more interesting. Moonlight filtered through the square of glass at the top of the hill they lived under, framing Chiro, silver on gold.
I really wanna know what is down there.
….Maybe, I could just… sneak down there. I can see in the dark. I’m really small. Whatever is there won’t notice me! I’m so small I can hide really well, I bet, and I can run the fastest out of any of the other kits, even Jitchi. If I told them what it was, maybe they could fight it better! And Mum will be super proud of me, I bet! It’s just like in her stories she tells, when the Jerbani had to fight for their lives and escape the Underdark. I’ll be as fast as the desert wind!
The more she thought on it, the more she liked that idea. But it will be dangerous (she shivered deliciously) so I have to prepare. I’ll go at night. Not today- people are too riled up about it today. It will take time for the message to get to the school. So… day after tomorrow, night, when the monsters are sleeping. I’ll bring one of Mum’s potions to help. I know she has some good ones in that box under the desk in her workroom she doesn’t know I know about. And then, I’ll run really fast back and tell everyone and then when the monks come they can destroy them!
Perfect. It was a perfect plan.
Excitement made her grin, and the urge to go do it now was almost overwhelming, but she made herself sit back down and pick up a tuber. After all, she had to keep going like normal, right? And she had to keep her cover. If anyone even suspected her, they’d lock her in a closet and she’s never see the monks or the monsters either!
Soon. Soon. I’ll wait till everyone is asleep, in the small hours of the night. Then I’ll make my move!
THE SCHOOL OF THE SOUTH WIND
THE NEXT DAY
Nas made himself put one foot in front of the other. Keep going. Gotta get to the school. Gotta- gotta deliver the message.
Nothing mattered but the message. Not the scrapes on his knees from where he slipped earlier, not the way his dust-dry tongue stuck to his mouth or how his lungs ached or how the stitch in his side stabbed at him as his breathe came in gasps while he ran. Nas ran like his people were known for: in great bounding leaping strides that took him around the bend and up the steep path, and he’d been running so long he could no longer feel his feet, or remember when he last stopped or ate. The cold mountain air and wind cut through his fur and light clothing and made him shiver even as he forced one foot down and then the other, over and over, over and over, over and-
A red tiled rooftop- there. The School!
“Hello?” he croaked, swore, and stumbled to a halt in front of the gate, hammering on it. “HELLO? HELP! LET ME IN! I’VE GOT TO SPEAK TO- uh, who, oh right- THE MASTER OF THE SCHOOL! THERE’S TROUBLE IN BURROWTOWN! BIG TROUBLE! WE NEED HELP!”
Sagging, strength almost spent from his marathon, he nearly cried with relief as he saw light flicker on in windows above him. Someone yelled something he couldn’t make out, but the gate shuddered and creaked, then cracked open as a human with a lantern and a shaved head looked outside. Nas tried to straighten and speak.
“We, we, we m-m-monsters in the mines- killed four already, we need-”
The human’s eyes widened and he opened the gate further. Nas staggered inside and clutched at the waterskin he was given like a lifeline and tried not to look as relieved as he was.
He was here. He delivered his message. The monks were coming.
Sighing with relief, Nas relaxed, and fainted dead away to the ground.
THE NEXT DAY
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” Chiro muttered. Who falls asleep on the most exciting night of their life? Nevermind that she’d been so excited she felt like bursting when she lay down to fake sleep so Mum wouldn’t suspect her plan. Biology of hyperactive young kits had other things to say. Now dawn was rising, a peek of lighter blue in the sky blotting out the stars. I’ve still got time though. Get in, get a peek, get out. I got my potion. I’m ready. Mum and Da won’t be up for a bit, they were late talking with the elders last night, and the monks won’t be here till midday I bet. Humans aren’t very quick.
Opening the burrow door with a little creak, she slipped outside into the night. Chiro had a candle in one hand and the potion bottle shoved in her pocket; though she could see in the dark, humans couldn’t, and they might need help finding their way, and better safe than sorry, right?
At the end of Burrowtown’s main “street”, where most of the surface buildings were located, lay the entrance to the Mine. For the first time in her memory, it lay barred shut, with several barrels pushed up against it, along with a few tables and chairs donated by concerned members of the community.
It took her a moment to wrestle bit, heavy oak beam free and squeeze in, shoving things around enough to get the door ajar. After all that, even then it was a tight fit. Chiro grunted with effort. Someone wanted- to be really sure- anything coming out had problems! Yeesh!
But Chiro was small, and found herself inside the entrance to the dark, lifeless mine.
The night noises of the desert, the faint sound of wind and insects, ceased entirely. It was an oppressive sort of silence, the thick kind that lay over everything and smothered. Her fur slowly stood on end, and for the first time, Chiro hesitated.
No. I got this far. They’re gonna need the help and I wanna know what these monsters are! I’m not gonna back down. No way. I’m a Jerbani. We handled the Underdark. I can do this.
Squaring her shoulders, she slowly proceeded inside.
Dust coated everything here, fine particulates from mining the rock for salt. The air had a slightly sour tang to it, and as she walked silently deeper into the tunnels, she could almost taste it, a wrongness on the tongue. Something primal in her hindbrain quivered, and her skin prickled as she made herself go forward. Her darkvision turned the places the candle didn’t touch into shades of grey, making odd shadows like teeth on the walls. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, though… right? Right!
The floor sloped. Chiro walked in almost total silence, her furry feet masking her sounds. Even her breath seemed much too loud under the circumstances. Every nerve was alert. Down, down she went.
A fork in the path. She blinked. One side was well worn, but the other looked like a new tunnel for a new vein. The support beams were still new, not nearly as caked in dirt as the others, and the nails still shiny. That’s probably the one then.
Ok. Here we go. Gonna see what it is, then report back to the monks when they arrive. Easy. Chiro swallowed. Yeah. Easy.
The smell on the air was stronger here. Candle out in front of her, she moved down the new tunnel path.
Thirty steps beyond, she found the first statue, and stared.
It was a perfect replica of a Jerbani- of Gibba, actually, face stopped in terror, arm halfway up like he was trying to shield his face from… something. He was frozen in midstride, running away from a nameless horror. Chiro hesitated, then reached out to touch his shirt. Stone. Grey, solid stone. She rapped him a little, and it hurt, like knocking on rock. The detail alone was incredible. Who made this? How? Its been less than a full day! What kind of monster does this?
And… Where’s Gibba?
Skirting it warily, she continued on. Now I have to look for people too. Maybe I’ll find some survivors!
Or, something added nastily, maybe you’ll find whatever has them.
Chiro swallowed again and ignored that disconcerting thought.
Then she found Kubo. Except this statue had the head missing, and strange marks on the stone around the neck... It’s almost like-
Well, like tooth marks. That’s not possible though. What kind of monster makes statues then eats them? That’s just silly. Right?
Briefly she wished she’d brought her father’s dagger. Just in case. I’m not scared though! I’m not gonna turn back. I gotta find the survivors. And the monster. And be really, really, super really sneaky. Better than berrybun sneaking.
Skivvin was down near the end of the hall, another perfect replica down to the very candle flame, which astonished. It looks so real. Nothing missing from him, though. Just another expression of absolute, allconsuming terror. And he stood in front of a rough-hewn entrance to- somewhere. Her night vision didn’t go that far. Curious, Chiro crept closer, slipping by the Skivvin statue.
The wall opened up into a cavern, higher than she could see, with stalactite pillars rising like great pallid tree trunks. The drip of water echoed here, and not much else. Chiro couldn’t make out the back of the cavern or the sides. She stared. It’s HUGE! Ok. Monster has to be in here somewhere. Let’s go.
The subtle shff of her feet on stone seemed loud enough to wake the dead, but nothing stirred, and after those first few hesitant steps, she nodded to herself -see? It’s fine! It’s all fine- and held up the candle. Something glinted in the light.
A mining helmet, shiny metal catching the light. Someone had dropped it and it rolled here. She picked it up off the stone floor, and something else caught her attention: a number of white, oblong things in a bunch by the edge of the water. Several bunches, actually.
Taking the helmet with her, Chiro trotted over.
Wait. Were those… eggs?
They were, each almost as big as she was. Was this a monster nest? Yikes. Super yikes. Okay. So there’s definitely a monster. It eats stone. It lays eggs. I haven’t seen it yet. But- I should go now, I think, before Mumma Monster comes home. Just in- just in case. Yeah.
Chiro took one step back from the nest, another, and a rock scraped under her foot. She froze. The blood drained from her face and every hair on her body stood on end as all the remnant prey instinct she had woke up howling in alarm.
Somewhere, behind her, came a horrible HISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. And in the reflection of the helmet, she saw several pairs of burning green eyes light up the cavern behind her.
She screamed and bolted. An image of Gibba, arm half-raised, kept her from looking behind her but the entrance was that way, how was she going to get out?! Slick rock betrayed her and she went crashing down, hit her head, pain burst like stars; with the wet floor and momentum she was sliding on her back. It saved her life as jaws closed on the space where she had been, a big scaly horrible throat in view for a second before she closed her eyes as she shot out from under it, carried by her speed tail over teakettle. Chiro tumbled on the downslope of the cavern and scrabbled up at the bottom and kept running. Another scream tore itself from her throat despite all her efforts as she heard something crash behind her and then she saw a crack in the wall, barely a foot wide, across the room.
If she could get in there-!
The young ratfolk flung herself forward.
Just as a deep voice yelled “KAI!” and-
-Something behind her lit up the entire room with fiery light, hurting her eyes even as she frantically wedged herself four, six, eight, ten inches deep into the crack. A second deafening boom and an enraged roar made her nearly turn her head, then stop and fumble for the helmet to use as a mirror so she could see behind her.
The room was lit, now, because four human men- no, not all men, or human; one was clearly a half elf woman, and another was a dwarf of indeterminate gender- stood in the entry. They were all unarmed, and all in a sort of uniform, light robes belted at the waist, plain white sturdy cloth. The biggest and most imposing of them had smoking hands, and… between her and him lay the smoking corpse of the lizard that chased her. Spikey and scaled, thirteen feet long and three hundred pounds, it looked like a beast of nightmare, but the man didn’t flinch.
His eyes were closed.
In fact, they all had their eyes closed.
The one in front, the big one, stood over six feet tall, had biceps the size of melons, a bushy white beard, and a bald head that gave way to hair a little further down. He looked older, severe, and also strangely serene as he shift into a stance of some kind that she didn’t know, that looked kind of ridiculous, arms up like wings before he brought them in front.
It hit her like a hammerblow:
These were the monks.
More lizard things started crawling down the stalactites, hissing ferociously. Chiro wedged herself into the crack in the wall another few inches and watched the helmet. It distorted the scene, but she could see well enough to gape in awe as the monks moved as one to meet the lizards.
The dwarf jumped up and slammed his fist into the ground, creating a small wall of rock that a charging basilisk hit head on, stunning it. Then they flipped over it and down, slamming their elbow into the beast’s head.
The half-elf just seemed to- to blur out of existence for a moment -by sheer speed? or something else?- before she appeared and kicked one of the thirteen foot monsters all the way across the room and into a stalactite.
The third, a younger, dark skinned man with a top knot, roared another “KAI!” and punched his lizard so hard that she heard bones breaking even from all the way over here. He gracefully dodged a retaliatory tail strike.
The older one stepped in front of the largest lizard, a red-scaled beast half again as big as the rest. Eyes still closed, he positioned himself between it and the exit.
Her breath stuck in her chest at the display. Chiro couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, could barely breathe; she could only watch, with something blooming in her as she did, hard and hot and bright and almost painful. It was more than awe; it was an awakening…
Hiss turning into a cavern-shaking roar, the red one charged, great massive jaws snapping, but the man did something too fast for Chiro to see, a circular movement like flowing water or a bird’s wingbeat that just sort of… deflected it and slid it on by. He didn’t seem to move from that spot, just pivoted, but the attack slid off him, like water on an oily surface.
And then his left fist blurred, doing something too fast to see again, and he popped the beast in the face as he smoothly completed the pivot, and turned that into a spinning kick of some kind that smashed into it’s side.
A lizard thing somewhere keened a death cry. The other monks were busily engaged and fighting hard, ducking, dodging, leaping, flipping, kicking, punching, all with their eyes closed, and in general being impossibly awesome.
Full of rage, the red lizard wheeled to face the man, roaring again. She could see, though distorted, that the blow had crushed it’s nose and did something to the tongue and teeth. But the man didn’t flinch or open his eyes at all, not even when it whipped it’s tail at his head. The impact would have snapped his neck, if it hit, but it didn’t. He did that same movement, the flowing-water-wingbeat-thing, and it slid on by again, deflected, and he attacked again just like before, all one motion, this time going for the eyes with a one-two combination.
A second basilisk was coming up from behind, though, and Chiro spoke before she thought.
As it turns out, the warning was needless. Just as the second lizard darted forward, the monk turned (like he knew the thing was there all along!) and deflected again- but he also grabbed it by one spine to throw one enemy into another using it’s own momentum. The smaller lizard crashed into the red one-
-And something hissed very, very close to her crack, and Chiro screamed again as she writhed away from the opening and the mouth she knew was there without looking. She could smell fetid breath and feel claws scrabbling on stone. Frantically she shoved the helmet in it’s face, but that did nothing and it clattered to the ground as she jerked her hand back before it got bitten off. The potion bottle fell and shattered. The lizard gnawed at the rock, and with a sinking heart she heard crunching noises. Oh gods they do eat rock oh gods- I’m dead. This is where I die.
She felt the words with a weird sort of clarity and closed her eyes and tried vainly to get deeper. A claw caught her ear, taking a nock out of it. Chiro said a word she heard her Da say once on a very bad day and shoved herself recklessly deeper. Rock cut into her fur, her skin, sharp like daggers. But if nothing else I’m gonna make them work for it!
The world lit up again.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
There was a great buffet of scalding hot air, the shuddering impact of something remarkably similar to a lizard body hitting the wall, and the stink of burning flesh. She didn’t dare look back, just kept wriggling, trying to get safer, safer, sobbing as she did. (When had she started crying? She didn’t know.) Chiro didn’t notice the quiet that fell until something reached into her crack and grabbed the collar of her shirt. She thrashed and turned to look, to bite or do something, anything-
Then she went limp in surprise. It was a big, warm, callused hand that grabbed her, not claws, attached to a muscled arm, connected to broad shoulders and a chest as solid as a tree trunk that sported a large set of lightly bleeding slashes. The old monk regarded the battered scrap of ratfolk before him and raised one, single, eloquent eyebrow.
His hand is nearly big enough for me to sit in if I wanted to, Chiro thought, somewhere between dizzy and numb and stunned. But his eyes- his eyes are kind.
“O-Oh,” she said, blinking at him and uncurling a little as her ears perked slowly with interest.
“Indeed,” he said with that arched brow still in the air, looking her over like she was looking at him.
And then he tucked her under one arm, carrying her gently out of the cave.
The monks sustained a few injuries in the fight, but none that required serious care. When they stepped back out into the morning sunshine, and Chiro saw her family waiting there, she burst into tears. This prompted the older monk to swiftly hand her over to her mother with a slightly uncomfortable expression.
“Chiro!” Dhaza gasped, running forward. “Oh, I would be so mad if I wasn’t so glad you’re safe, what on earth were you thinking-”
“I-I-I, I, m-maybe if I- if I snuck down there, I-I could see what the monsters were when they were sleeping- I just, I wanted to help and see what was there,” Chiro managed through her sniffles.
There was a richly deserved scolding, punctured by relieved hugs and lots of tears. In retrospect, it was not the greatest plan, Chiro could admit. In fact, it was a stupid and dangerous plan, with the word dangerous no longer holding an attractive shiver for her. Instead, she saw a headless statue and smelled carrion breath close enough to warm the back of her neck. This story almost didn’t have a happy ending, and that thought shone a different light on the world than before.
Chiro turned, to say something to the monk leader, but he was already surrounded by grateful ratfolk and talking to one of the elders about further precautions, and how to use basilisk blood for something, being pulled away. Then so was she by her family.
She turned, though, five times, to watch him as she was led back to the burrowhome. The sensation of something kindled in her chest persisted. The world was different now, in a way she could not explain, only feel.
THREE DAYS LATER:
Something isn’t right with Chiro,” Arzot said bluntly.
Dhaza sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “I know. It’s not… bad, though, right? She’s just… quiet. She only had a nightmare that first night, and she doesn’t seem to be scared of the dark, or any of those other signs the monks warned us about for children that enduring a trying circumstance. She had a hard time in there; she nearly died. She will probably get back to normal soon.”
Husband leaned against wife for comfort.
“Are you sure?” he asked softly. “It’s not just the quiet. She does her chores. She peeled the tubers. Without being asked. I think she was in my study today, reading, but it was the history section of the shelf. She’s never shown any sign of liking history. Part of me thinks it’s good she’s… sobering up a little, being a little more, well, yknow, but the rest of me… it feels like something is off.”
“They said she might no be herself. Let’s just give her time and space,” Dhaza murmured. “And that will hopefully be enough.”
They both looked up as the object of their concern poked her head in again. The bandages where the rocks cut her were clean and fresh, including the one on her ear, where the basilisk claw had taken a nick out of her. “Mum? Da? I’m going to bed. Goodnight.” And she withdrew.
They looked at each other.
“It’s not even moonrise!”
Bedtime, for Chiro, meant peace. Finally, finally, peace.
The first day was a flood of people asking questions and telling her how stupid she’d been. She knew that (now, at least) and didn’t really care to have her face rubbed in her mistake, thank you. Plus there were so many. She talked to the elders when they came and the baker when he stopped by and the neighbors, who brought a wheel of cheese. All her siblings demanded retellings, in full. The second day was a Stern Talk with her parents in private, which… she couldn’t begrudge. They were right. She was reckless and stupid and even if she was trying to help she nearly got killed, and she should definitely, definitely never ever do that again. She was to call someone who knew what they were doing. Someone like the monks. Then Tram walked by and made a hissing noise so close to the real thing it gave her a heart attack and she chased him around the burrow for thirty full minutes. The doctor came, too, to look at her cuts and make sure none were going bad. She hurt too, by then; an overall full body soreness she’d never felt before, not just the cuts. Today had been lessons and tuber peelings, and for once she relished the small slice of privacy mundane chores offered. If she was busy, nobody bothered her.
Overall, it was a lot, and it didn’t help that she was tired and sore and just wanted to sit in peace and think for a little bit, thank you very much.
There was a lot to think about.
Specifically, the monks.
Chiro lay on her bed and closed her eyes, replaying the fight.
They had their eyes closed. I looked up the lizards- basilisk. They knew what it was, and they closed their eyes, so they couldn’t be frozen. They fought all that way with their eyes shut. How? How did they move so fast? How did they make rock walls? What was that booming noise? How did that old guy just- move and nothing touched him?
I want to know. I want to know everything about everything for all the monks. I want it like… not because I’m curious, though I am. Who are they? What are they like? Can they all do that? What is the School like? I wanna know. I feel like I need to know. There’s not much about monks in Da’s books and Mum doesn’t know anything and nobody else does, either. Just that they’re great fighters and they live up in the mountains and the story of the Great Escape and all. That’s not enough.
Chiro shifted, impatient.
I need more. I need everything. I need it because-
-something clicked. Chiro sat up in her bed.
“I want to be a monk.”
The words fell, still and heavy, like rocks into a pond, and it felt right. It felt so right it made her swallow against a suddenly choked-up throat.
I do. I want to be a monk. I want that more than anything. I want to be that, what they are, do what they do, fight like they fight. I want to be able to kill basilisks with the same hands that lifted me so carefully and gently out of the crack in the wall.
I want to be a monk.
“Okay.” A deep breath. “Okay.” She exhaled. It hurt; movement of any kind hurt right now. But for the first time it felt like a good hurt, one that let her know she was alive. “No more being stupid. Now we think. I’m gonna think this out, for once, and then I’m gonna tell Mum and Da. I need… I need paper.”
Old alchemy formulas were much less important than this, so she took her work, flipped it over, and began to write.
“One: how do I become a monk? ….Someone here has to know SOMETHING. Do I just walk up and say so? Do I need to do something else? Two-“
Eleven, she thought to herself, watching the goats by the river, late afternoon the next day. If I become a monk, will I be living there? I bet I would. That means… leaving home. Leaving Burrowtown. My family. Mum. Da. I… need to be sure this is worth it. That it’s what I want. And that I can live without my family and not be a big baby about it. I’ll die before I’m a big baby about it in front of the Old Man.
It clenched her heart in her chest painfully. She loved her family. Would they be mad? Did she want to do this anyways? I don’t even know how often I could visit… But then, I want this- I want this so bad I can barely say it, more than anything. I feel like I suddenly know exactly what I should be doing after so long just… coasting along on life. I’m almost nine. I’m not good at anything else, I’ve never wanted anything else, not like this. I don’t even know if I will be good at this. But… I have to try. At the very least I have to try.
So… I guess I would be willing to leave. I’ll cry a lot, probably, but I can come see them sometimes, surely they’d allow that. And I won’t be ALL alone. There’s the entire School up there after all, right? I need to find a way to present my arguments to Mum and Da, logically, like Mum does with her formulae. And make sure I don’t hurt their feelings because I wanna go.
Fourteen. Monks are more… religious, right? I remember reading a little about this one god for monks. Irori. I know Mum has that amulet of Abadar she hangs on the wagon before it goes to Eto, but beyond that, we’ve never really had much in the way of patron gods.
Fifteen carrots finely chopped, fifty more to go. Chiro mechanically sliced and diced, putting them into the soup pot.
I mean, only an idiot denies the gods, that’s just a bad day waiting to happen, but I never thought I would have one I felt particularly strongly tied to. We paid tribute to all the usual ones, but not any in particular. Will Irori be my patron? How does that even work? How religious are they? If they are, am I gonna be okay with that?
Sixteen carrots chopped.
….I guess, yeah. I mean, he seems okay, and Irori doesn’t hold stock with Rovagug or Asmodeus, so that’s always a good sign. Not a loud god, but a mortal who achieved divinity through perfection of self…
I think I kinda like that concept.
Seventeen: I might be at a disadvantage because I’m small.
Admitting it left a sour taste in her mouth. Chiro scowled at the garden bed she’d been weeding. The smell of the Crooked Leg Creek and damp soil permeated the morning air, four days after the basilisks.
But there’s lots of ways to overcome that. I’m smart and I work really really hard. I will make that not matter. Or- I can always ask the Old Man when I get there if I’m too small. Surely not, right? There was a dwarf. I mean, he weighs more than me, but still. If it can be done, I will do it.
Determined, she stood, tugging fiercely on a tap root until it gave out and ripped free of the earth, and she fell on her butt.
Twenty. Monks don’t ever… unmonk. This would be for my whole life.
Chiro considered that as she scrubbed soap between her ears and carefully washed grit from the fluff between her pawlike feet. The wooden tub steamed, faintly, and soap stung her healing hurts. And monks do dangerous things. That life might be shorter than usual.
I’d be learning to fight like almost nobody else can. I might can fight things nobody else can. But… if I could be the one to help people, to better myself through doing that, then… That would be worth it.
Life’s too short to be scared, anyways. I almost died a few days ago. It’s so funny how that makes things look differently.
On the fifth day, and number twenty five, Chiro gathered her courage and stepped into her parent’s room.
“Mum? Da? I- can we talk?” she asked quietly.
Dhaza traded looks with Arzot, and Chiro tried not to give her nerves away. Nearly nine years old, remember that. You can do this. Just be logical and stuff and you can do this.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking, lately, about the mines,” she began, as her mother and father led her into the living room and took seats by the fire opposite her, each on a different cushion. “I- I couldn’t stop, and then I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t stop-“
“Oh, Chiro, it’s ok if you’re- you’re having bad thoughts. Sometimes, when scary things happen-” Arzot started, but stopped when Chiro looked totally confused at him.
“What? No! I’m not scared, nothing like that, that’s silly.” Her father blinked, but Chiro was already talking, growing more animated with each word. “I’m not scared, I’m excited. I saw them fight and it just- it was the most amazing thing- I’ve never seen anything like that, not ever, and I kept thinking about it and then I realized I kept thinking about it because I wanna do it. I- I want to be a monk.”
Both parents blinked in the silence following that statement. Chiro rummaged for her notes.
“Look, see, here, I did some research and made some reasons and I-”
“Chiro… You can’t be a monk. You’re ratfolk. We’re small, we like trade, we like material things. Gods know we love our monk friends, but they’re a little weird,” Arzot said with a chuckle. It stopped as Chiro’s face fell, along with her hopes.
Do- they don’t think I’m- I’m being serious? They don’t think I can do it?
“Even if you became a monk, and did good at those things,” Dhaza added very gently, “monks are monks from the time they are kits till the day they die. It’s a lifetime commitment.”
No, no, no! You’re not listening to me! “I know, I have it written down here, I just-”
“And humans just… have more lifetime than us, honey. You’ll work day in and day out to master something and then, if you do, by the time you have you’ll be old and grey, with no kits of your own or businesses to show for it. It’s hard training, too! You could get hurt, break bones… and they require discipline. A lot of discipline,” her mother continued, and said some other things along that vein, but Chiro just stood there, trying to keep a handle on her emotions as Dhaza’s words smeared into each other for a good ten minutes.
They think it’s silly. They think I can’t do it because I’m a ratfolk, and not disciplined. I can be! I would be, for this! They… they want me to be safe and happy and stuff but- kits and businesses? I don’t want that! I want to be a monk!
“Oh,” Chiro said, oddly calmly, instead of screaming like she felt. “I see. I hadn’t considered that.” A lie: she had. She had pages and pages and pages of notes and considerations. But being here hurt too much to stand, all of a sudden, and so she nodded woodenly, desperate for this to be over so she could get away. “Thanks for letting me talk to you.”
She turned, and walked out the door, to her room, and closed the door.
Then Chiro sat on the bed and cried.
After a few long moments, heartbreak muffled by her blanket, she scrubbed her eyes and sniffled loudly, trying to clear her head. They probably didn’t mean for it to hurt as much as it does, but- it does! It hurts! A lot!
The kit turned to her pile of papers, her logically prepared arguments, her reasons. They sat abandoned on the bed and on the floor. Slowly, she stood, and began to gather them up. As she did, something set in her jaw and glimmered, hard as emerald, in her eyes.
Twenty six: How far to the School of the Southern Wind?