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Sonny stood up and looked around at his people. Most had turned to stare at him, and his spirit-beast made flesh. There was surprise, fear, and awe; an uncomfortable mix that the Prince ignored. He decided to test something, and transformed into his panther form. His beast was still life-like, and stared back at him; a mirror image. It left Sonny disorientated. Pushing aside the strange phenomenon, he searched with his mind and found the thoughts of his scouts. He ordered them to return; he wanted a full report and any recon they may have gathered. He pushed his mind out further to see if any other minds were near. None were apparent, but he maintained his vigil to keep track of his scouts, until they were in sight. He returned to his human shape while his beast remained in physical form, sitting beside him.
"I know that you're confused, and wondering what's going on," Sonny said to his clan. His beast rumbled and sat on its haunches beside him. It was enormous; the panther's head reaching up to his shoulders. It leaned its head against Sonny, and nearly bowled him over with its weight.
"There is danger from the sky and from beneath the earth," the panther mentally whispered to Sonny.
Sonny stopped speaking and looked at the panther, who eyed him back, before he continued speaking. "Scouts, make your report."
The four nodded, and one individual from each team moved to the front. The one on the right spoke first. "In our quadrant we spotted no enemy signs, nor had any indication that tracks of any kind had been seen heading this way. We also came to a blank wall."
Sonny nodded and waited for the next spokesman. "We moved in the opposite direction, and came across no evidence of life. We, too, came up against a dead end."
"It is coming," his panther warned, turning its attention towards the far left corner, from where the first scouts had come. Sonny's head whipped to the left, and as one, his clan turned and looked. Sonny enhanced his night vision, using it like a telescope. He searched down the tunnel, watching for signs of danger. The darkness began to thicken until he couldn't see anything. There were rumbles of dissent from his people, and stances changed to battle mode. It was an ingrained thing, and Sonny moved with them. The darkness began to move toward them.
The Elder walked beside Sonny, his hands glowing with lightning sparks. "Get into position," he mentally commanded his people. They formed a cone and walked in front of the predators. The Elder watched the darkness; he looked through it and could see a hybrid Architect design within the black mass. He grit his teeth. This was the main reason he was down here. An abomination, like this darkness, was the antithesis to all the designs the Architect had created. The power of Wind, and his future sight, had warned him about the experiments going on, but he had never been able to get this far. Some kind of Ciaran shield had prevented him, and his people, from getting very far into the catacombs.
With the Prince in tow, ever though the journey down here had been fraught with danger, it was obvious that Prince Sonny, with his Sigil, had helped activate the dungeon and opened a way to go deeper. Elder Wind suspected that all past predators had gone through these gruelling tests, especially those of Royal decent.
Concentrating solely on the moving darkness, the Elder scanned its design, breaking down its components. He recognised pieces of predator, hobbled together with animal and even plant designs. It swirled in that dark vortex and he shuddered; the Ciaran had to be stopped!
A low rumble echoed from Sonny's panther, and it looked directly at the Elder. "Wait," it whispered.
Elder Wind frowned. He maintained his hand of lightning, but kept himself in check. There had been a time when he had looked at the predator clans and also only seen abominations. Was this what the panther was demanding of him; to keep an open mind? He recalled his first position, two thousand years ago, amongst the Unified Fey Council. He had wanted to eliminate the Predators, and their arrogance in defying the Architect's Will when the Lion Clan altered its design. They had deliberately allied themselves with the Ciaran and, in return, the Ciaran had perfect specimens for experimentation. Yes, the predators had been given a great advantage over the Prey Clans with the Sigil, but the balance had been destroyed. Yet, none other than the first Avatar, Killara, had stilled the Elder's hand. But, what did the spirit beast and, therefore, the touch of Feminine that Sonny held want with this...unnatural darkness?
The darkness became a solid wall filling one whole side of the cavern as it approached. Animal growls rumbled out of predator chests. Sonny's panther roared its impatience, and the predators felt their animal instincts recede. They looked at his beast with fear and astonishment. It swished its tail and stared back, unflinching, before turning to face the darkness.
Sonny placed his hand on the neck of his beast. Sitting back on its haunches it stood at his shoulder, and rumbled its contentment as he stroked its fur. Confidence and assurance flowed off the beast into Sonny. The Prince walked forward to meet the darkness, his beast at his side.
He felt his people readying themselves to follow. He put his hand up, palm out to halt them. They grumbled and whined, but reluctantly stayed behind. Sonny was a metre away from the encroaching darkness, when it stopped. A spurt of adrenalin pumped through Sonny's heart, before his beast eased his tension.
"Welcome, Predator Prince of the Cat Clans, and Anchor to the new Avatar. We have been waiting a very long time for you."
Sonny heard gasps behind him, at the voices coming from the body of darkness. There were voices of both men and women, their tones ranging through all octaves. But, it was a choir that came from the damned. Pain, fear, and suffering were etched into each syllable as they spoke. The voices didn't come from one particular area, but from the entire thing.
Sonny looked at the Darkness confused. He vividly recalled a thick shadow where the tentacles had come out, and snatched his men. He was almost certain; this was the same darkness that had been waiting in store for them earlier.
Sonny's beast leaned against him, purring its assurance into him once more. Sonny's heart rate began to drop back down from its accelerated pace. "It was waiting for us, but it was the tentacles that attacked, not the darkness. It retreated realising it would be more hindrance than help." His beast answered.
Sonny watched as the darkness shrunk, looking like moving shadows, until it compacted into a humanoid shape.
"We have been trapped down here since our creators, the Ciaran, left us here. They fear us, for they cannot control us. We are the designs of many, and we are an abomination that begs to be released back into the earth. They made sacrilege by creating us, for they tried to touch the power of the Architect and turn it to their use. The First Avatar, Killara, intervened and gave us back our awareness."
"It has been a blessing and a curse. For we are now a monster when we were once a natural part of the Architect's cycle. Every predator that has been sent beneath the buildings of Trobal forest, and died believing they were undertaking more predator tests, has been kept here. Their essences have not been able to return to the earth. Their designs have Ciaran genetics and, because of this, they are refused entry. We understand their pain and loss and have gathered their spirits and embraced them inside of us."
There was a sound full of mocking laughter and pain. "The Ciaran believe we devour them, but that is because they do not understand what we are, and they fear what they cannot control." The Darkness went down on one knee, head bowed. "We know you are not the Avatar, but you have a connection to him." Pain and suffering dripped from the Darkness's mouth. "Release us, we beg you."
The Prince stood, dumbfounded. This was not what he had expected, yet, looking sideways at his beast, he shouldn't have been so surprised. It was at this point that his logical mind switched off. Something more powerful and undefinable filled his soul. It was instinctive; the way birds have an internal compass to point them in the right direction. But he knew what to do. It was as if he had done this many times before.
Sonny's beast opened its mouth and a low note echoed in the cavern. Sonny felt energy simmer along its coat, where his hand still held onto it. It shot through him like an electrical charge. He opened his mouth to scream, but it wasn't a scream that came out. He sang a note that was a counterpoint to his beast's. The pain turned to euphoria and the energy filled him with joy.
The darkness crooned, swirling and shifting like smoke. It lost its human form, rose above the ground, and moved around Sonny. The Prince could hear shouts of alarm; he raised his hand to keep his clan at bay. Turning to look up at the darkness, he raised his arms above his head. The darkness became a swirling funnel with Sonny's arms as the focal point.
Sonny sang louder and stronger as he felt the pressure and power of the funnel bearing down on his hands. Time seemed to slow as the energy built and shivered its way down his body. His Panther roared and jumped inside him. It was like the final switch to an electrical circuit, making the power cycle complete. Strength, like he had never felt before, burst through his consciousness. The darkness surrounded him like a second skin; a skin that had points of awareness in every pore.
"Release us," the darkness pleaded.
Sonny looked down and realised he was floating above the cave floor. Surprise filled him, as his night vision had been enhanced to such a degree that his eyes saw through the rock floor, down into the centre of the Earth. He saw blue wisps of life energy flowing around the Earth's core, dancing and swaying to the beating Earth's heart. On the edges of his vision, a hazy fog shimmered just beneath the cave floor. Like everything else they had encountered, the rock formation was man made. The hazy fog grew larger and began to spread across his vision of the dancing blue energy. It solidified into a clear seal. His beast roared within him, and smashed against the clear film. It buckled underneath the power of the attack. A line from him to the swirling dancers near the core was established.
As the spirits funnelled into Sonny, he removed that part of them that held the Ciaran genetics. It was these abnormalities that had prevented so many predators from escaping this prison. When a predator was buried in the earth, the Ciaran designs, that every predator now held within them, could be broken down and the spirit released over a period of time. But, within this labyrinth it was impossible. The same shield that kept the Fey out, also kept the spirits in and, with no soil to be buried in, the Ciaran part of them couldn't disperse. The bodies were collected and every part of them was used in more Ciaran experiments.
The men and women trapped inside the darkness sighed with relief as Sonny did his work. Sonny felt the essence of those spirits, who had gone down into the labyrinth and never come back, slide into his body and down the link. Their memories filled his mind and, as a parting gift, they left part of their fighting skills with him. The first to travel down the link felt younger and more vibrant with youthful energy. Their faces appeared in his mind and they bade him farewell. Many of them he recognised as coming from his own panther clan; ones he had been told were failures who never made it through the Predator tests. Soon, others followed. They felt older in energy and Sonny was surprised once more. There were People from Clans that had died out in the past.
With each skill gained, a piece of the heritage and knowledge of the Predators began to build within Sonny's mind. With each painful death that a trapped predator had gone through, Sonny understood more and more about what the Ciaran had done and, more importantly, how.
He stopped singing, trying to absorb everything he was gaining, but the beast continued singing for him. Tortured faces eased as the beast's note soothed them. One by one, thousands of clan members went down the link. Some of the essences slid down into the Earths heart, to join with the dancing spirits, were never human. There were parts of plants and other animals that had been used as experiments and thrown down here to fester. The darkness had gathered those up as well and held them as precious as the essences of the Clan members. The Ciaran had a lot to atone for.
Sonny and his beast snarled at that. It meant that the Ciaran had a way to keep the essence of any architect design trapped inside these cursed walls. Sonny gasped, for as the last of the animal and plant essences went back to the earth, it also left knowledge behind. One spirit stayed on the edges of his awareness, waiting to be the very last before returning back to the core.
It slid inside Sonny and he gasped in recognition. The craggy face and folds around the eyes couldn't disguise the old mischief lurking in those orbs. "Go home, Priest Ancon," Sonny said.
The Priest smiled, and bowed at the waist. He gave the Prince the knowledge of his many years within Trobal forest, and the ability to read ancient scrolls. "Thank you, Prince." the priest whispered as his essence faded and slid down the link. With the priest as the last anchor holding the Darkness, the shadows sank into his skin. His knowledge of the past, and what had happened here, was complete.
Sonny closed his eyes and felt his feet settle back upon the ground. Energy and strength still pumped through his veins, and he looked towards his Clan. There was fear and awe on their faces and, for the first time, he could see the altered designs that made up predator society twirling inside each individual. What was even more of a revelation, was the discovery that the fey designs were just as easy to see. Sonny crossed his arms and was startled all over again, to see black spiralling marks up and down his limbs. It was the residue of darkness and the designs of the Ciaran that he had absorbed from those he had sent home.
"Everyone is to get into single file. Make sure you are arms length from the one in front of you, and follow in my footsteps exactly," Sonny said. "We head out."
Sonny now had an exact map of the place, and he also knew how, and where, each trap was placed. Every room had a sequence to follow. The rooms could move and shift, getting smaller or bigger, depending on the number of people and how many traps were triggered. But there were many floors, and different levels of booby traps. If he stepped in the right places correctly, it would open the next room without activating the labyrinth's weapon mechanisms. There were also sensors within each floor, and now that Sonny had armour made from Ciaran genetics on his skin, he could fool them. The labyrinth would believe him to be a purebred Ciaran, and therefore access all the rooms. However, with all his clan and the Fey in tow, the sensors wouldn't allow that much of a threat through with him. So he had to walk through the traps, and open up the way ahead the old fashioned way; by beating the puzzles of the labyrinth.
Sonny put a map of what he was doing into his allies' minds, telepathically, and felt the hope of his Clan rise. Their Prince had a plan and soon they would be out of this forsaken place. Sonny projected terrible retribution to be heaped upon the heads of the Ciaran. His Clan cheered; after all, fighting always had their blood pumping. Surprisingly enough, the Fey were in total agreement.
Guards burst through the door and stared in shock. Kiri looked at them, his eyes glittering with a rage that couldn't be contained. The headless corpse of the Elder shook, and fell to the floor, as Toby pushed it away from him. He rushed towards Kiri and embraced him tightly.
Kiri snarled at the guards, and pushed Toby behind him gently. "Get out of my way, or your bodies will go the same way as this traitorous bitch," he said to the guards.
He could feel their fear and nervousness. "I'm sorry Avatar, but we can't do that."
A breeze, and the smell of a familiar forest, wafted from behind Kiri before he was ready to leap. Toby, who was directly behind, smelled it too and turned. He gasped as an oval opening showed the face of a very tall Fey. Behind the unknown fey was a host of other fey, with weapons ready.
"Sir, there are fey behind us," Toby said shakily.
"Kiri, its Kale," the fey in the lead said.
Kiri felt his shoulders loosen in relief. He felt the Carmi around his neck pulse with heat, but the rage inside him had been hotter than the pulsing of the Carmi against his skin, so he had failed to realise what it meant.
"Take Toby with you Kale. There are things I have to do here," Kiri said. There was no compromise in his voice.
For the first time, Kale realised that Kiri was growing up. He walked up behind Kiri, and looked down into the defiant eyes of the young boy, Toby. His arms were akimbo, ready to kick and fight to stay behind.
As if sensing his defiance and refusal, Kiri snarled harshly. "Go, Toby. I can barely keep the rage in check and it would kill me if...if anything happened to you."
There was a pause, before Kiri felt a strong hug from behind. Toby buried his face in his back. "I will do it, this one time sir, but next time..." He let go and walked toward Kale.
"I, on the other hand will be staying," Kale said, in the tone he had used for training Kiri, over all those years.
"Your first responsibility is with your people, Kale. I promise, I will call you when I need you. This is not one of those times," Kiri replied, unfazed by Kale's domineering voice.
From behind the guards, Kiri could see warrior mages preparing spells to prevent him from moving. He snarled and his Sigil flashed to life. The spells within the building rang with screeching alarms, and the power the warrior mages were building, died away.
"I'm giving you one more warning. If you do not comply, I will not be responsible for my actions. NOW GET OUT OF MY FUCKING WAY!" he said to the guards.
The guards gripped their weapons, readied their stances, and lunged. The rage burning to consume Kiri slipped its leash. With a furious snarl, claws sprang from his fingers and went slashing into the throats of the attacking guards. It was over in under a second. But the rage within Kiri wasn't finished. He walked out of the room and his eyes roamed the hall. Warrior mages threw diamond shaped knives at him. They filled the hallway in both directions. His Sigil flared, shining silver, with the eye in the centre open. The mages' blades continued on their trajectories, but Kiri dodged them.
He sensed the presence of two people coming out of his room. He snarled and turned his furious gaze towards the door. Kale and Toby stood side by side. The dark side of Feminine and the rage of the beast filled Kiri's body. It coloured his vision in red. Razor sharp wings spread out, and he raced down both directions of the hall, no more than a blur. Screams of pain and terror escaped into the palace. The walls began to shudder under the pressure of the Sigil, and Kiri's constant attacks on its spells.
Dead bodies littered the hall, blood trailing like a stream and puddling around the corpses. The Carmi on Kiri's neck pulsed. He ripped a dimensional door open behind the pale, shocked face of Toby and Kale's enigmatic scrutiny, and pushed them back into Trevailier forest. With an audible snap, the door shut, and he walked through the space where they had just been standing. A faint smell of Trevailier forest lingered before Kiri was past it and into his room. He raced through and dove outside the broken windows. His wings flared out, catching an updraft, as he lowered himself to the ground.
More Guards and warrior mages stood around the hole that Falcon had made. They looked at the feral eyes and blazing silver Sigil upon Kiri's forehead, and back-pedalled quickly. He looked down into the hole that seemed dark and endless. He shook his head. His instincts were screaming that this was not the way for him to go. He flew around the court and then headed west, to the base of the Oak Heartwood Tree. His gut reacted; that was the place he needed to be.
The guards and the Mage warriors followed at a safe distance. The Citadel walls, sensing the presence of the Sigil, rang out with a dull bell sound. It reverberated around the entire Prey Capital. The walls glowed bright red; ancient spells inscribed upon them crawled and twisted upon their surfaces. More guards and warrior mages appeared. Some had brought mechanical contraptions that required physical use, and they were preparing to fire at Kiri. They were metal, long and cylindrical, and about arm's length. Kiri watched as six guards raised them onto their shoulders. They peered through some kind of scope, and aimed for Kiri's chest.
"Fire!" a senior guard ordered.
Snarling, Kiri crouched ready for anything. Time slowed, and he could see six lead balls shooting through the air at tremendous speeds. He moved and dodged four of the bullets, but one clipped his wing, and the other hit his right shoulder, spinning him around. He fell to the ground, with his shoulder numb and not fully responding.
Loud cheers greeted the attack, and some of the guards and warriors began to creep forward. Kiri began pushing energy into his wound. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and opened himself to the Feminine fully. His skin began to glow magnesic white. The Beast Rage faded under the onslaught of Feminine power, but that couldn't be helped.
"Re-load and fire at will!" shouted the senior guard.
Soon more metal weapons were brought out. Shots rang out as the weapons were unloaded. Kiri's body jumped and trembled from the impact of so many bullets. He screamed at the pain, while his body grew brighter and brighter. More shots were fired one after the other, yet it was getting harder to aim at Kiri because his body shone brighter than the morning sun. Many had to turn away from the glare.
Blood dripped down onto the dry soil beneath Kiri. He raised his head to the sky, eyes closed. The bullets were pushed out of his body as Feminine flowed into him. The blood upon his naked flesh ran down and kept dripping onto the ground. It bubbled and sizzled as it sank into the soil. The Ancient walls of the citadel shook, and the spells, no longer able to hold up against the onslaught of Kiri, dribbled down the walls and dispersed into the ground. Mist rose off the walls and turned into a thick fog. It flowed over and through the Citadel. The sun disappeared as the moon covered it, leaving the land in darkness. Kiri was the only light in a land steeped in twilight.
Kiri felt the roots of the Oak Heartwood Tree beneath him. They were old and wise and they travelled beneath the citadel. But they were withered and dying. The lack of energy, due to the leeching of the Preys' power-draining mansions and buildings, left the ley lines around the tree empty of energy. But something had kept the tree alive.
The tree sent images into his head. In one of the images, he saw Elder Earth holding a nude baby in her arms. Beside her was the Prey King. She gently handed the child over to the king and, bending down, dug a hole at the base of the tree. Pulling out a pouch, she opened it and turned it upside down. Out of it tumbled a fresh umbilical cord. Elder earth closed her eyes and prayed. The soil covered the place where the newborn's birthing cord was. She sent energy into the tree, encouraging it to send roots near the umbilical cord and draw its essence into itself. That night, the Tree and Falcon were linked. The Avatar understood why Falcon had such a strong attachment to the Masculine. This Oak Heartwood Tree was the key.
Kiri opened his eyes, bunched his fists and pulled. Energy was ripped from the surrounding buildings. The ground shook as floating mansions and smaller castles crashed to the earth. He took in a deep breath and sang a dual note. The song pierced the darkness like a lance. People stood frozen where they were as the sound sliced into their bodies. It went through walls, and homes, searching out every prey inside the Citadel.
Earth energy rushed towards Kiri like a herd of runaway horses. He opened his arms wide and embraced the power. More and more buildings could be heard crashing to the ground, as the call for energy spread further out. But the prey remained silent. They were struck mute by the sound of Kiri's singing, unable to move even if they wished it.
The Oak Heartwood Tree sighed with gratitude as power flowed back into the ancient ley line paths, set out for it aeons ago. Kiri pushed power along all the dried up lattices through the Citadel. He pushed it further until the land lit up in his minds eye for miles around. Kiri could still see it travelling further out like an unstoppable wave, even up to the distant Spine Mountains.
The earth sang her song of relief and welcome, as the land blazed with power. Seeds sprouted and pushed their heads up into the false-night. Kiri could feel them budding, waiting for that spark of life to push its energy into them. The power of earth rushed over to the dormant seeds, brushing against them tenderly.
Kiri pulled his awareness away from the new growth. The destroyed Citadel walls had a new song. It continued the dual notes Kiri had stopped singing. The Prey waited, still frozen, as the world re-made it-self. Kiri looked down at the soil where his blood had spilled. It was now a bed of Red Avatar flowers. Their roots had intertwined themselves around the Heartwood Tree. It gave up its secrets to Kiri, including where the Power source of the Masculine was situated. Now that the ley lines were flowing correctly, the tree showed him a direct link to the place where the Masculine was hidden. Beneath its roots, one of the ley line lattices could be used to go directly there. Kiri not only had the blessing of the Oak Heartwood Tree, but also a faster route to get to where he was needed.
Far to the east, he heard his beast roar. With his newfound knowledge, Kiri's beast had been able to get to the Masculine before Falcon. All Kiri had to do now was get there while his spirit beast held Falcon off. Kiri pulled the land up around him like a wave. It rose over him, pulling him into the lattice that ran directly to the Source of Masculine.
Above, within the Citadel, the walls stopped their paralysing song and the sun re-appeared in the sky. Eighty percent of all the buildings lay in ruins. Dust clouds were everywhere, caused by the destruction. People began to mill around the Palace, and all over the Citadel. Meanwhile, in the Avatars guest quarters, a King screamed his pain, holding onto the lifeless head of his beloved.
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Thanks as always goes to Richard for his fine work in editing!