Return to the Basin: Part 6

The hatchery worker approached the Skybax pilot, inquiring "Excuse me. You're Jose, right?"

Jose answered in the affirmative, and Mathaira introduced herself, "I am called Mathaira. My partner, Thistlebud, and my friend, ShadowStriker, have headed into the Rainy Basin to search for Azonthus."

Mathaira paused for a moment to recall the rumors she had heard about Jose being attacked and injured by raptors before questioning the Skybax pilot, "I have heard talk in Bonabba that you were attacked by raptors. Could you tell me what happened?"

She leaned forward intently, awaiting Jose's account of what had happened...

During the exchange between Esk and the Utahraptors, ShadowStriker, familiar with Basin territorial boundaries and customs, knew that it was best not to interfere in raptor disputes unless challenged directly. Though he understood some of what was being said, Thistlebud translated for his benefit.

Knowing of her determination to find Azonthus, ShadowStriker showed no surprise when the smaller Esk sprinted past the two larger Utahraptor guards and headed toward a temple like structure, one taking off in pursuit and the other one remaining sprawled on the ground.

ShadowStriker suspected that the presence of the two guards indicated that they had entered territory belonging to a clan, possibly even different clans as evidenced by the battling Utahraptors . Though confident in his own ability as a warrior, especially against the remaining weakened Utahraptor , the Tyrannosaur was astute enough to recognize that on Clan grounds reinforcements were likely. He knew that the hatchery worker Thistlebud had never been exposed to the harsher side of Basin life, and suspected the same of Cyrrus the biologist. In the event of an attack, he would not only have to defend himself but also his companions.

In those brief moments, ShadowStriker formulated a plan, which he communicated to Thistlebud via low quiet growls. He would distract the injured Utahraptor so that the Ovinutrix could pursue the scent of Azonthus into the temple structure that Esk had headed towards. Her raptorian features would be less likely to draw attention than his own carnosaur ones.

ShadowStriker circled the downed Utahraptor guard, drawing his line of vision away from the agile Thistlebud as she swiftly headed towards the temple entrance.

Esk ran hard. If she slowed down, she knew it would all be over; she would die and the clan would never find Azonthus. She saw a large arch that appeared to be an entry to something. Perhaps in whatever that building had once been, she could find a weapon. Dashing through, she was disappointed to see nothing of use to her. Her clawed feet continued to pound the ground.

There! Along a back wall resembling a cliff was another arch! A "back door" she could use. If she could get around that wall, she could use the blind corner to ambush the much larger Utahraptor.

She tumbled head over heals as she sped through the opening. There was a steep incline she had been un-able to see. Esk gouged her claws into the floors trying to slow her fall. Eventually the floor, while still incredibly steep allowed her to stand. She was bruised from the fall, but not seriously injured. Looking around in the dim light, she tried to find a place to hide. Seeing nothing in the immediate area, she continued to make her way down the long and dangerous passage. The thankful raptor ducked into the first side passage she saw and hunkered down between some boulders, hoping and praying that the Utahraptor would not find her.

After a few minutes, she could hear his breathing as he entered the room...

Breathing heavily, K'veer cursed under his breath. He had been running with a heavy sword after a long and still unresolved battle. Now the little beast dare come into the sanctuary.

"I know you're here little one, and when I find you I will flay your hide raw...and you will still be alive.." he tried to disguise his ragged breathing and tried to catch a scent but the air, which one would normally assume to be stale in a cave, was fresh and flowing, through tiny pores in the porous stone and no scent was to be found. Esk hid in the corner and grinned at her own ingenuity. Stupid raptor, she thought to herself, all big and thinking he can scare me, no...Esk a warrior. With a smug grin of satisfaction, Esk listened to the receding clicking sound of claws as the raptor continued down another nameless tunnel.

Being questioned about the raptor attack didn't bring back good memories for Jose. He unconsciously gripped his bandaged side. He answered the hatchery worker's question: "It wasn't really in Bonabba. More on the outskirts, near the Basin. I saw a group of them in a clearing so I brought down Cielo here to ask for directions." With this he patted the Skybax on the beak, and then continued, "They closed in and they attacked me, not much else to say. Actually they didn't seem to have the intention of actually eating me, just robbing me. They didn't make off with anything too important. I got scratched pretty bad on the side but Cielo chased them off." The Skybax looked prideful. Mathaira nodded and seemed to be thinking about something. A thought struck Jose. "Exactly how much does this mission have to do with raptors?"

Mathaira replied to Jose, "Not long before you came, a couple of injured raptors passed through Bonabba. The one called Azonthus headed into the Rainy Basin." A sorrowful expression came over her face as she continued softly, "And the other one...well, she...she followed the Polongo River away from Bonabba."

Composing herself again, Mathaira speculated, "I've heard rumor of a large clan of raptors deep in the Basin. These raptors may have been headed there. I don't know if they are from the same clan as the ones who attacked you...I wonder?" Mathaira's question hung in the air and Jose wondered the same thing.

Jose looked at Mathaira, and replied, "I'm not sure if those were the raptors that attacked me. I really didn't get a great look at any real identifying marks or anything. Just scars and such, but most Basin raptors have scars. I definitely wouldn't rule out the possibility that those were the same dinosaurs that you're talking about."

There was a rumbling from the dinosaurs and in the ground as large feet and trunk like legs set into motion. Cielo shrieked and refolded his wings. Jose and Mathaira both looked at the small, departing convoy. "Well, whoever these raptors were," said Jose, "This convoys leaving, so I better get going. Perhaps I'll find out the answer while I'm there." Mounting Cielo, he added, "You really should come along." Cielo soared up to join the group.

With powerful stokes and lungs filled to their capacity, the black and white raptor swam deeper and deeper. The fog wasn't below the water's surface but the purplish water made it hard to see. When finally the raptor we deep enough to feel the pressure of the water starting to compress his skull and his lungs burn in the absence of air, he suddenly shot into a small underwater tunnel opening noticed only due to the glowing algae that clung just inside its entrance.

A small pocket of air trapped in the tunnel allowed another breath full of air for ShadowRunner to continue his aquatic decent into the belowground canals that ran deeper than the Sea of Cold's caves themselves, and they were the deepest in the sanctuary. It were there linked canals and waterways that were said to link to Poseidos in places, and even the occasional pleisiosaur or mesosaur would appear at the surface of the Sea of Cold to prove the theory true. Suddenly the tunnel ended and ShadowRunner surfaced in a great cavern edged with water on all side but one. At the far end the walls narrowed in, almost leading the eye to the ledge of rock it gave way to. The walls themselves were sheer and countless meters high. ShadowRunner had been here only once before, and it was during the fight between Xilon and FireBane for clan control. Now he came again, seeking advice on his sister.

Paddling through, the moss illuminated water which cast odd shadows onto the walls, Shadow himself reached the small outcropping and pulled himself out of the water. This part of the cavern was obviously all there was; no tunnels made their way out, the only entrance or exist was the well hidden way Shadow had come in. Now standing on the ledge, Shadow found himself among a countless number of gold objects. Goblets, plates and jewelry cluttered the floor. The torches that lit this part of the ledge near the water glinted off in a dazzling array of light. But it was what lay further back in the cavern that interested Shadow.

Nervously Shadow moved forward. The only sound was the hissing and crackling of the torches, yet more of the blue flame that never consumed the wood and never burned out. The water was silent and still, no wind or movement disturbed it and the ripples Shadow had made were long gone. Inhaling deeply shadow called out with obvious hesitation, "Quetzl? Are you there?"

No sound was heard and Shadow was about to turn back in fear of what was to come when a loud rustling was heard from the back of the cavern. A dark form was seen moving and shrinking back shadow remembered the fear he had when first coming here. Backing up still as the form moved forward it was suddenly illuminated by the eerie light. Shadow felt his stomach tie in agonizing knots as the great form reared before him.

A great serpent, over 10 feet in diameter and nearly 200 feet long was coiled in the back of the cavern with about a quarter of its length and head towering dozens of feet above ShadowRunner. Its body was covered in shimmering black feathers and the scales viewed beneath the rustling feathers were blood red. It's head had black horns jutting from the back of the skull and some white feathers creating a crest down part of its neck, whatever could be considered its neck, and yellow scales were seen down the creature's jaw and throat. Its eyes were a milky white and in a booming raspy voice it responded.

"Yes? Who disturbs the rest of the feathered serpent?" Shadow had never heard the myths of the Aztec's about the great, feathered serpent they called Quetzl that lived in the dreamtime of one and at times in the core of the earth. They were from the outer world, of course ShadowRunner had never heard of them. But it was that creature they called a god, a myth, which towered before him now. In a quavering voice Shadow explained his plight and his missing sister to the serpent who seemed to listen emotionlessly. At the end of the story Shadow was shaking and had backed so far his foot nearly slipped off the edge of the ledge. Without warning Quetzl's head shot down to be even with ShadowRunner. Nearly passing out at the eye that was nearly as large as the young raptor himself, Shadow barely breathed. When the head retracted back into the heights of the cavern it spoke simply.

"Then you must find her. There is no question, but whatever you do it, do it fully and do it well. Do not back out and finish whatever you start." With this and nothing more, the great coils started to slowly move making more rustling noises as the feathers passed over one another and followed the previous part of the body back into the recesses of the tunnel. ShadowRunner, still too shaken to talk, slipped silently back into the water and entered the tunnel, all too anxious to exit the Cavern of the Feathered Serpent.

Cyrrus hopped from one leg to the other, clacking her beak with worry. She turned to hear ShadowStriker and Thistlebud whispering something about distracting. The struthie turned and listened in.

"And then you can sneak by," ShadowStriker was saying.

"What can I do?" Cyrrus chirped softly.

Thistlebud regarded the downed Utahraptor with concern. "Maybe you can help him."

Cyrrus nodded and turned along with ShadowStriker towards the raptor lying prone on the ground. Thistlebud moved off deeper into the ruins.

As a longtime resident of the Rainy Basin, ShadowStriker's first instinct was not to help the injured Utahraptor, as the Ovinutrix suggested to the struthi. It had been his plan to take a defensive position against a possible attack by the downed warrior's clan members who could arrive in the form of reinforcements. For the Tyrannosaur warrior, who had been prepared to battle in defense of his weaker companion, it was a humbling experience for him to now follow her in order to aid the Utah warrior.

The gentle Cyrrus used her extensive knowledge of biology to identify healing herbs within the immediate area. In her soft chirping voice, she directed ShadowStriker, "That tree there...yes, that one...the Calamite. Pull off a few of the leaves and bring them here."

ShadowStriker obediently pulled the leaves off of the familiar horsetail tree and brought them to Cyrrus who proceeded to grind them to a pulp, preparing to smear the resulting poultice on the raptor's wound.

In spite of his injury, Thakur's adrenaline was still pumping through his body as a result of his recent battle with K'veer. A warrior like ShadowStriker, he was also prepared for defend himself against the Tyrannosaur intruder. Therefore, he let out a menacing growl as he felt the pressure against his wound, "Get away from me, intruder!"

At Thakur's threat against Cyrrus' healing touch, ShadowStriker rushed to her defense, letting out a deep rumble, "You hurt her and you'll answer to me, raptor!"

Thakur attempted to rise to confront ShadowStriker, who himself had taken a battle posture. The two warriors eyed each other warily; a series of low growls and deep rumblings coming from each as they mentally measured the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent.

Knowing that ShadowStriker was familiar with the phrase but unsure of what the raptor's response would be Cyrrus made an effort to calm the warriors, quietly admonishing, "Breathe deep, seek peace."

At the same moment, determined to aid the injured Utahraptor, Cyrrus steadily pushed the raptor back to the ground and held the poultice to his wound. The struthi's action took the raptor by surprise and he reluctantly let her tend to his injury, thinking If I let her do this now, I'll be stronger later, I'll be ready for battle.

ShadowStriker, out of respect for his companion, relaxed his battle stance somewhat and observed Cyrrus as she tended the Utah's wound, I'll have to keep a close watch on him, to be ready if he tries to attack us.

The messenger ran in, panting for breath.

"Yes, what is it, Shubumpkin?" asked Nallab.

"T'paz...T'bt...gone" squeaked the tiny Dimorphodon.

"Gone? GONE? How can they be gone?" Nallab was afraid, even though his foster-daughter had gone missing on several occasions. He gave Shubumpkin a little wheat biscuit, his face lined with worry.

"Message from look-out attendants to Nallab," Shubumpkin trembled. "T'paz and T'bt flew off in direction of Rainy Basin. Gone now. Big doo-doo. Permission to send search party to...uh...,"

The tiny dino struggles to remember the full message.

"Their grave site, sir."

Oh-oh, thought Nallab

Sighing with relief, Esk relaxed. The threat was gone. Foolish raptor, He not even look for me good! That his problem. He must be protecting something. What in these caves? Stretching, she stood up and began to make her way through the maze of tunnels.

Eventually, she ended up in a large cavern. It was brightly lit from torches in braziers along the walls. The floor in the center was smooth, but along the walls there were many large boulders. Directly across from Esk were three tunnels. Unsure of which to pick, she closed her eyes and walked forward, letting chance choose for her.

Esk headed to her right, tunnels...more tunnels. She exited the brightly lit caverns to find herself in another long tunnel. This one wasn't too steep and she jogged along, keeping an eye out for the big ochre raptor who had tried to kill her. She paused to look at the tunnel wall which was lined with intricate carvings all along it's length.

"Pretty..." Esk muttered quietly and reluctantly pulled herself away to keep moving. A gust of fresh air renewed her hope and she rushed forward to the end of the cramped tunnel. The massive chamber she entered made her freeze in her tracks to merely gawk.

Getting a cramp in her neck from stretching backwards, Esk could never even hope to see the highly vaulted ceiling that made up the carved cave. The walls were covered in more cuneiform, columns in a bas-relief were half carved from the walls and a great sand floor completed the cavern. Thinking herself in a desert, so far was the other end of the cavern, Esk inhaled sharply as the saw what the cavern contained. A great blue sunstone type crystal floated about a dozen feet above the ground in the middle of the cavern. It's faceted, polished sides flashed in the blue light of the fire that lit the room, and Esk was amazed. Sprinting over to it, the small raptor was dwarfed by the gem twice as wide as she long and about three times as high.

"Stone of the Ages, they call it. I see you are impressed, as you should be." A voice made Esk jump and get into a defensive stance. Looking down from the stone she saw a black and red striped Utah she could swear hadn't been there a minute ago. "Xandu am I, so they call me, so I am. And you are doing what here...?" The older raptor turned an eye to Esk and though he was dozens of feet away, she saw him clearly, and the look he gave her reminded her of a blind raptor's, yet her very much indeed saw her and shifted his weight from one foot to another as her awaited her reply.

"Uh..." the short spoken raptor was at a loss for words at the appearance of this strange Utah. She relaxed, realizing that he had no intention of harming her. Besides, he couldn't if he tried. Relaxing even further, she calmly gazed at him. "I have come for Azonthus, future leader of the Sharpclaw. Do you know where she is?"

"Azonthus you say? A raptor of red, with stripes of gold, the scythes of the setting sun on a backdrop of the blood they reap, the scent grows faint as the young one is found gone...the scent reappears but is changed, the stench of decay ripens the carcass that is left unguarded." Esk wrinkled her nose in digust at the comment and was truly confused at this old raptor's comment.

"You have not answered me, where is Azonthus?" Esk surprised herself with her speech, why did she speak this way before the strange raptor?

"Impetuous young one, fast to frolic and quick to snap, first one to run," he paused and gave the young warrior a meaningful glance "Straight into the trap." With this he grinned oddly at her and with more agility then she thought he could ever posses her performed a jump spinning kick and returned to the ground to face the small velociraptor again.

Esk stared at him. Something about him forced her to trust him, but this cryptic speech was odd. "What trap? Is that other Utah somewhere waiting for me?"

Moving around, her gaze once again caught the floating stone. What made it hover like this? Before she even knew she had moved, she was next to it and waving her hand below it. "What makes this stay like this? How can a stone hover?"

"Old Xandu has been around a long time, has seen it all. Stone of the Ages earned it's name. See you any strings? See you any tricks? I think not, but do you feel it?" The old raptor moved forward across the shifting sands. "Do you feel it pulling?" the sands beneath Esk's feet shifted and she nearly lost her balance. How could it shift? There was no wind, the ground didn't move but when she looked up from the ground she found herself faced with a pair of disturbingly vivid blue eyes. They were slited so much that they were nearly invisibly. Once again and in a more urgent tone the raptor repeated his question. "Do you feel it pulling..."

Staring into those eyes... Something about them made her skin crawl, yet comforted her. All the pain she kept hidden seemed to dissipate into something smaller and more manageable. Compelled, she answered, "Yes, I can feel it pulling... What is it?"

His eyes suddenly dilated as Xandu looked at the stone. "Magnetism" he replied. "The magnetic forces of the earth, and especially of the world beneath are directed through this stone"

"Resist the pull," he said returning his gaze to her. "Resist, the power can only be managed by a select few, there have been members of the clan who though themselves good enough, Amekaze..." the strange name had no recognition in it to Esk, but Xandu continued, lost in thought. "He thought he could handle the power. The strength it would lend him. He actually touched the crystal." Xandu paused; the bottom of the gem was on eye level with him. "Never even think about touching it. He is mad now, the intelligence is there, the mind, but it is changed. Warped...enveloped by the mists of envy and greed...of confusion and fear. Do you feel it pulling? Resist the pull..."

Do you feel it pulling... over and over the words repeated themselves in Esk's mind. How could a stone hold so much power? She knew Xandu was the answer to many of her questions, and more than just the whereabouts of her soon to be clan leader.

She could barely resist, the pull of the stone was so great. It seemed the most important thing in the world that she go to it; be absorbed in it. Again, she gazed upon the glowing stone. Slowly, as if in a trance Esk's arm floated toward the stone. Just one touch, that's all she wanted. If she touched it just once…

"No!" Xandu roared as he saw her movements. Grabbing her, he dragged her away from the stone. "NEVER touch the stone!"

Esk struggled. She had to get to it! The stone was calling her, pulling her to it!

Regretfully, Xandu grabbed her head and turned the raptor to face him. He looked deep into her eyes, breaking into her mind.

Esk gazed into those eyes. The deep blue depths created an ocean around her. No! She was loosing herself in the ocean, drowning, dieing… She was frantic; then, in a moment of calm, she realized just what would have happened. Esk could see herself touching the stone. The power was great. It would make her leader of her clan, not Azonthus. Besides, she had been promised leadership many years ago. She was the one destined to rule! Then, another flash. This time, she saw herself touch the stone again. But she saw what would really happen. As she touched it, she slowly went mad. Still, her clawed hand lingered upon the stone. Flash! Esk saw herself lying on the ground, dead. The stones power had killed her. That power could never be approached by one such as her. No one could never control the stone.

A still calm surrounded her. Esk was gently floating to the surface of that unimaginable sea. She slowly rose from the depths of her mind. Esk gasped as Xandu looked away from her.

"Now you know what could have happened, little one. Never touch the stone." Xandu seemed sad. He regretted breaking into her consciousness like that, but it had to be done.

Esk stood, staring and gasping for a moment as she fully realized what had happened. Then, the sudden and powerful urge to run over came her. She had to get away from the stone! It was evil!

The small raptor turned and ran back down the path, escaping her only concern. She forgot everything else; forgot her mission, forgot her pain, forgot the love she had once shared with Battleblood and the life she had intended to live with him.

Fresh air gently floated her way. But it was not just a breeze with the scent of the cave. It also carried the scent of Azonthus.

Bursting into the main cavern, she remembered her mission. Azonthus! The clan would be lost without her! Looking around the large cavern, she saw her. Azonthus was walking towards another tunnel with a strange Utahraptor. Esk stood there, relieved that she had finally found the end of her mission. Azonthus was found.

Watching the Utahraptor struggle to stand ShadowStriker realized that Cyrrus was right. The raptor presented no threat to them now. ShadowStriker at last relaxed his warrior stance. Grudgingly at first, and then gradually becoming accepting of the idea, ShadowStriker edged over towards the Utah warrior until they were side to side. He gently bumped the raptor, his voice low and guttural, "I am called ShadowStriker, of the Clan of Greyback. It may help if you put your weight against me."

The Utah hesitated a moment before letting his weight fall against the bulk of the Tyrannosaur, "I am called Thakur, of the FireSphere Clan." He continued in a voice so quiet as to barely be audible, "I am grateful."

Seeing that the Utah was still in pain but reluctant to admit so, Cyrrus quickly and unobtrusively handed him a willow twig, her voice quiet and gentle, "This may help."

Thakur gratefully took the twig and nodded his head in thanks towards the struthi.

Changing the subject to take the focus off of the warrior's injury, Cyrrus took charge, "Well, we need to get you to your Clan. You can show us where to take you."

The three unlikely companions moved slowly through the Rainy Basin. As they traveled towards a location Thakur referred to as the Sanctuary, Cyrrus heard the deep voices of the warriors as they discussed Basin territory, weapons, and battle tactics. Cyrrus smiled to herself as she watched mutual respect grow between these two proud warriors.

It was a few days after the incident in the Fire Hall and Azonthus hadn't been alone much ever since. There were always other raptors around at the healers. Whether it was one of the healers or ShadowRunner or a curious trespasser or a bunch of hatchlings playing hide-and seek, Az had been distracted from all that had happened in Waterfall city.

But right now there was no one around again and Az was alone in a small cave lit by the blue fire. FeatherDawn had said there was a clan meeting he had to attend to. ShadowRunner had probably gone there too, she hadn't seen him the whole day. Maybe he's not at that meeting… A tiny voice in the back of Az's head whined.

A short while after incident she had figured out, with help of FeatherDawn that is, that MistReaver was ShadowRunners sister. No miracle he'd ran away from her after hearing the whole Waterfall City story, he had to be worried sick about his sister. So Az had gathered all her courage and told him how injured MistReaver was when she last saw her. Az had expected ShadowRunner to get mad at her, he hadn't, he'd just left again. He was probably very upset and it was all her fault…

A half dozen Rhamphorhynchus messengers were set free with a mission in the Basin, but none of them had to deliver a message. They only had to collect some information for their owner, who had trained them to spy as well as fly messages. Two Rhamphorhynchus flew to Waterfall City, one to Bonabba, one to Treetown, one shadowed Saar and the other had to scout the basin together with one of Herak's warriors.

Saar had been wandering about in the basin for a few days, she didn't have any injuries worth mentioning but she didn't feel like returning to Herak's reign of insanity.

How could Herak be so obsessed with some feather-bun from the city? Or with the C'xsann in general, what did it matter, their clan had taken their lands, why not let whatever surviving C'xsann-members that weren't in the way live?

Killing for food and territory, yes, that was normal, but why getting obsessed with the survivors of a war that had been. She counted it out on her fingers and discovered she hadn't enough fingers to count the years, well, a LONG time ago then.

And that moment Saar smelled an injured creature. The smell of it reminded her that she hadn't had much to eat last two days and her stomach started growling now. Eating carrion and stealing prey from smaller carnivores were not the most honorable ways of getting food but it was less tiring then hunting, that's for sure.

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