The five girls, with Sabine leading, then headed into the network of the Palace, and the airy ballroom music and chatter faded behind them until they were lost in the ringing silence of the stone hall ways.
They followed Sabine back, away from the front of the Palace and the gate leading down into the city. The Palace seemed to be a never ending labyrinth of carpeted stone halls lit with chandeliers and hung with portraits of countless stuffy old monarchs. The girls walked in single file behind Sabine, and kept having to jog to keep up with his brisk pace. No one spoke, though Ming occasionally pointed out a really funny looking king or queen to the others, and they would giggle behind their hands. Sabine tolerated this childish behavior, but when at last noise drifted down the corridor, he motioned for quiet.
They all crept forward, close to the wall, until they could see pool light falling into the hall from an open door. Chatter and the sounds of cooking reached them. Sabine crept forward and peered, slowly, around the door. Then he inched back to the girls and they gathered around him.
"Okay, here is how it is," he whispered. "That is the servants' kitchen. There's a door on the other side leading off into the gardens. But between us and it are a bunch of old biddies shelling peas, who are sure to make a fuss if we try forcing our way through."
"I don't get it," said Eagle. "What's the problem? We could take a bunch of old grannies."
"The problem is if they attract the attention of the Houses, who are no doubt back by now, we're finished. So, I've devised a plan. Which one of you has influence over animals?" Dove raised her hand. "There's a cat in there by the fire. Also, on the counter by the oven there's a large salmon. If you catch my drift." Dove nodded and went to the doorway.
A minute later, there was a cat's hiss and a screech and the sound of breaking plates, then an orange striped cat ran into the hallway, a huge fish in his mouth, stopping, to the amusement of those watching, to wink at Dove, then heading off down the hall in the opposite direction. The girls held their breath and flattened themselves against the wall behind the door as a bustle of yelling maids ran out of the kitchen after the cat. Sabine counted them, and when the last maid had wearily jogged around the corner, he slunk into the kitchen.
Outside the kitchen was a small courtyard lined with large bins for keeping vegetables and roots in. Through that there was an enclosed herb garden, and beyond that the sweeping lawns, artificial forests, and fields of flowers of the royal garden began.
Over the top of a small copse of trees Ming could see the temple of the Houses. It got closer and closer, as they made their way toward it. Finally, they went into the copse of trees just before the temple, and it was lost to view. When they came out of the trees, it was directly before them. It was huge, though not as large as the great building that housed the ball room. It was roman looking, with a lot of huge marble pillars holding up a triangular roof. A tall, shiny redwood door stood at the entrance, studded with steel nails. Around it were the ruins of other temples that had been demolished, now covered in moss. The temple was eerily new and smooth compared to the ruins that lay around it. The stone faces and staring eyes of figures carved into the walls could be seen in the moonlight.
Falcon looked very uneasy, and motioned for them to go around the building and give it a wide birth, and Ming was just about to follow her, when voices came from the path to their left. Sabine turned to lead them to the right, but voices came from that way also. Falcon immediately tried to go back the way they had come, but Sabine waved her back and pointed to the temple. Ming felt her stomach drop as Falcon's eyes widened in fear, and she shook her head furiously. But then a distant flickering of torches appeared in the copse they had come through, and the only way was forward, through the temple.
They hurried forward, across the perfectly manicured lawn, and up the shallow steps. Together, they drew back the huge bolt and pushed open the door, while Ming anxiously watched the bobbing torches. Finally there was a crack big enough to slip through. Quickly and silently they filed in.
Inside it was dark and shadowy. The five girls paused, clustered close together, as they waited for Sabine to shut the huge door behind them. There was a dull thud. Then they heard voices outside.
"Should we check the temple?"
"That's where the Houses do all their voo-doo magic and stuff. They wouldn't go in there."
"But the Captain said to search everywhere."
"We'll you can go in there, it's your neck, I'm not."
"Fine. I don't fancy getting it for not following orders." There was a tense moment as the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs grew, and torchlight shinned brighter and brighter through the crack between the doors. But then another group of searchers must have arrived, because a new voice rang out.
"What are you doing? Stop wasting time. They wouldn't be in that tomb."
There was a grumbled, "See? I told you so," and then the torchlight and voices faded and the temple was dark and silent again.
Sabine moved, peering into the black. Ming could faintly make out huge pillars rising to the ceiling. Moonlight from some high up window shown down in a beam to a point farther down the hall. Sabine turned around and looked at them. "Come on."
The girls shuffled down the long aisle of the temple, clinging tightly to each other, Sabine padding silently ahead, a hand to the dagger at his belt. Ming was standing next to Falcon, and she could feel her shaking uncontrollably. She put her hand comfortingly on Falcons arm, and Falcon calmed down a little. Ming could see nothing around her, except for the faint tops of the huge columns, the distant object the beam of moonlight was falling upon, and the pale faces of her friends around her. The walk down the dark temple seemed to last forever, and all the while Ming felt as though the black was slowly suffocating her.
When they reached the other end of the hall, where the moonlight fell, they stopped. Ming realized they where in front of some sort of altar. It seemed small compared to the vastness of the hall. The alter was bare, but on the wall behind it hung an old, faded tapestry, covered with the winged people. It was this that the beam of moonlight fell upon. It was actually very pretty. The tapestry depicted a female flyer, in a white robe, hovering in the air above everyone else, surrounded by a golden aura. Beneath her stood two groups of men and women each, four in each group. One group was dressed in black, and the other in white. Both groups where looking with faithful expressions up at the white robed flyer.
To the left side of the tapestry, also watching the flyer, was a girl dressed all in black.. A faint silver aura surrounded her, and Ming thought her face looked aloof and alone, even though it was only some well made stitches on pieces of fine cloth.The but there where some more unsettling things about the tapestry. Close to the bottom, cringing or fleeing from the silver light, shadowy figures defaced the tapestry. They where stark black, with no features other than, head, limbs and torso. It appeared as though many holes had been cut in the tapestry, roughly in the shape of a man. Also, around the edges, a scroll of strange markings that were the letters of some forgotten dialect ran, in great, flourishing strokes.
Falcon stopped shaking and stepped forward. "How weird," she said. "This is a picture of Gyrfalcon coming back. See, there are the shadows running from her light. But this is the last thing the Houses want. I wonder why they have a picture of it in their temple?"
They all went up the stairs past Falcon and crowded around the tapestry, studying it.
"Hey look, there's me," said Eagle, pointing to one of the women, who had a white pendant around her neck with a flame on it, and was bearing a flame in her palm.
"And me," said Dove. They each stared in awe at the ancient figures depicted in the picture, finding the flyer with their own pendant. The girls each felt a strange bond for those who had worn the necklaces they now wore around their necks, so long ago in the past.
Ming had turned around to Falcon as she spoke, who had not come up the stairs to join them at the alter. Her face was white and though she hadn't started trembling again, the look on her face was far more unsettling and disturbing. Her eyes where wide and staring, and she looked as though she would never smile again.
She raised her arm slowly. In a dull life less voice, Falcon spoke. "There's something there." She pointed to the shadows to the directly to the right of the alter.Silently, the group turned to stare as one in the direction Falcon was pointing, into the shadows to the right of the alter, beside a column. The darkness at the base of the pillar was impenetrable, but they all felt a tingle down their spine. In slow motion, Eagle raised her arm and a tiny flame appeared above her hand.
As small as the flame was, light flooded around the alter. In the flickering flame, they all, clearly saw a black figure watching them from beside the column. It was tall, its ribcage was wider than it thin waist, and it had long thin arms and legs. It looked like a starved giant. Its bones protruded beneath its black skin. At least it appeared to be skin. To Ming it seemed to be made out of solid blackness, like a millions of peoples shadows compressed into a solid being. It had long, skeletal fingers, no apparent sex, and no features of any sort. At first glance it did not appear to have any eyes, but then Ming saw the gleam of Eagles flame reflected on two jet, oval orbs in its long, thin head, turned towards her.
The whole thing lasted only a second, and then several things happened at once. The creature stepped behind the pillar, out of their sight; Falcon slumped to the floor, unconscious; Sabine leapt in front of the girls to defend them, reaching over his shoulder to pull an arrow from the quiver Ming had left up on the balcony back in the great hall; Eagle's flame went out, plunging them into darkness and causing the girls to scream; Sabine, realizing he had no bow or arrows, cursed and drew his small dagger, then, realizing it would be no use against the creature, sheathed it and started roughly pushing them away from the column the creature had disappeared behind.
They where running back down the hall away from the alter when Ming realized that Falcon was not with them. She stopped dead, rooted to the spot, and with all the power she had she willed herself to go back.
Falcon was lying where she had fallen, crumpled on the cold stone floor. The sounds of her friends clattering down the hall got farther away, they had not noticed she had gone back, and Ming wanted to cry out for them to wait, but she could not make a sound. With ragged gasps, she put a supporting arm around Falcon and pulled Falcon's arm over her shoulder. Fear lent her strength, and she made it three quarters of the way down the hall before her legs gave way and she and Falcon fell to the floor.
Ming lay in the darkness. The temple was silent now; her friends must have made it out. Ming was not angry, just glad they had escaped. Falcon was still out and her breathing was uneven. Ming suddenly became conscious that it was there, somewhere in the shadows, watching silently. She held her breath, hoping it would pass by, but it didn't leave. Ming felt paralyzed with fear. It came closer. Still there was no sound except for Falcons uneven breathing next to her. Ming curled into a ball and clenched her eyes shut. It was coming closer.Suddenly someone lifted Ming up and onto her feet. It was Sabine. He then turned and lifted Falcon and placed her over his shoulder as though she weighed nothing. With his other arm, he hoisted Ming up by her waist and jogged down the hall towards the door.
They scraped through the doors, and Sabine dumped them at the top of the steps, then turned and pulled the door shut. Then exhausted and panting, he slumped down with his back against the doors.
Ming recovered her breath. "You came back for us."
"Well of course." He winced painfully. The cut in his back had reopened. He stretched out an arm. "Your friends are already safe and with Ferrigus. Help me up and let's go." Wordlessly Ming pulled him up and together they supported Falcon between them, down the steps and across the lawn.
Behind them, the handle on the great doors of the temple turned, and the thick, intricately carved iron bolt, half drawn, rattled loosely.
Falcon stayed unconscious all the way through the grounds to where Ferrigus was waiting for them, at the wall at the edge of the palace gardens. She woke with a start, and even awake muttered fearfully until Ming reassured her. Ferrigus had already sent Eagle, Dove, and Crow ahead. He led them to a low door which went right through the wall and out the other side. On the other side of the wall, a sheer cliff, the edge of the great rock on which Lancia was built, plunged down into the lake below. The drop was dizzying. In the moonlight, Ming could see straight across the western desert to the sharp, jugged mountains in the distance.
The cool night wind buffeted them as they made their way down a long rickety wooden stair to a dock far below. The dock was beneath the over hang of the cliff, and hidden from view. A small boat was tied up, with only one small sail. Mist was rising off the lake. Ming helped Falcon into the boat, and then went back to where Sabine was thanking Ferrigus.
"How can we ever repay you?" asked Sabine.
"Don't thank me. And didn't do it for you, I did it for the Kingdom."
"And Lady Kite," muttered Ming. Ferrigus looked sharply at her, and then chuckled softly. He turned and started the long climb back up the stairs. Ming and Sabine got into the boat. Dove came out from the little cabin, and mimed sleeping. "Crow and Lord Gull are asleep."
Eagle came out. "We'll, lets get out of here. I think we've had enough of the city life to last us a while." She glanced at Falcon, huddled in the prow, but said nothing.
Ming and Eagle put up the sail, and Sabine cast off, then leapt onto the boat as it drifted away from the dock and took the tiller. The mist was thick, and soon they could see nothing but the stars in the sky and the moon and its reflection on the lake. The lantern that bobbed from the stern shone yellow on the black water. No one spoke. Silently, they sailed north, away from the lights of Lancia, into the night.
Crouching high above in the shadows on the top of the stair, watching the yellow lantern of the little boat fading into the night, Lanner rustled his wings and mused over the events of the night. He had failed his mission, but he felt strangely satisfied.
It had been fun to lead the Houses on a wild goose chase. At that moment they where heading south, with a pack of Violets griffins, after a mirror image of Lanner he had magically conjured up. They probably wouldn't catch it until dawn, over the old oaks, and by then Lanner himself would be long gone.
Lanner's cloak fluttered slightly in the night breeze, and something drifted out. Lanner reached out deftly and caught it. It was Falcon's grey scarf. In all the commotion, he had forgotten to give it back to her. Oh well, he doubted she would need it now. Lanner tied the scarf around his arm, below the shoulder, then turned back to the lake.
The lantern had disappeared into the mist over the lake. Lanner heard Ferrigus coming back up the steps. He normally enjoyed taunting the King's General, but tonight he felt like giving it a miss. Spreading his wings, he launched himself over the lake, and then turned north.