The camp is taken to temporary safety, and Ruby questions the prisoner.
Morning, in the snowy Omate Mountains. As the camp woke up, there was a large hubbub about the immobile, orange cat-like creature that was tied up just outside camp, and Ruby tried to disperse the crowd to no avail. He couldn’t blame them, really; but he wasn’t sure what to do with the creature that had infiltrated their camp in the night. What appeared to be the same creature he, and the Great Library taskforce had killed, even. How was he still alive?
He didn’t have to dwell on this for long, as an escort squad of snow dwellers arrived by the camp to direct the Userpedians to their settlement. They took over from Valen and Guy, who had been holding their blades over Aurenn’s exposed neck, should he think about escaping. Surprising to the Defenders though, was how he didn’t fight back at all. He simply lay there, unable to move, waiting for his inevitable death.
The Userpedians followed Captain Uric Ironhammer and his squad northeast, to a large opening in one of the mountains. It seemed impressive, even of itself. But inside they travelled, deeper and deeper underground, and the Userpedians began to see how these snow dwelling humans lived, as they entered an underground city, carved out of the very mountains themselves. It was like a testament to human achievement, to survive long enough in the mountains to create... this.
The people that lived here were grateful to see new faces, and helped the Userpedians to get themselves fed and watered. The users were themselves happy to be out of the cold weather and to have a real meal.
They were allowed to stay in the empty hostel block at one end of the city, which they were all grateful for. It may have been basic furnishings, but after what they had been through they were simply grateful. They simply settled down and talked, dug into some real food, and relaxed.
Ruby, however, needed to sort out food supplies and discuss matters. He met with the leader of the snow dweller humans, Thal Rosaro, over a hearty lunch.
“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, sir.”
Thal smiled and raised his glass. “‘Tis not often we get visitors from the outside, friend! Especially with the story we heard.” He took a sip of the hot chocolate. “Poor Scribbalon... I regret it took this long for the news to reach me. Yes... we kept up trade relations with the king, you know. We would send some of the ores from these mountains, and they would send us food, armor... Aah, ‘tis such a shame.”
Ruby simply nodded. “Agreed, sir. The lands have been a loss to us all.”
“Oh yes...” Thal sipped quietly while Ruby paused to eat some of the roast that had been prepared for the lunch. “So! I’ve heard your group are in need of food and blankets.”
“That’s correct, sir. We are admittedly a large group, and we are unused to such cold weather. We seek to head north, and find a new home amongst the lands.”
Thal nodded. “Not a small task indeed. These mountains stretch hundreds of miles to the north, I fear your group may not survive.” He paused, giving the matter some thought. “I can certainly offer some of our foods from Scribbalon, and perhaps fit your fighting men with armor.”
Ruby grinned. Now we’re talking, he thought. “That sounds wonderful, sir. But will armor be enough to protect us from the cold?”
“Ah... I hadn’t accounted for that,” Thal admitted. “See, we were raised in these mountains, underground. We’re used to the cold. I’m sure our crafters can fashion some fur coats.”
Ruby was amazed. He didn’t think these people would be able to help. But it seemed that the trade relations this place had paid off. “That’s very noble of you, sir. I hope we will not be a burden.”
“Not at all! Feel free to stay and recompose yourselves for a few days. you must be tired.”
“Thank you, sir.” They both stood up, and shook hands.
Thal did seem to remember something, and spoke up. “I will impart some advice, friend... head to the east, into the grasslands, before you continue your journey. You will not last long if you continue into the snow.”
Ruby nodded. “Thank you, I will certainly take that into consideration.” He glanced at somebody who was walking towards them.
“Excuse me sir,” he said, bowing, “is this your guest Ruby?”
“That’s correct, messenger. What news do you bring?”
The messenger nodded to Ruby; Ruby smiled. He continued, “Ruby’s prisoner has been delivered to the jail cells. I was told you intended to question him?”
Ruby nodded, these people were efficient. “That’s correct. Thank you.” To Thal he bowed and said, “It’s been a pleasure, sir.”
Then he left.
Aurenn hung pitifully from the wall, his arms and legs both shackled against the cold stone. His inner thoughts repeated the moment of his betrayal, over and over. It was all he could think about since the humans didn’t seem to be interested in killing him.
He was still wearing his headwrap, and didn’t care to sense anything around him. He knew it was the same room, in the same place. He wondered briefly if it was indeed his fate to die here, when the cell door creaked open. The creature glanced upward. He instantly recognised the human who came in. Aurenn snarled, but otherwise said nothing.
Ruby’s face was blank as he stood at the other end of the cell, his arms crossed. “You’re doing pretty alright for a corpse.”
The human’s expression turned serious. “Forget that you’re supposed to be dead. Why would you come this far just to kill us or... make off with our chest?”
“My friend tells me you know what’s in there. Why would it be of interest to you?”
Aurenn thought to himself. As much as I could not say anything... the humans haven’t slaughtered me yet. That’s already saying a lot more than my-- ...than the tribe.
Ruby noticed the confusion in this prisoner’s eyes. He didn’t know why, but that seemed to relax him. “What would you want from us? We don’t have anything that you or your species could possibly want.” He sighed, stating the obvious. “Unless you simply wanted to kill us.”
… “My tribe. Not me.”
“Oh, so you can speak.” Ruby double-checked that the cell door was unlocked. “There’s no need to stay quiet. You’re already--”
“Shame.” Aurenn seemed to look over at Ruby. Ruby thought he could see pain in the creature’s facial features, but in an instant it seemed to disappear. “My duty is to my tribe.”
“Where is this ‘tribe’? Can we expect to see them attacking us here too like you did?”
“You... came here on your own?” Ruby wasn’t sure he liked where this was going, but at least this... thing was co-operating.
“How many others came with you?” The creature before Ruby, he noticed, seemed to speak a kind of disjointed English.
“One. He is gone.”
“I was left here.”
“To kill us?”
Aurenn growled. “No. To die.”
Ruby blinked, and as the creature let that sink in he seemed to realise that he was now working alone.
He began to speak, but the orange-furred creature cut him off. “Do you know what it means to lose the people closest to you?”
“We lost the Great Library.” Ruby choked as he spoke the words. It was a very sensitive memory. “A lot of my friends died...”
“Have you been a servant to those people, and only been rewarded with death and betrayal by your own kind?”
“Well... no... but--”
“You do not know the pain I feel.”
Ruby sighed. He was beginning to sympatheise, but this thing was making it difficult. “That’s all for now,” he said, and turned to leave.
“Why have you not killed me again? I must know.”
Jeez, this creature sure is obsessed with his death. “I don’t like to kill when I don’t need to. I would have ordered it when I heard you were here... but... something about a fierce thing like you looking at our stories seemed out of place. I wanted to get the full story before I made any decisions.”
… “You are soft, human. We kill our prisoners. If one is smart, they would not cross us in the first place.”
Ruby turned serious again, and opened the cell door to leave. “Then be glad you’re not with your own kind.”
The door shut with a clang.