14.2 \ 196

Derringer stepped out first. He’s a natural icebreaker. He looked up, beyond double the height of the open hatch, probably more than triple. Fakking huge, looking – or breathing – right at him. He couldn’t tell if those were eyes or nostrils, where the other set might be or if that were one set of each. They knew he was there, and they knew he was looking at them.

The rest were stepping out around him. The ones who’d already met them said they called themselves Aureny. Their frontal skull ridge resembled a clothing iron turned upside down, like a captain’s hat with a peak facing front, defining a flat capital plateau the size of a corner stage. Four nostrils (or eyes, or both, or neither) in a row beneath the edge of the cap. There was more to them than that, but Derringer was still taking in that impression. Seven of them formed a wedge surrounding Drift X’s hold hatch.

Their stony-hided shoulders were subtended with different amounts of grey ropy fur matted into giant knotted locks. The surface of their skins looked like ancient rock. Derringer watched as one turned its head and gnashed its ridged crescent dental platforms. Colonnade front limbs rolled under their bison hunches. Longfooted back legs like excavators, and a pointy chin to match the captain’s apex.

Once the entire visiting party was standing amongst them, the Aureny thrust their heads close to scrutinize the tiny beings. They made a jaw percussion to acknowledge sentient presence. The one positioned in front drew up, and beckoned them sidelong as it turned. The rest repeated the dexterous ironclawed gesture to follow along. They formed a slowly moving spear with the visitors in the center. They paused between each step, so that the tiny steps could keep pace. They walked on the scale of architecture toward the opening of a weathered natural corrosion.

This subterranean entrance was undifferentiated from any other hole in the ground. Walking with them, their grievance was dawning on Soleil – who divined, from the entirely natural appearance of this opening, that their sentience might be overlooked if one were not attempting to observe it. This included their apparent absence of appearance alteration such as ornament or clothing, at least as of yet.

Soleil could clearly recall the feeling of meeting people such as these, from her dream trance, completing all the presences she’d encountered. Their expressions were so alien, but she could perceive the depth of their complexity. Having mouths was a relatable trait.

As they descended through that opening, sheer walls rose to either side, forming a chasm where they walked the bottom under dim diffusion of faraway skylights. Toller was the first to notice more of the Aureny people looking out from openings in the sheer cliffs, reminding him of the subterranean apartments in Anzi. Before he’d made any mention, something shiny and large came hurtling toward them from one above. “Falling!” he yelled, laying a hand on the nearest person, who was Wendel. The humans looked up in alarm, but before they scattered, their point escort reared up, caught the object, and shrugged it on. It was a metal ornament that draped from shoulder to powerful shoulder, gorgeously fashioned and set with gems. Another flew from a different opening, caught by another Aureny along their stately progression. The small humans relaxed once it seemed they were not the target of these projectiles, and they hardly flinched at all under directed velocities. Their escorts didn’t miss a catch, and soon all were fully bedecked, armored or adorned, including rings for their fur locks that were big enough for Soleil to put her head through.

The one walking point stopped their progress and turned to face the guests. They heard nothing, but Rosy Glow said, “You may now remove your breathing cloths.” Hand-sized, she’d been floating along without need for a breathing adaptation. After wiping down her face, Soleil tied each cool cloth around a wrist. A long huff of breath from the Aureny facing them rolled across her, lifting her hair a little. It smelled of flowers.

The chasm had grown several stories deep; they’d descended a ways, and were continuing onward. The workmanship worn by these Aureny was fascinating, and Soleil stared. Variegated shimmering textures showed off bizarrely unfamiliar alloys and forging techniques. It wasn’t just the metals which were new and strange, but the gems as well. Soleil had seen gems and physical elements aplenty. Many of these were also glowing enough for their eyes to see by, innovatively charged and possibly of additional values of phronium spectra. It was not often Soleil felt faced with people richer than she, and beyond that she felt a burning curiosity regarding all these novelties beyond compare. She was forming more guesses as to how grievances began.

Through another deeper archway, perhaps not entirely natural. The small group was flanked within by a pair of receiving columns, who then closed the back of their formation. The Aureny closed into a circle to regard the envoys for a long time, as though not crushing them was the greatest of courtesies.

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