oun Ei’dhar moved stealthily over low plants, bending to duck under low hanging fronds. For once it was not raining, although the ground was still saturated from the last rainfall. His feet sank into the soft mud. He was alert to other footfalls and sounds as he made his way to the clandestine meeting place. Soon they would have their own hut, and he would be able to hold meetings without trudging into the jungle and its unknowns. It took him nearly a quarter of an hour to reach the palm tree. He touched the rough bark and whispered a brief prayer to Ya’ih-Ael. Then he turned towards the west and settled in to wait for the others.
They came singly and in pairs, making a racket through the jungle. oun Ei’dhar hissed with frustration. His tail slashed the air behind him, slapping against the tree’s trunk at his back.
They were six altogether now: himself, oun Tamos, oun Efreit, oun Sabos’h, oun Itilehn, and oun Benksa.
When the others were gathered around him, he drew a deep, calming breath.
“Report,” he growled without preamble.
oun Tamos preened. “I’ve been asked to join the High Priest’s retinue. I will be at a prime place to gather intel and will be close enough to the kits to offer a different education.”
oun Ei’dhar inclined his head. “That is good, oun Tamos. You must proceed with care. Always remember: what we do is for the future, for our descendants, not for us.”
oun Tamos’s tail puffed. “I know, my lord. You drill that into our heads every time we meet–“
oun Ei’dhar barred his teeth and stretched to his full height. But oun Tamos did not cringe. They glared at one another for a long time.
“You disrespect the High Priest,” oun Efreit growled at oun Tamos.
“And why is he High Priest?” oun Tamos demanded. “Any one of us is worthy of the honor.”
“The God spoke to me,” oun Ei’dhar hissed and narrowed his eyes.
oun Tamos gave a mocking bow. “So you say. How can we be sure–“
oun Ei’dhar moved with lightning speed, pulling a dagger from his robes, and plunging it into oun Tamos’s heart. oun Tamos’s eyes widened, and he gurgled deep in his throat. oun Ei’dhar removed the dagger and plunged it again and again into the other’s heart before stepping away and watching him crumble to the ground. He lifted the dagger and ran the tip of his tongue over the blood, cleaning the dagger blade.
“Bury him,” he ordered the others. “Cover the mound with fronds and leaves, so no one can find it.”
“oun Ei’dhar–” oun Sabos’h began.
oun Ei’dhar hissed, showing his teeth.
At once oun Sabos’h dropped his gaze and made himself smaller.
“Bury him,” oun Ei’dhar ordered again and stalked from the meeting place to the watering hole further into the jungle.
Once there, he washed his hands and the dagger, tucking it within the folds of his robes once more. He drank water and closed his eyes.
“Senosh ath Sha’jeen,” he whispered. “God of the Sha’jeen. Guide me.”
He sat crosslegged on a boulder and closed his eyes.
“Did I do wrong, oh Senosh, oh God?” he whispered.
He felt the hair of his mane rise behind him. The God said nothing to him, was as distant from him as the stars themselves.
“Can you not touch me because of Ie’teina?” he whispered.
He sat there until light touched the unblemished sky. With a sigh, he rose and made his way back to the settlement. Already there were ieh boueli and aun Deuili working on the construction of huts. Others worked to clear the jungle.
A disturbance drew him to the prayer hall. The remaining oun Shi’ehli were gathered around the High Priest. He pushed himself through the crowd until he came face to face with oun D’jir.
“What has happened?” he demanded.
oun D’jir gave him a withering glare.
Reluctantly, oun Ei’dhar dropped his gaze and postulated. “Forgive me, High Priest.”
oun D’jir inclined his head. “oun Tamos has gone missing. He was supposed to meet me this morning.”
A young oun Shi’ehli standing near the High Priest pointed at oun Ei’dhar. “You came from the jungle. What were you doing in the jungle alone?”
oun Ei’dhar stiffened. “I went to the watering hole to pray.”
They glared at one another until the young oun Shi’ehl looked away, at the High Priest. Something significant passed between them, but oun Ei’dhar could not tell what it was. For the first time since arriving at the planet, he felt the pricklings of fear in his gut.
oun D’jir sighed. “I will talk to aun Sjir’phal. We will go into the jungle to search. Perhaps he has hurt himself and cannot make it back, although what he would be doing in the jungle alone is beyond me.”
oun Ei’dhar looked helplessly as the High Priest and his priests headed towards aun Sjir’phal where he stood on a rise of land, observing the construction of a hut.
“What do we do now?” oun Efreit hissed at him, showing too much sclera in his eyes.
oun Ei’dhar frowned, took him by the elbow and propelled him into the prayer hall. “You must becalm yourself. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
oun Efreit panted. “You should not have killed him.”
oun Ei’dhar hissed. “I did it for the God.”
“You did it for your pride,” oun Sabos’h whispered behind him. “Do not think us fools, oun Ei’dhar.”
oun Benska sighed. “Now what do we do?”
“We keep our heads,” oun Ei’dhar hissed. “We know nothing. They cannot make us talk.”
oun Itilehn shook his head. “Oh, can’t they?” He huffed a laugh. “We shall see.”
He turned and strode out, followed by the others.
oun Ei’dhar stood in their wake, stunned and sick with uncertainty. He went out into the sultry day with its annoying insects and cloying humidity and mingled with the other oun Shi’ehli, waiting to hear if oun Tamos would be found. If he weren’t found, it would not be good either. In that moment, he saw the error of his ways. He had lost his head and attacked, taking a moment’s pleasure for which he was paying now. He would be put to death, as was decreed by ancient law. He killed a breeder in his prime. There was no greater crime. He slid his gaze to his priests and saw worry and uncertainty in their postures and gazes. Someone was bound to betray him. They were weak, after all, just as oun Tamos had been.
He closed his eyes, seeking the God in his mind, but the God proved just as elusive as He had been the at the watering hole. Ya’ih-Ael had no power in Ie’teina’s realm. He would never have power in Ie’teina’s realm. oun Ei’dhar had gravely erred for the sake of a deity that was essentially dead. His pride and hunger for power had blinded him, and now he had committed murder for those same reasons. He took in a breath and released it in a rush. He must leave and lose himself in the jungle. He would make his way to the shore further north somehow and build a boat to carry him to the nearbt archipelago. He would sail until he left Colony Xema far away. He would be alone, but there was nothing to be done. He would leave under the cover of darkness with food and supplies.
Turning his back on the gathering of Shi’ehli, he hurried to the Shi’ehli’s sleeping hut and entered. The hut was empty.
He went to his pallet and sat down upon it. He thought long and hard as he sat there, and the morning turned into afternoon. Would it be better to die than wander alone for the rest of his days? Would loneliness drive him mad?
He started and glanced up.
oun Efreit stood at the foot of his pallet.
“May I sit?” he asked deferentially.
oun Ei’dhar nodded. “Please.”
“Do not despair,” oun Efreit told him. “They won’t find him and if they do, they will not know who did it.”
oun Ei’dhar shook his head. “It is only a matter of time.” He sighed. “The god is dead. The old ways are dead. We’ve made a horrible mistake.”
oun Efreit hissed. “Do not say these things! They are blasphemies!”
oun Ei’dhar gave a mirthless laugh. “The god said to me on the ark that he has no power in Ie’teina’s realm, oun Efreit. I called on him last night and he was as silent, as distant, as a star. Ie’teina rules here and there is no room for another god.” He reached out and took oun Efreit’s hands. “We must change or die.” His eyes filled with tears. “I have been duped and now I have created the greatest sin. There is no redemption, no escape.”
oun Efreit inclined his head. “What are you going to do?”
“I am deciding. If I die, it will be by my hand. No one else’s.”
oun Efreit sucked a breath. “Suicide?”
“What will become of us?”
“Back the winning God, you fool,” oun Ei’dhar hissed. “Join the ranks of your High Priest and take oun Tamos’s place. Learn of Ie’teina and become holy. You, of all the five of us, have a clean soul.”
When oun Ei’dhar sat back, releasing his hands, oun Efreit sighed.
“But they are changing everything,” he stated mournfully. “The nieh boueli now have souls!”
oun Ei’dhar shook his head. “Adapt or perish, oun Efreit. You are young. It will be hard at first, but you’ll get used to it.”
They sat in silence until oun Sabos’h, oun Itilehn and oun Benska entered the hut and sat around him. They looked at him expectantly.
“I am not your High Priest any longer,” he told them quietly. “Ie’teina rules here, not the old gods. Learn the new ways and succeed.”
“And what of you?” oun Benska demanded.
“That is my own affair,” oun Ei’dhar replied listlessly. “I have the means to my disposal. It is best if you know nothing more.”
oun Benksa inclined his head. “The god is dead?”
“Ye. The god is dead. Long live Ie’teina.”
oun Benska reached into his robes and removed the large blood red beads. He tore the necklace apart and the beads scattered onto the pallet. The others did the same thing.
Then oun Ei’dhar nodded and removed the necklace from around his neck, pulling until it parted, and the beads fell onto the woven pallet.
“Long live Ie’teina,” oun Benska murmured and rose, striding out of the hut into the hot afternoon.
oun Ei’dhar swallowed thickly.
“You do not have to die,” oun Efreit murmured, gathering the beads. “You can make amends–“
“There are no amends without honesty and revelation,” oun Ei’dhar told him mournfully.
oun Itilehn shook his head. “Redemption and amends are between you and the God. Do not forget the God is the ultimate forgiver. We are nothing, mortals as we are.” He rose. “Think carefully what you do, oun Ei’dhar. Choose wisely.”
He rose strode from the hut after oun Benska.
oun Sabos’h was helping oun Efreit pick up the beads. “Why do I think we have killed the god ourselves?”
oun Ei’dhar huffed a laugh. “These are strange times.”
He sat with his back against the wall and watched as the remaining two left the hut.
He covered his face with his hands and began to rock to and fro, praying to Ie’teina. He went hot and cold as he prayed, fervent and desperate, seeking guidance from any deity. The idea that no deity would touch him ever again filled him with despair. He was unsure what to do, unsure as to how to proceed. He recalled being touched by Ya’ih-Ael and yet he had discarded the god without much effort. Perhaps the god was testing him.
“Please, Ie’teina!” he called. “Please, God!”
He retrieved his dagger from within his robes and cut his left forearm. He watched distantly as blood pooled along the long cut, the droplets sliding to drip onto his robes. His eyes rolled to the back of his head and he rocked to and fro, concentrating on the sharp pain of the slices he made to his flesh. The cutting released something in him, made him feel lighter and freer. He felt as if he was floating inches off the ground.
Ithal shunes tal oalth utal.
He kept his eyes closed as the sibilant voice filled his mind. It was strange how the God’s voice was without depth or inflection, a sexless touch along the cells of his brain.
“I don’t understand your words,” he whispered.
These are ancient words from the people who first worshipped me. They were artistic, peaceful, and intelligent beings. You have murdered, yet you wish to adore me? Do you think your bloodletting will cleanse you?
oun Ei’dhar shook his head. “I think nothing of the sort, God. I only sought to touch You.”
Your people have much to atone for. You’ve left a wreckage, a vast vat of blood, behind you. You have changed the very course of history. You have killed indiscriminately. Without remorse, without compunction! You killed last night for the sake of your pride and here you sit, feeling fear and remorse only because of what it means for you! oun Tamos has been silenced forever and you feel nothing for him. Until you can feel what you need to feel, until you learn what you need to learn, I will not touch you again!
And just like that, the God’s touch was gone from oun Ei’dhar, leaving him empty and alone.
“Tell me what to do!” he cried as a mewl of mourning threatened to push from his throat.
There was a commotion outside. He rose and strode to the nearest window. He peered out and stiffened. They had found oun Tamos’s body and were dragging it towards the middle of the settlement.