oun Ei’dhar panted as he watched the people gather around oun Tamos’s dead body. They were all talking as one, their clawed hands making arcs in the air. He closed his eyes, centered himself and walked outside and towards the gathering. aun Sjir’phal was kneeling next to the gruesome remains and examining them.
“Did some animal get him?” oun D’jir asked.
aun Sjir’phal glanced up at the High Priest and grimaced. “These are knife cuts, High Priest. At least six stabs sliced the heart to tatters.”
Hisses and mewls of distress filled the oppressively hot afternoon.
aun Sjir’phal glanced at the prayer hut. “All of you that guard the High Priest will surround the prayer hall, where the kits are.”
oun D’jir looked at the alpha Deuil. “Do you think the kits are in danger?”
aun Sjir’phal opened his hands helplessly. “I don’t know. We will not take chances.” He looked around the gathering. “No one goes about singly. Only in pairs or groups until we apprehend the murderer.”
The High Priest shifted. “Was this a ritual killing?”
aun Sjir’phal shrugged. “Hard to sayl, but my guess would be that it was not. I believe this was done emotionally and with intent. Perhaps he fought with someone who lost his head and attacked him. But no animal did this. Besides, he was neatly buried, albeit not very well.”
oun D’jir looked around the gathering. “There might be more than one killer.”
aun Sjir’phal sighed. “There might be. Rain and mud and our own tramplings have made a mess of the burial site, but I saw at least two pairs of feet in the mud.”
oun Ei’dhar felt a heaviness in his soul. The day was as absent of gods as any he had ever lived. He closed his eyes and swayed. Exhaustion limned his muscles and joints. With a sigh, he opened his eyes and gazed down upon oun Tamos’s body. His eyes were open, his gaze empty and glassy.
“The Council will meet right now,” oun D’jir murmured. “We shall meet in the prayer hall, where my kits are. We’ll be safe there. Come. The rest of you, go about your day but do not go about singly, as aun Sjir’phal has asked of you.”
oun Ei’dhar watched dully as the fourteen council members strode through the thick heat to the prayer hall.
aun Sjir’phal motioned to two ieh boueli. “Build a pyre and we shall release oun Tamos’s soul to the world.” He looked around the gathering. “I will guard the body with two aun Deuili.”
“We shall all collect wood,” oun Ei’dhar heard himself say. “I will help you.”
He followed the ieh boueli into the jungle. One of the ieh boueli handed him a saw and oun Ei’dhar began methodically to cut through the bark of a young tree. Other oun Shi’ehli came as well and did as he did. He cut at the bark until he could push the tree over. Panting from his exertions, he watched the slow arc of the tree as it fell to the ground with a crack. Two other oun Shi’ehli helped him drag the tree to where the body lay, insects buzzing around the wounds. They made a pyre and poured oil onto the wood and set it on fire. Because the wood was wet, it burned with black smoke. The still air at once became tinged with the acrid odor of the smoke.
When the pyre burned in earnest, two aun Deuili threw the body unto the pile of wood.
oun Ei’dhar watched with a growing horror as the flames licked at oun Tamos’s body, burning through his clothing and catching on his pelt and mane. Soon the flames engulfed and swallowed him whole.
oun Ei’dhar swayed and closed his eyes, feeling cold pricklings along his skin.
“He was your friend, was he not?” someone asked.
oun Ei’dhar opened his eyes and watched numbly as the body charred. “Was he?”
The smell of burned flesh filled the heavy air. Clouds gathered overhead and oun Ei’dhar glanced up at the slate gray sky. Would it rain yet again? So much rain.
Three aun Deuili led by aun Sjir’phal jogged past the pyre and disappeared into the jungle.
Weary with strange emotions, oun Ei’dhar murmured a prayer and left the gathering, shuffling to the long house where the oun Shi’ehli slept. He found his pallet and sat with his back to the wall, crosslegged, his tail still over his thighs. They would find him out. Of that he had no doubt. He was left with his original dilemma: was exile better than death? Already he knew what he would say to aun Sjir’phal: they quarrelled and oun Ei’dhar lost his head. They quarrelled about the fact that oun Ei’dhar wanted to be part of the High Priest’s inner circle and oun Tamos had obtained that role and had endlessly mocked oun Ei’dhar, mocked and strutted about. Then he hoped they would kill him, because he could not live without the breath of the God in his mind. The years stretched before him, unending and unbearably lonely.
oun Efreit entered the sleeping hall and hurried to where oun Ei’dhar sat.
“You must flee,” he hissed. “Leave now, while they are busy!”
“And go where, oun Shi’ehl?” oun Ei’dhar murmured and looked at him closely. “By myself, to live in exile?”
oun Efreit paused, looking unsure.
oun Ei’dhar smiled at him. “I cannot. I am not so brave, you see. With no access to ancient texts, I would not know how to do anything. It is better to die.”
oun Efreit sat down abruptly, his tail puffed and nervously slapping the swept wooden floor.
oun Ei’dhar looked again at his young friend and smiled, cupping his cheek with a hand. “I erred. If they decide to kill me, so be it. I deserve no mercy and no kindness. I acted without thought and lethally.”
oun Efreit mewled. “You were angry–“
“And proud,” oun Ei’dhar agreed. “Proud and afraid oun Tamos would fight me and win himself the conical hat of a High Priest.” He sighed. “I’ve no excuses, young one.”
oun Efreit’s sorrow spilled out into another mewl. He took oun Ei’dhar’s hand in both of his and brought them to his mouth, where he pressed a fervent kiss.
“I forgive you,” he whispered, eyes wide with their wound.
oun Ei’dhar huffed a strangled laugh and pulled his hand free. “You must not be here when they come for me, oun Efreit. I will not give the others away, neither you, but you must not be here when they come for me.”
oun Efreit swallowed thickly and nodded. He rose and hurried into the overcast afternoon.
Time passed and he lay down to sleep. His sleep was clogged with strange images and the patches of dreams. He saw himself in his transport chair during the battle against the Sentinels. He had managed to swerve away from the invisible net they had thrown into the sky. Below him, hundreds of transport chairs overheated and exploded or fell to the earth. Returning to the shuttle, he had given the order to retreat before the Sentinel’s web could snag it, too. They had lost fully three fourths of their warriors against a mere fourteen of the planet’s denizens. Then he had returned to the ark only to be attacked an an aun Deuil.
He shifted in his sleep and dropped from one dream to another seamlessly.
He now walked upon a landscape filled with grass fields and great domed buildings of bright colors. Sha’jeen-like beings walked upon this land, unaware that he observed them. They had the ears and manes and pelts. Their feet and hands ended in sharp black claws, but they had no tails. Kits ran everywhere, playing and chasing each other. They spoke a strange language. They wore trousers and tunics. The domed buildings rose stories above the ground. In the distance, hundreds of fields filled with crops. The crops swayed in the muggy air.
He took a deep breath and felt a strange contentment as he watched the people in the great domed city. Were these their descendants? Why had they changed so much?
We are the Amalgamese.
oun Ei’dhar spun around and saw a young aun Deuil walking through the streets, eyes directly on oun Ei’dhar.
“Amalgamese?” he asked, cocking his head.
The young aun Deuil inclined his head. Just so. The bacterium released during the battle has changed and continues to change our people.
“It was once the same in our world, too,” oun Ei’dhar told him. “We molted but eventually we were born changed.”
You now carry the bacterium in your very DNA. Just as we do. It makes you who you are and it makes us who we are.
“Are you a God?” he asked.
The young aun Deuil laughed and shook his head. I am a High Priest who can travel through time in my dreams. You have asked for a solution, an answer. I have heard you. I came back through time to meet you.
oun Ei’dhar cocked his head. “Why?”
The world is big, oun Ei’dhar. There are many places to go and be. Build a boat and follow the sea north for 300 miles. You will find my people there.
“I am a murderer, abandoned by my God. Why would you send me to your people?”
The young priest grinned, showing his fangs. Do you not believe in redemption and forgiveness? You have turned from darkness into light. It took the loss of life, but that is the greatest gift you can have received.
“Am I redeemed?”
Not yet. The journey ahead of you will redeem you. The loss of your people will redeem you. If you perish on the journey, know that you die free. But if you don’t attempt it, what will become of you?
oun Ei’dhar stirred away, turning onto his back and gazing at the ceiling. Around him, oun Shi’ehli sat in groups, talking in soft voices and praying. He sat up and rested his back against the wall of the sleeping hall. He waited until the oun Shi’ehli had settled down to sleep before he rose and left the dim hall. The night was filled with the chirring of insects. He pressed his back against the side of the building and waited until two guards patrolled past. They conversed in easy tones. Then he hurried through the shadows until he came to another building. This was the prayer hall. He paused there, smelling incense. He could hear the mewls of the kits within and inexplicably he felt a mewl of despair rise in him. He viciously tamped it down until he was panting. After a few minutes, he went around the back of the building. Turning east, he ran into the jungle. He continued to run even after the sounds of the settlement were far behind him.
aun Sjir’phal entered the prayer hall and wiped his feet on the woven mat on the inside of the door. He bowed as oun D’jir rose.
“What is it?” the High Priest demanded.
A kit lay asleep in his arms. The kits were now about the size of half an aun Deuil’s arm, long limbed and gangly.
“Can I see you outside, High Priest?” he asked with deference.
oun D’jir’s eyebrows shot up, but he nodded and handed the sleeping kit to oun Shamisj, the High Priest’s personal assistant.
Once outside, aun Sjir’phal closed the door behind him. “oun Ei’dhar has disappeared.”
“I went with two guards to seek him out in the sleeping hall, but he was gone. He told a young oun Shi’ehl that he had gone to the watering hole to pray. We found traces of blood everywhere. I believe he has gone into the jungle, but we can’t track him in the dark. There may be predators about.”
oun D’jir sighed. “Is he the murderer, you think?”
aun Sjir’phal spread his hands. “Why is he gone? His flight is very damning. Besides, he is the only one of our people who said he went to the watering hole.”
oun D’jir looked away and took a breath. “Do we know who his friends are?”
“He has been seen socializing with oun Efreit, oun Sabos’h, oun Itilehn, and oun Benska.”
oun D’jir hissed. “oun Benska?”
“Just so, High Priest.”
oun D’jir showed his fangs. “If he knew of this murder and said nothing–”
“He will be expelled from the Council.”
“Ye,” oun D’jir agreed. “Please continue your investigation. Let me know what you uncover. And see if you can find oun Ei’dhar.”
aun Sjir’phal bowed. “Very good. Good night, High Priest.”
aun Sjir’phal turned on his heels and stalked away, two guards at his back.