Epilogue: Part One

           oun Ei’dhar looked on as oun Nilja rolled around the dirt with kits.  He bared his teeth and looked away.  

            He gave up the Sha’jeen People willingly for this. Why?  He huffed and pulled his robes more closely around him.  Why?  He was a member of the ruling Council.  A priest!

            He leaned against the outer wall of the abandoned city, which the sk’oit-tu named Amal City, and snuck glimpses at oun Nilja.  The oun Shi’ehl was rolling aroung the shores of the river, other adults close by, watching.

            Really! He was behaving no better than a kit himself!  The adults watching were laughing at the kits’ antics.  At oun Nilja’s antics.

            oun Ei’dhar huffed. He has made a home here, even if he behaves as a buffoon.

            He turned away from oun Nilja and strode through the gates of the city. The sk’oit-tu were fixing the gate, pulling the old gate down.  He made his way along the wall, keeping out of the way of others.  Their bright chatter was distracting, confusing.  Especially the expelling of air which meant they were laughing, showing their teeth and gums without meaning threat or insult.  oun Ei’dhar shivered.  So confusing and disconcerting.

            He and oun Nilja had been given a small stone dwelling near the center of the city.  It was made of black, gleaming stone.  Even the roof.  There were many windows to cool the house down.  At the highpoint of the day, the house was uninhabitable from the heat.  The inside of the dwellings had two or three rooms:  a central living space with a cooking pit carved into the floor and one or two other rooms for sleeping, oun Ei’dhar supposed.  He and oun Nilja had each been given a pallet with sheets upon which to sleep.  oun Ei’dhar would have to learn to carve wooden bowls and mugs and chests for food storage.  He sighed.  There was much to do.  He wanted to whitewash the dwelling, like others were doing.  He had tried to discuss this with oun Nilja more than once, but the oun Shi’ehl hardly tolerated his presence in the dwelling.

            The city had two main roads:  to the west and to the east of the great pyramid.  The roads were constructed of the same stone as the dwellings and connected the gate to the north with the southern wall, where a second gate stood.  The dwellings had been built north to south in long, even rows.  Perhaps it had been to maximize the space, for there was little creativity in the result.  But the result was neat and tidy.  Already the sk’oi-tu were planting gardens and hanging colorful sheets over the windows and doors. Others chose to hang stiff door covers made from woven grasses.  There was no question that the sk’oit-tu would run out of space within one or two generations.  Perhaps they would knock down the northern wall of the city and continue to build into the jungle.

            Hunger made oun Ei’dhar lightheaded.  No one had offered him food.  He would have to go into the jungle and hunt for himself.  He shook his head, vexed.  Why did I kill oun Tamos? What purpose did it serve, other than to please me but for a fleeting moment?

            He reached the dwelling he shared with oun Nilja.  The fire he had built a few hours prior still crackled cheerfully.  The dwelling smelled of smoke and the recent rain.  He stopped to drop more wood onto the fire before heading to his room.  The black walls were oppressive.  He would have to beg for paint from aun Toyus.

            The candles oun Nilja had lit still flickered in each room.  

            He sat down with his back to the wall and crossed his legs.  It was quiet in this room, despite the small open window high up along the wall.  Sunlight filtered through the window and fell onto the stone floor in a long golden rectangle.

            He closed his eyes.

            “Hello?”

            oun Ei’dhar stiffened and rose.  He made his way to the main room of the dwelling and found the sk’oit-tu known as Ariahl standing just inside the door.

            “Ah.  oun Ei’dhar,” oun Ariahl said.  “I would like to speak with you.”  She made a gesture lost to him.  “Come, walk with me.”

            He wanted to refuse her, but he had no meat or paint or anything to live here. She could facilitate these things for him.  So he bowed and went to join her.

            oun Ariahl wrapped her arm around his and led him outside as if he were blind.  It was an insult, but he took a breath and told himself it was ignorance on the sko’it-tu’s part.  

            The sun glared overhead in an unblemished sky.  Even though it was still early morning, the temperatures were already soaring, the humidity making it difficult to breathe.  He hated this continent.

            “I have a favor to ask you, oun Ei’dhar,” oun Ariahl murmured.

            He looked at her.  Her cues confused him, as did the cues of all the sk’oit-tu.  Perhaps he would get used to them in time.

            “You need only ask,” he replied evenly.

            “There are more Amalgamese stranded in North Torahn,” oun Ariahl told him.  “The infection keeps producing more and more.  We Sentinels are leaving here and returning to North Torahn to gather them and take them up north to the continent of Yllysia to live next to the Jilahn River.”    

            He listened impatiently.  What was the purpose of telling him all this?

            “What has this to do with me?” he growled.

            She made the peculiar sound in her throat that meant she was laughing softly.  

            His tail puffed at the insult.

            “We would like you to come with us,” she continued smoothly.  “To help them acclimate to being part Sha’jeen.  oun Nilja is committed to living here.  Will you come?  You can be a guide to them or part of the ruling Council or an advisor.”

            He pulled his arm free and turned to face her.  

            “I murdered someone,” he huffed, sure she was mocking him.  He wondered what her purpose was for mocking him so cruelly.        

            She bobbed her head up and down in agreement.  “Yes.  The leaders of this colony will know you are a murderer.  They may accept you; they may not.  Do you not want a second chance?  Do you not want to start anew?  If you are accepted there, you will remain with the people there.  If not, we will bring you back here.”

            He studied her features carefully.  It was hard to decipher the complex emotions in her eyes and the curving of her mouth.

            After a few minutes, he convinced himself that he did not perceive any deception in her demeanor.  

            His heart began to clamor in his chest.  He struggled to catch his breath.  This is a gift.  This is a gift.

            “I will do this,” he told her.

            She showed him her teeth, which was intimidating until he recalled it was not meant as a threat.

            “Good, good,” she said.  “We leave tomorrow morning, at sunrise.  Come to the shuttle then.”

            He bowed.  “Ye.  I thank you.”

***

            aun Sjir’phal rose from his pallet and made his way to the door.  He pushed aside the flap and leaned against the doorjamb.  Rain fell beyond the door in gray sheets.  The People were all inside.  No work would be done this day.  It had been days since he had seen oun D’jir or his friends.  He did not recognize the emotion that wove through his thoughts.  He leaned his right temple against the doorjamb and sighed.  He understood that aun P’ata’lyh and aun Pasia’h were now mated and had lives of thier own, but it wounded him that they had not come in a few days to see how he recovered.  oun D’jir was angry with him still and sent one of his priests with food and water.

            He was still weak from his wound.  He reached up his right hand to cup his left shoulder.  There was pain still, but the wound smelled clean.

            Then he recalled oun Ei’dhar and wondered if he had perished in the jungle.

            He shuddered.  It had been the first task at which he had failed. He swallowed and closed his eyes against the wave of shame.  One little oun Shi’ehl and he had melted like a ghost into the jungle.   Even with three sturdy and capable aun Deuili chasing him.

            “It’s the will of the Goddess,” he murmured and let go the shame.            

            He opened his eyes again and continued to watch the rain.  Would he have a home with oun D’jir or would the High Priest always remain at arm’s length? He imagined himself as a sire to the current kits, advising and guiding them, balancing out oun D’jir’s more stringent teachings.  He and oun D’jir fit well, he thought, they balanced each other.  He huffed a mirthless laugh.  But it wasn’t up to him, was it?

            Turning and dropping the door flap, he walked slowly back to his pallet and lay down.  He really should be getting better.  Unease prickled over him.  

            Throwing his arm over his eyes, he allowed his body and mind to relax.  If I get any weaker, I will take my own life.  Instantly, he felt the unease dissipate.

            He fell into a dreamless sleep and awoke an indefinite time later.  

            “Ah, you wake.”

            aun Sjir’phal turned his head.  oun E’freit, oun D’jir’s personal assistant, sat cross legged near his pallet.  Before him was a covered bowl.  aun Sjir’phal could smell the sweet fresh meat.

            “Sit up and drink and eat.”

            aun Sjir’phal did as he was asked. 

            The meat had a strange flavor and odor underneath the smell of blood.  He chalked it up to the fact that they were eating food grown on another planet.   

            The priest’s sharp eyes watched him as he forced himself to eat.

            “Here is water,” the priest said and handed aun Sjir’phal a mug.

            He drank the water.

            oun E’freit bowed.  “The High Priest will come to visit you today.”

            He rose smoothly, gathering the bowl and mug and left without another word.

            A few minutes later, aun Sjir’phal experienced a strange surge of anxiety he could not explain.  He rose and his legs gave out under him.  He cried out as he fell.  His legs refused to work. His entire body shook.  He felt as weak as a newborn.

            This was all terribly familiar.

            “Poison,” he whispered. “It has to be.  Why?”

            He crawled towards the door but was only able to make it halfway there.  His eyesight was dimming.  Now he wished to make it back to the pallet.  He huffed at the irony.  

            He heard a rustle and then a cry.  “aun Sjir’phal!”

            oun D’jir knelt next to him.  “What has happened?”

            “Poison,” aun Sjir’phal replied, tasting blood and something bitter.

            “Help me carry him to his pallet,” oun D’jir commanded.

            aun Sjir’phal did not even feel when they moved him.

            oun D’jir sat at the pallet’s edge and held one of aun Sjir’phal’s hands.  He turned to his priests and commanded something too quick for aun Sjir’phal to understand.

            aun Sjir’phal drifted in and out of consciousness.  They made him drink something salty followed by a cup of plain water.

            Then came a long darkness that embraced him.  Within it he hung suspended, feeling nothing.  It felt to him as if millennia passed.  He had a dream that he was on a ship traveling the cosmos.  He stood by a window that curved outward and he watched the absolute darkness hurl past.  He wore a strange uniform with many metals.  He found a mirror and looked at himself, taken aback by the strange appearance of his face.  He touched the smooth, pale features.  He studied the round pupils.  The body had wide shoulders and strong arms.  He was a warrior, as he always was.  But what was he?

            A sharp pain in his stomach made him cry out and lean against the curved wall of the ship.  He looked down upon himself.  He touched his stomach, and his hand came away wet with blood.

            He woke moaning.

            “Drink this,” oun D’jir told him, lifting his head.

            Again, the salty drink followed by plain water.

            oun D’jir leaned closer.  “How do you feel?”

            aun Sjir’phal reached out and grabbed the High Priest’s hand.  “Listen to me.”

            He looked around the hut, but there was no one else there.

            “What is it?” oun D’jir demanded.

            “One of you priests has poisoned me,” he told the priest.

            oun D’jir gasped. “You lie!”

            “Why would I?”  aun Sjir’phal challenged.  “Listen to me.  One priest always brings the food and water, always makes sure I eat it…no other priest comes to me.”            

            oun D’jir rose quickly.  “You lie!”

            “Then kill me,” aun Sjir’phal hissed.  “Think, oun D’jir!  Only your priests have access to your medicines and poisons.  Only the five priests!  For your kits’ sake!  Think!”

            oun D’jir whirled and ran out of the hut.  

            aun Sjir’phal reached under his pallet and found the dagger he had hidden there.  He brought it out and hid it under the bedclothes.

            An hour or so later, oun E’freit returned with food and water.  He made himself appear pleasant.  

            aun Sjir’phal watched him carefully.

            “You must eat and drink,” the priest said.  “I will feed you.”

            Under the bedclothes, aun Sjir’phal’s hand curled around the handle of the dagger.  He waited until oun E’freit bent close and lifted his head his head to feed him before he plunged the dagger into the priest’s neck and pulled it out.  The act of pulling out pushed the priest onto his back on the floor. The bowl of meat clattered to the floor and the meat spilled everywhere. oun E’freit gasped, bringing both hands to his throat.  

            There was a commotion outside the hut and then several Sha’jeen hurried inside, gasping in disbelief.

            oun D’jir knelt beside oun E’freit.

            oun E’freit held his hand out nad oun D’jir took it.

            “How?” oun E’freit gasped.  “How…did…he…know?”

            oun E’friet moaned, his eyes wide.  He gasped for air.   He bled out in minutes.

             oun D’jir held him tenderly, petting him and murmuring endearments.  When he breathed his last, oun D’jir lifted him to his chest.

            “Murderer!” one of the priests cried.

            “Shut. Up,” oun D’jir snarled.

            He lay oun E’freit down and turned to the meat scattered near aun Sjir’phal’s pallet.  He picked up a piece of the meat and sniffed it delicately.  

            “This meat is poisoned,” he announced tonelessly.

            The priests started talking as one.

            oun D’jir rose.  The hem of his robes was soaked in blood.  He turned to the priests.

            “I will speak to each of you individually.  Send ieh boueli to clean this mess and bury the body.  At once.”

            The priests scrambled to obey.

            oun D’jir turned to aun Sjir’phal.  “Do you suspect another?”

            “I did not even suspect the one, until I got worse.”  He swallowed past the soreness in his throat.  “I just seemed to be getting worse each time I fed.”

            oun D’jir clasped his hands before him.  “I’m sorry, aun Sjir’phal.”

            “It isn’t your fault.”

            “Yes, it is,” he said.  “I always complained about you.  I think he thought he was doing me a favor.”

            “Maybe he was.”

            oun D’jir shook his head. “I will put a guard at your door until I conclude my investigation.”

            “Ask aun P’ata’lyh for help,” aun Sjir’phal suggested.

            oun D’jir bowed.  “I will.  Thank you.”

            Two guards stood posted just inside the door of aun Sjir’phal’s hut.  aun Sjir’phal did not recognize them, but they had been chosen by aun P’ata’lyh.  aun Sjir’phal trusted his friend.  

            aun P’ata’lyh was busy with the investigation, but aun Pasia’h came to visit him the day after aun Sjir’phal killed oun E’freit.

            aun Sjir’phal was too weak to sit up, so he watched as his friend took a seat at the edge of the pallet.

            “I’m sorry, my friend,” aun Pasia’h murmured.  “Things have not been easy for you.”

            aun Sjir’phal waved away the apology.  “It is how things are amongst the People.”

            “Ye.  You speak truth.”  He shook his head.  “My kits will be born soon. I fear for them.”

            “There must be much anxiety among the Sha’jeen.”    

            “There is.  The High Priest is turning every stone and uprooting every tree to get to the bottom of this.  It is impressive.”

            aun Sjir’phal hissed with amusement.  “I have always admired him.”

            “Is that what you are calling it?” aun Pasia’h stated dryly.

            aun Sjir’phal hissed again.  

            The friends shared an amused glance.

            “How is your mate?” aun Sjir’phal asked.

            “He is strong.”  aun Pasia’h puffed up.  “I have no complaints.”

            “That is good, my friend.”  He rubbed his chest, feeling a tightness there.  “How many kits are you expecting?”

            “Five!” aun Pasia’h pronounced, preening.

            aun Sjir’phal nodded.  Weariness threaded through his limbs and muscles.  He yawned.

            “Forgive me, my friend,” he heard himself say.  “I must rest.”

            “Of course!” aun Pasia’h assured him.  “I will come back tomorrow.”

            aun Sjir’phal had already slipped into sleep.

Chapter XV: Vision

            The day of aun Sjir’phal’s vision came quickly.  He felt sick with anticipation but also strangely calm.  He had not eaten for two days and would not eat for a third.  There would be bitter emetics and laxatives and, of course, lectures from the High Priest.

            “You must come before the God pure and empty,” oun D’jir had explained.

            aun Sjir’phal looked around his empty hut.  It was a round, single-room home, thatched with dried grasses and wide palm fronds, the dried grasses woven to anchor the palm leaves in place. The walls were mud and sand.  The skeleton of the hut was made form pliable young wood. The single door had a thick, stiff curtain woven from the long, strong vines that grew in the jungle.  There were no windows, but aun Sjir’phal was used to that.  The ark in which he had been born and raised had had no windows in the sleeping quarters.  Only the High Priest had had that luxury.  At least the rain and wind were kept out. 

            The center of the hut had a firepit cut into the earthen floor, an airing hole gaped from the apex of the roof.  Someone had built a fire in the pit and it offered a baleful orange glow as it crackled cheerfully.

            He owned nothing, save a pallet and sheets to cover himself.  He would have to barter for clothing.  The leather uniform which he had worn ever since leaving the ark was now torn at the shoulder and permanently stained with blood.  

            He wore one of oun D’jir’s discarded robes. He looked down at himself and shook his head, grunting his disgust.  The robes barely fit but still hid his physique.  He was a soldier, judged by his physical presence as well as his prowess.  Besides, what business had a soldier to wear a priest’s robes?

            There was a scratch at the door.

            “Enter!” he called.

            The door was pushed to one side and aun P’ata’lyh and aun Pasia’h ducked inside.

            aun Sjir’phal made to stand.

            “Ne!” aun P’ata’lyh cried.  “Stay seated.”

            They sat crosslegged on the earthen floor before his pallet.

            aun Sjir’phal squirmed under their thoughtful scrutiny.

            “Do not fidget,” aun Pasia’h said with a hint of humor.  “It is only that you represent great change for the people, ean sk’oi.”

            aun Sjir’phal hissed, his tail whipping around and slapping the wall at his back.

            “Don’t call me that!”

            Neither aun Deuili seemed startled nor intimidated by his outburst.

            aun Pasia’h had an amused gleam in his eyes.  “You are going to undergo a vision, something no aun Deuili has ever done.  You were visited by the God in the form of an ancestor. Your plans for a rebellion released us from the shackles of the old ways.  How are we to address you?”

            “It has ever been as if we were born to the same litter,” aun Sjir’phal stated firmly.  “Why are you changing now?  I view you no differently.”

            “And that, my friend, is why you are worthy of the title ean sk’oi,” aun P’ata’lyh murmured with reverence.

            aun Sjir’phal clasped his shaking hands on his lap.  His rough palms were cold.  

            “aun Sjir’phal,” aun Pasia’h said.  “We will drop the reverence but know we hold you in high regard.”

            aun Sjir’phal inclined his head.  “I am grateful for your honesty.  Now speak of more mundane subjects.”

            “Very well.  When are you marrying the High Priest?” aun P’ata’lyh asked.

            “If I survive this vision,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  “Then I will ask him once more.”  He glanced at his friends.  “And how are you marriages going?”

            aun Pasia’h huffed and made himself big. “oun Enobia carries my kits!”

            aun Sjir’phal held his hand out and his friend clasped his forearm.  “That is wonderful news.  Blessed God Ie’teina.”

            “Blessed God,” the other two murmured.

            “And you, aun P’ata’lyh?” aun Sjir’phal asked.

            “No kits yet,” he replied, his tail tightly around his waist.  “But my marriage is most satisfying.  oun Zerta is beautiful and had a litter on the ark.”

            “I will pray for you,” aun Sjir’phal promised him.

            His friend bent at the waist and his tail unwound.  “Thank you.”

            When his friend straightened, aun Sjir’phal huffed a laugh.  “I would not want a young oun Shi’ehli for spouse.  I don’t know how you both marry them and keep them satisfied.”

            His friends hissed their laughter and nodded, preening.

            There was a scratch at the door.

            “Enter!”

            The door cover was pushed to one side and oun D’jir ducked inside.  Behind him came two young priests and six voluble kits in arms.  

            This was the first time aun Sjir’phal had seen the kits.  His friends rose and helped him to stand.  Then they bowed to aun D’jir, who waved them to sit.

            “Sit, both of you,” he ordered his priests.

            The two priests sat on the floor, the kits on their laps.

            “We were just leaving, High Priest,” aun P’ata’lyh murmured with reverence and bowed to him.

            They bid farewell to aun Sjir’phal and hurried out.

            “Your friends are unstable,” oun D’jir told him.

            aun Sjir’phal huffed a laugh.  “They are nervous around you, High Priest.”

            “A High Priest should be accessible to the people,” oun D’jir replied, his tail was erratically waving behing him.

            He picked up one of his kits and set him on aun Sjir’phal’s lap.  The small one glanced up at the aun Deuil with wide green eyes.

            “What is your name?” aun Sjir’phal cooed awkwardly.

            “That is why I am here,” oun D’jir told him.  “They all need names.”

            aun Sjir’phal picked up the wee one.  It’s small body was already covered with a fine downy fur.  His tiny ears were flat.  He was a fat little thing, he thought.  Too early to tell if he would be an oun Shi’ehl or an aun Deuil. Perhaps — although he did not say this out loud — an ieh bouel.  He set the kit down on the pallet and it resolutely crawled back onto his lap. When he looked up, he was being watched by three pairs of bright, curious eyes.

            oun D’jir grunted.   “You don’t seem to have the usual extreme awkwardness around kits that your gender seems to have.”

            “Kits are people, oun D’jir.”

            The priests hissed with amusement.

            oun D’jir kept his cool gaze on him and said nothing, merely released the second kit.  This one was more rambunctious.   It crawled to aun Sjir’phal’s arm and attempted to crawl up his arm to access his mane.  aun Sjir’phal was proud of his mane, and he didn’t want to lose a handful to a grabby kit.  So, he took the little one and set him on his lap.

            oun D’jir was studying him closely, which made his tail puff out.  Thankfully, his tail was hidden under the bedcothes.

            “Will you help me name him?” the High Priest asked.

            “Ye,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  As if I have a choice.

            oun D’jir arranged the folds of his robes.  “I know it is breaking tradition, to give them names before their gender is determined, but…”  His tail wrapped tightly around his waist.  “New world; new traditions.”

            The stillness thickened in the hut and the three pair of adult eyes would not look away from aun Sjir’phal.  On the earthen floor, the kits scrabbled, small balls of fur with amusing hisses, their tails puffed with their emotions.  Two chased each other, their chubby little legs awkward, stuttering.  Most of the time they fell unto their hands and feet and continued the chase at a crawl.  One had fallen asleep in his lap.  He picked up the kit’s right hand and examined the sharp, black claws.  It was a perfect duplicate of an adult’s hand.  The same could be said of the tiny feet.  The palms and soles of their hands and feet had not gotten a chance to thicken as yet.

            “Well?” oun D’jir demanded.  “Will you help me name them?”

            “It is not an aun Deuil’s place to do this,” he told the High Priest.

            “And yet the God visited you,” oun D’jir spat.  “And I will not gainsay the God!  Name the blasted kits!”

            One of the little ones startled and began to mewl in distress.  aun Sjir’phal picked him up and bounced him gently to calm him.

            He glanced at oun D’jir, who seemed angry still.

            “I don’t see why you are angry,” he stated rather plaintively.  “It’s not like I asked for this.”

            “And that is why I am angry!” the High Priest retorted.

            The other two priests shifted where they sat and dropped their gazes.

            “Forgive me, oun D’jir,” aun Sjir’phal said.

            oun D’jir sighed and shook his head.  “Just name the kits.”

            He looked at the kits around him and he thought of names and their meanings.

            The little one asleep on his lap was quite docile, he thought.   He caressed a sturdy little arm.  The kit did not even stir.

            “This one is Osoh’l.”

            The one that was hissing and posturing to the other already was clearly a warrior, regardless of gender.

            “That one is Perisan.”

            “And this one?” one of the priests asked.

            “That one startles easily.  He is called Lis’lahn.”

            “That one there, he is always chased and never turns to fight.  He is Banem.”

            oun D’jir watched him.

            “This one keeps himself apart from the others, although he is part of them.  He is Karu’em.”

            “And the last one?” the other priest asked.

            “This one is Tholes, because he observes everything with great attention.”

            The three priests repeated the kits’ names over and over until they had memorized the names.  They rose as one.

            “Now I must record their names in our Holy Book.  They were the first kits born to us and were a direct miracle from our God.”

            They  gathered the kits once more and headed towards the door.

            At the door, oun D’jir turned to face aun Sjir’phal.  “Thank you, aun Deuil.  I will come at sunset to give you the appropriate herbs to induce a vision. I hope you survive.”

***

            The hours crawled.  Most of the time, aun Sjir’phal paced.  He still felt weak, exhausted.  His shoulder wound throbbed and smelled off somehow.  Knowing the High Priest, the wound would be reopened, drained and cauterized.  He did not look forward to that. But first things first.  If he died during the vision, then the wound would not matter.  

            As the sun set in the west and long fingers of sharp colors filled the sky, oun D’jir and his assistant, oun Shamisj, entered the hut without asking permission.  They had a busy air about them as they hurried inside with two trays and two buckets made of wood.  They set the trays down against one curving wall of the hut near aun Sjir’phal’s pallet and the buckets against the opposite wall.

            oun D’jir turned to him.  “We have an emetic tea and a tea to clean your intestines.  You are to drink plenty of water.  Drink one cup of tea from this tray and one from the other tray.  You will continue to drink the tea until nothing remains inside of you.  Clear?”

            aun Sjir’phal bowed.

            oun D’jir inclined his head.  “When I return, I will bring the tea that induces visions.  Do you have questions?”

            “Ne,” aun Sjir’phal repied and watched them leave as hurriedly as they had arrived.

            He drank the emetic tea without tasting it, but when he set the cut down with a thud, he almost threw up the tea.  The need to vomit passed as the tea’s horrible taste faded from his tongue.  Then he drank the tea to empty the intestines.  That one was not unpleasant but was extremely salty.  He reached for the decanter of water and drank two cups.  Then he went to sit on his pallet.  He sat cross legged with his back to the curved wall and closed his eyes.  

            For the first time that he could remember, he uttered a sincere prayer to Ie’teina.  For bringing them to this planet, which they had christened “Ahn’desu”; for encountering aliens with compassion; for losing the bloodthirsty God they had worshipped for eons; for finding a firm, yet compassionate God.  He gave thanks that his many of his people had survived.  The Sha’jeen had been given a second chance.  He was grateful for that.

            Then the teas began to work so he could not pray any longer.  

            The hours that followed would make him wish he never saw the God again, even if it was blasphemy.   Hurrying to kneel before one of the buckets, he grasped the lip of the bucket and opened his mouth to release the meager contents of his stomach.  The vomit came in a strong, fetid stream and hit the inside of the bucket with a loud thud.  A bitter taste remained  Then the intestines wished to be emptied.  At the end of that, the small hut reeked, despite the airing hole in the ceiling and the smoke from the firepit.  He stumbled to the door and pushed it open to allow fresh air into the hut. He was trembling and his eyesight was darkening.  After a few minutes, he stumbled to his pallet and lay down.  But minutes later, he was purging once more.  By the time oun D’jir returned, aun Sjir’phal lay on his pallet, dozing.    

            “Wake!” the damned High Priest demanded.  “Your vision will start at midnight. Come. Sit up.”

            aun Sjir’phal obeyed before he was even aware.  

            oun D’jir handed him a cup of water and watched him drink it.

            The  High Priest sat cross legged before him.  “I will hand you three leaves of the Xes’xen.  You will take one at a time and chew it until it is a paste in your mouth.  Afterward, you will swallow it.  If a vision does not result within the hour, you must take the second leaf and chew it in the same manner.  And so on.  You must never take more than three at a time.  Here.”

            The leaf was thick, waxy and a deep green.  He put the leaf in his mouth and began to chew it.  The taste was oily and slightly rotten.  It took all his will to keep from gagging.

            oun D’jir steadily watched him.

            He made himself chew the foul leaf until it was a slimy paste in his mouth.  Afterward, he closed his eyes and used his all his effort to swallow it.  It went down like meat that had gone bad.  He was not sure afterward how he managed not to throw up.

            “Lie down now,” oun D’jir murmured.

            aun Sjir’phaj lay down, hands crossed over chest and closed his eyes.

            “Listen to me,” oun D’jir said with some kindness.  “I will guide you.”

            aun Sjir’phal struggled to remain awake, but his eyes would not open.  A most unpleasant cramp gripped his groin and he struggled to rise, for he thought he would empty his intestines again.  But the feeling passed as swiftly as it had come on.

            “You will allow the Xes’xen leaf to transport you,” oun D’jir said softly.  “You will lie there and take in the visions the God sends you.  You are honored, aun Sjir’phal, for the God has chosen you.  Watch the darkness behind your eyes and see what can be seen.  I will remain with you tonight.”

            aun Sjir’phal said nothing.  The unpleasant taste in his mouth was a constant reminder of why the priest was here and what could happen.  Could he lie about a vision, in order to not eat another leaf of the pukra plant?  He was not sure he could swallow another leaf and not throw up.  

            Time passed.  He could hear oun D’jir shifting and standing, walking around the hut and then sitting down again.

            As he lay there, aun Sjir’phal no longer felt the pallet beneath him.  His body felt like a boulder.  His lungs were reluctant to fill with air and he gasped.  Soon after this, he realized it was not the pallet he could not feel.  He could not feel his body.  Despite weighing a ton, his body felt like it was beginning to dissolve.  aun Sjir’phal fought to awaken, to move before his body liquefied, but his efforts came to naught.  He fell through the pallet and he opened his eyes.  His naked limbs flayed as he fell through space that was numbingly cold.  Hoarfrost clung to the tip of his fur.  Each breath was a frozen knife through his lungs.  He coughed and blood drops spilled from his mouth and clung to the sluggish air.

            He looked around him but the air, the space, beyond an arm’s length was pitch black.   He opened his mouth to scream for it seemed that he could feel the ground rising up below him.  His breath and voice froze in his throat.  He could feel a scream building in his lungs.  It shoved its way up his chest to his windpipe.  It came up his throat like a ball of fire.  It was out of his mouth, burning his tongue as it went, and spilled out into the inky darkness.  And, suddenly, aun Sjir’phal was kneeling on a grassy knoll.  Around him, a strange world.   Trees with straight limbs and dropping leaves.  The grass was a color he could not name.  In the distance, a river meandered through an empty plain.  Overhead, most of the sky was swallowed by a giant planet.  It had glittering rings around it.

            “Do you not have a collective memory of your planet of origin?”

            aun Sjir’phal whipped around.

            A being stood there.  It was like Ariahl and Mariel of the Sentinels in appearance.  There were two bumps on its chest and it was slender and smallish.  Its mane was long to its lower back.  Its face was cocked and watched him not unkindly.  On one hand it held a bright golden pike.  On the other, it held a shield.

            He bent his head.  “God.  I praise you.”

            When he looked up again, it had cocked its handsome head to the other side.

            “I am Atana,” it said.  “I will be referred to as Atana.  I am a Goddess.  Refer to me as such, for I represent creativity. The world you came to do mischief in is mine. That is the god of your ancient world.”

            The God pointed with the pike and an animal like the one who had attacked aun Sjir’phal in the jungle padded up the rise of land.  It was catlike, like the ancestors of the Sha’jeen, and black and there was a wound on its neck and steadily seeped ichor.

            “I wounded the God!” aun Sjir’phal gasped.

            “He is well,” Atana murmured.  “That is Thul’ta’h’duk.  The God you left a long time ago.  He has followed you here.”

            Thul’ta’h’duk padded to where aun Sjir’phal stood and sniffled his mane and throat, rumbling deep in his throat.

            aun Sjir’phal reached up and grasped the God’s mane.

            “I am sorry, God. I am sorry we left you behind!”

            Thul’ta’h’duk rumbled and pulled away, padding to where Atana stood.

            “You will worship both of us, aun Sjir’phal.  Those of your people who give birth will worship me.  Those who give their sperm to make a kit will worship Thul’ta’h’duk.  I am a merciful Goddess.  I could not turn away the God that has followed you through millenia.  And the other God- the dual-faced one – has come into my space as well. He is weak now, but a time will come when here will be a great battle.  Darkness knows deception.  I fear the ones he will take to his bosom on this world.  Now, aun Sjir’phal.  Listen well and take these words to your people:

            “There will be a priest for the oun Shi’ehl and one for the aun Deuil.

             Each God has a holy day.

             You must pray twice a day:  when you rise and just before you lay down to sleep.

             In your homes, you will build an altar to your God.          

             On the altar put things that will please your God.

             Remember what I have told you.”

             aun Sjir’phal bowed.  “Ye, God.”

             The God thumped the pike on the ground.  “You will return now.”

             aun Sjir’phal’s eyes rolled towards the back of his head.  

***

             oun D’jir hissed with distress.  “Hold him!”

             oun Shamisj and oun Belihe held aun Sjir’phal down as he thrashed about violently, foamy spittle spilling from his mouth.

             “What is this?” oun Belihe gasped.

             “A fit,” oun D’jir said.  “It sometimes happens when we consume that Xes’xen leaf.”

             There was now a tinge of blood to the spittle on aun Sjir’phal’s mouth.

             oun D’jir released an explosive sigh.

             Outside, it had begun to rain.  The noises of their village quieted as the rain gained strength.

             “Let him go,” oun D’jir told his priests.  “Turn him on his side.”

             His priests did as he asked then oun D’jir sat at aun Sjir’phal’s back and placed his hand on the aun Deuil’s head.  He closed his eyes and prayed.  He heard the other priests praying as well.

             “Ie’teina,” oun D’jir murmured.  “Great God of this world…please do not take him from me.  There are moments when I wish to kill him, yes, but don’t take him from me.  I feel he has a great lesson to teach us, from your mouth to our ears.  He is God-touched and holy, no matter how much he fights it.  Please forgive him, Ie’teina, and let him live.”

             When he opened his eyes, aun Sjir’phal lay on his side, watching the wall with vacant eyes.  oun D’jir’s heart gave a painful lurch.  

             He rose and picked up the the bedclothes he had gifted aun Sjir’phal and draped them over him.  The large aun Deuil was trembling, although the night was barely cool.  The smell of wet earth flooded the hut as oun Shamisj pulled the door cover to one side.  The young priests stood gazing out at the early morning.

             oun Belihe sat close, eyes closed, mouth moving soundlessly.

             “I have chosen well,” oun D’jir murmured and turned back to aun Sjir’phal.

             The aun Deuil had closed his eyes and now slept peacefully.

             oun D’jir would remain here while the aun Deuil recouperated.  He himself needed to eat and drink.

             He rose and knelt before oun Belihe.  He touched the priest’s shoulder.

             The young priest opened his eyes.

             “Bring me food, oun Belihe.  And fresh water.”

             The priest rose and bowed.  “At once, High Priest.”

             Both priests rushed out into the rainy day.

             “I have to impart words from the Goddess,” aun Sjir’phal murmured, eyes still closed.

             oun D’jir started.  He rose and knelt by the pallet.  “Please – tell me.”

             “Firstly, Ie’teina is called Atana.  Atana is a Goddess, not a God.  Whatever that means.  We should address Atana as such.”

             oun D’jir clasped his hands before him.  “The Sentinel Ariahl explained that to me.  It is the female form.  It means Atana can bear young as well.”

             aun Sjir’phal frowned, his eyes closed.  “What sense does that make?  Why should a God give birth?”

             “The Goddess gave birth to this world,” oun D’jir stated with wonder.  “oun Atana gave birth to this world.”

             “Help me up.”

             oun D’jir assisted aun Sjir’phal to sit.

             aun Sjir’phal leaned against the wall.  His body was trembling still.  He gazed at oun D’jir with large, luminous eyes and repeated everything that was told to him by the Goddess.

             oun D’jir nodded, hands clasped on his lap.  “We will build altars in every home.  We will pray twice a day before those altars.  We will placed objects upon each altar to please the Goddess and God.  We will come up with holy days several times a year to pray in unison.”  He cocked his head and looked at aun Sjir’phal.  “Tell  me about Thul’ta’h’duk.”

             “He is as an ancestor, a catlike being.”  He lowered his voice.  “I do not think He is as powerful as Atana, but this is not His world.”

             “We will revere him nonetheless.  And the other thing she told you,” oun D’jir said.  “The thing about the Dual-Faced god?”

             “There will be a great battle in the future where things will be decided.”  aun Sjir’phal reached for the cup of water and drained it.  “Let us hope things are decided on the side of good.”

             oun D’jir bristled.  “I have no doubt the Dual-Faced god will die!”

             “I don’t think gods can die, oun D’jir.  They are driven away or dissipate into the greater universe.”

             “Oh and you are an expert now,” oun D’jir sneered.

             “No,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  “But if I am going to be Thul’ta’h’duk’s priest, then I must keep an open mind.”

             oun D’jir made himself larger.  “Will we be at odds?”

             “We can learn from each other,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  “We can lean on each other.  After all, we will be mated.  I know nothing about being a priest, but I have striven to keep an open mind always, oun D’jir.”

             oun D’jir’s tail puffed up.

             “Stop,” aun Sjir’phal said then.  “I want us to be allies not enemies.  If you can’t learn new things, what business have you being a priest?”

             oun D’jir rose up smoothly.  “Excuse me.”

             He walked blindly into the morning and walked to his hut by instinct.  Once there, he leaned against the outside wall just right of the door.  From here, he could hear the mewls and hisses of his kits.  Slowly, his eyesight returned.  

             “High Priest!” oun Shamisj said.  “I was just about to bring your food.”

             “Take it to the aun Sjir’phal,” he replied wearily and stepped into the hut.

             There was so much to do, he thought as his gaze took in the tumbling kits and the four other priests sitting in a circle around them.

             There was salted, smoked meat hanging from the rafters by thick cords.  He went and cut a piece down and began to eat it.  The flavor was of this jungle, this continent, this world.  The very air.  He looked down at his hand where the thick slice of meat lay.  He brought it to his mouth and continued to eat.

             “Are you well, High Priest?” oun Satishe asked.  

             oun D’jir looked at him.  oun Satishe was a beautiful oun Shi’ehl.  His bright amber eyes held every emotion he felt and were filled with compassion and wonder.

             oun D’jir felt humbled.  He had forgotten how to be a kit, to have those qualities that made a good priest.

             “Wonder and compassion, oun Satishe,” he murmured, cupping the other’s cheek.  “We must not forget wonder and compassion.”

             He wrapped his arm around oun Satishe’s arm.  “Come with me, oun Satishe.  Let us speak to oun Sjir’phal together. Don’t allow me to get defense, please.  I have a terrible temper.”

             oun Satishe hissed his laughter.  “Only when it comes to aun Sjir’phal, High Priest.”

Chapter XIV: Viper

            Ariahl led the exploratory team back to home base the next day.  

            As they walked single file up the incline from the river to the jungle, Toyus brought up the rear.  He kept looking over his shoulder.  It was like a frigid wind rifled his fur and made it stand on end.  The sensation of being watched had intensified during the night.  Sometimes, he listened so intensely, he thought he heard footfalls behind him, but when he looked, he saw nothing and no one.  By the time they made it to the beach where the rest of their people were congregated, he felt like he was jumping out of his skin.  

            Some of their people ran to them when they cleared the jungle, peppering them with questions. The children ran in circles around them, shouting and laughing.  Toyus picked up more than one child and threw him or her into the air.  The act always seemed to surprise and elate the children. As he played with the children, Ariahl spoke to the adults.  

            The rest of the exploratory team stood at Toyus’ back.

            Ariahl finished talking with the adults and made her way to the team once more.  “You can all go and see your families now.  Toyus and I will speak to the Council.”

            Toyus set a child down and rifled his hair.  The cherub took off after his friends.

            “You still feel like you are being stalked?” Ariahl asked softly.

            “Good word–stalked.  And yes.  But I think it’s us.  We were being stalked, not just me.”

            “Of course.”

            The other Sentinels were gathered at the shuttle.

            Ariahl turned to Toyus.  “Let me speak with them a moment.  I’ll meet you at the Council fire.”

            As he made his way to the Council fire, Toyus gazed at the pounding surf.  The skies over the horizon were dark with the promise of a storm.  The air was cool and tangy with the scent of the sea.  The Council was waiting for him.

            Missus Setina took a step forward and clasped her hands before her.  “You are back, Toyus.  What did you see?”

            Toyus stopped before them.  “Please sit.”

            They sat down and he knelt before them.  “We found an abandoned city near a river.  At the back of the city there are overgrown orchards.  The orchard has to be cleared off, the wooden walls should be rebuilt, but otherwise I think it would suit us.  The homes are stone.  All we have to do is clean them out.  The most important thing is the river.  From here, the river is several hours away.  From there, it is mere feet.  The City is on a rise of land, if you are wondering what would happen if the river overflowed.”

            Mister Yusten shifted.  “But why was the city abandoned?”

            “We might be able to find out once there.”

            Missus Alita sighed.  “What are you asking us, Toyus?”

            “I think we should move our people to the abandoned city, Missus.  It would take a long time to build a village here and fresh water would always be a challenge.  We have a ready-made village in the interior.”

            “But the jungle might be dangerous,” Mister Somar protested.

            Toyus inclined his head.  “Yes.  It might be, but whatever can get us there, can get us here.  The beach is no protection.”

            Mister Omir shifted.  “What do the Sentinels say?”

            “You should head inland,” Sentinel Mariel replied as she walked up.  The rest of the Sentinels were at her back.

            The Council arose as one.

            Mariel smiled at them.  “Toyus is correct.  You can’t hide here.  Anything dangerous will find you here.  At least in the abandoned city, you have a wall to protect you.”

            Missus Setina indicated the fire.  “Please, all of you, sit.”

            The Sentinels sat and then the Council sat.  Toyus knelt on the soft white sand next to Sentinel Sol.

            Sentinel Derik leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees.  “Look.  What are the positive things about moving inland?”

            “Access to fresh water,” Toyus said.  “Better protection.  Ready-made homes. An orchard.”

            Derik nodded.  “And the negative things?”        

            Mister Omir punctured the air with a finger.  “What if it is not abandoned?”

            Sentinel Ariahl shook her head.  “It’s abandoned.  Believe me.  It had the look of being abandoned.”

            Missus Alita arranged her skirts around her.  “But why was it abandoned?”

            Sentinel Ariahl frowned.  “We can’t know that.  All we can know is that it is a sturdy city in need of inhabitants.”

            “We should speak to the people,” Mister Somar offered.

            Mariel shook her head.  “They voted you in because they trusted you to make good choices.  You are bound to make mistakes, but you can’t be intimidated by the thought of making a mistake.”

            Mister Somar stiffened and dropped his gaze.

            Missus Setina sighed.  “We will vote.  There are thirteen, counting the Sentinels.  That means there will be a tie breaker.  Shall me?  Mister Yusten.”

            “I say no.”

            “Missus Alita.”

            “Yes.”

            “Mister Somar.”

            “No.”

            “Mister Omir.”

            “No.”

            “Toyus?”

            “Yes.”

            “I vote yes.  Now, that’s a tie.  What do the Sentinels collectively vote?”    

            Derik shook his head.  “We vote yes.”

            Missus Setina sat up straighter.  “Then we’ll transport our people into the City tomorrow, and we will clean up the site for our use.”

            “I would like to go on record as a protester,” Mister Yusten growled.

            “So noted,” Missus Setina replied.  She rose.  “I will speak to the people.  Toyus?  Accompany me, please.”

            They walked a few feet and she asked, quietly.  “This is a good idea?  Please tell me this is a good idea.”

            He nodded.  “It will work well, Missus.  You’ll see.”

            She sighed.  “I hope so.”

***

            That night, Toyus lay on his pallet under the large fronds of two trees  while the sky disgorged rain upon the beach.  He could see the smoke rising up from the pits were the people’s fires were doused by the rain.  The smell of smoke threaded through the fresh scent of rain and the briny sea. The ocean was a vast churning darkness, but he could hear its ire as it pounded the beach.  Only when lightning crackled across the skies could he see.  Even his superior vision meant nothing in this absolute inkiness.

            “Toyus!”

            Toyus sat up.  “Here, Ereali!”

            The young man ran towards Toyus’ voice, nearly colliding with him.

            “Lost track of time,” he told Toyus.

            “Sit, Ereali.  You’re soaking wet!”

            “I’m taking off this tunic!”

            Toyus heard the rustle of clothes behind removed and then Ereali was sitting down next to Toyus.

            “Where’d you go?”  Toyus asked him.

            “I don’t always want to be underfoot around you, Toyus.”

            Toyus slid his arm around Ereali’s shoulders.  His fur was damp and smelled musky.  “You are not.  We agreed we were going to be friends.  Was I wrong?”

            Ereali shifted.  “I’ve never had a friend.  I don’t know how to behave.”

            “You’re doing fine.”

            They sat in silence and watched the light show across, under and over the clouds.  Sometimes Toyus could feel Ereali gazing his way.  They could hardly hold a conversation in the roar of thunder and crackle of lightning, so Toyus left him alone.  

            The storm passed after several hours.  It left behind fronds and leaves and small tree limbs littering the beach.  The moon came out afterward.  Her light made the inky sea look oily and sluggish.  

            The waves still rushed the shore but not as ferociously as it had before.  Some ragged clouds sailed past and the dark sky was peppered with stars.

            “I have something to tell you, Toyus.”

            Toyus turned to his friend.  His silver and blue down looked bright under the moon’s cold light.   His eyes looked silver.

            “Go on then, Ereali.”

            The young man swallowed audibly.  “I….I–uh…”

            Toyus cocked his head.  “You can tell me anything, Ereali.  I won’t judge you.”

            Ereali looked at him then ducked his head.  “Never mind.”

            “No!  None of this never mind.”  He put his hand on Ereali’s shoulder.  “Tell me.  I’m intrigued.”

            “Do you know why I ended up in the underground city?” Ereali asked.

            “I don’t.”

            “I told my parents when I was twelve that I am atoliy,” he said quiety.  “My father threw me out of the house and told me to fend for myself.”

            Toyus swallowed.  He tried to imagine what it would be like to be a twelve-year-old surviving among criminals and other unsavory types.

            “I’m sorry that happened to you,” Toyus told him.

            Ereali shrugged and dropped his gaze.  “I never told another soul, save you.”

            “I am honored, Ereali.  Honored that you confided in me.  It makes no difference to me that you are atoliy.”

            “But you’re not.”

            Toyus dropped his hand.  He cocked his head.  “I’ve never thought of it.  I’ve never been drawn to relationships or love.  I suppose, had none of this happened, I would have married a girl mother picked out for me.”

            Ereali considered him closely.  “That is remarkable.  And you’ve never wondered?”

            “I just assumed I was domeinsji.”  He shrugged.  “But I really don’t think about sex.  I suppose I love people, but it never goes past that.”

            Ereali sighed.  “Shame.”

            Toyus chuckled.  “There was one of the Sentinels I became overly attached to. I suppose you can say I developed an infatuation, but that is long gone.”

            Ereali turned to face him.  “Which Sentinel?”

            “Don’t repeat this.”

            “You wound me!”

            “Alright.  It was Sol.”

            Ereali considered this.  “He looks like a R’Nonayan.  He’s beautiful.  You have excellent taste.”

            Ereali seemed to deflate.

            “Ereali,” Toyus murmured.  “He’s an acquaintance.  You’re my friend.  See the difference?

            “Yes,” in a small voice.

            “Look.  Most people you come across won’t be atoliy.  You have to get used to disappointment, my friend.”

            “But you’ll choose a wife, eventually?”

            “Probably not.  You’ll live in my household and we will go from there.”

            Ereali nodded.  “I would like that.”

            Ereali rolled out his pallet and accompanying sheets and they lay down side by side.  Toyus lay with his hands beneath his head, studying the moon and the stars.  Beside him, Erealil’s breathing evened out and slowed.  He turned his head to watch the other sleep.  He had long lashes and a beatiful downy fur of blue and silver.  His mane was blue, and his features were attractive:  He had high cheekbones and full lips.  It would be a lie not to find Ereali attractive.  Yet why did I lie? He shook his head at his own stupidity.  

            He heard a footfall close to them just then and he smoothly came up on a knee, reaching for his dagger.

            “I wouldn’t if I were you,” cautioned a sibilant voice.

            A shadow detached itself from behind the trunk of a tree and walked onto the sand.  In his hand was a weapon of some sort.  It was triangular in shape, smooth and black, with blinking lights.  The Sha’jeen’s hand was inside the back of it.  The creature’s fur and mane seemed silver in the moon’s light.  His eyes flashed every time he looked around.  His mane was matted and limp with oil.  The robes he wore were worn and torn and smelled strongly of the creature’s musk.

            “Like it?” the Sha’jeen asked, holding the weapon in the air.  “I stole it from their shuttle.  Took me a while to figure it out.  Stand.  Up.”

            Toyus stood up slowly.

            The Sha’jeen made a motion that Toyus should precede him into the jungle.  Toyus did as he asked.  He tried not to walk to fast or too slow.

            “Stop here.  Turn around.”

            Toyus complied.  

            “What do you call yourselves?” the Sha’jeen asked.

            “Amalgamese.”

            The Sha’jeen cocked his head.  “Really? Clever.”

            “What do you want?”    

            “I want a new people, a new home,” the other replied.  “Sha’jeen do not do well alone.  I already feel the fraying of my sanity.”

            “This is how you want to join our village?  With a weapon?”

            The Sha’jeen waved his weapon around.  “You will listen.  I will harm no one, but I must be sure.”

            “Why are you not in the Sha’jeen village?  Wait.  That’s millions of miles away!”

            “I came down river for months.”

            “That doesn’t answer my question.”

            The Sha’jeen lowered his gun.  “I murdered someone.”

            Toyus’ hairs stood on end.  “But–“

            “I won’t murder anyone here.  I no longer believe in that god.  I believe in Ietenna!”

            “Her name is Atana.”

            The Sha’jeen cocked his head.  “A-ta-na?”

            “That is correct.  There is a Sha’jeen already here.  oun Nilja.”

            The Sha’jeen hissed.  “The little pukra.”

            “I don’t know what that means, but he is a part of this community.”

            “I am oun Ei’dhar.  I was a member of the Council of Sha’j before my unbelievably stupid mistake.”

            Toyus rubbed his face with both hands.  “oun Ei’dhar.  We will go to the Council and I will plead for you.  But if you kill anyone here, I will kill you myself.”

            oun Ei’dhar slid the weapon into the folds of his robes.

            “I give you my word, I will kill no one,” he said somberly.

            “Then return that weapon to the Sentinels,” Toyus challenged.

            “Not until I am accepted into this colony.”  He indicated behind him.  “Let’s return now and you will speak to your leaders.”

             The night was old but still far from over.  Toyus balked at waking everyone.

            “They will know something is wrong if I wake them this early,” he told the Sha’jeen.

            oun Ei’dhar considered this, ears flicking at every sound, eyes sharp.  “Very well.  We shall wait until it is morning.”

            “Thank you,” Toyus murmured.

            oun Ei’dhar bowed.  “No, thank you–what is your name?”

            “Toyus.”

            “No appellation?  How strange. Can you give birth?”

            “No.”

            “Pity.  You are interesting-looking.  I will call you aun Toyus.”

            They walked in silence, Toyus in front, oun Ei’dhar behind him holding the weapon in the open once more.  They made it as far as Toyus’ pallet and managed not to alert the periphery guards. oun Ei’dhar melted back into the jungle, but Toyus could feel him watching.  There was a cold intelligence behind oun Ei’dhar’s polite mien.  There was calculation in his eyes.  Toyus sat down on his pallet and looked over at Ereali.  The youth was deeply asleep.  Toyus kept vigil over him.

            When morning came, it was cool and fresh after the previous night’s storm.  Soft light touched the horizon and people began to stir.  A child cried and was quickly hushed.  Today they would be heading inland in groups, so people were gathering their belongings and making a queue near the shuttle.  People walked in groups or singly.  They spoke in quiet voices.

            Toyus saw that the Council firepit was crackling with a new fire. He rose and made his way there.  As he walked, he considered which of the Councilors he could trust with this.  His mind went directly to Missus Setina, the most levelheaded of them all.

            “Ah! Toyus!”  Mister Somar hailed.  “Welcome!  Join us for some breakfast.”

            “Thank you,” he said.  “Missus Setina.  May I speak with you about a personal matter.”

            Her eyebrows arched but she nodded and followed him away from the firepit.

            “Last night,” he told her without preamble.  “A Sha’jeen pulled a weapon he stole from the shuttle and took me into the jungle.  He wants to be part of our village.”

            “What are you not telling me?”

            Toyus sighed.  “He committed murder, which I think is why he has been exiled from the Sha’jeen village.”

            She sucked a breath and released it.  “Oh dear.  Well, we can hear what he has to say on the matter, and we can decide as a Council whether he can remain.  There is already another Sha’jeen here. Perhaps we can ask his opinion.”

            “I will fetch oun Nilja,” Toyus told her.

            He ran towards the shuttle.  He found oun Nilja playing with some children.  One of the tikes was straddling oun Nilja’s back and oun Nilja was acting like beast of burden.  The child clung to the Sha’jeen’s robes and shrieked with glee.

            “oun Nilja,” Toyus greeted him.

            oun Nilja rose carefully so the child could dismount.  “Ye, aun Toyus?”

            “I need to speak to you over at the Council fire.”

            He bowed, eyes bright with curiosity.

            The Councilors had been apprised of the situation if one were to go by their varying expressions.  Mister Yusten’s scowl was offputting.  It clung to his grim face, aging the 30-something man at least a decade.

            “Thank you for fetching oun Nilja, Toyus,” Missus Setina murmured.  The morning light gave her black fur a silver sheen.

            “No problem, ma’am,” he replied and took a step back.

            Missus Setina turned to oun Nilja.   “You are a godsend, oun Nilja.  You are always polite and pleasant and joyous.  The children love you and the people trust you.  I  would have your opinion on a certain matter.”

            oun Nilja bowed.  

            Missus Setina turned to Toyus.  “Tell him.”

            Toyus told oun Nilja everything that had happened involving oun Ei’dhar.  He told the Sha’jeen oun Ei’dhar was armed and possibly dangerous and had killed already once already. 

            oun Nilja’s tail puffed.

            “I don’t know oun Ei’dhar very well,” oun Nilja replied.  “He came from another ark.  He is very conservative, unlike me.  But that is all I know about him.  I know he was part of the ruling council on this planet.  I don’t know why he would murder anyone.”

            “It was in self-defense.”

            They stiffened and turned.  oun Ei’dhar stood there, the weapon nowhere to be seen.  He made himself appear small, his ears swiveling at every sound.  He did not stare anyone in the eye.

            “Please tell us what happened,” Missus Setina urged.  “Please come to our firepit.”

            oun Nilja shared a look with Toyus.  Toyus could not read it, but he paid particularly close attention to oun Ei’dhar as he told his story.

            oun Ei’dhar wrung his hands as he talked.  “He attacked me – oun Tamos attacked me in the jungle. Followed me and attacked me with a knife.  I cut my hand when I took his knife from him.  See?”

            He held his hand, palm out, up.  Indeed, a long, jagged cut sliced diagonally across the palm.

            oun Nilja stepped forward.  “Why did he attack you?”

            Some emotion flickered in oun Ei’dhar’s eyes, too swift to decipher.  “Because the High Priest asked me – me – to care for the kits; to teach them.  oun Tamos wanted that role.  The kits are the future.”

            oun Nilja frowned.  “oun Tamos is a braggart, but -“

            “You dare question me, pukra!” oun Ei’dhar screeched.

            Missus Setina stepped forward.  “Enough!  If you cannot contain your emotions while we question you, how are we to arrive at the truth?”

            oun Ei’dhar bowed.  “Ye.  You are correct. Apologies, oun Nilja.”

            oun Nilja, ears flat and back, looked away.

            Missus Setina turned to oun Nilja.  “Is jealousy enough in your species to end in murder?”

            “Ye, I suppose,” oun NIlja replied quietly.  

            “Well,” she said.  “What are your thoughts?”

            “I don’t believe him,” oun Nilja stated flatly.  “oun Tamos was not that clever, to come up with a murder plan.  Truly, he didn’t have much initiative.”

            “But you can’t know for sure the story is true or false?” Missus Setina asked.

            oun Nilja inclined his head.

            Toyus looked at Missus Setina.  “Better to keep him here, where we can see him than leave him out there where he can create mischief against us.”

            Missus Setina straightened to her full height.  “Then I will vote for welcoming him.”

            It was no surprise that Mister Yusten was the most resistant to the idea of welcoming oun Ei’dhar.

            “I oppose this!” he stated.

            “It’s better to keep him within reach,” Missus Setina murmured.  “That way we can keep tabs on him.”

            “A viper is no less dangerous if we keep it in sight.”

            Mister Somar shook his head.  “But you can tell when it is about to strike. I vote yes.”

            The rest of the Council voted to welcome oun Ei’dhar.

            Once the vote had been tallied over Mister Yusten’s vehement protests, Missus Setina motioned for oun Ei’dhar to approach.

            “oun Ei’dhar,” she said with a smile.  “Welcome to City Amala.”

Chapter XIII: Visitation

            Pain.  At first, icy shivers along the nerve cells.  And then, an explosion of heat that scorched the eyes and parched the mouth.   All through those terrible hours, voices endlessly whispering like the breath of the world.  Wood creaked.  Cool dampness on the forehead.  All through this time, his shoulder shrieked and yowled like a wild ancestor.  He lay inert, his voice sometimes adding to the cacophony of ambient sounds.  Sometimes he screamed when the shoulder pain spiked.  Sometimes he moaned when the pain declined to something he could manage to breathe through.

            Time seeped through the crevices of his awareness, crackled through his sensate moments.  Many hours or many generations after the pain ensued, he pushed himself through layers of consciousness until he fell into himself within the quiet of a rainy day.  He opened his eyes.  Narrowing his eyes, he blinked against the light filtering in through the open window.  He could smell sickness and blood.  He sighed and looked about the room.

            The prayer hall.  Near the back of the prayer area the sick and dying were tended to.  He wondered which he was.  

            Pallets were arranged in three sets of two.  He was the only sick one there. He lay on the outer pallet in the middle row.  On the floor next to his bed was a glazed bowl filled with bloody water and a cloth.  Next to the bowl of bloody water was a decanter and a mug. There was a small, glazed incense holder with incense burning.  The sweet, green scent of herbs filled the large hut.  It was used, he guessed wearily, to mask the smell of sickness.  He lifted a  hand into the air, where it hung, trembling, its black claws gleaming in the light.  He dropped the hand and gazed at the congregation area near the front of the hall.  No one was there.

            He made to stand but he was weak as a newborn kit.  His throat and mouth were a desert.  His tongue felt swollen.

            Slowly events began to return to him:  the murder, the pursuit into the jungle, the encounter with the strange black beast.  He had touched it, plunged his dagger into the animal’s neck, and, still, he wondered if he had not dreamed it.  He shivered and grew overly warm again.  

            He heard the scrape of claws along the floorboards just outside the entrance to the prayer hall.  He turned his gaze up to see who entered.

            “Ah, you awaken,” oun D’jir murmured.

            “Thirsty,” he whispered.

            oun D’jir nodded and poured water from the decanter into the mug.  He sat at the edge of the pallet and fed aun Sjir’phal the water.

            aun Sjir’phal drank slowly until he could not drink anymore.  Then he turned his face away and oun D’jir set his head down.

            “What day is it?” aun Sjir’phal asked.

            “It has been ol-stok ehn olta,” the High Priest replied.

            aun Sjir’phal gasped.  “That cannot be!”

            oun D’jir huffed a soft laugh.  “I assure you, it is.  It has taken three oun Shi’ehli to pull you from the edge of your death.  Your shoulder wound infected.”

            aun Sjir’phal grunted.  “I thank you, for your assistance, High Priest.”

            oun D’jir snorted.  “We are beyond niceties, aun Sjir’phal.  I have scrubbed out your shoulder, drained it twice, washed it and sewed it, wrapped it in bandages and rebandaged it.  I have bathed your body many times and changed your bedclothes.  I believe we are married now.”

            aun Sjir’phal’s tail puffed out.

            oun D’jir noticed and snorted and patted him on the stomach.  “Don’t mind me, aun Deuil.  I am teasing you.”

            aun Sjir’phal swallowed.  “I would marry you, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun D’jir’s ears swiveled.

            “Can you stand, aun Sjir’phal?”  the High Priest asked.  “It would behoove you to stand.”

            “I tried,” he replied.  “Seems I need assistance.”

            oun D’jir sighed but nodded.  “Come.”

            The oun Shi’ehl pulled aun Sjir’phal’s arm over his shoulder.

            “Up!” oun D’jir said and the world tilted.  

            aun Sjir’phal parted his feet and panted.  He his stomach roiled.  He gazed down at himself and his tail puffed again.  He was as naked as the day he was born.  A glance at the oun Shi’ehl had him huffing with laughter.

            “I see what you mean that we are married,” he said, his tail round and fluffy with his embarrassment.

            oun D’jir nodded his head and began to drag him around the prayer hall until his legs grew steadier.  He began to pull his weight, placing one foot in front of the other.  oun D’jir led him several times around the prayer hall until he was panting with effort.  Then the High Priest led him back to the pallet, where he set him down.

            “Drink more water, aun Deuil.” oun D’jir murmured and handed him a mug.

            aun Sjir’phal emptied the mug and handed it back.

            “Now, we must talk,” oun D’jir said and sat cross legged across from him.  “You have left the village leaderless by your illness.  You must appoint a substitute.”

            “You,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  “You are the religious leader.”

            oun D’jir put up a hand.  “Let us not repeat the past.  I am content to shepherd the God’s people, but not politically.”

            aun Sjir’phal cocked his head.  “Then whom do you suggest?”

            oun D’jir sighed.  “I suggest you choose from those aun Deuili who led the rebellion on the arks.  We have four who survived:  aun P’ata’lyh, aun Pasia’h, aun Eristhos, aun Katoh’l.”

            “I know them all, though only two are friends.  The second two I know through inter-ark communication.”

            oun D’jir nodded.  “Then I would suggest you pick one who is not your friend.  If you do something, or intend something, that is not of value to the village, your friends might balk at opposing you.  But a stranger won’t.”

            “Yes, I see,” aun Sjir’phal said.   “Do you have a suggestion?”

            “aun Erithos is young and brave.  You will balance each other out.  He minds well and respect his elders.”

            aun Sjir’phal bowed.  “Then I bow to your wisdom, oun D’jir.”

            oun D’jir cocked his head.  “Now…about this encounter with a strange beast – I sent teams of aun Deuili to seek a carcass, but none found anything in the area aun P’ata’lyh said you encountered it.”

            “Perhaps it was eaten by scavengers,” he told the priest.

            “Except that you don’t believe that,” the priest retorted sharply.  “I think you encountered the God in one of his manifestations.  What was it trying to say to you?”

            aun Sjir’phal huffed with disbelief.  “I don’t know.  It merely lay down and looked at me.  You are telling me I stabbed the God!”

            “Calm yourself,” oun D’jir murmured.  “You didn’t see the God.  You saw a predator.”

            “I’m not so sure any of it happened.”

            oun D’jir cocked his head.  “The other two said it happened.  A great, black beast of great beauty, they said.  Like our ancestors.”

            aun Sjir’phal shook himself.  “And oun Ei’dhar?”

            “He will deal with the God also, in his own time,” the High Priest replied.  “Being without the People, the Sha’jeen…that is a worst fate than death.”

            aun Sjir’phal shivered.  “Ye.”  He took a deep, bracing breath.  “And the kits?”

            oun D’jir’s mouth quirked.  “Growing and strong, aun Deuil.  Will you unite with me in matrimony?”

            “I didn’t think you wanted me,” aun Sjir’phal said.

            oun D’jir huffed a laugh.  “That is before I realized you are God-touched.  I would have my future kits to be God-touched by both parents.”

            There was a commotion at the entrance to the prayer hall.

            aun Sjir’phal covered himself with his bedclothes.

            Five young oun Shi’ehli hurried in, the front youngster carried a tray.

            The smell of cooked meat hit aun Sjir’phal almost right away.  His mouth flooded with saliva.  He barely looked at the newcomers. The young leader handed oun D’jir the tray.

            oun D’jir set the tray on the floor.

            aun Sjir’phal swallowed the saliva in his mouth and took a few deep breaths.

            “Come,” oun D’jir said.  “Eat.”

            He handed aun Sjir’phal a bowel of meat.  It smelled wild, with a hint of grasses and grain.  

            He picked up a chunk and bit into it.  It tasted clean and healthy.  He took the health of the animal into his own body.  The meat was tender and sweet.  He ate until the bowl was empty.

            He handed it back to oun D’jir and bowed.

            “My gratitude, High Priest.”

            It was then he noticed the five recent arrivals were sitting at the High Priest’s back.  They were looking at him with curiosity, amusement and a trace of sexual hunger.  

            He shifted under their gazes.

            “We wish to know about the God,” one of the oun Shi’ehli said.  

            “Introduce yourself, oun Shi’ehl!” the High Priest said.

            The young oun Shi’ehl huffed a laugh.  “Pardon.  I am oun Shamisj, honored to have been the first chosen priest for the High Priest.”

            aun Sjir’phal ran his eyes over the beautiful youngster.  He smelled healthy and seemed strong.  

            “I didn’t know it was the God,” he told the young oun Shi’ehl.

            The oun Shi’ehli tittered.

            “I am oun Belihe,” said another.  “We know this.  Tell us how it looked.”

            “Tell us what it did!” another demanded.

            So aun Sjir’phal talked until weariness drove him to lie down and oun D’jir chased the others out.

            “I will be back, aun Sjir’phal,” the High Priest said.

            aun Sjir’phal watched as he picked the bowl of bloody water and left.

            In the wake of oun D’jir’s departure, aun Sjir’phal lay with his eyes closed.  The ambient sounds were like a song:  the popping and shifting of the prayer hall, the distant sounds of pounding as others continued to build their homes.  The patter of rain had thinned but it still added to the symphony of sounds.

            He heard the shift of a foot and thought oun D’jir had returned.  Then he smelled blood and his eyes flew open.

            There, not more than several feet from where he lay, stood the monster cat he had stabbed.  Even though he could smell blood, he saw none on the animal’s neck or fur.  The animal sat, front paws together, watching him with icy blue eyes.  Once in a while, one or both of the ears would flick or swivel.  

            aun Sjir’phal came up on an elbow.  The beast growled.

            “I would prostrate myself, my God,” aun Sjir’phal told the being.

            The animal flicked its left ear and cocked its head.  

            “You are the God,” aun Sjir’phal said and finished sitting up.

            The animal growled, showing inches-long yellow canines.  It rose onto all its paws and padded, head down, towards aun Sjir’phal.  aun Sjir’phal shivered and swallowed.  He made himself sit quietly as the animal walked around him.  It came close and snuffed along aun Sjir’phal’s mane.  

            aun Sjir’phal smelled it:  It was a strong, gamey odor with hints of mud and grasses.  He could feel the animal shuffing in his ear then rubbing the top of its head under aun Sjir’phal’s chin.

            After the beast was done, it returned to its place across from aun Sjir’phal.

            “Now what?” he asked it.

            The animal yawned and flattened its ears.

            “I don’t have the wisdom to decipher this vision,” aun Sjir’phal told the creature.  “I am a mere soldier.”

            The animal rose and walked to the door of the prayer hall.  It then walked up to the front of the hall where the High Priest and his priests sat during sermons.

            The animal gave a yowl and then it started lopping, and then running, towards aun Sjir’phal.  aun Sjir’phal did not even have the wherewithal to scream.  He watched helplessly as the beast barreled down upon him, leaping at the final moment and shrinking as it flew through the air until it was no larger than a weeks-old kit.  aun Sjir’phal prepared for the collision, but the animal seemed to dissolve into aun Sjir’phal.  Fire caught along the skin where the creature had entered him.  Suddenly, all aun Sjir’phal could smell was the jungle, the rain, the sawdust of the prayer hall.  He rose suddenly, blindly, his hands shaking violently.  The ambient sounds of the village seemed faraway.  His skin felt dry and tight against his bones.  The shaking grew worse until he fell backwards onto his back.  The back of his head cracked on the floor.

            He felt hands on him and urgent calls in a language he did not understand.  He was shivering so hard, his teeth were clacking in his mouth and he could taste blood.   Occasionally, the back of his head banged against the floor.  His anxiety seemed a tinny thing, a distant urgency.  Suddenly, all worries fell from him.  He saw strange bright colors beneath his eyelids.  He gasped at this.  The shaking stopped and he felt himself to be sprawled on the ground.  Slowly, the ambient noises grew louder, and he began to fall into himself once more.  He blinked against the bright afternoon sunlight.  Four oun Shi’ehli sat around him.  Their tails were puffed up and the whites of their eyes showed.  He could smell their distress – sour and musky at once.

            “aun Sjir’phal,” oun D’jir barked.  “What happened?”

            aun Sjir’phal glanced at each priest, gauging if they could be trusted.

            “Speak!” oun D’jir demanded.

            “Help me sit,” aun Sjir’phal murmured.  “Please.”

            It took the four smaller oun Shi’ehli to help him sit.  He scrunched his nose at the odor of sickness clinging to him.

            “The beast came to visit me again,” he told them.  “It…it ran at me and jumped into me and my body absorbed him.”

            In the ensuing shocked silence, the priests looked at each other, their eyes bright with questions.

            “Clarify,” one of the younger priests said.

            He huffed a laugh.  “Clarify?  Clarify what I do not pretend to understand?  With all due respect, how do you suppose I do that?”

            Their ears flattened.

            oun D’jir turned to him.  “The beast became part of you?  Is that why you were having a fit?”

            aun Sjir’phal stiffened.  “Fit?”

            “Just so,” oun D’jir replied.  “I will pray on this and see what the God gives me.  You get back to your pallet.”

            aun Sjir’phal rose, pulling the sheet around him.  “I am going to the watering hole to bathe.”

            oun D’jir’s ears flattened.  He glared at aun Sjir’phal.  “Very well.  Then you will allow oun Belihe and oun Kelzi to accompany you.  Won’t you?”

            aun Sjir’phal gazed into the High Priest’s eyes and the fight went out of him.  “Of course.”

            oun D’jir rose, arranging his robes around him.  “Very well.  Hurry then.  It is close to sunset.”

            Wrapping the sheet around him more securely, aun Sjir’phal followed the two youngsters into the bright afternoon.  Clouds filled the horizon with another storm.  aun Sjir’phal struggled to breathe the thick, soupy air.  The ocean as dark and still as glass.  They walked through the bustling village, garnering a few curious stares.  aun Sjir’phal met no one’s eyes.   He strode as quickly as his sick body would allow him.  His muscles still trembled and hot-cold shivers rushed along the nerve endings.  By the time they were in the jungle, he was leaning against trees, slowing down considerably.  Hundreds of Sha’jeen coming to and from the watering hole trampled the vegetation to the ground and allowed for a pathway.  It was slightly cooler under the jungle canopy, although the thick heat of the air did not lessen.  He was panting.  Every time he leaned against a tree, he wanted to fall at its feet and sleep and never wake.  But he pushed himself while the young priests chattered animatedly behind him.

            He made it to the watering hole, doffed the sheet and jumped into the icy green water.  He gasped in shock at the icy water.  He alighted to the bottom, watching the bubbles escaping from his nose and breaking on the surface.  The water was always cold, fed by cataracts that originated in a wide, deep river.  There was talk of building boats and traveling down the river to see how far they could go and what they could find.  

            His lungs were beginning to burn.  Pushing himself up from the mossy bottom, he broke the surface with a gasp.

            The priestlings were still gossiping, heads together, as they sat on a boulder at the edge of the pool.  He flicked an ear and turned away.

            Careful to reserve his energy, he swam to the opposite shore and then back.  His shoulder no longer hurt in the icy water. He pulled the bandage of and threw it to where his sheet lay on the mossy ground.

            The priestlings were done gossiping and were now watching him avidly, with flicking tails.  

            “Let us go back, aun Sjir’phal,” one of them called.

            He wanted to play with them, frighten them, take his time, but weariness was filling his muscles with warm sand.  He grunted and left the pool, reaching for the bandage, wringing it out, and then wrapping his sheet around his body.  He followed the priestlings mutely, leaning on trees along the path.  By the time they made it to the village, he was trembling violently and unsure he could make it back to the prayer hall.  The priestlings grew farther and farther away as aun Sjir’phal slowed down more and more.  The distance to the prayer hall seemed to double and then triple until he stood at the mouth of a long tunnel.  Finally, feet from the door into the prayer hall, he stopped.

            He could hear the voices of the people as they settled in for the night.  He smelled cooking fires and the strange smells of foods they now consumed.  After a time, he continued, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other.  

            Up ahead, oun D’jir stood at the door.  He stepped down to the ground, hurrying over and sliding his shoulder under aun Sjir’phal’s arm.  He pulled aun Sjir’phal along as if aun Sjir’phal was a kit.  aun Sjir’phal grunted in surprise.  They made it to the door and through it to the back of the prayer hall. oun D’jir led him to his pallet and helped him to sit.

            Another priest handed aun Sjir’phal a bowl of meat.  Despite a lack of appetite, he forced himself to eat.

            The priests sat around him as he ate.

            “You will undergo a guided vision,” oun D’jir told him.

            He huffed in amusement, wishing they would leave him alone. “I’m no priest.”        

            “Nevertheless,” oun D’jir replied.  “You will take the sacred herbs and you will undergo the process.  I will be here with you.”

            He bowed.  “Ye, High Priest.”

            “Oh–the herbs can send you a vision or they can kill you,” oun D’jir replied, watching him carefully.

            aun Sjir’phal looked into the clear blue eyes of the beautiful High Priest.  “As a soldier, I have always been prepared to die.”

            oun D’jir’s eyes widened and he inclined his head.  “In five days then, aun Sjir’phal.”

            aun Sjir’phal gave a nod.  “So be it.”

            He handed the half-empty bowl of meat to the nearest priest.  “If you will excuse me, I will rest now.”

            Muttering, they rose and vacated the prayer hall.  oun D’jir tarried.

            aun Sjir’phal looked at him steadily.

            “You have no fear?” the High Priest asked.

            “If I had fear, I would not be able to remain in the village as an aun Deuil.  Fear is my own weight to carry.”

            “You already speak as a priest.”

            “You sound impressed,” aun Sjir’phal pointed out and huffed his humor.

            oun D’jir shrugged.  “You have impressed me, ye.  I am merely mortal, aun Sjir’phal.”  He rose smoothly.  “What is to become of you if you have a vision.  There is no precedent.”

            It was then that aun Sjir’phal felt the first niggling of fear.

Chapter XII: The Ancient City

            Toyus stood under the canopy of trees and watched the rainfall just beyond the fronds.  He liked the patter of raindrops on the fronds and the cool breeze that swept past once in a while, licking at the sweat on his brow.  It was just a bit after dawn and the temperatures were already beginning to climb.  When the clouds overhead were pushed north, the rain stopped and blue skies showed.

            Behind him, Ariahl urged the team to rise and get ready to move before the day grew too warm and uncomfortable.  

            Toyus shivered.  He had had the strong sensation of being watched last night.  The sensation still lingered with him, making him wary and constantly run his gaze along the land and down the incline to the river.  He had been unable to eat anything, and he had been unable to sleep.  He had already confided his uncertainty to Ariahl.  Her solution was to keep moving.  Toyus wasn’t too sure, but he acquiesced to her superior skills.

            He bent and picked up his rolled pallet and travel bag.  

            Ereali trudged up with his rolled-up pallet and travel bag.

            “You did not sleep, did you?” Ereali asked.        

            Toyus sighed.  “No.”

            Ereali cocked his head.  “Is something wrong?  Are you ill?”

            Toyus shook his head.  “I’ve had the sensation that we are being observed by something or someone.”

            Ereali looked around him as if he would see for himself.  “Ah.  Did you tell the team leader?”

            Toyus nodded.  “She wants us moving, but she doesn’t seem overly concerned.”

            The others approached, led by Ariahl.

            “We are going to head down to the river and follow it northeast,” Ariahl told the team.  “Toyus has had the sensation that we are being observed, so keep your eyes open.  We haven’t seen predators as yet, but I am sure they exist.”

            The team looked at one another as Ariahl led them down the incline towards the river.  The roar of the river reached them long before they walked upon its shores.  It was a wide river with swift currents and large boulders rearing up from its depths.  In the future, when they travel upon it, they would have to be aware of the boulders along the way.  The river water was black as night and, when Toyus bent to scoop some into his mouth, he noted the mineral taste.

            As the day aged, the temperatures grew progressively warmer.  The sun rose until it glared down upon them, evaporating the water from the ground and creating a miasma of water vapor.  

            The team donned their light cloaks and pulled the hoods over their heads to keep the glare of the sun to a minimum.  

            Insects buzzed everywhere.    

            The banks of the river were stony.  It made for an uncomfortable walk, especially since the Amalgamese walked barefoot.  The walls of the canyon rose higher and closer together as the company continue to trudge northeast until they were forced to walk single file. The rock here was bare and black.  

            Overhead, the sides of the canyon jutted outward.  The river grew narrower, its shore gradually disappearing, until they walked at the lip of the water.  Toyus made Ereali walk ahead of him and kept an eye on their rear.  

            The river curved west after a time and with it curved the walls of the canyon.  

            Ariahl called for a midday rest under an overhang where they could rest and eat without the sun glaring down upon them.  There was nothing to be done about the humidity.

            Toyus helped Ereali distribute food among the team.  He took a seat at the edge of their gathering and kept a watch behind them and to the other side of the river.  

            The Sentinel allowed them one-hour rest before she urged the tired team to rise once more.  They filled their bladders with the river’s cold water before they recommenced their journey.  In time, the sides of the canyon dropped back, and the river widened once more.  The river moved at a much more sedate speed than it had previously.  The jungle cleared out a bit until they were walking through a lush grassy plane.  In the distance, they could see the skeletal ruins of a long-ago city.  They paused in awe at the heights of the buildings.  A barricade of thick vine covered a wall made of piled logs surrounding the dead city.  They headed towards.

            They walked through the open gates and  under a curving sign overgrown with vines.  The walls of the city rose at least ten feet into the air and the entrance was wide enough to allow all their group to enter as one.  Beyond the walls were buildings of black stone of different sizes.  In the middle of the small city rose a pyramid.  Hundreds of steps led to the top of the pyramid.  The stone was worn down by the elements.  The Sentinel told them the stone was aged at least 2,300 years.  In awe, the group gathered before the pyramid and Ariahl split them into six groups, leaving two to keep an eye on their surroundings.   They agreed to explore for no more than a couple of hours before they met up again at the base of the pyramid.

            Toyus led the first group.  In his group were Ereali and Otheno.  They headed up the stairs of the pyramid towards the top.  Toyus counted 480 steps total before they reached the top of the pyramid.  He estimated the pyramid was around 20 stories high. The top of the pyramid was not pointed, but flat and there was a stone table in the center.  He came to a stop just outside the opening to the pyramid and turned 360 degrees.  The jungle stretched far into the horizon in all directions.  He could see the canyon nearby and the proximity of the river.  

            “Where did the inhabitants get all this stone?” Ereali asked, wiping his fur with a hand.

            Toyus studied the distance.  “I don’t know.  Perhaps they mined the canyon.”

            “But that stone was different,” Ereali said.  “Softer.”

            “Huh,” Toyus replied.  He looked at his friend.  “I’m not sure, Ereali.”

            There was an opening carved into the floor near the table.   It was square and wide enough to just squeeze through.  They peered within into absolute darkness. 

            “We can get inside but we need torches,” Toyus murmured.  “We can make one from a piece of my tunic and a stick and some of my cooking oil.”

            Toyus descended, leaving the other two behind, and searched for a thick piece of wood. There was detritus around the edges of the city at the foot of the walls.  He found an adequate stick there, tore off a long piece of his tunic and, using some of his cooking oil, drenched the piece of cloth before heading back to the top of the pyramid. Once at the summit, he used his ca’ahl stones to light the torch on fire. 

            Toyus looked at his companions.  “Shall we?”

            Otheno looked unsure, but Ereali nodded enthusiastically.

            Toyus stepped down onto the stairwell and bent at the waist to avoid the low ceiling.  The walls to either side of the stairwell were decorated with bright splashes of color and figures carved into the black stone.  Toyus paused when he could straighten and ran his hands over the carvings on the walls.  The figures were realistic and drawn to scale.  There were figures of people and animals, plants and stones. It seemed the entirety of the inner walls of the pyramid were decorated so.  The air was oppressively still and dry as dust.  Toyus sighed at the absence of thick humidity and heat.

            They continued further into the inky darkness.   The light of the sputtering torch danced against the walls of the stairwell.  The shadows seemed to animate the carvings on the walls.  Above them, the ceiling fell away.  Strange insects crawled along the walls.  They gave off a cold light and filled the absolute darkness like stars in the night sky.  Finally, after a long time, they reached the base of the pyramid.  The space was cavernous.  The light of torch only reached a few feet around them.  They walked along the walls and noted the niches where vases of gold and silver stood silently.  Others were of glazed pottery.  Blocks of stones were positioned around in a semicircle near two huge stone doors that rose several feet into the air.  The tall doors had round handles of stained copper.  It took all three of them to open the doors.  

            A rush of fresh balmy air and sunlight rushed against them.  The rest of the team stood on the grounds nearby, talking animatedly.  Some held pottery in their hands and were gesticulating excitedly.

            Toyus and his two companions left the pyramid and approached the rest of the team.

            Ariahl looked at him.  “What’s in the pyramid?”

            “Gold, silver and pottery.  The walls are filled with exquisite carvings, what we could see.”

            She frowned.  “We might leave this as an excavation site, or we might bring the colony here.  There are huts of stone already built and a barricade keeping wild animals out. The buildings are not in disrepair.  What do you think, Toyus?”

            He looked around.  “That would be for the colony to decide.  Some won’t be strong enough to make it here, though, and we are too far from the sea to have access to its bounty.”

            “The river empties into the sea,” Ariahl offered.  “We could build boats to access the sea.  Also, we can use the shuttle to bring your colony here, if you decide to relocate.  You will be close to a source of fresh water and the river must have fish.”

            Toyus nodded.  “I will discuss it with the Council.”

            Ariahl looked at the dying light overhead.  “We need to camp here for the night before we strike out once more at sunrise.”

            Toyus returned to the pyramid and walked around the inside of its base to study the carvings on the walls.  Some of the carvings rose tens of feet into the air.  He was in awe of it all.  Eventually, he left the pyramid, closing the doors behind him and made his way to where the team had built a pyre.  He saw that the entrance to the city had been shut for the night.  He still had the sensation of something stalking them, watching them from a distance.  It was then that a yowl filled the night beyond the barricade.  The team fell silent.

            “What was that?” asked Matiman with some trepidation.

            “A predator perhaps?” Ariahl replied.  “Sounds like some wildcat.”

            Matiman shivered and rubbed her arms.  “Is that what has been tracking us?”

            “Who knows?” Ariahl replied.  “But I think our numbers are enough to deter most predators.  Most predators are solitary, although I’ll own I know little of your world.”

            “Just be alert tomorrow,” Toyus said.

            The yowl came again closer and Toyus rose from his seat.  He scented the air, but the air was redolent with so many smells, he huffed in frustration.

            Ariahl came to stand beside him.  “I am keeping an eye on things, Toyus.  You need to sleep tonight. It would not do to exhaust yourself.”

            His eyes scanned the sky.  “I don’t need as much rest as I used to.”

            She inclined her head.  “That is true, but still this constant alertness is going to wear you down.”

            He sighed.  “You might be correct.  I’ll try to relax.”

            She smiled at him.  “Would you like to return with us to explore the city?”

            He brightened.  “I would love that, Ariahl.”

            She nodded.  “Good.  The Sentinels will fly the shuttle here.  We’ll be able to land it on the grounds here.  We’ll explore this ancient city and see if some of the Amalgamese would settle here.  It seems more secure than the wooden structures we are building.”

            He looked around at the curved stone huts.  “I see that.  Besides, from the top of the pyramid we can see for miles.”

            “Yes,” she agreed.   “Come. Join me for the evening meal.”

Chapter XI: Pursuit

            aun Sjir’phal knelt in the damp earth and studied the footprint embedded there.  He parted his lips to access the full array of his smelling abilities.  oun Ei’dhar had been past here and not long ago.  aun Sjir’phal rose and tured to his companions.

            “It is he,” he said to them.

            aun P’ata’lyh huffed.  “Then we should hurry.”    

            “Ye,” aun Sjir’phal replied and turned, leading the other four deeper into the jungle.  

            Two of the four kept their eyes on the treetops, for oun Ei’dhar could climb off the jungle floor to avert capture.  The rest of the party kept quiet and alert. None of theml had never pursued anyone in a jungle, on a world.  They had only ever lived within the sterile confines of a ship.  He concentrated, alert, too, for danger in the form of wild animal life.  They had seen strange, plumbed beasts that flew through the soggy air with ease.  They had seen small critters that chittered and fled from them.  Once or twice, they had seen vipers slithering along the limbs of trees.  There had been no sign of larger predators, but aun Sjir’phal did not take that to mean there were none.  They proceeded quietly and more slowly than oun Ei’dhar’s reckless flight. They might lose the murderer after all and would always have to be alert for his presence.  What was to stop the murderer from returning to murder again?

            He panted, pushing aside bushes.  Even this early in the day, the heat was stifling.   He took deep breaths and to allay the dizziness from the combination of heat and humidity.  He must lead by example, so could not afford weakness.  He hacked at squat bushes, opening a path for them.  oun Ei’dhar must have leapt over the bush.  At that rate, he would exhaust himself quickly in this heat.  The footprints followed along, the stance wide.  The jungle floor soon became sparser of bushes and small plants.  They walked around palms with huge fronds and incredibly tall tress filled with twisted limbs convered in ivy.  aun Sjir’phal heard the pattern of raindrops on the canopy.  They would remain relatively dry.  Thunder rumbled in the distance.

            A crack of lightning was followed by a deafening boom of thunder and the skies opened up.  The downpour was deafening.  He turned to his companions.

            “We are more vulnerable now,” he had to yell.  “Keep alert.”

            He saw in aun P’ata’lyh’s eyes fear and doubt.  aun Sjir’phal sighed.  

            “What is it, old friend?” he asked.

            “Is this worth our endangerment, aun Sjir’phal?” his friend asked.  “We cannot hear if predators approach.  The jungle will surely do away with the murderer.”

            “We were tasked with finding the murderer,” aun Sjir’phal reminded his friend.  “We are to pursue him for at least terson days.  It has been just over olta.  We will finish this.”

            aun P’ata’lyh looked like he  would argue then bowed.  “Ye.”

            They continued.  The light under the canopy diminished further, although that was no bother to the Sha’jeen’s superior night vision.  They continued on, their senses alert.

            They traveled due east, towards the other shore. The God only knew how far that was.  They would turn back on the tersonth day, with or without oun Ei’dhar.  

            The hours became a blur.  To aun Sjir’phal, it was as if they had trudged past the same bush now several times.  His sensed they were still going east, but the jungle seem to say something different.  He finally called a halt hours later.

            “Let us rest and replenish,” he told his companions.  He indicated a space on the jungle floor.  They sat with their backs to each other, facing forward to keep an eye on their surroundings.

            aun Sjir’phal opened his cloth shoulder bag and removed a slice of dried fish.  He ate slowly before taking a sip of the tepid water.  He gauged how much fish he had left before he took another slice and ate that, too.

            He panted as the day continued to storm.  There would be no building in the colony this day.

            He yawned, his jaws cracking.  He bent his head to stretch his neck and looked up again into a pair of yellow eyes.  He stiffened.

            “What is it?” aun P’ata’lyh asked.

            The eyes gave a slow blink.

            “What am I seeing?” aun Sjir’phal asked.

            Then the animal burst from the jungle and rushed at aun Sjir’phal.  aun Sjir’phal had time to dislodge his dagger before he was scrabbling with an animal covered in pungent, bristly fur.  Weariness made him slow.  He tucked his chin down to keep his vulnerable neck safe.  He heard his companions’ cries.  The animal sank its fang into his shoulder.  aun Sjir’phal howled, rage taking over.  He took his dagger and sank it into the animal’s neck.  The animal only clamped down harder.  aun Sjir’phal lost count of how many times he stabbed the beast.  Blood spurted from the animal’s wounds.  aun Sjir’phal had the distant thought that maybe this was some sort of mythical being.  How can something survive that many stabbings?

            He was dragged several feet into the jungle, back the way they had come.  aun Sjir’phal thought his shoulder would be dislocated.  The pain was far away but growing brighter.  Suddenly the beast, let him go.  

            The animal wandered a few feet away and collapsed, panting.  It watched him for a moment and yawned, looking away. It was a stunning creature, with fur as black as space and bright yellow eyes.  Two sharp and large ears on the narrow head swiveled at every sound.  On its large paws, sharp pale claws.  It had no discernable tail.  

            “How can you be alive?” he asked it.

            The animal licked its lips and looked at him.

            aun Sjir’phal rose, leaning on his good arm.  He glanced down at his mangled shoulder.  His heart gave a sickening lurch.  He was shaking so badly now, he almost dropped the dagger twice.  He heard the others calling him and turned, hurrying to where they were.  If he were more of a religious Sha’jeen, he could make something of this.  He barked a laugh.

            aun P’ata’lyh cried out when he saw aun Sjir’phal.

            “Your shoulder!” his friend said.

            aun Sjir’phal finally was able to sheath his dagger.

            “You killed it?” a young aun Deuil asked.

            “It is invincible,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  “I stabbed it almost shanstk times; it did not die.”

            The young aun Deuli hissed.  “That cannot be!”

            “Well, it is,” aun Sjir’phal snapped.  “It lives still.”

            “Perhaps it will die of blood loss,” aun P’ata’lyh offered.

            “Rest is over,” aun Sjir’phal told them.  “Let’s  head out.”

            “But your wound!” aun P’ata’lyh protested.

            “We have a few hours of searching more, no more,” aun Sjir’phal told him. “I’ll be well.  Let us go.”

            But as the hours passed, aun Sjir’phal grew lightheaded and developed a burning thirst.  By the time he lay down, leaving two of his companions to keep watch over their camp, he had developed a throbbing headache.  His eyesight grew sensitive, even in the dimness under the jungle canopy.  He felt into a restless sleep where he dreamed strange, disjointed dreams, reliving the revolt back in the ark.  All through his dream, a beast with black fur and yellow eyes walked, yawning.  On the morrow, he had to be shaken awake and he blinked up at aun P’ata’lyh.  His tongue was swollen in his parched mouth.  

            He rose slowly.  Vertigo made him close his eyes and he almost fell. He felt overheated, like his robes were too much to endure.

            “My friend, we are headed back,” aun P’ata’lyh told him.  “We have decided enough is enough.  Let the jungle take the murderer.”

            “But–“

            “We head back,” another of their companions stated.  “We will know this jungle in time.  But we should build our homes first.  The murderer will not be able to survive alone.”

            aun Sjir’phal sighed.  He knew this to be the truth.  For that reason alone, he acquiesced to returning the way they had come.

            They walked past where the creature had lain down and aun Sjir’phal saw it was empty, save for the blood that darkly stained the fallen leaves.  He shivered.

            The days were interminable.  aun Sjir’phal shook badly, shivering at every breeze.  He forced himself to put one foot in front of the other, wrapping his robes close to his body.  His eyesight dimmed and he followed close behind aun P’ata’lyh. His wound was tight and hot.  It developed a strange smell.  He had to cover it with his robes to keep the insects from it.  It ached constantly.  But it was what was happening inside him that was worse.  The nausea made it impossible to eat and only to sip water despite his raging thirst.  The rests they took helped nothing.  He sat quielty, subdued, half-listening to the quiet conversations of the others.  He realized he had become a liability and it shamed him.  Every day they walked for hours, and he had to dig dip into himself to find the will to continue.  A terrible lethargy filled him like warm sand.  He grew lightheaded.  He constantly narrowed his eyes to keep the sensitvity at bay.

            On the last day of travel, most of his symptoms seemed to abate.  At the edge of the jungle, he felt himself once more.  Suddenly he leaned on a nearby tree and vomited blood onto the green bark.

            aun P’ata’lyh patted his back solicitiously.  “Come, my friend.  We’ll heal you somehow.”

            He allowed himself to be assisted to the prayer hall.  

            The rain had subsided, and a sickening humidity had taken its place. The sounds of hammering filled the early afternoon.

            At the prayer hut, oun D’jir stood just outside the door.

            “What happened?” the high priest demanded.

            “An animal attack,” aun P’ata’lyh replied.

            The High Priest hissed.  “Bring him inside- now.”

            The prayer hall smelled of sweet grass and flowers and sawdust.  Colorful pillows from the arks were set in half circles facing a large pillow at the fore of the room  At the back of the room, woven mats were set on the floor.  Six in total.  Each mat had a small pillow and a sheet of cloth.  It was here oun D’jir led them.

            aun P’ata’lyh assisted aun Sjir’phal to sit on a mat.

            oun D’jir looked at aun P’ata’lyh.  “I will care for him now.  You can go.”

            aun P’ata’lyh bowed.  “Ye, High Priest.”

            aun Sjir’phal looked up and noticed four other priests standing a few feet away.

            “Bring me a bowl of seawater,” oun D’jir told his priests.  “I need cloth and a needle and thread.”

            The priests bowed and hurried from the hall.

            oun D’jir looked him in the eye.  He reached up and gently removed the robe from the wound and hissed.

            “What did this?” he asked.

            “A beast that wouldn’t die,” he replied.  He swallowed against the rising nausea.

            oun D’jir cocked his head.  “How could it not die, aun Deuil?”

            aun Sjir’phal hissed in laughted.  “I stabbed it almost shankstk times, High Priest.  It lay down to watch me with disinterest.”

            oun D’jir’s lips quirked.  “Perhaps you don’t taste too good.”

            aun Sjir’phal hissed again and nodded.

            “And oun Ei’dhar?”

            aun Sjir’phal shrugged and gasped, his eyes watering.  The wound had begun to feel tight and hot once more.

            “The jungle will swallow him whole,” he replied distantly.

            oun D’jir nodded.  “He is free then, as is the will of the God.  The God sent that beast to attack you, aun Sjir’phal, because oun Ei’dhar has to find his own destiny.”

            “So, he goes free,” aun Sjir’phal spat.  oun Djir flattened his ears.  “Forgive him, High Priest.”

            “I understand your frustration,” the High Priest told him.  “But these are holy days, and we must obey the God and honor Him.  Now, let us get you out of those filthy robes.”

            oun Djir helped him to stand.  The room lurched and spun.  He fell, hearing oun Djir call distantly.  The darkness began at the edges of his eyesight.  It slowly swallowed him whole.

Chapter X: Exploring

                The weeks passed quickly for Toyus in his new role as Councilmember.  The Colony needed laws and the Council argued endlessly about what those laws should be.  Toyus was of a liberal bent and so were some of the Councilmembers.  But many more were staunch conservatives intent on creating another Torahn.  Toyus did not see the point of recreating their past when they could start anew.

                He and Sentinel Sol found themselves sitting at the edge of the jungle one bright dry afternoon.

                Sol sighed.  “I would like to advice you, Toyus, but I believe you already know what to do.  Trust yourself and your judgment.   Do you want to run those ideas by me?”

                Toyus shifted.  “The Council wants to rule and pass their seats on to their children.  Make each position hereditary.  I think we should vote the Councilmembers in.  That way, it is more representative of the colony’s wishes.”

                “You want to create a democracy,” Sol told him.  “Those types of government existed on my planet for hundreds of years.  If your Council votes for hereditary rule, eventually their families would become aristocrats.  Then the government would be an aristocracy.  In a true democracy, every member of the colony has a say.”

                Toyus nodded.  “That is what I want.”

                Sol smiled at him.  “Then I suggest you fight for it.”

                While arguments and discussion over what type of government should be adopted took place around the Council campfire, a number of colonists, led by Sentinel Derik, had begun to build longhouses for the colonists. Huts had been the initial choice of home, but there were too many to build.  Toyus opted for longhouses, as did a majority of the Council .  Each longhouse would house five families. 

                Construction took place from sunup to sundown and the beach was filled with the sounds of hammering and sawing and people calling to one another.  Sometimes Toyus left the Council fire to help with building.  It frustrated the other Councilors no end.  But there was something so satisfying about working until one’s muscles thrummed with soreness.  No one argued about how a longhouse should be built. 

                His father sometimes sat in on the Council meetings but, more often than not, he kept his thoughts to himself.  He and Toyus  spent their evenings discussing how Toyus could be a more effective Councilmember.  Moyen had been a good advisor to Queen Malida, levelheaded and wise.  He was a good listener and Toyus would talk his frustrations out to his father.

                Tonight they sat around their fire with the Sentinels.

                “The longhouses are coming along well, Derik,” Moyen said around a mouthful of roasted fish.

                Derik inclined his head.  “It’s a good thing some of the Amalgamese were  builders before.  They are teaching the others how to build.”  He glanced at the jungle several feet behind them.  “It is good that other groups are starting to clear some of the jungle to allow for growth and further building.”

                “The shore is a sepek from the jungle,” Toyus replied.  “That isn’t much space to grow.  Of course, we can build to the north and south, but a long line of longhouses is harder to defend that way.”

                “Agreed,” Derik said.

                Toyus thought a moment before he turned to Ariahl.  “I would like to take a scouting team into the jungle to map it and see if we can find a source of fresh water.”

                She considered his words for several seconds before nodding.  “That is a good idea. We can stay a bit longer to ensure you find a source of fresh water and to clear a path to that source.”

                Toyus bowed.  “Thank you.”

                In the end, they formed three scouting teams, one led by Ariahl, a second by Ishel and a third by Mariel.

                “I would like to go with you, Ariah,” Toyus said. 

                Moyen frowned.  “You’re needed in the Council, son.”

                Toyus gave a brittle laugh.  “Am I?  All they do is argue.  I would like to take some time away from the governing part.  I think scouting the continent will be important.”

                Moyen looked unconvinced but he said nothing more.

                Toyus rose from a crouch and stretched his lower back.  His muscles felt sore from long hours of sitting.  He gathered his cloth travel bag and his rolled-up pallet and bid goodnight to the Sentinels and his father, making his way towards the edge of the jungle.  To the west, the seashore was dotted with campfires.  It was a rare rainless evening.   He built his own firepit with the help of his hand spade and filled the hole with driftwood.  Using ca’ahl stones, he was able to start a fire.  He rolled out his pallet and sat down cross legged.  Digging into his shoulder bag, he pulled out a hunk of cheese wrapped in cloth.  The cheese was soft and salty-sweet with a slightly nutty flavor. 

            “May I join you, Mister Toyus?”

            Toyus started and gazed up.  A young Amalgamese male stood a couple of feet away, a cloth travel bag hanging from his shoulder.

            “Of course.  Have a seat.”

            The young male smiled and set his rolled pallet on the ground on the other side of the fire.  He sat cross legged, his back to the beach. 

            Toyus took in the young male’s light gray fur and blue eyes.  His mane was black with streaks of silver.  He wore light blue tunic and dark trousers. 

            The male held out a hand.  “I am Ereali.”

            Toyus grasped his hand, feeling the callused palm and fingertips.  “Toyus, as you know.”

            Ereali grinned.   “Yes.  Everyone knows.”

            Toyus let go his hand and ducked his head in embarrassment.  He bit into the piece of cheese and looked away from the attractive Ereali, chewing thoughtfully and wishing for all sorts of food he would never have again.

            “Must be hard for you,” Ereali murmured.

            Toyus looked over at the young man.  “What’s that?”

            Ereali waved a hand.  “All of this.  You were a prince of the realm.”

            “And what were you?” Toyus challenged.

            “I was a thief,” Ereali retorted mildly.  “A pickpocket living in the underground city.  This–”  He waved his hand again, indicating the camp.  “This is paradise to me.”  He shrugged.  “A chance to

become an honest person.  Someone who is honorable.”

            Toyus grunted and finished his cheese before uncorking the bladder of wine offering some to Ereali. 

            The young male inclined his head and took the bladder, pouring some wine into his mouth.  He handed the bladder back to Toyus and wiped his mouth with the back of a hand.

            “To new beginnings,” Toyus murmured and drank.

            Ereali nodded.  “To new beginnings.  I have dried meat.  Would you like some?”

            “Thank you,” Toyus replied.

            The young man handed Toyus a hank of meat and bit into his own, chewing thoughtfully.

            “I don’t know anyone here,” he told Toyus.  “I wouldn’t mind a friend.”

            Toyus grinned at him.  “And it just so happens I am in need of friends.”

            They both looked away at the same time as a child ran past screeching with laughter while a very flustered young woman chased him down.

            Ereali sobered.  “Not many would trust me, having lived in the underground city, having been a thief.”  He ran his eyes over the nearby campfires.

            “We are born again,” Toyus told him.  “None need know your past, as long as you give us your future.”

            “I intend to,” Ereali assured him.  He looked at Toyus.  “May I come with you on the morrow to explore the land?”

            Toyus huffed a laugh.  “Was this all a blatant way to get asked to join the exploration team?”

            Ereali ducked his head.  “No!  I just…I just want to be out there, exploring.”

            “I was teasing,” Toyus told him.  “Yes, you may come.”

            Ereali looked at him shyly.  “Besides, where my friend goes, go I.”

            “Is that so?” Toyus teased. 

            Ereali squared his shoulders.  “Yes.”

            Toyus nodded.  “Good then.”  He sighed.  “I don’t know about you, Ereali.  I don’t think it will rain tonight.”

            Ereali glanced at the sky but said nothing.

            Toyus laid down on his pallet and arranged his cloak over his body like a blanket.  “Will you sleep, too?”

            “I’ll remain awake a bit more,” Ereali told him.  “I’ll unroll my pallet in a bit.”

            Toyus nodded.  “Goodnight then.”

            “Goodnight, Toyus.”

                                                                                                                    ***

            Toyus rose before the sun.  Dew clung to his cloak and mane.  He rose and shook his cloak out, startled to find someone sleeping near him.  Then he recalled Ereali.  He went over to the young Amalgamese and gently shook him awake.  The young male blinked blindly for few seconds before he focused on Toyus.  He yawned, his fangs white against the red of his tongue.

            “Good morning, Toyus,” he murmured and pushed the cloak from his body, sitting up.

            “Good morning, Ereali,” Toyus replied and stood.  “We are leaving soon, so gather your belongings.”

            They rolled up their pallets and picked up their belongings.   

            “Come with me to the Council and I will nominate you to come with us,” Toyus and led the way west, towards the Council’s firepit.

            Ereali picked up his belongings and followed Toyus to firepit belonging to the Council.

            Ereali walked just behind and to the left of Toyus.

            Soon they were at the firepit.

            “Good morrow,” Toyus hailed quietly.

            The Council members rose as one.         

            “Good morning,” Missus Alita murmured, glancing curiously at Ereali.  “Who is your friend, Toyus?”

            Toyus stepped to one side.  “This is Ereali.  He wishes to join the exploration teams.”

            Mister Yusten frowned.  “I know you, don’t I?”

            Ereali paused, looking uncomfortable.  “I don’t know.”

            Mister Yusten’s frown deepened.  “I was a jailer back in Draemin City.  Were you someone I would have housed in my jail?”

            “What are the odds?” Ereali murmured and shook his head.  “I was a pickpocket and thief back in Draemin City.”

            Mister Yusten drew himself to his full height. “Then you are not welcomed in this colony–“

            “Wait a minute,” Toyus interrupted.  “Ereali would like a new life free of crime.  He’s entitled to a new life.”

            The Councilor shook his head.  “Once a thief–“

            Missus Setina stepped forward.  Her black fur gleamed in the light from the fire pit.  “That’s enough, Yusten.”  She looked at Ereali and smiled.  “Welcome to Amala, Ereali.” 

            “I will be keeping an eye on you, Ereali,” Mister Yusten promised archly.

            Missus Alita sighed.  “There is no room in our new world for such prejudice, Yusten.  If you cannot keep an open mind, then perhaps the Council is not for you.”           

            “Nonsense,” Mister Omir muttered.  “There is room for healthy skepticism, as long as Mister Ereali’s rights are not disregarded.  I, for one, think Ereali should prove himself to us.”

            Ereali frowned.  “And how am I supposed to do that?”

            “Lead a good life, work hard and be honest,” Mister Omir replied.  “Your actions will speak for themselves.”  He turned to Mister Yusten.  “Will that suffice for you?”

            Mister Yusten was still glaring at Ereali as if he were an insect in his soup.  “Fine, but if things go missing–“

            Mister Somar sighed.  “If things go missing, we mount an investigation.  Really, Yusten.”

            Toyus placed his arm around Ereali’s shoulders.  “In the meantime, he comes with us.  Any objections?”

            Mister Yusten set his mouth in a mulish scowl but said nothing.

            Ariahl strode up.  “That is a good idea, Toyus.  Welcome to the team, Ereali.”

            Ereali bowed.  “Thank you, Sentinel.”

            “Call me Ariahl,” she replied with a gentle smile.  “Toyus and I will lead this team, which is team one.  Ishel will lead team two, and Mariel will lead team three.  I am leaving Kaster, Derik, Topon, and Sol in charge of the colony.”

            Missus Setina nodded.  “That is good, Ariahl.”

            Ariahl turned to Toyus and Ereali.  “Shall we go?  I’d like to introduce you to the rest of the team.”

            They strode west across the beach to a fire pit close.  There they found a group of young Amalgamese .

            Ariahl lifted an arm in greeting.  “Ho, team one.  I bring the last two of us.  This is Toyus and Ereali. Please introduce yourselves.  I don’t know your individual names as yet.”

            A young Amalgamese female stepped forward.  She was all black like Setina.  “I am Matiman.”

            A young pale gold male raised an arm.  “I am Otheno.”

            “Kalten,” said a brown male around Toyus’ age.

            “Tima,” said a silver female.

            “Shilna,” said another silver female who stood next to her.  The two were almost identical and Toyus thought they might be sisters.

            “Aconol,” called out a young male with gold fur and a dun mane.

            “Eton,” said another male, this one with all black fur like Matimam.

            “Malthen,” said a young male with pale gold fur and silver mane.

            A shy young brown and gold male lifted a hand.  “I am Ries.”

            “Anhai,” said a young gray and black female.

            “Siiva,” said another black female. 

            “Atalie,” murmured a gold and brown female.

            “Sema,” said the last one, a gold female.

            Ariahl smiled at them.  “I’ve coordinated with the other two teams, which are led by Sentinel Ishel and Sentinel Mariel, respectively.  We will have the longest journey, heading southeast to the opposite shore.  This vast continent is shaped like a sickle , long from point to point and narrow along the middle and curving at either end.  It is about 3.01 million square miles – what you all sepeks–  in length.  We will not be able to trek its entirety, of course. That would take years.  Decade, really.  And let’s not forget the thick jungle.   There should be plenty to explore, but there really shouldn’t be sentient life.  We didn’t see traces of such when we found this continent.  We have supplies for 14 days, so we’ll head in 7 days.  If we haven’t found water by then, we’ll turn back.  It is my goal to walk 15 sepeks a day.”

            “But what if there is sentient life?” the one called Ries shyly asked.

            “Then we engage but not harm,” Ariahl replied.  She looked around the group.  “Eventually, we will have to build boats to go to the nearby islands and continue our exploration of the continent, if we scout a river.  I encourage you to remain within the group and continue exploring.”

            The group murmured among themselves, nodding.

            “But first things first,” Ariahl continued.  “Let’s get going.  We will head due east to get to the other coast. Ready?”

            The Sentinel turned east.  “Toyus and Ereali, you bring up the rear.”

            They began to trudge across the grassy sand  towards the jungle. Toyus glanced west and saw people already working on building a long house. Three longhouses stood in a row towards the south. Thwap, thwap sounded from where a group of people were beginning to clear low plants and bushes from the edge of the jungle.

            The jungle was thick with undergrowth. Insects buzzed all around. Ariahl, Kalten and Shilna, wearing thick gloves, used machetes to clear a path for the others.  It was slow going.  Under the thick canopy of the trees, it was dim and sultry with heat.  The air was thick with moisture and unknown smells.  Toyus kept alert.  Only a modicum of light filtered through the jungle canopy.  It was like walking in a twilight world.  As they made their way, the animals and insects around them stilled.  All they could hear were the sounds emanating from the colony. 

            Insects buzzed everywhere in the moist heat and soon Toyus was pulling on his cloak and covering his head to keep the flying insects off him.  No one spoke as they focused on creating a footpath.  Time seemed to stand still as they continued to head east. And, suddenly, they found themselves on the lip of a cliff that looked several sepeks down upon a valley choked with trees and low plants.  In the distance, against the other side of the cliff, was a gorgeous waterfall.  It tumbled hundreds of feet down the wall of the canyon to the river below.   The sky overhead looked gray and thick with clouds that were moving quickly over land.

            Ariahl looked around.  “We can head a bit northeast.  There looks to be a path that leads down.”   

            Toyus looked down at the canyon.  The river snaked through the trees.  It winked through in places where the canopy thinned.

            “How far down is that river?” he asked Ariahl.

            “Some three sepeks,” she replied.  “Look, there is a path that leads down.  The river comes from the southeast.  We can follow it for a bit and then veer to the south.  It will provide fresh water and a place to rest when the sun sets.”

            “Shall we rest and eat?” he asked Ariahl.  “Then we can head down to follow the river.”

            She nodded.  “Good idea.”

            The team sat down in a circle and ate their food in weary silence.  They swatted listlessly at the annoying insects.

            Ereali passed around a bladder filled with water. 

            An hour later, Ariahl rose and stretched.  “Let’s head down, shall we?  We only have a few hours of daylight before we have to make camp.”

            They rose with a chorus of groans.  Forming a line with Toyus and Ereali bringing up the rear, they headed down the worn path leading  to the river.  They did not speak as they walked.  The incline was gentle enough that they could descend without much trouble.  The earth was damp but mostly free of stones.  Once they reached the bottom of the incline, the river was, as Ariahl had surmised, about three sepeks down in the lush valley.  The loamy earth at the river’s shore was free of low plants, so for a bit of time at least, they would walk unhampered by undergrowth.  This close to the cataracts, the roar of the tumbling water made it hard to hear or talk.  They studied the cascading water with awe and respect before heading south along the river. 

            Soon they saw strangely plumed animals around a forearm in length.  The plumes were bright with colors and the animals had long, curved beaks of a bright blue.  They called to one another as they flew overhead and then perched on high branches to watch the team trudge past. 

            Someone asked Ariahl what the animals were.

            “Looks like some sort of bird,” she replied. 

            “Bird,” Toyus tested the word.  “They are beautiful.”

            “Yes,” Ariahl agreed.  “Let’s keep moving.”

            The sky now was dark slate in color.  Thunder rumbled in the distance.  The temperatures plummeted.  Toyus sighed with pleasure.

            “I think those are caves up there,” Malthen told them and pointed to the face of the cliff.  “Maybe we should head up there to wait until the storm passes.”

            Ariahl glanced up and frowned.  “That’s about a sepek and a half out of our way.  The jungle canopy should keep most of the rain off us.  We’ll head inland for a bit.”

            Her words were drowned by a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder.  Then the rain began to spatter around them.  They ran west and into the jungle as the skies opened up and disgorged a torrent of rain.

            Toyus stood at the edge of the jungle, under a palm tree with huge fronds.  The rain pattered against the wide leaves.  An occasional drop would fall on his mane and shoulder.  Beyond the cover of the trees, the rain was a thick curtain.  The wind howled and lightning flashed overhead, threading through the bruised clouds.  The air was fresh and cool as it brushed against his fur.  He sighed, content and tired.

            Ariahl walked to where he stood. “We should call it a day, I suppose.”

            “We won’t be able to walk under that rain,” he agreed.

            She nodded and turned to the team.  “Let’s make camp here.”  She glanced away, a frown upon her forehead.

                “What is it?” he asked.

                She shook her head.  “Something is off.  But I don’t know why I am getting this sense.”  She looked at him.  “Set four people to watch camp for four hours each.  Just as a precaution.”

                “Of course,” he said, grateful she was there.

                She stalked away to set up her pallet.

Chapter IX: Flight

            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.”

            “What?”

            “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.”

            “Good night.”

            aun Sjir’phal turned on his heels and stalked away, two guards at his back.

Chapter VIII: Murder

            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?

            “oun Ei’dhar.”

            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?”

            “Ye.”

            “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.

Chapter VII: Proposal

            oun Nilja lingered near the hospital bed.  For nearly a week, the shuttle had ferried the Amalgamese to their new home.  He had watched from the sidelines, not sure when he would be allowed to leave as well.  He glanced around the tent.  The Amalgamese mostly accepted him, although he had seen a few resentful looks thrown his way in the past few days.  Sentinel oun Mariel had explained that some of the Amalgamese blamed the Sha’jeen for their predicament.

            The Sentinel had smiled at him.  “It will pass, oun Shi’ehl.”

            He had fought during the night of the raid.  He had killed in the name of the Amalgamese and many had seen him do so.  It was only the very stubborn that held on to their resentment.  But he could not blame them.  After all, the Sha’jeen had infected the populace of this world.

            aun Toyus had not awaken from his injuries while the people were being ferried away.  He lay quite still on the hospital pallet.

            His parent, aun Moyen, always hovered near, sleepless and worried.

            Today was no different.  aun Moyen was sitting on a stool near the pallet.

            “Is he better?” oun Nilja asked.

            aun Moyen started and turned.  “oun Shi’ehl!  I thought you would have left by now.”

            oun Nilja shook his head.  “I await ean sk’oi Toyus to wake.”

            aun Moyen’s eyebrows shut up.  “ean sk’oi Toyus, is it?”  He sighed.  “Come, sit with me.”  He pulled over another stool.

            Wary, oun Nilja sat down near the older human.

            “oun Shi’ehl, I have a question for you and I would like for you to answer me honestly,” the man said.

            oun Nilja’s tail puffed out.  He growled at it and turned back to aun Moyen.

            “ean sk’oi,” oun Nilja began.

            “None of that,” Moyen growled.  “I am not your master, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Nilja’s ears flicked.  He disagreed but said nothing.  He inclined his head instead.

            “What is your interest in my child?” aun Moyen asked.

            oun Nilja swallowed.  How to explain this?

            “aun Moyen,” he said.  “Your son was the first bridge between our people.  As such, he is holy.  He is important for this world and our peoples going forward.”

            “I see,” Moyen replied.  “He isn’t holy to the rest of your people.”

            oun Nilja ducked his head.  “The rest of my people are afraid.  I spoke to a few who saw your child and others like him as the replacements for the Sha’jeen.  We still fear dying out as a race.  I saw, right away, that your son is a bridge.  Our genetic material will survive in some manner, even if it isn’t how we think or wish.”

            “But the others don’t agree?” aun Moyen asked.

            oun Nilja’s tail flicked against the stool legs.  “I did not dare express my view, aun Moyen.  I did not think I would be allowed to live, had I done so.  At the very least, they would have made my life hard.”

            “I see,” the man said and sighed.  “You are wise, aun Nilja.”

            “Ne,” he replied.  “I know my people.”

            aun Moyen shifted.  “What is your purpose here, aun Nilja?  Surely, you have doomed yourself to a hard existence.  There are people here who don’t want you here, among the Amalgamese.”

            oun Nilja inclined his head.  “I know, but I have to remain near aun Toyus.”

            “Well, I will give you space in my home, oun Nilja,” aun Moyen told him.  “Best keep you safe.”

            oun Nilja straightened his back and bowed.  “I am honored, ean sk’oi.”

            aun Moyen went to protest, but a weak chuckle from the bed drew his attention away.

            “Toyus, my son!” aun Moyen cried.  

            aun Toyus lifted his hand into the air.  aun Moyen grasped it in both of his.

            “How are you, my boy?” aun Moyen asked.

            “Still hurts,” aun Toyus murmured.  “Thirsty.”

            oun Nilja rose and knelt near the wooden tray on the ground next to the pallet.  It held a decanter and a mug.  He poured fresh water from the decanter into the mug.  He then turned and put his hand under aun Toyus’ head and lifted his head to feed him the water.  

            aun Toyus drank almost the entire mug before he turned his face away.

            oun Nilja lowered his head to the pillow once more.

            aun Toyus looked at him.  “Thank you, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Nilja bowed.  “An honor, aun Toyus.”

            aun Moyen shifted.  “Are you up for some broth, son?”

            “Yes, Eda.”

            aun Moyen nodded and rose.  “I’ll return shortly.”

            aun Toyus turned to oun Nilja.  “Have the raiders returned?”

            “Ne,” oun Nilja replied.  “They keep away, although there are those who sit on their beasts on the rise in the land and watch us.”

            aun Toyus grunted.  “How does the ferrying go?”

            oun Nilja sat cross-legged on the ground next to the pallet.  “It goes.  Every day, a handful of families get taken away.  Soon, it will be finished.”

            aun Toyus sighed and turned his head to face the ceiling.

            “I don’t understand why you came with us,” he said.  “I heard what you told my father about my being a bridge.  I still don’t understand.”

            “You are holy,” oun Nilja stated firmly.  “You and all those like you.  You are the hope of my people’s survival.  Our genetic material will remain within this world.”

            aun Toyus looked at him.  “You are needed in your colony to bare young for the Sha’jeen.”

            oun Nilja squared his shoulders.  “I am staying with you, ean sk’oi.”

            aun Moyen returned carrying a large ceramic mug.  He sat down on his stool and handed the mug to oun Nilja, who proceeded to feed aun Toyus the broth.

            aun Toyus sipped in silence, his eyes wandering restlessly around the hospital tent.

            Once the broth was gone, oun Nilja set the mug on the tray next to aun Toyus’s pallet.

            Sentinel oun Ariahl stepped into the medical pavilion and made her way to where oun Nilja and the others were.

            “Good afternoon, Ariahl,” aun Moyen murmured.

            She bowed.  “My lord.  We are going to begin evacuating the sick.”  She looked at aun Toyus.  “Are you ready to leave, Toyus?”

            Toyus nodded.  “As ready as I will ever be, Sentinel.”

            “We’ll leave you for last then,” she said.  “Let us get the others out of here first.”

            “Go ahead,” aun Toyus murmured.

            She wandered away.

            aun Moyen looked at oun Nilja.  “Come with me, oun Shi’ehl.  Let’s get our belongings.”

            oun Nilja bowed and smoothly rose.  He followed aun Moyen into the icy early afternoon.  The ground was frozen beneath their sure footfalls.  The grass fields glittered with rime and the sky overhead was gray.  Snow had been threatening for days, but it was simply too cold.  

            oun Nilja had been gifted a furlined cloak by aun Moyen.  Usually, the Sha’jeen didn’t feel cold but today was different.  The past few days of subzero temperatures had made him grateful for aun Moyen’s generosity.  The wind was algid, slithering down collars and up sleeves.  It nipped at ears and noses and made eyes water.  oun Nilja hated it, but he knew the Amalgamese suffered even more.

            Once in aun Moyen’s ample tent, aun Moyen picked up a leather trunk.

            “Bring that one, oun Nilja,” he directed.  “That one belongs to Toyus.”

            oun Nilja bent and took hold of the handles and lifted.  The trunk was heavy but not unbearable. They headed back out into the icy afternoon and then towards the shuttle.  They could hear the rumble of the engine as they walked across the grass field, away from the campsite.  

            The white shuttle was now stained with mud and dust.  The ramp was down and oun Nilja followed aun Moyen into the warmer interior.  

            aun Ishel was organizing the interior of the shuttle for the group that would be transported next.  The air swept through the interior of the shuttle, whisking away the smell of sickness, sweat and dirty flesh.  

            oun Nilja followed aun Moyen to a corner, where they set down their burdens.

            “The next group should be coming soon,” aun Ishel told them.  His gaze lingered on oun Nilja, his eyes curious, full of questions.

            “We’re here to help,” aun Moyen said.

            aun Ishel nodded.  “Very good.  Go to the hospital and start carrying the pallets here.”

            aun Moyen bowed.  “Consider it done, Ishel.  Follow me oun Nilja.”

            oun Nilja turned to follow.

***

            Toyus left his bed a few days later.  Leaning on a staff his sire had made for him, he made his way around the tent camp.  In the distance to the north, the peole were buiding huts our of wattle and daub.  He was amazed at how skillfully his father and Sentinel Derik had organized teams.  He felt ashamed of his weakness and how little he had given to Colony Amal.

            “Toyus.”

            Toyus turned slowly.  He felt his face heat up.  “Sentinel Sol.”

            “You look much better, Toyus,” Sol murmured.

            “The wound still feels tight and hot and painful,” he replied.  “But I can deal with that.”

            Sol frowned but he nodded.  “Do you mind company, Toyus?”

            Toyus almost turned him down, considering his strange reactions to the Sentinel.  But, in the end, he decided that would be rude.

            “Sure, Sol.”

            Sol took his left arm, as Toyus held the staff with his right hand.  They walked in silence as they approached the semi-circle of tents belonging to the Council Members.  Once there, Toyus felt at a loss.

            Sol looked at him.  “Do you want me to fetch the Councilors?”

            Toyus grimaced.  “Yes, please.”

            He leaned against his staff and watched as Sol entered the first tent.  Soon, Sol exited with an Amalgamese woman with black fur.  She wore a long, loose mustard skirt that reached to her ankles and a white tunic and yellow vest.  She, like all the Amalgamese, went barefoot.  She had a small crest tipped with silver.

            She bowed to Toyus.  “Your Highness, it is wonderful to see you mending so well.”

            Toyus shifted.  “I’m a prince no longer.  Call me Toyus, please.”

            She bowed once more.  “Toyus, then.  I’m Missus Setina Telvos, but you may call me Setina.  It is good you come to us, for we have a proposal for you.”

            By then the other Council members had stepped out their tents and stood in a semi-circle at her back.

            She turned to her fellow Council members.  “Please introduce yourselves.”

            An older Amalgamese stepped forward.  He, like Toyus, had gold fur, which seemed to be the most common fur color.  His impressive crest was almost silver.   “I am Omir K’tals.  Please call me Omir.”

            Toyus smiled.  “Omir.”

            A slightly younger man stepped forward.  He had dark brown fur and gold tips on his mane.  “Somar Ultos.”

            “Somar,” Toyus murmured.

            A woman with silver fur and bright blue eyes stepped forward.  “Alita Molr, your Highess.”

            “Call me Toyus please, Alita.”

            She bowed and stepped back.

            The final Council member was around Setina’s age, which Toyus calculated to be around 30.  This Amalgamese had gold fur and no silver.  “Ysten Esten, sir.”

            “An honor to meet you, Ysten,” Toyus murmured.  He turned back to Setina.  “What is your proposal?”

            Setina’s gaze slid to her co-members before she cleared her throat.  She looked back at Toyus.  “We’d like you to join the Council, Toyus.  To lead us, in fact.”

            Toyus was taken aback.  “What?”

            Mister Somar took a step forward.  “You have been groomed to rule, Toyus.  Also, you did a stint with the armed forces of at least six years.  Am I correct?”

            Toyus’s fur stood in surprise.  “Yes.”

            The older man smiled.  “We are all civilians.  Common folk who know nothing of leading.”

            Missus Alita stepped forward.  “Please, Toyus.  We need you, as does Colony Amal.”

            “I’ll think on it,” Toyus replied.

            “Don’t take too long, young man,” Mister Omir replied.  “This is a crucial time in our history.”

            “No.  I’ll give you answer tomorrow,” Toyus replied.  “Who has been leading the people so far?”

            Setina smiled at Sol.  “The Sentinels and Lord Moyen.  But Moyen may not remain and the Sentinels will leave when the huts are completed.”

            Toyus turned to Sol.  “Is this the case?”

            “Yes,” Sol replied.   “We cannot interfere any more with how you evolve as a species.  But we will make sure you succeed in building the Colony.”

            Toyus bid goodbye to the Council and headed west towards the beach.    He heard someone following.  His wound’s ache sharpened the more time he spent on his feet, but he knew exercise was good for healing.  

            He made it to the shore and looked up and down the beach, noting the gentle surf, the pale, soft sand under his bare feet.  The sand was hot, but it felt good.

            Sol came to stand quietly beside him.  He glanced at the Sentinel.

            “Is it a good idea that I join the Council?” he asked.

            Sol pursed his lips, his gaze locked on the restless ocean.  The smell of brine was sharp in the air.

            “You would be a good leader, Toyus,” Sol replied.  “But you have to listen to the other Councilors, who are older than you are.”

            Toyus frowned.  “Yes, of course.  I revere elders, but if I think they are wrong, I will not bow to their will.”

            “Ask your father for guidance, Toyus.  He is leaving when we go.”

            Toyus started, turning to face the Sentinel.  “What?”

            Sol nodded.  “He has younger children to take care of, Toyus.  He only wanted to make sure you would be alright.”

            Toyus swallowed thickly.  His eyes pricked from tears.  “I…I did not realize it would be so soon.”

            Sol grinned and turned to look at him.  “We still have weeks before everyone has a place to live.  We aren’t leaving as yet, and neither is Lord Moyen.”

            Toyus nodded, numbed.  He glanced away.  Once his father departed, access to his other life would be severed.  Toyus would never see his father or his siblings again.

            Sol sighed.  “It is hard, I know.”

            Toyus looked at him.  “You do?”

            Sol nodded.  “When I came with the ark that brought your ancestors from Earth, I bid farewell to my family, to a lover, to the world.  They are all long dead by now.”

            Toyus cocked his head.  “You had a lover?”

            Sol grinned.  “Yes.  Before the journey here, we were allowed to have lovers.  I had a lover and he and I were together for almost ten years when I left.”

            “Was he angry?”

            Sol’s smile turned sad.  “No.  He understood.  Earth was dying.  He left on another ark headed to another part of the galaxy.”

            “Was he a Sentinel, too?” Toyus asked.

            “Clever boy,” Sol praised.  “Yes.  He was.  Same series as I.  I often wonder if his ark found a viable planet.”

            Toyus was sweating and trembling.  “I need to return to my cot.  Will you keep me company?  I’d like to learn more of your journey.”

            “Of course.”

            Sol helped Toyus lead him back to the tent he shared with Moyen and oun Nilja.  Once in the tent, Sol helped him to his pallet and then helped him lie down.

            “Some water, please,” Toyus asked.

            Sol poured some water from the decanter into the mug.

            Toyus took the mug with a muttered thanks.

            Sol sat crosslegged on the floor next to the pallet.  He took the mug once Toyus was done with it.

            Toyus sighed and turned his head to look at Sol.

            “Tell about the Sentinels.”

            Sol thought for a moment, pulling on his lower lip.  “The Sentinels represent certain occupations and races from Earth.  I, for example, am a xenopsychologist – I study intelligent behavior.  I am of European ancestry, which made me a decided minority on Earth.  Kaster, who is a doctor, is also European, although he is from Northern Europe.  I am from Central Europe.  Ishel, our xenolinguist, is a Pacific Islander.  That is why he is dusky of skin color.  Topon, who is the xenobiologist – he studies alien organisms – is South African.  That is why he is so dark.  Derik is Asian and our engineer.  Mariel was born in Latin America and Ariahl in North Africa.  Kaster and I are the only pale ones in the lot.  We represent diversity, intelligence, ingenuity.  Our metal and plastic parts allow us to last longer than most human beings.”

            “How long did your arks travel?” Toyus yawned around the question.

            “We traveled for thousands of years in cryo-sleep.  Our arks traveled about half the speed of light. Earth is in one of the arms of the Milky Way, our galaxy.  This planet–your planet– is closer to the periphery of the Milky Way.  Other arks went towards the center of the galaxy, or towards other arms.  We brought about 300 colonists on each ship and we had five ships.  So 1,500 colonists settled on this planet.”

            “The arks must have been huge,” Toyus stated, blinking owlishly.

            “The colonists were stacked in cryo chambers twenty high in niches on the ship’s central walls.  The ships were quite large, you are right.  Mostly because of cargo.  The colonists were cargo, too.  The entire ship was loaded with things that the colonists from Earth might need.  The Sentinels slept in cryo-sleep also, until something went wrong, and we were awakened by the ship’s mainframe.”

            Toyus felt himself drifting off.

            He felt Sol pat his hand.  “You sleep well, my friend.”

            At first Toyus did not dream.  Then mist filled the darkness behind his eyes.  It was as if he was flying over soft clouds.  The sky at his back was a brilliant azure.  Below, he could see the sea sail past through the ragged clouds.  Whitecaps filled the dark ocean surface.  Ahead, he could see the shadow of a dark land.  He flew down towards the vast land that seemed to stretch to the very horizon.  Alighting on the beach, he looked around him.  Conifers filled the land.  The air was still and cold. Toyus shivered, rubbing his arms.  He started when he felt fur instead of skin and looked down at himself.  He was covered in golden fur and his feet ended in sharp, gleaming, black claws.  His hands ended in sharp, black claws as well.  Like talons.  He flexed his hands, making half-fists.  He reached up to touch his head and felt a mane of long soft fur.

            He began to walk down the beach.  The ocean to the west, sounded gentle as it rushed up the shore and retreated.  He liked the coolness of the air, the tang in the air.  When he came to a bend in the land, he saw the dark silhouette of a stranger walking towards him.  He paused, his heart clamoring in his chest.  The silhouette looked vaguely familiar.  He stopped walking and waited.

            The wind rifled his mane and felt strange, yet comforting, on the surface of his fur.

            The figure grew larger and more distinct and soon Toyus was running down the beach.

            “Mother!” he cried.  “Aya!”

            Before he could plow into her, she put both hands out.  “Don’t touch me, child.  I am dead.”

            He stopped abruptly, aching to hug her.  “Aya. What are you doing here?”

            He drank her with his gaze.  She looked all of sixteen, young and beautiful and mysterious.  She wore billowing robes of a shimmering color he had never seen.  Her dark hair was lose to her lower back and she went barefoot, as she had often done while alive.

            “I am here on the Goddess’ behalf, child.  To give you guidance.  Let us walk.”

            They walked along the shore, the icy saltwater running over their bare feet.

            He had many questions for his mother, but kept his mouth shut.

            She glanced at him.  “I see a question in your eyes.  Ask, child.”

            “Mother, why did the Goddess allow for this thing to happen?  Allowed us to be invaded then to succumb to this molting process until we aren’t human anymore!”

            “The Goddess has Her reasons, and you are not to question them.  That way lies willfulness and sin.”  She sighed.  “Find a mate, Toyus, to help ease your sorrow and the weight of your responsibilities.  I am asking as your Mother.  Pray, child, for guidance and the survival of your people.  Difficult times are ahead for you and yours.  Know that I watch over you, now and always.”

            They continued walking for a few minutes.

            Then she said:  “Tell your father to try to find joy and love.  He has a long life ahead of him.  And the same advice I give to you, Toyus.”

            “What am I going to do without you or Father?” Toyus asked bleakly.

            “Find love, companionship and friendship,” she said.  “Promise me.”

            “I promise you, Aya,” he said softly.

            Then he was walking alone.  He stopped and turned, but there was no sign of Malida Ekesj.

            Sorrow rushed through him and he reached out to rub his chest absently.

            When he awoke in the morning, his mind was made up.  He rose to give the Council his answer.