Act I: Chapter I

               In those days, a great privation had fallen upon the populace of the nation of Tjish.un.  It was nothing new, unfortunately; it simply worsened with the current Empress. No one wanted to speak against the High Priestess and Empress, for she was the incarnation of the Mother of the Gods, Cera.  As High Priestess, she was devout and strict, awake in the wee hours of the morning to conduct animal sacrifices so to read the fresh entrails through which the gods spoke.  One could see her, atop the towering ziggurat, holding a curved dagger and bending over the steaming offal.  Afterward, she would descend the pyramid, arms and white robes bright red with the blood of a tah’lir or a dosi.  She was an exquisite woman, even to a man like me who preferred the company of other men.  Tall and willowy, with girlish breasts and narrow hips, long of legs, with a perfect, cunning face and large, bright green eyes.  Her copper-colored hair fell in ripples down her back, except when she wore the famous conical hat of her office.  As unapproachable as she was statuesque, yet the people loved her for bringing the Goddess back to earth.

             As Empress, she was cruel and spoiled, holding feeding orgies for days on end while, under the shadow of Faithful Hill, the poor died of hunger.  Her eyes glittered coldly at servants, haughty and superior.  She was known for loving perfection and, if a servant fell short of expectation, she or he could well be beaten to death.  I had seen so with my very eyes while friends held me back from interfering.  As young as I had been at the time, I knew I hated her, even though her blood ran in my veins, for she was my aunt and the most powerful woman in the world.

             The year before things began to change, I traveled alone to the Isle of Bah’nah to visit the ziggurat of the God for which the island was named, Bah’nah, God of wisdom and beauty.  He was also the God of healing.  The isle was far from Da’hrisjah, the capital, where I and my family lived. Tjish.un is a long, narrow peninsula jutting out from the Southern Continent.   The journey from the tip of the peninsula, where Da’hrisjah was located, to the Isle of Bah’nah midway down the land, took six weeks by sea but more than two months by land.  I had taken an extensive leave from the army on the understanding that I was going to fast and pray and ruminate upon the future.  I had asked it of the High Priestess, knowing she could not refuse a pilgrim’s journey.  She signed my permission of travel, narrowed her eyes at me and waved me away impatiently.   I bowed deeply and backed out of her presence.

              I boarded the ship a week later, my friends coming to see me off, eyes full of questions that they dared not voice.  This was a holy matter, between me and the God.  They might not approve of my going on an extensive leave, but they could not anger the Gods by challenging my right to do so. In the meantime, my second-in-command, my stathos, Rayosj, would look after our company of soldiers.  I am not a fool, nor was I then.  I knew this leave would set me back from any expeditious advancement in the armed forces, but I felt strongly enough at the time that it hardly mattered.  And, truly, once things changed a year later, advancement of any kind became a fantasy for boys and young men.

             The capital, Da’hrisjah, was in the north of the country.  She was in the valley where the two tributaries of the great Kahi River emptied into the Sani’rath Sea. As a result of easy accessibility to trade vessels and a richer, loamier soil, the capital was a wealthy city, boasting more prayer houses than any other.  All her streets and alleys were paved.  Tall, majestic palms and hardy deciduous trees grew along the main boulevards, providing shade for the body and beauty for the eye.  Da’hrisjah’s government (and, by extension, her Empress) controlled the lands to the east and west of the River.  Great fields of black earth were used to grow crops, while in the north, near the city itself, were endless fields devoted solely to vineyards and orchards.  When I rode the great trading ship south to Bah’nah, I looked upon these fields which were full of heavily armed guards there to prevent theft of crops by indigents.  Such a sight began to open my eyes, especially when I already knew that a poor person caught by a guard did not receive a trial before execution. She or he was stealing from Cera, Celestial Mother, and so would be judged by Her in the afterworld. The most common form of execution was hanging and leaving the body to rot in the fields to deter other thieves and to keep the kites and vinah occupied.  As my ship traveled in placid waters along the endless, uneven shore, I saw countless bloated bodies hanging black against the sky.  Even from this distance, if the wind shifted just so, you could smell the sickly-sweet reek of death.  The guards patrolling the perimeters of the fields wore heavy masks across their noses and mouths.  I knew that a blot of certain essential oils just at the philtrum could forestall the grisly odor.

             It was an awakening of sorts for me, for in the capital most killing sanctioned by the state is done away from prying eyes.  The disappearing and killing of thieves and other undesirables are done in the bowels of the ziggurat.  There, people are tortured for the pleasure of the High Priestess and her priestesses and followers.  It is said men, women and children are boiled alive in oil and then set to fire, their bones interred in the earth, never to see the light of the sun again.  They are not given rites or prayers and, so, their souls are doomed to wander forever.  This I heard when I was twelve and just entering the army. I thought it was a tale to frighten children, but since then I have come to know better.  I have seen with my eyes what I was not meant to see.  It is by the grace of the gods that I was able to escape from that hiding place undetected. I am not a favorite of the Empress, even though I am her relative.  Only the High Priestess’ favorites get to witness the grisly events in her ziggurat.  Every day, I give thanks that I am not her favorite.  

             The Isle of Bah’nah is located at the mouth of a nameless bay that is parallel to great Cera Lake.  The land down there is drier than up north, full of windswept grass land and the occasional forest of dusty deciduous trees and palms.  The earth is red and fine, so that, if there are windstorms, one must cover one’s mouth and nose and eyes as best one can.  This far south, the Sani’rhath loses much of her fury, so Bah’nah is sort of a fairytale place, mild of weather and filled with all sorts of trees and flowering plants.  It is a clean place, smelling of the fragrance of flowers and the sea.  I was enchanted by it and wished I lived there, momentarily deciding I would become a priest and devote my life to Bah’nah before sanity returned.

             At the time I traveled to Bah’nah, I was on the cusp of seventeen, having been born near the end of the season of hal’tath.  I will be honest, I am not sure what reason led me to Bah’nah, except I had been troubled by horrible dreams and a crippling sense of foreboding.  I did not trust the High Priestess (which made me a sinner twice over), so I would not have told her anything about my dreams or sense of dread.   I wanted a God known for wisdom and kindness, love, and generosity, and that was not Cera nor her incarnation.  Even though Bah’nah is not the god of the atoliye (those who love their own gender), I have always been drawn to Him.

             Even to this day, there is a marble statue of Bah’nah in the center of the island, where many of the priests live. Servants and guards of the temple live in the outskirts of the island, near the shoreline. When I disembarked from the ship, knapsack over my shoulder, I followed the paved road on foot from the wharves to the statue and paused there to look upon the God’s countenance. I am a shallow man. Amongst the gods, there is none finer of visage than Bah’nah. As I stood under his placid, kind gaze, I noted his beauty with something like shame. He was well formed, and my eyes took in his broad shoulders, narrow hips, and outline of broad thighs before I turned away, fearing I would anger Him. Thankfully, whomever carved the statue had had the forbearance not to carve the genitals bare, but to drape them lovingly with a tunic that fell to mid-thigh. I have never understood the artist’s insistence that a goddess must be shown with bared breasts or a god with bared cock. It is indecent.

             Now that I was here, I was not sure how to proceed. I gazed about the square, with its stone benches and its treelined paved paths and felt a peace within me I had never felt before. A sweet, heavy musk filled the air, overpowering the briny scent of the sea. I looked around until I saw that some of the trees were heavy with large pink-petaled flowers. I thought once more that perhaps I had missed my calling, that I should have been training to become a priest. But my caste is strict in that the second born is always a warrior, and I was second born.

            I left the statue and the square and walked down a walkway that led to what looked like storefronts and shops. That took me aback somewhat, but I suppose servants, priests and guards must eat and purchase goods. So, I looked around until I saw a small teashop that advertised cold meals. The shop was not full. There were some five tables empty. The shopkeeper came to meet me at the door, his lively hazel eyes taking in my knapsack and rumpled uniform.

            He bowed. “Welcome to The Vinah’s Flight, soldier,” he said.

            He was a completely forgettable man in his late 40s or early 50s, with a bald pate and wispy copper-colored hair around his florid face. Although his heavy linen apron was stained, the white shirt under it was clean, as were the dun trousers. He pushed his hair from his face with an impatient hand and indicated an empty table by a small row of windows.

            “Would you like tea or some food as well?” he asked.

            “Both,” I said. “Mjish, if you have it.”

            “Ah!” he pronounced and nodded. “You must be from the capital. Not many favor the Torahni tea this far south.”

            “I am from the capital, sir,” I told him. “What is in the offing, as far as food goes?”

            “A salad of spicy cold seaweed, cold pickled vegetables, and a loaf of fresh baked bread.”

            “I will take it, thank you.”

            He bowed once more and shuffled away.

            The food came first, followed by a teapot and a mug. He also brought a small serving dish full of honey and some tah’lir’s milk. He would not have known I take my tea black.

            As I ate, I listened idly to nearby conversations.  My attention was mostly taken up by the simple, nutritious meal.  

            Those who follow Bah’nah do not consume meat, although they do eat products made from animals, such as cheeses and milk. Bah’nah is the only to god to whom a sacrifice means burning grain or fruits or vegetables.  The Bah’nahist priests communicate with the god by reading tea leaves or the smoke produced by sacrificial fire.  It is all very civilized.  

            The conversations around me were banal and commonplace:  how to breed tah’lir to get more nutritious milk; how to rid dosi of bloodsucking insects; when it is most propitious to plant crops.  Things that interest a farmer but not me. My mind soon wandered.

            It was due to inattention that I failed to notice when a young slip of a girl slid into the seat across from me.  When I glanced up to gaze out the window, she moved and I started.

            She snorted and shook her head.  “You usually do better than that, Karane Truvesto.”

            I finished chewing and swallowed, gathering my thoughts, taking a sip of tea to forestall an answer.

            She looked rumpled, too, and vaguely familiar.  

            I frowned.  “Do I know you?”

            She leaned forward, placing her forearms on the table.  “I might tell you, if you buy me some tea.”

            I hailed the shopkeeper.

            “Yes, soldier?” he asked, flicking a glance to the girl, his hazel eyes taking her in with appreciation.

            “Another pot of tea, her choice, and a meal for her,” I replied.            

            “I’ll have what he’s having,” she said with a smirk.

            The shopkeeper bowed and hurried away.

            “Now,” I said and sat back, full but wary.  “Do I know you?”

            She mirrored my stance, sitting back in her chair.  “Maybe.  You may have seen me here and there.”

            She was pretty, with amber eyes, a rarity in our people.  She wore her russet hair tied tightly in a bun on her head.  Her face was lean, all angles, with a generous, smiling mouth.

            I cocked my head. Suddenly, it came to me.  “On the ship!  You were on the ship.”

            She smiled.  “Very good, Stathoisen.”

            She knew military rank.  She must have read the insignia I wore on the left lapel of my uniform coat.

            She continued to smile.  “My father was in the military, as was my mother.”

            “Ah.  But I don’t really know you, do I?”

            “No.  You don’t.  Not yet.”

            My heart lurched.  Was she seeking companionship?

            She snorted again as the serving girl set a new teapot and mug, as well as a plate of cold vegetables and a loaf of bread, on the table, curtsying before hurrying off.

            The girl pulled the teapot closer and looked inside.  “Mjish.  How typical of a northerner.”  She shrugged.  “Will do in a pinch.”  Her amber eyes danced.   “First, let me clear up the issue of you thinking I am wanting your company for sex.  I am like you, atoliy.  Second, I will not answer any further questions until we have some privacy.”

            I rose. “I am going to find out about lodgings.”

            She gazed up at me as she poured the tea into her mug and doctored it with honey and milk.  “Good.  I need a place to sleep as well.”

            I bowed.  “I’ll be back shortly.”

            I found the shopkeeper at the serving window, speaking to a tall, sturdy man with wide shoulders and a heavily stained linen apron.

            As I approached, the two men turned to me.

            “Soldier,” the shopkeeper said.  “Ready to pay?”

            I reached into the hipbag and withdrew two coins, handing them over.

            “I am in need of lodgings,” I said.  “Would you recommend some place that is reasonable?”

            He bowed.  “Yes. Of course!  There is an inn down this street a few doors down. It has a bright green door and window frames.  You can’t miss it.”

            By the time I returned to the table, the girl had almost consumed her meal.  She ate quickly and efficiently, the way we eat in the military.  I stowed away that piece of information.

            I took my seat across her while she finished her meal and poured myself a third cup of tea.

            She looked up occasionally, but she did not speak to me again until we were out in the bright, warm late morning.  I led us down the boulevard, under the canopy of the fragrant trees, to the inn the shopkeeper had suggested.  There was too much foot traffic to allow for a private conversation, so we said nothing to each other as we came to the green door. I allowed her to enter first.

            Inside the inn, it was cool and quiet.  The window next to the door allowed for fresh air and light to enter the foyer. We stepped to the left and through an archway into a rectangular room with a dark wooden counter.  Behind the counter, the wall was made up of dark shelves filled with folded towels, washcloths, bars of soap and vials of oil.  The room smelled of fragrant oils and tallow.  

            A tall, matronly woman stood behind the counter.  Her salt and pepper hair was pulled severely away from her face and formed into a single braid.  

            She glanced up from her books as we stepped into the room.  “Good morrow.  How can I help you?”

            “We’d like two small rooms,” I said.  “Preferably close to each other.”

            She ran her eyes over both of us, skeptical and curious, then nodded and named her price.  I paid for the week for both the girl and myself.

            “There are bathing chambers in the basement,” the innkeeper told us.  “You come get your towels, washcloths and soap here.  Hot water is extra.  Please sign the register, and I’ll show you to your rooms.  If you cannot write, mark with an X.”

            After we had signed the register, she reached into a drawer and withdrew two keys, walking around the counter and heading back towards the foyer.

            Past the foyer, to the left, was a wide white door.  It was closed now, but she pulled it open, revealing a set of whitewashed stairs.  She proceeded to climb the stairs, and I motioned for the girl to go before me.  I followed after.  The walls to were white as well and scuffed in places.  Even though the stairs and walls were free of cobwebs, the narrow space smelled of must.  The steps looked worn.  

            The steps ended on the second floor which consisted of five sets of closed doors facing each other.  The worn floor was covered with a long, narrow throw rug.  It had once been deep navy blue with white edges but was now mostly faded.  At the end of the hallway was a white table with a blue vase filled with flowers. Behind it stood a narrow, open window.  The air filtering through the window was warm and fragrant.

            “Your bedrooms are at the end of the hall,” the innkeeper said.  

            She strode to the door to the right of the window.  

            “This is yours, young sir.”

            She unlocked the door and stepped back.  

            I stepped into a long, narrow room with a single bed.  It was bright with white walls and floor and a window with a filmy blue curtain that swayed in the warm breeze.  A white table stood under the window.  It, too, held a blue vase filled with flowers.  The bed was covered with blue sheets and a white pillow.

            “This will do nicely,” I told her.

            She smiled and bowed.  “Happy to be of service.”  She turned to the girl.   “You are across the way.  Come.”

            When they had gone, I closed the door and dropped my knapsack on the mattress, taking in the space and deciding if it would allow me to exercise and stretch.  I decided it would and rifled through my knapsack to find something clean to wear.  I needed a wash badly.

            I stepped out into the hall just as the women did as well.        

            “I will be in need of hot water for a bath,” I told the innkeeper.

            She bowed.  “An extra coin for the hot water.”  She looked at the girl.  “For you, too, miss?”

            The girl lifted her chin, flicking me a glance.  “Yes.”

            “Very good.  It should be ready in about 20 minutes.  Come down then.”

            She hurried off.

            I indicated my room.  “Come inside and we’ll talk.”

            She bowed slightly and preceded me, taking a seat on the narrow bed and looking up at me expectantly.

            I closed the door behind me.  “Who are you and what do you want with me?”

           She rose and faced me.  “Who I am is not important.  I’ll give you my name.  It is Yhera Aemathi.”

           I cocked my head.  “Aemathi is not a Tjish.unen name.”

           She squared her shoulders.  “Neither is Yhera.  My father was Ynhan; my mother was Tjish.unen.”

           “Go on,” I said, squatting against the wall facing her.

           She looked at me warily for a moment before perching down on the bed once more.

           She swallowed.  “I was sent to recruit you.”

           I frowned.  “What do you mean – recruit me?”

           For the first time since meeting Yhera, she seemed uncertain and nervous.

           “I am here to recruit you to join the Resistance.”

           I went hot and cold inside. Join the Resistance? Me?

           “I don’t understand why you are recruiting me.  I am no one.”

           “You are nephew to the Empress,” she retorted.  She rose.  “And we’ve been watching you closely for some time now. You don’t like her. For good reason, too.”

           I stood up.  “Out of the question.  Joining the Resistance would be going against my caste–my friends, my family, my future.”

           She scrunched her nose as if she smelled something off.  

           “How typical of the highest caste – to put themselves above the welfare of the poorest, the most defenseless.”

           “I am not unaware of the horrors of our society, you know–“

           “Yes, we know,” she spat.  “But yet you continue to put yourself ahead of everyone else.”

           “That’s unfair!”

           “Is it, Karane Truvesto?”  She swallowed.  “Let me tell you my story and maybe you will see.  My parents, as I told you, were military.  My father rose to the rank of Atheloth.  He–“

           “Your father was Ather Aemathi?”


           “But he was a traitor!”

           She stiffened, her eyes growing hard.  “He was a patriot.  He cared about the indigent, the helpless, the trampled.”

           “He conspired against the Empress!”

           “Lower your voice,” she hissed.  “Yes, he conspired against that woman.  As a result, he was hung and so was mother, even though she was innocent.  The only thing that saved me was that I was rescued by the Resistance and hidden, given a new name, a new city to live.  The Empress hunted me and my twin brother.  Yeron, too, escaped.  But to Ynha to live with my father’s family.”

           She was controlling her emotions with a physical effort.  I could see her trembling and fisting her hands.

           “I’m sorry,” I told her softly.

           Her eyes flashed.  “I don’t need your platitudes.  We need you.”

           “And how do I know you weren’t sent by my aunt to nose my out?”

           “You don’t.  But I’ll give you intel you may not know.”

           She began to pace, wringing her hands.  “Your Empress has made a fatal mistake.  When she sent that military contingency to put down the rebellion in Ras’lah city, we already knew, so the rebels were long gone by the time the military got there.  But her soldiers went into homes and forced out men, women and children, putting them to the sword on the streets until the streets ran red with blood.  She said there was a mole in the army, so now soldiers are turning against one another, pointing fingers and killing each other in a desperate attempt to come out of this alive.  Things are descending into chaos.  It’s only a matter of time. Our time is coming, sooner than you think.”

           I went cold inside. I had heard rumors of soldiers turning against one another down south, in Ras’lah. It seemed inconceivable at the time.

           “What is it you expect of me?” I asked, my voice sounding far away to my ears.

           “Here is my proposal:  You become a member of the Resistance.  We need your ears and eyes, your ability to contact your connection as soon as you hear something of import to us. You are to share this with no one, not father, not mother or sibling.  Not friends or lovers.”

           “I wouldn’t put them in harm’s way.”

           She nodded. “They may be anyway.  I am being blatant with you.  I don’t want you to come to us under false pretenses.  The putrescence of this corrupt government has to be excised and burned, leave the nation clean and healthy.”

           “In that we agree,” I said.  “When do you need an answer?”

           “We will approach you again,” she replied.  “I am here to answer your questions, within reason.”

           “I need to think,” I told her.  “Let me bathe and we can resume our conversation here when we are done.”

           I made to turn and she took three swift steps towards me, putting her hand out and pressing the palm to my chest.

           “Do not think of betraying me,” she said.  “They won’t take me alive, and you will become our enemy as well.  You and your family.”

           “I won’t betray you,” I promised her, placing my hand over hers on my chest.  “I give you my oath.”

           She pulled her hand free.  “Then we should bathe before we talk some more.  Come.”

            We gathered our clean clothes and wandered down to the main floor in search of the bathing chamber.  The innkeeper lent us towels, washcloths and soap and led us down a brick stairwell into a surprisingly clean and fresh basement.  There were windows that looked out into the alleyway.  Dark blue curtains provided privacy.  A dark, heavy curtain hung from a brass rod with brass hooks and stood between two bathtubs.

            “You each take a bathtub,” the innkeeper suggested.  There are stools over there for you to lay your clean clothes.  I do laundry on the third day, two days from now.  It’s is a nominal fee to get your laundry done.  If you are interested, there is a folded cloth sack in your bedroom.  Put your dirty laundry in there and I will collect it on the third day. Questions?”

            “The hot water?” I asked.

            “I’ll bring that shortly.”

            She spun around and hurried up the stairs.  We could hear her footsteps receding directly overhead.

            “Which tub do you want?” Yhera asked me.

            “I’ll take the one closest to the windows,” I told her.

            She gave me a disarming smile.  “Such a gentleman!”

            I went to the left-hand corner of the room for a stool and brought Yhera one as well.  I set hers next to her tub and began to take my shoes off.

            Yhera, I noticed, had undone her braid and began combing her hair with her hands.

            The innkeeper returned, a young man in tow, each carrying two large buckets of water.  The hot water was poured into the tubs.

            The innkeeper set a bucket next to each tub.

            “Cool water comes out of the spigot in the wall there.  Let me know if you have further questions.”

            They were gone before I could answer.

            Yhera chuckled and picked up her bucket, carrying it to the spigot and turning the knob.  Clear water rushed out.

            By the time I got to the wall, Yhera had filled her bucket and was drawing the curtain between the tubs. I heard her undressing and pouring the cold water into the tub before stepping in.

            I followed her lead, except I filled two buckets of water before I was satisfied.  I doffed my clothes and folded them, setting them on the floor next to the stool.  Then I stepped into water that was hot still. I wondered how Yhera could stand it with only one bucket of cool water.

            The water came to my waist. I lathered a washcloth and began to scrub my body with the citrus-scented soap.  My mind wandered as I bathed.  I own that I must have been in some sort of shock at the time.  I felt paralyzed to give Yhera an answer.  Even though I had seen many, many injustices in the brief history since I had been out of the nursery, to go against one’s ruler and High Priestess went against everything with which I had been inculcated.  It did not sit well with me, even as I recalled every person’s murder I had witnessed.  A war began in my mind and heart that day.

            “I can hear you thinking over there,” Yhera teased in a sing-song voice.

            “I have much to think on.”

            “I daresay,” she agreed.  “I have a week to convince you.  Will you hear me out?”

            “I will.”

            I owed her that much at least, even if I did not know her.  She had put her life on the line to give me a choice.  I envied and respected her for that.

            After scrubbing head to toe, I used the bucket to rinse and rose, reaching for the towel.  I grimaced at the sight of that water, grungy with soap residue and dirt.  I dressed quickly, using my wooden comb to unknot my hair, re-braiding it into a single plait down my back.

            On the other side of the curtain, I could hear Yhera stepping out of her tub and beginning to rub the dampness from her skin.  Do not misunderstand me.  I serve in the military with women.  I see women naked in the common baths.  This usually does not affect me, but something about Yhera made me question my values.  I turned my back to the curtain and strode to the windows. I pulled back the curtains and gazed out at the bright early afternoon.

            My eyes felt gritty from lack of sleep.  One does not sleep well in a cargo ship, and I traveled in a cargo ship for six weeks.  It had given me the opportunity to go into different trade towns and learn the lay of the land.  The cargo ships traveling up and down Tjish.un’s coasts usually stopped in more than one locale to empty freight and pick up more.  On the west coast of Tjish.un, there is only one major city between Bah’nah and the capital – A’leumih, named for the god of the world. We stopped there for three days.  It gave me the opportunity to walk around its dusty streets and see how things were there.  Not good.  Same hollowed-out faces and sickly children.  Same angry stares.

            The towns we stopped in (and there were only three large enough to boast a pier large enough for a cargo ship) fared better.  The people looked healthier, better fed.  The ship lingered only a day or so in smaller locales, so I had to make quick reconnaissance.  The intel I gathered gave me hope.  The children seemed well fed and happy. The men’s eyes, though watchful of a stranger, were not angry.  But there still had been a tightness around their mouths, a wariness in their gazes.  It made me wonder.

            “I am ready, Karane,” Yhera said, pulling back the curtain.  “May I call you Karane?”

            “You may, Yhera,” I replied and turned.

            “What are you going to do this afternoon?”

            I shrugged.  “I thought of taking a nap, but I also want to take in the sights.  I need to find the main temple to ask a question of the Oracle.  Then I need to find the ziggurat.”

            She cocked her head.  Her eyes held a question that I dared her to ask, but she nodded.

            “Perhaps you can do both,” she told me.

            “What will you do?”

            She smiled enigmatically.  “I’ve something important to tend to, but I should be back in a couple of hours.”

            “Join me for dinner?” I asked her.

            She shrugged.  “Alright.  Come.  I must be going soon.”

            We spoke of irrelevant topics as we made our way up to the second floor.  At our doors, we both paused, keys in slots.

            “I’ll see you when you return,” I said first.  “Wake me if I am not already.”

            She nodded. “Thank you.  I will.”

            I entered my room and locked the door behind me, dropping the soiled clothes on the floor against the wall.  Then I took my army coat off, leaving only the undershirt and lay down on my back.  I lay there, hearing Yhera leave and lock her door.  Then I listened idly to the sounds drifting in through the open window.  I could hear the rustle of the curtains as they belled and settled, over and over, in the warm breezes.  Sometimes someone would call or whistle in the distance.  Sometimes an animal would bleat.  My mind was abuzz with questions, thoughts, worries.  I turned restlessly unto my side and firmly kept my eyes closed.

            I must have drifted off, even though I was aware of the sounds coming through the window.  I heard a firm knock on my door that had me swinging my legs over the side of the bed and onto the floor before even fully waking.  I had not put my boots on yet. My commanding officer would throw a fit if he found out I answered a door out of uniform.

            Well, he wasn’t here, was he?

            I padded to the door and cracked it open.

            Yhera stood on the other side, smiling.  She held up a bag.

            “I got us some lounma!”

            Pleasure coursed through me.  “How did you manage that?  Is the fruit even in season?”

            She snorted.  “You live in the capital?  Lounma is always in season down further, in I’A and Setkai.  Can I come in?”

            I opened the door and stepped back.  Yhera stepped in, followed by two willowy figures draped in nun’s robes.  Their heads were covered fully, and they kept their eyes trained on the floor.

            My heart lurched in my chest, but I made myself calm down and I closed the door quietly, turning to face them.  They stood in a line, Yhera between them.

            Yhera dug into the bag, pulled a green fruit out and tossed it at me.

            I plucked it from the air and indicated my bed.  “Please, sit.”

            The two women wrapped in robes pulled off their head covers, revealing bald heads.  Dozens of tiny royal blue studs pierced the helix and scapha of their ears.  Blue tattoos showed along their slender, graceful necks.

             I bowed, hands palm-to-palm at my clavicle. “I am honored, Sisters.”

            My mind raced:  What were maidens of the war god Sene doing in Bah’nah?  More importantly, with Yhera, and in my room?

            My heart raced and made me lightheaded.  I straightened my back.

            The women were grinning at me.

            “He’s mannered, at least!” the one of the left said.

             “Yes, he is,” Yhera agreed placidly

            “Pretty, too,” the one on the right commented drily.

            My heart lurched again for a different reason.  One did not turn down a maiden of Sene if she asked for sex if one wanted to live.

            Yhera snorted and slapped the girl on the chest with the back of her hand.

            “Leave him!” she told the nun.  “He is like us, atoliye.”

               “Ah,” the nun purred in response.  “But I am atol-domeinsj, aren’t I, Sister?”

               Meaning she slept with any gender she chose.

               I kept my face in a bland mask as they ran their eyes over me, assessing me.

               “Sit, soldier,” the nun on the left told me.

               I went to the wall and squatted there.

               They mirrored me, squatting with their backs to the bed.

               “These are my friends and colleagues,” Yhera said.  “We are here to try to sway you to join our cause.”

                “And do I have a choice?”

               The nun on the right of Yhera smiled coldly.  “You may well guess.”

               “Yes,” I replied.

               “We are not threatening anyone!” Yhera hissed.

               She gave her friend on the right a withering glare that had no impact, as far as I could see.

               “What is the old saying from colonization days?” I spoke.  “You catch more bees with honey than vinegar.  Whatever bees were.”

               The nun on the right flicked her wrist.  “They were insects.”

               I had the sudden absurd impulse to laugh, but I did not.  I clamped upon it and swallowed it down.

               “I’m listening,” I said.

               “Good, soldier,” the nun on the left said.  “I am Ohna.  That is Lhara’h over there. You know Yhera.”

               I inclined my head again.

               Yhera turned to Lhara’h.  “Tell him your story, Lha.”

               Lhara’h frowned.   “Alright.”  She looked at me with reptilian eyes.  “I was in the armed forces, on the way to being a promoted.  But my family was poor, you see.  The Empress came to our city (Ras’lah) to see how her armed forces were doing—”

               I recalled that the last time the Empress had gone to Ras’lah was four years ago, when I was twelve.  I remembered the production she made of leaving the city – the costly parades and celebrations.  She even hung several opponents from the city walls as a tribute to her journey.

               Lhara’h continued.  “She was beautiful, I thought.  I was in awe of her.  She was beautiful but as cold as the moon’s glow. Anyway…she came with all the pomp and circumstance she could muster.  People turned out in droves to see her.  My family was, as I said, poor.  We were fishers, you see.  I was the only one who went into the armed forces and learned my letters and numbers.  We went to see her; I was on leave from the army at the time.  My family waited all night by the side of the boulevard to see her.

               “In the morning, we had a good seat up front.  She did not arrive until noon.  My father was feeling sickly because of the heat. We had not eaten that day.  She came in a procession down the avenue, her eyes taking in the crowds with hauteur and disdain.  As she passed, one of her precious jewels fell from the filmy robes she wore.  My father bent and picked it up – without thinking, I’m sure.  A guard saw him and took the jewel from him and made him kneel on the ground.  I tried to explain what had happened, but the guard backhanded me.

               “The Empress looked at us and looked away.  ‘Kill him,’ she said tonelessly.

               “Before I could react, the guard unsheathed his sword and beheaded my Eda!  I screamed and it took several men to hold me back from the guard.  The Empress looked at me and then at the guard.

               “’She is no longer in the army,’ she told him.

               “I was stripped of my commission and not paid for that year.  Almost an entire year!  That…woman…she does things with impunity! I…”

               She recalled herself and grew quiet.  Her eyes, which had flashed with rage as she spoke of the injustice suffered by her family, became flat as pond water.

               “My mother killed herself next day.  I left the city and went to Sene city to join the war god’s maidens.  And here I am.”

               Yhera put her arm around the girl’s shoulders.

               The girl looked away, her eyes bleak and tearless.

               “I’m sorry,” I said into the silence.  “I know that may sound like a platitude, but I have seen many such things in the capital.”

               “She is your aunt!”  Lhera’h spat.

               “But that does not make me blind to her faults.  Her second born son is my closest friend.  You are putting me in a difficult position here.”

               “Aren’t we all in such a position?” Ohna asked.  She rose from her squat and sat down heavily on the bed.  “One young man is not worth the lives of thousands upon thousands.”

               I swallowed thickly, seeing bright green eyes and a rakish grin.  “No. You are correct.”

               My heart twisted in my chest. Yes!  He is worth all those lives and more, it insisted.

               “I would like to consult with the Oracle here before I give you an answer,” I said.

               “When are you consulting the Oracle?” Yhera asked.

               “As soon as the head priest will see me.”

               The three stood, and so I rose as well.

               “I leave on the fifth day, with or without seeing the Oracle,” I continued.  “I will give you an answer on the fifth day.”

               Ohna inclined her head.  “Very well, soldier.  We will meet you here in the pre-dawn hours of the fifth day.”

               I bowed.  “Thank you.”

               I watched them leave, Yhera with them.  They had words outside the door, which stood ajar.  I walked to the window and gazed down at the boulevard.

               In a few minutes, Yhera returned and closed the door quietly behind her.

               “Now what?” she asked.

               “Now we go to the Oracle and ask for an audience.”

Epilogue: Part Three

            oun D’jir took up the sack cloth full of dried curatives.  He strode into aun Sjir’phal’s hut and paused.  aun Sjir’phal slept on his pallet while oun Belihe sat against  wall, sound asleep.

            oun D’jir expelled a frustrated sigh.  He was surrounded by incompetents.

            He strode up to oun Belihe and gave him a vicious kick in the leg.

            oun Belihe snorted awake and blinked owlishly for a few seconds.  

            oun D’jir watched as comprehension dawned in his eyes.  His ears flattened out.        

            oun D’jir would have laughed mockingly, had he not felt fed up with all of this.

            He turned without a word and went to the firepit, where the fire had begun to die.  Setting the herbs to one side, he built up the fire and put a clay pot on the cooking stone.

            “Please send oun Satishe to me,” he growled over his shoulder.

            “Ye, High Priest!” oun Belihe replied and hurried out.

            oun D’jir poured fresh water into the clay pot and dug into the cloth bag to retrieve several herbs.  He dropped the dessicated leaves into the rapidly heating water.  A pungent smell arose with the steam.  The tea would have to boil and cool before being consumed.

            He heard a sigh from behind him and turned.

            aun Sjir’phal rubbed his eye.  

            oun D’jir rose and strode to the pallet, dropping down to sit at its edge.  He took aun Sjir’phal’s hand in both of his.

            aun Sjir’phal’s face was thin and worn. He looked older, although he did not smell sick now.

            oun D’jir wrinkled his nose.  “We should bathe you.”

            aun Sjir’phal’s eyes danced.  “Do not make such a promise and then withdraw it, my heart would not survive such a thing.”

            oun D’jir pursed his lips to keep from hissing in laughter.  He shook his head.

            “You are an idiot,” he said, aware that it sounded fond.

            aun Sjir’phal squeezed his hand.  “I know I am idiot.  I have been since I laid eyes on the beautiful High Priest.who sits before me now.”

            oun D’jir preened a little, his laughter escaping.  “You are a flatterer.”

            aun Sjir’phal sobered.  “I am serious.  You are beautiful and quite capable, strong and enigmatic.  I am in awe of you.”

            oun D’jir’s heart gave a lurch. “Why are you telling me these things?”

            aun Sjir’phal sighed.  “Because I have begun to bleed.  Down there.  I think I am beyond curatives, High Priest.”

            A feeling of despair filled oun D’jir.  The second emotion he felt was anger, at the Goddess.  He scrabbled to contain his emotions.  It would not do to blame the deity.  He sent a prayer to Her, asking forgiveness.

            aun Sjir’phal watched him fondly.  “You make a good High Priest; a good leader for our people.”

            oun D’jir swallowed down a mewl.  He let go of aun Sjir’phal’s hands and rose, walking to the firepit and pouring the tea into a clay mug.  He brought it back to the pallet and sat down.

            “I will not drink that,” his patient stated firmly.

            oun D’jir frowned.  “I will not give up and neither will you.”  He set the mug down and lifted aun Sjir’phal’s head.  Picking up the mug, he fed the tea to the aun Deuil.  

            oun Satishe rushed into the hut.  “Forgive me, High Priests.  One of the kits had a stomach ache.  He is well now.”

            oun D’jir relaxed.  “That is good.”

            oun Satishe walked to the end of aun Sjir’phal’s pallet and knelt.  “How is he?”

            oun D’jir sighed.  “He is not well.  Leave two priests with the kits and the rest come here.  We will do a prayer circle.”

            oun Satishe sucked in a breath.  “He fares so badly?”

            “Ye,” oun D’jir said, swallowing down panic and sorrow.

            “I will do as you say, High Priest.”

            oun Satishe hurried out.

            oun D’jir turned back to his patient and continued to feed him the tea.

            When aun Sjir’phal finished the tea, oun D’jir set aun Sjir’phal’s head back on the pallet and sat back, setting the clay mug on the floor.  He took up aun Sjir’phal’s hand.  They sat quietly with one another, oun D’jir watching his patient closely.

            aun Sjir’phal sighed impatiently.

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

            “I have been praying to the wrong deity. The deity of the oun Shi’ehli is not the deity of the aun Deuilli.”

            oun D’jir felt a surge of hope.  “You speak truth. You must pray.”

            aun Sjir’phal looked at him.  “I think it’s too late.”

            The fur at oun D’jir’s scruff rose in ire.  “I told you, you stupid aun Deuil.  I am not giving up and neither are you.  Pray.”

            oun D’jir rose, stretching his lower back with a groan.  He needed to rest, but he was afraid to.  He was afraid aun Sjir’phal would succumb to the poison.

            He paced as aun Sjir’phal prayed.  At some point, he added more wood to the fire and made a second batch of antidote.

            oun Satishe sat quietly praying.  They would pray in tandem.

            By then, aun Sjir’phal had fallen asleep once more.

            It was at that moment that a scream tore the quiet afternoon.

            oun D’jir turned to oun Satishe.  “See what has happened.”

            “Right away, High Priest.”

            The oun Shi’ehl ran from the hut into the overcast late afternoon.

            oun D’jir turned to aun Sjir’phal, but the aun Sjir’phal slept undisturbed.  It said something to the state of his health.  He made to move to his side when the doorflap was pushed to one side and oun Satishe ran inside, ieh Desja in his arms, limp.  

            oun D’jir went cold inside.  “What has happened?”

            oun Satishe’s eyes were fevered with emotion.  “Poisoned.”

            It took an inordinate amount of effort for oun D’jir to remain on his feet.

            His voice came from far away.  “Is the kit dead?”

            “Ne, High Priest.”

            “Bring him here,” he said.  “And bring me the rest of my kits.”

            oun Satishe gently laid the kit in oun D’jir’s arms.  He then ran out of the hut once more.

            “Give me the little one,” aun Sjir’phal murmured from the pallet.

            oun D’jir turned to him.  “I must feed him the antidote.”

            “And you shall,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  “But I will pray over him.”

            oun D’jir–who had not looked at the kit–laid the limp little body along aun Sjir’phal’s thighs.  

            aun Sjir’phal bent his knees, raising the kit up.  He tsked sadly caressing the little face.

            oun D’jir hurried to the firepit, where he poured some tea into the mug.  He heard aun Sjir’phal’s voice droning a prayer.  Turning, he returned to the pallet, sat down at its edge and took the kit again.  

            aun Sjir’phal kept a hand on the little one as he prayed.

            Slowly, with the kits glazed eyes watching him listlessly, oun D’jir fed him mouthfuls of antidote.  The kit swallowed reflexively.  He saw aun Sjir’phal had taken up the kit’s small hand and was caressing it as he prayed. A mewl of distress and mourning filled his mouth like a bitter drink.  He swallowed it down with a shudder.

            oun Satishe, oun Belihe and oun Kelzi hurried in with the remaining five kits.  The rambunctious little ones were quiet for once.

            oun Kelzi approached, arms cradling a kit.  “How it the ieh kit?”

            “We are trying to save it,” oun D’jir replied cooly.  “Please sit over there and take care of my litter.”

            oun Kelzi bowed.  “Ye, High Priest.”

            When he finished feeding ieh Desja the tea, he handed the kit back to aun Sjir’phal.  He then went across the hut to the other kits and examined each one carefully.  Their eyes were clear and focused.  He sighed his relief and turned his ire on the priests.

            “How did this happen?” he demanded.

            They firdgetted under his glare.

            “We have not left the kits alone,” oun Satishe pronounced.  “There has been at least one of us with them.”

            “They are too young to eat meat,” oun Belihe piped up nervously.

            “But they drink water,” oun Kelzi said with some reluctance.

            oun D’jir sighed.  “Go bring aun P’ata’lyh, oun Kelzi.”

            The oun Shi’ehl set the kit he was holding on the ground and rose, bowing. “Right away, High Priest.”

            oun Satishe stared at oun D’jir as the High Priest picked up the kit oun Kelzi had set down.  He gently bounced aun Perisan, but the tiny kit only laid his head on oun D’jir’s shoulder..

            “They just woke up from a nap,” oun Belihe explained.

            oun D’jir walked to aun Sjir’phal’s pallet and laid aun Perisan gently on the bedclothes.  He clapped his hands.  The kit started and blinked, then reached up his tiny hands to oun D’jir”s, bringing one of oun D’jir’s hands to his mouth.  He suckled, his tiny sharp teeth scraping the skin at the end of oun D’jir’s finger.

            oun D’jir opened his robes and brought the kit to his chest.  aun Perisan fastened on the nipple and nursed.

            His remaining priests looked scandalized.  

            oun D’jir did not care.  He did not care that aun Sjir’phal was there.  He did not care he broke one of the most sacred mores of the Sha’jeen.

            “Listen to me,” he stated coldly.

            The three priests jumped.

            “aun Sjir’phal is a priest–“

            oun Belihe frowned.  “He is another gender!”

            Careful of the kit, oun D’jir rose.  “You forget yourself.”

            oun Belihe rose as well.  “As do you, High Priest.”

            oun Belihe stalked from the hut into the downpour outside.

            oun D’jir sighed.  He gazed down at the kit in his arms, which continued to suckle, his little hands fisted to oun D’jir’s robe.

            He glanced at the remaining two priests.  “You may go as well.”

            “Ne,” oun Satishe replied evenly.  “You are changing our ways. I am shocked almost daily, but I am not leaving my post.”

            The kits had begun to crawl and fight, hissing.  

            “Can two of you care for four kits?”

            “Ye, oun Kelzi pronounced with a firm nod.  It will be a challenge, but we willl prevail.”

            oun D’jir sat down once more and finished nursing aun Perisan.  When the kit was done nursing, he immediately crawled towards the firepit and was intercepted by a chuckling oun Satishe.

            oun D’jir turned to aun Sjir’phal, who slept soundly, the kit on his chest. The ieh boueli kit lay limp still, but his eyes were focused and its mouth turned up in one corner, showing small, sharp little teeth.

            There was a knock on the doorjamb and them aun P’ata’lyh stepped through, running his eyes along the gathering with interest and some surprise.

            oun D’jir laid aun Parisan on the pallet and rose, tucking the robes around his body.

            “aun P’ata’lyh,” he said.  “Someone has tried to poison my kits.  Can you investigate?”

            The aun Deuil looked shocked.  “Of course, High Priest.  At once.”  He glanced aun Sjir’phal’s way.

            oun D’jir swallowed.  “He lingers periously close to death.”

            aun P’ata’lyh’s feature subsumed with sorrow.  “I see.”  He squared his shoulders.  “I will begin my investigation into the matter of your kits.”

            “Thank you.”

            aun P’ata’lyh bowed and stalked into the early evening.

            oun D’jir looked at his remaining priests.  “Please have ieh boueli bring our pallets and bedclothes.”

            oun Satishe rose and bowed.  “At once, High Priest.”

            oun D’jir made more antidote and fed it to aun Sjir’phal and then, when it was cool, to the kit.

            When the ieh boueli arrived with the pallets, he had one assist him in cleaning up aun Sjir’phal and removing the bloody robes and bedclothes.  New bedclothes and a robe were brought.

            They watched quietly as the ieh boueli curtained off a corner of the small hut.  There, weak and trembling, aun Sjir’phal bathed, refusing assistance.  When he was done, he lay back on the fresh pallet, the little poisoned kit on his chest.

            oun D’jir was charmed by the aun Deuil’s affections for the little kit.  The little kit, of course, often neglected by the other priests, lapped up every ounce of affection given it.

            oun D’jir dragged his pallet next to aun Sjir’phal and he lay the four remaining kits between them and lay down.

            oun Satishe watched from the firepit.  He rose and tied the door flaps ties to the wall, securing the door against intrusion.  If someone wanted to come in, they would have to make a racket.

            oun D’jir thanked him and he bowed to the High Priest before laying down near oun Kelzi.

            He lingered awake for a time while around him others slumbered.  His eyes ached.  Next to him one of the kits mewled softly and he placed his hand on his tiny stomach and dandled him gently until he settled down.

            He must have fallen asleep, for he dreamed:


            oun D’jir stood on a rise of land.  Below him was a valley, flat and filled with grass.  The air was warm and redolent of the smell of wet earth, although the skies were clear of clouds.  There were copses of trees here and there and a river in the distance.  The jagged teeth of mountains rose around the valley and behind him.  

            Your kits’ kits will find this land and it is here that the Sha’jeen will flourish.

            “What is this land?”

            It has never been named, so it will be called Sha’j. Teach your kits and let them know the land is in the east of the world.

            “I will.”

           Your kits roles in the future of your people are most important.  Keenly so.  So I demand a sacrifice of you, Priest.

            “I am listening.”

            You must renounce your role of High Priest.  Your people will not attain greatness here, among old mores and beliefs.  Your kits’ kits will take the future with them.

            oun D’jir fell upon his knees, feeling shocked and betrayed.

            You will teach, oun D’jir. That will be your role.  Teach your kits and their kits and those who would listen.  Let the rest of your people fall by the wayside.  They will kill your offspring if you push them too far.

            oun D’jir felt his distress and horror as a distant thing.  Rising quickly was rage.  

            He lifted his face to the bright blue sky.  “I have done everything you asked!  You promised I could be High Priest!”

            Aah.  The capricious nature of mortals.  The voice had grown cold and distant.  Listen to me, although I am not obliged to explain myself to you, oun Shi’ehl  The Dark One grows in power daily, in the very midst of your village.  He has surprised us.  Although he is a small thing right now, the priests left behind by oun Ei’dhar’s departure are more clever and cunning than he thought himself to be.

            “Tell me who they are and I shall excise them from our midst!”

            It doesn’t work that way, oun Shi’ehl.  Do as I have asked you to do and watch.  Keep your kits safe and teach them the Way. When they are old enough, I will guide them.

            oun D’jir suddenly saw the years stretched ahead of him indefinitely, wearily and full of peril for his family.  Suddenly, contrition filled him with a bittersweet humiliation and he bent his head to the ground.  

            “Oh Blessed Deity!” he murmured.  “Forgive me!  I will do as you say.”

            He blinked awake and turned his head to where aun Sjir’phal and the kits lay quiescent, the kits sometimes sighing and gently mewling in their slumber.  Without waking the little one, oun D’jir reached out and touched the nearest hand.  The kit’s hand wrapped around his finger.  He hissed softly, pleasure coursing through him.

            He disengaged his finger from the kit’s hand and rose.  

            oun Kilze and oun Satishe sat at the firepit.

            “Good morning, High Priest,” they murmured in unison.

            Did oun D’jir detect a mocking undertone?

            He squared his shoulders.

            “Have two ieh boueili bring my chest of belongings,” he ordered.

            The priests shared a look of disbelief before turning to him once more.

            “Here, High Priest?” oun Kelzi asked.

            oun D’jir nodded once.  “Please.  Do as I say.”

            He waited until the priests had dispersed before turning back to the firepit.  His sack of antidotes lay under his pallet, but the water in the wooden bucket?  Was it safe?

            When the priests returned with two ieh boueli in tow, a chest between them, oun D’jir asked the priests to gather the people together.  After a shared look, they hurried to do his bidding.

            The ieh boueli bowed before him.  

            “Do you require ought more, High Priest?” the one on the left asked.

            “Yes. I ask that you serve me now, so bring your pallets and return those pallets to the Prayer House,” he said, indicating oun Satishe and oun Kelzi’s pallets.

            The ieh boueili bowed and did as he asked.

            “What are you up to, I wonder?” aun Sjir’phal murmured from his pallet.

            oun D’jir clasped his hands before him and turned.  “I am ensuring my kits’ survival, as well as your own.”

            aun Sjir’phal’s eyes widened.  “Will you tell me?”

            “As soon as it is safe to do so.  Be patient.”

            “I can be patient.”

            The two priests returned in time to watch the ieh boueili roll up the pallets and carry them away.

            “What’s this?” oun Kelzi demanded.

            “You will be informed shortly.  Are the people gathered?”

            oun Kelzi’s eyes flashed resentment.  “Ye.”

            “Good.  I’ll be right out.”

            The priests scowled but did as he asked.

            When the ieh boueili returned with their own pallets and rolled them out on the other side of the hut, oun D’jir told one to fetch clean water and another to remain to watch his family.

            Then oun D’jir changed his robes for fresh ones, leaving the used one to be cleaned, and made his way into the early morning.  

            The people were gathered to the west of the village, clumped in groups and chatting excitedly about what the High Priest was going to annouced.  

            As oun D’jir strode up, bright eyes turned to him.  The conversations died until there was absolutely silence, save for the sounds emanating from the jungle, and the occassional call of a bird.

            A guard stepped forward.  “We have come, just as you asked, High Priest.”

            “Thank you,” he replied.  “I appreciate that you are so quick to do as I ask.”  He sighed, running his eyes over the gathering, noting that the ieh boueili had been pushed to the back and the sides.   He frowned.

            “The Goddess has demanded that I step down as your High Priest–“

            Mewls of distress filled the quiet.  Already the priests’ eyes filled with stories they told themselves.  So many were avaricious.  He should have stripped them of their priesthood when he had the chance.

            “Why is this, High Priest?” the same guard shouted.

            “I do not demand answers from the Deity!” he lied, swallowing his shame.  “I do as She says.  Am I to disobey Her?”

            Silence fell once more upon the congregation.

            “Then what are we to do?” the guard asked.

            “Here is what I recommend:  have a competition between your priests and choose one that is worthy.  Have the Council guide you in this.”

            They threw out questions at him: what kind of competition?  How do we choose?

            “Have the Council decide this,” he told them a tad impatiently.  “And here is my recommendation:  Have the Council rule, not the High Priest.  Never one person.”

            He gathered his robes around him while before him, the morning erupted into a cacophy of conversations.

            He returned to the hut and at once glanced towards aun Sjir’phal.  The kits were awaking slowly, their mouths showing pink around yawns.  oun D’jir was gratified to see ieh Desja sitting up, aun Sjir’phal’s large hand holding both of its tiny ones.

            oun D’jir went to the firepit, where the ieh boueil had set a fresh pale of water.   He boiled the water with herbs and filled the small space with the green smell of medicinals.  When the medicinals had steeped enough, he fished the leaves out and poured a bit of fresh water into the mug to cool the tea.  He then took the tea to aun Sjir’phal, who was sitting up, the kits playing sleepily on his lap.  He handed the mug to his mate.

            “Give ieh Desja a mouthful or two, won’t you?” he asked.        

            “Of course,” aun Sjir’phal murmured around a sip of the tea.

            While his mate sipped his concoction, oun D’jir fed the kits.  Each kit clamped onto the nipple with his sharp little teeth and fisted the robe in his tiny hand.  It was always both a painful and pleasurable event to feed the kits.  But it wouldn’t last long.  Already they neared the time when they would consume their first bit of fresh meat.

           aun Sjir’phal watched with awe as he fed the kits at his chest.  He paid the aun Deuil no mind, but kept his eyes trained on each kit as it nursed.  As soon as he released a kit, it would begin to crawl away.  The ieh boueli would have their hands full.  

            As was its wont, little ieh Desja kept close to aun Sjir’phal.

            oun D’jir finished with the last kit and arranged his robes.  He then took up the nearly empty mug and sat ieh Desja on his lap, feeding him the antidote.  The kit minded well and swallowed each mouthful without fuss.  

            “Tell me what has occurred,” aun Sjir’phal demanded softly when oun D’jir handed him the ieh boueili kit.

            oun D’jir sighed.  “The Goddess demanded that I step down from the role of High Priest.  Someone will poisoning my brood.  They must survive above all else.”

            aun Sjir’phal made a sign to avert evil.  “He is here again.”

            oun D’jir frowned.  “She called him the Dark One.”

            “He was the darkest,” aun Sjir’phal replied.

            All of oun D’jir’s down stood at attention, a strange prickly feeling along his skin.  He shuddered and reached for aun Sjir’phal’s hand.

            “We will lie low, aun D’jir,” aun Sjir’phal murmured.  “We will not make scenes or challenge anyone.  We will lead quiet lives and wait for more guidance.”

            oun D’jir bent his head.  He shuddered.

            “oun D’jir?”

            He glanced up once more.  “They poisoned a kit!”

            “I know,” aun Sjir’phal soothed.  “But we must keep your kits’ wellbeing at the fore of our minds.”

            oun D’jir looked into aun Sjir’phal’s eyes.  “Our kits.”

            aun Sjir’phal brought oun D’jir’s hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to it.  “Our kits.  Now we will plan, oun D’jir.  We will survive this.”

            oun D’jir said nothing.  He lay his head on aun Sjir’phal’s shoulder and watched quietly as the ieh boueili played with the kits.  The future stretched ahead of them, fraught with danger.  He would resign from the Council, even if the Goddess did not ask that of him.  The less politics he involved himself in, the safer his family would be.

            He shifted against aun Sjir’phal.  “Will you remain a priest?”

            aun Sjir’phal sighed.  “I will see how it goes.  But my family takes priority over my duties.”

            “Ye,” oun D’jir agreed.

            He draped his arm over aun Sjir’phal’s waist and snugged against him.

            aun Sjir’phal pressed a kiss to oun D’jir’s head.

            “Have you stopped bleeding?” he asked.

            aun Sjir’phal nodded.  “Ye.  I feel stronger, too.  I am cautiously optimistic that I will  survive this.”

            “I shall see to it!” oun D’jir promised sharply.

            aun Sjir’phal hissed with laughter.

            ieh Dasja crawled between oun D’jir and aun Sjir’phal and settled there. The kits’ bright eyes studied them solemnly.

            oun D’jir reached up and caressed the kit’s soft cheek.

            His heart filled with love for the tiny ieh boueili and he was not even surprised by that.


Epilogue: Part Two

            Toyus watched oun Nilja carefully.  The oun Shi’ehl stood before him nervously, his ears flat to the sides of his head.  

            “Why don’t you like him?” Toyus demanded once more.

            To Toyus’ right, Ereali shifted and sighed.

            The Sha’jeen did not reply.

            Toyus cleared his throat.  “We know you can’t abide oun Ei’dhar.  I want to know why, for security sake, if nothing else.  Do you suspect something?”

            “He does not like me because he has adopted all of you as his pets,” oun Ei’dhar stated from behind them.

            Toyus whipped around.  “Is that your opinion?”

            oun Ei’dhar showed his teeth.  “It is the truth.”

            oun Nilja showed his teeth.

            oun Ei’dhar huffed in amusement.  “You frighten no one, pukra!”

            Before oun Ei’dhar could turn away, oun Nilja was upon him and they fell hard to the ground, where they hiss and spit and rolled about the dirt.

            Toyus rubbed his face with his hands and sighed.  “Stop!  Ereali, help me.”

            They managed to separate the two Sha’jeen.  Toyus held onto oun Ei’dhar while Ereali held onto oun Nilja.

            oun Ei’dhar broke free of Toyus’ hold.  There was a cut along oun Ei’dhar’s cheek.  It bled thinly into the soft down.  Blood gleamed on his lower lip.

            “It matters not,” oun Ei’dhar said, as if continuing a discussion.  “I am leaving tomorrow morning, so you can have the entire village, pukra.”

            oun Nilja yowled.  “Do not call me that!”

            “Then behave as a Sha’jeen!” oun Ei’dhar shot back.  “Your behavior is embarrassing.  Pray to the Goddess for your own kits and stop rolling around the ground like some pathetic–”  He rolled his eyes.  “You have no shame!  But it isn’t my business any longer.”

            He turned south and began to make his way to the gate.  The area was crawling with workmen rebuilding the gate and parts of the walls.  

            Toyus watched him as oun Ei’dhar made his way along the edges of the crowd, under the gate  and out into the surrounding land.

            oun Nilja had turned to watch him walk away.  “He is leaving?”

            Toyus sighed.  “Apparently.”

            “He’s headed towards the shuttle,” Ereali noted with interest.  “Should we speak to the Sentinels?”

            Toyus stared in the direction of the shuttle for a few seconds before coming to a decision.  He nodded.

            oun Nilja made to turn in the opposite direction, but Toyus put his hand out.  “You come, too.”

            oun Nilja looked startled before nodding once.  “I will come.”

            They walked in side-by-side, Toyus in the middle.  They did not speak.  Navigating the area of construction proved a little tricky, but they were able to slip through in a line, hugging the broken wall.  Toyus was hailed by the workman lead, who stopped him to ask when the Council would hold another town hall. Toyus assured him it would be soon.  The middle-aged man nodded with a grin and pounded Toyus on the back before turning back to his work.  

            They continued under the gate arch and out into the treeless land beyond.  The shuttle stood to the southeast.  The river was just down a rise in the land, to the east.  There were families at the river’s shore, gathering water into buckets.  The river rushed north, cold and clear.  Children ran, screaming and playing.  oun Nilja looked towards them longingly.

            They headed towards the shuttle.  The bay door stood open.  Sol and Ishel sat at the top of the ramp, talking softly.  There was no sign of oun Ei’dhar.

            Sol glanced up and raised a hand in greeting.  “Welcome, Toyus!”

            Toyus felt his heart speed up.  He swallowed.  “Hello, Sol!”

            The Sentinels rose and pounded down the metal ramp, Ishel following more sedately.   

            “What brings you here?” Sol asked.  He glanced curiously at Ereali but did not say anything.    

            “I just want to ask if oun Ei’dhar is leaving with you?” Toyus asked.

            Sol and Ishel shared a look before Sol turned to Toyus and nodded.  “He is going to assist other Amalgamese  from North Torahn in a new settlement in South Yllysia.”

            oun Nilja hissed.  “He is a murderer!”

            Sol nodded.  “And what do you recommend we do with him – murder him in turn?”

            oun Nilja”s ears flattened.  “No!  But…”

            Sol and Ishel stared at the Sha’jeen expectantly.  

            oun Nilja sighed and dropped his gaze.

            “We just want to make sure everyone is safe,” Toyus murmured.

            Sol nodded.  “As do we.  These Amalagamese will know oun Ei’dhar killed someone.  They will decide if they want oun Ei’dhar among them.”

            “Forgive us,” Toyus said.  “We are concerned.”        

            “Of course,” Ishel piped up.  “We are, too, but he isn’t happy here.”  He flicked a glance at oun Nilja.  “We want to prevent future problems.”

            oun Nilja mewled softly and ducked his head.

            “When are you leaving?” Toyus asked.

            “Tomorrow morning,” Sol replied.

            Toyus nodded.  “Will you return here?”            

            “No,” the Sentinel said.  “We’ll head back to the moon for cryosleep.  We’ll be back in 1,000 years to see how things are progressing.”

            “I see,” Toyus said in a small voice.  

            Sol was smiling at him with empathetic eyes.  

            “Well, we’d best return then to the city.  Good luck to you, Sentinel Sol and Sentinel Ishel.  And thank you for everything.”

            He turned and strode back the way they had come, Ereali and oun Nilja scrambling to keep up.

            For a few minutes, Toyus saw nothing in front of him.  He was unaware of what he was doing and where he was going.  When he finally was able to see again, he found himself at the shores of the river.  He squatted, resting his forearms on his thighs and dangling his hands between his knees.  His face and ears were burning. He could not seem to catch his breath.  He looked straight ahead towards the other shore.  He thought he was past this affection for Sentinel Sol, this attraction.  He wiped his face with his cold hand and sighed.  

            “Are you alright?” Ereali asked.

            Toyus looked at his friend.  Ereali was squatting, too, mirroring him.  oun Nilja was a few feet away, speaking to an Amalgamese woman and her two children.

            “I’ll be fine,” he replied stiffly.

            Ereali nodded and gazed across the rushing river.  They had to pitch their voices just so to hear each other over the voice of the river.

            “I’m sorry,” Ereali said.

            Surprised, Toyus glanced at him.  “What for?”

            Ereali pointed to the shuttle.  “You love him.”

            Toyus shook his head.  “That’s too strong a term.  I am attracted to him.  I am wondering what would have been if he could stay.”  He gave a bitter bark of laughter.  “It’s a moot point, though.  He can’t stay and I can’t go.”

            Ereali nodded and looked away.

            After a while, Toyus began to feel the heat of the sun’s glare on his head and he rose.  “Let’s go back.”

            Ereali rose and followed him without a word.

            This time no one bothered them as they wove their way through the construction site and into the city.  They went to straight to their dwelling and entered.

            They had done a lot of work on the house.  They had whitewashed the outside and Toyus had purchased a woven cover for the front door.  

            Ereali had focused on making bright patterns of paint along the inner walls of the dwelling.  The paintings seemed chaotic at first but then patterns began to emerge if one stared at the figures long enough.  It was especially interesting at night, when shadows from the firepit danced along the walls.  

            Toyus felt ashamed suddenly.

            “I’m sorry,” he told Ereali.

            Ereali started and looked at him.  “Why?”

            “Here I am pining for something that I already have.”

            Ereali smiled and shrugged.  “I am no blond Sentinel.”

            Toyus sobered.  “You are also not a half-man whose body is full of metallics and plastics, whatever those are.  You cannot lie down in a chamber and sleep for 1,000 years.”

            Ereali lowered his gaze.  “I’m not exactly human any longer.”

            “Neither am I, friend.  Neither am I.”

            Ereali kept his gaze on the floor.  “Does that mean you would try a relationship with me?”

            “We are already in a relationship.  We are friends.  But, yes.  Let’s see if we commit to this where it will lead us.”

            Ereali gave a hesitant nod. “I would like that.”

            Toyus smiled at the younger man.  “I am going to scrounge us a meal.  Throw some wood in the fire.  I’ll be back.”

            He pushed the door flap to one side and stepped out into the bright, muggy afternoon.  He turned to face south, but he could not see the shuttle because of the southern wall.  He squared his shoulder and turned north, quickly striding away from the dwelling he shared with Ereali.


            oun D’jir sat against the wall of the Prayer Hall.  Before him, five of his six kits rolled around on the floor, hissing and spitting and mewling.  They seemed to have an inordinate amount of energy.  It took the five of them — himself and his remaining four priests — most of the time to look after the little beasts.  One sat on his lap, ieh Desja, the only one of his kits to have been born ieh boueli.  The little kit was quiet and gentle with large eyes that gazed at everything limpidly.  Part of  oun D’jir had wanted to kill it when it was born–there were so many ieh boueli already–but aun Sjir’phal had convinced him otherwise.  He looked down at the little kit who watched its siblings playing so seriously.  oun D’jir caressed the kit’s soft back.  The kit turned its limpid eyes up to its parent then leaned heavily against oun D’jir without so much as a mewl.  oun D’jir smiled fondly at it, running the back of his hand along the little one’s cheek.

            It was almost time to feed aun Sjir’phal. He had taken up the task himself to keep the aun Deuil safe.  With a sigh, he tucked the kit close to him and smoothly rose to his feet.  He padded quickly to where oun Belihe sat against the wall on the other side of the room.  He handed the kit to his friend.

            oun Belihe smiled and tucked the kit against his chest.  “Are you feeding aun Sjir’phal now?”

            “Ye,” he replied and stepped out into the bright, hot afternoon.  He glanced around, noting construction of the village continued unhampered by rain.  The hot afternoon was filled with the voices of workers in conversation or calling to one another. 

            He made his way to the central dwelling of the village: a long rectangular single-story building.  This was the second such building, the first being the dwelling of the ieh boueli.  This building housed the kitchens and two large eating areas.  The cooking area was set off to one side.  He walked into the kitchen and asked for some meat and water.  An ieh boueli bowed and went to fetch these things.  

            While he waited, oun D’jir paced.  He would have to give aun Sjir’phal his answer about mating with him.  He did not want to have another clowder of kits so soon.  But he was sure aun Sjir’phal would understand.  It had taken aun Sjir’phal’s poisoning and near death to make oun D’jir realize the value of the aun Deuil.  It had taken that to make oun D’jir own his attraction to him.  He had not been ready to accept these things until something nearly catastrophic occurred.

            The ieh boueil returned with a bowl of cut meat and a mug of water.

            oun D’jir took the items and thanked the ieh boueil, startling it.

            oun D’jir surprised himself as well.   That was the first time he had ever thanked an ieh boueil.  He said nothing more incriminating and strode out of the building.  

            The bowl he carried was covered with a towel.  He could smell the meat.  He could detect most of the Sha’jeen poisons, although if the poison were local, he was not sure he could detect it. He wondered why someone had targeted aun Sjir’phal.  His investigation had not uncovered much, although aun P’ata’lyh continued to ask questions.

            Oun D’jir came to the aun Sjir’phal’s hut and paused at the door flap.  He took a few cleansing breaths and pushed the woven flap to one side, entering into the smallish interior.  It took him but a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimmer interior.  There was a fire in the pit, although it seemed to be going out.  The windows were covered.  He signed and wrinkled his nose at the smell of urine and waste.  He would have to send an ieh boueil to take the waste buckets away for the contents to be disposed of.  He went to the pallet, set the bowl and mug down on the floor and rose, striding to the windows to pull the covers back and allow sunlight into the dimness.

            He turned and started. 

            aun Sjir’phal was lying awake, watching him.  His fever-bright eyes looked sunken in his lean face. 

            oun D’jir’s heart gave a painful lurch.

            “How do you feel?” he asked.

            aun Sjir’phal said nothing.

            oun D’jir went to the pallet and sat down at the edge.  He took aun Sjir’phal’s right hand in both of his.

            “How are you?” he asked again.

            “I am dying, oun D’jir,” he answered softly, his voice sounding papery.

            oun D’jir touched his neck and detected the thready hearbeat.

            He frowned.

            “I’m going to heal you with the Goddess’ grace, aun Sjir’phal.  It will only be you and I.”

            aun Sjir’phal closed his eyes.  “So tired.  Maybe just let me go.”

            “How are we to mate then?” oun D’jir demanded tightly.

            aun Sjir’phal opened his eyes and turned his head.  “You want to mate with me?”

            “Ye.”  oun D’jir felt shy for the first time since he was a tumbling kit.  “Ye.  I would we mated.”

            aun Sjir’phal’s eyes were bright.  “For that I’d live.”

            oun D’jir nodded.  “Then close your eyes and I will pray.”

            aun Sjir’phal closed his eyes.

            oun D’jir rose and knelt at the head of the pallet.  He put his hand on either side of aun Sjir’phal’s head and closed his eyes.  In the ancient language, a language that came from before their dark days on their arks before they encountered the dual-face God that almost destroyed them.  Only High Priests learned the language from predecessors.  He began to pray.  As he prayed, he allowed his emotions to bleed into the prayer.  He was upset at how close his mate was to death.  He had not asked anything of the Goddess until now.

            “Goddess Ie’teihna, merciful One, kind One.  I ask a boon–“

             The presence of the Goddess was announced by the sweet scent of flowers.  In the next second, her entire presence filled his mind and body.

            He dies because he does not believe in me.

            He can pray and save himself, but he has given up.

            “If you save him; perhaps he will believe.”

            He was traumatized by your previous god.  He must learn to trust me.

            “Please heal me and I will teach him about you.”

            I have told you what must be done.

           oun D’jir felt bereft when She was gone.  It took him a few seconds to calm himself.  She came to him, albeit infrequently.  It was to test him, he knew.

            oun D’jir opened his eyes. He glanced down and found aun Sjir’phal studying him.

            “It didn’t work,” he told oun D’jir.

            oun D’jir snarled.  “Because you do not believe!  You are throwing us away because you won’t believe!”

            He rose and made to leave.

            “Wait,” aun Sjir’phal said.  “What must I do?”

            oun D’jir covered his face with his hands and, with a sigh, dropped his hands. 

            He looked at the aun Deuil.  “You must pray like you mean it, aun Sjir’phal.  If you want to mate with me and build a life together, then you must do this thing.”

            aun Sjir’phal struggled up onto an elbow.  “Show me how to pray properly.  Help me.”

            oun D’jir assisted aun Sjir’phal to sit with his back to the wall.  He sat beside him and took his left hand in both of  his.

            “Allow yourself to be open to the Goddess,” oun D’jir told him.  “Say the words with emotion and passion.   You must save your own life, so say the words like you mean them.  Keep your heart open to Her.  Listen and she will speak to you.”

            aun Sjir’phal nodded and closed his eyes.

            oun D’jir fed him the words, holding his hand all the while.  While he prayed with aun Sjir’phal, he sent his own prayer into the ether.  He prayed aun Sjir’phal believed and saved himself.

            Time began to blur for oun D’jir.  He thought distantly that aun Sjir’phal needed his rest, too.  That healing was two-pronged.

            Finally, oun D’jir opened his eyes.  He looked at aun Sjir’phal.

            The aun Deuil was panting.

            “Lie down once more,” oun D’jir said and helped aun Sjir’phal to lie down, covering him with the bedclothes. 

            aun Sjir’phal was trembling and his teeth were chattering.

            oun D’jir took his closest hand and rubbed it.  It felt icy.

            “I have more curatives to try,” he told his mate.  “Let me fetch them.”

            “No!” aun Sjir’phal said.  His eyes rolled to the back of his head.  “Something is happening.  Do not leave me alone!”

            oun D’jir was taken aback.  He had never seen an aun Deuil express fear.  Not of death.  Not of anything.

            “Let me go to the door and fetch an ieh boueil to remove the waste buckets,” he said.  “I’m still here.”

            He hurried to the door flap and stepped outside.  He managed to flag down two ieh boueili.

            They returned to the hut. 

            “You take the waste buckets, empty them and wash them,” he told the first ieh boueil.  “And you, send the priest called oun Belihe to me.”

            The ieh boueili bowed.  One hurried outside, while the other one gathered the buckets and hurried away.

            oun D’jir returned to the pallet and sat at the edge.

            aun Sjir’phal continued to pray, his eyes closed. 

            oun D’jir could not hear the words. They were whispered so softly.

            The minutes ticked by.  The first ieh boueil returned with fresh buckets, and oun D’jir had him carry the meat back to the kitchens. 

            Soon, oun Belihe arrived, ducking past the door flap and entering.

            “You called me, High Priest?”

            oun D’jir rose and met him at the door. 

            “I trust you, oun Belihe, to keep my mate safe,” oun D’jir said.  “Please stay with him while I gather antidotes.”

            “Do you need help?” oun Belihe asked.

            “Stay here, with aun Sjir’phal.”  oun D’jir put his hands on oun Belihe’s shoulders.  “I trust you.”

            “Ye, High Priest.  I will care for him.”

            oun D’jir gazed into his eyes, but oun Belihe did not flinch.

            “I’ll be back shortly.  Send for an ieh boueil to build the fire and find clean bedclothes.”

            “Ye, High Priest.”

            oun D’jir hurried out into the busy late afternoon.

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.


            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.


            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.”


            “Mister Somar.”


            “Mister Omir.”




            “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 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.


            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?”


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


            “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.”


            “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.