Featured Story: Life and Death Around the Spire

Mark BallWe shared this image on the SciFi Ideas Facebook page several weeks ago and asked our followers to use it as the basis for a short story. Stephen Landry was the first to accept the challenge, and you can read his story here. Now, John H. Reiher has taken up the gauntlet, writing this excellent short that tells a very different story to the first.

going_upLife and Death Around the Spire

by John H. Reiher Jr.

Lief ran full tilt down the hand carved tunnel to the lower galleries of the Spire. It was Harvest Day, the day the great beasts strode past the base of the Spire and were easy targets for the harpooners. And today, this day, Lief was old enough to watch, perchance to help with the harvest.

He was a scant 6 sun years of age and by the calendar of the moons, 14, just starting puberty and adulthood. He had grown tall and gangly, all long legs and arms he stood barely a meter and half. The harpooners all stood two and half meters each, as did the butchers and the flayers. Lief hoped to join the latter, his handmade knife, it’s wide curving blade perfect for cutting through the fat that lay under the great beasts’ skin, was strapped securely to this thigh.

Soon, he was down to the lowest galleries overlooking the mist-shrouded jungle. He was one of many others looking forward to the event. He jostled about until he saw Kien, her nut-brown skin contrasting with her sun yellow hair. Lief smiled and made his way to her side.

“Kien!” he said amid the hubbub of voices, “Do you think we’ll get a chance on the beast?”

She was finishing braiding her long blonde hair into a ponytail. As she wound it into a bun, she said, “I hope so! I didn’t come down here just to get a chum bucket. I want a slab of beast fat and muscle!” Others around echoed that sentiment.

“Lief, let me do your hair as well,” she said, turning him around, so he faced a large sweaty man with scarification patterns across his arm. Lief smiled and the man grunted. “You don’t want it to get caught in ropes or get filthy now do you?”

He smiled, Kien was full moon year older than him, and she had participated in at least one previous Harvest Day. He liked her, and wanted to impress her. Why? That was something he was still working on.

With his hair in a braid, they pushed to the railing and looked down. The massive harpoons were mounted securely to the side of the Spire. On each was a harpooner, checking the charge on his or her harpoon cannon. The harpoon itself was a family heirloom, passed down from one harpooner to his or her descendent. They were as old as the colony on the spire. Each ended in a complicated head, designed to pierce the flesh of the beast and then unfold inside the beast, allowing the harpooners to haul the beast up into the air, away the from the scavengers.

The Harvest Master swung across the line of people waiting to participate in the harvest. “Today, we need twelve young flayers and twenty butchers of any age. You, you,…” he then pointed at Lief and Kien, as well as other young adults lining the rail, “will be our flayers. Snap to your lines and pair up with a journeyman.”

Lief snapped on his line to a well-worn harness and found himself paired with an older woman named Gieli. She was missing her left little finger and two toes.

“It wasn’t quite dead yet when we started in on it,” she explained as she checked his line and harness. She then looked at his flaying blade and nodded approval. “Stick close to me Lief. When they poon the beast and haul it up, it will get crazy. Some ‘prentices find they have no stomach for the work. There’s no shame in that. But I do warn you; you will heave up your guts if this is your first flaying. It’s the smell. Now ready yourself, here they come!”

The sound was faint, but the heavy tread of the massive beasts of this world was unmistakable. Trees cracked as the beasts made their way through the valley that held the Spire. Soon, they spotted the long neck, segmented eyes, and the ropy, mottled flesh of the lead beast. Down the neck rose wide scales the color of the rainbow, they ran along it’s spines and down to its six legs. It bellowed when it saw what was waiting for it, but it had no choice, it had to go past the spire on its migration. So with a huff and puff, it continued on, followed by the rest of the herd.

“We never take the lead,” Gieli said rosining her hands, “it would cause a bottleneck and we’d have to deal with stampede of the beasts. That one, “she nodded towards the rear of the herd, tossing the rosin bag to Lief, “he’s marked for death.”

It was the last in line of the herd. An older beast, if the humans didn’t get him, the Jawjackers and Ripspines would.

Beneath them, the younglings of the herd scampered on by, bracketed on all sides by wary-eyed older adults. The occasional look up by the beasts was chilling. ‘Did they know that we hunted them?’ thought Lief. He’d have to ask a scholar about that.

Soon the word was given and the harpooners unlatched the safeties on their cannon. With practiced aim, they lined up on the old beast. They were aiming for the hindbrains on the spines. Kill the beast instantly and the bones would give purchase for the hooks to haul it up the side of the Spire.

The cannons followed its slow walk beneath the spire until the perfect moment and the crackle of electricity sparked, silently firing the harpoons into the beast. The smell of ozone soon mingled with the smell of blood and ichor, as the beast flailed helplessly, then collapsed.

As soon as it collapsed, the winches groaned into the life. The cables were made of ship metal, precious as the rarest flower, and irreplaceable. But they didn’t corrode and as long as they were properly cared for, invulnerable. Soon the beast was leaving a bloody smear along side of the Spire, its blood mixing with the hundreds of other beasts that made the same journey.

With a whoop, the flayers landed on its back and began slicing through the flesh. A handful of butchers were with them, delivering coup de grace blows with long metal spears to the hindbrains and one brave man, to the head of the beast.

Gieli was right, about halfway through a large chunk of skin and fat, Lief had to throw up. The smell was horrendous. He leaned out over the edge of the body and let loose his breakfast. He then noticed that he wasn’t the only one. Just about everyone did. “It’s both nerves, adrenalin, and the stench,” said Gieli, wiping her mouth. “I keep telling myself, no eatin’ before flayin’, but I always do have a good breakfast. Mind your slicing. You’re leaving about a three centimeters of fat on the meat.”

Chunks of fat and flesh the size of a man were cut, hooked on to and hauled up for rendering. A smaller pile was set aside as payment to the workers. More butchers were on top of the beast, putting more lines around bones and ligaments. Lief was now flaying on the underbelly of the beast, working around a leg, when Gieli called him off. “That’s the bit we give back to the jungle,” she said. “It’s impure to take all of him, so we share our bounty with the scavengers below.

Lief looked down and his blood froze. Jawjackers, Rippspines, Fluters, and Raspteeth were milling about beneath them, fighting over the bits that had fallen, and all the blood. The Fluters especially loved the blood, dipping their long proboscis into the pools that formed below.

“If I were to fall down there…” he started nervously.

“You’d barely last a second,” said Gieli in a soothing voice. “It’s a miracle we haven’t had a dropper today. Don’t be that one Lief. Get up top and claim your wages. I’d be proud to have you on the next Harvest Day when they come back.”

He climbed up what was rapidly becoming a skeletonized beast. The Butchers were cutting whole muscle groups from the bones and carving slabs of meat from the sides of the beast. But only to the two-thirds point on the beast’s sides. The sharing with the scavengers, thought Lief. He signaled and he was pulled up to the lower gallery now crowded with beast flesh and slabs of fat. The rendering pots were quickly turning the fat into needed oil for the lamps and lubrication for the machines. Still covered in beast ichor, he gathered his share of fat and meat, wrapped in large leaves from the Harvest Master.

“Good work young master,” he said to Lief. “Be back on the return!”

Lief carried his package of meat and fat to a side passage and sat down, exhausted. He leaned his head back and the braid got in the way.

While he was trying to undo his braided hair, Kien entered the same passageway and slid down with her pile of meat and fat wrapped tightly in leaves. She looked across at Lief’s stack and raised an eyebrow. “I see you faired well today,” she stated.

He smiled and nodded, “Yes, Gieli wants me back.”

“Really?” Kien sniffed, “Well, I’ll be entering my third harvest, maybe I want you with me.”

“Really?” asked a surprised Lief. “You’d want me?”

Kien opened her mouth to correct him, and stopped. He was still covered in blood and ichor. That meant he worked the lower portions of the beast, the hardest locations to be in. And while he was still all limbs and string, he was filling out nicely.

She slid her package across the floor and she moved beside him. “Turn around,” she ordered and he obeyed. “You’re making a mess of your hair. Let me undo it.” She started detangling his braids and was soon smoothing out his bloody hair.

“You really want me to work with you?” he asked leaning back a bit.

Pushing him away, gently, “I can always use a good man at my side.”

He sat up ramrod straight at that. “Alright… I need more practice with the lines, could you…?”

She stood up and pulled him up and they faced each other, his eyes were almost in line with hers. She licked her upper lip and said, “Midmorning tomorrow. Bring a better harness. We practice in the Atrium. I’m going to work you till you’re sore.”

He smiled, and then gave her an unexpected hug, before breaking off and smiling broadly at her. “Tomorrow then!” He snagged his package and trotted off down the passageway.

“So much a man, still very much a boy,” she wryly commented to herself, shaking her head, and then picked up her package and, more sedately, went home.


Story written by John H. Reiher Jr.

 

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  • Paulo R. Mendes

    This short story was interesting.

    • John H Reiher Jr

      Thanks Paulo!

      • Paulo R. Mendes

        You’re welcome. 🙂

  • nice!

    • John H Reiher Jr

      Thank you as well Amber!

  • The Six Spires of Egtor

    © 2015 – Vanessa Ravencroft

    (Inspired by SCI-FI stories picture)
    As always the story takes place in my “Galactic Chronicles Universe”
    The year is 5040 (OTT)

    -1-

    Hygi was told he was very fortunate to
    be chosen as an acolyte to the Yellow Robes of Kastirin, but he
    missed his family, his brothers most of all..

    It was already two cold seasons ago ,
    when the Yellow Robes blessed the harvest and predicted the flooding
    of the plains. and as always picked one or two young males to go with
    them to become acolytes and perhaps eventually don the yellow robes
    and the frightening hoods.

    His father told him that it was the
    best that could happen, it was better than to be picked by the Blue
    Robes, or the Red Robes. Of course no peasant was ever picked by the
    White Robes and no one ever dared to even whisper about the Black
    ones that supposedly abducted children at moonless nights.

    It was better than starving to death
    when the floods didn’t come, or working the Matroo fields day in
    and day out, to fill the storage houses of the King.

    At least that part was true, up here on
    the spire of the Order of the Yellow Goddess, there was always food.

    Back when he was still with his family,
    there wasn’t always enough and his father and mother struggled to
    keep him and his eight siblings fed, especially when the floods
    didn’t reach the small patches the peasants were allowed to have
    for their own sustenance.

    And the food his family and all the
    others ate was always the same, boiled Matroo, sometimes with flood
    snails or slurry fishlings thrown in.

    Up here, the Yellow Robes had Matroo
    bread, Nagli-fish, white birds and white bird eggs. He loved the
    sweet Nitri berries, the farmers of the upper valley brought as their
    tribute.

    His duties and chores filled most of
    the day, and of course there was study and learning.

    The most amazing thing he learned was
    reading and writing. The strange marks and dots the kings collectors
    always put in soft clay were not magical and secret ways to banish
    demons, but simple reports of what was collected. Hygi could read
    them now and knew the texts that actually talked about demons and
    gods were much more complex and never left the archives of the
    Orders.

    But today was the feast day of the
    Sixth servant of the Yellow goddess and the temple was closed for
    acolytes to acolytes of first tier, as he was. Besides his master
    wanted him to devote his studies and life to the Second servant and
    aspect of the Yellow goddess.

    There was always a sense of competition
    and rivalry among the Yellow Robes, as there were nine aspects and
    servants to the Goddess, and nine groups serving and representing
    these aspects.

    Yes father was right, in terms of daily
    life he was better of than his brothers and sisters and pretty much
    everyone else he knew, but the spire was cold, always cold.

    He was standing at his favorite spot,
    the roof hatch of the Goddess temple. From here you could step on the
    copper plated roof. Which would be suicide without a rope harness, as
    the slanted surface was slick and arched dome shaped over the entire
    temple. Falling from the spire would end over 1200 triple steps below
    on the ground of the Gray forest that surrounded the spire rock.

    Everyone knew about the spires occupied
    by the Robes, but he remembered how deeply impressed he was when he
    saw this spire for the first time.

    A rock formation rising past the
    canopies of tall trees, into dizzying heights,

    Far on its distant top an entire city
    of temples and buildings. Built many hundred seasons ago, by the
    first Yellow Robes, after the Goddess demanded to seek out a tall
    location for her place of worship.

    While the city could be accessed with
    baskets suspended on ropes and winched up by hoist mechanisms. Every
    acolyte had to climb its first ascent.

    Narrow planks of wood and chains
    fastened to the rockwall serpentined all the way to the old entrance.

    It was a dangerous and terrifying
    ascent. He remembered his hands cramping around the rough chain as he
    inched his way across the moist and slippery planks.

    It had took him a long time, he had not
    felt more exhausted all his life, as he dropped on the floor of the
    Old entrance with shaking legs.

    Later he was told, that one out of ten
    aspirants never made it all the way, either falling or giving up.

    He sighed and wondered what would have
    happened if he had given up and walked all the many parses back to
    the village.

    He was caught up in his own musings, he
    almost missed the strange shape that was flying down from the very
    close clouds.

    Now the White Birds and the Bird
    Snatchers were known to be caught by an updraft and carried all the
    way to the clouds, where the Gods lived, but what he saw was not a
    bird.

    He almost forgot to breathe.

    It was quite distant, but it had the
    shape of a person.

    Then from one moment to the other it
    was gone.

    Had he just dreamt or did he really see
    a messenger from the gods?

    Waraki , the priest and of the first
    aspect and exalted wearer of the golden robe received the messenger
    of the king in the chamber of community, a smaller building attached
    to great temple, and perched at the very edge of the spire.

    He had never seen a messenger of the
    king in such a urgent state and agitation.

    The messenger used to be such a
    dignified and arrogant person, but not today. Waraki adjusted the fur
    lined hood so he could better see past the eyeholes of the
    embroidered fabric that concealed his face. “Honored herald of the
    King, long shall be his reign, what has occurred that puts you in so
    much distress? Have the Rekies finally declared war. Have the
    floodgates to the Eye of the World broken?”

    “Oh no Exalted wearer of the golden
    robe, none of this. It is a matter of religion and gods. The king
    summoned the exalted of all spires to the spire of the palace.”

    Waraki expected anything but
    that.”Matters of religion?Today is a feast day what other matters
    could there be , and of such urgency?”

    “It’s the gods, they have come!”

    Waraki wanted to brush such nonsense
    aside and educate the herald, that gods are there to be worshipped
    and for the orders to read the signs. Gods did not actually appear.
    However he was a priest and could not hardly say that, besides the
    mans fear and agitation appeared to be real. Not to mention the
    summon of Orkrom, the fourth. Also known as Orkrom the merciless.

    The king hasn’t been on the Throne of
    winds for more than eight seasons, and already his heavy hand was
    felt to the furthest regions of the kingdom. Orkrom had crushed the
    Gloo- Rekies off the East and added the Amber Savannah to his empire,
    and now he itched for more glory and expand his realm to the West,
    and crush the Bloo-Rekies once and for all.

    Since war was a costly business, the
    king squeezed even more than his predecessors out of the already
    starving peasants and farmers.

    Now truth to be told Waraki was not
    exactly known to be a defender of the weak, but the more the King
    took, the less they could give to the gods. Waraki liked bountiful
    offering tables.

    “When does the King expect us to
    come?”

    “Exalted wearer, I do not think you
    understand. The gods have come from the heavens and took residence
    in the Black Spire.”

    “The Black Spire is forbidden. How
    would the King know what is going on there?”

    “Don’t waste time with questions.
    The King has summoned all the the Exalted Robes and we better make
    haste, it is a long way.”

    Hygi knew his way around the spire top
    temple. As fast as he could he rushed over swinging rope bridge,
    narrow passages and ran along the old colonnade that ringed the lower
    tier.Then he slowed down, out of breath pressing himself next to a
    column.

    He had not dreamed. Just 30 meters from
    him, a female shape stepped from the chest high wall that separated
    the colonnade from the frightening abyss, almost like a White Bird
    that just landed. She looked around closed the yellow robe around her
    and before he could see her face pulled a hood like all the full
    brothers and priests wore over her head and walked with swift steps
    away.

    Women were not allowed up here, but of
    course the way she came., she was not a woman but a messenger of the
    Goddess.

    But then she could be an assassin of
    the blue or even the black robes who had climbed the spire.Something
    that had been done before, according to the stories he heard from the
    days when the servants of the six colors fought open wars.

    Perhaps it was a demon as described in
    the forbidden texts. He had not been allowed to read any of these
    scrolls yet, but his master had and often quoted them in class.

    He shivered in fear and contemplated
    what to do. Should he report what he saw? Was it something forbidden
    for which he would be beaten or even pushed off the ledge at the
    sinners step? He was there when they pushed Kary of the ledge for
    sneaking in the forbidden chambers. In some nights he could still
    hear Kary’s fainting scream as he fell out of sight and into the
    fogs that often shrouded the tree tops during the last days of the
    warm season.

    The best advice he could give himself
    was to ignore it, forget it and whatever it was take its course.

    He didn’t follow his own advice as he
    realized he was already following that mysterious apparition.

    He caught site of the billowing yellow
    cape just before the being slipped past the doors to Brother Naruks
    chambers.

    .

    –””–

    “What a Mickey forsaken place.”
    Chira sweared as he entered the primitive room carved out the natural
    rock of this pillar like mountain.

    Dr. Sibelius got up from the wooden
    table that served as work surface, desk and dinner table. And from
    the look of it, Chira was sure Sibelius had mixed his work with
    several meals. “The Saresii man who looked like a statuesque
    gorgeous woman took of her mask hood and gestured towards that table
    and added. “Looks like you have well acclimated.”

    Dr. Sibelius, pushed his hands down the
    smudgy yellow robe he was wearing and then extended his right. “Nice
    to see you too. You haven’t changed either. The same old grumpy
    asshole, and still swearing. “

    “I have a good reason to swear. Well
    actually I got a whole catalog of reasons.”

    Chira walked to the open window. The
    view was nothing short of spectacular, an ocean of snow covered
    forests, a meandering river and flocks of white birds. However the
    view did not hold his attention. He had spend the last thirty years
    traveling and seen many exotic worlds and sights. Without turning he
    said. “Have you completed your study of the local society yet?
    Anything can use for leverage?”

    The andropholgist ,picked up wood
    framed chalk board , that was commonly used by the locals and tapped
    it with his finger, revealing a modern PDD. With a brush of his hands
    he summoned a data projection bubble.

    “Such studies take years, I am here
    just over twenty month, but yes I got a preliminary summary ready
    for you.”
    “Doc, they pay you good credits and they paying me
    good credits.The problem is our mutual employer is not the most
    patient one, especially since I think Enroe is here as well.”

    Sibelius sighed. “I think I noticed
    him, the Blue robes have a new member, it might be him. Hard to tell
    though, they all wear these hooded masks.”

    “Come on these locals aren’t the
    Narth. you should be able to identify a Union citizen. Speaking of
    the locals, do you have an idea why they appear quite human?”

    The scientist nodded. “Yes, I am
    quite certain they are from Earth. You know right after the ascent,
    during that period of time historians call the Second Exodus. Lots of
    colonist arks left Earth and not all are accounted for,not that the
    records of that time are very accurate in the first place. Of course
    they also could be a forgotten Saran or Pan Saran colony, or even
    Seenian. Their DNA is is only about 4% different.

    At first I thought the Rekies were the
    true natives of this world, but I had the chance to get a DNA sample
    last month. It doesn’t match the rest of the planets biosphere.
    Looks like they are colonists too.” The man spread his arms .
    “Don’t ask me from where, these lizards match none of the
    species on file at the Ivory tower.”

    The female looking agent of SII sat
    with a sweeping motion of her cape on a chair and crossed his
    legs.”Shiss perhaps?”

    “No they don’t match the Shiss, or
    our Saurons, not the Maggi and not the Dragons and all the other
    sauron, lizard species. I told you no match to any knows sentient or
    non sentient life form.”

    Chira pulled his gloves, but instantly
    regretted it. “Is it always that cold?”

    “This is still fall, in local
    terms,it is going to get a whole lot colder in winter. But even in
    their summers, it stays cold up here. Remember we are on top of a
    mountain that reaches 1500 meters. I wish SII would send a geologist
    to look into these strange pillars,there are ten or twelve off them
    all across the main continent, and I wonder what geological process
    forms these strange pillars.”

    “There were geologists among the
    first SII survey group. They found this world has lots of copper, a
    very special kind. This is the reason you and I are here.

    SII wants this world before Union space
    moves this way.”

    “What is so special about copper?”

    “It’s what Takkians and their
    cousins the Takian eat. it is what the Lyrharm consider their
    favorite food. It is still used in many technical application and
    sells for good credits on the XChange, but that is not the main
    reason. The local copper has a higher percentage of Iridium than any
    other copper ore found elsewhere. You do know that Iridium is a major
    component of Arti Coils and ISAH drives right? Besides it is
    considered one of the trade currencies accepted by almost any space
    faring society we know.”

    “Copper and Iridium,okay I get it. I
    am an anthropologist and I can name hundreds of societies accepting
    Iridium chips and coins,much safer than those rad shielded Polonium
    coins still in use all over Freespace.”

    “Yeah you never know who rad shielded
    them and if the gold mantle is thick enough. “

    Chira put the gloves back on.”That
    the neither of the local sentients are native to this world is good
    news, in terms of Union law, that one of them are lost colonists is
    bad news. Very bad news, if the Science Corps gets wind of this, we
    got BoCA here faster than you can say fuck and with the Bureau of
    Colonist Affairs rolling in, all chances of real profit are gone and
    SII has to negotiate fair mining contracts and compete with every
    other mining company. In other words, not much profit if profit can
    be made at all.”

    The undercover scientist opened a crude
    wooden trunk and a modern Serve Matic rose from it.” Care for some
    hot chocolate? I hear Saresii are addicted to it.”

    “My father is traditional Saresii, my
    mother however is from New Texas. I was raised the Saresii way as you
    can see, but I can’t stand Saresii tea or Hot Chocolate. It’s to
    frikkin’ cold for beer, but I take a coffee if you have.”

    “Yeah the ‘Matic’ still has
    supplies for another 4000 cups. Did you bring me the Mol-cards for
    chicken soup? The locals use an animal called White Bird. It doesn’t
    even taste good in a soup.”

    “Yes I got you the whole five Hundred
    flavors set. So much longer do you think will you need?”

    –””–

    Hygi had climbed on the old stone
    cutter scaffold, so he could get close to the windows of Brother
    Naruks chambers.

    The wood was centuries old, and exposed
    to wind and weather. The narrow planks were slippery. His heart
    missed a beat as one of the planks made a cracking sound, but he kept
    putting one foot before the other, while his hands cramped around the
    the old rope, that was the only assurance against falling.

    Another cracking sound made him almost
    go back, the wind had picked up and tugged on his robe. But then he
    could hear the voices.

    –””–

    A sharp knock on Naruks door made him
    spin around and spill some of the coffee. With quick haste he kicked
    the trunk and the Serve Matic lowered out of sight. The lid fell on
    it a second later.

    Chira got up and activated her adaptive
    camouflage and dove out the small window. Just in time as the door
    swung open and the exalted wearer of the Golden Robe entered the
    room.

    “Prepare to travel within the hour
    brother Naruk.” The masked leader of the order said with a
    commanding tone.”I have need of your sharp intellect and great
    wisdom.”

    Naruk bowed. “Of course, Exalted
    wearer. I have little to pack.”

    “That is what I like about you,
    brother Naruk.Ever since you came to us, I seek your counsel and
    company matters of importance.”

    “I am honored.”

    “The herald of the king has summoned
    me to the palace. He claims the gods have descended upon the Black
    spire and he seeks the counsel of all who wear the sacred robes.”

    “Then let us make haste. If it is the
    gods who better than us to greet them, if it is not the gods who
    better than us to make this distinction?”

    The Exalted wearer sounded very pleased
    and relieved. “You never fail giving sound advice. Meet me at the
    south winch before the third ball drops.”

    With those words the exalted left.

    Hygi had heard most of it. The gods
    have come, but why did the Exalted one not speak to the heavenly
    visitor who had to be in the room.

    Now he noticed something floating
    outside the window, and less than four or five steps ahead of him.
    something shimmering, something not there and yet it was more than
    just air, more than smoke. A ghost!

    This realization made him even more
    afraid and he wanted to run, a board cracked and this time the rotten
    wood gave away, and he shrieked in panic as he plunged away, holding
    to the rope , dangling over the chasm; even the White Birds flying
    over the canopy of the forest far below looked like tiny white
    specks.

    With sheer terror he heard the groaning
    of the old rope, and could feel the fibers separating.. The last
    strand of fibers came apart, the rope snapped and he fell.

    This was it, this was the end.

    He screamed and closed his eyes.

    Something grabbed his arm and then he
    felt solid ground under his feet.

    Hygi opened his eyes and he found
    himself back where the scaffold started.

    He also saw the shimmering shape for a
    short moment, and was certain it had the shape of a woman.

    –””–

    “A boy? Out there?”

    Chira nodded. “Yes he was out there
    on that ancient contraption of wood and ropes, whatever it is.”

    “It’s a scaffold, used by workmen
    and stone cutter who built this bartizan like room that are my
    chambers, but that was done centuries ago. It would be suicide to use
    it now.”

    “Well it nearly was, he did fall. I
    caught him in the very last moment.” Chira sighed. “I guess I am
    not as callused as I should be for this business. I should have let
    him fall.”

    “You just raised considerably in my
    opinion about you. I just wonder what he was doing out there.”

    “We spoke Standard, he would have not
    understood a single word.”

    “But what caused him to spy on me on
    the first place?”

    “Maybe you should ask him. I am sure
    he is still where I dropped him.”

    “Could he have seen you?”

    “I can’t be sure, I only have
    adaptive camouflage, full cloak comes with battle suits only.”

    “Alright, I deal with him.”

    “What are you making of this god
    business?”

    “Enroe moving in or perhaps DeNoir.
    Who knows maybe there is a Union observation post already here and
    someone got careless.”

    “Well, I am going back to the ship
    and move to GalNet distance to deliver your and my report. Then I
    come back and help you to find out who these gods are.”

    “How long?”

    “Seven days one way. GalNet coverage
    is still far off this region.”

    “Make sure no one sees you this
    time.”

    (TBC -if interest is expressed)

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1XlM0QRCJ1PFXMUMpUqaF9pAgRRNUe6Xr-D-OSWDBz50/pub

    http://galnet.wikia.com/wiki/The_Six_Spires_of_Egtor

  • Chapter 2: To the River

    Hygi, got to his feet. His legs shaking uncontrollably. He was not certain if he had died after, or id this was a terribly dream.

    The door to Brother Naruks chambers opened and Narkus appeared coming straight at him. Narkus was the tallest of the brothers and while he was one of the Yellow robes of the first aspect, Hygi had never really talked to him. Narkus did not have a pupil either.

    Even though Hygi was used to see the brothers with their masks, he still feared them.

    He knelt and lowered his head. “Please don’t take me to the Sinner’s ledge.”

    Narkus deep voice sounded angry. “I have a good mind doing that, but I am in need of an acolyte. So go and pack a few things. We are about to travel for quite a spell. While I talk to your master and let him know you are my pupil now.”

    Hygi hesitated, not sure what it all meant.

    Narkus clapped his hand. “Make haste. It seems you are not only nosy but hard of hearing. If you are not by the South winch before the third ball drops. I push you off the ledge myself!”

    Hygi got up and ran all the way to his chambers. Right behind the tattered curtains of coarse Sagrill fibers stood Legi, another acolyte of about his age and serving the third aspect. He and Legi shared this sparsely furnished chamber. Two crude wood frame beds with broad strips of Sagrill fiber, a bag of hay and a blanket made of the spun hair of the Warku goats and two shelves. His shelf held a wooden bowl, a wooden spoon and six scrolls of chants, a gift of his master. On a peg next to it, hung his Feast day robe, made of yellow dyed Warku hair.

    Legi smelled of food and that meant he had helped in the kitchen, perhaps the best chore as the cooks always handed out bread rolls or sometimes even a handful of Nitri berries.

    Legi held out his wooden bowl with a good helping of Hygi’s favorite food. “Here I got you some Nitris, Brother Orbix said these are the last ones for this season.”

    Hygi brushed past his friend and tossed his bowl and spoon onto his bed blanket. Followed by his Feast robe.

    Legi came closer. “What happened? You look as if you seen a ghost!”

    Hygi near the end of his nerves almost screamed. “I have! I have seen a ghost! It saved my life too. Now I am to go with Brother Narkus, I think we are going to the Spire of the King.”

    Legi blinked and took a step back, clearly overwhelmed by the answer and the intensity Hygi gave it.”Seven times kissing the seams of the Golden Robe! Nine praises to the goddess! A ghost up here? How does a ghost look like?”

    “How many balls have dropped?”

    “I think the second ball dropped when I left the kitchen.”

    “I have little time then, I am pushed off the ledge if I don’t make it to the winch by the time the third ball drops.”

    “Nothing you say makes any sense. You saw a ghost, you go travel to the King and you are about to pushed of the Ledge of Sinners? The last time I saw you was when the first ball dropped, weren’t you to paint the stairs to the great temple copula?”

    Hygi rolled the blanket into a bundle and tied a strip of Sagrill around it.

    Brother Unti, his master brushed the curtain aside. “Hyg, you are now Brother Naruks pupil, make haste! The exalted one is already on his way to the winch.”

    Hygi grabbed his bundle, gave friend a hurtful look of good bye, then he dropped to his knees kissed the seam of Brother Unti’s robe, muttered a distraught . “Thank you and rushed past his former master, hoping he would make it in time.

    –””–

    The steam in the huge tank had built up enough pressure to push another heavy metal ball of the rack and it dropped onto to the enormous brass disc suspended by a thick rope in the tower of time. The loud chime could be heard almost everywhere. This was the third ball of the day. The brothers would gather for supper and then congregate in the great temple, and chant seven praises to each aspect of the Goddess.

    Hygi just made it, he stepped into the winch house, as the chime of the third ball echoed across the top of Kastirin, the monastery of the Yellow Robes.

    Brother Naruk was there, and two high brothers. assistants to the Exalted wearer. The highest priest was not among them.

    Naruk tapped with his foot, “That is cutting it very close. A few more moments and you would not have needed a winch basket to reach the ground.”

    One of the High brothers, identified by the white fur around his hood and the face of the first aspect embroidered onto the fabric stepped before Hygi, who immediately dropped to his knees said. “You are to go with the Exalted and Brother Naruk to the Spire of the King, that means you are to step among those not chosen. You have been on the first step of your journey to become a Brother of the Yellow Order and a priest to the first aspect. Brother Unti has always spoken of you with high praise. Receive therefore thy hood. You are no longer an acolyte but raised to be an apprentice.” The hooded priest handed him a folded piece of yellow fabric. “This is your hood, wear it if you are among the people. Brother Naruk will continue your education.”

    He was still kneeling. His head spun he still had no idea what was happening. Normally it took five long seasons to be raised to become an apprentice, and it was usually done in a big ceremony in the great temple. Oh he should have listened to his own advice.

    Everything had changed after he decided to follow that female ghost.

    Naruk waved. “Let’s go, the Exalted is already on his way down.”

    The thick robes holding the basket creaked as he stepped inside..Even though these were new and well maintained ropes, after dangling on one that made very similar sounds before it snapped, he almost jumped out.

    The trip down took six stages, as no rope could be made that was strong enough for the entire length.

    Besides it took twelve brothers to turn the crank, a longer rope would have added to the weight.

    Brother Naruk said to him. “For someone climbing over dangerous and unsafe scaffolding, you seem quite afraid of heights.”

    “Not of heights, master. I am afraid of falling.”

    The winch master reversed the ratchet lever, going down did not require all twelve brothers, but still there had to be four moving the big lever making the brass tongue slip over the notches of the big drum wheel. With each move of the lever, the basket dropped a triple step or so.

    They had to switch baskets on each tier until they reached the first entrance.

    The whole descent had taken quite some time. He could here the fourth ball drop, just as they climbed into the last basket that would carry them all the way down.

    His new master hadn’t said much for most of the trip. But as the last basket swayed towards the ground where several fires burned before colorful tents of the detachment of soldiers that probably accompanied the herald; he said. “Put your new hood on, you might as well get used to it, you only see half of the world out of those blasted things, but on the bright side it keeps the bugs out in the summer and your head warm in the winter. Oh and the best part is you can stick your tongue out, or roll your eyes in annoyance. No one will notice.”

    Hygi unfolded his hood and put it on,. At first he saw nothing and only smelt the fabric.He felt the hands of his new master tugging on it and his eyes lined up with the two holes.

    Naruk said. “That’s better. Seeing at least some of the world is quite helpful, especially since we going through a forest with trees. Running against one is not as pleasant as you might think.”
    Hygi relaxed a bit, and said. “Master have you ever stuck your tongue out?”

    “Oh yes many times, and making funny faces while some boring brother tries to remember the ninth chant and repeats it over and over again.”

    A strange tingle in his throat built up to an amused chuckle, Hygi tried to suppress unsuccessfully.

    “Don’t worry I won’t toss you over the sinner’s ledge or beat you for a giggle, but making faces only works if you don’t accompany matching sounds, so better get used to be dignified at least appearing so to the outer world.”

    The basket finally touched down on the ground.

    The soldiers were taking down the last tents and . Four boxy wagons on large wheels with twenty Roki slaves in pulling harnesses before each. Muscular men, with mostly bare upper bodies armed with long pointed sticks and whips milling about between the chained reddish skinned beings.

    Hygi heard his master sigh. “I forgot there are no beasts of burden. Or at least nothing big enough that could be tamed for this purpose.”

    “What are beasts of burden, master?”

    “Animals providing muscle power instead of sentients.”

    Hygi was thinking about that as they climbed out of the basket. “Do they use animals like that where you come from,master?”

    His new master could not answer as the Exalted wearer and the herald of the king approached. Hygi went on his knees and lowered his head, while Brother Naruk bowed.his head.

    Waraki, the Exalted wearer said. “While it is against all accepted wisdom to travel at night, the herald insists we make all haste. The second wagon is provided for you and your pupil.”

    The herald was still agitated. “I have an entire regiment of the Kings guard with me. We will travel two days to the river and take the barge. We will be at the palace spire by the sixth day.”

    –””–

    Hygi who considered his austere chambers luxurious compared to how his family lived, was completely stunned by the luxurious interior of the wagon.

    There were soft blankets,pillows and furs, even a table and chairs. A metal barrel thing with a door, radiated wonderful heat. He could see the flickering flames inside through holes and slits.

    A heavy curtain separated part of the wagons interior and behind it where four beds,. He only recognized them because of the pillows and the blankets. He could not grasp anyone sleeping in something that fine and luxurious.

    Two men lifted a wooden trunk and a bundle of things into the wagon and closed the door.

    He heard the coarse commands, the cracks of whips and then felt a jolt almost making him fall as the wagon started moving. It rattled and the wood creaked and he could feel the motion of moving without lifting a foot.

    He almost forgot that he was in the presence of his new master.

    Brother Naruk pointed at one of the chairs. “Sit down, Hygi.”

    Hygi did.

    “I know it was quite an eventful day for you, but before I let you sleep. I want to know why you climbed on that scaffold.”

    Brother Naruk removed his hood and revealed the bearded face of a pale skinned man. You can take of that head sack of yours if you want. Drinking and eating is a whole lot easier without a piece of cloth before your mouth.”

    Hygi almost whispered. “Master, I have seen a messenger descending from the heavens. I ran to the lower colonnade.” Hygi stopped as he recalled the events that just happened an afternoon ago. He lowered his head as far as possible and started to shiver. “I have seen her, she was a woman, but she was dressed in brother robes and then donned a hood.

    I followed her and …”

    Naruk was kneeling before his trunk, he turned .”And?”

    Hygi doubted Brother Naruk could hear his voice over the rattling of the wagon and the rythmic trod of the slaves feet.”She went into your chambers.”

    Naruk turned around holding two clay cups. There was steam coming from them and a new smell reached Hygi’s nose. His new master handed him one of the cups. “Don’t put it on the table or you spill everything and wait till it cooled down, it’s hot.”

    Hygi eyed the light brown liquid. It smelled like nothing he knew. “Is that the cup of the last sin? I have seen forbidden things right?”

    “Yes you have, but if I wanted to kill or silence you. I didn’t have to take you along. No this is not poison. It’s something my tribe makes. It’s called hot chocolate. Besides I made two cups, one for me.”

    Naruk took a sip and cursed. “Damn I still dialed it up too hot.”

    Hygi carefully took a small sip.Just like the wonderful smell, there was nothing he ever tasted that could describe what just went over his tongue.Hastily he took a second sip. It was sweet, creamy but there was something else.

    Naruk grinned. “Seems agreeable, right?”

    “This is something the messenger from the heavens has given you, right? Nothing on Egtor can taste like this.”

    “You haven’t seen anything of this world, how could you know what else there is? What you are drinking is not magic,just milk sugar and the extract of a plant called coco.”

    Hygi took all his courage and said. “But she was there was she?”

    “Who can say what you saw. Does the seventeenth stanza of the fourth chant not speak of the goddess appearing to some in visions and dreams? Don’t you remember the stories of the first Yellow robes who were told to seek out a high place? Who do you think was it telling them?”

    “But I fell”! I fell and I was saved.”

    “If it really happened or if you dreamt it, I won’t say, but if you decide to tell any off this to anyone. Your life will change forever. Either you will be called a liar and pushed of the ledge, or they believe you and make you a saint.”

    Hygi was not sure what to make of this answer, but he was certain his new master spoke the truth about what would happen if he told.

    Naruk still smiled at him. “But no worry, the world might look different to you when you have grown up. I can almost guarantee that.”

    Hygi only nodded. The long day and the steady sway of the wagon made him very sleepy.

    Naruk said. “Go find a bed and sleep.We got a long journey ahead.”

    –””–

    too.”

  • This is the second part of Chapter 2

    –””–

    Loud screams of panic and fighting woke him up. He had never rested more comfortable and warm.The sway of the wagon had stopped, he could smell fire. The screams and shouts of men fighting and dying were all around.

    He jumped out of the bed and brushed past the heavy curtains.The back door of the wagon was wide open. Again his own mind gave him the advice to hide under the bed, but once more his curiosity was stronger and he crawled to the door. Sharp long shafted things hammered with sharp knocking sounds into the thin walls of the wagon.

    Now he was able to take a peek and looked outside.

    The wagon of the Exalted wearer stood in flames and provided flickering light to a forest path littered with dead and dying men and Rekies hacked to pieces or pierced by these long sticks that kept appearing with sharp hissing sounds hacking into men and raised shields.

    He also saw his new master, fighting like the soldiers with a very long curved knife. The fire created long wild dancing shadows, yet Hygi was certain his master was hit by a flying stick , but it broke into many pieces just before it was about to hit.

    It happened at least three more times, when a Reki attacked Brother Naruk from behind with a powerful strike using one of these long knifes. It was as if he struck a rock, the blade shattered in a shower of sparks.The Reki surprised, fell a heartbeat later, Brother Naruk felled the vicious Reki with single strokes of his weapon, sometimes not even close enough to really hit his opponents.

    It was clear the Kings men now had the upper hand and now he saw them using odd staffs with strings to release these flying sticks into the surrounding trees. and bushes.

    Brother Naruk noticed him and yelled. “Get your head down, there are still Reki Archers out there.”

    Hygi complied.

    –””–

    It was over, the Kings men and the Herald stood in a circle around the now completely burned out wagon. The Herald was furious and kicked a dead Reki. Two soldiers carried a makeshift litter into the circle and on it the Exalted wearer of the golden robe. Much of his magnificent robe was burned and torn. Hygi could see the terribly burned arm and could hear the pitiful groans.

    Brother Naruk rushed to the litter and asked it to be brought into the wagon,

    The Herald commanded the men to set up camp and post guards, so the wounded could be tended too.

    Hygi was completely ignored. He watched as the soldiers beheaded Reki slaves and killing those Reki warriors that were wounded.

    He had never seen any fighting before and he was sick to the stomach, and terribly afraid.

    He didn’t want to go into the wagon, afraid he might see the Exalted in all his misery.

    Hygi started crying.

    –””–

    The first morning light caught wisps of fog between the trees and made them almost glow. Smoke from the still smoldering remains of the third wagon curled into the cold air. The coming light of day also revealed the extent of the carnage and gore.

    Hygi had spend the rest of the night crouched under the wagon, his arms wrapped around his knees, being colder than he ever was.For the most part of the night, he had shivered but now the shaking has stopped and he felt strangely peaceful.

    He heard his name., Brother Naruk was calling him. He tried to answer, but only after the second try he managed to answer with a weak croak.

    Naruk bent down and looked at him, “Oh sweet lord, don’t tell me you have been there all night?

    Naruk took him in his arms and carried him inside the wagon and put him into one of the beds.In is weak state he was certain he was dreaming, because Naruk talked to someone and he could hear a female voice but he understood none of the words.

    Naruk’s face appeared over his head and the brother said. “You got a pretty severe case of hypothermia, but no worries. Everything will be fine. I never realized you were outside.”

    Hygi whispered . “The Exalted?”

    “He will live.”

    Brother Naruk, who actually was Dr. Markus Sibelius, anthropologist and field researcher for Schwartz Intergalactic Industries had immersed himself in several primitive societies before, and observed many more. He had served the Union science corps for nearly forty five years, before he retired. He did spend a year at Triton University teaching, but that was not him. He wanted to be out in the field. SII offered him a research position in their research department.Unlimited research budget and a generous salary.

    At first he could research whatever he wanted. SII did almost as much exploring as the explorer department of the Science Corps. Of course for different reasons.

    The explorer division reached out past Union space into uncharted and unknown space simply to learn what was out there and applied the highest moral standards to their research. Especially in the field of anthropology or more precisely Xeno-anthropology as the research subjects were human only in the rarest cases.

    SII did research too, but there was always the motivation of profit.

    In general there was nothing wrong with that. SII was the core reason the entire Attikan Commonwealth had joined the Union, but there was hardly anyone in the the entire Union who did not expect SII to do things not always morally kosher. He knew that before he accepted his position.

    But he worked for them now for almost twenty years and everything was first class and he had more freedom to chose what he wanted to research. This was until eight years ago, when the resource development manager approached him and asked if he was interested in helping to create a species evaluation report, that could help SII develop business relations with a pre industrial species outside of Union space. He agreed and it worked out better than expected. SII got the development contacts and exclusive mining rights long before the society became aware of the Union.

    SII was extremely grateful and increased his salary and benefits to a very comfortable level.

    Truth to be told, he loved to use his expertise in ways that went beyond scientific papers. So it came SII resource development came to him with similar cases and of course this one.

    SII Searchers had discovered this garden world about four years ago. The region was called the 1a Outer Arm and in the spinward sector of the Milky Way galaxy.

    It was also about 3500 light years from the closest Union system.

    The survey team found sentient life, two biological incompatible species. Both species were on the same technological development level, where crude Iron was the most advanced technology.

    One of the sentients were biologically quite human and the other an upright species of warm blooded lizard like beings.

    The survey team also found the world to be rich in natural resources, specifically large deposits of copper and Iridium.

    These survey results combined with the biological treasures a garden world offered made it a very attractive target for SII.

    However Union law prohibited exploitation and simply taking the resources. Also open contact to a prim culture was frowned upon, but research was not.

    His job was first and foremost to conduct said research and provide a detailed civilization assessment. SII would then use his research to decide how to proceed. This was the unethical part, as they usually infiltrated a local government. Once this was accomplished they expanded that governments control over the entire planet and prepared the locals for visitors from the stars. SII then staged an accidental open discovery and obtained exclusive trade and mining rights. This was a long process and could take centuries, but SII had millions of projects like this and for a company that existed for almost 3000 years, projects of many decades meant little.

    However SII was not the only Mega corporation doing this, there were Enroe , DeNoir and a dozen others.

    He was almost certain, Enroe was here.During the last festival celebrating the descent of the Goddess, the Blue Robes had a new, tall brother. The local humans did in general grow past 160 centimeters, mostly due to the lack of calcium in their diet. Sure there were exceptions to everything and there were tall locals, but the new Blue Robe had almost the same story as how he came to the Blue brothers as his own.

    He could be wrong of course, but Chira also suspected Enroe agents to be here. He forgot to ask him how he came to that conclusion.

    Now this business of gods being seen at the Black Spire was more than peculiar. Both SII and Enroe were known to bend a few rules, but never really broke the law as far as he knew. Because ever since the corporate wars, CEO’s and entire boards could be held accountable for what the company did. While this was not Union space, the companies were Union based and when it came to the rights of sentient beings, Union courts and the Assembly drew a hard line.

    Not for one second did he believe the sightings were real gods or anything supernatural, but caused by another corporation.Perhaps it was the Science corps using the Black Spire as hidden observation post.

    The SC maintained many well hidden and camouflaged observation posts on worlds with primitive civilizations. Not just for research but also to make sure the civilization was not disturbed in their development.

    Of course if it was the SC, he was on thin ice and SII had to abandon their plans.

    The world was called Egtor and had only two, but very large continents. As far as he knew there were no settlements of any kind on the other continent. The locals did not know it existed.

    They had not really explored their own continent, but there were caravans that brought goods and wares from distant lands.

    He himself introduced himself as a monk serving the Goddess and being on a pilgrimage to find the high places of worship and was accepted by the Yellow Robes.

    His ability to read and write was proof to the Yellow robes that he was indeed a religious man. This and the fact that he gifted the Exalted wearer a considerable amount of gold. A tribute collected on his journey for the glory of the goddess of course made him rise rather fast in the hierarchy of the order and received the fur bordered hood with the the embroidered face of the goddess first aspect. The Exalted wearer became almost something like a friend and valued his advice in all sort of matters.

    This why the Exalted had chosen him to come along to go to the festival last year and now for this trip to heed the Kings summon.

    The last campaign of the King against the rust colored lizards of the Amber Savannah had only ended, a season ago. Of course everyone was told it was a successful campaign, but perhaps it wasn’t as successful.

    The attack last night had been carried out by the green skinned Reki, that populated a large stretch of the Eastern coast.

    It was a general believe, that the green Reki hated the red ones even more than the humans, and the many arrow pierced Reki seemed to support that believe.

    Unfortunately being on top of an inaccessible pillar like mountain, being part of a religious group was not the best place to stay abreast of local politics,not that there was anything like a news network. News travelled by foot and by mouth of merchants and wandering traders neither very fast nor very accurate.

    He had the finest and latest SII manufactured Auto Doc unit in his trunk, and could have completely restored the badly burned Exalted. His wounds were so severe, he would have been a doomed man on this planet.

    However he could not restore the man as it would expose him , either as a saint or a wizard using black arts.

    The most difficult part was to stop the Auto Doc from doing too much.

    He just put the Auto Doc away, as the Exalted stirred. He was still burned, but thanks to the Auto Doc painfree. He opened his eyes and reached for Naruk’s robe. “They thaught you well in that cloister you told me about. I feel much better.”

    “You are far from healed, Exalted one. It will take many days before you are well again.”

    “I know your skills in the arts of healing have saved my life. This is why you are now second to me only.I can not continue this journey, but the King’s summon is still to be followed. Therefore I want you to take my place and speak as the Exalted. As soon as I can I will send a runner with a Golden robe, all I had along has been consumed by the flames.”

    —”””–

    The Exalted was probably halfway back at the Spire by now, Hygi felt much better. The wagon was rattling again as it rolled along the uneven path. This time pulled by soldiers.Everyone was nervously scanning the foliage and bushes to the left and the right of the path.

    The heavy fabric that covered the windows were rolled up, it was still cold,but this time he was wearing his robe and a blanket around his shoulders.

    Brother Naruk had his arms wrapped before his and stared out the side window,one of these long knives on his lab.

    Since the windows were open they both wore their hoods.

    Hygi quietly said. “Master, can I disturb you with a question?”

    “Of course you can. You are supposed to be my pupil now and that means you can ask questions.”

    “Will they come back?”

    “Well hard to tell, but if they do they have to do it soon. After the midday break and perhaps before the second ball drops we will emerge from the forest. The Reki can’t really hide on the plains until we reach the river. Their bows have a much shorter range than the ones of the King’s men.”

    “The magic flying sticks have a range?”

    “It is not magic that makes the sticks fly. It is the tension of the bow. The sticks are called arrows by the way.”

    “Will you teach me how to use a long knife like that?”

    Naruk picked up the weapon. “Technically it is a falchion and using it in combat, takes a lifetime of training and practice.I am not very good at it. Let’s hope events like last night won’t repeat too often in your future However once we are back on the spire, I show you what I learned.”

    Naruk chuckled, “Would you believe if I tell you, that I questioned my teacher why we had to learn to fight with edged weapons?”
    “You were a brother of the Red Robes before? They follow the aspect of blood and I heard they learn how to fight like soldiers.”

    “No, where I come from, we don’t separate the aspects of the goddess.”

    “How is it where you came from.It is all the way across the Eye of Egtor ,right?”

    “Yes in a way it is far across that big inland lake, that separates these lands from the distant west.”

    “How long did it take you to walk from there?”

    “Almost a lifetime. It is very far.”

    “Are there any Rekis and do you have a king?”

    “Yes we have many beings that look like the Rekis,but some are our friends and no we have no kings. All the people together decide the laws.”

    “The people make the laws? But who collects the kings tribute then and who tells the soldiers what to do?”

    “The people do. At home the people decide how much tribute or taxes are to be collected and what the tribute is spend on, including soldiers.”

    Hygi was thinking about that. “Does it really work?”

    “Yes it surprisingly does and for quite some time now.”

    Art midday rest, three runners completely exhausted caught up and presented Brother Naruk with a golden robe and the fur trimmed hood and the face of the goddess.

    After brother Naruk had made another one of his hot chocolates for Hygi and gave him a fresh flatbread roll filled with Nagli fish and White bird egg. He changed into the golden robe.

    Hygi had lost some of his fear and shyness towards his new master. Brother Naruk was different than his old master.And now with the blessing of the Exalted wearer honored and raised to the second highest step and office of the order,Hygi should feel even more fea, he would have never simply asked such an important person anything. Common wisdom on top of the spire was to be as small and invisible as possible when a fur hood or a golden hood was near. If they wanted something they said so.

    “Master,do you know why we wear hoods?I mean to the outside world?”

    Naruk sat down, and turned the yet unworn hood in his hands to look at the mask. “I am not entirely sure what tradition it started, but the reasons are to invoke fear and appear not quite human.”

    “I always feared the hoods. I still do, even after two cold seasons.”

    “It is the fear of the unknown. Animals and many beings I know identify each other by smell, or touch. We humans do it by sight. If you talk to someone, almost half of the conversation is not done by words but by facial expressions. Right now you can see my face and you know I am not angry or annoyed. You know how to react and respond.”

    Naruk put on the hood. “Now you only hear my voice and muffled at that. Your mind suddenly lost much of the usual references and so you don’t really know how to act.

    Now if you don’t know who is behind this mask; the insecurity becomes a feeling of fear.

    Fear of the unknown is the core of many religions and keeping fear and mystery alive keeps religion in business since times begun.”

    Naruk, rolled the cover of the side window up.”It also provides a barrier for you, it distances you from the people.”

    Hygi said. “I am not sure I understood everything, but it somehow makes sense.”

    “Glad it did, but I suggest you do read the scrolls and texts and find the traditional reason too.”

    -””–

    It was as Brother Naruk said, they reached the end of the forest. There was a small village with pitiful mud brick huts,smoking fires and incredibly dirty people trying to hide. To Hygi it was nothing out of the ordinary. He had been here before when he and the Yellow brothers walked to the spire,two cold seasons ago. He then realized the path would lead them to his own village.The river was not far from it, and he had helped loading tribute aboard the Kings barges. His heart was beating faster,maybe he would be able to see his mother and brothers.

    The cart stopped rolling and the soldiers spread out with rough laughters and barking commands.

    Hygi watched in horror as the soldiers dragged men and women out, kicked them and used their whips. Laughing soldiers were breaking urns and cages, took protesting White Birds and pulled goats on ropes out of their pens, One of the soldiers walked past the window of the cart. “Eminence we will eat good tonight and we found us some willing helpers to pull the wagon.”

    A new emotion made him clench his fists,as he saw a young woman staring at him with fear and hopelessness as she was dragged by a soldier inside a hut.”

    Naruk’s hand fell on his shoulder. “Sooner than expected are you learning one of the reason why there are hoods.”

    “Master, we can’t let them do all this. They will starve without that food and without the men. I know!”

    Naruk sighed and raised his voice. “Herald reign in your men.These are the Kings subjects and not the enemy.”

    “Exalted one, my men….” The herald stopped and frowned,then he had his sergeant bellow orders and call the soldiers.

    Hygi sighed. “Will I be able to see my family? The path we are taking goes right through my village.”

    “I doubt we have time, besides you would frighten your family, but maybe we are not in such a hurry when on our way back,”

    —””–

    His village was exactly as he remembered it, nothing has changed. yet it seemed strange and alien. The naked kids, the adults dressed in rags. The huts so small and everything was filthy.

    The wagon rolled towards the river shore.

    This close to the cold season, there was nothing to do on the fields, but there was always work. He saw most of the villagers at the river bank, ankle deep in the cold mud searching for Slurry Fishlings.A basket full of fishlings could be traded for goat hair and hides from those who lived in the hills.

    He was almost certain he saw his father and his two brothers, but they all stood there with their heads lowered,and made the sign of devotion to the goddess, by describing a circle with both hands.

    Part of him wanted to run to them, rip the hood of his head and hug and kiss them all, but another part of him was glad he wore the hood so no one saw his tears. His family only paces away and yet separated by deep chasm created by incompatible worlds.

    While he secretly and silently sobbed he followed his master onto the barge.

    No he was never on one like this,this wasn’t one of the drt brown floaters with a big fabric for the wind to catch and rows of sacks and pots filled with the white grains of Matroo.

    On each side of the ship sat men and Reki chained to benches and holding long sticks.The rear of the barge was elevated and had a tent like structure with braziers, carpets and soft cushions.

    A man with a short black beard and dressed just like the herald,in a jerkin covered with small brass plates and a white undercoat with golden seams.Both men wore deep red capes attached to the jerkin.

    Unlike the herald, this man did not wear boots, but calf high tied sandals.and he also did not wear a brass helmet like the herald did.

    That man bowed slightly before the herald and brother Naruk. “We can cast of as soon as you give the word, Hundred-leader Hebris.”

    Hygi learned then, that the herald had a name and a rank.

    The herald, made a commanding gesture. “Then let us make haste, we are already late.”

    “We going downstream, the winds are good and I shall make the slaves sweat with double beat.”

    Naruk had his hand on Hygi’s shoulder and gently pushed him up a short flight of wooden stairs to the tent. “The fate of slaves pains me too, my pupil. Their time of freedom is in the future but it will occur, I promise.”

    Hygi sat down on a low stool, next to a brasier and stretched out his cold hands. “I have seen my father. I am certain.”

    “Let us tend to the Kings summon and deal with this matter of religion first. As I said I am certain there is time on our way back where we can find a way for you to visit them.”

    Hygi swallowed a sob and sighed. “Seeing them, I am not so sure I should. They might have forgotten me, they might look to me for help. I envision that meeting and I am afraid of it.”

    “It is another unknown, Hygi. I think you should make that decision when it is to be made and not worry about ifs and maybes of the future.”

    “Where you taken from your family too?”

    “No fortunately not, but my parents are very far away. Both in distance and time.”

    The man in charge of the barge issued commands and the vessel was untied and started to move with the flow of the water towards mid stream, the big cloth, Brother Naruk called a sail was unfurled and billowed in the stiff breeze. A drum was beat in a dull steady rhythm and the slaves started to move the long sticks back and forth.

    Men with whips passed back and forth in the middle aisle and occasionally let their leather strings snap over the bending backs.

    The herald had talked to the barge master until now. He also came up the stairs, for the first time smiling. “We are making good speed and it appears we are going to be at the King’s spire in time after all.