Pilgrimage: On the road
We traveled for several days. How many, I cannot recall. It was very, very long, though. We passed through many villages and towns which hosted great festivals for us. It kind of felt as if we were celebrities, and the thought slowly crept into our minds. The boys began behaving arrogantly towards other children, speaking to them in a condescending tone (now, really, mates?). Lilly, being pious as always, was the little darling everybody adored. Not surprisingly, she was often seen with her hands folded in prayer and reciting Nu prayers she had been practicing ever since she could talk. Whenever her white robes fluttered in the wind, they looked as if she was about to take into the sky and become an angel.
The guards remained vigilant at all times, constantly scouting the area. It was duly needed outside settlements. You see, up in the north, the population wasn’t very sparse. But we were heading south, which ultimately meant fewer villages and more forests. And all kinds of animals lived in forests. Flying lions are not at the top of the food chain, by the way. You’d have other beasts like tortoises or snakes that easily could reach up to the size of our carriage. They were usually very old and accumulated quite a bit of negative energy around them, which is why they become so large and ferocious in the first place. Unwary humans and other animals were their prey. But the presence of well-trained practitioners alone was enough to chase them away.
So at this point, I had never encountered any dangerous creature, save for maybe a savage, starving wolf or a suicidal roc. All of these beasts were swiftly dealt with by the guards. They didn’t even get off their horses. They simply unsheathed one of their blades, jumped off, sliced right through the enemy with one elegant movement, and safely landed on the back of their stallion in one elegant swoop. You could think they spawned right out of some Eastern movie.
Remember I told you about a few talented people who were able to wield both a sword and magic? These guys were pretty representative of geniuses like them. I was awestruck. So much so that I began paying more attention to them than my corrupted friends and Saint Lilly. And they actually noticed me. Even though they retained a serious expression on their faces, they would acknowledge my existence through small gestures. Sometimes it would mean that one of them rode closer to the carriage, allowing me to inspect them closely. Other times it meant they tolerated my presence whenever I silently ate my meals with them.
Both during resting and eating times they stayed quite a bit away from the accompanying practitioners and the children. This was the only time they eased up their solemn demeanor and acted friendly to each other, sometimes sparring with their blades sheathed. I felt so honored seeing this side of them, I rarely spoke. I just sat there feeling comfortable between these strong men and women.
From what I remember, the leader was a mature burly woman who was the tallest among the guards. Nothing escaped those piercing blue eagle eyes. She was also the one who regularly barked at her fellow guards for subversively doting on me. But I’ll be honest with you - even though she scolded her mates, she was the only one who shared her food with me. So while pretty Lilly was the darling of the crowds, I was darling of the guards. Just a few days before we finally arrived at our destination they even began teaching me how to hold a sword properly. Naturally, the sword was way too heavy, but nevertheless, I would do my best and mimic their actions as best as I could.
My friends never forgave me for abandoning them during the Pilgrimage. The longer we were on the road, and the longer I spent time with the black guards, the more they detested me. If I didn't join in on teasing children from the villages, they'd push me to them saying I was nothing special. In the end, they ceased to address me directly. Well if you guys ignore me, I guess I'll just go play with my adult friends then, eh?
Lilly, meanwhile, was already on a completely different level from the rest of us. She was so focused on prayers and chanting that her personality had gone through a complete change during our long travel. The once fierce and loud redhead had become a soft-spoken gentle girl, her gaze always distant. Had she reprimanded the boys before for violent or inappropriate behavior, she now ignored them. I guess this was also one of the reasons my friends let out their frustrations on strangers and essentially me. The Lilly we all knew and loved had remained behind in our hometown.
After the long-winded journey, we finally reached a remote mountain chain to the south of the duchy. Beyond the towering masses of rock lay Ha’s Embrace, a vast steppe with many small tribes that were controlled by the Order of Seth. On our side of the mountains, there was a large temple carved into one of the stone slopes. The main entrance looked like a gaping feral mouth, waiting to devour humans. I recall how the wind howled deeply across the fine masonry work and the memory still sometimes sends shivers down my spine. On a few plateaus on either side of the temple, you could see a few red wooden buildings that were connected by a labyrinth of wooden bridges and ladders which gently swayed in the wind, creaking ominously. As we approached this intimidating structure, we were greeted by more guards similarly to the ones who had protected us.
“Greetings!” An elderly man approached our leader, saluting her by knocking on his chest twice. The leader responded by saluting this same way as well. “Vice Representative Aat has come a few days earlier to announce your arrival.”
“Is she still here?” Our leader asked.
“Unfortunately, she has already departed. The second Pilgrimage has arrived just yesterday, so the practitioners have already been instructed.”
“I see.” She turned around to glance at us, focusing me particularly long before addressing the guard before her. “Our work is done. We will be returning to the main temple.” She then ushered her horse in the opposite direction. The other guards on horseback followed her. Interestingly, all of them smiled and bowed when they passed me. Now, tell me, my fodder friends, who is special? Beaming at my adult friends, I waved goodbye, wondering if I’d ever see them again.