The Cairn of Gods

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Summary

When gods grow silent, and malevolent spirits known as Vaporwil overrun the world, the Cairnite civilization must find a way to survive in the midst of aberrations all about.

Genre:
Fantasy / Horror
Author:
Brooks
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
16+

A Blue Sash

Noalme considered himself talented in the arcana of the Hobo Enclave. Five years ago, he'd been initiated into the West Cairn's High Vagrant Tribunal. He hadn't done this by being particularly savvy in politics; In truth he was awful at such things. He also found being a leader to be quite annoying. Nor had he risen to this position, by being particularly scholarly... Outside his studies with the Enclave, that is. No, he wasn't a leader: but he was quite adept with Umbra; the vast, and cryptic power taught only to those who pledge themselves to the Hobo Enclave. This alone, earned him a position among the High Vagrants.

He had spent much of his youth, and a considerable amount of his adult life, mastering all things pertaining to Umbra. Twenty-five years, spent feverishly learning and performing both the simple Umbra powers, and many of the more complex, Greater Umbra Rites. Noalme loved researching the tomes of the ancient enclaves, puzzling out for himself, the language of the High-World: Lunatik, and discovering new ways to entice Water and Umbra to perform mighty wonders. His prodigious efforts became known rapidly among the Cairn, and even impressed the Cairns' elite, who responded by offering him position in their Tribunal.

I was such an idiot. He bitterly thought. I couldn't see that taking a seat in the Tribune was going to be nothing more than a head-searing, waste of my talents.

The High Vagrants had assigned Noalme, to be a Rite Judge: an officiator over the Cairns' regulation of Umbra. His job, in simple terms, was to judge crimes associated with misusing the powers of Umbra, and to commission the grand scale rituals that were presented to the Tribunal. The reality was, most of his day was spent on resolving squabbles between sycophantic Hobo, attempting to garner support from the Tribune for their absurd pet projects, or for their petitions to “Give more voice to the Hobo Enclave.”

It was miserable. He felt the position had aged him twenty years, despite only having been a Rite Judge for five. Many of the tribunals he'd been subjected to could have, and SHOULD have been handled by the High Vagrants. However, it seemed that even at the slightest mention of the word “Umbra”, the High Vagrants were always eager to cast the issue to the Rite Judges. All Noalme, and the two other Judges were to the High Vagrants, were an outlet to shirk their administrative responsibilities. Which they had done... Quite liberally.

“An old man at thirty-one.” he murmured to himself. “I wonder if the High Vagrants would release me if I faked possession...”

“Careful 'old man' that sort of talk will get you sent to the Albak Sands, if the wrong ears catch wind.”

A familiar feminine voice whispered to him at his left ear. He gave a start, at being jarred from his introspection. He then turned his head to regard the speaker. Sitting on her knees, wearing the traditional, white and purple cowled robe of a Rite Judge within the West Cairn, was Ritoma. Ritoma was ten years Noalme's elder, she didn't look the part to him, though. She had deep red hair, with amber colored eyes, and despite the regal position she held as a Rite Judge, she often had a playful... almost mischievous smile on her face, that made her appear youthful than her years alluded.

Noalme had feelings for her. He had even considered asking her to take him in the Rite of the One Maker. However, logic took the better of him. They were both Rite Judges; and Judges were forbidden to court each other within in the same Cairn. Besides, the strain of their positions would probably be too much for the relationship to withstand. He wouldn't intertwine their spirits, if it meant that there was a possibility that they would grow to resent one another. He'd seen it happen before, and didn't want to sabotage the friendship they already had. Some days though... it was difficult to convince himself.

“Ritoma, you know I'd never seriously consider-”

“Calm, Noalme...” she spoke in a placating tone, Noalme then saw her characteristic smile reach her eye on one side, giving her a sly cast.

“I won't tell the Vagrants, if you make our dinner tonight.”

She's so beautiful. he mused in his head, then immediately chastised himself. You have to stop thinking like that, idiot: you're supposed to overcome these emotions... for both your sakes.

“How is it, that you always find a reason to blackmail me into making your dinner?” Noalme asked. She gave a look of exaggerated shock, even going so far as to place a hand gingerly on her breast.

“Are you suggesting that I manipulate YOU into making my meals? Even if that were true, you should consider it a compliment of your cooking skills that I do it so often. Besides, if you didn't say, and do so many things I could blackmail you for, it wouldn't happen so much... Probably.”

“So your punishing my transgressions... By having me make your food?” he asked in a flat tone.

“Someone must punish you.” her wily smile returned, “And I get a good meal, everyone wins.”

“Oh, well I'm glad to be of service. So, what would you like the fool-chef to make for you this evening?” he asked.

“Enough of the idiotic flirtations you two; We are about to begin the Tribune.”

Jormand, the third judge, interjected in his gravelly old voice. He had been a Rite Judge for longer than Noalme, and Ritoma's time combined. He was not a pleasant man; his dark eyes always seemed to be narrowed in disapproval for anyone that entered his vision. His long gray beard, and shoulder length hair was riddled with small interwoven wooden charms. The charms, though meant to be wards particularly against various diseases. When worn when there was no claim of disease within your Cairn, it was considered a reckless indiscretion, on par with raising an alarm for danger with no real cause. Though charms were not proper Zemi; they had no actual power. It could mislead people, or even cause false panic. Jormand however, was a paranoid old man, and wore them daily, epidemic or not. Fortunately the whole Cairn had come to be aware of his paranoia, and for the most part, pardoned, if not ignored his impropriety.

He was also, incredibly cantankerous. As to why he was made a Rite Judge with his horrendous temperament, Noalme could only guess. Perhaps in an earlier time, Jormand was kind. Maybe all the years of being a Rite Judge, had stripped him of benevolence. Noalme worried that this would be his fate if he continued to be a Rite Judge. Every time he saw the wrinkled, spiteful gaze of Jormand, it served as a reminder of what could be. This sometimes caused Noalme to feel pity for Jormand, though only on rare occasion, when the geriatric Rite Judge wasn't berating someone for their supposed flaws, or complaining about some bodily discomfort.

Noalme stood from sitting on his knees, the other Judges stood as well. The hut they stood in, was adorned in several narrow purple banners bearing a symbol in the middle of each banner, of the West Cairn; four sinuous white lines curving into each other like a vortex, with four green dots placed on each of the horizontal and vertical positions, just outside the vortex.

The hut itself was made with light tan colored Acacia wood, rumored to have been harvested from the scarce trees inside the nearly barren Albak Sands. The hut had been shaped into a half circle, the judges would sit at a curved side of the hut where the area had been elevated into a dais, about two hand spans above the floor. The trim of the dais had alternating patterns of the glyphs, representing justice, and the sigil of the Hobo Enclave. Each Rite judge sits on their own round cotton rug: one purple, one green, and one white. The rugs were thick and usually comfortable to kneel on, but only for about an hour at a time, after which one may as well kneel on an iron plate for all the comfort the rugs would render after a time.

Today was Noalme's turn to open the tribunal. Noalme, spoke in a firm and loud voice to the entrance curtain at the opposite side of the dais:

“The Rite Tribunal would serve the arbitrations concerning the rites and auguries of this people.”

Immediately after Noalme made the announcement, a woman threw aside the curtain, letting into the hut a gust of rain from outside, typical of the Birthfall season. The demure woman appeared to be trying to stomp authoritatively up to the dias, however the effect was severely hindered by the soft wood flooring, placed directly atop solid dirt ground, muffling the attempted stomping to a mild thumping.

It's going to be a long day... Noalme thought while letting out a sigh.

Cairnites were expected to wait for the curtain to be drawn back, and tied up by the guard outside, before coming in. Clearly, this woman could not be bothered to wait for ceremony. Noalme could see the guards peering into the hutt, a look of surprise painted on their faces at the audacity of this person. She was a younger woman, wearing the popular silken skirts of the day. Bolts of red cloth were sewn to each side of the dipping waistline, with a knee length, rust colored skirt underneath. Her top was the same color as the underskirt; which was a long sleeved affair, with a dip at the neck similar to the waistline. The sleeves came all the way to the hands, where they had been hemmed perfectly to reach just before every finger and thumbs' first knuckle. She had her deep orange hair styled, in the fashion of the day as well. It was cut short on the sides and back, with the hair on top left longer to be wisped up and slightly skewed to one side. Making a shape similar to a lick of flame. Many of the smaller tresses intentionally made to deviate from the central quaff, further alluding to the image of a dancing fire on the top of one's head. Noalme hated that hairstyle.

He hadn't recognized her, so it was possible she'd never brought a cause to the Rite Tribunal before, and was unfamiliar with the ceremony therein. That often meant the person was also unfamiliar with manners.

“The High Vagrants, ignore my warning about the southwest water wells. Every time I bring it to their attention, they tell me that 'It's the domain of the Rite Tribunal!'” she took a childishly mocking tone at the last part, demonstrating her esteem for the High Vagrants' judgment.

“You will NOT speak that way of the High Vagrants, child! They are the holy appointed leaders of this Cairn, and you will restrain such levity in regarding their station.”

Jormand snapped at her, while thrusting a gnarled finger at her. The young woman, bowed her head slightly in shame, her eyes downcast.

No, not many manners in this girls' head at all. Noalme thought to himself. I'd better quell the old Hobo before he bursts into a dust cloud of indignation...

“What is your name, miss?” Noalme interjected before Jormand could continue his tirade. She looked up, and met Noalme's eyes.

“Kayma, Rite Judge.”

“And do you have a forename, Kayma?” he asked.

“I don't know it, Rite Judge. My family are strangers to me.”

“If you'll excuse my presumption, usually a person without a forename, could not afford such fine clothing. What caste do you belong to?”

“I'm a Nomad, I've settled to the West Cairn at the beginning of Nomastep, master Rite Judge.My trade is mostly in oddities.”

Jormand gave a derisive snort, as she mentioned her trade.

“Oddities... Meaningless trinkets sold by fools, to fools.”

Jormand was one to talk with those empty charms laced in his beard. A look of outrage towards Jormand, began to creep onto the young woman's face, her mouth began to open, but Noalme interjected before she could speak.

“It's just Rite Judge, if you please, Nor Kayma.” he addressed her by the title, respective to the Nomad caste.

“I am called Noalme, my fellow judges are Homa Ritoma Kelnei, and Homa Jormand Loros.”

“You did not say your forename, Homa Noalme.” she noted.

“I do have one, but my reason for withholding is... difficult to explain. Certainly not something that this Tribunal needs to discuss at this time.”

Ritoma turned her head to look at Noalme, raising an eyebrow to him. He gave a very slight shrug to her, then turned back to continue addressing Nor Kayma.

“You mentioned that something was wrong with the southwest wells?”

“Yes, the people grow sick, whenever they drink from them.”

“Those are the largest wells in the Cairn, and are also the most drawn from. I live in the region myself. I drink, and draw for my wash basin from that well, and have not felt sick as of late. If the people are getting sick... Why are you the only one, to have brought this concern to the council?”

Jormand, nodded curtly in agreement with the inquisition. He then glared at the girl, accusing her of lies with his gaze. She ignored his stare, and spoke again.

“It is strange Rite Judges; Some seem to get very sick from it, others use the well, and aren't affected in the least. I haven't seen any pattern, other than it has to be Vaporwil possessing the waters. I think the Vaporwil are somehow choosing who they possess to make sick. I know it sounds impossible, but my market stand looks right at the wells, and I've seen the people drink and sometimes within moments, begin to shake, and sick up.”

Noalme hadn't heard anything about others getting sick from the wells. However he did remember an odd moment, a few nights back. He recalled going to the wells to get water for that evening's stew. As he bent down to peer into the water, he remembered seeing a luminescent pale-blue shape, flicker just below the water's surface. It moved like a serpent; darting down into the depths with lightning speed, having been startled by the presence of a potential predator, wandering too close to the thing's domain. He had reflexively jumped backwards and nearly dropped the spices and leaks that he had been holding in a bowl at that time. When he peered into the water again though, he discovered that the “serpent” was actually a pale-blue sash, likely to have been accidentally discarded by its owner while they had been washing clothing in a separate basin.

He had decided that the moonlight had spurred his imagination into seeing the scarf as a glowing serpent, and took the scarf out of the massive well. But that only was strange, because no one was allowed to wash anything in the well itself, so the cloth shouldn't even be near the water... let alone in it. He still hadn't found the owner of the sash yet, which he kept safely folded in a small inner pocket of his clothing, just in case he caught wind of someone seeking the sash.

Jormand threw indignant words at the girl, “By the Auto-God, a Vaporwil might have made YOU head-sick! What could an ignorant Nomad, know of such wicked spirits? Vaporwil cannot choose who they infect, they are always drawn in by those who take them in, regardless of who or what they are. Even if Vaporwil impossibly gained the ability to choose their vessels, the southwest waters are NEVER harvested by the Hobo, and as such... Still have their Umbra, making them safe from all, except the strongest of Vaporwil. Homa, Ritoma and Noalme, this girl obviously lies! We've more important tasks than this Nomad woman's whimsies.”

Jormand had almost shouted his demands. Noalme found it odd that the old Hobo, was so furiously against the notion. Jormand was infamously paranoid of illness, and usually jumped to quarantine anyone and anything rumored to have some form of infirmity. So why was he so vehemently against Kayma's claim, that the wells were making people sick? Still, he had made good points. Vaporwil are evil spirits, that indiscriminately try to possess, any creature that would drink them in. They function like mindless diseases, infecting any host they can enter, and they certainly don't have any notion of restraint.

“Could it be that people are getting sick from another source? Perhaps someone in the market stalls have been unknowingly selling rotten Impa melon. Sickness of that sort varies depending on the strength of the stomach. I was at a gathering once, where the Impa Melon had been rotten for two weeks before it was served, it didn't look rotten at all, and tasted as fresh as if it were picked right from the vine that day. We only knew it was bad, because Homa Gerald grew so sick, we had to change pales seven times to accommodate the volume of his purge! The rest of us, only got somewhat ill... Though that was probably because Homa Gerald must've eaten close to his weight in melon.” Ritoma spoke in conversational tone.

The whole room starred with shocked incredulity at Ritoma.

“... No.” Kayma hesitantly spoke, while giving a questioning glance at Ritoma. “Impa Melon isn't in season during Birthfall. So it wouldn't be likely that very many people would be selling it, or... eating it right now.”

Jormand and Noalme, still had not fully recovered from their dismay at Ritoma's bizarre decision in divulging such an uncouth story, and while arbitrating of all times! Noalme had a look of surprised incredulity, while Jormand glared with scathing disapproval at Ritoma. Despite the obvious looks of reproach from the room, Ritoma's expression was painted with unapologetic serenity.

Noalme shook himself out of his stupor and carried on; “You must understand, Nor Kayma: as it is, we are very pressed with arbitrations, lined up to the end of this season. Not only this, but in the rare hours we are able to leave this council hut, most of the time we are participating in Rites that demand our presence. It isn't that we completely doubt your claim. However, we can't begin an investigation, until we have stronger evidence that would merit the use of the time we could be spending on equally important ministrations.”

Ritoma added her words: “The three High Judges of the Hobo Enclave, being seen investigating one the Cairns' most frequented wells, would be cause for public concern... Perhaps even panic, if rumor circulates strongly enough. We couldn't risk an upheaval like that, without having good basis, if not a solid certitude.” she paused for a brief moment, considering what she should say next. “Have you witnessed anything else that might indicate that the wells might be corrupted?” She asked in an encouraging tone.

“I...” she hesitated. “I saw the evil spirit within the well, last night.” she shivered slightly and hugged her shoulders, in order to restrain further chills while recounting the experience. “It was monstrous, it had to be as long as an adult human. It was shaped like a snake, and it had glowing blue skin, that I could partly see through. It was gliding through the water, one end of the body looked like it was a mouth with sharp narrow teeth, that were too long for the head to hold. I saw it opening and closing it's jaw, like it was eating something... It moved so fast, and so chaotically.”

Noalme, felt the color drain from his face. This description sounded alarmingly similar to the shape he saw in the wells, in the week past. Did the creature have a jaw when he'd seen it? No, it wasn't a Vaporwil, it was sash he'd mistaken for something else. The sash that he was going to return, to whomever it belonged to... maybe even lecture them about using a public well for washing clothing.

Then why did this girl; Nor Kayma, see a very similar thing in the same well? Noalme hadn't told anyone about his experience at the wells, so no one would be able piece together rumor, and convey it to this girl. How likely was it that what she saw... was another blue sash? Or perhaps some other article of clothing, that could trick the eye into seeing a blue apparition, slithering through the depths of one of the south west water wells?

Noalme felt he shouldn't believe the young Nomad's story, yet it coincided too much with what he'd experienced. At the least, he needed to know if this girl had been mistaken, or perhaps even lied.

“Do you know what Oculumbra means, Nor Kayma?” She appeared puzzled by the question at first, then she spoke carefully.

“It means... an eye that can see things of the High World. My left eye is one. That's why I could see the Vaporwil in the well. How else could I know I was seeing an evil spirit in the water?”

Oculumbra, in simple terms, are eyes with a natural talent for seeing past the veil of this world. When one has an Oculumbra, it is always in only one of the eyes, never both. With it, one can see the normally invisible Umbra flowing through the air, the spirits living things, and Vaporwil. Outside the Hobo Enclave, an Oculumbra rarely manifests in people, and if it does, it would be rarer still, for them to know the proper name for the phenomenon. Noalme's right eye was an Oculumbra, and he was certain that he hadn't seen anything else, in the well. Noalme fished the sash out of his inner robe pocket.

“Did the 'Vaporwil' happen to look like this, Nor Kayma?” He held the sash up at one end, letting it's length unfurl in front of him.

She studied the sash intently for a moment, then her expression changed to surprise.

“I think that's MY sash Rite Judge! I lost one, that looked just like it, a week ago, while I was filling my basin for the wash. I recognize the embroidery at the ends.” she paused, then realized what he was inferring.

“Are you saying that I mistook a Vaporwil, for my sash that I didn't even poses at the time?”

“Maybe not this sash. Perhaps it was some other object that ended up in the well that might’ve taken to looking like a spirit moving through the water in the moonlight, to your eyes.” He offered her the sash, she then stepped forward and accepted it.

As she stepped back from the dias, she took a moment to gaze at the sash within her hand, her eyes then took on a pained expression.

“So there is really no way of convincing any of you that there really is a Vaporwil, poisoning people in the Wells, is there?”

“No!” Jormand snapped. “Now leave this tribunal, before we order the guard to come in and forcibly remove you.”

“I truly wish we could do more, Nor Kayma. Believe me when I say, if were this a less tumultuous time in the Cairn, I wouldn't hesitate to address this personally. Please, return if you find more information on the subject. I'll do what I can, to have you heard by the Tribunal again.” Ritoma said what she could to console the young Nomad, but it was clear that Kayma, had not been convinced, judging by her resentful, sidelong glare away from the dais.

Kayma scanned the room, gaging the expressions of each of the Rite Judges. When her gaze came to Noalme, she must have seen the knowing look in his expression. She nodded very slightly to him, it would have been imperceptible, had he not been so focused on her. She then left without further argument.

The rest of the day was mostly uneventful. Hobo, and other Cairnites, issued questions about how the Enclave were going to deal with the recent influx of Dry One's wandering outside the Albak Desert, too early this year; or concerns about the unaligned Hobo within the Cairn, that are performing strange new Umbra, that potentially endanger the rest of the Cairn. Both issues had been pressing. Noalme, and the other Rite Judges had been investigating, in collusion with the Enclave Exemplars, with little result. Jormand spent the recesses in meetings, complaining about “the audacity of that young Nomad”, every chance he could get, which were many unfortunately.

The sun set, was marked by four lengthy chimes on a massive, suspended iron bell, struck with cloth padded mallets by the High Vagabond's at the center of the Cairn, resonating with ominously, deep bass-tones. After the closing ceremonies were completed, Noalme walked vigorously towards the hut exit.

“Where are you going? Did you eat bad Impa Melon as well... Old man Noalme?” Ritome coyly inquired behind him.

Noalme thought for a moment before replying. Contrary to what the other Rite Judges had said, he did believe Nor Kayma had seen a Vaporwil. He didn't consider himself a strong judge of character, but he saw truth in her. He would need to make up a reason for leaving without walking with Ritoma to her home, as he had done, nearly every night.

“Today's proceedings, left me... agitated. I need sometime to consider.”

There, true enough. Noalme rationalized to himself.

“Yes, I can believe that. Nearly all of what was brought to us today, wouldn't be something you or I could leave in this tent. Do you wonder if she really did see it?”

“Who? Saw What?” Noalme feigned confusion.

“Don't pretend that you don't remember. That girl; Nor Kayma. Do you think she might've actually seen a Vaporwil in the South West Wells?” she chastised.

“Oh, well... If she did, she didn't mention if anyone had died, and it hadn't affected very many people, so it’s likely not to be a particularly powerful Vaporwil. Most of the novice Hobo, would leap at the chance, to try their hand at expelling Vaporwil, since they can't leave the Cairn to try it in the outside world. I would guess that even a fledgling Hobo would be able to do the task.” Careful Noalme; if you keep this up, she'll begin to suspect something, end it before she breaks your resolve.

The thought came to him, but unbidden. While, true; Ritoma had a strong affinity for detecting and ferreting out withheld information, especially from Noalme; he'd never recalled actively thinking of ways to evade telling her what his real intentions were.

Wait, hadn't he just done that very thing a few moments ago?

“You don't sound so sure.” Ritoma sounded skeptical.

End it now.

“I'll meet with you later this evening Ritoma. Don't worry, I haven't forgotten that I'm to make dinner, as penance for concocting a plan to act as though I were possessed by Vaporwil.” Noalme gave a weak chuckle.

“So long as you do it remorsefully. My mother always said guilt spices a meal nicely.” it was a jest, yet her tone indicated worry more than levity. Noalme left the tent, periodically glancing behind himself, to make sure Ritoma wasn't following. It appeared she hadn't yet opened the curtain to leave the Tribunal Hut by the time, he had passed the great Flux Bell, at the center of the Cairn.

Rain cascaded down the curving architecture of the buildings in the West Cairn, sometimes called Shantae, by the eldest of the Cairnites. The majority of the structures had been built back when the great Vedak, supposedly still spoke to mankind. Great towers impossibly crafted of both metal and stone with precise, rectangular walls, some topped with oval domes like gradient plates of thickly lavish bronze overlapping one another. Others with roofs shaped like a rectangles, that had been pinched between two massive hands, like a hatchet blade. While the base of the roof was left broad. These were constructed of jade stone. A few wooden buildings were intermixed with the lot, though those were few, having only been relatively recently constructed, to accommodate the increase in population. No one had ever been able to truly mimic the complex design of the ancient stone and metal buildings, and certainly not for lack of trying.

The rain-soaked road cobbles had begun to accumulate small puddles between the fissures and pores; Noalme's boots began to slap water out of the recess' in the ground, as his gait increased. Hooded lamps, were suspended just above the heads of the Cairnites, by thick flaxen rope, each end, tied to buildings on opposite sides of the street. There was a mild wind, brushing against the lamps, causing the dim light to cast shadows, that shifted and swayed in an eerie dance. Noalme felt increasingly anxious; as though he was walking into an increasingly strong forbiddance. Never had fear clutched his mind so tightly. But it was absurd, nothing was happening, nothing likely would happen. So why was he so afraid?

He hadn't bothered bringing any sort of protection from the rain. By the time he'd reached the wells, his judges robe had soaked completely through. He ignored the discomfort of damp cloth, clinging to his arms and back, he was too focused on getting to the South West Wells to care about much else. This was the only other place were he could think to find the Nomad: Nor Kayma. Supposedly, her market stall would be near the Wells, though most stalls would be empty of person and parcel by this hour; he'd hoped perhaps that she would still be here; taking inventory of her wares, or perhaps tallying her profits. He was not so fortunate though. After searching each of the stalls, lining the periphery of the Wells, he discovered that no one had even stayed past the ringing of the evening Flux Bell.

He returned to the Wells, and sat down on the stone bricks that housed the expansive steel bowl, holding a fourth of the Cairn's pure water supply. The well was shrouded by an equally massive canvas cloth, tethered to wood supports, holy scrawlings of Lunatik script painted along the seams of the canvas to ward against disease and tearing. The canvas was intentionally designed to be slack directly over the well, so that the rain water would flow along the cloth directly into the center, where it would then drip into a large copper funnel filled partially with densely tamped coal. The water having been strained through the coal, finally flowed into the well through a tightly meshed grate at the bottom of the copper funnel. The water often tasted of the sooty coal. However, he alternative was drinking from the streams outside the city, which often lead to sickness or possession, rumor claimed that some had even died from drinking from them.

This was the main well of the South West region. Other, smaller wells, surrounded the main well. These wells were to be used for general washing and cleaning. They did not have any sort of filtering structure over them, they merely collected rain, as it was.

Noalme, felt the discomfort of being trapped in soaked clothing, finally take hold, shivering slightly, as droplets cascaded down his back, into his robe. He began to consider the strange panic he'd felt earlier. He was calm, if a bit uncomfortable now, but he couldn't recall the exact moment when he stopped feeling the supernatural dread. At some point, it had apparently vanished without his knowing. Noalme could hear the rain slowing it's gentle tapping on the cobbles, shortly thereafter, the night drew into silence.

He had been sitting with his back to the water inside the well. Feeling exhaustion from the day's many, and irritating Tribunals; he produced a smooth wooden drinking bowl from the inner pocket of his robe. He then pivoted his upper body to draw water from the well. He wasn't thirsty, but the water would help to-

He saw movement in the water. He recoiled; swiftly jumping up from his seat, splashing a bit of water out of his drinking bowl that he'd half submerged into the Well, before seeing whatever it was that writhed in it's depths. Immediately, he whipped himself around to face the well, his eyes darted frantically, desperately searching for the source of the movement. An icy sensation shot up his spine; the blue sash was in the water, only this time, it had a face, and it was staring directly up at Noalme. The rippling water obscured the details of the face for a moment, when the water stilled, he saw that the face was reminiscent of a serpent, save that the cranium had harshly warped horns, jutting backward to follow the curve of the back of it's head, and the eyes were two vacuous holes, that seemed to reject light.

Noalme shut his right eye. The serpent head disappeared making the sash appear as normal again. He then opened his right, and closed the left. The creature became more vibrant when he did so. There was no denying it; he could only see the creature with his Oculumbra right eye, it was definitely a Vaporwill.

“Ssssssspaawn of the Deceiverrrrrr....”

A rasped whisper echoed inside Noalme's mind. It felt like a venomous ichor was being pushed through his thoughts. He clutched his head, agony slid through the recesses of his brain, feeling as though the words of the Vaporwil, were trying to bore in, and kill Noalme.

It can't take you, if you refuse it. Push it back, tap your Umbra. Don't let it convince you.

Noalme fought within, pushing back the Vaporwil's influence, while simultaneously focusing on the bridge to the High World. He felt the connection between worlds solidify, and with his Oculumbra, began to see a colossal heaven-ward bridge made of a strange, chromatic substance, flow from his chest. The Vaporwil still pushed, harder than any other Noalme had ever encountered. He panicked; as it seemed for a moment, that the bridge had been flickering in-and-out of existence. Yet he had been fortunate, as he had drawn Umbra to his fullest this morning. He poured more of his will into the bridge, almost draining the entire store of his Umbra. While true, Vaporwil cannot possess another spirit against its will; they sometimes have enough power, to torture the mind of a living thing so thoroughly, that the creature would surrender it's will to the whispers of death, in order to escape the mental anguish the Vaporwil barraged the victim with.

Tendrils flowed through his brain, bringing exquisite pain, and murmurs of surrender. Then the malicious ichor finally met with resistance, crashing into an Umbral dam. The Umbra pushed outward in his mind, as Noalme willed it to expel the Vaporwil from his being. It had been enough; the Umbral bridge ceased flickering, regaining its hold on reality; and Noalme felt the vile influence drain from him, knowing the Vaporwil had seen that the Umbral barrier was strong enough to prevent outright death, but only just.

How did this Vaporwil elude every Hobo, including Noalme's attention? Vaporwil were not common in the West Cairn. The one's he'd most encountered, had only been able to make people sick, those could only do so after the victim drank water the Vaporwil had possessed. Rarely had he seen Vaporwil strong enough to kill; those one's were easily spotted, so the Hobo cleansed the issue, usually before lives were taken. This one, not only could kill, but it could do it without being consumed. If anyone, with even the slightest measure less talent, and Umbra store than Noalme, tried to fight it...

Noalme, didn't want to acknowledge what had to be done. Weaker Vaporwil can simply be expelled from a water source through infusing it with more Umbra. If one is strong enough to resist Umbra, then there was only one thing that a Hobo could do.

He drew on his remaining Umbra, then chanted in the High World tongue: Lunatik. He was going to perform the Rite of the One Maker. His spirit would be intertwined with the Vaporwil, but it would be trapped inside Noalme's body, never to escape until the day Noalme died.

He was not at peace with his life, he did not want to be a raving madman, constantly fighting within himself for control of his own body, until exhaustion, or starvation killed him. He knew it had to be done though. This Vaporwil was capable of concealing itself, if he left it to find more Hobo, this Vaporwil would probably wouldn't be found again until it had killed someone. If Nor Kayma's description was any indication, they may not even be capable of finding it, even after it had killed several Cairnites.

He loved Ritoma Kelnei, it stung most of all that she would never hear him profess it. He knew she had loved him too. If they both hadn't taken this Vedak-forsaken calling as Rite Judges! He felt bitter resentment, well-up, like bile in his heart.

We couldn't be happy together, just because of some obsolete laws, passed down from the addled minds of old Hobo, who blindly followed the teachings of those who claimed to speak to Vedak itself. These people don't even know the sacrifice Ritoma and I made for them. Every day we were forced into each other's company, pretending we were only colleges in our profession. We denied ourselves daily, and would they even care if they knew? We heard their foolish complaints, catered to their inane tasks, and risked our lives to protect them. They don't deserve such selflessness, they don't deserve my time and talents, they don't deserve... Ritoma.

The transcendent Lunatik words flowed from his mouth. He could not hear the words coming from himself, but he knew that he was speaking the Rite correctly. As he had practiced the Rite so many times before. To his right eye, the water in the main well and all the other wells, began to shine brightly with swirling colors, as the gods; Water and Umbra, bore witness to the Vow that was taking place. The Blue Sash Vaporwil, radiated a thick haze of the same dark tendrils it had used to attack Noalme earlier. This mean it was considering the Vow. Vaporwil could refuse, but they never did; the temptation to kill a living thing from within, was far too enticing to them.

“My life was wasted.” Noalme bitterly whispered to himself.

Weeeeee accept thissss vessel. But reject thisss bindinnnnng of ssssspirit.

“Wha- How can you?..” Noalme felt his body lose all strength, his legs gave way, collapsing to the cobbles, and then all became dark.

Ritoma had been looking for Noalme for the last hour. She had gone to his home, but he hadn't been there, nor had he been to any of the other places he usually went to think. She had known that she should have pressed him for more answers earlier. He had acted so strangely; evading questions, and being so distant to her; this was not like him in the least. She'd prayed fervently to the Auto-God that he wasn't lost somewhere, or hurt. She found herself running, something that a Rite Judge should not be seen doing, but she'd stopped caring about propriety, a half an hour ago. Noalme could be in peril, and to a Dry One's pit to the Cairnite who tried to stop her!

The rain had stopped a half hour ago, had she not been kept warm by activity of running, she probably would be feeling very cold, and very uncomfortable at this point. She was running to the South West wells now, she felt an idiot for not checking there first. Ritoma had deduced that, Noalme had believed Nor Kayma's claim about the Vaporwil. It should've been obvious that he was probably going to go investigate those Wells.

She saw a familiar face at the main well and sighed in relief. The dark, closely trimmed beard, straight, shoulder length hair, and the gray eyes that were shaped as though stuck in a perpetual expression of apology.

“Noalme!” she slowed to a walk, trying to catch her breath between words, unsuccessfully.

“Noalme, have you been here this whole time? Has something happened?” she gasped.

She drew closer to him, inspecting his face at a closer distance. She came up short, as soon as she could more accurately see his features. He no longer appeared to have his modest visage anymore. Instead, a dangerous, predatory confidence, sharpened his normally gentle eyes, and hardened the rest of his face to bear a hateful cast. It was everything she could do, to resist reeling back in fear. She found herself, incapable of looking him in the eye for long.

He didn't reply for an uncomfortably long period of time. He simply starred at her, possibly seeing into her spirit as he sometimes did, but not in the way he typically did: with admiration and love. Instead, he was glaring at her, as though he saw a rival predator, threatening his territory, or perhaps as if she were prey, but prey that held danger. She didn't have an Oculumbra or “the eye” as it was often called, to see the things of the High World, as he did.

She was never comfortable with the idea of others being able to see her spirit. While it afforded nothing more than the knowledge that a person had a spirit, still... she couldn't help feeling that some, albeit very few, had an advantage over her that she had no defense against. It almost felt like they were seeing her unclothed. Noalme, after knowing him for some time, had become an exception to that discomfort. She could tell when he was focusing with his Oculumbra, and whenever he directed that focus on her, she could feel admiration, and love, wash over her like gentle waves of comforting warmth.

She felt no such thing now. His right eyelash, had twitched slightly, Ritoma recognized this, as his tell which indicated he was looking was focusing with his Oculumbra at her. She wanted desperately to hide, or find something to protect herself; anything that might shield her from that coldly grim glare. His lip abruptly drew up in a twisted smile, and he finally spoke.

“May I ask you some things, Ritoma?”

“Yes... Only if you intend to answer my previous ones.” she tried to hide her fear of him; answering in her distinctively quick witted fashion. His smile deepened, but it only accentuated the lack of mirth behind it. His insidious smile inferred that she was clearly the prey, she felt somehow cornered, despite the open area of the Well yard.

“Do you care for me, Ritoma?”

“Yes, of course I do. We are Rite Judges, it is our obligation to watch over and protect one another.”

Noalme slowly shook his head, his smile took on a suffering cast.

“You and I both know, there is so much more between us. There is no need to hide behind duty anymore. The High Vagrant can posture and demand all they want, but we don't need to obey them. Ritoma...”

He locked his gaze with her own, seeming to stab a cold spike, right into her mind with a stare.

“I want to take you, in the Right of the One Maker.”

This was all wrong. Noalme loved her, and she loved him. However, Noalme had too much respect for both Ritoma, and his duties, whatever he felt of either, to even hint at something like this. Ritoma clumsily tried to change the uncomfortable subject as though he'd never proposed.

“Did you find Nor Kayma this evening?”

His smile left for an instant, but returned just as quickly.

“I didn't, but it seems she has a penchant for leaving this sash in these wells.”

He reached into the lining of his cowled robes, and pulled out the familiar blue sash from this morning. She looked at the sash proffered by Noalme, and smiled wanly.

“May I see the sash?”

He nodded and lifted the sash out to her, letting the length droop to touch the wet cobble below. She stepped forward, and gingerly took the sash from him. She clutched it in both hands, reverently studying the intricate embroidery along the edges, it truly was a beautiful sash. She didn't look away from the sash when she spoke.

“Noalme, I need to know before I answer: where have you been, and what has happened since I left you?”

He walked a few paces past her, and for a long moment did not speak. When he finally replied, his tone was maniacal.

“I HAVE BEEN WHERE MAN HOLDS NO DOMAIN! I HAVE TAKEN ON THE FATE OF ALL THOSE WHO SHED THEIR LAST DROP OF SPIRIT! I AM ASCENDED AS PART OF LEGION, AND CARRY IN MY VESSEL... A MEASURE OF THE GODS THEMSELVES!”

That was all the conformation she needed.

“I WILL MAKE-”

His fanatical ravings were cut short as a cloth wrapped tightly around his throat, choking off any further words. A foot was firmly pressed into his spine, preventing him from offering any meaningful resistance. He sputtered and gagged, while vainly trying to struggle free. Tears flowed freely from Ritoma's face, commingling with the renewed rainfall. She sobbed as she cried out.

“I'm sorry Noalme! You shouldn't have had to take on the Vaporwil alone! You shouldn't have had to make this sacrifice for us! I'm so soooorrry!”

Her words came out as anguished gasps. When he finally stopped struggling, and grew limp, grief overcame her. She collapsed to the ground, laying on her side loudly crying out. The blue sash lay sodden in the street. Slowly, it began to be dragged by a small stream of water collecting along the shallow gaps of the cobblestone streets. Ending its brief journey by resting next to the throat of Homa Noalme, as lifeless as the man it lay beside.

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