The Edge of the Storm
Rr-Ki of Blackneck stood confidently at the edge of the storm, close enough to slip his arm out from beneath his heavy hidecoat and let the tiny grains of sand fly hard against his fingertips. He thought of his younger days - the days before his hands had formed their thick, tough callouses. He had enjoyed the feeling of the sand stinging his soft skin, and now that the sensation was gone there was a heavy sadness in his heart that he didn’t understand.
You understand it, a voice spoke up from the back of his mind. You understand it very well. You’re equating your old skin with the rest of your old body. And your tired soul. It’s not joyful or painful, it’s just numb.
Shut up, Rr-Ki told the voice. He had long ago grown tired of its ramblings.
I only say these things because I care, the voice said defiantly. If I don’t force you to face reality, you’re never going to do it on your own. Enough of this. Enough wasting time thinking about being happy. Numb is good. You should want to be numb.
Rr-Ki pushed the voice to the back of his mind, not wanting it to get too comfortable in the forefront. He stuck his arm further into the storm until he felt the sting of the sand on his elbow. A wave of pleasure went up and down his hunched back, and he felt the prickle of his fur rising up in excitement.
We can’t stay here long, the voice called out from the background. Its words were still clear, just more distant, less pressing.
I know, he told it. Just a minute.
A whole minute? the voice asked. Are you trying to mess this up?
We’ll be fine.
We better be. We have work to do. If we don't get back to the-
“Fine!” Rr-Ki grunted in the guttural language of the Batta. "Let’s get to it.“
He tucked his arm back under his hidecoat and felt around his tool belt until he found a small metal disc. He pulled it out slowly, trying to still his clumsy hands so he wouldn't drop the precious instrument to the rocky ground.
They’re waiting for us! the voice whined.
Rr-Ki slid a tiny lever on top of the disc and five tiny lights came to life, one by one. Once the final light had fallen into rhythm with the others, they all flashed red three times.
It was ready to fly.
He held the disc up just above his chest, which was as high as his aching arms would allow, then he let it drop. The disc fell less than an inch before kicking into life, floating in front of Rr-Ki for only a moment before flying off in a blur. It flew high into the air, perfectly skimming the edge of the stormwall, zipping with a frantic energy that looked more animalistic than mechanical. Once it reached the top of the storm, the disc swooped back down and came to an erratic hover in front of Rr-Ki's face. She's getting old, he thought. All of them are.
A long beep from the old priest’s receiver let him know that the first round of data had been successfully retrieved. He tapped a green button on the receiver's face and the disc shot off again, this time going parallel to the ground, rising up and down like a seabird gliding along the flow of the water. It was out of Rr-Ki’s sight within seconds, leaving him standing alone beside the roaring wind of the storm.
I’ve got a few minutes, he thought as he pulled his arm back out from beneath his hidecoat. Takes about seven minutes for the disc to go around the eye. That’s enough time for-
Don’t even think about it! the voice demanded, pushing its way to the front of Rr-Ki’s mind. You can play around when your work is done. It retreated on its own after making its point - it was growing just as tired of Rr-Ki as he was of it.
"Fine, fine,” the priest said as he trudged back to his vehicle, going slowly over the sharp rocks so he wouldn’t fall and bust up his old body. It was hard to get around while wearing his dust mask, especially out in the craggy Stonebed territory. Old legs and backs like his weren’t meant for such dangers.
I’ll have to insist they send Unnin out next time, he told himself. At least until we get through to the valley. He paused for a moment, then decided to unjinx himself. If we get through to the valley.
When Rr-Ki reached his vehicle at the base of the rocks, the residual dust from the stormwall had already covered the windows and half-buried the wheels with its fine grains.
That’s why I told you to hurry, the worried voice said. You can’t be wasting time out here by the wall. I’ve told you that a thousand times.
“You surely have,” Rr-Ki responded aloud, snorting to show his amusement. "Maybe two thousand.“ He brushed the dust from the windows and used his heavy boot to clear away the wheels. He would have to do this chore again before he left, but it was irresponsible to let the stuff build up. It corroded the vehicles, and the flock couldn’t afford to lose something as essential as a rover.
When he was satisfied with his work, he went to the back of the vehicle and lifted a small panel out of the rear cargo hold. He pushed his right palm against the screen and a thin green line slid down the display, scanning his biological signature. When it was satisfied, four choices presented themselves to the old priest in the bold, thick letters of the Batta. REQUEST. REPORT. PERSONAL FILES. PUBLIC FILES.
He pushed REPORT and held his thick finger down as the screen struggled to register his touch through the layer of dust that had formed on the glass. He held the finger up to his mouth, stuck his small tongue out of his black, rough lips, then used his wet finger to clear the filth away. This time it worked, and a sub-menu opened up.
WRITE REPORT. UPLOAD DATA.
He chose UPLOAD DATA and heard the beeps of his receiver as it jumped into action. It zapped its data to the panel, which would send it along to the computers in the priests’ main wagon train, the Carag Astri.
Rr-Ki watched impatiently as the data transferred, its progress marked by a small red circle that was slowly turning blue. This whole process had never made him nervous before, but this time he felt anxious. Tal Kirna of Ashmound - the intimidating new head of the Council - had been demanding a return to Batta Klin, and there was a palpable pressure on Rr-Ki to come back to the flock with good news.
Ridiculous, Rr-Ki thought. As if the storm could be controlled if I just tried a little harder.
Finally, the circle turned blue and the data package was on its way to be pored over. If the news was good, Rr-Ki would be celebrated. If it was bad, he would be condemned. Not outwardly, of course, but in everyone's minds. The thought made his leathery cheeks burn.
Get moving, the voice in his head called from the back. It will be back soon.
Rr-Ki didn’t bother responding. He just slid the panel back into the cargo hold and turned to the rocks. With sore feet and hips, the old creature climbed back up the hill.
The stormwall had moved several feet and, judging by the angle of the movement, it did seem to be going in the general direction of Batta Klin and the sacred Temple.
Maybe this year, he thought, allowing himself the smallest bit of hope.
Maybe, the nervous voice agreed, allowing a small bit of the same.
In the distance, Rr-Ki could hear the whirring of the disc as it approached. It had almost completed its circuit. He quickened his stiff, awkward gait as a seed of excitement grew in his weak heart.
Tal Kirna of Ashmound gritted his worn teeth, the grinding of his molars echoing through his head like the sound of a rocknife blasting through a cave wall.
Stop it, the voice in his head demanded. You’re making yourself look weak.
Tal Kirna scoffed at the voice’s concerns, but stopped grinding his teeth all the same. I’m not weak. I’m nervous.
I hardly see a difference, the voice said. You don’t get to be nervous. You have a job to complete.
Yes, he thought, a job that will get me killed if it's not done right. I think I have a right to be-
Shut up. You have but one right - the right to bring your flock to Batta Klin for the offering. That is your right.
And if the storm doesn’t go to Batta Klin? What then? Shall I force the clouds to-
Mind your thoughts with me, Tal Kirna. The voice was angry. Contemptuous. Let the Hands of Life control the storm. They will carry you there if you are worthy of the honor. You have done nothing but question the plans of the Gods since we began.
“What?!” Tal Kirna yelled out, unable to control himself.
“Sir?” a voice called out from the other end of the room. It was one of the guards stationed in the corners of the large wagon car. He took a step forward, seeming to glide as his feet were hidden behind his long, ornate shield. He tightened his grip on his ceremonial spear, ready for action. His face was mostly hidden behind the thin golden helmet that sat loosely on his head, but his concern was evident in his eyes. "Is everything alright?"
Tal Kirna held up his right hand and nodded once. Even that tiny motion - that minuscule nod - sent a wave of pain through his skull, and he winced for a moment before dropping his face back into a stoic stare. "Back at your post,” he said, letting his annoyance be plain in his voice.
The guard’s eyes now spoke of betrayal. He didn’t appreciate being talked to in that way, especially by one he had sworn to protect, but he took a step back into his corner and let his angry gaze be his only protest.
Tal Kirna could feel the animosity in the boy’s heart, but he did not care. He only cared about one thing, and as he sat down at his humongous blackstone desk, he returned his focus to that one thing.
How could you question my trust in the Gods? After all I’ve done to prepare the way for them? There was real pain in his thoughts - sincere shock. You say I have questioned the Hands of Life?
You can’t hide your heart from your head, Tal Kirna. I know that you have doubts.
Well…he thought, trying to find the right words with which to defend himself. I have done much for the way of the Gods. And I have questioned no more than anyone else. Even you. I am a loyal servant.
Thinking is my privilege, the voice reminded him. You get no such luxury. You believe because Creation compels you to believe. To accept your role with your entire being is your only acceptable path.
Tal Kirna did not respond to this - at least not with words - but the voice in his head could feel that its grip was strong. It found this very pleasing. Sensing an opportunity, it spoke softly, comfortingly. Soon this will all be done with, and you will be able to rest just like everyone else. The storm moves toward the Temple. We can both feel it. We can all feel it. Once the Communion is complete, the Gods will free us from this dreadful existence. They will let us out of this prison. Don’t you want to go home, Tal Kirna? Back to Ashmound?
Tal Kirna grunted - conveying a tired resignation to whatever fate the universe was bringing to his door. He didn’t have to like it. He just had to accept it.
As I said, I am a loyal servant.
As he pulled his vehicle up behind the Carag Astri’s transport storage car, Rr-Ki reached up with his stiff, tired arm and flipped a switch positioned beside a small set of speakers. “Back with V3,” he grunted into the comm.
Show some decorum, you oaf. You’re a pr-
“Bring it in,” a garbled, distorted voice responded, cutting off the voice in Rr-Ki’s troubled mind. Even through the interference of the old, ratty equipment, Rr-Ki could tell he was talking to Unnin, the junior priest of Blackneck and his closest friend.
“I think I’ve got good news,” Rr-Ki said into the comm as he waited for the metal ramp to slide into place, opening up the entrance to the transport car. The ramp let out a loud screeek as it descended, desperate for the grease that once lubricated its parts.
“I’ve heard quite a bit about your good news already,” Unnin came back, bits and pieces of his words lost in the crackling signal. "Things look good so far.“
Rr-Ki waved his short snout from side to side in two quick movements. These young Batta - ones like Unnin, who had grown into their memories and come of age within the eye of the storm - didn’t have the same attachment to the old life as the elders did. They had never known the forest, nor the rivers and streams, nor the beauty of the Temple under the orange glow of Sarkin and her pale little sister Falix. They spoke of Batta Klin the same way they spoke of any other oasis on the desert planet - a convenient and useful thing, but nothing to get particularly excited about.
Rr-Ki found this irritating - even infuriating. If the Gods were still alive, if they still listened to the Batta and their prayers, why would they bring back paradise for a bunch of creatures that wouldn’t even appreciate it? Soon the elders would pass, and with them the memory of the old way, and the young would wander about the planet for the rest of their days herding kepshu and harvesting moisture from the air because they knew no other life. The species might survive, but the Batta culture would be extinct, gone forever.
The ramp was down now, dragging slowly through the sandy soil. Rr-Ki drove up carefully. "I would think a priest could get a little more excited than that,” he said. “We are talking about the Temple, are we not?”
There was a pause on the comm, and Rr-Ki imagined his young ward trying to bite his tongue. Unnin had a sharp wit, but he also had a great love for the priesthood and its ways, and that meant deference to his senior priests. “Just trying to temper my expectations,” he said politely. "I don’t want to get my hopes up.“
Rr-Ki’s nose scrunched up in amusement. "Probably wise,” he said before turning off the comm. The vehicle came to a stop as the ramp screeched to a close behind it. "Probably wise,“ he repeated to himself.
Surprisingly, the voice in his head had nothing to say. Rr-Ki thought it must be busy, too preoccupied to offer up criticism. Perhaps it was-
Shut up and get inside, the voice said.
Rr-Ki was disrobing in the dustroom, his mask hanging from a hook and his hidecoat in a pile on the floor, when Unnin came out to greet him.
Look how weak he is! the voice in Unnin’s head laughed when he laid eyes on Rr-Ki’s sagging body. He’s barely holding together.
Quiet! Unnin demanded, though he knew the brash and disrespectful voice was right. Rr-Ki looked even older than his years warranted. The fur that ran down the middle of his back, which had once been jet black, was now heavily streaked with grey. His skin was loose around his shoulders and chest, and his stomach hung down low - made worse by the way his back hunched forward. His neck was crooked, his spine twisted into an odd position from years of walking upright. Though this ailment had taken its toll on many Batta, it was especially pronounced on the elders. They all walked with the same slow, painful gait - their agony poorly hidden on their faces.
"Let me help you,” Unnin said, stepping forward as Rr-Ki struggled to remove his heavy boots.
The old Batta grunted his disapproval, but let his young colleague help him anyway. Better to hurt your pride than break your hip, the voice in his head said smugly.
Our hip, Rr-Ki thought.
When the old priest was out of his boots, Unnin handed Rr-Ki a black robe, then kindly gathered his friend's instruments and put them away.
We’ll be taking the lead soon, Unnin’s voice said happily, almost laughing. He won’t last much longer.
I told you to be quiet, Unnin thought as he dropped Rr-Ki’s hidecoat down the water chute. He turned to the dust mask next, cleaning its filter as the voice in his head just laughed - not a real laugh, but one meant to be obnoxious and grating.
I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, young priest. Soon we will be the teacher. It is our right.
Unnin didn’t respond to the evil in his mind. He just turned to his mentor - his friend - and offered his arm for support. "We’ve got a lot to discuss with the others."
"Indeed we do."
With elbows locked, the two priests of Blackneck shuffled into the Carag Astri.
Qor-R'n of the Passage woke from her nap to the startling realization that she was not moving. It had not taken her long to realize this - there was no moment of sleepy confusion, no fog that needed clearing. Her mind knew it as soon as it regained consciousness. She had trained herself over the years to equate movement with survival, stillness with death, and in that moment she was sensing death.
The lanky young Batta rolled off her bed and scooted out the back of her cart, ducking her head to keep it from hitting the canopy. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the sunlight, their transition eased by the shield of her furry hand atop her heavy brow ridge.
“Gods,” she said as she scanned the distance. The stormwall was closing in from behind quite quickly, the reaches of its dusty arms no more than a couple miles away. She was lucky to have woken up when she did -otherwise, she and her two kepshu would have been buried by the dust, given over to the grit from which no Batta had ever emerged once taken.
In the back of her mind a very weak feeling sparked up - a kind of warmth that was anything but pleasant. It was in her mind, but felt separate from it, like some sort of entity trying to make living space in her brain. She felt this from time to time - usually in bad situations - and as she got older the thing seemed to grow stronger, like it yearned to speak, to live and be heard. Yet for all its growing strength, it was still distant, still just barely able to make itself known in Qor-R'n’s mind. It couldn’t speak, but it could convey a feeling - and it was sending a feeling to the troubled Batta that could only be translated as scorn, shame, and disappointment.
So Gods damned stupid to trust the kepshu, she told herself as she turned to the front of her cart and trudged through the fine sand.
The feeling in her mind pulsed, as if to agree. How stupid.
Before she reached the front of the cart, she could already hear the greedy lips of the kepshu chomping on the thick, tough leaves of a hardy shenu bush.
"Of course," Qor-R'n said, shaking her head twice. "There are probably six of these left on the entire planet and you two idiots found one." She kicked the metal cover of her front right cart wheel, trying to scare the beasts into stopping. "Away!” she yelled as loud as she could, her voice made rough from the dust that had coated her throat while she was sleeping. "Back away!“
Onn, the younger, tamer kepshu, tried to back away from the bush before he got in anymore trouble. Nan, however, was too old and stubborn to give up so easily. She kept on chomping away, keeping Onn locked in place beside her.
"I said back!” Qor-R'n yelled as she grabbed the yoke and tried to lead the kepshu away. "You’ll be puking in an hour, you fools!“
With a slow, loud grunt, Nan finally did as she was told. The animals backed the cart away from the toxic, yet apparently tasty, bush. Qor-R'n looked back toward the storm and was shocked to see how far it had advanced in just a few minutes. She had never seen it move that fast - or at least she wasn’t used to seeing it this close, its speed perhaps made more frightening by its proximity. It was a rather disturbing sight - a literal wall of doom screaming across the landscape.
"Come on!” she yelled at Nan and Onn, though she knew the slow beasts were going as fast as they could. She felt sorry for them - they were basically starving, after all, moving almost non-stop with little water and even less food - but her anger overrode her sympathy when she watched them clumsily pushing the cart through the sand. "So Gods damned stupid! You stopped to eat with that thing coming to kill you." She reached out and smacked Nan on the rear, hitting her hard enough to elicit a moan of protest from the grumpy old kepshu. "Poor you," Qor-R'n scoffed as she climbed onto the driver’s plank and took hold of the reins. She flicked the rope on the right and Onn pulled forward, turning the cart slightly to the left before Nan started shuffling along. Slowly, gradually, the two beasts made it around the bush and started on their way.
Qor-R'n took one more nervous glance over her shoulder as they headed off to find the flock. The dust would swallow that chewed up old bush in a matter of minutes, no doubt about it, and she was glad to be gone from it.
She took a moment to thank the Gods for waking her.
In the distance, a horn sounded - its hollow call barely audible over the roar of the storm. Qor-R'n's ears perked. It was a sound she knew well. One she had heard many times. It was time for the prophecy.
Back straight, voice strong, eyes cold and focused. This is serious.
"I know," Tal Kirna mumbled so softly he hardly made a noise. "I know."
They will follow you to the Temple no matter what you say, but it is what happens after that you need to worry about. You have to make them believe in you every step of the way so they will follow you on that final step. Do you understand?
Of course I understand, Tal Kirna thought. I’m not an idiot.
Enough backtalk! You think you are wise because your fur is grey? You may be smart for a Batta, but you will never be equal to me. The Gods made it so.
I have never questioned that.
A heavy knock came to the chamber door, the noise so loud and sudden that the old Batta jumped. The voice in his head scoffed at his cowardice.
"It’s time!” a guard yelled through the wood. It was an excited voice, full of hope.
Tal Kirna took in a deep breath to calm the nervous beating of his heart and straightened his spine the best he could. He narrowed his eyes and cleared the dust from his throat. Then he pulled the door open and stepped into the corridor, his long black robe hiding the tender steps of his tired, crooked feet.
Lining both sides of the corridor was the entirety of the Council Guard, all of them dressed in their full ceremonial attire - clean red robes, golden shields, spears, and helmets. They stood with stoic pride, but their excitement poured forth from their souls and filled the air with an energy that could not be denied. Word had gotten out - the storm was drifting north, sliding toward the valley, heading right for Batta Klin and the sacred Temple.
This time there was no doubt - the Hands of Life were carrying them home.
As Tal Kirna took his place in the middle of the group, a strong voice called out from the rear. "In step!" Every guard stood at the ready. "Ho!” In perfect unison, they all stepped forward, right foot first. Tal Kirna did the same.
Together - as a perfect unit - they marched to the Grand Balcony.
“I’ll give you the signal when it’s time,” a young Council aide said as he placed a red sash across Tal Kirna’s seemingly proud, confident chest. "It will be right after-"
"I know when the damn cue is. I’ve seen about three dozen of these, you know.”
The aide - a skinny, eager thing barely over seven feet tall - looked up at Tal Kirna with surprise, then dropped his gaze in embarrassment. "Yes, sir. Of course." He paused awkwardly. "Is there anything else I can get for you?”
"No," Tal Kirna said. "You may go. Join the others."
The young Batta left his master alone behind the thick purple curtain that separated the inside of the Carag Astri from its ornately decorated Grand Balcony - the place where Tal Kirna’s predecessors had all stood and offered false hope to their followers. He reached out his wrinkled hand and ran his rough, jagged fingernails over the curtain as it undulated in the breeze. He thought of Ashmound - the dark grey soil, the thick grasses and huge trees with branches that stretched right through the top of the sky. He thought of the streams - the blue-green water that ran softly across the landscape - and the beauty of the sun setting over the distant crags of the Stonebed. The pleasant thought let his tired, aching heart feel the slightest hint of joy.
Maybe the gods will let us have it again, he thought.
Have faith, the voice said sternly. Anything is possible if you and your flock repent.
Indeed. The Gods are merciful, Tal Kirna thought. They may forgive us.
They are merciful, but they have already shown you mercy beyond all reason. There is only so much you can ask of them. That is why you must do as they demand, and demand nothing of them.
I demand nothing of them.
Good, the voice said. See that you never do.
On the other side of the curtain, the ceremony was in full swing. The hollow, tinny sounds of the metal horns were floating through the sky, accompanied by the distant drone of the screaming storm. The band played "The Rain in the Passage” to signal the entrance of the final council representative - the High One of the Passage - who had been waiting behind the curtain on the other side of the balcony. Once all of the High Ones were in place - their anthems played and their honors given - Tal Kirna would step out from behind the curtain to the tune of “Black Mountain” and the excited cheers of the beleaguered Batta.
He would tell them what they wanted to hear, and - for the first time - it would be the truth.
Qor-R’n pulled her wagon up to the rear of the herd and jumped down from the driver’s plank, her large feet landing with a thud on the hardpack, sending up tiny clouds of red-orange dust. She tugged on the reins, trying to get Nan and Onn to follow her lead before they had a chance to protest, and was relieved when the stubborn beasts did as she wanted.
“Good, good!” she said excitedly. “Good boy! Good girl! Keep coming. Come on…” She walked backwards, coaxing them along until she got within reach of another wagon. She didn’t know who the wagon belonged to, but it didn’t matter - there was an unwritten rule in the Batta culture that generosity was assumed, especially in times of trouble, so she tied the reins to the wagon and hoped it was being pulled by more reliable animals than her own.
“Take care of your brother,” she said sternly as Nan trudged past her. “I’ll come find you two soon.” She followed closely behind for a moment before branching off toward the Carag Astri, which had come to a stop for the announcement of the prophecy. The Batta who had gathered around the Grand Balcony (that is to say, all of the Batta), shifted their weight between their tired feet, unaccustomed as they were to standing still, and from Qor-R’n’s perspective they looked like children. Nervous, anxious, about to burst with excitement.
She pushed her way into the back of the crowd and was immediately pulled into the swaying mass of bodies. A cacophony of whispers filled the air as hundreds of Batta talked to themselves, lecturing on the importance of pleasing the Gods. The voices all ran together and formed a low, murmuring buzz, like the beating wings of a million angry dustflies.
A grating feeling came to Qor-R’n’s head - in the same spot where she always got such headaches - and it burned with a persistent anger that got worse as the crowd got louder.
On the balcony, the High One of the Passage was marching slowly to his tribe’s sacred tune, one that Qor-R’n knew well. She hummed along as she pushed further into the crowd, but the irritation in her mind suddenly morphed into full pain - a throbbing, stammering pain that demanded a stillness that she simply couldn’t grant. The overwhelming mixture of agony and ecstasy was almost too much to bear, but she kept moving forward, kept humming the song her parents had taught her when she was a child. Another pain rose up in her body, but this time it was in her chest rather than her head. Her heart ached with a harsh sorrow as she thought of them, thought of their faces and voices. The way they had taken turns holding her as she slept in the back of the old wagon, one watching her sleep while the other took the driver’s plank. The way they had taught her about the old world, the one their parents had grown up in - one full of trees and rain and life.
You can be happy now, she thought, hoping the souls of her parents could hear her. We’re going home to the Temple. Like you always wanted.
She settled into a spot to the right of the stage, where she could see around the taller Batta, and watched as the final council representative came out from behind the purple curtain. It was the ancient, confused body of Dar I’Kin of the Gorge, whose once-great mind had long ago been eaten away by a ravenous dementia. He took slow, painful steps to the podium, staring out at the crowd with wide, dark eyes. He paused for a moment, seemingly ready to flee, before U’Slan - the High One of the Passage - offered a comforting hand. The old Batta took it and held on tight as he stepped to his place in front of the nervous crowd.
The common Batta, especially those from the Gorge, grunted their approval of U’Slan’s kindness as he let go of Dar I’Kin’s hand and stepped back to his place on the stage. The other tribes joined in on the praise, some raising their right hands, others tapping their chests or touching three fingers to their foreheads. Qor-R’n felt a tingle run down her spine as she watched the unity of the flock growing stronger, pulsing over the Batta with its healing glow, and even the odd spot in her brain felt soothed by the shining light of the their communion. Qor-R’n let herself get lost in this feeling, let her eyes close as her mind slipped into a sense of comfort that she had never experienced in her twelve long years living in the eye of the storm.
Just as this sense of peace came to her, a thunderous crash rang out and her eyes flung open. She stared at the Grand Balcony, bewildered and slightly afraid, as another deafening crash came forth. A roar - low and deep, but awash with a frantic energy - came from the crowd.
The roar grew louder.
The hope in their hearts was changing to something different- something more tangible. Qor-R’n could feel now that it was bolder, more serious. She felt its power in her back, in her hands, and in her teeth. Her mind cleared and she saw the vonugbell fall from the air- crash! -as Tal Kirna of Ashmound stepped onto the stage.
The band’s horns blasted out the first notes of “Black Mountain” as he walked to the podium, the music swelling simultaneously with the howling cheers of the ecstatic Batta.
The hope was gone now.
In that magical, promising moment, it had been replaced with faith.
The voice in Tal Kirna’s head did the talking. The old priest only spoke the words.
“For forty-one years now, we have endured this hellish journey. Long before many of you were born, we were forced to leave the green paradise of our home for the dusty wastelands of the outer world. The storm - a physical manifestation of the wrath of the Gods, a punishment for our proud hearts - took us into its claws and dragged us off. It has never let go. Most of you here know nothing but life in the stomach of this awful beast, eaten away by its evil from the moment you hit the dirt. You have lived as if you were dying, raised by a defeated generation that turned its back on the hope of redemption, that decided to trudge through life just waiting for death. Is it any wonder, then, that the Gods did not bring us home? Why would they? Why should they, when we have acted like insolent children who refuse to learn their lesson? When we showed no promise of ever being worthy? We priests have performed our rituals with hollow hearts, and you - the good and decent Batta - have looked on with broken souls. These were empty gestures and nothing more. But then, after years of living like mirages, our existence wavering in the desert heat, something changed. The unworthy generation, my generation, began to die off, their bodies eaten by the monster to which they had long ago surrendered. They disappeared from our flock, and took with them their poisonous minds. And as our load lightened, your souls became clear and your hearts became full. You shined onto the Gods and they saw you. They loved you. And now they want to save you. All you have to do is make a push, to show that you truly want salvation. We must take the final walk - the trek to Batta Klin - where the Gods will reveal their wishes. We will bring glory to them and they will bring peace to us, and the world will be set right again. But only if we do as we are told. Only if we do as we are told! Then we will be pulled from the claws of the behemoth and laid down gently in the grass by the loving Hands of Life.”
Without another word, Tal Kirna and his invisible master stepped down from the podium and walked to the stairs that dropped down from the center of the Grand Balcony. He paused for a moment, soaking up the loving attention of the Batta. The power of that love poured out of their wide, dreamy eyes. It was a power he intended to wield.
“Come!” he shouted as he descended the stairs. “We shall walk together, as equals.”
A cacophony of excitement filled the dusty air as the Batta - eager to experience something new in their bleak, empty lives - clamored to touch the hidecoat of their beloved new leader. They howled and jumped about, their minds aglow with a happiness that grew stronger as Tal Kirna moved through them. They hugged and patted each other on the back, with snarling grins of joy gracing their young, innocent faces.
The older Batta also wore grins, though they showed a little less teeth and displayed more of a graceful maturity. They were celebrating, too, but deep in their hearts they knew they had to temper their expectations, even now. They knew there would be no true salvation until they reached the Temple, and perhaps not even then.
Quietly, gracefully, they fell in behind the young ones and followed the confident stride of Tal Kirna as he led them away from the Carag Astri.
The priests looked at each other in a moment of silent confusion. None of them, not even those from Ashmound, knew that Tal Kirna was going to leave them standing there alone on the Grand Balcony. The Council - that is, the High Ones - took a few steps from the podium to get a better view of their leader as he strolled away with throngs of Commons at his heels.
Dar I’Kin made a terrible, frightened noise. He was once again scared and confused, but this time there was no one there to comfort him - U’Slan of the Passage was too busy staring at the lower priests who stood in formation on the two-tiered wooden bleachers. He looked right at Rr-Ki and Unnin, who hadn’t noticed the gaze of the old Batta as they grunted excitedly to one another.
“You two Blacknecks!” he called out, stabbing his finger in the air.
Neither Batta paid him any mind. They barely registered that they had been spoken to.
“Rr-Ki!” U’Slan said as he took a dominant stepped toward the two lower priests of the Blackneck clan. “Unnin!”
This time it worked, as the aggression of the usually stoic High One caught them by surprise.
“What do you know about this?” he demanded. “What is this all about?”
He was met with only blank stares - confused eyes that looked at each other, then back to him.
“You two are jabbering on about something over there. I want to know what Tal Kirna is up to. Right now!”
Unnin scoffed and began to defend himself, but was cut off by a grunt of protest. It came from one of Ashmound’s lower priests - a young thing named Tal Rahn-Nin. “If anyone would know his plans, it would be us.” He motioned to his elder partner, the always-nervous Tal Ahk-Ris, who silently nodded his agreement. “And we’ve not been told a thing.”
Dar I’Kin called out again, the pain in his mind evident in his tortured cries. This time, finally remembering their duties, the two lower priests of the Gorge rushed down from their perch on the bleachers and took their mentor by the arms.
“Wait!” U’Slan called out impatiently. “Don’t take him inside.”
“Why not?” Unnin asked. “He needs to be back in his bed.”
U’Slan quickly stepped in front of the Gorgite priests, blocking their path.
“Please move,” one of them said, trying to sound respectful and forceful at the same time. “He’s not very good with-”
“Look out at the sand,” U’Slan said, pointing toward Tal Kirna and his joyous, loyal flock. “Do you see the tracks from the front of the carriage?”
All of the priests, except for Dar I’Kin, looked where U’Slan pointed. After a moment, they saw what he saw. There were tracks in the sand. The engineers had left. The Carag Astri wasn’t going anywhere.“Obviously we’re not going to leave him to suffocate in his damn bed,” U’Slan said sternly. “We’ll carry him if we have to, but we’re all going. It’s our only choice.”