The First Steps
The priests of Blackneck - Rr-Ki, Unnin, and the High One Bal-Iki - walked beside Tal Kirna. They kept their aching backs straight and their faces calm, but underneath their flowing robes were the rapid steps of anxious feet. They had been brought to the front because the blackstone hills of their tribal home would be the first sign of the old lands. If the first footsteps on Batta land in over forty years were going to happen in Blackneck, Bal-Iki and his wards had a right to them.
This was something that Unnin couldn’t quite understand. He had grown up in the chaotic mixture of tribes that now traveled with the eye of the storm, never knowing the boundaries that once gave the Batta their cultural identities, so honors such as the first steps meant little to him. Yet he followed Rr-Ki’s lead and did not question or refuse the privilege. As far as he was concerned, the elders could do whatever weird rituals they wanted as long as they kept moving toward the Temple.
As they walked along the scraggly brush, the voices in the priests' heads were all speaking at the same time. All using a soft, calm voice that rang empty and false.
Good, they said, drawing the word out into a long coo. Good, good. The Gods are rewarding your faith. They are letting you through because of your faith in Tal Kirna. He is a good leader. He will take you home. If you do as you are told.
As they took the first few steps into Blackneck territory, Tal Kirna called out to the common Batta, and they responded with an excited chatter that sounded like a thick stew popping above a crackling fire. The Hands of Life were blessing them, Tal Kirna said, rewarding them for his hard-nosed insistence that the priests should work night and day until the Temple was reached. Tal Kirna claimed it was this obedient devotion that had piqued the interest of the Gods, that they had watched closely to determine if this race of pathetic sinners had finally decided to redeem themselves. The Temple, Tal Kirna said, was a chance to cleanse themselves and start anew. A chance to pour their devotion over the stone. All they had to do was accept their destiny with all their hearts.
“Ridiculous,” U’Slan of the Passage grunted.
The other priests turned and looked at the old High One with disapproval. You can’t let him talk like that, the voices in their heads demanded. He’s mocking us.
“He has no right to take them like that!" U'Slan crowed. "This is our flock, too. We should be leading them. He leads us, but we lead them! That’s how it’s always been.”
The younger priests looked at each other, then to their masters. They had no idea how to deal with such open blasphemy. But the High Ones were quiet and stone-faced. They looked at peace.
“We don’t know how this is supposed to go,” one of them said. “We’ve never done this before. If we-”
“All goes according to the will of the Gods,” Bulkar of the Pillars broke in. His voice was measured and stern. “If the Gods have put us here, it is for a reason.”
Bulkar speaks the truth, the inner voices said.
Except for Bulkar's. It spoke something different. You speak well, his voice cooed. The Gods are so proud of you. You will have many rewards in your new life.
U’Slan scoffed and shook his head slowly, the flaps of his neck swaying with the movement. “I envy your confidence,” he said sarcastically as he turned to the priests marching behind him. “Are the rest of you going along with this, as well?”
No one spoke.
They were too busy listening to the voices in their heads, the ones telling them to ignore the blasphemous old coot. You always hated him, they said in unison. That’s just like U’Slan, trying to poison your mind. Always trying to tell you what to do. Good for you, thinking for yourself. The Gods are not happy with him, but they are certainly proud of you.
“Unbelievable,” U’Slan muttered.
But he did not stop walking. He didn’t even slow down. Swept up with the rest of them, he went onward to Batta Klin.
Onward to the Temple.
The sobs of the broken-hearted Batta echoed off the steep canyon walls of the Passage, mixing in with the frightened bleating of the kepshu that trailed close behind. The canyon was dark, and the odd cacophony of mourning animals gave the place a hellish feel. The cave entrances, which had once been decorated with bright, beautiful colors, seemed like gateways to the underworld - deep black shadows hiding something powerful and sinister that rested just out of reach.
Qor-R’n and her tribe marched solemnly along at the front of the flock, led by U’Slan and his two wards. They were quiet, mostly - too busy bathing in grief, mourning over the dusty remnants of their ancestral home, to say much to each other.
The Blacknecks, whose territory had been revealed first, were settling into a sense of quiet surrender. Their tears had mostly dried now, their eyes unable to produce any more though their souls ached for the release. They shuffled along at the back of the flock, their bodies feeling heavier than usual, their feet sluggish and nearly worthless. Their hearts were broken. The hills of Blackneck, once covered in thick vegetation, had been stripped clean. Most of the tree trunks still stood, but they had become weathered old stubs that stuck out of the ground like the finger bones of some long dead giant. The effect was chilling enough to the young Batta, but to their elders it was simply crushing. They remembered the old blue-green hills, the thick trees, the tiny streams. They had played there, grown up there, made and birthed children there. And now it was all gone, with only hollow monuments remaining. It was far too much for their tired hearts to handle.
“The Hands of Life will restore our paradise when we offer them praise at Batta Klin!” Tal Kirna had called out when the Blacknecks first looked upon the ruins of their old world. “This is but an illusion! Truth lies at the Temple! All will be healed!”
I’m losing them, he had thought in a panic. They’re slipping away from me.
I know, the master agreed. Don’t worry. All will be well soon.
But it had not gotten any better. One tribe after another had gone along the path to find the same thing - a hopeless, desolate wasteland - and all of them had reacted the same way. Their faith had slipped away from Tal Kirna and his pompous holy master, and they entered the last leg of their decades-long journey with the same gloom that had consumed them for the last four decades.
The voice in Tal Kirna's head hadn’t spoken a word since Blackneck. Not a thing as they passed through the sagging, weathered cliffs of the Gorge, or the fine volcanic soil of Ashmound, or the tall, sharp rocks of the Pillars. The wretched old leader was feeling nervous and lonely, unsure of how to handle himself as his flock began to wander, and finally it became too much to bear alone.
I need you, he pleaded, trying to sound respectful instead of demanding. What should I tell them? What should I do?
The voice came forward. Nothing, it said coldly. Let them wallow.
Quiet! the voice demanded. Leave me be!
Tal Kirna did as he was told, but something didn’t feel right. Something was different. He could still feel the voice at the forefront of his mind. Even though it wasn’t speaking, he could feel that it was busy. Fast at work doing something - Gods knew what - instead of falling back into his subconscious like it usually did.
Stop thinking about me, the master said. Just keep walking.
The older Batta moved slowly to the front of the flock as they neared the end of the Passage. They remembered this trail well, and still had memories of marching down it with banners and torches on the way to the Temple. The old landmarks - both natural and made - were still there, though they had changed over time. The statues and columns had fallen, as had the corridors of trees that once turned the pathway into a chasm of permanent midnight, even on the brightest of days. Even the rock formations seemed tired, beaten down by the relentless winds, barely recognizable.
Tal Kirna felt the weight of disappointment in the air and tried to shake it from his shoulders. They were close now, no more than half a mile from the Point of Kal-Itki and the first view of the sacred Temple, but he did not feel excited. He was overcome with worry, more convinced than ever that he would fail. Fail the Gods, fail the Batta, fail himself - condemning them all to another forty years in the wastelands devoid of even the hope of salvation. He knew that's what the others were thinking, as well - that he had led them into some foolish errand. He could feel their suspicion in the air, could feel their glaring eyes on his back as he walked before them. His mind flooded with embarrassment and anger, and the center of his broad chest burned. A rush of blood went to his sagging face and tiny beads of sweat lined his eyebrows. He felt the need to weep rising up from his belly, burning its way up to his eyes, so he took in a deep breath to calm the feeling.
He was startled by what he smelled. Something unique. Special.
It wasn’t dust, or grease, or the musty fur of the kepshu. No - it was fresh, clean, floating on the wind as a breath of purity in the stale darkness. He knew this smell. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knew it.
His mind flashed back to his childhood, to his days in the thick forests that once surrounded the stark black landscape of Ashmound. Chewing leaves. Snapping branches. Pulling thick green stalks up from the wet dirt and feeling cool water flood his mouth with every bite.
That smell - that rich, wonderful smell - was the scent of life.
Tal Kirna was overtaken with an excitement he hadn’t felt in decades. An electrifying energy rose up from his toes, tightening his muscles, making his heart beat with a determined ferocity. He turned his broad shoulders around and looked back on a sea of grey-furred faces, each one lost in rapture.
They smelled it, too.
The elders, eager to get to that familiar scent, eager to see what awaited them ahead, began to push forward. It was slow at first, a soft and quiet quickening that Tal Kirna barely noticed, but as the group began to fall into a chaotic rush he held his hands high above his head - a painful gesture for such an old Batta - and growled out as loudly as he could manage. “Stop! Nobody goes beyond me! No one!”
Most of the Batta stopped rustling about, but a few ignored their leader and kept pushing, their eyes wide with excitement.
“Anyone that desecrates this holy place will be left out of the ceremony!” he called out. The threat did the trick, and the noisy chaos before him turned to a tranquil whisper in a heartbeat.
Impressive, Tal Kirna’s master said. Control is vital now. The Gods control me. I control you. You control your flock. That is how it must be.
Yes, master, Tal Kirna thought obediently.
Your reward is close. Go quickly, but use caution.
Tal Kirna let his angry eyes linger on the flock for a moment before returning to the path. The others followed, careful not to breach their leader’s boundaries, but a few hundred feet from the Point - where the canyon walls sloped dramatically downward and the trail became nothing more than a narrow path hugging the top of a ridge - they became excited again. When Tal Kirna glanced back he could see that they were on the verge of stampeding.
“Be careful!” he yelled. “Listen to me!”
Stop the crowd, the voice demanded. It sounded serious - as serious as it had ever been.
“Everyone stop!” Tal Kirna demanded.
Only a few of the Batta had entered the exposed part of the trail now. Most of them were still in a large bunch, struggling for a good position. They stopped moving forward, but did not stop shifting and sliding around like nervous children.
Call the priests forward.
“All priests to me!” Tal Kirna said. “High and low, to me!”
There was a low grumbling in the crowd. U’Slan and his two lower priests approached first, walking with pride, happy that their proper place had been restored.
This is more like it, U’Slan thought as he approached his leader. Maybe the old coot does know a thing or two about decorum. He held his hand to his chest and bowed his head slightly as he came to Tal Kirna’s side. It was an understated gesture of fealty, one that allowed him to maintain his dignity while observing tradition.
The rest of the holy Batta calmly pushed their way through the stubborn crowd and gathered around their leader.
Take them ahead slowly. Once they pass the Point, the others may follow. Leave U’Slan for last.
Tal Kirna held his right hand up and asked his followers for silence. They obliged.
“One by one - carefully - we will go to the Point. Once we are all safely there, we will descend in the same orderly fashion. Then the others will be allowed to follow. It is absolutely vital you all make it safely to the Temple. Do you understand?”
He could see in their faces that they understood very well. They were ready.
“U’Slan, I want you to stay back and wait to go last. Make sure none of the commons start to come up until we are descending.”
The holy Batta all looked at U’Slan, curious to see how the proud old priest would react to this slight. “I am honored by your trust in me,” he said. “I will make you proud.”
Tal Kirna’s master laughed softly. That was good, it said. That was clever.
Indeed, Tal Kirna agreed, though he didn’t find it quite as funny. Quite clever.
“They’re watching us,” he said as he scanned the group, securing their attention. “Set a good example. Calm. Collected. Now...follow me.”
One by one, with the placidity of a lake on a windless day, they started down the path. All except U’Slan.
Behind the priests, the hearts of the common Batta were beginning to buzz with a dark energy. The force passed from one to the next, building strength as it went. U’Slan watched them pressing against each other, their faces etched with deep lines of worry, and he felt both pity and disgust. These feelings mixed together and formed a caustic brew in the pit of his stomach that made him want to retch. He told himself that no matter what happened, it would at least be over with soon. Salvation or not, the walking would stop. The waiting and praying - the wondering and wandering - they would all end. The exodus would be a thing of the past.
Soon, soon, he told himself.
Tal Kirna gasped when he came over the crest and saw the valley stretched out before him, its low rolling hills of wet sand covered in fat spots of bright green. It wasn’t the thick, rich grass of the old valley, the one the elder Batta remembered, but it was something vibrant and alive.
Tal Kirna closed his eyes just as the other priests began to file into the Point of Kal-Itki. He could feel them filling in the space around him, could hear their breaths of awe and sense their wonder. A light breeze blew on his face, and he savored the smell of dirt, water, and greenery that he had once taken for granted. It was the smell of home - or close enough - and the smell of comfort and bounty. He opened his eyes as he exhaled and let his gaze wander up the hills, lingering on little patches of life as they worked toward the breathtaking Temple and its adornments of thick vines and heavy moss.
Life blooms from your Temple, the voice said. From the home of your Gods. The closer you are to its walls...well...look for yourself.
But Tal Kirna had already noticed it - the way the landscape became progressively greener as it approached the gigantic step pyramid. It was as if fertility itself was oozing out of the blackstone blocks, seeping into the soil.
I see it, he told his master with a sublime glee. It’s far more beautiful than I could have imagined.
Of course it is. For many years, only the Gods have resided here. There were no sinners to sully the beauty of the Sacred Realm.
“Sacred Realm,” Tal Kirna whispered with a grin. He hadn’t heard that phrase in a long time. It was what the elders - his elders, the Batta long since returned to the dirt - used to call the Valley of Batta Klin. His grandparents - one a priest, the other three common kepherds - had all used this phrase with a hushed reverence and a spark in their eye. Just the sound of it brought back memories of peace, calm, and safety - the time of plenty, the time before the storm.
As the lasts of the priests settled in around him, Tal Kirna turned his attention to the four statues that stood at the corners of the platform. They were the Four Gods of Batta Klin - the Grandparents - and the sight of them filled every Batta with a strange mixture of love and fear.
Facing north, to the once-snowy mountains the kepshu originally called home, was the God named Okt. She stood on Batta-like legs and had a deep chest, but her head and shoulders were unmistakably that of the thick-wooled kepshu. Full, swollen udders hung from her stomach. She was the God of Motherhood and the Protector of Children. The God of Kindness and Warmth.
Facing east, toward the rising sun and the Lakes of Lenkesh, was Leki the aqtu. His scaly, slender body shared no features with the hulking, hairy Batta. He was the God of the Other World, the Ruler of the Water. Mysterious and unknown, his statue featured a ravenous mouth but no face. He was the deep, nameless past. The Father of Time.
Facing south, toward the formerly hot, thick jungles of the Mistlands, was Ir the callu. She was furry like the Batta, but the sight of her serpent’s eyes and long, legless body sent shivers down Tal Kirna’s back. She was cold and heartless, the God of War and the Hunt.
Finally, facing west, was the fectu God known as Lutt. A thick, black mane ran down the back of his long, curved neck, but otherwise he was covered in large, tough feathers. Tall and proud, he was the All-Seeing, the God of Wisdom, the one who carried the souls of the dead in his giant beak and delivered them to the Land of Ancestors. He was the Creator of Heaven, the Guardian of the Good.
Okt. Leki. Ir. Lutt. The Grandparents.
After all these years, and all that had happened, they still stood. Untarnished, untouched. A sign of their true power if there ever was one.
They’re waiting for you, the master said.
Tal Kirna walked to the edge of the platform, where the trail began its descent into the valley, and looked out at the Temple. He listened as the other priests queued up behind him and a wave of pleasant energy washed over his brain. All was in order - everything in its place.
He took his first step into the Sacred Realm, into the loving Hands of Life.
The minds of the priests buzzed with a deep bliss as they led their tribes through the wet sand and plump green swellers that surrounded the Temple. The layer of dust left by the first wave of the storm was already saturated, leaving a slick coat of silt on the valley floor. Its silky texture felt odd on the tough, calloused feet of the Batta, but the sensation was not unwelcome, and the novelty filled even the most cynical elder with a playfulness that showed in the lightness of their steps and in the wide wrinkles of their cheeks.
The kepshu were overcome with this spirit, as well, and they found their taste for novelty in the thick, chewy hides of the water-filled swellers. After years of chewing on roots and drinking the Batta’s bath water, they could not contain their excitement about this new treat, and they let it be known with deep grunts and snorts. A few of the more enterprising beasts even made their way to the thick ropes of ivy and mounds of moss that clung to the Temple walls.
Should I stop them? Tal Kirna asked his master.
What? the voice answered, sounding truly confused. Stop who?
The kepshu, Tal Kirna thought. They’re eating from the Temple. Should I stop them?
Oh, the voice said, hardly interested. Pay no attention to that.
But is it not blasphemous?
An impatient noise came from the voice, almost like a sigh. The Gods left it as a gift for the herd. They want your kepshu to eat it.
“Ah!”, Tal Kirna cooed. It’s a reward for being sacrificed, then? That was so thoughtful.
“Sir?” one of his guards asked from beneath their golden helmet. “What did you say?”
Tal Kirna turned and patted the young Batta on the shoulder. “Nothing at all,” he said with a grin. Then he turned his attention back to his master. The Gods are kind to give this to the kepshu before they are-
They’re not going to be sacrificed, the master said firmly. They are to be spared.
Tal Kirna turned his head to the side, an involuntary reaction to the confusion that had seized his mind. But if they-
Speak for me, Tal Kirna.
The words came out before Tal Kirna even had time to think. It wasn’t like before, when he had listened to the voice and repeated its words thoughtfully and slowly. This time it was different. The master had full control.
“The Gods of Batta Klin, the Holy Grandparents, the loving Hands of Life - have provided this feast for our honorable and loyal kepshu. The beasts who have served us so faithfully all these years, the ones who carried us across the wastelands and delivered us to our homeland - they are honored here with this bounty. Praise the Grandparents! Praise Okt for bringing us together! A union, made in her likeness, that saved us all from destruction!”
The Batta, whose good hearts were easily swayed by emotion, felt a deep guilt for what they were going to do to these loyal animals. Many of them took a moment to lovingly pat the nearest kepshu on the wiry red hair of their bony, ridged backs, trying to give some small show of appreciation before the awful slaughter. Even though they believed they would be sending the kepshu to a never-ending paradise, full of green fields to snack on and rocky bluffs to sleep on, they knew that passing from one world to the next was quite an unpleasant experience no matter how it happened. They were only willing to commit the terrible act because Okt considered the return of her children to be the highest gift. The Batta lived on the blood and the milk of these beasts, so to give them up willingly was to show great faith in the saving grace of the Grandparents.
“Come!” Tal Kirna’s mouth continued, his body waving a hand toward the Temple. “Let us leave our beloved herd to rest a while. The storm is still a ways off. They will be safe while we give our thanks to the Gods!”
A low rumble went up from the crowd, their confusion evident in the high, hurried tones of their voices. U’Slan, who couldn’t pass up the chance to question Tal Kirna, spoke the group’s mind. “Leave the herd? And what of the sacrifice? Will the Gods be pleased by our mere thanks?”
The master moved Tal Kirna’s body toward U’Slan aggressively, trying to intimidate the High One into silence. “The Gods have told me to leave the kepshu be,” he snarled. Then the master turned Tal Kirna’s eyes toward the crowd. “None of their blood will be spilled today! We will climb the Temple and the Sacred Realm will be revealed to us! The Gods have said it will be, so it shall be!”
The rumble returned, but this time it felt different - livelier, happier - and everyone but U’Slan and his fellow Passage priests seemed comforted by Tal Kirna’s words. If the Gods did not want the sacrifice, the gentle Batta were not ones to push the issue.
Tal Kirna’s master, now satisfied that he had permanently won the flock to his side, turned the leader’s body and walked him toward the gigantic staircase at the foot of the Temple.
U’Slan watched quietly as throngs of Batta shuffled past him. Their smiling, eager faces grated on his nerves. Did none of them feel the darkness he felt? The creeping sense of doom? Were they all just going to believe this soothsayer and lag along behind him wherever he led?
“Be grateful,” Unnin whispered into U’Slan’s ear. “Our troubles are nearly over. The storm will break once we give thanks to the Grandparents, then we get to be home.” He patted the High One on the back, a highly inappropriate gesture in U’Slan’s opinion. “Soon we will sleep in the Temple walls, and your tribe will return to their caves, and all will be well.”
U’Slan grunted his disagreement, then cleared the dust from his throat. “You say that like you believe it.”
“Indeed, I do,” Unnin looked west, toward the approaching storm wall and its giant mass of swirling dust. “I know it’s true.”
“How?” U’Slan said, though he already knew the painfully simple answer the lower priest would offer.
“Because the Gods wouldn’t bring us here for no reason. We serve a purpose, though we are not sure what that purpose may be. When we fulfill our duty, we will be saved.”
U’Slan turned and faced Unnin, locking eyes with the young Blackneck. “We were always told our purpose was to ensure a proper sacrifice for the Gods. Now Tal Kirna leads common Batta up the Temple steps without a single sacrifice in tow, and you tell me to trust his word?”
Unnin looked at the Temple, its huge blackstone blocks stretching high into the dusty sky, and took in a deep breath. “I used to question him, too,” he said quietly, not wanting to be heard. “But look where we are now. It has all come true. The closer we got, the more I believed, the more I trusted, and he led us here just as he said he would. We couldn’t ask for anything more than this - an opportunity to please the Gods how they see fit.”
Off in the distance, from somewhere deep in the crowd, Rr-Ki called out Unnin’s name. The young Blackneck craned his stubby neck the best he could, scanned the flock for a moment, then looked back at U’Slan. “Come along. Your tribe needs you.” Then he joined in the massive flow of Batta that moved en masse toward Tal Kirna.
Reluctantly, U’Slan pushed himself into the stream.
Bite your tongue, Tal Kirna’s master said. If you can keep quiet, I’ll let you go.
Tal Kirna wanted to scream, wanted to flail around until he was sure he had regained control of his body, but underneath this primal urge was a rational understanding that obedience was his only option.
That’s exactly right, the master said. Obedience will set you free. Do you agree to stay quiet?
You know that if you start up, I can always shut you down.
Tal Kirna paused, trying to temper his anger. You’ve made that quite obvious, he said once he felt his passive aggressive silence had gone on long enough.
I did not want to do that, Tal Kirna. I trust in you, but that moment had to be perfect. The Gods couldn’t leave it to just anybody.
I’m not just anybody! barked Tal Kirna of Ashmound, Leader of the High Council. I have shown nothing but obedience to you and the will of the-
“One at a time, now!” Tal Kirna’s mouth said over his shoulder. “Carefully!”
Please! Tal Kirna’s mind protested. At least tell me when-
“We will congregate at the top of the Temple!”
You’re right, the voice agreed. You are not just anybody. You are a special tool of the Gods, meant to serve their purpose, as you have done. But that service is not complete. You must remember something very important, Tal Kirna. Many have come before you and tried to lead the Batta home. All of them made promises and told lies, but none of them got here. None of them were allowed to return, until you came along. Do you remember the Blackneck named Ush-Kah?
Of course, Tal Kirna thought. He was a good leader.
Yes! the voice said enthusiastically. Yes, he was. But under his leadership, the closest we ever came to the Temple was-
Ghost River. I remember it well.
There was a pause, and a tightening in Tal Kirna’s brain that lasted for one brief, intense moment. Yes, the master said with a hint of irritation in its voice. And do you know why he was turned back, cast off to the south, while you were allowed to come to this paradise?
Tal Kirna didn’t answer right away. He was growing quite tired of these little lessons. Because he questioned his purpose?
No, no. You question your purpose every day - even in your sleep - yet the Gods have led you on. No - he was turned away because he allowed his doubts to dictate his actions. Do you understand? He thought his own doubts were more important than the will of the Gods.
He didn’t obey.
Exactly. He heard the Gods, but he did not listen. He didn’t do as he was told. I have been master to them all. Rhi-Kin of the Pillars. Unhir of Ashmound. Orint-Thii of the Gorge. Ush-Kah. Iln-Ki of the Passage. All good leaders, even faithful Batta, but all failures because they thought they knew better than the Hands of Life. I could not lead them on to the Temple with such awful poison in their hearts, so they were turned away. Surely you understand.
Tal Kirna was getting close to the top of the Temple, to the large platform that held the sacred altar. A strong anxiety gripped his chest, but as soon as the feeling came it was soothed by another. A desire to surrender. All he had to do was follow his master’s lead and all would be well.That’s right. All will be well.