“This world is a foothold – a stepping stone, and nothing more.”
– Tam Loben, from “Complacent Frontiers”
They ran, heedless, under the watching eyes of the stars. The wind rose up to meet them, filling their lungs with the cold, free air of the open plains. The whisper of grass flooded their ears, pushing the three men further and further from the gates and walls of Rabinadat. Hanging high above, the moon sent its gaze into the restless night, blanketing the sprawling land in silver and shadow.
Now, far from the city, they were invisible to the eyes that ringed the ancient settlement. Passing over one of the pasture hills, they straightened their backs and spurred their heels. Their robes shared their color with the tall cover, their shapes lost in the tidal dance of the prairie.
Each man’s stride bore witness to his purpose. Ahead was Lias, the Sower and patriarch of this band of betrayers, moving with studied grace and purpose. Toma, next, flung his long legs against the grass as if every step carried him toward his destiny. But in Yoen, the last and youngest, resolve had begun to falter. It was fear more than anything that drove his desperate steps.
Our feet beat out a warning against the earth, he thought, the guilt of his escape slung about his shoulders like a sack of stones. This is wrong, Yoen screamed in silence. It must be wrong.
From the middle of the pack, Toma stole a glance back at his brother. Caution – The thought swelled in him, filling the space between his breaths. There were things out here that moved without remorse or compassion. Old things, once beaten back and bent on reclaiming. It had been centuries since the Attuned pulled their people back behind the walls, since they had decided that the outer settlements could no longer be protected. Now, only guarded convoys dared brave the twilight paths out of Rabinadat. But the good roads all led to the West, toward the low rise of its mountainous horizon. Tonight, the men had business to the south.
The ache in Yoen’s knees and ankles had begun to build. Briars from the tall grass clung like insects to the sleeves of his tunic. His legs, bare below the thigh, bore the stinging marks of the brambles that dotted the grasslands. Trickles of blood smeared and itched. Cursing himself, he followed Toma’s trail through the high grass. The older boy, he saw, had thought to wear long, dark leggings on the excursion. Next time, Yoen would follow suit.
The Sower, for his part, was barefoot. Lias had gone without shoes for so long that his feet were practically invulnerable to the elements. It was a mark of devotion among the leaders of the order. An old custom, honored only by those from the most isolated and devout sects. Some of the other masters scoffed at the practice, though never to the old man’s face. Mock him though they might, the respect he held among the initiates was uncanny.
Yoen was falling behind. Toma was a mere ten paces from the Sower Lias, while the youngest could not be closer than twenty. The chill wind that whistled through the plain did little to quench the heat in his calves and thighs. He wanted to look at the stars. How sweet it would be to sprawl on his back, surrounded by the tall grass, with the weight of heaven bearing down on him. The stars – Yoen had not seen them in months. During his entire time beneath the earth, he’d dreamed in dances of light. His legs and lungs burned with their fire.
They could not be the only ones out this night. If the Sower had heard the call, others must have, as well. But Yoen knew better than to look for signs. On his first two night runs from the city, he’d tried frantically to catch sign or sound of others in the surrounding grass. When he’d almost gotten separated from the others, he’d ceased his efforts. To be alone in the plains was no good thing.
Indeed, he was not even sure if the Sower knew. Lias had refused to even so much as hint at the presence of other dissenters within the Great Temple. Whether he was protecting them or ignorant of them didn’t really matter. This was knowledge not to be shared with his charges.
Yoen was startled from his ruminations when, bare yards in front of him, Toma glided to a halt. He skidded, feet slipping over the dew. Ahead, the figure of Lias loomed like a monolith above the grass. They had arrived.
The three stood at the edge of a circle, clear and trampled. Ten, twleve meters, Toma guessed by the moonlight. The hum of insects rose in their ears, replacing the hiss of the sprinting wind. The rush of air across their skin had kept them cool during the dash, but now they flushed with the heat of their exertion. Yoen’s breath whistled from deep within his chest, and sweat ran from Toma’s head and neck. Sower Lias, his own shoulders heaving with labored breath, reached a hand beneath his cloak. When he withdrew it, his fist was aflame with light.
Rays of white poured from the cracks between his fingers. Before the sudden glare forced him to turn away, Toma could have sworn he saw the bones beneath the fist and arm. Then, with a whip of his wrist, Lias cast the tiny sun into the center of the great circle. It hit the ground, sending ripples of light outward toward the perimeter. They shuddered, swirled, resolving into eddies that drew up like a summoned shades. Slowly, they flickered into the spectral forms of other men, their features hooded by swarms of moving light. The hair on the back of Yoen’s neck rose with fear and the charge of static. To their right and left, the ghostly circle thrummed. The trio stepped forward, and the ring was completed.
A low, electric cough rippled through the grass. Somewhere, a creature of the plain sent a long, tremulous howl toward the sky. A breeze caressed Toma’s cheek, tinged with the warm breath of the sunstone. Positioned between his charges, Lias stared unflinchingly into the light while the older listened and younger cringed. The figures about them rocked from side to side as the glowing shard rose, inch by inch, into the gently throbbing night.
Courage, thought Yoen. You’ve come this far.
The stone halted, suspended in the air a meter from the barren soil. All watched as droplets of light sprouted from the dirt and floated up to where it hung, weaving themselves into spinning orbits around the stone. Faster and faster they rose and spun until, finally, they formed the figure of a woman. She was hooded, with the stone glowing behind her translucent lips. They parted, and Toma felt air rush past his cheek as she inhaled.
“A man has come,” she said, in a voice like winter wind. “Through the Sheol Gate, to the stewards of the desert.”
Another howl in the distance. Its call was answered once, twice, as the stars peered down onto the members of the circle. Before them, the image fluttered and spun.
“Sojourn has been weighed, and Senator has confirmed. The man is the last of them. Son of Rocyrus, heir of dishonor. And all the hope that remains for us.”
The ghosts of the circle shuffled their feet, whispering a lone word in the electric air – Cen’jay.
The wind pawed at Toma’s hair, chilling the sweat at the nape of his neck. To his right, Yoen cringed as the cuts on his legs burned beneath blood hardening in the night air. The features of the figure before them, spun in a thousand motes of light, wavered and softened.
“We must go to him. Some or all, we must.”
We must. The words buzzed from the mouths of the circle. Reverently, Toma and Lias accented. But the cant stuck in Yoen’s throat, and he was unable to answer. He tore his eyes from the figure, closed them, and let his head loll back. The wind was cool, and it stroked the hair of his brow with the tender fingers of a mother. He breathed deep. Even the smell of the plains was vast. It had taken him days to wash the odor of the caverns from his nostrils. That scent was layered, dense and close. Swaying under the stars, he allowed his senses to reach as far as they were able.
The ghost on the ground raised its hands, reaching for the darkened heavens. A sigh passed over the spectral huddle, riffling the grass that lined the clearing. Then, point by point, the motes of light that had spun her into being began to break free. They rose, like embers lifted by a great breath of smoke, passing into the air as the figure waned. The static press of the spectral fingers began to fade in Yoen’s left hand and in Toma’s right as the assembled onlookers passed from solid to shadow to empty air. Toma’s eyes fixed on the sunstone as it, too, faded before dropping noiselessly to the trampled grass. He blinked, and its glare lived on in his vision.
It was time to go. They must be back to the Temple before the sun crested its walls. But each man stood, paralyzed by the words of the messenger.
A Cenjay lived.
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