The thundering paused every few minutes; the air rose heavy in anticipation of the next assault upon the soil. The rhythm was familiar to the groups of Unarra tending to the various tasks of the day. Some even used the noise to jolt them back awake after falling asleep from a night spent playing too many games of hyra.
Atlak hated how the dust was stirred into the air, how his feet vibrated afterward and caused him to pause in his work to recover. Tynel Mellor and Tynel Atlak were lashing groups of vines together for the trainers' use. Mellor marveled at his spawn's ability to work single-mindedly, and had praised Atlak on many occasions at the amount he could accomplish in one day, even in comparison to such experienced workers as Mellor himself.
Mellor had hoped the long day would slow the relentless questions from his curious spawn, but such was not the case. Atlak paused only long enough to voice his frustration with the rippling ground swells experienced while taming the Pikatan. Atlak turned his attention back to Mellor and continued probing, "...but if Tallic had such obvious talent and empathy with the beasts why did the Tresed relegate him to apprentice status for so long? Is that why he left? Some say you were friends. What was..."
"We are still friends." Mellor was thankful for the growing tremors of the Pikatan. "That is enough about Tallic for today my progeny; the taming exercises have begun."
Upset that his questioning had ceased, Atlak tried not to cough at the dust kicked up around him. "Of all the creatures, what is so sacred about the Pikatan anyway?" Atlak's scowl grew deeper and darker with every leap and hard landing of the Pikatan.
Mellor was amused, and not a little worried. "Keep it up, Atlak, and your face will become etched like that," he said in an attempt to divert his spawn. It was his own fault, really; he should, he supposed, show more respect, especially if he wanted his spawn to do the same.
"Just once, I would like to stomp through their valley and disrupt them while they are trying to get work done."
"I suppose you would also want to be revered as the Sacred Atlak too then?" Mellor smiled. "Perhaps you would teach the trainers about the patience of taming as well?"
The gentle reprimand was enough to keep young Atlak from continuing to outwardly show his annoyance at the Pikatan, however Sacred it might be. Atlak just grumbled to himself as clouds of dust mushroomed into the air not far from where they worked. However, the thunderous quakes caused by the Pikatan didn't stop this time. A telepathic warning was sent to all nearby, but the sudden and chaotic rearing of the Pikatan distracted Atlak. Something was wrong.
Most of the Pikatan were rounded up before any large amounts of damage were done. Yet, one crazed animal, its eyes rolling in its skull, careened forward with its strange loping leaps, dodging all attempts at capture. Atlak's insides churned, a mix of ice and painful heat as he looked up to see the silhouette of a figure on a near-distant hill. Atlak began to scream even before Mellor was trampled.
He had been studying the Kompa herd for many aub, and diverted from his analysis only briefly when the migration route passed near Bentree and an old friend. He arrived at the rim of the valley just in time to hear the telepathic warning, and to assess the situation. Through the clouds of dust in the valley, kicked high into eddying swirls by the lunging Pikatan, he made out a familiar lanky form, and his breath hissed through his teeth.
“Mellor! Run!” he cried low, knowing he could not shout and certain it would do little good from this distance even if he did.
Dropping to the ground lest he be seen, he sent his mind into that of the raging Pikatan. Wasting no time on gentleness, he sank mental talons deep into the Pikatan’s psyche, willing it to veer aside. The beast barely seemed to notice, and its headlong rush did not falter.
He saw Mellor lunge sideways at the last instant, but too late to avoid the thrashing hooves. Though dust obscured his vision, he felt rather than heard the nauseating snap of breaking bones above the high, shrill screams of Mellor’s young spawn. His gaze was drawn sharply to the Pikatan once again as it stopped and turned.
With a soft shnick, dozens of spikes sprang from the Pikatan’s armored hide. Now melded firmly with its mind - though not firmly enough to save Mellor, he thought despairingly - he could sense the familiar, reflexive nature of this primitive action bring the briefest respite to the beast’s frenzied fear before it turned to charge toward Mellor once again.
In that moment of respite, the unseen watcher came to a new and chilling understanding of the situation. His mind was not the only one exerting influence over the creature’s behavior! He could feel another presence now turning the Pikatan’s fury and confusion toward blood lust; he knew a Pikatan would rather fight than flee, and it seemed he was not alone in this knowledge. He probed subtly, attempting to trace the other influence, but managed only to identify a not-altogether unfamiliar mind before it withdrew.
Had he been noticed, he wondered?
The Pikatan, released from the mental urging to fight and calmed somewhat, reared and bellowed once more, then lumbered to a halt a short distance from the carnage it had caused. The watcher released his hold on the beast, and turned his attention to his oldest, perhaps his only, friend.
The mental link with Mellor was as quick to establish as always, and no less clear than it had ever been. He shuddered at the blinding pain that washed over him, and grimly helped Mellor’s mind retreat from the agony to a place where he, watching, could not follow. He ground his teeth in helpless frustration as he saw others gather around Mellor’s broken body. Though the spawnling had stopped screaming, he had not moved, seeming rooted to the spot in shocked silence; one of the handlers shook him gently and turned him away from the blood-soaked sight.
Though the watcher was an adept empath, his skills needed little stretching to sense the surges of raw emotion washing over the gathered and growing crowd. A steady stream of Unarran ran from the fields, the animal pens nearby, and even from the town just inside the edge of the forest. Like lightning playing along the fringes of a thundercloud, fear and anger spiked here and there. He carefully scanned the gathering, pushing past these passionate outbursts and making particular note instead of where they were absent. Even so, he was unprepared for the brief thread of sanctimonious smugness he sensed as his probe brushed past a particular consciousness. His concentration faltered, and before he could get a good fix on the source, the impression was gone.
It did not matter. He had his confirmation. The knowledge settled on him like a glacier. Cold, hard, and undeniable, it ground his uncertainties to dust beneath its weight.
Mellor was alive, still - but for how long? And what could he, Mellor’s oldest friend, do about it?
Deep in thought, the watcher stood, turned slowly and walked away from the valley.
Four strong Unarra bore the stretcher, one at each corner; Mellor’s body rested limply between them, the blanket covering him already stained wetly with blood. Upon entering through the main gates of Bentree, they had turned to the right instead of toward the Doktu’s hospice.
“Where are you taking him?” Atlak stumbled along behind the litter, grief blurring his vision. When they didn’t answer, Atlak approached the imposing figure they followed.
Archpriest Kurgon of the Sacred Pikatan strode with practiced gravitas toward the eastern district, the stateliness of his pace betokening formal procession. Gold-embroidered red silk flowed from his broad shoulders all the way to the packed earth of the roadway, and a tall, gilded collar swept upward to frame his chiseled features. He did not even glance toward Atlak when the youth repeated his question, though the irritated narrowing of his eyes revealed that he had heard.
“He must be taken to the Temple,” Kurgon replied shortly, bowing gravely and with barely a break in his stride to the onlookers dotted here and there along their path. “Your progenitor has been selected by the Sacred Pikatan.”
Atlak, trotting alongside like a barely tolerated weanling, glanced dubiously up at Archpriest Kurgon as he struggled for comprehension. “But he needs a physic. He’ll die without medical attention. The bones need to be mended and he is losing blood. If we don’t -”
Kurgon’s head turned, this time; silver eyes glared coldly at Atlak. “Don’t be impudent, cub. You are clearly too young to understand the honor that is being bestowed upon your gen. Would you besmirch that honor with your ignorant whining? He has been selected. It falls to us to accept the will of the Sacred Pikatan, to learn the lesson it would teach. You will not interfere.” The Archpriest’s lip curled as he lengthened his stride, dismissing Atlak from both his vision and his thoughts.
Atlak stood stock-still, blanching, his headlocks quivering in disbelief. Awash with frustration and impotence, he stared mutely as the Archpriest and the litter-bearers moved away towards the Temple. Mellor’s labored breathing remained audible for a long time over the trudge of their soft feet, slowly fading into the distance.
Spindly fingers reached upward from the Temple of the Sacred Pikatan to plough long furrows of blackness onto the starry sky. Atlak had always imagined that the tall pinnacles, jutting high along the shrine’s sacred spine, seemed at odds with its squat structure, but peering from the concealment of a nearby cormar grove, he realized he’d underestimated the skill of the architect. Spines and structure conspired with shadows to create the impression of a crouching Pikatan ready to leap from its hill, rending all life from the village below. The imagined scene jostled its way into Atlak’s mind, merging with memories from the valley earlier this turning - a charging Pikatan, the snap of breaking bones, blood darkening the dusty ground. He nearly lost his courage beneath the onslaught, but the thought of Mellor, his life ebbing away within the shadowy halls of this ominous structure, filled Atlak with an anger that strengthened his resolve.
Mellor’s clyft was well trained, and Atlak had no reservations about leaving it alone in the small grove of trees. The Temple stood aloof and imposing some distance from the nearest habitation, so even the small sounds the clyft might make as it stirred should go unnoticed. Slipping from tree to tree, then dashing across the gap between the grove and the building itself, Atlak crept round to the rear of the Temple, away from the setting light of the currently solitary moon.
Atlak flattened himself against the black wall and paused briefly to allow his eyesight to adjust. Scaling this wall should not be a difficult task, his agility and desperation aided by the carvings that covered every available surface. Though he could not see them now, Atlak knew they depicted dozens of scenes of Unarra interacting with the Sacred Pikatan. He repressed a scowl, knowing it to be heresy and yet, in that moment, hating the Pikatan like he had never hated anything before.
Taking a deep breath, he dug his fingers into the gap between a rearing Pikatan and three reverent Unarra and hoisted himself up. Moments later, he slid silently through an unpaned second-floor window and into the Temple itself.
Breathing as slowly and quietly as he could despite the sudden hammering of his heart, Atlak peered through the darkness ahead. A wide hallway stretched before him, its severe black walls broken at regular intervals by the dim outline of an archway or a door. The air was heavy with the scent of ahnk-incense - a smell he had never liked and which always made him want to sneeze, Atlak realized with another pang of wrong-thinking. He pinched his nostrils sharply, then narrowed his gaze as his adapting eyes caught a hint of violet light seeping under the second door to his right, along with the muted sounds of conversation.
Shaking but determined, he tiptoed along the wall towards the door. As he approached, a familiar name made him stop, crouch, and listen closely.
"Tallic's interference can no longer be tolerated. He was present in the valley today; I should have been informed, and he should not have been there in the first place," a voice declared harshly; Atlak recognized Kurgon's arrogant baritone. "We must demonstrate clearly to all that the will of the Sacred Pikatan cannot be subverted." Several other voices muttered their agreement before Kurgon spoke again, “I trust you can tend to the matter in a more… final manner, this time?” The impatience and disapproval were evident; again, there was a subdued chorus of assent.
The scraping of seats being pushed back and the almost inaudible huff of robes settling startled Atlak out of his crouch. He hurried to a curtained archway on the other side of the corridor and flattened himself against the inside wall as a door creaked and purple light streamed into the hallway. With trembling hands Atlak steadied the swaying of the drapes which concealed him and peered out into the corridor.
Three silhouettes passed through the back-lit threshold opposite him; while he could not distinguish features, it was evident from their garb and manner that they were priests of the Temple. One of them turned and muttered a few parting words to the Archpriest, and Atlak’s eyes widened in surprise. That was Rallek, the Spawnling Tutor! Atlak had always liked him, and yet here he was, discussing -
The door closed firmly, hiding the Archpriest from view. The priests filed down the hallway, speaking in low voices, so near to his archway their robes stirred the curtains once more. Atlak pushed his thoughts into a corner of his mind, to deal with later. For now, he had heard enough; he knew what he needed to do.
An agonizingly slow count to a hundred, followed by a swift, silent dash down the length of the hallway brought Atlak to the grand ornamental balcony overlooking the Temple’s main shrine. He had been in the shrine dozens of times since his spawning, looking up at the priests as they stood where he now stood, awed by their remote piety. Looking down now, understanding half-forming within him, he wondered if the priests even saw the Unarran worshipers so far below them.
And then he looked again, and what he saw wrenched a small cry from his throat.
The pale light of Gentar slanted through tall windows high on the walls of the Temple, almost level with the balcony, painting nearly perfect rectangles across the deserted shrine’s floor. In the center of the great hall, atop a ceremonial altar, Mellor’s still form lay bathed in monochrome light. A white sheet covered him from head to toe, trailing on the ground to either side and marred by dark stains in several places. The scene was so stark and impersonal that Atlak could barely recognize the unmoving figure as his beloved gen. Was he still breathing?
Grief and rage threatened to overwhelm him as he stumbled down the sweeping stairs and across the floor of the shrine; he quelled his emotions fiercely, lest a nearby empath detect the disturbance. As he approached he heard Mellor’s low, shallow breathing, saw the cloth’s almost imperceptible rise and fall - and found that he, too, could breathe again.
Atlak removed the cloak tied around his middle and spread it on the floor next to the altar. As gently as he could, wincing inwardly at the sight and smell of so much blood, Atlak tucked the sheet around his gen, lifted Mellor from the huge, spine-carved slab of blackwood and placed him on the cloak. A faint moan escaped Mellor’s lips; Atlak grimaced, unable to move as slowly as Mellor’s wounds required, suddenly desperate to be out of this place before the strength of his fury and hatred became too much to hide from the priests all around him.
Folding the corners of the cloak around his gen, Atlak stooped and, with a too-loud grunt, heaved Mellor’s unresisting form into his arms. He was shocked, distantly, to note how much lighter Mellor was than he had expected. Even so he would not have the strength to carry this burden for long, and yet he could not bring himself to drag his gen across the floor of this place, however easier it would be.
The great, dark doors of the shrine were too massive for a single Unarran to open alone, and so Atlak hurried as best he could across the moonlit floor of the hall, under the looming balcony, and down a narrow corridor reserved for the priests’ use. At the end of the corridor he braced his charge carefully between himself and the wall, unlatched a small, unadorned door, and stepped once again into the shadows at the rear of the Temple.
They had been riding since well before dawn. The clyft had been stumbling more and more of late, though it did not protest otherwise, and Atlak’s eyes were gritty with lack of rest. Despite his fear of pursuit, Atlak knew that they could not continue their northerly flight from Bentree much longer. He had done what he could to cover their route, following the migration of a Kompa herd in the hope that his mount’s narrow tracks would go unnoticed amidst the trampled vegetation. He hoped it would be enough. For now, Mellor needed rest and whatever meager ministrations Atlak could provide.
In his search for a place to stop and - if his fears were realized - to hide, Atlak had veered away from the Kompa herd on the plain and into a nearby forest of spiral-firs. Though the sun was well past its zenith the heat had not yet abated, and Atlak was grateful for the shade the tall, crooked trees offered as well as for the late-afternoon breeze that soughed through their long, gray-green needles. Discarded needles carpeted the floor of the forest, masking all sound and sight of the clyft’s passage as well as any herd of Kompa.
Lashed to the pillion, his body wrapped tightly in a kom-hair blanket and propped against Atlak’s steadying arms, Mellor had called out deliriously several times throughout the night. Now he was silent, his breathing increasingly ragged and shallow; Atlak could feel waves of heat radiating from Mellor’s weakening body, signaling the war against infection raging within.
Looking around, Atlak spotted a break in the trees to one side and steered the clyft towards it. They came upon a large clearing, clearly created by the fall of three ancient firs many years ago; blackened stumps marked the battle they had lost with lightning, and pale, petrified branches poked out of the grassy earth in several places, unsettlingly similar to the skeletons of dead beasts. Another giant spiral-fir stood, victorious and alive, at the far end of the clearing, surrounded by a thick bed of ochre-colored moss. Off to his right, on the eastern edge of the clearing, Atlak could hear the soft gurgling sounds of a stream.
The clyft had clearly heard it also, for it craned its long neck and huffed. Atlak nodded in silent agreement and nudged it around the edge of the clearing towards the tall fir, staying away from direct sunlight.
He coaxed the clyft to a dismount position and clambered to the ground. Spreading his own cloak across the thick, springy moss, he unlashed Mellor and carried him gently, blanket and all, to the improvised bed. After making certain that his gen was at ease, Atlak unsaddled the clyft, retrieved an empty skin from the saddle-bags and followed his mount to the stream. The clyft would not wander, not while Mellor was so near, and it needed to drink as much as Atlak himself did.
After filling the skin, and having satisfied his own thirst, Atlak lingered at the stream, crouching to peer intently at the myriad fauna that populated its nutrient-rich banks. Long moments passed before he chided himself for the pretense. For all he knew, any one of the leafy herbs could cure Mellor...or kill him. He was only delaying the inevitable; that dreadful moment when he came face to face with the severity of Mellor’s wounds, the moment he knelt, hands quivering above the injury and mind devoid of applicable knowledge, the moment his uncertainty would turn to despair.
Atlak heaved himself to his feet. He had to try. He glanced about for the clyft, but it was no longer in sight; no doubt it had slaked its thirst and returned faithfully to Mellor’s side. With a stab of guilt, he berated himself for tarrying and stooped to pick up the water-skin. After scanning for the tall spiral-fir landmark, spearing above the forest canopy, he headed back toward the clearing and Mellor.
Atlak nearly dropped the skin of water when he spied the tall, spare figure seated near Mellor. His first impulse was to run, but he could not leave Mellor alone with this stranger. Mellor’s clyft, oddly enough, had not even reacted to the intrusion, though it did look up from its browsing to whuff softly at Atlak. For a moment, he stood rooted in place. Then, when no real alternative presented itself, he walked slowly to stand between Mellor and the newcomer, who remained seated in a casual cross-legged position, his carefully benign expression and manner signaling no threat.
“Might I offer you…?” Atlak paused mid-sentence; the stranger’s features tugged at distant memories.
“Yes,” the stranger answered Atlak’s unspoken question. “I see you remember me, though it has been many synod. You were but a spawnling.” His tone was rough and a little curt as though, Atlak thought, he did not speak to others very often. “I am Ryen Tallic, also called the Outcast. I followed you here, but I intend no harm.” He paused, as if to gauge Atlak’s reaction, then continued, “The only thing I need of you at this moment is your trust. If you will allow me, I desire to use what I know of herbs and healing to help your progenitor,” At the last, he looked toward Mellor’s still form and his voice softened. “My friend.”
Long moments passed before Atlak responded. Questions jostled each other inside his head, stirred by a mixture of wariness and curiosity. Most of all, he remembered the words he had overheard in the Temple the previous night. Unable to decide how to order his queries, he finally allowed them all to tumble out in a rush.
“Why did the Tresed not allow you to advance beyond apprentice status? Were you in the valley near Bentree yesterday? Did you interfere with the training? If Mellor is your friend, why did you not help him? How did you get here?” Atlak paused to take a deep breath, but Tallic raised a hand before he could continue.
“I would be honored to answer these questions and more,” Tallic said gravely, “Only let me do so after tending to your gen’s wounds. I fear to delay any longer.”
Atlak glanced guiltily at Mellor’s still form, and gave a silent nod. Despite his doubts, his gen had said We are still friends, just before the Pikatan had… He pushed the memory away firmly. Desperate for a friend and hesitant to subject Mellor to his own clumsy ignorance; he crouched next to his gen, and nodded again.
Tallic stared at him a moment longer, then reached into the pack at his side and produced a number of small skins, several cloth bags, some large red leaves, a small wooden bowl, and a pestle. Atlak watched with renewed curiosity, but was able to identify only one of the powders Tallic sprinkled into the bowl; neem, a common febrifuge. Tallic ground his ingredients together in the bowl, adding the red leaves last, before motioning to the water skin Atlak still held. “Just a few drops, if you would…”
Atlak complied, and watched as Tallic mixed the grounds into a thick crimson paste.
Apparently satisfied with the consistency of his paste, Tallic unfolded his lean frame and moved to kneel beside Mellor.
Resisting the urge to look away, Atlak watched grimly as Tallic turned the blanket back and gently pulled aside first the sheet and then the tattered remains of Mellor’s clothing. The working apron Mellor still wore seemed unwilling to relinquish its hold, until Tallic took the water skin from Atlak’s unresisting hands and poured a little liquid onto the leather. Atlak knew he would have had to do this himself had Tallic not arrived; despite his lingering doubts about this friend who had not helped when he could, when the Pikatan attacked, he found himself suddenly grateful that he was no longer entirely alone.
The older Unarran’s breath hissed in his throat as the worst of Mellor’s wounds was exposed. Atlak stared, nauseated, at the angry dark red skin that framed a ragged gash longer and wider than his hand. The exposed brown flesh was mottled a greenish white, and thick yellow pus oozed from the depths of the wound. Most of Mellor’s side was evidently bruised, and seemed unhealthily soft, somehow, near the gash itself.
“I should never have moved him!” he gasped, but Tallic shook his head firmly.
“What other choice did you have?”
Even as he spoke the words, Tallic began to apply the thick paste onto and around the gash. Mellor moaned, once, but otherwise did not react. When he was almost finished, Tallic glanced at Atlak and nodded toward his pack. “Two more red leaves, if you please, the large bandage, and the gourd with the blue stopper. Do not open the gourd.”
Atlak did as he was bid, while Tallic finished applying the paste and wiped his fingers clean on the sheet, which he folded roughly and placed to one side. Tallic took the gourd from him first, opening it with some care and allowing a number of small, grub-like creatures to fall from its depths onto the paste-covered wound. Atlak watched in fascination as the grubs writhed around, orienting themselves perpendicular to the gash and stretching from one edge of it to another. One by one, they sank pincers deep into the healthier flesh on either side of the wound, then contracted, pulling the edges of the gash together. Once the skin to either side was touching, Tallic took the red leaves and the bandage from Atlak, placed the leaves gently over the paste and the suture-grubs, and finally wrapped the soft cloth around Mellor’s body several times to hold the entire treatment in place.
“The grubs will eat the infected flesh and clean it,” Tallic explained with a glance at Atlak’s fascinated face. His dry voice carried the same hint of amusement as Mellor’s did when his young spawn’s curiosity grew too great to be contained. “To be precise, the parasites they carry will do that; the grubs merely seal the wound and help the flesh re-knit.”
Having treated the most grievous wound, Tallic ran his hands skillfully down Mellor’s body, probing gently here and there. Atlak winced at the sight of pale bone protruding just below the second joint of Mellor’s left leg; Tallic looked up again and sent Atlak off to obtain some branches to use as splints while he cut holding strips out of the discarded sheet. Atlak did not complain, and found what he needed after only a short search; after that, he decided to refill the water skin while Tallic tended the leg and a number of minor cuts and scrapes.
When he returned, Tallic had covered Mellor with the remains of the blanket and moved to sit with his back against the rough trunk of the spiral-fir. Atlak handed him the water-skin and sat down next to his gen, watching this stranger-friend in the golden light that filtered through the trees. It would be dusk shortly, and the heat of the day was finally beginning to abate.
“Will he be all right?” Atlak asked after a small hesitation. Mellor never minded his questions, however irritated he might appear, but Atlak knew that questions were generally frowned upon, certainly in Bentree.
Tallic made a wry face. “Given the time to heal, he should be. Your gen has the fierce heart of a Kompa.”
Atlak frowned. A Kompa, fierce? “You mean a Sacred Pikatan.”
“No, I most certainly do not.” Tallic said with a sigh. “We are taught that the Yellow Back Kompa are stupid, lazy beasts, not even worth taming for the most part. The so-called Sacred Pikatan kill and eat the weakest among then and thereby keep them moving, else they would starve, too witless to search for new vegetation or clean water.”
Atlak nodded, having heard this many a time from Rallek and others back at home; though even that raised a question -
Tallic gave him a shrewd glance, and his lips twitched. “Truly you are Mellor’s spawn; I never heard as many questions, spoken or not, since we were young together. And yes, I can see you’ve wondered what Mellor and I wondered; no beast exists purely to serve the needs of another. While many serve needs, I know of none that are so utterly incapable that they cannot even feed themselves.
“I made the mistake of asking that very question, synod ago. I said it was an oversight to seek lessons from only one creature, when all of them can teach us so much about life and, indeed, about ourselves. I asked, also, why of all creatures the Pikatan, and only the Pikatan, should be revered as holy; why, in fact, it should be revered at all. Kurgon was not Archpriest then, but he had some power already, and was heeded when he accused me of blasphemy.” Tallic looked bitter. “The Tresed certainly listened, and I imagine they’re no different today.”
Atlak frowned again, feeling young and foolish and not a little confused. Mellor always spoke of the Tresed with a mixture of tired cynicism and hope, when he spoke of it in Atlak’s hearing at all. “What,” he asked carefully, “does the Tresed have to do with the priesthood?”
Tallic laughed humorlessly. “Simply because the Tresed is a secular authority does not mean it is immune from outside pressures. I’m a little surprised it still has any power at all, to be frank. I knew Kurgon to be ambitious, but I never imagined him to be - corrupt.”
“Corrupt?” Atlak stammered, looking around reflexively as though Archpriest Kurgon himself might emerge from the forest at any moment to implicate him in a conspiracy against the Sacred Pikatan.
Tallic watched Atlak thoughtfully for a few moments; Atlak felt he was being assessed, somehow, and tried to sit still. Finally, Tallic took a deep breath and said, “What happened to Mellor was no accident. I am certain the priests, led as always by Kurgon, were involved in a deliberate attempt to kill your gen.
“Why would they do that?” Atlak retorted automatically. Even as he spoke, however, he remembered the words the Archpriest had spoken in that violet-lit room in the Temple. “Kurgon said you interfered with the will of the Sacred Pikatan,” he added slowly; and then, struck by a new realization, he looked down at his unconscious gen. “When I went to get him, I overheard… But why? Why Mellor?”
Tallic’s gaze followed Atlak’s, his expression a mixture of pain and anger. “Not for my sake, I assure you. Mellor always asked questions of his own; age merely made him more circumspect. Though not, is seems, quite circumspect enough to avoid coming to Kurgon’s attention. As to the why… Because they worship the Pikatan,” Tallic explained, his voice bitter with conviction. “The priests see everything from the very narrow perspective of the single creature they have named sacred. They have come to see themselves as a reflection of what they worship, Kurgon most of all. When Kurgon speaks of the will of the Sacred Pikatan, it is his own will that he glorifies.”
Staring blindly at Mellor, Atlak struggled to understand what Tallic was telling him. “You’re saying… They tried to kill Mellor because he asked questions? Because - because he questioned their power?”
“Exactly.” Tallic nodded. “Of course, I doubt that Kurgon would characterize it so; most likely he’s convinced even himself that he does only what is good for all Unarran, stylizing himself as their Sacred Pikatan, ‘culling the herd’ and keeping it moving.”
The twisted logic didn’t really make a lot of sense to Atlak, but he let it pass, admitting to himself that in comparison to Mellor and this Ryen Tallic, he had a lot to learn. “So, what do we do now?” he asked, glancing over at his gen’s friend.
Tallic looked up, and Atlak was surprised at the light of gratitude in the older Unarran’s eyes; the life of an outcast must be a lonely one. “I’ve been studying the Kompa for some time. Do you know that I’ve found them neither witless nor slovenly?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “What I find most fascinating about them is their fierce will to live. It takes two Pikatan to bring down one Kompa, and even when gored from both sides, I’ve seen a Kompa stay on its feet from sunrise to mid-aub before succumbing. As well, the Kompa are ardently protective, fighting for the well-being of their young with that same level of nobility and passion.”
They remained silent for a time then, both gazing at Mellor. Atlak noted with relief that his gen’s color already seemed to have returned a little, and that his skin was no longer as waxy and flushed as it had been a short while ago.
“Atlak,” Tallic said eventually, somberly, “we must never hold any creature sacred, not even the Kompa, lest we fall into the same corruption. It is appropriate to learn from a creature and to respect its strengths, but promoting it to a place of worship will only lead to blindness. Call an animal ‘Noble.’ Call it ‘Fierce.’ Call it ‘Brave.’ But never call it ‘Sacred.’”
Atlak nodded, but a sudden tremor in the ground stopped his words in his throat. He looked wildly at Tallic, who was already frowning towards the darkening south. Fear squeezed Atlak’s heart.
“Kurgon!” he blurted, jumping to his feet.
“We must act quickly,” Tallic said. “They will be here any moment. Stay close to me."
Tallic stood up and walked forward a number of paces, taking a firm stance well out into the large open clearing. Atlak followed, trying to ignore how rapidly the vibrations were intensifying. When the two had taken positions next to each other, Tallic reached out toward Atlak, bringing a hand to Atlak’s left temple.
Suddenly, Atlak’s vision altered. The large clearing was gone. Instead, he stood near the edge of a Kompa herd.
Atlak inhaled deeply into lungs that seemed to expand forever. The sweet smells of six different types of vegetation filled his nostrils. He was immediately conscious of intricate details about the appearance and taste of each one. Around him, Kompa grazed, their every movement understandable like subtle phrases in an abstract language. He exhaled.
A soft breath of sensation flitted along the edges of Atlak’s consciousness and he heard the cry of an infant calf - his infant calf, somewhere to the south. Tones of danger and fear commingled in the high keening wail, filling Atlak with the overwhelming need to be at his calf’s side. Enormous muscles bunched beneath his thick hide and his great heart hammered a steadily increasing rhythm as he launched his heavy body in the direction of the sound.
Atlak plunged through the forest, brush and small trees giving way before his lumbering charge. The light touch on his mind returned, this time becoming a steady pressure. Atlak resisted the intrusion but it swept his defenses aside with gentle, undeniable impetus.
Atlak, Tallic’s voice intruded. I had to bring you deep into the Kompa’s mind so that you could establish an empathic link, but you will not be able to master the creature if you continue to identify so closely with it. The calf’s cry was a projection on my part, to call the Kompa to the clearing, but you must control it from this point forward. As Tallic’s presence faded, Atlak reached outward, struggling to extricate himself from the Kompa’s driving need.
The feeling of being in two places at once was almost unbearable. Atlak fought disorientation, nearly succumbing to the assault of unrecognized stimuli. Though discomfort remained paramount, he attempted to sort through the impressions warring for dominance in his head. With great effort, he strove to categorize each as either of the clearing or charging through the forest, either Unarran or Kompa. Meticulously, he reassembled his fragmented consciousness, not completely discarding the Kompa impressions, but relegating them to something less intrusive, bounded on all sides by his own intellect and subject to his will.
At the opposite end of the clearing, Atlak could see the tall firs tremble at steady intervals. Yapping barks rose to fill the gaps between the thundering that accompanied each leap of the approaching Pikatan. Behind him, the slower but no less insistent drumming of Kompa feet grew in intensity, punctuated by the loud snap of splintering branches. He heard each snap twice: first through his mind-link to the Kompa, then echoed faintly to his own Unarran ears.
Atlak felt the Kompa hesitate as it neared the clearing. Belatedly, he realized that the odor wafting to its sensitive nose was his own scent, and that of Tallic. Recalling Tallic’s earlier manipulation of the Kompa’s senses, Atlak attempted to mask the Unarran scent. Though he did his best to mimic Tallic’s deft touch, his effort fell well short; instead of a light breath on the Kompa’s mind, the imprint registered like a minor atriquake. Furthermore, the Kompa heard the smell as something that resembled bittergrass more than the calf-scent Atlak intended. With a snorting woof, the Kompa shook its massive head and slowed further. After several desperate tries, Atlak managed to project a scent that was reminiscent of kom-leather, which he accompanied with a rather satisfying mental calf-wail. Despite his amateur work, the Kompa charged forward once more.
Learning from his mistakes as he made them, Atlak constructed an image of two calves, interposing the images over Tallic and himself the moment the Kompa burst from the forest. His gratification was short-lived. The image faltered, then dissipated as a Pikatan exploded from the opposite end of the clearing, landing amidst a cloud of dust and debris. Fortunately, the Kompa’s attention was drawn to the Pikatan as well. A low rumbling tone resonated deep in the Kompa’s chest as it took a position directly between the Pikatan and Atlak.
The Kompa’s sensitive ears picked up a hint of movement behind them, at the base of the great sentry fir. Atlak spared a glance over his shoulder; saw Mellor’s clyft move to stand above its master, then crouch to form a protective shield, wary eyes turned toward the newcomer.
Heartbeats later, two additional Kompa joined the first. Together, they lowered their massive heads; the bony protrusions that flared out on each, sweeping back from their nostrils to arc over their head and neck, formed a yellow-splashed triune shield around Tallic and Atlak.
The Pikatan stared balefully across the grass at the three waiting Kompa, but the great predator did not move to attack. The reason for its restraint soon became apparent, for within moments the Pikatan was joined by two of its kind, clods of dirt and dead needles blossoming to announce their arrival as they erupted from the forest. The thud of their landing jolted Atlak’s bones. Through the settling dust, Atlak could make out the silhouettes of three clyft-mounted figures at the far edge of the clearing, just behind the crouching Pikatan.
In unison, the Pikatan armed their shoulder spikes; the soft shnick, more ominous than Atlak remembered, evoked a tremor of fear that started in his legs and moved upward to convulse arms and torso. With fierce determination he shoved the fear aside, choosing to focus instead on the metal link he maintained with his Kompa.
He saw, through two pairs of eyes, the three Pikatan shuffle forward in a low crouch before launching themselves to descend like felled trees amongst the Kompa. Atlak forsook all pretense of control over his defender, fighting merely to maintain a tentative link despite the fury roiling through the beast’s mind.
Atlak was vaguely aware of the other two Kompa’s movements; mostly he was amazed by the precision with which they danced across the clearing, darting here and there to frustrate the Pikatan’s advance, each heavy step ordered like in a well choreographed promenade. He knew he was witnessing a raw - if terrifying - display of talent, a testimonial to Tallic’s skill with the beasts. Mellor had taught him, during a formal session earlier in the synod, that this level of mastery was extremely difficult; not merely training an animal over time to respond to your telepathic commands, but pervading an untrained psyche to exert such precise control. Only the priests even attempted such a feat, and only after years of study, but Tallic exhibited the ability to master two beasts, simultaneously.
A sharp stabbing pain interrupted Atlak’s musings. Reflexively, he dropped his bond with the Kompa even before realizing that the pain had been transmitted across the link. The pain subsided and his awareness sharpened once the connection had been severed. Less than a hundred paces in front of him, the largest of the three Pikatan twisted its head, wrenching loose from the Kompa it had impaled. The Kompa bellowed in pain, torn flesh hanging in scarlet ribbons from its right hindquarter, yet it managed to drag its feet beneath it and once more thrust its golden head-shield toward its attacker.
The Pikatan ignored the crippled Kompa, however, focusing instead on its ultimate goal, now that the other beast no longer intervened. Atlak felt malevolence behind the shining eyes that turned toward him. He could see blood and gore still dripping from its head spines as it crouched and prepared to leap at him. He heard a scream rise above the chaos in front of him, unaware that it was his own voice which filled the evening with terror.
Before the Pikatan could pounce, one of Tallic’s Kompa flashed across its path, distracting it momentarily. Atlak could tell that Tallic’s tactical skill was being severely tested, as the Kompa’s patterns of movement became more complex to compensate for the changing odds; and even though the crippled Kompa made several courageous attempts to rejoin the other defenders, each time, a Pikatan would intervene, driving the injured Kompa away before turning to attack the others once more.
As the moments passed and the battle wore on, it became increasingly clear to Atlak that the Pikatan would eventually prevail. The movements of even the hale Kompa seemed more laborious; each exertion accompanied by a hint of growing hesitation. Atlak thought it only a matter of time before one faltered, unable, despite its willing heart, to respond to Tallic’s prompting.
Mounting frustration vied with fear as he watched the skirmish, wondering what would happen to him and his companions once the Kompa were defeated. Would the shadowy figures hiding in the trees at the other end of the clearing simply allow the Pikatan to trample them, as they had already tried to do with Mellor?
Just then, an unexpected disturbance erupted at the very fringe of trees Atlak was watching. Through the haze, gilt with the glow of sunset, Atlak could see that one of the priests had been thrown from his mount and into the clearing. The Pikatan faltered, their attention drawn to the priest struggling to regain his feet while holding on to the panicked clyft’s tether-rein.
The priest’s attempt to remount was interrupted by a ferocious bellow from behind him, as a large shadow emerged from the gloom of the forest, barreled between the two still-mounted figures and hurtled toward him. The cleric managed to leap aside at the last instant, his mount bearing the brunt of the charge.
The shadow did not slow, but continued its headlong rush across the field straight toward Tallic and Atlak. Its triangular feet drumming a steady rhythm, it lifted its massive, yellow-spattered head and trumpeted a long triumphant note. This time, the other Kompa answered its call, even the wounded beast managing to echo the victorious confidence.
Behind Atlak and Tallic, unnoticed by all, Mellor leaned against his clyft, a steadying arm thrown around its long neck, concentrated on his link with the fourth Kompa, and smiled grimly.
by Phinehas and Ysharros, with additional contributions from Fazed, Herok, and Spenser
eTc: Making Atriana a place, not just a game.