Chapter 1: The Spire of the Yellow Robes
Hygi was told he was very fortunate to be chosen as an acolyte to the Yellow Robes of Kastirin, but he missed his family, his brothers most of all...
It was already two cold seasons ago, when the Yellow Robes blessed the harvest and predicted the flooding of the plains. and as always picked one or two young males to go with them to become acolytes and perhaps eventually don the yellow robes and the frightening hoods and become brothers of the Order. His father told him that it was the best that could happen, it was better than to be picked by the Blue Robes, or the Red Robes. Of course no peasant was ever picked by the White Robes and no one ever dared to even whisper about the Black ones that supposedly abducted children at moonless nights. It was better than starving to death when the floods didn" come, or working the Matroo fields day in and day out, to fill the storage houses of the King. No one really spoke of the Reki slavers, that sometimes raided villages and took young men and women, never to be seen again. The worst fate of course was being picked by the Kings recruiters. Life of the valley people was harsh and hunger, death and misery were constant companions. Hygi sighed, of course his father was right, up here on the spire of the Order of the Yellow Goddess, there was always food. No slavers could come up here and the King did not recruit brothers for his army. Back when he was still with his family, there wasn" always enough food and his father and mother struggled to keep him and his eight siblings fed, especially when the floods didn" reach the small patches the peasants were allowed to have for their own sustenance.
And the food his family and all the others ate was always the same, boiled Matroo, sometimes with flood snails or slurry fishlings thrown in.
Up here, the Yellow Robes had Matroo bread, Nagli-fish, white birds and white bird eggs and a wondrous white powder they called salt. It made Matroo taste completely different.He loved the sweet Nitri berries, the farmers of the upper valley brought as their tribute. His duties and chores filled most of the day, and of course there was study and learning.
The most amazing thing he learned was reading and writing.
The strange marks and dots the kings collectors always put in soft clay were not magical and secret ways to banish demons, but simple reports of what was collected. Hygi could read them now and knew the texts that actually talked about demons and gods were much more complex and never left the archives of the Orders. But today was the feast day of the sixth aspect of the Yellow Goddess and the temple was closed for acolytes to acolytes of first tier, as he was.
Besides his master wanted him to devote his studies and life to the become a servant of the first aspect of the Yellow goddess. There was always a sense of competition and rivalry among the Yellow Robes, as there were nine aspects to the Goddess, and nine groups serving and representing these aspects.
Yes father was right, in terms of daily life he was better off than his brothers and sisters and pretty much everyone else he knew, but the spire was cold, always cold.
He was standing at his favorite spot, just outside the roof hatch of the Goddess temple. From here you could step on the copper plated roof. Which would be suicide of course without a rope harness, as the slanted surface was slick and arched dome shaped over the entire temple. Falling from the spire would end over 1200 triple steps below on the ground of the Gray forest that surrounded the spire rock.He did not envy the acolytes and brothers if the Ninth aspect who had to come out here and repair and polish the copper roofs. Even when he was little and still in the village, everyone knew about the spires occupied by the Robes, but he remembered how deeply impressed he was when he saw this spire for the first time.
A rock formation rising past the canopies of the tallest trees, into dizzying heights.
Far on its distant top a collection of temples and buildings. Built many hundred seasons ago, by the first Yellow Robes, after the Goddess demanded to seek out a tall location for her place of worship. While the top could be accessed with baskets suspended on ropes and winched up by hoist mechanisms. Every acolyte had to climb its first ascent.
Narrow planks of wood and chains fastened to the rockwall serpentined all the way to the old entrance. The Old entrance was, so they told him only halfway up, it was still very far above the ground It was a dangerous and terrifying ascent. He remembered his hands cramping around the rough chain as he inched his way across the moist and slippery planks.
It had took him a long time, and he had not felt more exhausted all his life, as he dropped on the floor of the Old entrance with shaking legs. Later he was told, that one out of ten aspirants never made it all the way, either falling or giving up. He sighed and wondered what would have happened if he had given up and walked all the many parses back to the village.
He was caught up in his own musings, he almost missed the strange shape that was descending from the very close clouds.
Now the White Birds and the Bird Snatchers were known to be caught by an updraft and carried all the way to the clouds, where the Gods lived, but what he saw was not a bird. He almost forgot to breathe.
It was quite distant, but it had the shape of a person. Then from one moment it was outside, disappeared past the roof edge. Had he just dreamt or did he really see a messenger from the gods?
Waraki, the priest of the first aspect, exalted wearer of the Golden Robe received the messenger of the king in the chamber of community, a smaller building attached to the great temple, and perched at the very edge of the spire.
He had never seen a messenger of the king in such a urgent state and agitation. This messenger used to be such a dignified and arrogant person, but not today. Waraki adjusted the fur lined hood so he could better see past the eyeholes of the embroidered fabric that concealed his face. "Honored herald of the King; long shall be his reign; what has occurred that puts you in so much distress? Have the Rekies of the East declared war?. Have the floodgates to the Eye of the World broken?"
"Oh no Exalted wearer of the Golden Robe, none of this. It is a matter of religion and gods. The king summoned the exalted of all spires to the Kings spire.
"Waraki expected anything but that."
Matters of religion? Today is a feast day what other matters could there be, and of such urgency?"
"It's the gods, they have come!"
Waraki wanted to brush such nonsense aside and educate the herald, that gods where there to be worshipped and for the priests and brothers to interpret the signs and read their will out of the smoke of the sacred cauldrons. Gods did not actually appear.
However he was a priest and could not hardly say that, besides the mans fear and agitation appeared to be real.
Not to mention the summon of Orkrom, the fourth. Also known as Orkrom the merciless. The king hasn" been on the Throne of winds for more than eight seasons, and already his heavy hand was felt to the furthest regions of the kingdom. Orkrom had conquered the Gloo- Rekies off the East and added the Amber Savannah to his empire, and now he itched for more glory and expand his realm to the West, and crush the Bloo-Rekies and add the entire Silver coast. But since war was a costly business, the king squeezed even more than his predecessors out of the already starving peasants and farmers.
Now truth to be told Waraki was not exactly known to be a defender of the weak, but the more the King took, the less they could give to the gods. Waraki liked bountiful offering tables. He stared at the herald and said. "When does the King expect us to come?"
"Exalted wearer, I do not think you understand. The gods have come from the heavens and took residence in the Black Spire."
"The Black Spire is forbidden. How would the King know what is going on there?"
"Don't waste time with questions. The King has summoned all the the Exalted Robes and we better make haste, it is a long way."
Hygi knew his way around the spire top temple. As fast as he could he rushed over the swinging rope bridge. Ran as fast as he could down narrow passages and down winding, worn out steps of stairs.Then he reached the ring colonnade of the lower tier. Only then he slowed down, out of breath hiding himself next to a column.
He had not dreamed. Just thirty meters from where he was standing, a female shape stepped from the chest high wall that separated the colonnade from the frightening abyss, almost like a White Bird that just landed. She looked around closed the yellow robe around her and before he could see her face pulled a hood, just like all the full brothers and priests wore, over her head and walked with swift steps away. Women were not allowed up here, but of course the way she came., she was not a woman but a messenger of the Goddess. But then she could be an assassin of the blue or even the black robes who had climbed the spire.Something that had been done before, according to the stories he heard about the days when the servants of the six colors fought open wars. Perhaps it was a demon as described in the forbidden texts.
He had not been allowed to read any of these scrolls yet, but his master had and often quoted them in class. He shivered in fear and contemplated what to do. Should he report what he saw?
Was it something forbidden for which he would be beaten or even pushed off the ledge at the Sinners step? He was there when they pushed Kary of the ledge. He hardly knew the boy, as he was an acolyte of fifth aspect and from a village far from his own. No one told him what Kary had done, only that it was something forbidden. There were lots of forbidden things and lots of rules of which some were forbidden to know.
In some nights when the winds howled outside his bed chambers, he could still hear Kary"s fainting scream as he fell out of sight and into the fogs that often shrouded the tree tops during the last days of the warm season. The best advice he could give himself was to ignore it, forget it and let whatever it was take its course.
He didn" follow his own advice as he realized he was already following that mysterious apparition. He caught site of the billowing yellow cape just before the being slipped past the doors to Brother Naruks chambers.
"What a Mickey forsaken place."
Chira sweared as he entered the primitive room carved out the natural rock of this pillar like mountain. Dr. Sibelius got up from the wooden table that served as work surface, desk and dinner table. And from the look of it, Chira was sure Sibelius had mixed his work with several meals. "The Saresii man who looked like a statuesque gorgeous woman took of her mask hood and gestured towards that table and added. "Looks like you have well acclimated."
Dr. Sibelius, pushed his hands down the smudgy yellow robe he was wearing and then extended his right. "Nice to see you too. You haven" changed either. The same old grumpy asshole, and still swearing. " "I have a good reason to swear. Well actually I got a whole catalog of reasons. Management breathing down my neck wanting results. This rotten planet far outside Union space and this assigment, just for starters."
Chira walked to the open window. The view was nothing short of spectacular, an ocean of snow covered forests, a meandering river and flocks of white birds. However the view did not hold his attention for long. He had spend the last thirty years traveling and seen many exotic worlds and sights. Without turning he said. "Have you completed your study of the local society yet? Anything can use for leverage?"
The andropholgist, picked up wood framed chalk board, similar to the ones commonly used by the brothers and tapped it with his finger, revealing it was way more than a primitive writing surface but a modern PDD. With a brush of his hands he summoned a data projection bubble. Texts and images appeared floating between them.
"Such studies take years, I am here just over twenty month, but yes I got a preliminary summary ready for you."
He handed the visitor a small data chip. "Doc, they pay you good credits and they paying me good credits.The problem is our mutual employer is not the most patient one, especially since I think Enroe is here as well."
Sibelius sighed. "I think I noticed him, the blue robes have a new member, it might be him. Hard to tell though, they all wear these hooded masks."
"Come on these locals aren" the Narth. you should be able to identify a Union citizen. Speaking of the locals, do you have an idea why they appear quite human?"
The scientist nodded. "Yes, I am quite certain they are from Earth or at least part of the Human mystery.
You might know right after the ascent almost three thousand standard years ago; during that period of time historians call the Second Exodus lots of colonist arks left Earth and not all are accounted for."
Chira nodded. "Yes I recall the lessons about it during Union school. Sibelius sighed... "Not that the records of that time are very accurate in the first place. Of course they also could be a forgotten Saran or Pan Saran colony, or even Seenian. Their DNA is is only about 4% different. If you remember your Union school classes, you might also recall the lessons about the so called human mystery, right?"
"I did skip a few cerebral uploads, but yes I recall some of it. It"s the scientific improbability of humans developing on separate worlds, with only minute DNA differences, but isn't common consensus that it was the Seenians who somehow seeded human life across the Upward sector?"
"No, it"s just one of the many theories out there. The verdict is still out, especially since your people have been around as long as the Seenians. The Saresii first age of knowledge started around the same time the Seenians became a space faring society."
"As I said, I skipped a few uploads. How about the other sentients you reported about?"
"At first I thought the Rekies were the true natives of this world, but I had the chance to get a DNA sample last month. It doesn" match the rest of the planet's biosphere. Looks like they are colonists too."
The man spread his arms. "don't ask me from where, these lizards match none of the species on file at the Ivory tower."
The female looking agent of SII sat with a sweeping motion of her cape on a chair and crossed his legs.
"No they don't match the Shiss, or our Saurons, not the Maggi and not the Dragons and all the other sauron, lizard species. I told you no match to any knows sentient or non sentient life form.Their tech level is on the same level as the local humans."
Chira pulled his gloves, but instantly regretted it. "Is it always that cold?"
"This is still fall, in local terms, it is going to get a whole lot colder in winter. But even in their summers, it stays cold up here. Remember we are on top of a mountain that reaches 1500 meters. I wish SII would send a geologist to look into these strange pillars, there are ten or twelve of them all across the main continent, and I wonder what geological process forms these strange pillars."
"I was under the impression there are only six of them."
"Six that are occupied. Remember they are on Tech Level C, to built these mountain topping monasteries it takes about the same efforts as it took building the pyramids in Egypt."
"The ones on Earth."
"Never been there and besides, there were geologists among the first SII survey group. They found this world has lots of copper, a very special kind. This is the reason you and I are here. SII wants this world before Union space moves this way."
"What is so special about copper?"
"It"s what Takkians and their cousins the Takian eat. it is what the Lyrharm consider their favorite food. It is still used in many technical application and sells for good credits on the XChange, but that is not the main reason. The local copper has a higher percentage of Iridium than any other copper ore found elsewhere. You do know that Iridium is a major component of Arti Coils and ISAH drives right? Besides it is considered one of the trade currencies accepted by almost any space faring society we know."
"Copper and Iridium, okay I get it. I am an anthropologist and I can name hundreds of societies accepting Iridium chips and coins, much safer than those rad shielded Polonium coins still in use all over Freespace."
"Yeah you never know who rad shielded them and if the gold mantle is thick enough. " "But isn't Iridium much more abundant in asteroids?"
"And every floating rock containing the most minute trace of it is mined. The Assembly declared Iridium a strategic resource."
The scientist nodded. "Besides this is a Gardenworld with lots of bioforms, in itself a treasure throve.
"Chira put the gloves back on."
That the neither of the local sentients are native to this world is good new, in terms of Union law. That one of them are lost colonists is bad news. Very bad news indeed. If the Science Corps gets wind of this, we will see BoCA here faster than you can say fuck and with the Bureau of Colonist Affairs rolling in, all chances of real profit are gone. SII has to negotiate fair mining contracts and compete with every other mining company. In other words, not much profit if profit can be made at all."
The undercover scientist opened a crude wooden trunk and a modern Serve Matic rose from it.
"Care for some hot chocolate? I hear Saresii are addicted to it."
"My father is traditional Saresii, my mother however is from New Texas. I was raised the Saresii way as you can see, but I can" stand Saresii tea or Hot Chocolate. It"s to frikkin" cold for beer, but I take coffee if you have."
"Yeah the "Matic" still has supplies for another 4000 cups. Did you bring me the Mol-cards for chicken soup? The locals use an animal called White Bird. It doesn" even taste good in a soup."
"Yes I got you the whole five Hundred flavors set. So much longer do you think will you need?"
Hygi had climbed on the old stone cutter scaffold, so he could get close to the windows of Brother Naruks chambers.
The wood was centuries old, and exposed to wind and weather. The narrow planks were slippery. His heart missed a beat as one of the planks made a cracking sound, but he kept putting one foot before the other, while his hands cramped around the the old rope, that was the only assurance against falling. Another cracking sound made him almost go back, the wind had picked up and tugged on his robe. But then he could hear the voices.
A sharp knock on Naruks door made him spin around and spill some of the coffee. With quick haste he kicked the trunk and the Serve Matic lowered out of sight. The lid fell on it a second later. Chira got up and activated her adaptive camouflage and dove out the small window. Just in time as the door swung open and the exalted wearer of the Golden Robe entered the room. "Prepare to travel within the hour brother Naruk."
The masked leader of the order said with a commanding tone.
"I have need of your sharp intellect and great wisdom."
Naruk bowed. "Of course, Exalted wearer. I have little to pack."
"That is what I like about you, brother Naruk.Ever since you came to us, I seek your counsel and company matters of importance."
"I am honored."
"The herald of the king has summoned me to the palace. He claims the gods have descended upon the Black spire and he seeks the counsel of all who wear the sacred robes."
"Then let us make haste. If it is the gods who better than us to greet them, if it is not the gods who better than us to make this distinction?"
The Exalted wearer sounded very pleased and relieved. "You never fail giving sound advice. Meet me at the south winch before the third ball drops."
Waraki flared his nostrils underneath his hood. "Say what is this aroma? I have never smelt anything like it."
"It"s a, uh herbal remedy from the Tantyo mountains. The distant region I call home."
"It does smell quite pleasant. You need to tell me more about it and those Tantyo mountains at another time."
With those words the exalted left.
Hygi had heard most of it. The gods have come, but why did the Exalted one not speak to the heavenly visitor who had to be in the room.
Now he noticed something floating outside the window, and less than four or five steps ahead of him. something shimmering, something not there and yet it was more than just air, more than smoke. A ghost! This realization made him even more afraid and he wanted to run, a board cracked and this time the rotten wood gave away, and he shrieked in panic as he plunged away, holding to the rope, dangling over the chasm; even the White Birds flying over the canopy of the forest far below looked like tiny white specks. With sheer terror he heard the groaning of the old rope, and could feel the fibers separating ... The last strand of fibers came apart, the rope snapped and he fell. This was it, this was the end. He screamed and closed his eyes. Something grabbed his arm and then he felt solid ground under his feet.
Hygi opened his eyes and he found himself back where the scaffold started.
He also saw the shimmering shape for a short moment, and was certain it had the shape of a woman.
"A boy? Out there?"
Chira nodded. "Yes he was out there on that ancient contraption of wood and ropes, whatever it is."
"It"s a scaffold, used by workmen and stone cutter who built this bartizan like room that are my chambers, but that was done centuries ago. It would be suicide to use it now."
"Well it nearly was, he did fall. I caught him in the very last moment."
Chira sighed. "I guess I am not as callused as I should be for this business. I should have let him fall."
"You just raised considerably in my opinion about you. I just wonder what he was doing out there."
"We spoke Standard, he would have not understood a single word."
"But what caused him to spy on me on the first place?"
"Maybe you should ask him. I am sure he is still where I dropped him."
"Could he have seen you?"
"I can" be sure, I only have adaptive camouflage, full cloak comes with battle suits only."
"Alright, I deal with him."
"What are you making of this god business?"
"Enroe moving in or perhaps DeNoir. Who knows maybe there is a Union observation post already here and someone got careless."
"Well, I am going back to the ship and move to GalNet distance to deliver your and my report. Then I come back and help you to find out who these gods are."
"Ten days one way. GalNet coverage is still far off this region."
"Make sure no one sees you this time."