sleeping fury episode 8:
omens
by
xiangjun zeng

For the previous episodes in this saga see A Distant Sun...

Hampered by their inability to communicate with the Tree Dwellers, Elder Nimi and what was left of the Sand Strider's crew found their efforts to begin preparations for the Prophecy frustrated. Meanwhile, Mauf's efforts to locate the missing priest for his adopted father were also unsuccessful. They did, however find clues to something they did not expect.

1.

 

    Nimi massaged her temples. Hard. Sighing, she forced her hands down. She had done that a lot in the past few weeks. If she kept it up, there would be bald patches on her temples before long. Frustration had gotten her no closer to their goals, and only added to the headache she got from the crushing, stultifying heat of the Steaming Jungle. 

    She picked up a fan and flapped it, hoping it would cool her down. All she succeeded in doing was to fan more of the warm, humid air into her face. She tossed the fan aside in disgust. Maybe she should just douse this whole place with ship oil. Set everything on fire. It would change the temperature not at all, and the Tree Dwellers might have responded better to that instead.

   Nothing had been achieved since they arrived in the Steaming Jungle. Nothing. Nimi and her aides had spent most of their time with a string of Tree Dwellers, where they tried to communicate with them. Or maybe there was only one Tree Dweller they talked to, the same one day after day. Nimi would be damned if she could tell them apart. Tree Dwellers all looked alike to her. Only the elaborate ornamental head gear they wore was different in any way that she could see, and Nimi had no eye for frivolous decorations. They were running out of time. If Lemnu and his brat were correct about the Prophecy and the reason for their ridiculous jaunt, they could all be swallowed up in a giant earthquake soon. Meanwhile the Tree Dwellers would still be lazing about in their sand-blasted communal halls, doing whatever it was that Tree Dwellers did when their cities were destroyed.

   Those communal halls were incredible, she had to admit. Inside each room, scented sap flowed from membranous walls that reacted to water and became transparent. The view was spectacular. An entire section of the hall could be made clear with water and it would be as if they stood on the edge of a cliff that overlooked the flowing cloud banks of the Steaming Jungle. Flowering vines threaded the ceiling, forming bouquets, a sensational array of color that also bathed the room in perfume. It was heady inside the communal halls with its potent mix of the scented sap and flowers. It would be cloying, if it was not also much cooler within. Nimi did not know how, but the Tree Dwellers had engineered the halls such that they took the heat away and provided a welcome respite from the oppressive heat everywhere else in the Jungle.

    The halls, indeed most “buildings” in the Jungle, hung on branches of the Pillar Trees, much like fruits. Or pods, which her crew had taken to calling them. Some, like the enormous “pod” the Tree Dwellers had given her to use as barracks for her sailors were in fact several pods fused together like a giant waterpouch. The tree city, named Tr Y’mn by the Tree Dwellers and First Canopy City by the longtails, were linked throughout by a complex web of small aerial bridges that swayed like leaves in the wind, requiring nerves of steel to cross. The pods, like all structures in Tr Y’mn, were grown straight from the Pillar Tree, and shaped by Tree Dwellers through their incredible plant-forming skills.

    The talks with the Tree Dwellers had stalled. It was hard to make sense of their speech. They spoke in cryptic and disjointed ways, where sentences were seldom connected to one another in meaning. If that wasn’t enough, at times the Tree Dwellers drifted off in mid-speech and the conversation would stop dead in its tracks. There seemed no way to push through the impasse and Nimi was near her wits’ end. It was not a feeling she was used to. The Elder, feeling besieged, reached out to the bottle of duneneedle firewater she had started to keep closeby, emptied its contents into a glass and tossed it back. The liquid burned her throat as it went down, and she leaned back into her chair while she waited for the firewater to dull her frustrations, at least for a little while. 

    A knock sounded on her door. A small groan escaped her lips as Nimi forced herself to sit back up and refocused on the present. She wanted to be left alone and she wanted her problems to disappear. No more headaches over the Tree Dwellers. No more squabbles between the small and petty officials stationed here in the Jungle as they tried to argue their way out of the evacuation, each with their own self-important reasons for staying. No more grieving for Phael in the dead of the night. Nimi felt hollowed out. She was never sentimental, but how she wished she had some keepsake of Phael, something to remind her of her daughter. Nimi had woken up one night, heart beating like a vikrut drum. She had dreamt that she was talking to Phael, but Phael’s face was gone. Smooth as an eggshell. The Elder had never felt the need to keep mementos, of any kind, but she had begun to fear, nay, she was terrified - that one day, she would forget what Phael looked like.

    Nimi took a moment to smooth out her features, and regained some semblance of calm. “Come in,” she said. The door opened and Tasch, her captain, entered with a salute. “Do you have a miracle for me, Tasch?” She could not keep the weariness out of her voice.

    Tasch closed the door behind him and gave her a rueful smile. “I would if I could, Pilot.” He took in Nimi’s disheveled appearance - crumpled clothes worn in less than Fleet standard perfection, the dark circles and puffiness under her eyes, and of course, the empty bottle of duneneedle firewater on the table. For as long as he had known the Pilot, she had been indomitable, and he was shakened to see her indulged in drink. Troubled, the captain was, for a brief moment, uncertain if he should make his report, then decided it wouldn’t matter. The Pilot would know soon enough; the male that demanded to see her was obnoxious, and would make his displeasure loud until he had his way. 

    “The ambassador wants to have a word with you, Pilot. He has a complaint.” A quick pull was the best way to deal with a rotten tooth.

    Nimi could not stop a vexed hiss from escaping. “About the brat?” she asked in as level a tone as she could make.

    “About the young priest, yes.” Tasch was much more diplomatic in his description of Mauf. Nimi rolled her eyes, then waved a hand at the captain to let the ambassador in. Captain Tasch gave another quick salute and opened the door again. “Ambassador Orn, Elder Nimi will see you now,” he called out.

    There was a clearing of throat from outside Nimi’s study and Orn, ambassador to the Steaming Jungle, appointed by Red City Council stepped in. Thin, billowy robes, the kind that longtails who lived here liked to wear, fluttered about his ankles, and Tasch almost gagged at the smell that emanated from Orn as he passed. The longtails here used some foul concoction to oil their fur. Far be it from Tasch to pass judgement on the local fashion, but by the Old Gods, the smell was repugnant. The pudgy male made a decent, almost graceful, bow despite his size. Orn’s chubby arms swept around in a grand gesture, and he launched into a tirade.

    “Your holiness!” Orn’s voice was high and breathy, a combination most annoying and uncomfortable to Nimi. He sounded like a sick rat about to choke from his food. “Your holiness, I must protest!” 

    Of course you must, Nimi thought to herself. You haven’t done anything except protest the entire time since we arrived. She tried to give Orn a pleasant smile. “What ails you, ambassador?”

    “What ails me? What ails me? Your holiness, it is that young priest that you brought with you!” Orn wrung his hands in distress that was not all faked. “He insists on pulling out the indexes of the library here, and is making a complete mess, leaving valuable tomes lying about! What’s more, he’s entered the vault! The vault!” The sentences came in rapid-fire, uninterrupted, without Orn once pausing to catch a breath.  “Pulling out the most sacred relics we have! The Old Gods only know how he got his hands on the keys, which never leave my person! When I find out who gave him the keys…”

    “I did.” Orn blinked. Nimi’s grating answer plugged the chubby ambassador’s torrent of words dead in its tracks. Understanding dawned and the ambassador’s face contorted into a paroxysm of affronted outrage.

    “Your holiness! I must protest!” (By the Old Gods, if she heard that one more time, she might well just sock him in the head.) “Your holiness! The library is under my charge here in the Jungle, not that of the Temple! My jurisdiction was granted by the City Council itself. May I remind you we have autonomy here and the Temple does not have the authority to….”

    Nimi stopped listening. She had neither time nor patience for this charade. She had given Mauf the keys and told him to catalogue what Lemnu wanted taken from the library, and to discover where Siv, the priest that was supposed to be stationed here, had disappeared to. It was meant to keep the brat out of her fur and to give her some peace. Except that this….puff pastry before her had obstructed that search from the start, making loud complaints every chance he had. She knew what the ambassador’s real goal was, and it was not at all about the library.

    “Are you done talking to your people and getting them onto that tally yet?” The frost in her voice cut Ambassador Orn off in mid tirade. “We need to know how many heads there are in both the First and Second Canopy City. My people need that list to plan and to start the evacuation. What. Have. You. Been. Doing?”

    Orn sucked in his breath, but before he could say anything else, Nimi interrupted again. “And where is Siv, the priest? You have command over the library here? Very well. Where is he? He was the appointed librarian, and one of yours. Or so you say. Are you derelict in your duty, Ambassador? Are you getting in my way?”   

    The blood drained from the ambassador’s plumb face. “Y..your..your holiness, you don’t understand,” the ambassador stuttered. “M..many of the families have been here for a long time. They are pioneers! Th…th…they have the right to their land and property, granted by the counc….” Orn’s words trailed off, as he withered under the hard, unyielding stare that Elder Nimi gave him. Nimi stretched the moment out as she watched the ambassador squirm.

    “I want that list tomorrow, ambassador. Or else.” Nimi did not articulate the rest of the threat. “See the ambassador out, Captain.”

    The captain put a firm hand on Orn’s arm, escorting him out of the room. When the ambassador had left, Tasch returned. “Pilot, there is another matter…”

    “Yes, another meeting with the Tree Dwellers, where nothing will get done. I know.” A wise male, the captain said nothing. “I’ll be there Tasch,” Nimi stood and turned her back, a signal to dismiss the captain.

    “One last thing, Pilot. Captain Vith from the Iron King’s personal guards will be there also.”

    “Much good it’ll do him.” 

    The captain then turned to go, but stopped when Nimi called out: “Send someone to check in on the brat. And search Siv’s rooms. If nothing is to be found in the library, then we’ll look in his quarters. Break down the doors if you have to.” The captain saluted his acknowledgement and closed the door behind him as the Elder straightened herself out for yet another fruitless meeting with the Tree Dwellers.

 

2.

    Hot and miserable, Mauf sat cross-legged on a spreaded bedroll in a small corner of the library, wishing he was anywhere but this blighted Jungle. He drank deep from his waterskin, in the vain hope that the water could somehow give succor from the heat. The library was the coolest place he could find other than the communal halls, but it was only a little less smothering than being outside, and the communal halls were too far away. He would have to cross several aerial bridges to get to them and he shuddered at the thought of crossing those deathtraps. He squirmed, scratching at his neck and back, his fur irritating him. Mauf settled back and tried to calm himself. He didn’t quite succeed, and squirmed again. 

    Holding up the slip of parchment he had received from Elder Lemnu, he re-read the missive for the umpteenth time. “Update received,” it said. “Continue search for Siv. Ship back what relics you can. Important ones. Leave the rest. Good work Mauf.”

    Folding the message, he slipped it between the pages of his personal journal before setting it aside, and sighed. He wished there was more the Elder could tell him, but dispatches across worlds had to be short. The young priest had written a report, as detailed as he could make it, the moment he had the chance after they arrived in the Steaming Jungle. That tiny strip of parchment on which he had written his account was handed over to a dragonfly-rider, who had flown to Second Canopy City, on another Pillar Tree miles away, and passed it on to the courier-master, who then sent that message on through the Grand Bridge in Second Canopy City, to the Grand Bridge in the Temple where, at last, it was delivered into Elder Lemnu’s hands. The Elder would in turn have to send his reply via carrier bats to Howlstone, where it would sit for days waiting for the Iron King to open the Howlstone Grand Bridge, before it could be sent back to the Steaming Jungle. It was a long, expensive, arduous and inefficient process, all for messages that could not be longer than forty or fifty words.

    The dragonflies were quite the sight though. He had been entranced the moment he laid eyes upon them. The magnificent flying creatures, iridescent scales scattering the light they caught into a million colors as they darted through the air like multi-colored arrows on transparent wings, were the main way of travel between the many Tree Dweller cities.  

    Tree Dwellers built their cities atop Pillar Trees, gargantuan entities thousands of meters tall. They grew from the abyssal floors of the Steaming Jungle where no longtail had ever ventured in living memory, and soared into the skies. Their canopy stretched out above the roiling cloud covers, and from afar, looked like mountains adrift in oceans of clouds. Each Canopy City was separated by vast distances and the impassable vertical drop meant land travel between Trees was not an option. The Canopy Cities were quite alone and segregated from each other, and in all of the centuries that they had been in the Jungle, the longtails of the Red Desert had never been able to travel far. Their presence was confined to just the two cities named Tr Y’mn and Fhr My’mr by the Tree Dwellers, holding the Grand Bridges that allowed travel back and forth between this mysterious world and the Red Desert. What the longtails knew of the Tree Dwellers would not fill even a pamphlet. They were strangers in a strange land.  

    Mauf sighed. Intriguing the Tree Dwellers might be, they could not distract him from his broiling misery, nor did it lessen the pain and anxiety he felt. The city’s library was not extensive and did not hold much, but it held enough that they could not take everything with them. These artifacts were sacred. They were legacies of the Old Gods, passed down through time immemorial, and it sickened him that they had to abandon as much of the relics as they had to. And the other task Elder Lemnu had entrusted him with? He was no closer to resolving that either. Siv, the priest that was appointed to look after the library here, had disappeared. He vanished months ago from what he heard, and no one seemed to know where he went or what had happened to him. The priest was a recluse by all accounts, and his absence had raised no alarms.

    Not that it mattered even if Mauf had any clue to his whereabouts. Elder Nimi had stonewalled Mauf from the search. From anything useful. She had barred him from all tasks except to catalogue the library, and had kept him here under what amounted to a house arrest. Feeling rather sorry for himself, Mauf flopped onto his sleeping bag, with the vain hope that the unbearable warmth would dissipate some. He slowed his breathing and tried not to move too much. Time passed, and the sultry heat had almost lulled him into sleep when a loud call startled him to wakefulness.

    “Priest Mauf! Are you here, my friend?” The sibilant voice announced the Stone Singer a moment before Sszesskri himself peered over the corner where Mauf had built his island of relative solitute, if not peace. “Here you are. I thought I might find you here.”

    Mauf stood and straightened his robes with as much dignity as he could muster, embarrassed to be caught napping. “Y...yes, Stone Singer. Uh...good day to you. What brought you here? I thought you were going to study the dragonflies.” Mauf had found the flying insects fascinating and wondrous, but the Sszesskri had became obsessed. A kind of kinship perhaps?

    “I was. Sssuch amazing creatures. I have never ssseen anything demonstrating such agility in the air. The acrobatics they can do in the air…you would not believe it if I tried to describe it to you my friend! But come,” Sszesskri beckoned at him. “We are needed, you and I. The Elder has commanded Captain Tasch to search Priest Sssiv’s abode, and he asked for us to be present.”

    Mauf considered this for a moment. “To find clues as to where Priest Siv had vanished to?” Sszesskri wriggled his antenna in affirmative. The young priest hesitated. In a quiet voice, Mauf put to words what had been weighing on him, “Things are not going well, are they Stone Singer?”

    There was a slow cascade of light along Sszesskri’s gills. The alien said, “Indeed, there had been little progressss, my friend. The Tree Dwellersss…they remained as inscrutable as they ever were, and those of your kin that are here….well, they drag their feet. It seemed that they do not believe that the Prophecy will come to pass. I confess, I am perplexed by that. The Old Gods do not lie about such things.”

    Mauf gave a disdainful sniff. “Greed and pride blinds them, Stone Singer. They think us here to rob them, that we spin a story to foment fear and use that to take over. Or some such silly nonsense. Folks here have lived too far outside the influence of Red City. They no longer see us as one of them, and look upon us with suspicion. They will not easily follow our lead.”

    Sszesskri tilted his head. Factions did not exist in the Eternal Caverns, and such ideas were difficult for him to comprehend. “Come,” he repeated. “Perhaps we will find something in Priest Sssiv’s quarters that can aid us in finding him. A sssmall victory that may be, but it would still be something.”  

    Mauf found his notebook and quill and stuffed them into a bag. “Better than being stuck here, I suppose. Although I doubt the Elder herself will want anything to do with me,” he griped, feeling sorry for himself. 

    He nodded at Sszesskri to lead the way and left the library together, squinting their eyes at the glaring sun as they stepped out into the blazing heat of the mid-morning. Outside, Bek was waiting for them. His fur hung in clumps, listless and bedraggled from the humid heat. Bek was as full of good cheer as before however, despite his sorry state, and greeted the two of them with enviable gusto. 

    “Ho! Brother Mauf! I see our friend the Stone Singer had managed to drag you out of your books!”

    “Bek. You’re here.” Mauf wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to see the effervescent young sailor. His exuberance seemed to add to the heat, making the young priest even more uncomfortable.  

    “Aye, Brother. Be takin’ ye to Brother Siv’s quarters, on account that you both might not know the way and all that,” Bek answered, oblivious to Mauf’s distinct lack of enthusiasm. “Cap’ain Tasch, he thinks p’raps Brother Siv’s personal effects might yield some clues as to his whereabouts. ‘Twould be a boon to us if ye would lend us your eyes also.”

     Mauf didn’t believe him. Not that he doubted Bek’s sincerity. The young sailor had been nothing but good to him, even if he found his good cheer tiresome after a while. Elder Nimi had wanted Mauf out of her way though, and had even gone as far as to place him under house arrest in all but name. The captain, Tasch….he did nothing without the Elder’s say-so. There was no reason for the Captain to ask for his presence, except to keep an eye on him.

    All of that seemed lost on the young sailor however. “Come this way then, brother. And you too, Stone Singer!” Bek gestured at them to follow him, guiding them through First Canopy City. 

    The library of Tr Y’mn was perhaps the only longtail structure built of stone in all of the Streaming Jungle. There were no mines or quarries to be found in the Pillar Trees of course, and so there existed no materials to construct the library with. It was erected at great expense in the early days, when the first Temple priests stepped foot in the Jungle. Shipping the iron and sandstone from Howlstone had been difficult enough, but the bigger problem was that were not many surfaces they could build on. Most of the Canopy City consisted of soaring branches thousands of meters above ground. They were mighty beyond belief and harder than rock, but were still branches, their bark not nearly flat enough for building, and it was a long, long way down. When the storm winds blew, and the gales here were as violence personified, the branches rocked. A tempest, of a magnitude that Mauf had never before witnessed in his life, struck Tr Y’mn a few weeks after Elder Nimi had led them here. Watching the squall tossing the Canopy like a toy had turned Mauf’s legs to jelly, and he was glad to be holed up in the library at the time, where the ground remained solid at least, instead of tumbling about in those overgrown fruits they called home here. 

    Assembled near the Grand Bridge, the library stood upon a ledge. Except calling it a ledge would be akin to calling a Rock Toad a desert animal; a profound understatement. Scattered throughout Tr Y’mn, and perhaps Fhr My’mr and other Canopy Cities as yet unexplored, these ledges were legacies of the Old Gods. They were solid, flat pieces of an unyielding material that could support a building like the library even though it was as thing as paper. These ledges had been grafted and pinned onto the branches in a manner that had rendered them immovable, and the relics were the only possible locations for a structure like the library to be built upon here in the Jungle, holding them in place as if by magic without the need to lay any foundations. Mauf had no idea how it was all achieved, or how it was that other objects did not just stick to its surface like the buildings. Walking would have been impossible then, but it worked. Somehow. The miracles and the enigma of the Old Gods never ceased to cause wonder in him. 

    There were not enough of the ledges for the longtails to build a city of their own however. In time, the longtails that lived here gave up on stone and mortar, and began to live as the Tree Dwellers did, in homes that were grown and fashioned from the fruiting pods of the Pillar Tree, hanging and swaying on the majestic sylvan arms.

    Tr Y’mn was divided into sections called Boughs. As the name suggested, a Bough was an enormous branch, a major artery in which other smaller branches split off from. Clusters of pods grew within each Bough, all latticed together by the aerial bridges.

    Bek guided them deeper towards the Bough where the meeting with the Tree Dwellers was located, through one of the aerial bridges. As they stepped onto the bridge, it bobbed up, down and sideways as the wind blew and their feet went. The slight swing in the unsteady crossing provided slack that prevented the bridges from snapping apart in the wind storms wont to sweep the Canopy Cities ever so often. It also had the unfortunate effect of giving Mauf a very queasy stomach as his overactive imagination saw him misstepped, pitching towards an ignoble death in a splatter after a very long drop to the ground. 

    With cheerful nonchalance, Bek had mounted the span and was strolling across with the ease of long years onboard the Sand Strider. The Stone Singer likewise took to the death trap with little fuss, crossing with an effortless grace. Mauf swallowed his nervousness and took stiff steps on the wooden planks. With each step, he felt a slight give under his foot that would cause him to clamp his fingers around the verdant handrails, crushing several leaves in his palms while his knuckles became white with tension. Now, Mauf found himself stuck in the middle of the bridge, his legs weak and trembling with fear and unable to move forward. Mauf forced himself to take a stomping step and felt the bridge shift again, harder this time. He gripped the handrail once more, and squatted down, cowering.

    He took a deep breath and exhaled. In, then out. In. Out. He stood up, keeping his movements slow and easy, took another, smaller step. This time the bridge stayed still. Relieved, Mauf continued to inch forward with mincing steps.

    “How are you holdin’ up back there, Brother Mauf?” Bek called when he realised how far Mauf had fallen behind. Mauf, too busy keeping himself from plummeting into the swirling clouds below, made no answer. A large wisp of white mist chose that moment to blow past them and obscured sight. Mauf felt a moment of panic. He locked his shaking knees to keep still, and waited for the cloud to clear. He took one ginger pace at a time, forcing his head high so he would not look down.

    After what seemed like an eternity of agonising shuffles, he caught up to Bek, who had stayed back to wait for him. The young sailor gave Mauf, who had gone pale as a sheet, a look over. “Are ye well, brother?” Bek asked Mauf again, in concern. Mauf gave a stiff nod.    

    "It does take some getting use to, these little bridges,” Bek said. “We’re nearly there though, so chin up! Grandmam always said each step brings us closer to the end, so ne’er stop walking.” 

    Mauf rolled his eyes. Was there ever a grandmother that didn’t have a homily or two hidden up her sleeve somewhere, readied for whomever was unlucky enough to be in need and within hearing range? He focused instead on taking safe, plodding steps, crossing the bridge as it wound further into the Bough through a thicket of hanging homes. Some faces, the local longtails, peered out through the semi-transparent membranes that served as walls, in curiosity at the struggling Mauf. The Bough that they were passing through was a residential area, where most of the longtails who made their lives here in Tr Y’mn lived.

    Ears burning with shame at the unwanted attention, Mauf tried his best to pretend the onlookers were not here. He kept walking, while Bek coaxed him with encouraging words until Mauf stopped him with a glare. At long last, Mauf made it to the end of the bridge and stumbled off. The Stone Singer, who had been waiting for them with remarkable patience, caught Mauf by his arm before he fell.

    “Be at ease, friend Mauf. Your ordeal isss over, for the moment,” Sszesskri said. “How fare you?” Mauf could only nod in reply.

    “Ai! Good work that, brother Mauf,” Bek gave Mauf a clap on his back. “Just a couple more to go brother. We’re not far from the end!” 

    Mauf stifled a groan at the thought of more crossings, but did his best to keep up with Bek and the Stone Singer. He had been thrown into one tribulation after another ever since he left the comforts of the Temple back in Red City. The sooner this was over with, the faster he could get back. To his cool corner in the library here, at least. Less warm, he corrected himself. There was just no escaping this heat in the Jungle.

    Leading the way, Bek took them trudging along sturdy branches that were wide enough for several carriages abreast. They climbed rope ladders, rode wooden elevators operated by rope pulleys, and crossed more dizzying bridges. Mauf was uncomfortable the whole way and his fear of walking on what seemed to him to be unsteady ground with the branches threatening to snap off at any moment did not lessen but grew.  

    As they traversed the Bough, Mauf began to realise just how large the longtail settlement here was. It was not altogether bad, he thought, as he observed the pups playing amongst the branches, chasing after the tiny rodents that scampered throughout the Canopy City. Matrons cooked and cleaned in homes that were pillowed against a profusion of flowers and leaves, saturating the atmosphere with quite the cozy feel. Some of them even kept gardens, of a sort; Vines that Mauf surmised were herbs and fruits from the fragrance. Mixed in with the heady perfume were insects that danced in the midst of all that color. It painted an idyllic picture, and would almost be blissful were it not for the smothering heat, Mauf thought. That he was unfazed at the fact that he was staring at enough wealth in wood to buy Red City several times over spoke to how he, too, was getting used to life in the Steaming Jungle. Except for that damnable heat.

    In a way, he could see their reluctance to leave. The longtails here had built a life for themselves in the centuries since they arrived, and it was a good life. Here, they were free. They had chosen to leave the yoke of the Red Desert behind, and the Tree Dwellers made little demands of them, save that they did not harm or destroy the Pillar Tree, and that they went no further than the two Canopy Cities they settled in. The settlers answered neither to Red City nor Howlstone, and so long as the goods and traffic flowed, there was not much anyone in the Red Desert wanted or could do to them. The amount of easy wealth within their reach ensured their independence, and while Mauf was certain the Iron King wanted nothing more than to send his troops in and availed himself of the riches here, waging wars across worlds were complicated, and the Tree Dwellers had proven in the past to be more than capable of stopping any invasive force mounted by the longtails.

    To give all that up, to give up all that they had built, and to have to return to a world that most of them could no longer remember, and a world that would neither welcome them nor consider them as one of their own….It was little wonder they dragged their feet. Mauf thought some of them might even have chosen to die in the cataclysms that approached, were they given that choice to make.      

    As he drifted off into his own thoughts, Mauf paid less and less attention to his surroundings, and would have walked right pass their destination if Bek had not called a halt. “There we go! Here we are! ‘Tis hard to spot, it is!” 

    Nestled behind a thicket of leaves was the lodging of Siv, the missing priest. It was hard to spot, camouflaged as it was by the foliage. The narrow footbridge that led to his quarter was hidden by the overgrown branches and easy to miss if one did not know it was there. Bek stomped on the shrubs, flattening them to reveal the footpath.

    “This way then. Cozy little corner our brother Siv’s got for himself, I got to say. Too cozy by half.” There was a sound of double meaning hidden beneath Bek’s words, and Mauf puzzled over it.

    “Perhaps he desired hiss privacy,” Sszesskri offered as a guess. 

    “It seems clear enough, Stone Singer. From what though?” wondered Bek, and Sszesskri wiggled his antenna in a way that suggested a shrug.

    Mauf didn’t see the problem. He thought it was rather marvelous himself, to have a quiet hidden spot like this. Perhaps he could find a way to arrange for quarters in a secluded corner back at the Grand Library, he mused. Sleeping four to a room in the Temple fell far short of the solitude he craved. 

    Past the thicket, one of the Sand Strider’s crew was standing guard and greeted Bek with a grunt. “Cap’ain’s inside.” The male jerked a finger towards the doorway.

    Mauf studied their surroundings while Bek and Sszesskri squeezed through the narrow doorway. Siv’s home was very much unlike other dwellings in Tr Y’mn. It had a thriving garden like all the others, but the flora here were, without exception, all from the Red Desert. Saplings of thornberries, desert needles, and other desert plants, grew in clay and sandstone pots that hung on spokes fastened to the walls of the house, whilst a trough of lin roots flourished beneath a small canvas that provided shade from direct sunlight. There was even a patch of waterpouches, grown on some ingenious shelf contraption that fed condensed water into a thin layer of soil from the Red Desert. Mauf found himself quite fascinated, and from the looks of it, Siv might have missed the Red Desert more than the other longtails in First Canopy City. For him, it seemed, home was not here on the Steaming Jungle.

    Pressing in behind Bek and Sszesskri, Mauf found Captain Tasch and two of his crew searching the missing priest’s home. They had turned over shelves, cabinets, papers...anything that looked as if it might yield a clue as to Siv’s whereabouts. They were thorough in their task, and none too concerned about the mess they made. The abode was small enough as it was, but with the mountain of trash the Sand Strider’s crew had made of Siv’s belongings and the six of them, in particular Sszesskri who towered over everyone else, now crowding into the pod’s common room, it was now a very tight fit. Mauf had to be careful where he stepped.

    “Bek. You’re late.” Tasch looked up from the journal he was flipping through at their entrance.

    “Aye, apologies Cap’ain. Some of those air bridges we were crossing gave us some trouble. Tricksy, those things. Didn’t mean to take so long.” Bek’s reply was diplomatic, but the captain’s eyes slid towards Mauf. Tasch could well guess the reason for the delay. Mauf’s reputation for athleticism was dismal. The young priest’s cheeks flamed, and he glanced about the apartment, determined not to feel bothered by the judgement he saw in the captain’s gaze.

    Once again, Siv’s longing for the Red Desert became apparent, through the interior of his dwelling. Loose flowing curtains hung from the ceiling across thresholds that led to other parts of the house, and a simple carpet lay on the ground of the common room with pillows set around it, an arrangement that was reminiscent of any regular household one might find in the Red Desert. Clay jars from Red City artisans sat in various corners of the house, some of them in the pile that the captain and his crew had made, while sketches of sceneries and landscapes from Red Desert and Red City adorned the walls. If not for the abundance of wood, Mauf could have believed he was back in the Red Desert.

    It was clear that the missing priest had a strong artistic flair. The pictures that hung upon the walls looked to be personal. Indeed, many of them were signed with Siv’s name. Shoved against a corner in the sitting room was an exquisite model, carved from wood. The Temple, in Red City. It sat on a platform, and the beautiful details wrought into the carving snagged Mauf’s attention like a hook. He inched towards the work of art.

    “Don’t touch that. Please.” Tasch could see Mauf reaching for the model. The captain had to admit that the carving was well-crafted and worthed a closer look. He could not blame Mauf for his curiosity, and he sympathised with the young priest, in a way. Some of the blame for the beating Mauf had suffered must be borne by him. It was his command, and that meant it was his responsibility when his crew went out of order. Still, Tasch shared some of the crew’s sentiments about the priest, and how he did not belong. He meant to keep an eye on him, as the Pilot had ordered, but Tasch wanted a more gentle approach. The sullen look that the young priest had begun to wear like a piece of familiar clothing returned however, and Tasch shook his head in annoyance. He turned to address Sszesskri.  

    "And the Stone Singer, well met.” 

    “It isss a pleasure, Captain Tasch.” Sszesskri replied. “Friend Bek tells usss that you require our assistance, and we are here. Although,” the Stone Singer looked around, “it appears you were rigorous in your search. What have you found out about our missing priessst?”

    Tasch shrugged. “A lot, and also nothing. The priest was quite the gossip. Kept a log of all the happen-tos in this city, like the gossip-rags back home, except even more so, ” he waved the journal he had been holding. “But his whereabouts? Nothing.”  

    “Odd way to be spendin’ ‘is free time,” Bek remarked, voicing his suspicions. “Ye think he be a snitch?”

    “Maybe.” The Captain’s answer was non-committal. “But whom would he snitch to? Tree Dwellers don’t care much for longtail affairs, and Canopy City longtails don’t bother much with the Temple.”

    “Sssurely there must be a clue left in his logs, if he wass as meticulous as you say he wasss,” Sszesskri offered his opinion.

    Captain Tasch scratched his chin. “Aye, it’s worth thinking about. There is a lot though. A whole stack. Had to get my crew to move it to the barracks….”

    Mauf ceased paying notice. It was as he had expected. The captain had paid Mauf no mind as soon as he came within sight. Tasch did not want or need Mauf’s help, contrary to what Bek had said. Perhaps Sszesskri was useful, but not he. He was the fifth wheel in this sandmule cart. All the captain wanted, was to make sure Mauf stayed out of trouble. Mauf’s lips twisted at the thought. Knowing how useless the Elder considered him to be left a bitter taste in his mouth. He could not understand why he was given such a cold shoulder. He had done nothing! He resented the entire Sand Strider crew for that, top to bottom, including the Elder herself.

   Not wanting his mood to sour more than it already had, the young priest turned his attention back towards the excellent rendition of the Temple. Mauf marveled again at the craftsmanship. Such intense focus on details. His eyes sought first the Archive, where he had spent most of his time. It was most familiar to him, and the sight of its duplicate here brought back memories of the endless shelves bearing the mysteries left behind by the Old Ones. There was the Acolytes’ Quarters. Scenes of his training days ran through his mind, not all of which were pleasant. The elegant carvings on the doors of the Temple’s Hall of Assembly were captured here in full, right down to the runes of benediction that every acolyte was taught as prayers. Then there was the central garden where the Grand Bridge stood. Mauf’s breath caught at the painstaking care Siv had given to the trees and landscaping. It was exact to the last bush as far as Mauf could tell. He leaned in for a closer look.

    “Priest!” Startled, Mauf whirled around at the accusatory tone in Captain Tasch’s raised voice. He lost his balance, and threw out a flailing hand to catch his balance. Instead, it knocked over the Eastern Tower of the temple, sending its roof flying across the room and caused the entire carving to slide past the edge of the platform it stood on. Dismayed, Mauf tried to save the model but tripped. He fell face-first, toppling the sculpture and completed the destruction of both it and the pedestal.

    “Lad, ye would do well to learn some self-control.” The Captain’s tone was tight with annoyance. “The Pilot could trust you with nothing because you lack discipline. Now get up and get out of the house. Stay outside. Do not move. Not an inch. Or touch anything else. You have caused far more damage than you are worth!” The rebuke stung, and Mauf cringed.

    The Stone Singer reached out a hand and helped Mauf back onto his feet. “Are you hurt, friend Mauf?” Mauf shook his head, not looking at anyone. As he grabbed hold of Sszesskri’s arm to haul himself up, something rustled from under the debris, like parchment. The sound was not obvious, but the Stone Singer’s hearing was acute, and caught it.

    “What’s thisss?” Curious, Sszesskri swept away the debris. “Would you move aside, friend Mauf?” The young priest stepped away, and the Stone Singer scooped up what appeared to be a sheaf of parchment bound together with twine. With a quick flick of his claws, Sszesskri cut the twine, and flipped through the sheets, scanning its contents. He looked up at the captain. “It appearsss that we might have found what we needed after all, thanksss to friend Mauf,” his antenna wriggled and his gills glowed with his excited interest as he handed the scrolls to Tasch.        

    Tasch took the sheaf and browsed through it. His eyebrows climbed in surprise, then narrowed as he read further. “The Pilot will be very interested indeed. Good work, Stone Singer. You too, priest, if only by accident.” Mauf didn’t know what to feel about the backhanded praise. Tasch considered him for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision. He tucked the papers into his coat.

    “I’ll be taking these to the Pilot. Stone Singer, will ye come with me? She’ll be meeting with the Tree Dwellers again, trying to make some sense of their yammering. Guard Captain Vith will be there as well,” Tasch asked Sszesskri.   

    “Yess, Captain Vith had asked for my presence in fact. It will be interesting to sit in. Perhaps we will have another breakthrough today.”

    “Time will tell if this,” Tasch tapped his coat, “is important.” To Bek, Tasch directed an order. “Bek, take the priest back to the barracks. Show him where we kept the journals we found, and see to it he has what he needs.” That last was to keep an eye on the priest.

    “Aye, Cap’ain!” Bek waved a casual salute and a nod. He understood.

    Tasch then turned to Mauf, “I want you to go through Siv’s books. All of it. Find out what he has that can help us with our mission here, Priest. Some secret, or some clue, or blackmail that can help us force the longtails here and the Tree Dwellers to listen to us proper. We are running against time here. Report to me anything you find.” Blinking, Mauf nodded. He was not expecting to be given anything meaningful to do at all.   

    “The rest of you keep looking. You find anything else, bring them all to the priest here.” 

    “Aye, Cap’ain!” The two crew members of the Sand Strider chorused.

    Beckoning Sszesskri, Tasch said, “Come on then, Stone Singer. Let us find the Pilot.” Together, the two of them left the missing priest’s home, leaving Mauf to stare after Tasch, bemused at the turn of events.

 

3.

    Tasch set a brisk pace. The Pilot’s meeting with the Tree Dwellers would have started already. Even though the Tree Dwellers did not reckon time the way normal folks did, there was still discipline to maintain and the Pilot was particular about timeliness.

    “It isss good that you have given priest Mauf a task, Captain Tasch,” Sszesskri remarked, his long strides matched the captain’s speed with ease. “It is a better complement to hisss temperament. He had been ill at ease with the lack of purpose since we arrived. Perhaps since the day your journeys began.”

    Tasch agreed about Mauf’s lack of purpose, in more ways than one.  “We all have, Stone Singer,” the Captain replied. “Although,” he said after a pause. It wasn’t the whole truth with the priest, if he had to be honest with himself. “I dare say, the priest was more bothered by the lads than boredom.” 

    Sandship crews didn’t take to newcomers right away. It was a matter of life and death, out there in the Dune Sea. Crews needed to know they could put their backs against each other, and a chain was only as strong as its weakest link. A bit of rough sport to break in interlopers was tradition. To test mettle. Trouble was, the young priest was so ill-suited to adventure and his reaction was so bad that it had spiraled into bullying. The morose and grumpy way the young priest carried himself did not endear him to any member of the Sand Strider. The sergeant from squad four had done well picking Bek to be the priest’s minder. The affable young sailor stepped in whenever things got heated and had nipped many a problem in the bud since that beating in Howlstone.

    Sszesskri did not get Tasch’s meaning however. “How do you mean, Captain? The crew issss vexed with friend Mauf?” he asked after a long moment of puzzling. 

    The captain threw a glance at the Stone Singer, then turned his attention back to the road. They were nearing an aerial bridge that led to an upper level. The damnable thing was tricky, and those that sloped up even more so. He needed to watch his step or the whole thing might flip over and they would both be sailing to their deaths below. “Ye be so comfortable amongst us, Stone Singer, that I’ve gotten used to ye. Times be, I forget how rare your kind is and there be things we don’t understand about each other.” So far, so good with the bridge. They were mid-way through and near to the end. “To your question, aye. The lads don’t get on well with the young priest. Some of them had taken their sport a mite far, and there’s a mighty heat between them.”

    “Heat?” 

    “A bit of roughing up that happened, back at the Iron King’s. Got a little too serious.” This wasn’t a topic Tasch wanted to get into with the Stone Singer.

    “Ahhh,” Sszesskri said. He thought he understood. “I know that of which you ssspeak. Your crew explained it to me. Tradition, they sssaid. A ritual to strengthen bonds.” 

    Funny, Tasch was just thinking that himself a moment ago. And yet…Tasch considered if he should explain the nuances to the Stone Singer, then gave it up as too much bother. He changed the subject. “How long have you been among us, Stone Singer? How long since you left the Eternal Caverns?”

    “I count at least fifteen cyclesss of the Sun, Captain.” 

    Fifteen years, the captain thought. A long time to be away. “What made you leave? Fifteen years is a stretch.”

    The Stone Singer’s gills flared in a way that Tasch had came to recognise as excitement. “To learn, Captain Tasch! To understand. The Onesss who Left, their mystery, it isss a question that burnsss in me like a fire!”

    Much like the young priest, Tasch mused. Little wonder that they got on well, both driven by the same things. “When do you return home then?” he asked.

    Silence. When he spoke again, Sszesskri’s feelers were stiff and his gills pulsed with a dim, sullen glow. “Sssuch will be difficult for me, Captain. I am considered outcast.”

    An outcast? Tasch never would have figured that, but what would he know? It was so rare to see a Stone Singer that they were almost legendary, and he knew less about them than Sszesskri did about longtails. Intrigued now, Tasch opened his mouth to ask another question when a loud hail interrupted his train of thought.

    “Cap’ain Tasch ser! Cap’ain!” 

    He looked up and recognized a youngling from squad two waving his arms at the other end of the bridge. The youngling, light and fast on his feet, often served as messenger, so much so that his nickname on the Sand Strider was Fleet. Tasch raised his hand in acknowledgement.

    “Cap’ain, the Pilot, she asked for ye, right quick! Them Tree Dwellers’ meet be happ’in soon! Or ‘twere so when I left. Must’ve started by now ser!”

    The Captain raised his voice back. “I’ll be there quick as I can, Fleet. You run back and tell the Pilot I’m on my way.” To Sszesskri, he said, “My apologies Stone Singer, but we must hurry. The Pilot does not like to wait.”

    “Of course Captain. Let us crossss this accursed bridge and get to the Elder in haste,” Sszesskri replied, the hissing in his voice showed that he, too, found the aerial bridges to be a pain. 

    The captain grinned. “Accursed thing indeed.”

    With as much speed as they could muster while keeping the bridge steady, they covered the remaining distance and hurried to the communal hall where the Pilot, Captain Vith of the Iron King’s Royal Guards, and the Tree Dwellers would lock heads in yet another talk that would go nowhere.

 

4.

    “That’s the last of the lot, brother.”  Mauf gave a startled jump as the door swung open with a bang. Bek entered the room with his arms full of books. “Did I scare ye? Sorry about that brother, couldn’t use my hands and I guess my kick packed some power there, eh?” Bek apologised when Mauf gave him a sour glare. Setting the load in his arms down near an already large pile of tomes, Bek whistled. “Old Gods above, but this is a lot. Can ye handle it, brother Mauf?”  

    The number of volumes recovered from Siv sat at fifty-two, by his count. Tasch’s underlings had carted them into a spare room in the barracks. This was also where they deposited Mauf, expecting him to conduct his study here in this cramped little room. He shrugged in reply to Bek’s question. There was not much he could do about it. “The Library’s archive is bigger.” He pulled out his quill and writing board, and added the stack Bek had carried in to his list. Fifty-nine. Siv had been industrious, Mauf would give him that.

    Bek watched Mauf as he scribbled on his board. The priest sounded distant, as if his mind was a thousand miles away, and not in the mood to talk, it was apparent. “ Aight then, I’ll leave ye in peace to your work. Holler if’n you need anything. I’ll be just outside.”

    Mauf did not respond and did not hear the sailor leaving the room. He had given the materials some study beforehand, and he was intrigued. Very much so. Brother Siv had been quite thorough in his observations. Bek had the right of it, Mauf thought. Siv was spying. The priest had kept tabs on everyone of even the slightest import in the Canopy City, longtail and Tree Dwellers alike. The question that interested him the most, was why, and for whom. 

    The most obvious answer to the question of who was Elder Lemnu of course. He was the one who had appointed Siv here after all. It made no sense to Mauf, however, because of the sheer amount of coins involved in the operation. First, Elder Lemnu cared little about the going-ons in the off-world settlements and preferred to focus his priorities in the heart and soul of the priesthood, which was in Red City. He had no interest in expanding the Temple’s influence in the Steaming Jungle, and would never spend that many irons here. For one thing, there was not much by way of scholarship to be found in the Jungle; the Tree Dwellers paid scant attention to the Old Ones and their Legacies. What the Temple possessed here were all discovered during the early days of longtail migration. There had been no new acquisitions after the founding of Second Canopy City, which the Tree Dwellers called Fhr My’mr, for the immigrants had been forbidden from venturing further. The Temple had, in fact, been moving what they had gathered back to Red City over the years, and would have closed the library here in a few more. Siv’s task had been mere stewardship.

    Siv had kept a ledger, recording how much he had paid for eyes and ears in both Canopy Cities, and the amount he spent was hefty. The ledger had provided no clue as to the source of coin however, and neither did it show who the eyes and ears were. It frustrated and fascinated Mauf at the same time. All those irons had to come from somewhere, and it was not from Elder Lemnu. Mauf was certain of that, because the Library did not have the wealth. Perhaps Elder Dhasi’s House? They held the Treasury keys after all. Mauf had to dig further. He was able to piece together the names of some of the individuals spied upon, from some of the details recorded and connecting them. The scale of it had been astounding. From Head Clerks and other officials down to warehouse assistants, and even Ambassador Orn himself… Yet the crucial identity of who pulled the strings remained elusive and Mauf hoped to unearth that. 

    Of further interest were the extensive accounts Siv had kept on the Tree Dwellers. It appeared that Siv had sought numerous audiences with the Tree Dwellers, and scribed the conversations.  With these he did not bother to employ subterfuge, and Mauf had been able to look into them in earnest. The missing priest had asked a wide-ranging set of questions; history, culture, the Pillar Trees and a place called the Life from Death atop Death, whatever that meant. There was even a section on the dragonflies. Sszesskri would be very interested in this, Mauf thought. 

    It was perhaps the most detailed scholarship on the Tree Dwellers he had seen yet and Mauf was most keen to study it. Nothing in the Archives came close, from even the little he had read of Siv’s notes. It was a most laudable effort on the part of the missing priest, and would be an enormous contribution to the Temple and the Archives, were it not for the mysterious amount of iron coins that went into this endeavor, and the fact that Siv himself had vanished. 

    Mauf adjusted the robes that had begun to cling to him in a most uncomfortable manner from the humidity. He could almost ignore the discomfort in his fascination. Such a trove of puzzles in front of him. He couldn’t make up his mind if he should pursue the Tree Dweller study first, or to look into the missing priest’s spying. Either way, Mauf could not shake the ominous foreboding Siv’s mysterious patron had roused in him. 

 

5.

   “What? 'The long turn of the…'” Nimi was on the verge of screaming in frustration. She looked at her notes to see if she had written anything down on the meaning to the cryptic phrase, then gave it up. She had never taken notes before and her own scribbling was confusing her.

   “Black-finned worm collars,” supplied Captain Vith, his own expression that of complete boredom.

   “Black finned Ver’n Q’aler,” corrected Nimi. With a supreme effort of will, she managed to keep her question level. “What is that?” 

   “Yes…” came the soft whisper from the Tree Dweller, amidst the sudden bloom of the scent of newborn pups and something cold and crisp, like wind in night-time Red Desert. Nimi rolled her eyes and Vith snorted.

   Tasch and Sszesskri slipped into the communal hall in the middle of that last bit of exchange. From the looks of it, the talk had circled in an all too familiar way; the Pilot laid out their concerns regarding the Prophecy, while the Tree Dweller, and every other Tree Dweller before it, kept going on about enigmatic worm collars. 

    At least it was pleasant to be in the hall. It was cool inside. Refreshing almost, and a stark contrast to the heat in the rest of the Jungle. A small pool of crystal clear water sat in the center of the room, formed out of condensation collected from the humid air outside, where they dripped from the numerous vines that hung from the ceiling into small drains feeding into the pond. A single Tree Dweller sat at the edge of the water, with its feet submerged. Facing it was the Pilot and Captain Vith, cross-legged. Longtails did not like getting their fur wet and so they abstained from dipping their own feet into the pool. 

    There was an ethereal poise to the Tree Dwellers that Tasch found at once beautiful and disturbing. They were tall. Twice the height of a longtail, and slim to the point of wispiness. The Tree Dwellers moved with a swaying grace as if they danced to an air current only they could feel. An elaborate crown, formed from the twisting vines and flowers that seemed to sprout from their hair, graced the Tree Dweller’s head. All Tree Dwellers Tasch had seen thus far wore such an ornament, and each crown was unique in its complex patterning. It added to their mystique, and was the only way Tasch or any of the longtails could tell them apart, for every Tree Dweller bore an uncanny resemblance to the next. The Tree Dwellers were close to identical and could have been casted from the same mould in a blacksmith’s forge if such a thing was possible.

    “Perhaps you can explain to us again what is so important about these Ver’n Q’aler.” The Pilot swallowed her exasperation while Tasch and the Stone Singer took up discreet positions behind her and Captain Vith. 

    “Short, the Fourth of the Fiery Long Dream.” The Tree Dweller answered her, but from the tremble in the Pilot’s shoulders, Tasch did not think it did any good. The captain also thought he could smell the sharp fragrance of hot spice for an instant, and then it was gone. Whatever else he felt about the Tree Dwellers, he had to admit it was relaxing to be around them. There was always an agreeable scent about them, like a fresh bouquet of flowers. To someone who had lived his whole life in the bleak landscape of the Red Desert, a verdant paradise such as the Steaming Jungle could be intoxicating, and Tasch had always visited the Grand Bridge garden in the Temple on shore leave when he could.

    In front of him though, he could see the Pilot struggled to master herself. When she spoke again, there was a focused calm in her voice. “Allow me to repeat,” she said, “that we of the Red Desert have a long friendship with the Tree Dwellers. Many of us live here, and and their sires and dames before them. We value our ties with the Tree Dwellers and it will be devastating to us if aught befalls our friends. Please help us understand what is the barrier here.” Nimi paused for her words to sink in. “The Old Gods had spoken, and their augers always bore true. Death comes, for all of us, if we do nothing. We do not want to see you, our friends, perish.”

    “Yes,” said the Tree Dweller. Tasch felt a momentary prick of hope at what he thought was assent, but it was soon crushed. “Short, the Fourth of the Fiery Long Dream. It comes. It nears. The Planting the Harvest the Cycle, of I of We. Joyous.” There was a song-like cadence to the Tree Dweller’s words, as if he delivered a recitation. A soft perfume of newborn leaves, morning dew and blooming flowers suffused the chamber. 

    The fury emanating from Nimi was palpable. She kept her silence. The moment stretched. At last, Nimi gave a rigid, seated bow and stood up. “It appears that we have before us another impasse. We will not give up on our friends, Tree Dweller, let me assure you. We will come again.” 

    The Tree Dweller gazed at Nimi, head tilted as if he was puzzled. Then he, too, stood up and returned a graceful bow of his own. The Tree Dweller took a few steps closer to the Pilot, reached out and gave her a light touch on her arms with both hands. Tasch blinked. He had never seen any Tree Dweller do that before, and judging from her involuntary start, neither did the Pilot. 

    “They of Dry Winds and Sand. We bid welcome to Heartwood, we remember we see. Joyous that comes, Short, the Fourth of the Fiery Long Dream. We remember to Heartwood, they of Dry Winds and Sand. The Cycle closes and the Cycle opens.” With that, the Tree Dweller departed in that fluid alien elegance that they all possessed.

    Tasch exchanged a look of astonishment with Sszesskri. That was unexpected. Neither was sure what just had happened. It was the most expressive display of emotions any of them had ever seen on a Tree Dweller. 

    “That was a surprise.” Vith got up and stretched his legs, echoing their thoughts. “Still can’t make out their nonsense though.”

    “It wass surprising indeed,” Sszesskri agreed. “It hasss the air and sound of a ritual. I wonder what is this Heartwood they speak of,” mused the Stone Singer. “They of Dry Winds and Sand...that must mean you, of course,” the Stone Singer gestured to the other three. “The longtails. Dry winds and sand is an excellent description of the Red Desert.” His antenna circled as he pursued the thought. “I feel...no….I am not ssssssure…,” Sszesskri trailed off in doubt, uncertainty in his bearing.

    “What is it, Stone Singer? Speak your mind,” commanded Nimi. 

    Sszesskri hesitated, then said, “Forgive me Elder. I cannot sssay for certain. My thoughts are not complete yet. I need more time to think. ”

    “Speaking of time, I have to get back to my guards.” Vith offered Nimi a salute, who returned it with one of her own. “By your leave, Elder.”

    Nimi nodded. “Thank you Captain Vith. Your presence was welcome.” With a nod, the Howlstone guard captain turned on his heels and marched out.

    Nimi waited for Vith to leave before turning to Tasch. She did not trust the guard captain. He was the Iron King’s lackey, and anything they said would no doubt make their way back to the Iron King’s ears. “Did you find anything of note in that priest’s quarter, Tasch?” she asked.

    “Quite literally, Pilot.” Reaching into his coat, Tasch pulled out the sheaf of parchments they had found in Siv’s home. “I think you will find this most interesting,” Tasch kept his voice low as he handed them to Nimi. The Elder took the sheets with raised brows, and started to read. At first, her eyes widened, then furrowed. Then her jaws tightened as she flipped through the pages and a snarl began to form. Trembling, she made to crumple the parchments, intending to tear it apart in a fit of pique.

    “Ser!” Tasch cried in alarm to stop her. He had not expected that the information contained in the papers would rouse such a big reaction from the Pilot. The Elder forced her hands to uncurl from the sheets.

     “Who else had seen this?” Nimi snarled.

    “Just me and the Stone Singer, Pilot,” Tasch answered. “The young priest, Mauf found them, but his eyes did not have the chance to cross the pages, I don’t think.”             

    Nimi whirled around, and with great force, said to Sszesskri, “Stone Singer, I need you to hold your tongue on this. Mention this to no one and let it not cross your lips unless it is with me. Can you do this?” The look Nimi pinned on Sszesskri was intense, and Tasch was baffled by the strength of the Pilot’s response. The contents of the parchment, if true, were shocking, but the anger the Pilot exhibited seemed personal.

    “Of course, Elder. I understand. You have my word.”

    The solemnity with which the Stone Singer replied seemed to mollify the Elder. She relaxed a fraction. “Thank you, Stone Singer. You may go now. I will summon you again when we have need of you. Tasch, I want you with me.” The Elder stalked off without a backward glance, forcing Tasch to catch up in hurried strides.  

    Left alone in the empty chamber, Sszesskri could now contemplate and perhaps piece together the fragmented thoughts he had about that fascinating ritual the Tree Dweller had performed. He walked towards the center of the hall and sat down, dipping his feet into the pool of water. He wriggled his antenna in contentment. Although he did not feel the heat as his longtail friends did, being from a place that was even hotter than the Jungle, it was still quite pleasant to feel the flow of cool, clear water washing beneath his carapace. It made thinking easier. The Stone Singer relaxed as he turned over the events of the day and replayed that last exchange in his mind. There was something there…. “What am I missing?” he wondered outloud. “What?”  

 

    6. 

    Nimi sat in her study and went over the papers recovered from Siv again, a stony expression on her face while Tasch stood at attention as he waited for her to finish. She read through it with a lot more care than she had in the Tree Dweller communal hall, and with each passing word, it became ever more difficult for her to keep a lid on the boiling, almost ecstatic rage that bubbled just below the shallow calm she tried to maintain. She now had a name, someone whom she was sure was behind everything that happened. Someone that put them on this wild chase to another world, that led the Sand Strider’s ill fated trip to Howlstone where her beloved ship was destroyed. Someone that caused Phael’s death and took everything she held dear away from her.

    It was Imru. The papers contained a list of identities written alongside dates and a string of letters that she thought was some code. Many of the entries had Imru’s name beside it, along with dozens of others that she also recognised. Her hand curled, almost ripping into the parchments with her claws before she forced her fingers to relax. The list did not contain records of what Imru had been up to, so much the pity but Nimi had never trusted the conniving witch. She was slippery and skulked about, probed for secrets and dealt in lies. Tasch had recovered a great deal of material from the rogue priests’ quarters however, and proof of Imru’s villainy could be found there. Nimi was sure of it, for there was someone else in that register, someone she had not seen mentioned since the Great Fire, and one she did not think she would ever see again. A traitor. A criminal, who had committed the greatest act of mass murder in the last hundred years of Red City’s history.

    Varn was his name. That rat had been stricken from the Temple’s records, banished from Red City in perpetuity after he had burnt down Red City. Nimi thought the male had long since perished, bones picked clean and bleached dry somewhere out in the wilds of the Red Desert, but now, here he was, appearing in the same records of a spy on another world alongside Imru. It could not be a coincidence. He was still alive somewhere, and consorting with the Spider. Or maybe he was just a pawn that did her bidding. That was much more plausible. She remembered the traitor as a feckless youth. Head buried in books and useless for anything other than lifting a quill, like the youngling Lemnu had foisted upon her. Nimi had not paid much attention to him when he was still in the Temple, and had thought him incapable of achieving anything worthwhile, much less torching the city and killing a third of Red City. Imru could have wrapped him around her little finger with no trouble, manipulative harlot that she was.

    She had read enough. Nimi tossed the sheaf down onto her desk and reached for the flask of duneneedle firewater. She poured a full glass and tossed it back, relishing the way it burned her throat as the potent liquid went down. She leaned back into her chair and lapsed into silence, staring into nothingness as sullen thoughts beat in her mind like bats in a cave.

    Tasch did not like to see the Pilot drinking, and her second bottle of the day at that. It was unbecoming behavior for an officer of the Fleet, and the Pilot was not just an officer. She was the commander, not just of the Sand Strider, but of the Fleet itself. If the leader of the Fleet could not follow the rules, how could they expect to keep the rest of the sailors in line? He had never seen the Pilot lost control of herself, and Tasch knew what it was that weighed her, and it worried him, for she might loose her command as well. He cleared his throat.

    “What?” Nimi snapped without looking at him.

    “Forgive me for intruding on your thoughts, ser,” he began, angling for diplomacy. “What have you learnt?” Perhaps if they shifted the focus back to the mission at hand, the Pilot could regain some semblance of sanity. That, and they could ill-afford to be stalled here for much longer. They needed to act, and soon.

    A mirthless smile stretched across Nimi’s snout. “Siv was spying. Almost certainly for Imru.”

    “Aye, we thought that might be the case.” Tasch had seen and read the same thing Nimi had. 

    “We?”

    The Pilot raised her eyebrow at him, and Tasch could feel her displeasure. She had ordered silence on the matter. “We had to go through his books,” Tasch kept his cool, but sweated inside. The Pilot’s mood was becoming fraught. “The ones we found in his house, the priest. When the crew were flipping it. Felt like too much effort to go through for just gossip. Thought it might be that.”

    “I don’t want your reasons. I asked who else knows this? I ordered silence!” Nimi exploded at Tasch in vehemence. She did not want this getting out to the crew. Whatever else she might be, Imru was still an Elder. Rumors of treason from an Elder would sow chaos throughout the ranks. Besides, the Iron King’s troops were with them, and who knew what that power-mad rat would do if he caught wind of this? Not that this mattered to Nimi. Not too much. What mattered was that with this evidence, Nimi could wrap her hands around the throat of that scheming, black-hearted, whore skank and if word got out and Imru slipped through her fingers…. 

    She must looked as vengeful as she felt, for Tasch stepped back and stammered, “J...just me and the Stone Singer ser, like I said.” Tasch hurried to add, “Once you read that,” he tilted his chin towards the sheaf of parchment on Nimi’s desk. “And you read some of the other records, ’tis hard not to think that. Just makes sense ser. Those markers and dates, they match up with particular entries in the books, I’d wager.”  

    Nimi said nothing. The Stone Singer could be trouble, since he, too, had laid eyes on the journal. Nimi thought she could count on him to keep silent though. At least until they returned to Red City where, he’d be in her hands and she could deal with him as she pleased. Meanwhile she would keep an eye on him, made certain he did not send any secret messages, or revealed anything unfortunate in Vith’s hearing. Loose lips sank ships.

   Tasch’s unease grew. The black joy and hate in her eyes…he had never seen such dark passions in the Pilot before. That an Elder was implicated in treason was serious, very much so, but that could not be enough for that lust for revenge emanating from Nimi. It made no sense to Tasch and he now began to consider in earnest if the Pilot was still fit for command. Every one of the Sand Strider’s crew depended on the Pilot to lead. From the lowliest scullion to the ablest sailor, they needed Nimi to keep her head. To be rudderless and lost far from home on another world was doom, for all of them.

    Oblivious to Tasch’s misgivings, Nimi asked, “You said you set Lemnu’s brat to work on the books?” 

    Tasch nodded. “Thought it might do him some good if he kept busy.”     

    The Pilot shrugged. She didn’t care as long as the brat did not get underfoot, but if Lemnu’s ward could bring her results, she would squeeze him.  “Tell the brat to report to me by the end of tomorrow. I want him to dig out everything Siv and that treacherous witch did. Everything.” Her voice rose in steady volume until she was shouting at the end. “Or I’ll have him locked up in his precious library on no rations until he gets me what I want!”

    “Pilot,” Tasch began. The Pilot’s demand was not possible. There was too much material to go through. “We found near fifty tomes. Tomorrow…I do not think”

    Nimi cut the Captain off with a stab of her finger. “Tomorrow, Tasch,” she growled. “Don’t question me!”

    Tasch was about to try again, but his objection died at the raw fury he saw pouring from the Pilot. He straightened his back and braced himself. For a long time, Nimi continued staring daggers at him, then seemed to come to a decision. 

    “Tasch,” she said, leaning forward. ‘Do you remember the Great Fire?”   

    “Y….yes of course,” Tasch was uncertain why the Pilot made the abrupt change in subject. “I was just a deck hand then….under your grandmoth…the last First Pilot.”

    Nimi waved the breach in protocol away. “Do you know how it got started?”

    “I..,” the captain was not sure where this was leading. Everyone in Red City knew how it started. “An accident with the Grand Bridge, a misalignment, with the Cloud Ocean. It was a test of faith from the Old Gods. We strayed…”

    “No. That was what we told the new High Priest to say.”

    Tasch was speechless. His jaw fell open as his mind struggled to comprehend the revelation. ‘We’ told the High Priest what to say? But the High Priest was ordained, by the Old Gods themselves. Was that who the Pilot referred to? No, that couldn’t be…did that meant…..was the High Priest a puppet? Of who…? But the look of grim satisfaction on the Pilot told him all he needed to know. Tasch reeled. He felt his understanding of the world crumbled away. 

     Nimi was not yet done with her surprises. She continued, “You see Tasch, the Great Fire was a deliberate sabotage by a male. A priest. This….vermin opened the Grand Bridge to the Cloud Ocean, Tasch. For reasons that nobody understood. We thought him mad. Villainous. We stripped him of his name and exiled him.”

    All thoughts had stopped for Tasch. This was too much. First, the High Priest, and now this. His mind groped for solid ground, something to anchor so that he could reorient himself. It latched onto the Great Fire. Over and over again, images of the devastation, the burnt bodies and the wailing cries of anguish replayed themselves in his mind. The starvation, disease and lawlessness that came after as the desperate poor formed gangs to pillage for their survival…the things he had to do to survive…his knees felt weak.

     “Tasch.” The Pilot was relentless. She did not stop. “His name is here. Varn. In this list!” The Elder drove her fingers into the sheaf of papers in front of her. She barked a mirthless laugh and when next she spoke, her words were hard as rocks. “This cannot be a coincidence.”

    “B…but why?” Tasch was bewildered. The Great Fire was the result of malice and intention? Why would anyone do that? All the death and destruction… the misery!

    “What does it matter?!” Nimi cried. “The vermin kept to himself, but he answered to Imru. He was of her House and did her bidding.” A vicious snarl grew on Nimi’s face. “We thought him dead. He is still alive, from the looks of it, and still pulling his strings. She is behind this somehow. Behind this ridiculous Prophecy, this ridiculous jaunt, this sand-blasted waste of time!”

    This was beyond him. What the Pilot said…the web spun deeper and darker than he could follow. High Priest Pairud-Sha, a puppet. The Great Fire, the work of a mad priest. Elder Imru and her schemes…and to unearth all that here, the Steaming Jungle of all places! Tasch reeled, but even in his confusion, something did not add up. “How can Elder Imru be behind this? How can ye know that ser? Prophecies belong to the Old Gods surely! How could she have the power?”

    “I mean to find out exactly how! Imru will answer for her crimes. She will pay for Phael’s death!” She slammed her fist onto the table, sending Siv’s journal pages flying.

    The Pilot had gone mad with grief. It had to be. She was deep in her sorrow over the Apprentice Pilot’s death and the loss of the Sand Strider, and had latched on to this evidence of Elder Imru’s malfeasance as proof that the Elder was somehow a mastermind with the power to rival the Old Gods. This was not just crazy, but also blasphemy! The captain hoped that the Pilot had not gone outright insane. If she was….Tasch might need to do the unthinkable. He might have to force the Pilot to relinquish her command. He prayed to the Old Gods it would not come to that.

    Nimi struggled for calm, and her fingers strayed towards the firewater. She pulled her hands at the last minute. She breathed deep, then locked her spine and said to Tasch. “Captain, you have your orders. Bring the young priest to me tomorrow evening. I want answers out of him. Press him however you want, I don’t care. Now go.” She locked a hard gaze on Tasch that brooked no discussion.

    “One week.” Tasch dared. Enraged, Nimi looked as if she would leap over the table to crush him with her bare hands. Which she could; the Pilot was a formidable fighter. The captain gritted his teeth and prepared to face her wrath. He had to stand his ground. He must. “An Elder is an Elder, begging your pardon Pilot. If ye give the young priest but a day, there be no case he can build for ye in that time. Not enough to take down Elder Imru. You will lose yer rank and yer House, Pilot, if ye fail. But the crew will hang for this. Not you, Pilot. The crew! For bein’ party to Revolt against the Temple and Blasphemy!” the captain cried.

    Nimi became a storm. A crimson storm. Her wildfire hair seemed to rise about her in a halo with the savagery of her passion. Her eyes, two glittering points of ferocious light, pierced him with a merciless glare, promising retribution for having defied her. Tasch closed his eyes and made his peace. It was a good run. He had served his Pilot for many years, followed her because she had earned his respect. No doubt the Pilot would strip him of his rank and had him thrown into the brig for insubordination. For challenging not just First Pilot of the Fleet, but also a Temple Elder. His career was over.

    “One week.” Tasch snapped his eyes open. The Pilot had her back to him. “One week,” she repeated in a still, quiet voice that nevertheless raised the hair on his back. “If the brat has no answers for me, then on your head be it.” Tasch struck his heels together in a salute, and left the room, leaving Nimi to sink back into her brooding. 

 

7.

    A jaw-breaking yawn ambushed Mauf and threatened to unseat him from his chair. He blinked and stretched his aching back, then stood and paced about the cramped study to clear the cobwebs in his head. He had not slept a wink since Captain Tasch had came by and delivered the Elder’s ultimatum. One week...to go through fifty-nine volumes of transcribed conversations, events and records of operations stretching back over ten years. Mauf shook his head. He had long since gotten over his indignation at the unreasonable demand. A week would get them nothing substantial. No doubt Elder Nimi would get all upset and angry, stomping about in her boots…but what did he care? Poets often described the courage found at the bottom of a bottle, but Mauf was discovering that lack of sleep was just as good. Cracking another yawn, he walked over to the large piece of cloth he had hung over one wall of the study, where he had mapped out as best as he could everything he had gleaned from the notes. He looked it over with a critical eye. It was nowhere near as thorough as he’d like, but Elder Nimi would just have to live with the results. Stomping boots and all that, he supposed.

   Despite his indifference to how the Elder might receive his work, Mauf himself was not pleased at what he had. It was a matter of pride. Not matter the excuse, this was unpolished work, and he could not help the frustration that plagued him. What he needed was a cipher. Siv was secretive in his work, to the point of paranoia. While the books were meticulous in its descriptions of events, meetings and conversation notes, the names were all written in code that prevented him from deciphering who the players were in this tale of cloak and daggers. Mauf had inferred what he could as he combed through Siv’s records, connecting dots in the details between entries. Without a way to understand Siv’s code however, he could not determine who was whom. It was quite the web, from the little he could surmise. From Ambassador Orn himself here, and other high ranking council members in both in Tr Y’mn and Fhr My’mr, Red City, the Temple, and even ministers in the Iron King’s court. Secrets, blackmail, indiscretions, corrupt dealings, smuggling, it was all there. The big question he had was who the rogue priest was spying for. Who was the puppet master behind this far-reaching network?

    He was certain the papers contained the ciphers. It would not have been secreted away otherwise. He doubted if the Elder would let him read them however, moreso the pity. She had made clear her dislike of him throughout the voyage. The captain’s reprimand replayed itself in his mind. It stung him hard. In fact, it infuriated him. Lack of self-control and discipline? He had pushed himself harder than anyone else during his acolyte training to prove himself, persevered when others had faltered and given up, putting in hours after hours of study, committing to memory the Words of the Old Gods, becoming more adept than anyone else at Calculations. All so he wouldn’t shame his adopted father. To stop the sly remarks and snide jeering about his worth and the Elder’s ailing judgement in his dotage. To prove that Elder Lemnu had not mademistake when he had stopped his carriage one dry, dusty day to pull a dirty, flea-ridden orphan from the streets.

    Sighing as his momentary indignation drained away, he slumped back down into his chair. He didn’t have time to indulge in dissatisfaction. There were still too many unanswered riddles and secrets within the journals. Too Many. The spy had kept tabs on the Tree Dwellers too, conversing and questioning them often, and was very confident in his interpretations of the Tree Dwellers’ incomprehensible speech. Either he was delusional, or he had figured out the secret to the Tree Dwellers’ language. Mauf leaned on the latter, incredible as it might seem for a lone priest out in a far-flung branch of the library to achieve. Some of the entries were consequences of information gleaned from conversations with the Tree Dwellers, which led what to Mauf was perhaps the biggest mystery of all.

    He had taken to calling him, if it was indeed a him, the Traveller. A figure shrouded in mystery, he was referenced over and over again in Siv’s journals. Some of the operations he was involved in were mundane, if one could call a year spent on one of the moons that orbited the Cloud Ocean in the Outer Worlds mundane. For what purpose, Mauf was not certain, but he had an idea. The notes had been careful to refer to their intentions by oblique references, and the chronology and locations were all masked, thanks to Siv and his sand-blasted code. He could only speculate and conjecture, again from inference of details. It all had the look and feel of expeditions; half a year spent here, another three months there. Many of the trips were linked to dialogues with the Tree Dwellers, about their myths and legends. That would be a fascinating topic for Mauf to explore just by itself, but all the clues pointed in one direction, and that was that Siv, the Traveller and this shadowy mastermind were Skybridge mapping. It was a wild idea, and one that made Mauf giddy, but what other guess could there be? A year on a moon of the Cloud Ocean? The Ringed Giant? And the blue-green world of which no longtail had ever given name? Mauf knew of no Skybridges that travelled to those places and discovery of a new Skybridge always led to titanic shifts in power and influence, not just within the Temple but in all of Red Desert. New resources to exploit, new lands to conquer. Conflict always came soon after. That was why there were factions within the Temple that pushed for exploration, and just as many vested in the current balance of power that tried to stall or resisted the inquiry.  

     But none of that was a match for his lack of sleep. Mauf cracked another yawn that seemed to go on without end. He reached out to a pot of lin root tea sitting on his desk. Hefting it, he found the pot empty, and his mood soured, even more than it already had. The least they could do, he thought, was to leave him enough tea so he could focus.

     As if his thoughts had summoned him, Bek entered the study carrying a tray, pushing the door open with a kick and a hearty greeting. “Brought you some refreshments, brother Mauf!” The smell of fresh bread struck Mauf like a hammer, and his mouth watered. His stomach came alive and issued a loud growl of approval, reminding him that it had been a long time since he last fed. Mauf reached out for the enticing loaf, snatched it off the tray before Bek had even set it down and ravaged it. His throat, dry and constricted after many hours of disuse, refused to cooperate, and he choked. Grabbing the fresh pot of lin tea, he filled his cup and downed it, heedless of the scalding on his tongue.

    “Careful there brother, ‘Twould be an ironic end for us if you were to choke yourself to death while putting food in your belly.” Bek laughed as he watched Mauf demolished the food.

    “What?” Mauf gave an irritable grunt, not appreciating the joke.

    “Brother, ye’ave shut yourself in here for days now. Near a week by my reckoning. We’d all thought you have starved yourself to death long since,” answered Bek.

    Mauf was nonplussed. Had that much time passed already? All of a sudden, he became aware of the ache in the small of his back. His eyes felt sore and expanded, like it was about to pop out of its sockets at any moment, and there was a slow throbbing pulse beating in his temples. Mauf ran his fingers through the fur on his head and massaged his eyes. It was as if Bek’s words had opened a floodgate and his body realised at last how exhausted it was. ”I suppose Elder Nimi wants her report now?” he asked, weary.

    “Oh, aye. She’s been in a bit of a stomp these past few days, and wise were the ones who steered clear!” Concerned at the haggardness in Mauf, Bek softened his voice. “You look white as a sheet, brother. When did you last take rest? The Pilot wouldn’t mind a few hours of sleep, I’m sure.”

    Giving a nonchalant shrug, Mauf pushed his chair back and stood. “I don’t remember.” Whatever he had done to earn the Elder’s ire, he doubted that it would improve if he took respite and delayed the report. Better that he got it over and done with. Mauf shoved the rest of the bread into his mouth and took a large swig of lin tea before gathering the stack of Siv’s journals that he had set aside as important. Thrusting them into Bek’s arms, he then took down the cloth he had strung up as a board and grabbed his own notes. “Let’s go.”

    Arms laden, Mauf pushed the door open with his foot like Bek had before him and strode into the hallway outside, not looking back to see if the sailor followed. The Elder’s chamber was not far from where they were and after a short walk, through corridors that were grown from the structure of the pod itself, with a waxy texture to its surface that was not unlike that of varnished wood and a ropey, latticed arrangement that reminded Mauf of roots, they arrived, where Captain Tasch stood waiting for them.

    “You look like death warmed over, lad,” the captain remarked, giving Mauf an up and down as he approached. “When did ye last sleep?”

    Rather than answer the same question again, Mauf went straight to the point. “The Elder asked for my report, and here I am. Are we going in?”

    “Nay,” the captain answered. “We wait for the Stone Singer. He had a breakthrough with his study o’ the Tree Dweller’s language, it seemed.”

    Despite his sleepiness, Mauf came awake. Sszesskri had a breakthrough with the Tree Dweller’s speech? Remembering the certainty with which Siv had recorded and translated the dialogues whilst spying on the Tree Dwellers, Mauf wondered if they had both arrived at the same conclusion. Either way, he was eager to hear what the Stone Singer had discovered.

    “A breakthrough....wonder what that could be?” Bek mused, setting down the armful of books he was carrying. “Did the Stone Singer say aught to you, Captain?”

    Tasch shook his head. “Sent a runner. Said he’d figured out what was missing all this time. What we misunderstood. Old Gods grant he’s right and sheds light for us. We be hurting’ for any kind of lead right now.”

    Bek nodded. “Aye, we’d been sitting on our arse for quite a bit now. The lads are getting restless. How much longer before the Prophecy happens anyway? Most us crew still have no idea what that is about.”

    Mauf was about to answer, but caught the glance and the little shake of his head from the captain. He kept his mouth shut. The Elder seemed to want to keep it a secret still. Mauf could well understand. They had maybe two months, a little less, by his reckoning, before the Prophecy fulfilled itself, and the evacuation had not even begun. It would stir the crew of the Sand Strider into panic.

    “Sssseven weeks and a day, Bek. We have sssseven weeks and a day before the words of the Ones Who Were Gone begin. Priest Mauf’s workings and research is quite clear,” Sszesskri said as the soft clattering of his talons on the floor announced his arrival. Captain Tasch scratched his chin and looked heavenward, but held the sigh he wanted to let out. The secret was out now. He should have inducted the Stone Singer into silence beforehand. “I do hope that we can finally push past thissss deadlock. We don’t have much time left,” Sszesskri continued, oblivious to what he had just done.

    “Indeed. And now that we’re all present, the Pilot will want to see us.” The captain rapped his knuckles on the door.

    “Enter,” came a muffled voice from within.

    Tasch swung open the door, motioning for Sszesskri and Mauf to step into the Pilot’s study. “Stay here, sailor,” he said to Bek as he joined the two scholars and closed the door behind them.

    It was dim. The Elder had drawn the curtains and doused the reading lamps. It took a moment before Mauf could see where the Elder was. Nimi was seated behind a heavy wooden desk, cloaked by the gloom. The air was still, and Mauf thought he caught the faint whiff of stale firewater. Had the Elder been drinking?

    The captain cleared his throat. “Ser, I have the Stone Singer with me, and ye asked for the young priest.”

    There was a long stretch of silence, enough for Mauf to become uncomfortable. “You can understand the Tree Dwellers now, Stone Singer? Then tell me what you know.” The Elder’s voice was hoarse.

    Sszesskri twitched his antenna. “Not quite, Elder. I have but identified the key that can unlock our misunderstanding with Tree Dwellers and the way they speak. I believe we can now make some progress with our mission here.”

    “I see,” the Elder replied. She seemed to loose interest in the topic and shifted instead to Mauf. “You.” A single uttered word that fell like a lead weight. “I asked you to make a report. Make it now.”

    Mauf snorted. In ordinary times, he would have quailed in his boots. He was not used to defiance, and avoided confrontation whenever he could. And to a Temple Elder? It was unthinkable, but the heady combination of lin root tea and lack of sleep gave him a reckless courage. “You’ll get a report, Elder. Whether it’s what you want, that’s another story, for you gave me little time.”

    “Have a care, priest,” Tasch growled in warning. “You speak not only to a Temple Elder, but also the First Pilot of the Fleet.”

    Mauf ignored the captain. With a flip of his arms, the young priest laid out the piece of cloth he had been carrying onto the ground. “Siv was a spy. Of that, we all know,” he began. “He had eyes and ears everywhere in First Canopy City, and perhaps Second Canopy City too. Mostly, he was ferreting out secrets for blackmail, on behalf of someone else. I don’t know who that might be. Siv was careful not to make records as to who his master is.” Mauf caught the swift and furtive look the captain threw at the Elder. It was as he thought. Both the captain and the Elder knew, or suspected, who the spymaster was. Mauf had little doubts as to where they came by that knowledge.

    "The secrets were used to buy favors, deals. I count…,” Mauf consulted his notes, “at least a hundred and half entries in the journals that I suspect are smuggling and blackmarket operations. They seem to go back many years. Further…”

    “What else?” The Elder cut in, words raw with impatience.

    “What else, what?” Mauf snapped, then his vision exploded into bursts of light at the lightning fast slap Captain Tasch delivered. Mauf fell to the ground, ears ringing.

    “Last chance, priest. I will no tolerate yer insolence to the Pilot any longer,” Captain Tasch grated as he stood over Mauf, anger marring his features.

    Mauf staggered to his feet. “I don’t know what you want!” His voice was more shrill than he liked. “You ordered me to look through all those books, but said nothing of what you wanted. And you wanted it all in one week?!” Tasch’s nostrils flared, and he lifted his hand, preparing to put Mauf down again. The priest flinched, but stood his ground. 

    “Enough!” There was a weary note in the way the Elder raised her voice. Tasch halted and stepped back, still glaring at the priest. “What stood out to you Mauf? Was anything different from the usual smuggling and blackmail?”

    The young priest nursed his aching jaw, looking at the Stone Singer. He said, “Two things stood out. One, Siv…the rogue priest, he seemed to be able to understand the Tree Dwellers. He recorded frequent dialogues with our hosts, and they were very detailed. Too detailed to be made up, I think.” 

    “Did priest Siv say how he did it?” the Stone Singer’s feelers stood up, and his neck-gills pulsed. Sszesskri’s eagerness was unmistakable. “Was it through scent?”

    “Scent? No, the journals did not say how he knew,” Mauf replied. Glancing at the Elder, he added, “He was careful, and masked a lot of information.”

    “Ah. A shame. It would be quite nice to have evidence to confirm my guess,” Sszesskri mused. “It came upon me. My people, we don’t use speech much amongst ourselves. We speak and make sounds from our throats when we deal with outworlders, like yourselves. It is the light we make from our gills that…”

    “You said two things Mauf,” Elder Nimi interrupted. She didn’t want to hear any more of the Stone Singer’s rambling. She no longer cared about the Tree Dwellers. There was something else she was far more interested in. “What’s the other one?”

    “There is someone. A…traveller,” Mauf chose his words with care. He had too little to go on. Without the cipher, all he had were speculations. “Many of the accounts in Siv’s records were of the Traveller. Every incidence that involved the Traveller also involved a lot of irons, and some very strange places. I could but guess at their int…”

    The Elder leaned forward in her chair. “Who is this individual? Where did they go?” she asked, her tone sharp.

    “You would know better than I, Elder.” Mauf answered.

    “What?”

    “You have the cipher. Siv masked and coded all his entries. The key to breaking his code must be in that sheaf of parchments that was hidden in the wood carving, and Captain Tasch took those away!” He glared at the captain, who ignored him. “I can only make guesses. He was here often, in the Steaming Jungle. He might still be, or he might not.”

    “He’s here?” There was a hunger in the Elder’s question that made Mauf uneasy.

    “I don’t….” Mauf’s legs chose that moment to wobble and a queasy feeling rose from his guts. His first thought was that his hunger and the lack of sleep had overwhelmed him at last. He felt his balance shifting, his weight moving from one leg to the other in a most disconcerting manner. He stumbled, and the ground beneath him began to move. Gentle at first, almost imperceptible - a smooth sawing back and forth, but the intensity began to build. The furniture shook. Vases, bottles, cups and glasses skittered, shattering as they tumbled to the ground. Paintings fell off the wall. Mauf heard a rumbling, like thunder from a distance. The rumbling became louder and louder, then turned into a mighty roar, and the ground heaved.

    It threw the young priest onto the ground. Around him, Mauf could see the captain, the Stone Singer, even the Elder knocked off their feet. She swung her arms about to keep from falling. Her hands caught the curtains behind her, and tore it down as she too dropped to the ground. Mauf tried to get up, but the shaking escalated. It rocked and rattled him, and his head spun. Everything spun. He couldn’t think, he was too dizzy. His stomach churned, and he retched, vomiting the bread and tea he had taken earlier.

    The trembling went on and became ever fiercer. One mighty, violent surge, and Mauf was thrown to the wall. He struck his head, almost blacking out from the pain. Then, as sudden as it had arrived, the rumbling died away. Mauf swallowed, trying to keep his stomach from throwing up again. He got to his knees.

    “What was that?” Tasch moaned.

    Mauf opened his mouth, but no sound came out. His throat was too constricted. The Stone Singer answered for him. “The Prophecy. It beginsss. We must……”

    A brilliant flash of light filled the room from outside the windows, and an invisible force slammed into Mauf, picking him up and smashing him through walls. Darkness claimed him, and he knew no more.