“Apocalypse will come to the årdrakin upon fulfillment of
the signs. The first sign, and many signs thereafter, shall
be sins of our own making.”
So spoke Älår in the Ancient Age, year 30915.
The second sign is coming:
A hidden disgrace is revealed that brings dishonor to all.
THUNDERING DRUMS CALLED to them, pulled on them, drew them deeper into the earth. The song reverberated through the ground, into the bones, into the heart, making pulses surge with excitement and anticipation.
Senmatu skidded to a halt in the tunnel and pressed herself against its smooth wall, breathing heavily. Scores of skarastaja flooded past, their hands and feet slapping out a rhythm in time to the drumming as they struck the worn ground. Their bodies blurred together with the urgency of their travel. They wanted to get there, to the great cavern at the end of the ancient tunnels. To the merging.
A cry. A man stumbled from the edge of the throng and fell, landing in a heap at Senmatu’s feet.
“Careful now,” Senmatu said kindly, helping him to stand. “We’re almost there.”
He grinned, slowly. His stare was glazed and distant, but it was only the effect of ansansi. “Yes, Holy One,” he said, equally slowly. “Thank you.” Then he was off, disappearing into the crowd.
Senmatu followed his lead, diving back amongst the Children of the Sun to run on hands and feet in time with those drums, feeling the urgency stirring her blood once more as she fell into step with her people.
The tunnel gradually wound its way downward, twisting and turning back on itself as the elevation dropped. It took days to reach the great cavern from the grotto, days of travel that the other Wholes also shared. Over the years, the Holy Ones had considered digging a new route, using trains and elevators and all manner of shiny technologies to make the journey more direct, but the ideas had always been discarded. Part of the fun was the expedition, of running through the ancient tunnels with one’s peers, of feeling the drums’ vibrations as they crept up from the deep and grew ever stronger. The rising excitement and the collective joy at reaching the destination on foot, as the ancients had done for so many years… That was all part of the merging, too.
Senmatu glanced up. She couldn’t see the surface, of course, but she could imagine it. It was the height of summer, what they had always called the light season, and Talgor shone mercilessly at this time of year. It was almost always too hot to venture outside. What better time to descend into the cool earth and celebrate life? But even though they were below the surface, Talgor still touched them here: the countless solar farms they’d built now fed electricity into the depths, ensuring their journey was well-lit and safe, among other things. Long gone were the days of messy fish oil lamps that had to be lit by hand.
She bit her lip. Long gone were a lot of things, thanks to the skydemons and the Entity.
But the merging endured.
The air stirred, filling the tunnel with a cool, fresh, yet earthy scent. The drumming reached a crescendo. Murmurs rippled through the Whole. Senmatu raised her head, trying to see over the backs of her people, but they raised their heads too. Some even stood up, blocking the view ahead. But Senmatu knew that scent and that sound: they had arrived.
The tunnel opened up into a cavern capable of holding at least thirty thousand skarastaja. A natural formation, irregular in shape, it was interspersed with glittering stalagmites that formed cozy, private nooks and crannies along the ground, and stalactites that provided anchors overhead for strings of lights that shone like stars. Small streams cut their way through the cavern, pooling here and there in basins ringed by moss, glowing fungus, and glassy crystals lit from within with flickering light—crystals just like the enormous flickering cluster in the Well of Light that was so much like the crystal in the wreckage of the Fortune.
Senmatu shook her head. No. Not wreckage. Not anymore.
The cavern wasn’t empty. Her Whole was not the first to arrive. Already, skarastaja from other nearby grottoes mingled, danced, and laughed, their bodies moving in time to the drumming. The drummers were set up in the center of the cavern on a raised dais of stone, their muscles rippling beneath fur slick with sweat from the effort of pounding the great vertical drums.
Senmatu’s hand strayed to the talon pendant hanging around her neck, stroking its point, worn dull from centuries of touch, and eyed a drummer with a black ruff of fur running up his back. She could have her pick of anyone in the cavern; maybe she would select a drummer to please her today.
She wandered slowly out of the tunnel, following a branching pathway that her own people streamed along as they eagerly ran to join up with the other Wholes. Some of them were rapidly falling under an intensified effect of ansansi, their feet trying to start dancing even while they still propelled themselves forward. Senmatu wasn’t affected and couldn’t smell her people’s musk; she had the benefit of the ohkugi—a cybernetic filtration device embedded directly in her nose and over her nostrils. It worked more effectively than any puristaja veil ever could. She could mingle freely with her people and never worry about losing her critical independent thought… unless she specifically chose to disable the device.
The drummers ceased pounding their enormous drums and turned instead to smaller sets. Some picked up other instruments, and together they struck up a lively beat. The dancers smoothly shifted their rhythm to match.
Senmatu let her gaze linger on the drummer with the black ruff a moment longer, then took another branch in the path and made her way up to a ledge on the side of the cavern where the other Holy Ones always gathered.
“My friends,” she said, and touched the blue amber jewel hanging from her mane. “By Talgor’s blessing, we have all survived another year to see each other again.”
The other Holy Ones mirrored the gesture, each one laying a hand on their sundrop in greeting. They were Holy Ones from nearby grottoes; the Holy Ones from grottoes even further afield, in the far lands, attended mergings of their own in other ancient caverns nearer to their homes.
“Senmatu, the Holiest of Holy Ones,” Meriwi said reverently, but with a smile on her face. “You arrive at last.”
Senmatu smiled and patted Meriwi’s swollen abdomen. “I see you’ve brought some extras to our gathering.”
“Yes, and hopefully they’ll make their appearance soon! Six boys.” Meriwi’s ohkugi made a snckk sound as she inhaled. “The Whole is eagerly awaiting their birth.”
“I’m sure they’ll make fine additions to your community.” Senmatu threw her arm around Meriwi’s shoulders and steered her back to the other waiting Holy Ones. “Do you know who the father is?”
Meriwi’s six eyes seemed to dance mischievously and she grinned. “Not a clue. Most of my senior clerics are men and they all tend to me.”
“The litter could even be mine,” said another of the Holy Ones as he came forward with hands outstretched to them both. He managed to look bashful. “I made a pilgrimage to Meriwi’s grotto some months back. I almost didn’t leave.”
“Keryth,” Senmatu said, taking his hand in hers while his other slipped into Meriwi’s. “Don’t you get enough attention from your own clerics, without having to steal Meriwi away from hers?”
He laughed. “Of course. But I could not resist her beauty or charms.” Keryth winked two of his eyes at Meriwi.
“Come, come,” Senmatu said, and gestured to a ring of twelve puristaja pillows in the center of the ledge, with a small brazier set up in the middle of the ring. “Let’s sit, everyone. Tell me your news.”
Tails thumped against the backs of thighs, and the group of Holy Ones settled in, one each to a pillow. Senmatu helped Meriwi down to hers before seating herself. Then she looked to Keryth. “Why did you pilgrimage to Meriwi’s grotto?”
He took a deep breath that forced his ohkugi to snckk several times. “We’re having trouble with the maglev tunnels again. There have been three collapses since the end of the kooraju. The trains can’t get through.” He nodded at Meriwi. “Meriwi’s grotto is closest to mine. I went to see if her engineers could help us stabilize the ground so we wouldn’t have to dig all new tunnels and divert the train lines.”
Senmatu frowned. “This explains why your medical shipments have been late this season.”
Keryth nodded sheepishly. “We haven’t fallen behind on production. If we can just clear the tunnels, the deliveries to the silo will get back on schedule.”
Before Senmatu could respond, Anori, another Holy One, spoke. “This season’s crops failed. I won’t be able to contribute my full share of food to the silo.”
Gasps of disbelief sounded from around the circle.
“How could they fail?” someone asked.
Anori shrugged, his dark fur gleaming in the warm light cast from the brazier. “We harvested seeds from the bloom and sowed them after the feast, then carefully fed the fields with water as we always have. The plants germinated, but instead of blooming again… Talgor saw fit to destroy them. They wilted and were gone without ever having ripened.”
“We had great success with aeroponics during the kooraju,” another man said. “We can make up for your shortfall.”
“I would be most grateful. My Whole was not heavily reaped this year either so we have extra mouths to feed and some of my people are feeling the hunger already.”
Heads nodded solemnly in acknowledgement.
Senmatu’s frown deepened. “We can’t afford these last-minute delays. We’re behind schedule enough as it is.”
“We just need a bit more time,” Keryth said.
“There is no more time.” Senmatu looked at each Holy One in turn. “Have you all forgotten? Today is the day. The day we have all been waiting for, that all our ancestors worked tirelessly toward. Today, the Entity will finish the repairs to the Fortune. We must be ready to embark on our most holiest of quests, regardless of late shipments and failed crops.”
“If we have finally come this far, can we not wait a bit longer?” Anori rumbled. “After all, it has taken over seven of our centuries to bring us to a point where we could be useful to the Entity. Surely a few additional days, weeks, or even months will amount to no difference.”
Senmatu bit back a sigh. Despite the years that had passed, keeping the Wholes enthralled with the idea of waging a holy war against the skydemons was easy: ansansi saw to that. But the Holy Ones, with their critical independent thought, were much harder, and it had been an achingly long time since the skydemons had crashed on Berwen.
“If Talgor decrees that the time to wage our war is now, then it must be so. To wait would be to risk His wrath, and the ruin of everything we have worked so hard to attain.”
“But should we wage war?” someone piped up. “Anori said it: seven of our centuries have passed. It is a long time to carry a grudge.”
“Seven of our centuries, yes,” Senmatu responded. “But for them? The Entity said only five hundred and twenty-eight of their years have gone by. This is only about half of their expected lifespan. The demons who allowed the Fortune to come here are likely still alive! And the threat of their return remains. Never forget what we endured. Never forget why I wear this talon necklace. Whole communities eradicated! People and children, eaten!” She felt the familiar rage creeping up on her and forced herself to take a steadying breath. “It doesn’t matter that they were seen as ‘Sunless’, as exiles, at the time. They were still Talgor’s Children, and their only crime was experiencing natural critical independent thought.”
She waited for the protests. The old prejudices were hard to unlearn, and sometimes still reared their ugly heads, but today, none came. Senmatu sat back, satisfied.
Meriwi’s eyes were round, like pools of black ink on her brown face. “The fight is at hand, at last? We have lived to see the day we’ll travel to Talgor’s domain?”
“Soon,” Senmatu repeated. “It is time for the final preparations. The Entity said it can take nine hundred of our people aboard the Fortune, plus supplies and weapons. We must choose those nine hundred from this merging, and they must return with me to the silo.”
“We should split this burden between our Wholes.” A sudden eagerness was audible in Anori’s tone. “All of us should contribute warriors and pilgrims equally.”
“Death to the skydemons!” Senmatu declared.
The other Holy Ones touched their sundrops. “Death to the skydemons!”