the ritual

Their order of stone workers could trace its lineage back to ancient times. Back to when there was one kingdom and one dynasty. Before the splintering and the wars and the abandonment of old traditions and any lingering sense that a moral life was the one best lived. This new order of stone workers were themselves a splintering after a war and struggle over their trade’s traditions. As a society, they were aware that they were not the only stone workers left in the world but they certainly held themselves to be the most legitimate. They had retained their mantel through heavy sacrifice and adhering themselves to a particular sect of Masters who steeped themselves in the old ways. Their pride was not unfounded. They were sought out by many adventurers, king-pretenders, and fallen blood of the old dynasty. Their trade and craftsmanship were a fading artform but not altogether dead.

Like all orders of the stone, this cloister was led by a strong tradition of mysticism. Their stones were chosen with great care, collected in accordance with outdated but trusted methods, and then each stone was ritually bathed the in the earthly delights, terrors, or enormous griefs of the cloister. The emotional bond the cloister chose to strike with each particular stone was a spontaneous act. One that consummated during a ritual lasting the entire length of a waning moon. By far though, their more prized and powerful stones were those that were ritualized immediately after the birth of a child of the cloister .

In their natural state, the stones varied greatly in size and color. But these distinctions were nothing compared to the astonishing craftsmanship and otherworldly design that were applied to each. As a chanting circle spent hours repeating ancient words and spontaneous outbursts, a chosen member of the cloister would thrust him or herself upon the stone with an instrument of their choosing. It could be a chisel. It could be an axe. It could be flame or water or sandwood. The chosen artisan would labor for hours, in a frenzied state. She would make manifest a truth upon the stone’s body, in accordance with the rhythm and the incantation of the group. In this way, the stone order created talisman of extraordinary value. Each stone could take months to sculpt and imbue with its magical properties, to say nothing of their impeccable provenance.

As a result, each stone had its own history. Some resembled flames. Others, hollowed out basins. Some were as smooth and shiny as marble while others were painstakingly stippled, cracked, or burned. Beyond those, there were a great many that could only be described as “remaining in their natural element, only more so.”

Strictly speaking, the order only sold these stones to those of pedigree or great learning. The price for each was also selectively high. Each was worth a small fortune but only a depreciating number of available patrons truly understood this. So, the Kaiji had, on occasion, been known to make a few exceptions when a wealthy collector, or dealer of an unspecified trade was interested in a purchase. But only with the agreement of his Chockton and the Lai-sen, of course.

Airita

Four sentries paced the raised, shady platform. The sun was at its apex and drenched the day in clinging rays that felt dirty and mean.

One of of the sentries was Tuy. He was a young man with well oiled hair and a clever mind. Tuy was peering through the end of his homemade telescone. It was tapered, cylindrical object with a cured piece of glass affixed inside the large aperture at the end of the cone. Tuy had shaped and perfected the glass with much attention and effort. The device allowed him to see for long distances with extraordinary clarity. He made them in his spare time and was permitted by the Chokton to sell them to traders.

Tuy was peering closely along the horizon when he noticed a cloud of dirt rising into the air. He fixed his gaze on the spot and watched. Like all of his stone worker brethren, he was in no rush to discover the source of this disruption. It would come in its own time and he intended to see it unfold. Above him, a large canvas roof flapped pleasantly in the wind. Presently, another sentry offered him something to drink.

“Tuy, tea?”

“I have seen something,” Tuy replied, indicating that he could not accept the tea.

The other sentry looked out at the horizon. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure. I think it is a person running.”

The other sentry, Phael, whistled to indicate that the remaining sentries should be on alert. They all turned and patiently watched the distant mark in the sand as it slowly moved towards them.

Through his telescone, Tuy suddenly realized what he was seeing.

“It is Airita,” he said solemnly.

“Airita?” Phael repeated. Instinctually, he put his hand on Tuy’s shoulder. Both men’s hearts sank and their guts lurched. Everyone knew that Airita had been on a sacred mission to recover a stone she had found. They had been expecting her to return any day now but this person running through the sand did not have a stone. Nor did they even have their sand sled.

“What could have happened?” Phael continued. “Is she hurt?”

“Doesn’t seem to be” said Tuy tentatively.

“I will call Lai-sen,” Phael resolved. He descended the platform, leaving Tuy to watch the steady approach of a bedraggled Airita who was arriving home under the banner of a broken vow.

the embankment

She was sprinting through the darkness, careful to keep to the the well-worn footpath. She had left the stone and her sled behind. She had only her knapsack. Everything felt weightless now. She felt her body rippling through the breeze, all her muscles alighting and rejoicing in their regained liberation from exhaustive labor. Her senses were also heightened and she could smell the narote cacti which were in bloom. She knew in her mind’s eye how this cactus gave forth great bursts of tiny white flowers, dozens of them, bunched together in perfect orbs. She felt her breaths come in the same pattern. Shallow, delicate puffs, evenly spaced and vaguely humid in the night’s chill.

Her conscience, on the other hand, was still bound to the stone. She was abandoning a sacred vow so close to its completion. It was going to gnaw at her, she knew. But it was not forbidden to do this. In fact, it was necessary. She had to alert her people that the Vicious had violated their territory. That she had killed two of them. Political action would be swift and they had to be prepared.

Both the adrenaline and her discordant thoughts carried her far. Before she even realized it, she was approaching the embankment. The same embankment she had been thinking about all day. The one she had been anticipating. Meeting it now, without her stone or her sled, she had the impression that this was the final violation that truly ended her pilgrimage. Up until this moment she could tell herself that the stone was safe where it was and she could return for it. Now, faced with the embankment, she suddenly felt angry. She was angry with herself for all of the time she had spent imagining herself hauling her stone up its slope. How she might have noticed the Vicious locusts stalking her sooner if she had not been so focused on this single task. A chasm opened up in her mind between two thoughts. On one side, the intention she had set for herself and on the other, the events that fate had delivered instead. She slowed her pace and instinctively knelt down. Both to rest and to pray.

Her prayer consisted of a series of reflections. Angry and ironic. How stupid she had been to spend time planning her approach to the embankment. How things never turned out as you might expect. How severe fate was that she had been forced to murder two of those pestering locusts before they even had their wits about them. Why had the stone brought her such an ill passing? She thought back to the moment she had first seen it, embedded in the fallen mountain’s face. It had seemed so imperious among the rubble. A noble acquisition for her order. Was it instead possessed of an evil spirit? Or a hex? What if those pestering locusts had actually spared her people from receiving a cursed stone? Soon, it all felt too much to consider. She began to mistrust her own thinking. She concluded that she would need to speak with her spiritual master regarding the meaning of the encounter.

This resolution put her mind at ease. In the end, she would still eventually have to retrieve her stone. Some day she would return here, harnessed to her vow, and make the arduous and tricky trek up the little incline. That little smirk on the earth. It would all be waiting for her.

She stood up again and hiked up the embankment with relative ease. At its summit, she continued her sprint back home through the night.

sorcerex

“Get up,” he said and kicked her hard in the thigh with a knobbed leather boot. She roused quickly and was on her feet faster than any of them anticipated. Instinctively, he bashed her knee with the broad side of his machete, sweeping her back down to ground, banishing her thoughts of yabba root.

“Not that fast,” he cackled and his four companions laughed along. Finally, she was able to focus and perceive them. Five teenaged locusts from the Vicious. A loosely federated gang of hooligans, the Vicious weren’t usually active this close to her cloister’s lands. Then again, there had been several seasons of flooding in Qathtar, a notorious indicator that a breeding glut would take hold of the Vicious. These boys, no doubt, were new footlings. Freshly pushed out of the proverbial nest. They were eager to prove themselves as aggressive as their parents and older cousins, jealous that the newer brats were getting all the food and attention.

“I’m a stone worker,” she addressed the lead locust. “And you shouldn’t be here.”

The leader, sprouting all over with new hair like the desert spurts flowers after first season’s rain, guffawed in her face. His voice clashed with low melodious notes and the high, shrill markings of a man yet unmade.

“We are the Vicious,” he told her, pointing to the insignia stitched into his red dengo. “We go anywhere. Everywhere.” He spat.

“These are stone lands. We have agreements with your people,” she continued. “This spot is only a three day’s journey from my cloister. If you want tribute, we can arrange for that. We have plenty.”

“Plenty,” the lead locust repeated, arching his mouth into an angry smile. “No one out here has plenty of anything.” To enunciate his point, the lead locust squatted down and prepared to spit again, this time in her face.

Instead, she punctured his cheek with her stone chisel, which was always at the ready in her front pocket. His blood sputtered out and he made a high sound like the vermin sometimes do in mating. He attempted to unsheathe his machete but she had already brought his entire arm under her control. She disarmed him with a jab to a sensitive point in his wrist and brought his own machete to his neck.

The other four locusts stood completely still. They were caught off guard by her swiftness and confidence. Usually the traders and pilgrims gave in quickly and softly to their threats.

The lead locust’s blood continued to ebb out of his face. “Sorcerex!” he screeched. “Do something!” he egged on his compatriots.

“No,” she said. “Go back to your leader and tell her you encountered a stone worker. Tell her that the stone worker invoked her territorial privileges.”

A long silence prevailed between them all. The sun had already met the horizon and the stone’s shadow was melting away. A waking chill blew through as night began to temper the air.

One of the locusts charged her. Immediately, she slit the leader’s throat and thrust his body to the ground. She stumbled her way around the stone, evading the charge.

“No!” she could hear the younger boy scream. She retrieved a pair of deadly knives from her knapsack. The handles were carved with the mythos of her people and gently worn from able use. She turned just as the charging boy was at her. She blocked his clumsy attempt to mow her down with his machete and then killed him with a single, punctuating stab to the chest.

She let his body fall and quickly approached the remaining three of the Vicious. They, however, did not wish to meet her and quickly withdrew. They streamed away into the darkness and clambered back over the rocks.

She would have to leave the stone behind for now. She didn’t know how many more of the Vicious were scrambling around in the scrub. Nor was sure how arrogant the rest of them might be, feverishly ready to break a hard won peace.

yabba root

It was a great slab of granite, misshapen and glinting in the evening sun. Its sides erupted with pairs upon pairs of heavy shoulders, the suggestion of a stone gut, and long sloping edges that sealed into elegant points. Contemplation of the stone’s relief could invoke a vague sense that, perhaps, the stone was alive, torpidly imposing its will over time and space.

She had rigged it up on her sand sled. Constructed consciously with weighted factors and capable of being towed long distances by a single person, the sled had been crafted in accordance with her knowledge of the trade. This stone would impress her order. The physical ordeal of returning home with it was an enormous privilege and a rite that she had earned.

She had been with this particular stone for four consecutive lunar weeks but it had taken her a year to find in the first place. Great distances had to be traveled these days to find stones of the correct size and density for her order’s purpose. The scouting of stones was mainly assigned to the new initiates and was a serious responsibility. She, however, had found this stone herself, fatefully, it now seemed, on a hunting expedition for yellow scorpia. She had claimed it as her own and vowed to return once the hunt was over.

When two full moons had waxed and waned, she felt she was physically and psychically prepared for her mission. She set back out across the desert to reunite with the stone. There, she had carefully removed it from the open toothed mouth of the fallen mountain. The chiseling took days and included a meditative practice observed by her people. Once free of its womb, she had a rigged pulley system to move the stone onto her sand sled. Thus she began the long journey back to the cloister.

She wiped sweat from her brow and took a swig of the tea she had brewed from desert needles. They contained an energizing property which had taken her this far. She could tell however, that a more profound exhaustion was beginning to take hold. The needle tea was hydrating but not enough to bolster her strength any longer.

She stopped hauling. She disengaged herself from the oiled leather straps of the sled and began massaging her shoulders. Exhaling, she sank down on the shady side of stone, still atop her sled to evade scorpia and other groundlings. She leaned back into the cool, shimmering flank of the stone.

The journey was more than half over. She knew that the cloister would become visible on the horizon after she cleared the small embankment just south ahead. The embankment itself, however, would take her the better part of a morning. As good as the sled was, built lightly and framed to distribute weight as perfectly as a rabbit’s ear disperses heat, the task of heaving her stone up the small incline would take a great deal of skill and negotiation with the earth. She would have to rest up for at least one day before the encounter.

She had plenty of tea in reserve but decided to build camp and find food. Yabba root was common here and roasted simply and well over an open flame. A faint smile tugged her chapped lips. Smoky yabba root always reminded her of her grandmother. The charred meat of the root was savory, oily, and slightly bitter. Its outer layers would curl away from the heat, creating a beautiful, peeled branch that was packed full of nutrients and wet flesh. She remembered chewing these quietly, one after the other, while her grandmother powerfully resituated stones on their old sand sled , the one that her grandfather had built.

Without meaning to, she soon began to doze.

Her breathing became more shallow and her head tilted with sleep. A pleasant dream of yabba root began to conjure in her mind. There was no way for her to know that she had been spotted by a raiding party. Already, a small pack of the Vicious were picking their way towards her over the exposed, red rock.