“Saena!” Lai-sen opened her arms widely and Saena fell into her draping costume. Saena was crying by now. She was extremely dehydrated. Many of the order had gathered, Tuy included, to witness Saena’s return and what news it brought. As their custom demanded, the other gathered stone workers began to pour water over Saena, generously and without restraint. Her spiritual failure was not theirs to judge. Only the Lai-sen held this entitlement, due to her position in the collective.
“I murdered them,” Saena sputtered between gulps of water from the proffered jars. “I murdered two of them.” She coughed up some water she had badly swallowed. Lai-sen waited for her to continue.
“It was the Vicious. There were five of them.” The other stone workers began to whisper among themselves, spreading Saena’s news just as freely as their water flowed.
“They attacked despite our agreement. I warned them. I killed two. They were so young. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right, Lai-sen!”
Saena become inconsolable and could not continue.
The Lai-sen, whose given name was Unana, pressed Saena’s head into the soft pocket of her robed belly. Then, the spiritual leader of the stone worker’s cloister raised her own face towards the sky and began to speak loudly, in the tone of their ritual incantations. Her words were meant to be taken as law, until she could speak with the Chockton, their keeper of war.
“All shall take arms.” the Lai-sen boomed, as if reciting. “All shall be vigilant. No stone work shall grow before the danger is past.” She then folded her arms around Saena , helped the girl rise to her feet, and slowly walked her towards confession.
A young, frightened boy entered the small stone chamber of the Kaiji. He was barefoot and he scampered directly up into his frail Kaiji’s feeble lap, whispered something in the old man’s decrepit ear that looked as though it had been moth eaten for decades. Then the boy slipped away and retreated back out into the desert heat.
The Kaiji drew a long intake of breath.
“News?” asked the Chockton, who was seated on a pillow on the floor.
“Yes,” the Kaiji said, his eyelids fluttering as if waking from a dream. “A sacred quest has been abandoned. Politics have returned to our borders.”
In an elegant, sweeping motion, the Chockton rose from his seat on the floor to his full height, where he easily could have scraped the ceiling with one of the knives at his belt. He was an enormous man with a silk braid of jet black hair.
“The Reign of Falsehoods?”
“No,” a smile played at the Kaiji’s lips. “The Vicious.”
“Ah,” Chockton nodded thoughtfully. “Light footwork then.”
“The abandoned quest is with Lai-sen now. “
With a brief bow, the Chockton made his way towards the open portal of the door.
“Chockton,” the Kaiji called out after him.
“Have some tea sent in.”
Chockton bowed again, “Though the horizon be ever clouded, Brother, Sister lend me sight.” He gestured to the small boy waiting at attendance outside the archway. He dashed off in search of the black petal tea that gave their master Kaiji his sacred, unending sight.
“Could it have been cursed?” Saena was running her fingers through her hair and down the back of her neck. “Perhaps it was a place not untouched? I brought only good intentions, Lai-sen. I did. I swear it. I practiced strength. I observed purity. I did everything. Everything!” Distraught, Saena again covered her face and could not face the world.
The Lai-sen leaned in closely to Saena and took her by both hands. “Child, Saena. Inexperienced and willful. You practiced your strength. You observed purity. Did you spend the accorded interrogative with the stone before you began to free it?”
“Yes, yes, Lai-sen. Everything!”
“Then the stone is not cursed. You would have felt it. You may even be dead now. A cursed stone does not make a secret of itself. They are angry and eager to enslave the willing. Are you a slave to this stone’s power?”
“I…I don’t think so?”
“How could you be? If you abandoned it?”
“Yes…” Saena caught her breath. Her Lai-sen’s words brought calm and relief to the situation. It made sense. If the stone had been cursed, inhabited by a spirit or hexed, something much more violent and otherworldly would have transpired. As it was, encountering the Vicious was only a matter of time. And the rains.
“Just bad luck,” her Lai-sen repeated to her. “Your quest is now abandoned. You will have rebuke later under my guidance. For now, see to it that you rest and greet your parents.”