Shrai looked down on his village, fortified in a natural basin. Red and pink rocks soared above the valley, at some points nearly completely vertical. Three gates, each one corresponding to the Three Oases, were set into the walls. Only by going through these gates could one access the trails that led safely into the village. And only with express permission from the chieftains was one allowed through the gates.
Shrai risked a glance back at Dela, who was still several steps behind him. Her once beautiful face, smashed and torn by the ahn'tankai, no longer bled freely. And Dela had stopped weeping after a few hours. But the look on her face, her ruined face....
No. She was still her beautiful self. Shrai knew that he shouldn't see her any differently; she was still his baby sister.
But a small part of his mind wept for her stolen beauty.
Shrai faced forward and continued walking. As they grew closer, the gate loomed overhead. Tiny at a distance, the gate stretched many stories into the air. Like all yellow cactus, it was highly reflective, an essential property for dispersing heat. The many tiers of carved cactus stabbed into the rock walls, anchoring themselves to the cliffs. It was an impregnable structure.
At the base of the gate was a small hut, built of the same material. Shrai walked up to it, peering in the opening at the front. The inside was dark and cool, if sparsely furnished. A meditation mat sat in one corner, a worktable in another. In the center of the hut rested a cabinet made of bricks, a most valuable substance in these lands. That cabinet would be where the blessed vials were kept; elixirs that required stringent purification and rituals before use.
Rari, one of the guards, sat on the meditation mat, crouched on the balls of his feet, his head bowed. His head-spines quivered slightly as he recited a chant quietly to himself. Shrai listened carefully, attempting to discern the words.
Smi'lyeh...aj'aka smi'lyeh...koto li aj'aka....
The Repulsion Chant. It would appear that Rari hadn't been keeping up with his conditioning; a fit priest would welcome a few small Rages to pass guard duty. Shrai would berate him for that later.
Shrai hefted his mal'yakh and slammed the butt of the weapon into the hut's outer wall. A deep, ringing sound echoed off the cliff face. Rari jumped up, his hand flying to the case behind his back. Before he could unsheathe his weapon, Shrai's bass voice joined the peal of sound.
"Calm, Rari. It is Shrai. You need not brandish your mal'yakh."
Rari's amber eyes narrowed, a scowl besmirching his lips.
"Had you been any slower, I'd have cut you down."
Shrai merely smiled.
"Your weapon would not fit through this opening, I'm afraid. A shame you were assigned to this post."
Now Rari was glaring at Shrai in earnest.
"You speak with the arrogance of one who has slain many Rages, yet you return from only your second. And you are not unscathed! Even ahn'tankai juice cannot heal all wounds at once, and you still bear many scars! How the others will laugh at your difficulty!"
Shrai took one step forwards.
For the briefest instant, fear crossed Rari's face, his own foot rising as if to step back. Then the guard thought better of it and stomped hard on the rocky floor of the hut.
"Let us pass, Rari," Shrai rumbled.
Rari glared at Shrai for another moment, then turned and stalked out of the hut, heading for the center of the massive structure. While he walked, he reached back and unstrapped his mal'yakh from its case on his back. This particular weapon was in the shape of a great blade, as tall and wide as Shrai. The yellow cactus it was made from was especially strong, and could be honed to a fine point, making it a deadly weapon in a skilled user's hands.
Shrai was confident that his red cactus mace was the superior weapon. There would be a time to test that. But that time was not now.
Rari touched the butt of his weapon to a small circle in the gate. The circle glowed for a moment, and then dulled. A door, just big enough for Shrai, opened. Shrai took Dela's hand and led her through. He nodded curtly to Rari, who snorted and locked the gate behind them. Shrai turned away, and didn't look back.
After several minutes of walking down the winding trail, they arrived at the village. Buildings glinted in the unforgiving sun, the village a golden gem in the rocky valley. The village appeared deserted. Shrai, who had been suppressing his discomfort until now, suddenly longed to be in the cool shade with the rest of his tribe. He longed for a drink to soothe his throat. He longed for the embrace of a loved one.
All of this, moments away. Shrai turned and tugged at Dela's hand.
"Come. We're almost through."
But Dela did not move. A tear rolled down the left side of her face, drying instantly as it splattered on the ground.
"No, Shrai. I will not let the rest of them see me like this. I failed where any experienced gatherer would have succeeded. My face is now a mark of shame on my elders. I refuse to allow myself back into the same comforts that they have," she whispered.
Shrai's throat constricted. For a moment, he feared losing control. Then, he tightened his grip on her hand.
"There is no shame in your misfortune, Dela. The elders will heal you, accept you, love you. Come."
Dela still did not move.
"I will go to the village outskirts. Live with the outcasts."
"You will not!" he exclaimed.
Dela tugged her hand free.
"Do not stop me, Shrai. Not if you love me."
And Dela sprinted away from him, her tattered cloak flapping in the breeze.
For the second time in as many days, hot tears sprang to Shrai's eyes. It did not become a priest to cry. He was better than this.
What was wrong with him?