The two Ek’kiru in the courtyard below barely looked humanoid.
Some of Sidge’s temple brethren called these creatures bugmen. He could see it now. Only by their upright stance could he tell they weren’t anything other than enormous insects. Among the swirling robes and soft, mahogany skin of the acolytes bustling about the courtyard, the cart-sized beings didn’t seem real.
Sidge let his sweeping taper off and he clutched his broom in two hands. He leaned against the window sill on his second pair of arms to get a closer look.
The Ek’kiru were massive, much larger than Sidge had imagined they would be. He’d never seen another one but had been told of the different variations in size, color, and shape. Witnessing precisely how different astonished him.
Their deep black underbellies melted into the polished obsidian wall behind them. Heads, impossibly small for their enormous bodies, sat atop their broad chests. Each one’s forehead sported a single onyx horn the size of a man’s thigh.
When the creatures turned, he could see the shells across their backs were iridescent; one a shade of green and the other gold. Lightning from the Storm reflected off them in a prismatic curve, mirrored on the metallic blue carapace of Sidge’s own forearm resting on the windowsill. He tugged the sleeve of his temple vestments so it lay evenly across his wrist.
Sidge was certain the only way these creatures could pull the palatial carriage that they loomed over was by scuttling along on their hands and feet; exactly like bugs.
He felt a shiver along his antennae.
The rest of the courtyard writhed with activity. Gray-robed acolytes formed rhythmic chains, passing crates from the storehouses toward an armada of gilded carriages. The armada’s patchwork of metallic roofs sat dull and lifeless under the clouded sky, but flared brightly with each arc of lightning. Fading waves of thunder rolled over the dark, seamless walls of the Temple. Beyond them lay an empty landscape where the sky spiraled in black troughs, circling like a hungry raptor around a brilliant white eye.
Sidge stepped away and let the chaos of the courtyard slip behind the window sill. His many lenses continued to marvel at the storm and the dazzling display of fire that took place there. Each pulse of light called to him—Vasheru called him. In the weeks ahead, he could not fail. Not only for his beloved master, but for a life spent beneath the Undying Storm, their pilgrimage had to be a success.
Through a sleepless night he’d packed his and his master’s belongings; all that remained to be ready for the journey was to hitch the two horses—a mismatched pair in both health and temperament, but the best their meager funds could afford. He wondered if the team would make the long journey.
Of course, the journey itself was not his toughest challenge.
“Do you have my robe ready?” A voice at the door interrupted Sidge’s thoughts, though it did not surprise him. While Sidge faced the window, his compound eyes ensured the door, behind him and to his right, was well within his field of view. Acolyte Girish stood in the doorway with his two arms folded across his chest.
Sidge turned, unconsciously making sure his mandibles faced the human acolyte. He set the broom against his wall, placed his four palms together and bowed. He walked to a hook by the door where a gray robe, much like the one he wore, hung. As he pulled it down he ran the hem through his fingers. Silk, and a fine grade. The stitching had been done by a master tailor’s hand, but had recently come unraveled. Sidge had been pleased his repair had turned out nearly identical to the original.
“You can still see the transition to the repair if you know where to look, but it is the best I could do with what I had to work with. The temple stores had no silken thread.”
Girish snatched the robe and held it so the light from the window fell upon it. The repaired section dangled somewhere below his hands. His thin, severe features were absolutely gaunt in the flickering light of the Storm and the scattering of dark whiskers along his cheeks, barely noticeable. “I’ll have it properly sewn when the pilgrimage arrives in Stronghold.”
“Yes, you’ve been before,” said Sidge, his excitement getting the best of him. “You must know many wonderful tailors there.”
“Know tailors?” Girish was already turning toward the hall. “Master Udai arranges for such things through our raksha. I don’t know any commoners.”
“Oh, of course,” said Sidge.
Girish paused in the hallway long enough to bow toward the sound of approaching footsteps. “Acolyte Farsal.”
“Girish,” replied a familiar voice.
Girish disappeared into the hall and Farsal stepped into view. The smiling acolyte rolled his eyes. Such a simple gesture, Sidge felt a twinge of jealousy that his eyes couldn’t do the same. Yet he also understood the curt nature of the display to be unacceptable and decided it was best to quirk his mandibles in displeasure, but Farsal’s smile only deepened. They exchanged bows and Sidge retreated into his room.
Farsal entered and moved to the window, teeth shining into the storm outside, white like the ferocious tempest’s eye, whiter against the dark lips and thin beard surrounding them. His smile disappeared as he chewed his lip in thought.
“I don’t know why you bother,” muttered Farsal. “Girish doesn’t even like you.”
“We are all brothers. Beneath the Undying Storm. Unyielding before the terrible might of Kurath,” recited Sidge.
“You have more wisdom than I.”
“Not me. The Attarah’s words, his wisdom, so the Forge tells us.”
Farsal bowed deeply and his smile returned. “As always, you’re correct. Your recall of the mantras is flawless.” His eyes lit up and he focused on Sidge. “You’ll make an excellent Cloud Born.”
Sidge spread his mandibles and felt his antennae splay under the sincerity of Farsal’s words. “I thank you, brother. I can only hope our horses can make—”
Lightning exploded just beyond the wall. The landscape seemed to shatter and be made whole along the path of the strike. So much power to be wielded. No, the toughest challenge was definitely not the journey.
He pretended to wait for the thunder to pass so he could respond but he couldn’t regain the confidence Farsal’s praise had instilled. When he finally spoke, uncertainty crept into his words.
“You know the pilgrimage is only one part of my potential ascension. And we travel without a raksha. Without such a sponsor, I don’t know when or if we’ll be able to afford another trip, let alone complete this one.” He only said more because he knew Farsal would lend a sympathetic ear. “And there are other obstacles I have yet to overcome.”
Farsal’s face twisted in concern. “Channeling? Still?”
“Don’t worry.” Farsal placed a hand where Sidge’s shoulder would be had his wings, tucked beneath his robes, not been in the way. “Master Izhar will help you.”
Sidge turned to the window but couldn’t push his friend’s face into his narrow blindspot without being rude and turning his back entirely. The hectic motion of the courtyard did much to distract him, but Farsal’s pity maintained a corner of his vision. He wanted to draw the hood of his robe over his head to close his lidless eyes.
Farsal must’ve sensed his discomfort. “You’re making us all look bad again.” He laughed and grabbed the broom next to the window. “I noticed your vardo in the courtyard is all packed, and now you have extra time for chores?”
“Doing some last minute tidying, is all. You know I have plenty of spare time.” He motioned to the empty bed frame against the far wall of his room.
“Of course, of course. I’ve always wondered if that’s a fair trade—sleep for chores.”
“Not chores. Duties. And there is no trade. I simply have more time than the others.”
Farsal laughed and returned the broom to the wall. “Speaking of which, I should be going, brother. Master Gohala’s carriage won’t fill itself.” He headed for the hall and with another bow he was gone.
Yes, Master Gohala’s carriage, the one next to the behemoth Ek’kiru. It glinted as another seam of lightning opened the sky.
Even viewed from several floors up, the carriage was clearly the largest among the dozens arrayed there. Its wheels stood as tall as a man, their spokes gilded and polished. On the sides hung the face of the mighty Storm Dragon, Vasheru, in a gleaming silver relief. The roof rose into a golden dome crowned by a silver sword wreathed in lightning: the symbol of the Stormblade Temple.
Apparently there were certain perks if your raksha was the living Attarah himself. Savior of all humanity, a title handed down across the centuries like the twelve thousand one hundred and sixty-two mantras of the Temple.
His and Master Izhar’s vardo slumped at the other end of his vision, the beaten-copper roof dull and lifeless. A collection of crystals and foil streamers jangled from the upper rails. Green stains streaked beneath the roof, adding a dilapidated appearance to the already weathered wood of the cabin. A white image of the temple’s symbolic sword burned starkly on the graying walls.
The symbol, at least, had been freshly painted. Sidge had insisted, even when Master Izhar balked at the cost. “Vanity was not the concern of the holy,” Master Izhar had said, in an odd paraphrasing of the ninety-seventh verse of the Rule. When Sidge had corrected him, he’d relented.
Sidge examined his room one last time. A bed he didn’t use, a chest whose contents he’d loaded in the vardo long before the sun had risen, a hook on the wall for his robe; until now, this had been all he’d ever needed.
But with the pilgrimage came his chance to ascend to the rank of Cloud Born. To make his master proud. To put to the test a life’s worth of rigorous memorization, study, and meditation. Rather, attempts at meditation. Sidge rattled his wings. He wanted to believe it was possible. Vasheru willing, it would be.
On the dark stone of the floor, an errant gray thread caught his eye. He knelt and plucked it from the ground. Holding it in front of him, he twisted it between his fingers and examined the rest of the floor from his new vantage point. Remnants of his late night work? Perhaps from Farsal’s robe. The fine silken thread wasn’t from his own. Satisfied the strand was the only one, he returned to the window.
He let the storm wind carry the thread from his hand and shuttered the window as it drifted away. Grabbing his broom, he swept a path to the hallway and closed the door behind him.