The evening temperature was dropping rapidly as an elder priestess brought their dinner tray. By her dress and jewelry, she appeared to be of higher status than any of the younger sisters. As she entered the guest house, her bright eyes took in everything and looked deeply into each person's soul.
The group could also tell that something unusual was afoot by the quality of the food. Their tray was laden with meat and pot herbs, buttered bread, cheeses, and a small jug of wine.
To their surprise, the high priestess did not sit and begin meditating, but instead took a seat at the fire circle and warmed her hands. She quickly had several little creatures around her, more even than Rini tended to attract.
With a new person at their fire, some of the students fidgeted with discomfort. After gently moving a chipmunk, Kibi sat down beside the woman. Rini did the same on the other side.
Ilika began cutting the meat into twelve pieces. "This is a special meal. I'm sorry we are ignorant of the holy days of the order, and wish there was some way we could learn the meaning of this day."
The elder priestess nodded slowly, but offered no explanation. Ilika held the tray for her, and Neti handed her a bowl.
A slight smile touched the woman's face, and she accepted the first portions of meat, vegetables, and bread.
The meal was eaten mostly in silence, although many glances were exchanged, and the high priestess confidently made eye contact with all her guests. Bowls and cups were wiped clean with bread, and wine was poured.
A shaking voice suddenly spoke from an unexpected source. "I ... at first I ... thought that if I closed my eyes ... I might ... I don't know ... I might die or something," Toli struggled to say. "I know it sounds ... silly ... but I've never ... closed my eyes before ... except when sleep made me do it."
"I can relate to that," Boro jumped in. "Most of us were slaves once," he said in explanation to the high priestess.
"The only way ... I could do it today was because ... someone was holding my hand," Toli admitted. "That hand was like ... the only thing keeping me from ... feeling like I would die."
Buna smiled from beside him on the log.
One by one, the others began to share things they had recently learned or discovered. Rini and Buna spoke of their meditations. Sata explained universal instantiation, and Boro continued with the universal generalization, including how tricky it could be. Miko and Kibi talked about their experiences in the mountains before coming to the guest house, and Mati shared how two sets of things created four different logical possibilities. Neti shared her brush with dehydration and hypoxia, and Misa spoke of the fire that had destroyed her home and probably killed her parents.
The woman listened with sparkling eyes to each person. As stories were told, the sun set somewhere behind the mountain and the twilight faded from the sky.
When the full dark of night was nearly at hand and everyone had fallen silent in their telling, the high priestess rose and motioned for them to come with her. She gestured again, clearly wanting them to bring all their belongings.
They looked at Ilika.
"I think we're being invited to the monastery."
The woman nodded.
"I'm going," Ilika announced. "Anyone who does not wish to go, may stay here. While at the monastery, we must be silent."
She nodded again.
Although some faces showed a little fear, no one expressed a desire to stay. Within ten minutes, everything was packed and Tera was saddled.
They approached the top of the next rise on the trail, beyond which none of them had ever gone. The slight glow of unseen firelight flickered on the rocks above the trail, and a faint throbbing echoed off the mountainside. They could see their breath in the air, and the falling temperature promised a clear, cold night.
As they crested the top of the rise, torches came into view. Not far ahead, the trail passed under a large wooden portal with mysterious carved faces and painted symbols.
Mati could feel Tera's fear, and kept the reins tight. Concentrating on controlling the donkey helped her to ignore the knot in her own stomach.
Ilika seemed perfectly comfortable, and Kibi and Rini hesitated only a little. Boro and Sata stood for a moment before continuing down the trail toward the portal. The rest took a few steps back toward the guest house before mastering themselves and following their companions.
One by one, they all passed under the wooden portal, gazing up at the eerie faces and symbols dancing in the torch light.
The trail, lined with more torches, wound down the rocky slope into a sheltered valley. A large wooden building of three or four floors sat beside a level clearing. As Boro descended the steep path toward the main building, torches sprang to life in the clearing beyond. His mouth opened in wonder as priestesses moved to and fro like ghosts, never speaking a word.
The group of travelers approached the main hall of the monastery, its upper floors towering over them and every window glowing with lamplight from within.
A sister stepped out of a shed, and with gestures she offered to take Tera. Mati thought for a moment, then dismounted, whispered comforting words to her faithful donkey, and received her crutch from Miko.
The high priestess led them into the building. Simple tables and stools filled part of the main floor, while crude rugs and pillows surrounded stone fireplaces. The smell of baking bread came from unseen ovens. The high priestess gestured for them to set down their rucksacks, and then led them on through the building and out the door on the far side.
The clearing just below the main hall, perhaps a hundred feet across, was ablaze with a complete circle of torches. A large iron fire-bowl, still unlit, waited in the exact center. The high priestess led them into the circle, then motioned for them to follow a younger priestess along one side.
For the next few minutes, many more women and girls took up their places around the circle. Finally, with everything ready, the clearing became filled with complete silence and stillness, save for the soft shuffling of nervous feet coming from the monastery's guests.
The high priestess walked with measured steps to the center of the circle, stood for a moment in contemplation, then suddenly raised her arms. The drumming resumed as she began to walk around the inside of the circle, chanting words in another tongue that meant nothing to Ilika or the students. While she walked, all the torches along the trail and all the lamps in the great hall were extinguished by unseen hands.
The chant was taken up by women who came dancing into the circle from several directions. As the chanting continued, seven different priestesses, at seven points around the circle, began dramatic rituals.
To the left of the students and their teacher, a white-haired crone waved a sword, her ritual clearly about conflict and death. To their right, a golden-haired maiden tossed leaves and flowers into the air, and her ceremony spoke of birth and life and abundance. As they peered around with wide eyes, most of the students felt the rituals speaking directly to their hearts, and the meanings were clear.
The chanting gradually became louder and faster, and the words changed as time passed, but always in a strange language. When all seven of the rituals around the circle were complete, another began in the center. Five women and one girl wore simple white robes and no jewelry. Part of the time they lay face-down on the hard ground, later still they kneeled before the high priestess, and finally they walked around the unlit iron bowl with arms outstretched.
Eventually, with the chanting at a fever-pitch, the seven youngest girls of the order, all less than ten years of age, lit hand-torches at the outside of the circle and slowly walked toward the center. All at the same moment, the seven girls thrust their torches into the iron brazier, and purple flames leapt high into the air as all the chanters held the last word of their song in loud, clear voices.
All the sights and sounds of the ritual until now had stirred the emotions of the students more than any public performance they had ever seen or imagined. But what happened next was almost shocking by contrast.
The leaping purple flames quickly died out. At the same moment, the last chanted word faded away and every one of the torches was snuffed. No man-made light remained anywhere on the mountain.
Everyone's eyes were immediately drawn to the sky, but not by the moon or stars. Ghostly green curtains of light slowly danced far in the north, and sounds of amazement escaped many of the students. A few of the young girls, and one of the older novices, also slipped.
The students stood captivated. All of the sisters of the monastery gazed upward, some from their knees, some standing with arms raised. The green curtains faded and a streaky red glow appeared on the northern horizon.
For the next hour, the mind-boggling show continued, sometimes joined by rapidly-moving blue curtains, occasionally punctuated by flashes of purple. At other times the slow green lights returned, or the nearly-stationary red glow.
For Sata, this was the ultimate challenge. She somehow knew that if she was up there, in the dancing lights, she would not survive. She wasn't sure if she would be burnt to a crisp or frozen solid, but it didn't matter. She had learned from her teacher that many things in the world were far greater than her, and yet they were her friends, in a sense, if she was respectful and careful. They could give her beauty and wonder and understanding, none of which she could get if she trembled in fear and buried her head in the sand.
Rini was almost moved to tears. If he had had wings to fly, he would have left the world behind to soar among the dancing lights. But at the same time, he had a deep curiosity about the forces that could cause such a grand display. He knew an artist, like Pica, created a beautiful picture because she wanted to. His mind opened up to the spectacle before him and craved to know what mysterious will could lead to such beauty and grandeur.
Boro was deeply impressed, and at the same time he wanted to know the details so he could help keep everyone safe. He wondered if there was some radiation danger even here, so far from the glowing, shifting curtains and dancing sprites in the sky. From recent lessons he knew it was all in the planet's magnetic field, forty-five thousand miles away. He was tempted to break the silence and ask Ilika about it, but decided that his teacher would say something if there was any danger.
Mati thought of Tera. She was now very glad the sister had taken the donkey into a shed where Tera could not see what they were seeing. Mati knew that ions and free electrons interacting with the magnetosphere were nothing to be concerned about down here. She was pretty sure Tera would not have taken it so lightly.
Eventually the spectacle faded and was gone, leaving about two hundred sisters, and eleven visitors, feeling very small in the midst of the awesome power and beauty of the universe.
The setting of Book Three, the eastern half of the kingdom:
Book Three front cover:
Book Three back cover: