Ghayle sensed her coming from a thousand miles away, each step the woman took brought additional strength to Ghayle. She felt the purity emanating from the woman, shining like a beacon through a sea of dark fog.
As the distance closed between them, Ghayle found herself growing more and more eager. Whoever this mortal was, she had a strength unparalleled among Ghayle's children. Faith propelled the woman forward, despite a corrupting sickness which had spread through her body.
In time, the woman reached the mountain itself, and began to climb. Only then did the others take note of her, though they did not sense her purity as Ghayle did. They simply tracked her, unaware of the role she would play.
"Tagren, there's a Gor climbing the mountain," Goden said as he reached the shelf. "At least, she smells like a Gor. Something seems off about her."
"What?" Tagren asked with alarm. "Why?"
"I don't know. I didn't stop to ask her," Goden replied dryly. "I just thought you should know.
"Is she alone?" Tagren asked.
Even as Goden nodded in response, Aika closed her eyes and reached out with her lifeforce to seek the woman. "Yes, and struggling," she confirmed. "She's very weak. I can sense it even from here."
"She's no concern of ours right now," Ibrix said. "Not unless she comes here."
"But it is rather curious, don't you think? What would a mortal be doing here? The Spring thaw has barely begun. She must be nearly frozen to death," Goden observed.
"She's ill. A wasting sickness of some sort," Aika said, opening her eyes at last. "I can't tell how extensive until I touch her, but I'm certain I could heal it."
"We can't afford to care about her unless she makes the climb," Tagren said. "Do you not remember we are sworn to secrecy? We'll have to determine what that means regarding an intruder. We may have to kill her to protect Ghayle and the ritual."
"That's a strange statement, coming from you," Goden observed. "Aren't you the one who is always trying to protect life?"
Tagren shook his head. "Not this time. This time, I am committed to the ritual, to Ghayle, and to Khalis' orders. No one may interfere with this. No one may know about this."
"But that doesn't mean we have to kill her," Quay said, joining the conversation at last. She stepped up to Tagren, her hands resting on her hips. "Your problem is that you never acquired the full godly perspective, Tagren. We know how to keep secrets while showing the truth. It's part of what we do. Khalis' instructions were clear, and it's you who is muddying them. The only thing Khalis said we could not reveal was Lord Naxthul's return. Seems to me we can simply omit that bit."
"For once Quay speaks wisdom," Nobak said. "Makes a lot of sense to me. You worry too much, Tagren."
Tagren sighed but trusted his companions' opinion on the matter. Yet he kept the dagger in his boot in his mind's eye. He would draw it if needed, and end the woman if instinct told him to do so.
Ghayle felt it all, wishing she could reach out to Tagren and console him, but she had not yet drawn enough strength from the woman to speak. Each step the woman took, however, brought Ghayle one step closer to escaping her nightmares, if only for a moment.
The Chosen waited, using the abilities afforded them as extensions of Ghayle's godhood to remain invisible from mortal sight. They stood to witness the young woman's arrival as she climbed past the last boulder, her frail form collapsing to the shelf in exhaustion and awe as she took in the sight of Ghayle splayed across the rock.
"Ghayle?" the woman said, her voice hoarse from exhaustion. "I've made it . . ." she gasped, trying to stand and walk toward her goddess, but she stumbled and fell to her knees again. Continuing forward at a crawl, she closed the distance, taking Ghayle's hand in hers. "You're here, but . . . what is happening? What is this?" she reached toward the metal stake in Ghayle's heart her eyes filled with horrified wonder.
"Don't . . .!" Tagren said, making himself visible as he dashed toward the woman, catching her arm and holding it steady in the air, poised over the stake. "Don't touch that."
The woman tried to pull her arm away, her eyes wide with fright. At this proximity, Ghayle could feel the woman's pulse as keenly as her own, and her heart thundered in her chest. She finally calmed as Tagren let her go, and she moved several feet away, clutching at her wrist. "Who are you?" the woman asked.
"My name is Tagren," Tagren said tersely.
The woman's eyes widened in astonishment. "Tagren? As in . . . Thalgruen?"
"Yes . . . that is what the Gor call me in recent times," Tagren replied.
"You're real?" The woman asked. "And this is really Ghayle . . ."
Instead of answering her question, Tagren asked one of his own. "Who are you?"
"Marhys. Marhys Elrhanadan," the woman replied.
"That's a Northern Gor name," Quay said, stepping into the visible realm. "What are you doing here in the South?"
"My husband is of the Northern tribes, but my home is here," Marhys replied. "I came, as a new mother, seeking the Mother of All. Who are you?"
"Quay . . ." Marhys shook her head. "Your name is also familiar to me, but I can't remember why. Have I stumbled upon the home of the gods?"
"Home?" Quay laughed. "No . . . none of us would choose to live here, except maybe the brothers." She nodded toward the Elrok brothers as they made themselves known to Marhys.
"What is going on here?" Marhys asked.
"We cannot tell you. You should not be here," Tagren said urgently.
Drawing on Marhys' purity, Ghayle forced a sound to escape her long disused throat. "Let . . . her . . . stay."
"Ghayle!" Tagren said, forgetting Marhys to turn toward his lover. He took her hand and stared lovingly into her eyes, glad for some response from her at last. Ghayle spared him all the time she could, squeezing his hand weakly before turning to Marhys.
"Come here, Marhys," she said. "Let me feel your touch."
"Ghayle . . ." Marhys said as she resumed her position by Ghayle's side, taking her other hand. "I am humbled by your invitation."
"There is something wrong. You're ill. You've come a long way despite your sickness," Ghayle stated more than asked. She could sense everything about Marhys now, from her broken body to her faithful soul.
"Yes," Marhys replied.
"And you've been with child recently," Ghayle said. "You said you are a new mother? You've come for the ancient rite?"
"Yes," Marhys answered.
Ghayle smiled, her first in over a year. "No one has sought me so diligently in centuries. What drove you here?"
"The world has lost its way, my people have forgotten their heritage, both the Gor and Incarian no longer honor their ancient traditions," Marhys explained, her eyes filling with tears even as a hopeful smile graced her face. "My mother died in childbirth, but my father taught me her ways, filled my head with stories about Gor traditions. He called them myths and folklore, but after he died I went searching for meaning, and found it in those ancient stories."
"And that led you here, guided by instinct," Ghayle observed. She squeezed Marhys' hand as strongly as she could and said, "You are welcome here, Marhys."
Tears rolled down Marhys' cheeks as she said, "Is there anything I can do for you? I can sense your pain, Mother."
"You have already lessened my pain, simply by seeking me," Ghayle replied. "I must reward you for that. Traditionally, a reward of safety and protection for your family is in order."
"I only ask to serve you, as daughters have served mothers and mothers have served daughters since the dawn of time," Marhys said bowing her head humbly as she lifted Ghayle's hand and held it tightly to her breast.
"I freely give the gift of protection to your family, Daughter," Ghayle said. "You are pure of heart, and your child deserves a chance to live in this world. Your line will continue, through the end of this Trial the world endures."
"Trial, Mother?" Marhys asked.
"You will be among the Chosen, I can sense that in you, but I cannot tell you yet," Ghayle replied. "You will become an extension of me in this world, lingering on for as long as I persist. I will reward you with a great boon for your lineage, oh Warrior of the Wilds." She looked away from Marhys' long enough to call out, "Ibrix!"
Ibrix assumed his place next to Tagren, placing a calming hand on his old friend's shoulder even as he looked at Ghayle. "Yes, Ghayle?"
"Did you bring your tools with you?" Ghayle asked.
"Of course, Ghayle," Ibrix replied.
"Find the purest Azramel, and make the finest blade you've ever made," Ghayle said. "Nobak," she called out next. The Elrok approached Ghayle and stood at her feet. "Bind her blood and soul to the blade, that she may live on in it when her body fails her. Bind my blood to the blade, that her soul may entwine with mine," Ghayle said.
"We will abide your will, Ghayle," Nobak said, placing his hands before him, left hand fingers curled into his right palm as he bowed toward her.
"Aye, that we will," Ibrix said, nodding to Nobak. "Come on, stoneface, let's get to work. Where can I find some Azramel around here?"
"The head of the hammer which drove the stake into Ghayle should suffice," Tagren offered. "The haft is made from Ebrani, so it should work for the hilt of the blade as well. You'll find it among my belongings."
"Aye, you've an eye for quality if I've ever seen one, Tagren," Ibrix said. He nodded to Ghayle and added with a sad smile, "I'll set to work right away."
"Anything to make Ghayle happy," Tagren said neutrally.
"Tagren," Ghayle said. "I'd like you to take care of Marhys. I will not be able to speak to her for much longer. Even with the strength I can draw from her purity, I am slipping back into the pain."
"I understand," Tagren replied. "Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Nothing you have not done already, dear one," Ghayle said fondly. "I wish I could stay and speak with you a while longer."
Tagren's eyes welled up with tears as he said, "We will have time beyond the gate together, when the Trial ends."
"Yes," Ghayle agreed. "For eternity beyond the gate." She let him go, and regarded Marhys one more time with the gaze of a mother staring at her newborn babe. "Daughter, go with Tagren, he will see to your comfort."
And then Ghayle let go, succumbing once more to the corruption which surrounded her. She remained able to listen, able to experience the world through her Chosen who surrounded her. Tagren helped Marhys to her feet and guided her away from the shelf of rock, intending to follow Ghayle's words to the letter.
As they passed Aika, the Fedain made herself known to Marhys by first allowing her cat to manifest, then coming up behind it, stroking the beast's head. "You have need of healing. I can sense great sickness in you. Let me preserve you," she said.
"No, thank you," Marhys replied. "I will die at my appointed time. I have no wish to interfere with the death of my body."
Aika's eyes widened for a moment, but she nodded, smiled peacefully, and said, "Very well."
"Are you . . . Aika?" Marhys' asked.
"That's correct," Aika said with surprise.
"Kaeral speaks of you at times. We've exchanged many stories of our tribes. He once compared my beauty to yours," Marhys said. She blushed and bowed. "I see now he was mistaken, for you are far more beautiful than me."
"What a charming young woman," Quay said as she joined them. "Is she trying to sleep with a god?"
"I don't claim that lofty title, Quay. I prefer to remain Chosen, not god," Aika said.
"And Ibrix . . ." Marhys said cautiously, "is he not . . . Hundrog, the blacksmith?"
"You know your gods. That's rare these days," Quay said.
"Chosen," Aika corrected.
"Not in her mind," Quay said, biting her lip as she looked over Marhys again. "Look at her, all venerating and cute."
"You're not sleeping with her, Quay," Aika said, groaning. "Stop trying."
The two continued to argue as Tagren used the opportunity to lead Marhys away. Now that Ghayle had accepted her, he was far less anxious about her presence, and wished to show her his best hospitality.
"May I get you something to eat or drink?" he asked once they'd moved far enough away from Quay and Aika to speak over their bickering.
"Yes, I'm feeling weak," Marhys said. "I am no longer able to endure long trips without rest or sustenance as I could in my youth."
"You made it all the way up this mountain, you must be exhausted," Tagren observed, changing course to take her toward his personal camp on the mountainside.
"I am dying," Marhys said, chuckling. "It comes with the territory."
Tagren smirked at that and said, "No wonder Ghayle likes you. You see humor in death."
Marhys shrugged and replied, "I was taught my whole life that death is a cycle. I believe I'll live again, either in this world or some other."
"I share your belief, though most do not anymore," Tagren said. They reached his tent, and he set her on a boulder as he fished around for a wineskin. It would wet her throat at least until he could get her some water from the stream a mile below them. "Your courage is admirable."
"Life, too, is a cycle, full of as many mountains and valleys as any great journey. The view from low places differs from the high places, but each can be appreciated for its distinct beauty," Marhys said.
"That's an unusual bit of wisdom," Tagren said, smiling in approval, as Marhys took a drink.
"From my husband," Marhys explained. "He learned it from the Order of the Mountain."
"A wise man to learn from wise men," Tagren said.
"Who are you, Thalgruen?" Marhys asked, regarding him quizzically. "You are close to Ghayle, and keep company with gods, but the only mention of you in the myths are that you are a companion to Ghayle."
"She protects my identity, because I never wished to be worshipped or venerated," Tagren said, sighing. "Though I, too, am among the immortals who serve Ghayle. I am her husband."
"Tell me about her," Marhys requested.
"What would you like to know?"
Marhys' eyes lit up with at the potential of that question. "Everything."
Tagren sat at the edge of the rock, keeping an eye on Ghayle but less worried than usual. Marhys sat next to Ghayle, content to spend her remaining waking hours next to her goddess and hold her hand, offering Ghayle some comfort in the misery she endured.
At least Ghayle had someone other than him, who was willing to watch over her, who would put Ghayle's needs above her own at all times. Though his companions among the Chosen had lessened his anxieties some, it was Marhys who made him feel less alone.
The flutter of wings drew his attention westward, to Khalis' familiar form in the sky. He stood to greet the god properly, bowing as Khalis landed and shifted back to his Sendar form.
"Khalis, you're back." Tagren said, when Khalis lifted him from his bow.
Khalis smiled, but then his eyes immediately turned toward Ghayle and Marhys as he said, "Strange . . . to find such purity here."
"What?" Tagren asked. "What do you mean?"
Khalis pointed to Marhys' and said, "Her. She will suffice. Her essence will contribute, in the name of Cyclicity." He took a step toward her, his fingers elongating into cruelly sharp claws. "I need to cut something out of her."
"She's with Ghayle," Tagren said, catching Khalis' arm and stopping his approach. "May she keep her for a little while longer? Ghayle is waiting for Ibrix and Nobak to complete a sacred ritual on her behalf."
"I am compelled to seek the purities, and I cannot stave off the urge for long," Khalis said, retracting his claws though his eyes remained on the woman.
"Marhys has honored ancient traditions to come to us, Khalis," Tagren said. "She deserves to be honored in turn."
Khalis sighed and turned toward Tagren again at last. "While we wait, I have two more ingredients to deliver to you. Both came to me in Oligan. Spittle of a rebel, the purity of movement." He opened a slit in his skin and drew from it a crumpled rag, stashed within a bottle.
Tagren took the bottle and raised it toward the sun, eyeing it with curiosity. "Interesting."
"And the cerebrum of twin psychics, the purity of connection," Khalis said, opening a slit on the other side of his body and withdrawing a jar, filled with two human brains. As soon as Tagren took the large jar, Tagren turned back toward Marhys' and asked, "May I take her now?"
"Khalis . . ." Tagren said. "Wait, please?"
Khalis growled and said, "I've been across this whole world. Purity is a fleeting thing. If I do not harvest it when I come across it, I am often too late, and it becomes corrupted by the state of the world."
Ghayle sensed something inching toward her but could not determine its source. This puzzled her, for Tagren argued with Khalis about Marhys' fate and yet neither made any move to approach her. Had a change had occurred in the gate? Had the ritual neared completion? The presence felt as unknowable as Khalis, as alien as any force beyond the veil of life.
"Mother!" Marhys said sharply, squeezing her hand with sudden pressure as her pulse quickened in fear. "Mother, something is inside of me!"
And Ghayle could feel it through her, something sliding in from below, a tentacle slicing and pulling as it ripped Marhys open and took out what it desired. Marhys collapsed against Ghayle's chest as the tentacle receded, returning to its master.
Ghayle feared for her daughter, as Marhys bled from her groin, her strength and lifeforce fading quickly. Ghayle could not speak, and Marhys' willingness to die at her appointed time kept her from crying out for help.
And then she felt Tagren's horror, and switched a part of her mind to him as Khalis lifted a bloodied tentacle extending from the base of his morphic body, two extracted ovaries hanging from its clutches. "The purity of Cyclicity," Khalis said, dropping the ovaries into Tagren's hand. "Only two ingredients remain. Await my return, and we will perform the ritual."
He shifted into a bird and flew away, leaving Tagren dumbstruck and disgusted as he slipped the ovaries into the jar with the brains. It took him only a moment to process what had happened, and he glanced over at Marhys', who had collapsed over Ghayle's chest, blood pooling on the stone beneath her.
"Aika!" Tagren shouted as he rushed to Marhys' side. "Aika, I need you!"
"Do not . . . heal me," Marhys said. "I will take my place in the cycle."
Aika rushed forward on the back of her cat, dismounting as she approached Tagren's position. "This isn't good, Tagren. She'll be dead in minutes with this much bleeding. What happened?"
"Khalis," Tagren said bitterly. "Apparently he needed something from her and refused to wait. Why aren't you healing her?"
"I know her mind on this, Tagren," Aika said. "It is against my vows to heal an unwilling subject."
"But Ghayle needs her!" Tagren insisted.
Ghayle summoned all her strength to catch Tagren's arm and say, "No. The blood. Keep the blood."
Tagren and Aika shared a look, and both called to the shaman. "Nobak! We need you!"
In the final moments of Marhys' life, she lay in the presence of gods, and could not be happier for a life spent in service to her truest self. Though it would not be the end for her, Ghayle still wept through her nightmares for the loss of her most precious daughter.
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