High Priestess Markaret stood alone in her private chamber, surrounded by pale brickwork that had once held a glossy sheen, but now had a coarse finish, thanks to time’s inevitable march. Hundreds of years of soot and smoke had given a grey aura to every surface, the result of a regular, daily ritual that Markaret now performed. Four black metal tables, each with a single leg, flowed upward to form bowls, in a style humans would refer to as ‘gothic’. Just under the bowls rested an encased oil lantern, which was currently lit, heating the coals in the bowls. Markaret, adorned in long, pure white robes, stood in the centre of the bowls, hands outstretched in the smoke. Her red skin was beginning to become uncomfortably warm in the confines of her room, but she bore the purification with the focus and poise of her predecessors, as Requeteran would have wished, and as the Words commanded. Pivoting in a broad circle, Markaret made sure to expose her palms to each smoky uprising, and her lungs sucked in the warm, ashen air.
When she had completed a full circle, her hands came down upon the burning coals themselves, and she gripped one in each hand, a slight flicker of her pupils the only indication of the pain she endured. Chon’ith hide was robust, and she held the coals for a full minute, cleansing her mind and soul with the display of strength expected of every Priestess.
When the ritual was finished, she removed the soot-stained robes, and took water from a jug to drink and ease the suffering in her throat. Each flame was extinguished by shutting the lanterns, and she used her remaining water to cool the embers of coals. Steam billowed around her, and for a brief, Markaret felt the very spirit of Requeteran upon her, smiling upon her brave leadership.
In the adjoining room, lined in the traditional fashion of red and grey stone, her High Priestess robes awaited, folded neatly in the drawer. Once dressed, Markaret considered her reflection in the mirror. Grey eyes betrayed no emotion, no compassion, no weakness. Decades of work in service of the Makers had lined her face, made her mere presence command authority. She would need to wield that authority today.
A buzzer sounded, denoting that someone wished to speak to her, or rather, the person she had summoned was waiting. She twisted the handle of the old wooden door.
Supreme Chief Ike’reth looked like he had aged considerably. Blood-red and gold armour appeared to weigh upon him, if his blue eyes were anything to go by. His green skin looked pale, as though he were anaemic.
“I am here.” He said simply.
The silver-armoured guards on either side of Markaret’s door crossed their ceremonial pikes in Ike’reth’s path. Men were forbidden from a Priestess’ chambers, especially that of the High Priestess. One more step and his limbs would be separated from his body in a bloody, spectacular manner.
“Walk with me.” Markaret said, stepping out into the corridor.
Tapestries lined the brick walls of the semi-circular passage, telling the story of the earliest Chon’ith, of how Requeteran had conquered and united the warring clans with the strength of the Makers. Markaret drew comfort from them, but could only draw so much. She knew her silence would concern Ike’reth, for silence was not one of her noteworthy traits, but she needed a moment to prepare herself for the latest bad news.
“What is the latest in our war fronts?” She asked quietly.
“The Cadj campaign continues to move forward. We destroyed two more shipyards and several orbital manufacturing stations last week. Such a blow to their construction effort should buy us time to divert forces to the humans.”
“And what of the humans? Do they still occupy the space above Chon’ith worlds?”
There was just a tiny hesitation on Ike’reth’s part. “They maintain a presence in four systems, but aside from raiding several other colonies a week ago, they have scaled back their presence in our territory. This is curious and puzzling.”
Markaret faced Ike’reth squarely. “It is beyond ‘curious’ Supreme Chief. Their presence is a disease, one you and your navy have yet to remove. However, I have faith in Requeteran, and therefore faith in you and your tactics. Muster what forces you need and drive them all the back to earth.”
“It will be my pleasure High Priestess.” Ike’reth inclined his head.
“There is another matter I would like your input into. The Enforcers assure me they have resolved it, but for the past two weeks, some… rumours, troubling whispers, have been reaching my ears.”
“I live to serve High Priestess.” Answered Ike’reth with practiced loyalty.
“The coward Seluban…” Markaret’s voice grew harsh. “It has been suggested that his Resistance…” She snarled the word. “Escaped the Forge, and that members of it are sounding out sympathisers, all over Oanerath.”
Ike’reth looked confused. “But, escaping the Forge… That’s impossible, is it not?”
“Correct. However…” Markaret’s voice grew quieter. “Since Seluban’s heretical message, there has been a surge in violence in the Forge. There have been sightings of people who claim to be part of the Resistance, who claim to be escapees from the Forge.”
“Lies.” Replied Ike’reth automatically.
“Quite, but the troubling question is why anyone would spread such lies, especially when they know the penalty.”
Ike’reth was silent, knowing that Markaret was leading the conversation.
“This conversation… it never happened. If you should dare breath a word beyond these walls, death will be a welcome release.”
“I understand, High Priestess.” Inwardly, Ike’reth felt troubled but such a strong pronouncement.
“Seluban’s Resistance did indeed escape the Forge. They spread their blasphemous message across our world, pouring scorn on the ideals that have held us together for so long. They poison minds, young and old, against the idea that strength will crush our enemies. I want them found, Supreme Chief, and I want them dead.”
“I am…” Ike’reth didn’t know quite where to begin. People had escaped the Forge? It did not seem possible, not for a bunch of cowards…
“Time is their ally, and our enemy. You must move with haste. Every bit of information we have is at your disposal.” Markaret turned to continue walking.
“But… High Priestess, the war…”
“It will take time to bring fleets together in meaningful strength, correct? That should buy you sufficient time to provide an impact to our domestic issue.” Markaret’s tone made it clear this was not a negotiation.
“I shall… I shall provide what input I can, High Priestess.” Ike’reth inclined his head slightly.
“I am sure you will.”
“… the data chips cannot deceive…” Acklaran told the small gathering that had assembled in the old-fashioned tavern. He savoured the scent of what humans would describe as an ale, trying not to over-indulge (again). Alcohol had been scare in the Forge, and what had existed had been… well, it was better to confine it to memory. “The humans are smart, smarter than us, making it clear we need to stop treating the Words so literally.”
An old Chon’ith, a red male, slammed his tankard upon the wooden table. “Requeteran and the Makers gave us those words to give us strength! Why would we abandon them?”
“I’m not asking anyone to abandon them, only to… consider them differently. Why do we interpret them in only one way, one rigid, uncompromising way, even as we lose battle after battle?” Acklaran implored.
A yellow female spoke up. “We owe Requeteran everything. We cannot give up how we see him now.”
Acklaran sighed. The circular arguments he’d faced were too many to count, across too many towns, and he knew his cohorts had faced similar exhausting conversations elsewhere. “I am not asking you to.”
“But you are.” The woman replied. Her orange eyes were round with… pity? “You cannot see the Makers’ wisdom for what it is, you cannot truly see the Words they passed to Requeteran.”
“And why is that?” He asked, annoyed at her condescending remark.
“You want us to change. Requeteran would not want us to change. He knew our unrelenting strength, victory through force and war, was the only way for us to survive.”
“And for what feels like the thousandth time, I am not saying we should abandon that!” Acklaran could feel the heat in his voice rising, despite himself. “But strength can be expressed in many ways. The humans do it, and you have seen the data, the reports, you know they are true. What else is true? Namely that they have defeated us in combat, time and time again. What happens when we do not change, not even a little, and their fleet is above Oanerath?”
The red male took a big swig from his drink, beer spilling over his cheeks and jaw. “If you doubt strength so much, prove there is another way.”
“Firstly, I do not doubt strength! Secondly, what do you have in mind?”
The male smiled toothily. “Come back ‘ere tomorrow. Be prepared to turn words into deeds.”