Talla's Fallen Temple Ch. 12byxtorch©
In a corner of the giant hall, as far as they could be from any of the crackling fires that kept the cool, midnight air at bay, two women sat with their feet up on the low table in front of them. They faced each other from opposite sides of the table, their ankles crossed for the sake of propriety even as their legs physically blocked anyone from entering the little nook they'd sectioned off for themselves.
Not that anyone would have joined them uninvited. One didn't simply walk up to a Sorceress and her Second unless summoned or on an errand of some importance.
"You seem troubled, Mistress," Tia observed.
She took a sip of red wine from the glass in her hand and waited.
The Sorceress of Within didn't speak, nor did she meet her eyes. She stared, instead, at her own glass of white wine. There wasn't much that Tia could do at this point. Her Mistress had asked her to come down to the Hall, handed her a drink, her favourite one, and led her to this table.
Finally Within turned her eyes up to meet Tia's, bringing with her gaze a leaden weight of darkness. The Sorceress reached down to the hem of her olive working skirt and flicked it up, giving her Second a brief glance between her thighs.
It was time to be human, was it? A friend? It occurred to Tia that her Mistress might not have any real friends, lofty as her position was. Here, with this gesture, she asked Tia for confidence and frank discussion.
The Second returned the gesture, feeling the cool air of the hall seethe along her legs as she gave a flick to the hem of her own skirt.
"Last night," Within said, by way of introducing the subject.
She stopped, quite uncharacteristically. This was a woman who always spoke her mind. She was a physician, for nine gods' sake, and here she was unable to complete a sentence?
What had happened last night? Tia could only think of one thing.
"The upgrade, Mistress?"
"P'ren," the Sorceress said.
"My name, Tia," Within said. "My name is P'ren."
"I – I see," Tia stuttered.
A serious violation of protocol. No matter the situation, one simply didn't use a Sorceress's name.
"Was it the upgrade?" Tia asked.
She wasn't willing to use her Mistress's given name, but she could at least try to remember not to put the honorific on the end of every sentence.
"Yes," the Sorceress said.
The woman in green was staring, utterly befuddled, at her drink again.
"It was Zhair'lo, was it not?"
"Yes, I chose him on purpose," Within – P'ren – volunteered. "I told myself it was because I had to see what he was about, whether he was as powerful as the previous accident had led us to believe."
The previous accident being, of course, the episode in which the Second of Abundance had ploughed four times the advisable amount of magic into the poor boy and nearly killed both him and the girl he'd been upgrading.
"You had tasted his seed," Tia volunteered, meaning 'you already knew his power, didn't you?'
The Sorceress nodded, agreeing to her statements both spoken and not.
"I wanted to see his strength in the Chamber," she replied.
"You found it unusual?"
"He caused me – I was drawn – I allowed -" the Sorceress stuttered to a halt.
Tia had never seen her Mistress like this. Was she getting that old? Was this unsteadiness some strange onset of senility? She knew her Mistress's medical status. Even though the weight of Perfection could take some years from a woman's life, this particular woman was nowhere near the age of Weakening even for that.
P'ren's eyes snapped up to meet Tia's.
"I moved my body," she said, boldly. "So that he penetrated me."
"A nervous twitch, perhaps," she spat out in desperate rationalization. Anything to excuse her Mistress's error. "A muscle spasm."
The Sorceress gulped and shook her head.
"No," she said. "I felt him against me. It felt like I was a Virgin again, desperate to feel a man inside me. Heedless. Careless. From the moment his erection touched me, I felt desire overwhelming me. I pushed down. Took him inside me."
"Briefly, though," Tia said by way of excuse.
"Oh quite," the Sorceress confirmed. "He backed away instantly, the bare centimetre that was required for withdrawal. I'm sure that no one saw anything."
"He backed away?" Tia asked. The unspoken question being: 'And not you?'
The Sorceress took another sip of her wine before sealing her lips and returning her gaze to the table.
Tia watched her Mistress, watched the emotions swirling across her face. Here was a Sorceress, a woman of Within, trained as much as anyone to use her genitals to control men on behalf of the Temple. And here she was, admitting to Tia alone, that a man had somehow controlled her. Not even a man – or barely a man – a boy.
"He's more powerful than we had thought," Tia observed.
"More powerful than they had ever thought," Within observed darkly.
"Welcome back," H'reena said, her voice as sweet as ever.
Maksa offered a slight bow to the Officer.
"You are disappointed," H'reena added, waving Maksa to a seat. "I can only apologize for having misled you."
It was nicely said, but that was Facial's skill, wasn't it? Saying things nicely?
"I had expected this weeks ago," Maksa said, trying to take the accusation out of her voice. "As you had indicated."
H'reena tilted her head sympathetically.
"Yes, I did," she admitted. "But I failed to take into account the ... historical antipathy between Pussy and Form."
Maksa locked the muscles of her face up. This was not a time to let her body language give away information. If only H'reena knew exactly how justified Form's suspicions were.
"You'll learn to school your expressions better than that," H'reena observed. "Among other gifts we will bring you."
"Indeed," H'reena said. "As I was saying, between the general dislike that Iron and Tight have for Pussy's stranglehold on mating and the fact that you have changed Disciplines ..."
H'reena let out a sincere sigh.
"They did a lot of stalling," she added. "Let's leave it at that."
"Well, I'm here now."
"Indeed," H'reena repeated, brightness returning both to her face and to the music that was her voice. "And so let me acquaint you with our Protocols."
It had been a good day, by all accounts. The men were taking their ease at what they called, with typical Hunter simplicity, the Halfway Camp. It was the place where they had a certain degree of civilization on the fourth night of a week long Hunt through the forest.
Given that they weren't in rut, taking down four bucks on the same day was a fine show for their efforts. The beasts had been field cleaned, strung up on poles and carried to the Halfway camp. On schedule, the carters had shown up at dusk to take the fresh kills away, leaving just enough for the Hunters to make a nice dinner. Though Is'ka didn't go out on Hunts, he always sent them out with enough bread for several days and a pouch of spices for anything they might catch.
Zhair'lo was proud that he'd actually managed to put an arrow through an animal and, though the killing shot had most likely been delivered by Kenji, he was glad to have a part in the day's over achievement.
Satisfied with their success, the Hunters reclined by their fire.
For once, Zhair'lo was content. There was food in his belly and there was a certain feeling of pride, watching the cart go away with its load of fresh meat. He'd done his job, after all, serving the women. It bothered him to feel that way, when he also wanted to tear the Temple down to its foundations.
What to make of it?
What did the other men do, after all, but serve the Temple as he had just done?
Was he any different, helping that which he hated?
He didn't like that idea at all.
No, it wasn't the Temple he served, but the women – and the men. He would bring the Temple down and everyone would be free to take to bed with whom they chose, when they chose.
'I serve the women,' he decided. 'And I will take pleasure from doing so. But not the Temple. Never the Temple, except by the coincidence that the women I help are inside it.'
At this point, it was quite natural for his mind to be focused on women, and not just because the bounty of the Hunt had been taken to them. Four nights ago he had upgraded V'shika. The morning after, they'd headed out on this Hunt and he hadn't seen a female body since. The other men seemed pretty relaxed about that, but it had been a long time since Zhair'lo had gone three straight nights without female companionship. For a while, back when he was doing upgrades for Endowment, it had been alternating nights of ejaculating on women and inside them.
Fortunate that Hunting was such tiring work, he didn't think much about it by the time the sun set.
Zhair'lo closed his eyes and laid back against the rock he'd padded with his animal skin carry-all and folded up cotton sheets, dreaming of Talla. He remembered the toss of her hair, the way she'd run at him and knocked him to the ground, the blue aura around her body the last time they'd meshed and the way she'd laughed ...
He could almost hear her laughing now, the sound buried under the crackling and spitting of the fire. Letting his mind wander, he drew the sounds of joy out of the whispers of flames, making the former louder in his mind.
A light sound of giggling was added, multiple voices now.
Zhair'lo's eyes opened.
The female voices were not in his imagination. He sat up, looking over the fire to the cart path that led a winding way north towards the city. Torchlight, bobbing along, shone through the trees and he quickly became aware that a party was headed this way.
The Hunters took this in stride, which made it very little different from the way they handled anything short of being hit by lightning. Clearly, these guests were expected. Zhair'lo had never really believed that women would come out this far just to Serve them. It seemed to him a very long walk and, never having been on a Hunt longer than three days, he had only Kenji's vague assurances that women would appear at some point.
As they came round the last bend into full view, the other men looked up, the appearance of welcoming in their expressions – perhaps even a touch of polite enthusiasm. But they were still Hunters, so they waited, as Hunters always did.
The three torchbearers were at the front of the group, the glare of their torches blurring out all but themselves. Once his eyes readjusted, Zhair'lo saw that these were the tallest of the women and they carried their torches on poles as tall as they were.
The men on the north side of the fire stood up as the women approached and made space for them around the fire.
Zhair'lo didn't have to count the women as they planted their torch-spears in the sand and gathered around the fire. There would be eighteen of them, to match the eighteen men. No way would the Temple leave anyone out of the cycle for more than four nights.
It was hard to tell the colours of their clothing in the firelight, for every piece of light fabric appeared yellowish-orange and every darker piece appeared reddish-orange. Even the shapes and cuts of their clothing gave him little to go on, what with the clear violations of the Temple's rules for that sort of thing.
But they would go in order of rank, wouldn't they? Why did he even care?
When the first of the gaggle of women stepped up to the fire, the others ceased their chattering. Zhair'lo became acutely aware of the benefit of his seated position.
She was a tall one, almost certainly from Form if he were to go by the legs, which were placed shoulder width apart. The skirt she wore – he supposed it could be called a skirt – was twin panels of fabric. One panel was hooked at her left hip and curved across the centre of her body at the level of her crotch to became ankle length on the right. The other panel went from the right hip, across the crotch to the left. The concave curves of fabric, most notably, did not quite cover the dark triangle between her thighs.
Above this, she wore a blouse of the same theme: shoulder to cleavage to hip; quite symmetrical and quite revealing though her breasts were slim. Zhair'lo might have noted that he was looking at three or more upgrades of Abundance, but he was far too captivated by the view down below.
He became aware that she was scanning the crowd, trolling for reactions perhaps, and her eyes caught his. Slightly embarrassed, he brought his gaze up. She smirked a moment, a smart twist of the left side of her lips, before slowly lowering her gaze to examine the place where her skirt parted. Her gaze came up again, watery blue eyes blazing back at him with reflected firelight, and she smiled.
The captivating woman took a deep breath.
"Kenji," she sang out, her voice sweet as a song.
Lucky bastard. That's what the guys on Harzen's Farm would say – politely waiting until the women had gone up before saying it.
They came forward one at a time after that, casually preening in front of the fire, parading both their bodies and their clothing. None held a candle to the first one, in her rather courageously revealing skirt, but each had her own attitude and style.
'If there's one benefit to being the youngest here,' Zhair'lo thought, 'it's that I get to see everything that comes by.'
Slowly, the count of the women dwindled as each was led away from the fire by her man-for-the-night. This was why every man had a tent to himself. The tents were permanent and well-maintained, the men bringing only their own blankets with them: one to protect their backsides from the rough canvas of the tent; the other as a coverlet to ward off the coldness of night.
And so it was that the count dwindled to one.
One girl standing before a fire, wearing a long, white skirt.
One boy reclining against a rock, directly opposite.
Zhair'lo tilted his head a notch, curious. The protocol for this was clear in his mind, he'd been through it so many times. It was so well drilled into his head that he expected her to follow it, no matter they were alone, in a forest, without anyone caring whether they did it right or not. So he pulled his legs up half way to his chest and let his elbows rest on his knees.
V'shika was looking at the fire, seemingly lost in a trance. Her eyes began to lift, dragging her gaze almost painfully across the sand round the fire, then over the soft grass at his feet. She traced along the length of his body, over his chest, until her eyes met his.
What was in her eyes? It wasn't just that the eyes and the eyelashes didn't belong on a Virgin of Within. Something else was in there. He'd never seen the like. There had been anger in the eyes of women. Desperation. Arousal. Fear. Disappointment. He'd thought that he had, by this point, seen every emotion he would ever see.
But V'shika held a new and terrible thing inside her.
A thing? What thing was it?
It seemed to be a kind of emptiness.
Her gaze wandered away, dispassionately, and she looked from the sand on one side of the fire to the sand on the other.
It didn't seem like a large decision. To reach him, assuming that she wasn't immune to being burnt, she had to walk around the fire. She merely had to pick left or right. A trivial thing, but it seemed to paralyse her.
Zhair'lo tried to see her face, but her neck was bent now, hiding all but her eyelashes and the points of her nose and chin.
A sigh made her chest rise and fall. Her head swung to one side and she began walking around the fire. He'd seen shy, but this wasn't shy. The body language was all wrong for that. Something was really wrong with V'shika.
He watched her approach, trying to see what expression was on her face, hoping he might find a clue there that explained all of this. But her face was down and, once past the fire, so little light fell on it that even from his position on the ground, he was unable to divine anything.
She came to stand between his legs and paused there a moment.
No expression on her face at all.
Time passed, awkwardly, and she decided to sit down, taking her place on the ground between his thighs and facing with her feet to his right. Her legs she placed over his right thigh as she curled up into his chest with her head tucked under his chin.
He didn't suppose there was anything particularly wrong with what they were doing. It didn't follow protocol, but he didn't imagine they'd get in trouble for it – even if any of the other women came out of their tents, which was unlikely anyway.
For all of that, it was pleasant, but odd. This was the sort of thing you did after sex, or between sex and more sex, not beforehand.
V'shika, however, was troubled. He should probably get to the bottom of that before anything else. But was it his place to start prodding her, or was it better to wait for her to begin speaking? That might be forever and she had, at least physically, gone to the effort of coming to him. Perhaps the next move was his.
"You are worried?" he asked, slowly.
There was a slight movement, a tilt of the head that said, possibly, 'No, not quite.'
He twisted his lips thoughtfully. She wasn't worried, which probably excluded 'afraid', 'shy' and 'nervous'. What else could be wrong.
"You waited a long time for me?"
"No," she whispered, a frail but beautiful sound that was nearly lost in the whistling of the fire
She inhaled and went on.
"You doubled me," she explained, speaking into his shoulder. "I needed the time to heal ... inside ... anyway."
He nodded. So that wasn't it.
'Think, gods damn it.'
Then it came to him. Her strange words before the upgrade attempt, three nights ago. While he'd held the magical charge within himself and approached her, she had whispered those inexplicable words.
'One more try.'
There had been a pause.
"Why was that your last try?" he asked. "What were they going to do?"
As far as Zhair'lo knew, the Temple would let Sealed Virgins try and try again. What else was there?
"Nothing," she whispered. "They weren't going to do anything to me."
Well, that was just mysterious. Then what had made it her last time? If the Temple wasn't going to limit her number of attempts, then who was?
"You were going to give up," he said.
He couldn't fathom that. He saw it in her now: the listless glances; the indecisiveness in the face of a tiny obstacle; the sagging shoulders.
Give up. What did that mean?
"But how would you do that?" he asked.
Would she just refuse to go to her next upgrade attempt? Block the door in her bedroom and refuse to come out?
"Lots of ways," she whispered. "At the neck. Or the wrists. The doctors in Within have potions – strong ones. I could just take too much of one of them."
Zhair'lo's eyes bulged as he realized that V'shika had been about to kill herself. He'd never even heard of anything like that.
So when she finally lifted her eyes to meet his, the expression she saw on his face was one of outright shock.
"But I want you to know," she said, each of the tears in her eyes a tiny burning fire, "you've helped me so much."
"Enough to keep living?" he blurted out.
"I think so."
That relieved him.
"Look," he said. "I don't want to ... to lecture you like some teacher. I don't want to tell you what to do, okay?"
She nodded, looking at him curiously.
"But I've been through some absolute bullshit, too," he told her firmly. "And it gets better. We can make it better."
Then, even more firmly, he stared her directly in the eye and lowered his eyebrows.