Sweat stung the eyes of the archaeologist as she concentrated. She was attempting to tie a proper knot around the eye hook in front of her, but she was having some difficulty.

"Gah, there!" The archeologist took a step back and tugged on the rope three times to signal that the crate was ready to be hoisted up. She was currently standing in a roughly hewn hole that was only several feet wide, but it made up for its lack of width with it's great depth.

The young student winced as she looked up and watched the crate move upward. She hoped dearly that her knot would hold, but she supposed she wouldn't have much time to regret it if it didn't. She pulled off her glasses and wiped them on her dirt stained shirt.

Her name was Penny Mint. At five six, she was a small woman with sharp features and short, unkempt hair. Her face was so smudged with dirt that it was difficult to tell her gender through her thick working clothes, but beauty was the last thing on her mind as she watched the crate disappear out of the small circle of light at the top of the hole.

"Thank goodness," she breathed a sigh of relief as she took up her flashlight. She swept it slowly over the ground to see if she had missed any of her excavation materials, then nodded in satisfaction.

A few moments later, the rope was lowered back down, and she grabbed the end of it to tie a loop.

"Oh, what?" her voice echoed dully in the deep sepulchre as she realized that a loop had already been tied for her. She smiled wryly and slipped her booted foot into the loop before grabbing onto the rope with both hands and tugging it.

She ascended gracefully as she stuffed her flashlight in her waistband. A moment later, she broke through the exit and took a deep breath. The air outside was hot and slightly humid, but compared to the heat of the hole she'd just come from it felt cool and inviting.

A young man offered her a hand, which she took gratefully. Once she'd gotten her bearings, she dusted herself off and faced him with a grin, "Do you think I'm incapable of tying my own knot?" She asked as she signed with her hands.

The young man, who didn't look much older than the girl, signed back, "I thought you might want the help, also my knots are better."

The young woman laughed, "Can't argue with you there, thanks for the help," she said without signing as she spoke directly to him.

Her partner nodded once. His name was Trenton Kai. He was tall and of average build with deeply tanned skin and soft features. The first thing that most people noticed when they met him however, was the fact that he was deaf. Though he wasn't mute, he preferred to sign, and Penny had never heard him speak for as long as she'd been working with him.

That fact suited her just fine. At her first year of university studies, she took sign language as a second language course. She hadn't thought she'd have much use for it at the time, but when she met Trenton it had come to her aid quickly. Like her, Trenton was working for the university as an intern archaeologist, and currently the two of them were on their last assignment. If they were able to find enough specimens, or important enough, then their excavation would guarantee them their degrees.

"Find anything good?" Trenton asked with his hands as he knelt in front of the crate he'd hauled up.

"Yes, a few Keptic shards. This reinforces our theory that the people who lived here before the Magdrabda knew how to use them, at least on some level." Penny signed without speaking. The two had been working together for nearly a month, and signing had become as natural as speaking for her.

Trenton dug through the box carefully and held up one of the artifacts with a smile. He set it down and chuckled soundlessly, "I thought you were crazy for wanting to go down there, but you might have cinched this deal for us."

"Not gonna say I told you so," she mouthed deliberately to him with a small, smug smile.

He laughed once more, "Come on, you look a wreck, let's go cool off."

She nodded in tired agreement as she covered her face from the early afternoon sun, "Good idea."

Fifteen minutes later, Penny found herself sitting in the shade beside her partner with a tall cup of flavored water. The weather was unseasonably warm for that time of year, and as Penny looked up at the sky she could see the most distant sun beginning to set. The landscape was an interesting mix of jungle and desert, and there was a certain beauty to it that she knew she was going to miss when it came time for them to leave.

Trenton sighed heavily and settled back against the tree they were sitting under.

She turned to him and signed with one hand, "What's wrong?"

He offered her a weak smile and shrugged, "Just thinking about my own mortality; tomorrow is my birthday."

"Oh, you didn't tell me that before," she said with a bit of surprise. "You're like, what, thirty two?"

Trenton glared at her with a smile, "I'm turning thirty one."

She giggled nervously, "I'm sorry, it's just that you have such an air of maturity about you."

He chuckled, "What about you, miss youth?"

"You're not supposed to ask a lady her age," Penny signed as she spoke with a slightly flirtatious smile.

"Oh yeah? I think you owe me this information after that crack. How old, twenty seven?"

It was her turn to laugh, "You're too kind. I'm twenty nine; this is my last year of twenties and then it's all downhill from there."

"You're not exactly encouraging me," he snickered. "I really thought you were younger, it must be your air of immaturity."

"All right, I deserved that," She took a sip of her drink before asking, "So, have we known each other long enough for me to ask personal questions or are we still strictly business?" She'd spoke deliberately and slowly so she could read his lips. She'd learned that he was quite good at it and most times he didn't even need her to sign if they were facing each other.

"I'd say it depends on the question... well, not really, I'm an open book, I just don't offer information about myself unless someone asks."

She'd known him for a little less than two months, and she knew that she was taking a risk when she agreed to embark upon their excavation. Her friends (more like colleagues) had thought she was crazy for venturing out into the tribal area with someone she barely knew, but she was determined to prove herself. In the end, her biggest driving factor was her own desire to overcome challenges, and she was doing it more for herself than for anyone else. Still, she wasn't the type to pry, and it was only recently that he'd begun to open up to her.

"Let's see. I suppose the question is: why did you pick archeology as a major?"

"Oh, that's easy; I've always loved the idea of studying old cultures and civilizations. It's intriguing to me because we think we're always advancing, but in reality the majority of our technology has existed in some way shape or form for thousands of years. It's exciting to see the past in the present; like the shards you found. It opens up possibilities for new trains of thought, which I personally think is important to the scientific community."

"That was a wonderful speech," she grinned, "Really, I mean it. How long have you been attending the university?"

"Three years now..." Trenton paused with a thoughtful look, "Yeah, just about."

"What were you doing before that?"

"Stuff I didn't like as much. Just working on compression chambers with my father. That was how I lost my hearing, in an accident."

Penny frowned, "I'm sorry," she mouthed sincerely.

He smiled, "Hey, don't be. In many ways, it was a good thing for me. My fiance left me and I got to come here to pursue my dream, really it's one of the best things that have ever happened to me."

"What? You were engaged?" She signed as her curiosity got the better of her.

"Yup, is that so hard to believe?"

She shook her head, "No, no, it's just that it surprised me." She paused, "And... she left you because you lost your hearing?"

He nodded, "She tried to convince me that it was for other reasons, but I knew that was the only reason. She saw me as handicapped at that point, and honestly, after I got over it, I realized that I didn't want to be with a woman who couldn't handle such a small thing. I mean, yeah, it altered my life in an extreme way, but I don't feel handicapped. There are things I miss, of course, like music, but I'm not going to grow old and bitter about it."

Penny furrowed her brow, "Still, that's wrong of her. I'm glad you didn't end up with someone like that."

"Why do you look so upset? You seem more mad about it then I was."

She blinked. She hadn't realized how emotional she was becoming, and she shook her head, "Oh, it's nothing... just hit a little close to home, is all."

"Oh, well now you have to tell me your heart wrenching tale," He sat up expectantly and placed his fist under his chin as if he were waiting for her to tell him a story.

She laughed lowly before casting her eyes downward, "It's kind of personal."

"Ah, well you don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," Trenton became serious.

"No, it's fine, it's just that I've never really told anyone. It's not a huge secret, anyhow," she added as she moved her hands in front of her. She took a moment to gather her thoughts before she spoke, "I was engaged once, as well. This was years ago, I was twenty three and my fiance was a successful researcher who was five years older than me and seemed to have everything figured out," she spoke as she signed, and somehow the extra movements made the story easier to relay. "I had a checkup and it didn't go so well. Got a call from the doctor and they said that, uh, I was infertile. I asked about options, they said that there weren't any and ultimately they told me that I would never have children. My fiance didn't take it well and we started fighting then he ended it." She pursed her lips and sighed. Whatever tears she might have shed were long passed, but she still felt an inexplicable pain whenever she thought about it.

Trenton looked at her soberly for a long moment before reaching out and placing his hand on hers. He pressed down reassuringly before taking his hand back, "You deserve better... that guy didn't deserve you, and he can keep his fancy lifestyle."

She replied with a half smile, "Thanks...I think you're right." She held eye contact with him for several seconds before looking away suddenly, "I need to go talk with Hanma, i'll see you at dinner?"

"Yeah...wait, no, they're having that ritual tonight."

"Ah, yes, the ritual," she paused, "Hanma said we were invited, but I think I'm going to wait in my tent, I want to respect their privacy."

"Likewise," he took a deep breath and raised his arm like he was going to tell her something, but lowered it immediately.

"Well, I'll see you later," she smiled softly as she wiped her forehead.

He nodded and took a sip of his drink as she walked away.

Penny strolled through the village and greeted several people as she went. The Magdrabda were one of a few civilized natives that lived far away from the cities of the main continent, and they maintained a humble lifestyle that largely went without the conveniences of modern living. Where Penny came from, keptic shards acted as batteries that gave power to just about everything, but recently she'd learned how to do most everything without them.

The villagers themselves were every bit as diverse and interesting as one would expect from an economy driven by pure trade. Most of them wore handmade clothing, and Penny herself had already acquired several outfits by trading things that she'd brought with her from home.

Most of the homes she passed were made entirely of cloth and fur, which suited the arid climate. The archeologist stopped in front on one particular hut that was so large that it could have easily been mistaken as a more concrete structure.

She parted the thick fur doors and clutched a cloth bundle in her arms as she stepped in.

A few people sat inside, speaking amongst themselves. An elderly woman at the far end of the room waved to her, and Penny headed over promptly.

"Did you finally dig up your fortune?" The woman asked with an incredulous though well meaning smile.

"In a way, yes," Penny answered as she set the bundle down in front of the woman.

The elder of the village, Hanma, was obviously well on in years, but there was no hint of senility behind her eyes as she swept open the bundle. It was agreed upon from the beginning that anything Penny found during her excavations would be brought to the elder for inspection. There was always a chance that her findings could hold some sort of religious significance for the village, but so far Hanma hadn't been interested in anything Penny had brought.

It seemed like today was no exception, and the elder glanced over the old dusty trinkets indifferently, "More crystals, enh?"

"Yes, it's a good find for us. They aren't of any real value, other than historically, but it's helping our hypothesis about the area."

"Well, as long as you're happy then I suppose I won't call it junk," Hanma laughed. "I've seen enough, and you've been here long enough for me to know that you're not going to try and run off with anything without letting me know first."

"I appreciate your trust," Penny chuckled as she rolled the old crystals back into their cloth. "We're not doing this for profit; Trenton and I are simply trying to get our degrees."

"And then what will you do?"

"Oh, well, the same thing I suppose, only I'll have a silly piece of paper certifying the fact that I know how," she laughed. "It's all so political, as I'm sure you know."

"That's why I'm here," Hanma agreed, "Everything is political, though it's unavoidable anytime people get together. Speaking of getting together, will you be attending our little party this evening?"

"Oh, I don't think so... I really don't want to interfere with..."

"You can't interfere," Hanma laughed as she waved the girl's comment off. "Not unless you start throwing things at the drummers."

Penny pursed her lips, "If you don't mind me asking, what is it exactly that's happening this evening?"

"The annual Rizm ceremony," Hanma replied flatly. "It is both the closing and opening ceremony for the upcoming year and represents the life and death of everything that keeps us moving forward."

"I see...that's fascinating," Penny said genuinely as she leaned forward, "How is this celebrated?"

"In many ways, but in all they are celebrated with the drums of the Sketn, that would be skin in your language. One hundred drummers sit in a circle around the great fire pit in center of our village. When midnight strikes by the sign of the moon's shadow, the beat begins. One drummer plays. Every minute that passes, the next drummer joins him, until all drummers are playing. The beat is kept at pace by our head Kelnm, who escalates the volume and speed at his discretion."

"Interesting... very interesting. And... that's it?" She added, unable to hide her curiosity.

Hanma cackled, "That's it, she says. Child, yes, that's it. The Rizm is the party. On this night, people do the things that they never had the courage to do at any other point of the year. It's been many years, but men used to settle their disputes on this night by fighting to the death by the music of the Sketn. People pray and challenge the gods; some have visions. Many children are conceived on this night," she nodded knowingly to the young woman, "Because their parents cannot contain their passion. You and your partner should join in," she added offhandedly, as if the two statements were separate.

Penny blushed, "N,no, I don't believe we will, thank you for the offer just the same. My partner is deaf, you know, and our relationship is strictly professional."

"Ah yes, strictly, I'm sure," Hanma cackled again. "It doesn't matter that he's deaf; the music will get through to him, it gets through to everyone. You might want to tell him that; I've seen the way he looks at you and there is nothing professional about it. Come now, there's nothing to be embarrassed about, surely a woman your age is thinking about settling down and having a child or two?"

Penny stiffened as she attempted to stifle another bout of flushed cheeks, "I am incapable of having children... so no, it hasn't been on my mind."

The village elder laughed and Penny went wide eyed. Every time she'd brought up her infertility for some reason or another, people had always looked upon her with pity and offered her some sort of consoling word. She hadn't doubted the sincerity of theirs, or more recently, Trenton's condolences, but never in her life had anyone laughed about it. She wasn't sure whether or not she was offended or mortified, but she decided that it was more humorous than anything, so she began to laugh along with the woman.

"My dear girl," Hanma said as she quieted herself. "Just because some doctor or another said you couldn't get pregnant doesn't mean that you can't try."

Penny coughed, unable to hide her reddening cheeks the third time around, "Y,yes, I suppose not. In any case, I think it's best that I stay inside, but I really do appreciate the offer and all of the hospitality you've shown us."

Hanma nodded, "Of course, it's been a pleasure having you."

Penny turned to leave but the elder raised her finger suddenly, "Oh, a word of warning: no matter what you do, you won't be able to get away from the Rizm. We hold it on this night not because we choose to, but because the Rizm itself holds itself here. The Rizm will be all around you this evening, Sketn or no. I hope this doesn't sound like a threat, I am merely trying to warn you." She nodded surely, "You will be affected by it, whether you are present or not, so I suggest making peace with some of your demons before hand, if you have any."

The old woman's statement felt oddly foreboding to the archeologist, and she felt a bit of a chill go down her spine as she nodded, 'I'll keep that in mind... thank you again."

The village was abuzz with activity as people everywhere went about their preparations for the ritual. Penny did her usual light shopping and headed back to her hut.

After spending some time organizing and cleaning her findings, she gathered some laundry and headed to the local well to wash some of her clothes. Afterwards, she brought them back to the hut to dry and tried to concentrate on some reading.

The evening wore on into the night as the sun set. Penny had spent the entire time in her hut. It wasn't a lavish place to live, but it was comfortable, and she had everything she needed to sleep well. Most of the room was taken up by her equipment and findings, and her own personal items like clothing and supplies took up the rest. Her bed was a mess of furs on the floor, and though primitive, she had been regularly sleeping better on it than the most expensive beds she'd ever laid on.

She guessed the time to be around ten o' clock, and she assumed that most everyone would be congregated at the center of town, so she snuck out and headed toward the well.

She drew several large buckets of water for herself and carried them back to her hut, where she dumped them into a basin. After undressing, she bathed quickly and dragged the water outside to dump it.

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