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Commonwealth of Twelve Worlds,
inside the Maelstrom
Around the great bonfires the priests moved. They went from one crusader to the next performing their rites. Hundreds of Frondauri dressed in white and charcoal uniforms stood silently in circles around the bonfires, waiting. The lights of the maelstrom danced about in the sky overhead, dimmed by the roaring fires around.
Somewhere a band played a forlorn tune, the bladder-reeds wailing while flutes mourned and strings plucked somberly. “Come and cast your burdens upon the flame. Let your fears be carried into the sky!” At the bidding of the priests a Frondauri would go forward and cast an object, something to represent what they were leaving behind, what they were protecting. The fire would blaze up at the proffered offering, and the Frondauri would return to where they’d been standing before.
The priests would walk among the ranks, approach a crusader and ask “Which gods guide you tonight?” and upon the answer would paint an intricate pattern on their faces, geometric and fractal shapes which spoke of the chosen gods and their connections.
One by one each uniformed crusader told of their divine protectors, sometimes choosing three, rarely one, but mostly two. The priests would chant in Archon as they traced the patterns of war paint across the face. The recipient would stand stoically, barely moving as they were prepared for battle.
Many knew they would likely not be returning. Their enemy was fierce, fast, and capable of turning even the most devout into walking shades. There were no pre-battle boasts. This was a matter of death or a worse fate.
Their commander watched the ceremony unfold from the darkness beyond the bonfires. The grim resignation of those prepared to die. She was proud of their bravery, and hoped they would live past this first battle.
‘We have prepared,” she thought, and hoped they’d prepared enough.
The Shyanar Hunters were also performing their own rituals, preparing for the battle to come. They sang in their bird-like chirping language. They danced around their own, smaller, fires. Their preparations were louder than the solemn proceedings of the frondauri. But the commander knew they were no less prepared, and no less understanding of the dangers of their mission.
A priest approached the commander where she brooded. “The night passes quickly,” spoke the priest, an elderly Horrathi male. His purple skin appearing nearly black in the dark. “Are you ready to lead your forces into battle?”
“I am,” she answered curtly. “I will not fail the commonwealth.”
The priest’s eyes studied her, perhaps looking for signs of doubt or fear, but he found none. “Very well. Which gods guide you tonight?”
“I am led by Harklaedus, god of war. His banner shall be my banner, his trumpet my charge.”
“A wise choice,” the priest said. He readied his paint, dipping a finger into the bowl he carried. “Is there another who guides you as well?”
“One other,” the commander said, her voice turning grim. “Persephae, the goddess of death.”
The priest let out a low hiss from between his teeth. The commander met his judging stare without flinching. “Do not joke of such matters. Death already knows your name, do not draw her attention upon you.”
“Her attention has already been drawn. And if we are lucky we will feel her embrace. If not…” the commander trailed off for a moment before finishing her thought. “If not, we will have a worse fate.”
The priest didn’t speak again but instead busied himself tracing marks across her face. His fingers danced nimbly across the skin, tracing over cheek and bones. Around her eyes, over the brow, and then down to the chin, stopping only to get more paint, before continuing. He did not chant as the priests did with the others. To invoke death was unwise, and to chant prayers to her was foolish. When he was done he stepped back. “It is finished. May the gods be with you.”
And then he was gone, leaving the commander alone in the dark once again. The doleful music continued through the night. From time to time a fire blazed up as something was cast into it. And the commander continued to wait. The sun would rise soon and with it day would finally come. Then the horns of crusade would sound and all their readiness would be tested.
Burning the Past - Harry Gregson-Williams