Wariness, a certain paranoia, kept Es’Con from sleep and drove him out into the night, leaving the safety of his bed and all the other hunters in the bunkhouse. Vilni and his crew were still awake, playing stones when he stepped out of the round structure. For his part, the master hunter asked Es’Con to join them in their game, but the younger man abstained. There was an attempt to coerce Es’Con to remain and watch while they played and perhaps take part as they passed around the pipes, but again Es’Con rebuffed. Instead, Es’Con suggested he was too charged with restless energies to stay sitting or standing with the crew of hunters. He informed Vilni that he would be back after a walk, just one long enough to lose some of that unnecessary vigor. Yet, Es’Con did not tell where he would walk or if that were all he had in mind.
Starting at a casual pace, Es’Con fell into a creeping gait until he was nearly crawling on all four like a beast. It was the method he went about for stalking prey or hunting down another person on that rare occasion. Even were the streets still host to those few headed for home in the twilight hours, they would not have detected Es’Con as he sneaked his way into the heart of the village. He was a shadow in the blackest depths of a pit, a ghostly illusion that any viewer would quickly dismiss as their eyes playing a trick on them. In good time, Es’Con found himself at the temple, an onion-roofed marble building that sat dead center to all other establishments in Yone Shire. There were few windows and only one set of doors, but a hunter could make do and find access to the most secure places. Es’Con would do just that.
High up on the onion-shaped dome, Es’Con found the type of break in the tile he was looking for in only a short time. There was one late summer evening in his youth he had seen the four high ovoid windows opened and shuttered amid a service. He had never been so glad to be such an absent-minded youth as he pried up the shutter from the outside, creating space enough to admit himself. The windows let out on the inside, just where the skeleton of the temple was set. With ease, Es’Con deposited himself onto the rafters and crept over gaps and rotting wood to find himself hanging just over the central altar. There wasn’t the slightest sign of the elders, which was good as far as Es’Con considered things. He had no intention of going to them if he could extract the answers he craved from the source itself.
Gripping the rafter he stood on, Es’Con swung himself down until his feet were nearly planted on the alter. Rocking himself back and forth from his dangling position, he threw himself down the pulpit to the central rows where the clan would pray. Quietly as he could in the candlelit temple, Es’Con crept on all fours, checking the less substantial rooms in the front of the building before making his way to the back area wherein the elders resided. With luck, he found all three fully asleep, Hamah snoring loud enough to cover any accidental noises that Es’Con might make. However, in addition to his one fortune, the hunter too found his most damning hurdle to leap.
The girl lay in the center of the room, within a pace of any of the three beds she sat at the foot of. On top of that, she was chained down to the floor with four locks sealing her in place with only the slightest bit of wiggle room. And, were all the extra precautions not enough, a bell charm was affixed on either ring finger, making her slightest movement the cause of a cascade of noise. Es’Con pulled in a deep breath and then studied the room as intimately as he could by the insufficient light of one low lantern that lit the room in an eerie pumpkin glow.
There was a key on the bedside table beside the lantern. It was just beneath the light source but was within reach. Another hung above Hamah, who would have swallowed the thing were it jostled even slightly, his mouth completely agate amid his nocturnal howling. A third could be seen just barely, set in the heap that was elder Quway’s robes. All but the fourth was in sight, but that would still pose the issue of how Es’Con would remove the chains without a sound. Then it struck Es’Con, another constraint that would be the sink or swim of his journey across these unknown waters. How sure could he be that the girl would not scream when coming face to face with one of the men who had taken her from her home?
She would have all the right and reason to, were Es’Con to wake her from her slumber and try to remove her from the temple, but he considered simply that the girl would have no reason to alarm her captors should he bring her to wakefulness. Stalking about the room, Es’Con collected the key beneath the lantern, keeping an eye out for the fourth. Then he went to the pile of robes and removed Quway’s and froze still as a statue. For a moment, Es’Con thought he had seen the silver of the elder’s eye gazing through the dark at him; however, were it so, the glance was one done still in the grips of sleep and not intentional. Making his way over the prone, pregnant body of the low woman, Es’Con sought the third key and hoped to find the final on Hamah’s person. Yet as he slid the cord from the nail it hung on, Es’Con could only draw a blank as to where he could find this final key. Finally, it came to him. Quway had not been looking at him, the key glinted in the lantern light, and Es’Con had been too foolish to realize it.
Sneaking back over to the youngest of the holy men, Es’Con sought the key but found he must have again been mistaken. There was no sign of it, or even a chain hung around the elder’s neck, a fact that bristled Es’Con even more. However, as he moved to examine the room further, a hand sought his, and if he had been even a moment slower, Es’Con would have alerted everyone in the room to his invasion of the temple. The second hand clasped the hunter’s lips closed before the forefinger instructed Es’Con to go back into the temple’s main chamber. Uncertain what Quway might do to him, Es’Con did as bid and came to the pulpit once more.
Turning about at the alter, Es’Con laid eyes on the elder, and it was as if he was seeing the man for the first time. Quway had not bothered with garbing himself with his robes and instead stood in what had to be his underclothes. Aside from his rather plain, tight trousers, he was dressed in a ragged sleeveless shirt that hung loose on his slender frame. Despite what the robes would insist, Quway was a thin, gaunt man rather than plump or muscled as his ritual garb often made him look. Aside from that bold contrast, all of the scar tissue, the braces and bands tying the metal supports to his hairless form were a far cry from what Es’Con may have assumed was concealed beneath the wine-colored robe. Finding himself staring and in all too unflattering way, Es’Con refocused himself on the piercing slate gray eyes of the elder.
Crossing his arms, trying all he could to look authoritative while next to nude, Quway questioned, “Why is it I find you leering over me in my sleep, hunter Es’Con? No, a better question, why would you be in the temple this late at night and passed the alter no less?”
“You have a right to know that answer, elder, but I also have a right to know the purpose of what I have done for you. If Thau can be gifted all of those things you and the others would impart, why can I not possess the knowledge I seek?” Es’Con fought back the bitterness that was creeping into his tone.
Looking more annoyed than angered, Quway backed himself against the door into the private chambers and sighed. He looked at Es’Con, weighing him, but his expression was more saddened than critical of the hunter. With a shake of his head, Quway answered, “The specifics are quite a bit to take in if not the whole of our experiment plenty for one such as yourself to consider. To speak the truth, what we are doing is going to no doubt be either the end for us or a new beginning, but I tend to think of the worst rather than the best outcome.”
“There is an operation at work here, one of high magic and even more significant evil. That woman, she will either be the first freed from the Wetlands, or both mother and child shall be victims of an overly confident hand. However, what has gone on here for so many years, can no longer continue,” Quway breathed, the confession almost taking a physical toll on him.
Es’Con stared skeptically but did not proceed within fury, “What do you mean? Are we going to try and take all of them down there out?”
“If we can, or at least we shall survey and remove every last mother from the ponds. To cut the flow of fresh hosts off in one generation would be enough to say a job well done, but we can’t very well take those women from the water if their children die in the process. And that is where you came in,” a somber smile crossed the elder’s lips, as though saying that Es’Con had performed well in completing the task.
Things were quickly getting beyond the hunter; he couldn’t tell if it was the ideas themselves or how Quway presented them, “She lived and didn’t seem to be suffering from a miscarriage even now. So what are you implying of her child?”
“We need to know if the children of these women will be healthy, and that is why Hamah was so displeased by your request. She is a secret to all but those involved, Thau, yourself, our servants, and the other elders. All of this is meant to go on in the shadows in case of failure, you understand?” Quway’s question was more a statement than inquiry. He stared listlessly at Es’Con, waiting, not for an answer but for the hunter to prod further into this unsanitized truth. When it became clear that the man was struggling to come to terms with the answers he had found already, Quway made to remove himself.
Crossing the short gap between the two of them, elder Quway put his
hand on Es’Con’s shoulder, “You needn’t worry yourself, hunter. That is another reason why Hamah became so frustrated with you. Leave it to us, keep quiet about what we’ve talked about, and there is nothing to concern about. Because, if what we are trying to do, and all things involved, come to light, life will get very challenging for us all.”
“Elder Quway, I can not go and shut my mouth about this, not because I do not trust you but because the rest of the village deserves to know. If we can do something, save those people down there or even their next generation of children…” a finger came to the hunter’s lips before he could become too loud in his protestations.
Quway’s expression became severe, “Hunter Es’Con, I am merely trying to do what’s right in this situation. I can not betray my peers, but neither will allow someone who risked their life to do our bidding go forward ignorant of our purpose. Do not tempt fate with this knowledge, else my hands are tied in what comes of it all.”
“Is that a threat?” Es’con hissed in the man’s face.
Taking in a deep breath, Quway remarked, “I’m afraid it is, but that warning is far more than Hamah or Nemek would have given you. Now, go on your way, and breath not one more word about this meeting. In time, what I’ve told you will be passed on to the rest of the citizens, but only when we know what the outcome will be.”