For a time that seemed to stretch to aeons after the latest funerary procession had passed, Joachim Noa lingered at the cliffside among the siffa bushes, letting the sharp scent of the brine mingle with the musky aroma of burnt incense and suffering lanterns while he gazed into the brackish horizon.
It was the Middening, a periodic season on Typhon where the hours seemed to stand still as the world's off-kilter and achingly slow rotation bathed southern continent in a dusky haze that lasted for weeks.
It was also a time of scourging, as the faithful made the cross-contintental pilgrmimage in their thousands, travelling in innumerable cafila from the Gaillilean lowlands all the way to the shores of Bristole, ritually flagellating themselves while their minds drifted among clouds of futang smoke that clung to their caravans like a covetous haze. Those that failed to make the journey, and there were a countless number who fell to the roadside dust, were born on byres of wood by the survivors, so that by the time the march ended at the coastal cryptshrines, the flagellation had long been replaced by menial toil, as the living worshippers were literally driven into the rocky dirt under the weight of their own dead. Should they all falter before journey's end, their remains would be collected by the next party of travelling worshippers. As long as even one faithful survived, no one was allowed to fail the long walk.
Joachim counted himself among the lucky, his time on the road had ended so long ago that he'd lost count of the days and between middening and the omnipresent light of the world's blazing star. His chill grey eyes tracked another procession, this one bearing a fine catafalque of gold and lacquered cherrywood piled with the rumpled forms of expired pilgrims. Its offering bells chimed in muted abeisance as the structure was half-carried, half dragged along the coastal road. The low drone of the surviving pilgrim's chants warred with the spray of the shoreline until the cacophony ceased any discernable order. He was able to pick out a half dozen different dirges, each being carried along at different cadences by each member of the procession. There was a glory in the chaos, apparently the kind of beauty only a true devotee of the Imperial spiritora could appreciate.
Their footfalls disturbed little of the roadside dust as they marched in unison, each of the byre carriers placing his sandaled foot in the shale impression vacated by the man or woman in front of him. The great prayer weals stamped into the exposed flesh of their backs glistened beneath the preserving wax which was sloughed on by the procession's mendicant priest, an elderly man with wild eyes and an obvious limp who trailed spittle as he exhorted the party with rapturous passages from the Literati en Carmine. As he bellowed and gesticulated great bundles of salves and unguent clattered at his waist. The skin was holy, so they preached, and it must be preserved for scourging. Those not bearing the weight of the catafalque walked in its shadow, wailing ominously as they periodically swung flails tipped with the barbed tufts of falcus thorns upon their own backs.
The final days of the walk were the worst, as futang use was prohibited past the gates of Niolas and along the sedgeways no flame was permitted besides that of the suffering lanterns that lined the route. The loudest voices among the wailers belonged to those who drug-induced stupor had broken, and now the pain of weeks of self-induced wounding was taking its toll. The analgesic secretions of the falcus thorns did little to abate their suffering, and they revelled in their own blinding agony while choking out scripture passages through clenched teeth.
When the party reached its destination, which undeniably was the charnel pits at Bristole, the bodies of the fallen themselves would be rendered down to their fat, and suffering lanterns not unlike those that lined the road would be fuelled with the remains of the believers.
Some offworlders considered the process to be ghoulish, a holdover from Typhon's darker days, before the light of Antares saw fit to bathe the world in proper reverence for the sanctity of Man's form. Those that held the view tended to be the pompous sort, peering down their noses at the tradition that had kept the world whole for nearly a millennia. Attitudes from the time before the Empire's light brought any sense of order to the feral chaos that had once cursed the planet's inhabitants were not so easily cast aside.
The Long Dark had been cruel to Typhon, as it had been too many Charter worlds left centuries bereft of any outside contact by the collapse of the wormhole network that had laid at the root of humanities first great extra-solar colonial expansion. Typhon had sunk into the sort of pre-industrial barbarism that had claimed countless other of mankind's early conquests and had spent the centuries since rediscovery resisting any attempt to be dragged out of it. That the Impirialus Anima had taken such root amongst the people was as unsurprising to Joachim than the manner in which that worship manifested itself in the populous which, in typical Typhonic fashion, was both empassioned and ruthless in its devotion.
Evidence of this was no more obvious than in the manner in which the passing pack of scourigists whipped themselves with almost furious abandon, calling out the names of fallen Iosian saints and heroes as the dragged their train of dead and dying mindlessly forward. Joachim was inured to their suffering.
As the procession disappeared into the half-light, he was struck with such a sense of calm as to induce near vertigo. He stepped away from the cliffside slowly, meandering back toward the road at a snails pace determined to savor whatever moments of somber clarity afforded him by the perpetual dusk. Angling around a stand of squat guanchica trees, their fat, dark olives hanging low enough to scrape the roadside dirt, he spied a man's shape hurrying down the inland path from Aristola village. The distinctive flapping trail of wispwire fabric and jangling stone beads betrayed the figure's ethnicity as Ghunni, settled Bedouins who made up roughly a quarter of the planet's population.
Joachim frowned as the man approached, palms upturned in greeting. A flash of ivory teeth and coal black skin was visible beneath the gauze-like wrappings that draped the man from head to toe. On his palms were visible scars, shaped in the form of the dougis, interlocking triangles that represented the union of spiritual humours that formed the backbone of the Ghunni's special brand of spirituality. He knew this man well.
Joachim returned the greeting reluctantly, exposing his hands from the folds of his habit, for the first time revealing the biosynthetic flesh of his prosthesis to pale rays of Typhon's half light. His visitor betrayed a moment's flash of disgust, before burying the emotion beneath the facade of friendliness.
'Y'allah, Fa'sul. You are called." Fasul. Joachim's gaze turned darker at the visitor's choice of words.
"Leave me be Sikh'arum, I am in reflection. I thought I left instructions not to be disturbed." The smaller man shrugged.
"It is His will. The elders demand it, so it must be so." Joachim grunted. The Ghunni had a way of turning impertinence into a verbal dance which he found nearly as distasteful as the name they insisted on calling him, Fa'sul.
Even a passing glance at his palms revealed a subtle luster of metallic grey that stretched up to his forearm, heritage of the catastrophic wounding that had resulted in nearly half of his internal organs being replaced with biosynthetics. There was slight otherworldliness of their movement, slightly too deft and precise. Despite his advanced age, he looked no younger than thirty and his prosthetics afforded him a strength and dexterity unmatched by un-augmented humans.
Stonework was revered among the Ghunni in the same way that flesh was venerated by the Animists. Stone was strong; it endured even the mightiest gale. It outlasted the frail bodies of man and through its slow work, could grant immortality to any who could best it. In contrast, iron was weak, losing its sharpness and luster quickly. Bending and eventually shattering under pressure. It was the stone of women and children, so the elders were oft fond of quoting over fire light before the great swarm of hackmoths descended for the evening and drove anyone with any common sense in doors. The Ghunni's distrust for offworlders was intensified by their flagrant use of metals and casual defilement of the great stone edifices that stood between them and the precious minerals of the northern continent's great mountain ranges, the first home of the People.
It was a slight few none forgotten and few had forgiven, and it tempered any interest in the galaxy beyond the cloudy skies of Typhon with revilement. He had arived here for the Walk, and completed it. To the spiritora worshippers of Typhon, this meant he was khormida, a portmanteau of the Ghunni word for "holy" and "made whole". He could not be denied a seat at any fire, for while many men could walk the path, but a few could finished. Being a foreigner, this made him an oddity, but his status was also a boon as it allowed him to negotiate with other communities as a neutral party. The elders of Aristola had quickly realized the value in this, and so tolerated his presence despite their general misgivings. But of all the things that made the community uncomfortable, it was his hands that caused the greatest stir.
Sikh'arum squinted at Joachim in the ever dying light.
"They said you would not come, and ba'el they were correct. So instead I am to show you this." he said, drawing an ochre disc from the depths of his garment. It was small and oblong, roughly the size of a credit chit with a pearlescent stud stamped through its center. As Sikh'arum handed the token to Joachim it caught the flickering of the suffering lanterns on its reflective surface. A solid twinge of memory pierced Joachim's mind like a lanced boil. For a moment, the noise of sea's relentless assault on the cliff-face was omnipresent again and the older man felt like he was drowning. The vertigo was back, but this time its origin was quite the opposite of calm.
Sikh'arum stared now, his interest in Joachim's discomfort clearly overriding any sense of Ghunni modesty. Despite his turmoil, the older man allowed none of his inner misgivings boil to the surface. Instead he accepted the disc without a word, pocketing it in his habit, and began the long stroll back to town with his companion trailing in the dust in wake.
A stiff breeze ruffled the siffa bushes and caused the overburdened branches of the guanchica trees to groan in protest, bringing with it the smell of decay. In the far distance of the road Joachim could make out the faint shapes of yet another group of pilgrims plodding through the haze of twilight. Even from far away he could tell that this group was nowhere as richly appointed as the previous procession, and from their speed and relative silence clearly on their last legs. Their dead and dying were piled in a large heap in the back of a massive, two-wheeled cart pulled by only a few scourigists. The haze that followed them was not futang smoke, but buzzing clouds botflies and hackmoths Too tired to chant, and lacking a mendicant priest to dress even the most basic wounds, it was clear that this group would not last the remaining four-day journey to the cryptshrines of Bristole.
A humming noise from overhead alerted Joachim to the passage of a slag-barge, its massive antigrav coils buzzing angrily as it loped through the skies carrying still-cooling waste minerals to the nano-manufactories far to the south east. The symbolism was not lost on him.
"Fa'sul, their walk will end soon." Sikh'arum remarked flatly he caught up with Joachim. His voice was devoid of inflection. Jaochim turned to reply, and noticed the flash of teeth that denoted a smile beneath the Bedouin’s wispy gauze head wrap. Any response he might have made died on his lips; it was a mistake to expect anything but mortuary glibness from a Ghunni.
The tiny man produced a stone-tipped walking-pinion and leaned on it heavily, following his companion's previous gaze skyward, noting the purplish clouds that had begun to spread like bruises across the southern horizon.
"I think that it will rain. This will not be pleasant news for them, you think?". he said, gesturing to the party in the distance. More glibness.
Joachim was suddenly filled with the raging urge to punch the small man in the face, but quashed it. Thinking back to the token he'd been given, he was reminded of what would be waiting for him back at the village. Instead he abruptly began walking again, forcing Sikh'arum to abandon his comfortable lean and scurry after him.
He found the ochre chip and turned it in his hand, letting the faux nerve-endings of his prosthetics relay the feeling of the intricate carving on the flat side of the disc. It was a familiar feeling, with his heightened awareness he could plainly feel the sword and crown insignia stamped into vulcanized rock. Beneath it he could feel the slight curves of an open iris and knew deep in his bones the real reason he'd been summoned back to Aristola.
"Cho'a nen hagram ket cho'a nen pa'num." he muttered to himself.
"What?" called Sikh'arum, struggling to match Joachim's quick pace.
"Stone does not lie, stone does not forget" he said, this time in his native tongue, a lilting wash of Builtanese. Sikh'arum looked puzzled, but did not inquire further. Foreigners were all crazy according to Ghunni wisdom, a fact that Joachim Noa seemed to prove daily.
"But everyone walks." Joachim said after a time. To this Sikh'arum nodded sagely.
In the distance behind them, a scourigists pulling the cart stumbled and fell, dragging his fellows with him in a great stinking pile as the flies and rainclouds moved in.