Chapter XI.

20 May

Neither Ban nor Saluma spoke on the short walk to the residence where they were now expected. Both of them realized that their associate had infiltrated the raptor cult and was soon to be elevated to membership. He would be in a position to learn secrets, but the dangers to him had grown higher than ever.

The raptorium station appeared crowded with farmers and rural characters. A nervous anticipation filled the air. On all sides there reigned an expectant tension. Events of historical importance were impending. Excitement had taken possession of every person there for the scheduled event.

Gauge sat in his mover, his eyes on the approach to the back porch. He gave his two visitors an energetic wave with his right arm.

Saluma, with Ban following, climbed up the four steps to the veranda.

Greetings were quickly exchanged between the visitors and Gauge.

Leaning on a cane, the Landian lifted himself out of his chair. In a muffled voice, he whispered to the two who had come to see him.

“Let us take a little jaunt so we can talk securely,” he mumbled to them.

Ban gave him a supporting arm to lean on while descending to the ground from the veranda.

The three made their way into a grove of tamarack trees.

When they were safely away from anyone who might overhear them, Gauge began to describe what had happened and what he had learned.

Both listeners gaped as he outlined the plot to destroy the internal critics of the Dux. They stared at the infiltrator as he exposed the aggressive expansionism of the Avian dictator and the Raptorial Association.

When he was finished, Gauge looked down at the ground as if in profound thought. When his head came up again, he posed a question weighing on him.

“What can we do to thwart this raptorial conspiracy? How can we prevent great harm being done to innocent people?”

Ban and Saluma glanced at each other. It was the latter who now spoke.

“These considerations must be examined by both Cetab Daisan and my father,” she asserted. “They are best able to give knowledgeable advice. Their conclusions would be based on strong knowledge and much experience.”

“Yes, you are right. We need their counsel,” agreed Gauge. For a moment, he was silent. “Tonight, I become one of them. Perhaps more can be picked up at the ceremony and whatever happens after that. My eyes and ears will be open, eager to find out as much as I can.”

Ban then asked a question. “What if Lozon tries to involve you in criminality?”

The Landian explained himself with total candor. “I shall attempt to avoid causing loss or harm to others. It may turn out to be most difficult, perhaps impossible. Whatever I face, my conscience must always have the decisive voice in all my personal actions. That must be my guiding principle, whatever happens.”

“We must return tomorrow to relate what the two persons down at the observatory think,” proposed Saluma. “By then, the situation should hopefully become clearer.”

“Yes,” said Gauge. “One more day can bring us needed clarity.”

The two visitors accompanied him back to the veranda, then departed from the raptorium of Sud Lozon.

An initiation into the Raptorial Association was a solemn occasion for all observers and participants. The rite was set to occur in the outdoor amphitheater in the twilight dark of the setting daystar. Members of the cult crowded the circular benches, eager to see the ceremony they themselves had once undergone. They looked upon the reception of a new member as an important happening.

Sud Lozon, who was to officiate as the Consecrator of the recruit, had already explained to Gauge the required movements that would be his responsibility to enact. There was to be no spontaneity. Everything was to go on as provided for.

“I am able to stand with a cane,” asserted the neophyte. “That will not be too difficult for me to accomplish. I can surely do it with success.”

Lozon frowned. “But the last portion of the ritual will occur directly under the teratorn nests. Can you walk that far in a procession?”

“I will certainly try.”

The head of the raptorium station helped dress the new member in a long, black stole decorated with natural raptor feathers of many hues.

“This is the vestment cape that was woven to my specifications,” explained Lozon. “I thought it would be extremely impressive to the newcomers entering our sect. Most of the farmers live a very isolated life and do not belong to any social organization whatever. Participation in the activities of the Raptorium is the biggest event that has ever touched them.”

Gauge watched as the man with the yellow eyes fastened the small hooks along the back of the stole that he now wore.

“I realize what sincere believers these countrymen are,” said the novice in a soft, dreamlike tone. “Their faith in the raptors is astonishing. It is absolute.”

Lozon made an indecipherable grimace. “There is nothing they would not do if given an order.”

“But never before has a foreigner like me been brought into the Association,” noted Gauge with astonishment.

“They have heard you speak at your lecture. The impression made was favorable, so that it is now easy for everyone to accept you as one of us. Many of the members already have an idea of expanding our reach beyond the borders of Avia, so that you are perceived as a most valuable addition to the raptorials. They trust and believe in you.”

“I see,” muttered the Landian, now covered by a long, black cape.

In another minute,the two set off for the amphitheater, now completely filled.

The greenish light streaming around Mount Gyps gave an enchanted aura to the surrounding forest. It is the earliest stage of evening twilight, Gauge said to himself as he followed Sud Lozon to the circular stage.

What did the coming night hold in store? No one could give an answer to that question.

Saluma listened to the notes of distant finches, distinguishing a towhee from a chewink. From nearby, the plaintive coo of a streptopelian turtledove seemed to be mourning the departure of the daystar. The woods seemed expectantly relaxed, waiting for the arrival of full darkness.

Every evening at dusk the young field watcher took a short stroll, trying to identify the calls and songs of that particular hour. She had excused herself, leaving the three males in conversation as she went out through the kitchen of the cottage.

In the front room, Cetab Daisan was seated in a soft chair, describing how the Dux came to power and how his rule was maintained over Avia.

“The Auspex served as provider of the original terror. You see, Urias Asaph began his career as a plainclothes agent, working his way up to the position of executive director of the security apparatus. He became the boss behind the scenes, running all the secret, undercover activities. His knowledge of what went on was complete. He had absorbed the knowledge accumulated by all his associates in the clandestine police organization.

“When an interregnum occurred at the apex of the government, it was quite easy for Urias to move in as the supreme authority. Before the general population realized what had happened, the country had a new, all-powerful Dux in charge.

“And now he has added the raptorial cult to his panoply…”

It was at that precise moment that the front door flew open. Two, three, then four men holding snub-nosed electrics rushed into the living room.

“No one move, or he will be bolted,” shouted a tall figure in a black coat. “Everyone here is under arrest. For the time being, you will be kept in this cottage for interrogation.” He surveyed all sides of the room in turn. “Where is the young woman?” he demanded.

Ban Nephis and Azael Talmon glanced at each other for a moment.

Perhaps Saluma had slipped through the Auspex net, both men hoped.

With the gigantic hands of Sud Lozon on his bowed head, the recruit had given his pledge of fidelity in the amphitheater. In the murky light from beyond the horizon, Gauge had affirmed, averred, attested, and avowed his loyalty to the raptors.

The long litany ended with a final avouchment of faithfulness. Lozon poured a sticky, unidentified liquid on the head of the new member, then helped him straighten up. Using his cane for support, Gauge advanced in the procession that would take him to the final consecration under the teratorn nests.

A sudden whirling noise started from above.

The moving formation of raptorials halted in its tracks. Eyes lifted up and scanned the dark turquoise sky. An aircraft, it had to be a flyer of some sort, sped away.

Sud Lozon was the first to say anything.

“It is a gyroplane,” he loudly proclaimed. “One of those used by the Dux when he travels.”

A wordless murmur passed down the procession line.

“Has the Dux returned here?” one cult member dared ask his leader, Sud Lozon.

The latter made no reply, but turned to Gauge.

“Your final confirmation will be postponed until later tonight,” darkly muttered Lozon. “It must be completed in private.”

The head of the raptorium station, lifting both hands to the sky, addressed the members lined up behind him and the novice as well.

“We will go to our quarters for the night.” The noise of the gyroplane was now loud enough to make it necessary for him to shout a piece of unexpected news. “The ruler of Avia is about to pay us a surprise visit.”

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