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Chapter 23: Portal of the Winds

The villagers occupied their summer encampment in a lush desert oasis protected by mountains on three sides. Cold, clear water bubbled forth from the earth into a maze of large tropical pools which came together to form the Amaa river before plunging into the desert sands. It was here that Horatio made his summer home. The weather was too brutal to travel during the deadly heat of Ithark's summer. The nomads were more than happy to have him join them since they were always in need of healing, instruction, and priestly services.

Horatio was relaxing amid his thoughts of the Warden and who it may have really served, when a huge sound reverberated from heat pack to heat pack and broke his reverie. He looked up to see a huge silver bird streaking across the sky. It looked as if it had eyes of flame. It's angle indicated that it intended to land nearby.

The sound of its landfall reached his ears and the ground shook confirming his suspicions. He spoke briefly to his priestly attendants, the gehti. He washed in a nearby pool then they headed toward the bird at a quick pace. "Perhaps the Warden has sent me an answer at last," he thought with excitement.

Horatio and his gehti made their way across the shifting sands of the great inner desert. He reflected on this strange twist of fate: he was sure what he had seen was a true vessel of the fallen. He prayed to be found worthy of the honor, but the great, forbidden question for which he had been banished kept rushing into his mind. He pushed it away and chanted the ritual for purification of his soul.

As they crested the last dune they saw before them the silver bird: a vessel made of metal. The writing on its side was in the most ancient of scripts. The gehti could not read them. Horatio could, but they made little sense. However, the script convinced him that the vessel had been sent from the true source. He fought the rising tide of excitement and gathered himself for a moment of silence then thrust both arms into the air and began the 'Dirge of the Fallen': a ritual of both welcome and despair; the most sacred and rarely used ritual that acolytes learned before entry into the priesthood.

He finished the Dirge and paused briefly before descending the crest of the sand dune toward the vessel and perhaps a better life. He felt a surge of excitement and a bit dizzy. The shiny bird was just below him: cock-eyed and angled bizarrely in its sandy nest. His companions hung back, timid and afraid. But not Horatio. He walked up to the bird seeking a point of entry. He felt its shiny skin. It was smooth and hard, like bone or a blade. His skin seemed to sizzle from the contact. He walked around the bird to where it was partially buried in the sand. There he saw a narrow transparent area. He could see through it.

Horatio started to kneel down in order to gaze into the bird's belly when a thud from within startled him. He withdrew momentarily and scrutinized the bird. He recalled a verse from the 'Book of the Eighth Coming' by the Prophet Benalidino:
"Seek to enter the presence of the newly fallen through the Gate That Holds Back the Wind. It will be found on the side of the holy vessel and will be labeled with two words from the old tongue - 'Air Lock'. To apply for entry, seek the painting to the left. It will contain two fields of color one of which will be lit from within by the holy radiance of the Lord. If it is the green field that is illuminated press your fingers against it and, if you are found righteous, a passage will be revealed. If instead the red field is illuminated, seek ye another path of entry for the Gate shall remain sealed from within for only the fallen may overcome this warding."
"Are you going to approach it again," Foryn, Horatio's chief gehti, managed to stammer.

Without answering, Horatio approached the side of the bird that jutted from the sand. A meter or two above him there was a door of some kind: at least it looked like it might open. He couldn't tell if the holy writ of 'Air Lock' was on it due to the distance and the sun's glare, but he could see symbols similar to those in the ancient texts: a yellow square marked 'IS', a green square marked 'AG', and two red squares marked 'SS' and 'ELE'. The fourth square seemed to be blinking.

Horatio was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the moment. All the studying, the arguments: how could he have ever guessed that proof would one day be a mere hands breadth away? He froze, unable to think or move. Finally, with a sudden sense that time was up, and with some skewed partial perception of a strange female voice ringing in his ears talking about the Mothers of wooden planks, he climbed the bird and pressed the blinking red light. Trembling with fear and exhilaration, he awaited destiny.

"No," Foryn screamed. The gehti huddled in the sand, fearing for their lives.

The red square began blinking faster. A voice said, as if from the sky, "entry denied: emergency procedures enacted." Though foreign and mysterious, it sounded feminine and soothing. The gehti relaxed a bit. Perhaps Horatio knew what he was doing after all, they thought. The bird now seemed to be talking to him.

But Horatio was disappointed. He had been certain his knowledge would be sufficient to the task of opening the enclosure. Irritated by his failure, he turned from his perch and snapped, "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

Horatio paused for a moment. When he was calmer, he realized how foolish it had been to assume the way would be easy. He returned his attention to the task at hand and recalled another passage that had always confused him but suddenly seemed to make sense. It came from the book of Saint Engineer and was known simply as his first canon law: "Knowest that when you design the devices of holy service it is best those devices be devised in a way that their uses be easily known and understood by all who would use them in the service of our Lord. The more vital the service that the device be used for, the more crucial this canon becomes. Woe be unto he that fails to heed this appellation for he shall always be known as a bad engineer and future engineers shall mark his passage amongst us with derision and scorn." He remembered marking this as an interesting example of the freedom allowed by his Lord. The passage clearly showed that even a Saint may undertake evil acts.

In a low voice, Horatio spoke the passage that had clearly drawn him to the airlock: "To understand the first canon, thinkest now on the example of the portal of the winds. Surely the critical nature of this needs no explanation and it should most surely be designed so that function and form serve the same purpose. Thus if thou designest thy portal with more than two buttons you have committed sin and are a bad engineer."

In light of this, Horatio concluded that this portal had been built by those who sin. Considering that this was a vessel of the fallen, it now seemed so obvious to Horatio that he laughed with scorn at his previous foolishness. Armed with the confidence that scripture alone could provide, he put his hand upon the green square.

Nothing happened. Crestfallen, Horatio sat down for a moment to think. The bird hadn't seemed angry, yet it denied him entry.

"Elevated one, what if the bird is wounded? Perhaps it can't open itself to us," Foryn suggested nervously.

"Nonsense! We must inform it of our presence. Foryn, give me the Shafar."

Foryn opened his pack and produced a horn-like instrument. Horatio stood and placed the Shafar to his lips. It made a sound like a wild beast. The sound echoed back to them from the side of the fallen bird.

"What do we do now?"

"We wait, Foryn. We wait and we pray."

The men knelt beneath the airlock door. The wind was blowing a little harder than it had been a few moments ago. The sky to the southwest was growing dark.

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