“The men of Earth battle one another unto death, and when they come upon a female in any form, they will take her, one after the other, until she is so thoroughly ravaged she does not remember the right or the good, but becomes like them, a lust-driven animal with no mind. A highborn lady is no different than any of her common predecessors in this regard. Highborn women must remain in the great tower if they are to remain pure in thought and flesh.” —Sister Sudo
“If a highborn is to bring any of the prime corruptions into the sacred space of the tower, chiefly among them the lust for a male, she must be cast down. The highborn are perpetuated by chastity. These are the parameters of the tower. No glitching will be tolerated. The code will be adhered to without question, lest the tower itself crash.” — System: Code of Commands
“Look upon your fate. This is what will happen should you stray from System!” A shrill voice issues the command of discipline and I pretend to pay attention to it.
I, and my sister, have been caught and called out for misbehavior. We were assigned to tend to the hydroponics bay, but instead we remained in the nutritional supplementation chamber several minutes past our allotted feeding time.
It is my third strike this week. It is her second. We have been called before the older sisters, who have determined that our punishment should be the trial of sight. We must look over the edge of the tower in which we live and we must look down at the Earth below while we are read to from the text of truths.
“The men who inhabit the ground realm are full of brutality and consumed by one impulse: lust. They live in the torment of their desire, which is satisfied in many foul ways. Few, if any, women exist on the surface. So these men will take you and they will turn you into puppets of their desire.”
I have heard this code before. I wonder why the sister chose it. Doesn’t seem to fit with our crime. It is said that highborn women have no need for male contact, and are devoid of the base instinct of sexuality. But forty-five of the fifty codes deal with sexuality in one form or another, and the appendixes are nothing short of titillating. I have heard the older sisters reading them breathlessly in private, for they must always be read out loud. None of the code may be read in silence. There must always be voice put to it. Sometimes, the voice is breathless and seems to catch in the throat. Other times it is more a guttural voice, one that rises and rises and becomes higher and higher pitched and ends in a sigh.
“I will tell you of the parable of the lost highborn, she who stepped into the capsule of the tower and rode it down to the men below, yet she was allowed to return, because she clung to purity.”
It is the primary rule that nobody ever comes back from the great below, but of course there must be exception to the rule. We would not have many of our appendixes if it were not for the original highborn, Sister Sudo who went down to the planet and returned with these stories.
“Now look down! And see what awaits you! See the depth of the fall! Feel the terror in your soul! And know that the only way to remain highborn is to follow holy System’s codes.”
I step forward. My sister, Ella, must be pushed. It is natural for highborn to be afraid of heights. We are born here, thousands of miles above the ground. It is not the landing we fear. It is the fall.
“Look! Behold your fate!”
I look. Ella’s screams make my ears ring as she is pushed next to me. This is a ritual punishment. We’re supposed to think, on some level at least, that we’re going to be cast off. We’re supposed to feel all the terror that comes with being cast out. But nobody gets cast out. I have never known or heard of any highborn being expelled from the tower.
I look down and I see the earth, green and gold and small. I am told that it is larger than the tower, but the distance and tricks of perspective make this tower seem greater than any possible land below.
“Let me back! Take me back!” Ella is clinging to the rail with white-knuckled hands, her eyes wide with terror. This is a cruel, cruel punishment, and usually, once it is imposed, the sister subjected to it will never suffer it again.
This is my third time looking down.
I’m starting to almost enjoy it.
We are supposed to be horrified by the distance to the Earth. We are to fear the prospect of falling more than anything. Maybe I was the very first time I looked down, but when I was forced to the edge a second time, my perspective began to change. The horror of the first glimpse of the world beyond was transformed into curiosity. When I was sentenced to look again, I had to hide my pleasure and anticipation. I had to force tears and beg with Sister Justice who handed down the punishment.
I put on a good show. I can be quite dramatic when I need to be. I wailed and I flailed. I cast myself upon the floor, and I clutched at her ankles and I promised I would never engage in wrongthought again.
She was firm, just as I knew she would be. She is a sadist, and she has taken a liking to punishing me. What other sisters are able to get away with, I am almost always caught for. Sometimes, I am blamed for what others do. I have become accustomed to being assigned extra duties, more readings. If not for Sister Justice, I might never have come across the passages that so inflamed my imagination.
If the others knew that I am drinking in the view below, wanting to see more of it, I would be in more trouble than I can imagine. Fortunately, I am not the center of attention at this moment. Ella is having the more typical and predictable reaction and her flailing is making sure nobody is looking at me.
“I can’t look any more! I can’t! I can’t!” Ella shrieks and covers her eyes, stumbling back from the edge. She is caught in the arms of our sisters who hold her close and make cooing sounds as she threatens to faint, all the while babbling promises of obedience to System, and to all the codes and appendixes.
With Ella crawling upon the tower floor in gratitude, I look a little longer than I should. The ground is too far away to truly make out, but I feel like I can see things down there, even though I can see nothing. There are other people down there. There are men below. The very word ‘man’ makes my loins quiver.
No highborn has ever seen a man, aside from Sister Sudo, of course. Her descriptions of them in her appendixes are quite vivid. In particular, the musings on their unique genital configurations are descriptive in the extreme. I don’t need to look the relevant passages up. They are blazed into my mind.
It is a thick rod of flesh, which feels like bone. A turgid member designed for one thing alone: to penetrate the female aperture from which the moon blood flows. Attached to the most powerful part of the man, his thrusting hips, which are at the very core of his muscular form, the cock is able to impregnate a woman via the insemination of his genetic code. A new individual will be formed from this union, but not before the female’s belly swells to many times its natural size and the new person must pass through the genital canal, a process that is not without discomfort for the female.
Ella is crying on the floor, while I look over the edge and think about the mythical male member. This is against all codes and commands. If System knew what thoughts were uppermost right now, I would be immediately outcast.
One of the older sisters takes me by my arm and turns me away from the view.
I must pretend to be in a paroxysm of terror. Many women freeze when they see what is below. I will make my sister believe that is my condition.
Turning from the edge, I stare at her blankly, and allow her to lead me away from the edge. I say nothing as I am returned to my chamber, a small room that contains my life in the tower. There is very little here. We live a simple, reflective existence.
I was born, or indeed, procedurally generated, twenty-one years ago. The first eighteen years of life take place inside maturation cells, so I have no memory of that, though I know I was receiving programming during that time.
Three years ago, I took my place as a full-fledged sister highborn of the tower. Unfortunately, I caught the eye of Sister Justice on my very first day out of the maturation simulation. I laughed during the welcome ceremony when one of the older sisters sang us the song of awakening completely out of tune.
Sister Justice is a tall woman with dark hair and severe features. I have since learned that she was created by System to carry out the laws of the tower, and every part of her being reflects that. She did not like my attitude, so she told me, and decided that I should copy out the entire word of System from beginning to end.
I performed that task, and in doing so, found myself learning much more about the word of System than most newly awakened sisters. Knowledge did not make me a better sister. If anything, it made me worse. Where the other sisters accepted the words of their elders without question, I often knew that the passages were misquoted, or often, misinterpreted. I would argue with the elders and inevitably find myself back before Sister Justice, who would find some way to punish me. I have worn the marks of her cane more than once. For the first three years of my awakening, she was relatively patient with me, but now I sense that her patience is at an end.
I cannot keep getting into trouble. I have to find a way to quiet my rebellious thoughts and become one with System. If I don’t, there will be more than sightseeing and harsh canes in my future. There will be exile.
“Demi.” Sister Justice’s voice comes over the voice transfer system.
“Report to my suite.”
Oh, god. What have I done now? Literally nothing. I came back from the edge and laid down on my bed. That isn’t against any kind of rules. Usually I am sent to my chamber for several days.
I make sure that my clothing is perfectly in place. The white dress that we all wear always seems to get stained, but I’m sure it is spotless before I report to Sister Justice.
The door slides open, and my stomach cramps. I really hate seeing this woman. Nothing good has ever happened in her presence.
“Come in, Demi,” she says, as she has said so many times before.
I step into her chambers, my head down, my hands clasped before me.
“You’re the only sister I know who can look rebellious while making all proper shows of submission,” she says. Her voice is not without warmth. She has hurt me many times, but on some level I think she likes me.
“Have I not made proper atonement, Sister Justice?”
“I want you to tell me what you saw today. When you looked over the edge.”
This is a trap, or a test. Both, really.
“I saw the horror of the world below,” I say, quoting Sister Sudo’s appendixes.
“You say that as casually as if you are telling me we are having beans for dinner,” Sister Justice says. “Have you lost your fear of the fall?”
“No.” I answer truthfully. I may be a misfit, I may be curious, but I do not want to be cast away from everything I have ever known and sent to the merciless brutes below. Aside from her explicit writings, Sister Sudo’s writings describe a brutal and bleak world where there is no safety, no security, little medical care, where war and violence are ever present, where the very environment tries to destroy you with everything from poisonous plants to aggressive animals. Even the skies themselves can open up and threaten to drown those below with torrents of water.
I do not want to be subject to the capricious forces of nature. System may be stern, but we are safe up here, away from the animal world and the filth it encompasses.
“I am glad to hear it. I worry for your soul, Demi. In all my time, I have not seen any sister as rebellious as you. Compliance should come naturally to a highborn.”
Maybe I do have a few command paths missing in my mind. Maybe some of the subroutines weren’t fully installed. I don’t know. I am human, after all, and no matter how well a machine might try to program meat, there can be failures in the system.
“I am trying my best, Sister Justice,” I say earnestly. “I know I test you and the others, and I am sorry for that. I will try harder.”
“I think there is a corruption inside you,” she says. I sense sorrow in her voice. “Sometimes the procedural generator makes a mistake. Usually we destroy those cases while still in maturation, but some defects cannot be detected until after the awakening. I’m sorry, Demi. But there is one protocol for matters such as these. If you are caught contravening the codes again, you will be put to exile. It may be a significant offense. It may be a small one. It does not matter. We cannot have corruption. Corruption can destroy System entirely. This is not merely about your life and your fate. You hold the key to utter and complete destruction of all highborn. You are toxic, Demi. You are a bug who should have been squashed at conception. System saw fit to let you live, but System will not save you if you sin again. Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” I mumble swiftly, trying not to show my distress. It would be taken as further sign of corruption if I were to have an emotional outburst. We are expected to understand the codes and to live by them without question. The only time any kind of emotion is allowed is if one is forced to stand at the precipice of the fall and contemplate the loss of all perfection.
“Go to your chambers and stay there for the next three days. Liquid nutrition supplements will be delivered to you. I want you to meditate on the codes. You must work hard to redeem yourself from the corruption inside you, Demi. Prove to me that you are capable of integrating fully with System.”
“I am, Sister Justice. I assure you that I am.”
“Show me, Demi.”
I am sent back to my chamber and there I stay. The door is sealed for seventy-two hours. It will not open before then. This is supposed to be a punishment, but I am secretly glad for the time to myself. It is hard to hide the thoughts inside my head. Sister Justice is right. I am full of corruption and wrongthought. My mind is rebellious. It plays the memory of the view from the tower over and over again. It is such a long way down, but there is a beauty to the world below.
I am permitted to study Sister Sudo’s writings, of course. System’s Code of Commands is also permitted reading. I have already committed those to memory. In fact, I have committed all these things to memory, but I like to reread Sister Sudo’s texts. They give me feelings the codes do not.
Within minutes of reviewing the texts, I find myself excited. My most recent view down to the ground below has brought back the vivid mental images Sister Sudo’s works have left in my mind over the years. There are men down there, brutal, terrible men who embody everything about humanity that System has painstakingly stripped away. They are creatures of instinct and desire. They do not live according to codes of logic. Instead they form hierarchies where the strongest impose their will on others. And when they find women, rare as they are down there in that world that was so ravaged at the birth of the tower, they dominate them so completely that the females become nothing more than sexual appendages.
My hand is between my thighs. My breath comes in short, sinful little gasps. I let my fingertips curl and tenderly brush against the fold of my sex, an organ made all but redundant in System’s efforts to engineer us away from our animal desires. Many of my sisters only have a vestigial sex, but I, through some quirk or malfunction, was created with a fully formed vulva and vagina. I have a clitoris too. Not all highborn do. System is not so cruel as to remove functional flesh, but I know the presence of all this equipment between my thighs has had me flagged for regular review since I came to maturity.
It is why my rule-breaking, no matter how small, always seems to be caught. I am different. I know it. System knows it. And Sister Justice definitely knows it.
Still, I am alone now, I have made enough penance for one day, and I can retreat into fantasy and sleep, the two things which make my existence in this place at all tolerable, or indeed, possible.
The door unlocks and flies open. In a split second the covers are torn back and Sister Justice stands over me, her face twisted in scandalized horror.
“N-no,” I stammer. “I was just, uh… itchy.”
“Liar! Look at you. Your shame seeps from that degenerate hole between your thighs.”
She has a way of putting words to things that makes them much more dramatic than they truly are, and this occasion will be no exception. She reaches down, takes a handful of my hair, and pulls me from my chamber.
“Exile!” she declares. “There can be no rehabilitation for one like you. You are as animal and vile as those male creatures below, so you will join them. We will see what they make of your wet meat down there.”
In the very early days, the fall was literal. Sisters would be pushed from the tower. Now the procedure involves a single use transport capsule and a survivable, if not completely gentle, descent. Everybody is threatened with the promise of exile, but it only happens in the most extreme of cases. Surely it cannot be happening to me.
“Please, no. Please. I will be good. I promise. I swear I didn’t do this. I would never try to tamper with System. Please, believe me, Sister Justice.”
Her eyes are cold and I know there is no way back, not now. In some way, I think we all knew that this was an inevitability. That doesn’t mean I am ready to be torn away from everything I know and cast down into a world in which I may well not survive even a day.
“You are killing me, Sister Justice. You are sentencing me to death. They will tear me apart!”
I am hysterical as I am pushed back into the capsule. Sister Justice has many on her side. I have none. Nobody will speak for me. Not my sisters who shared the awakening with me, and certainly not any of the older or younger ones. I am being made an example of, and what an example I will be.
“Please! No! Anything but this! Keep me here! Don’t force me down there!”
I would rather die than be exiled. Exile is soul death. My body and my sprit belong to the sisterhood, and to the tower. I try to break free, to push through the sisters who are hustling me toward the capsule, but there are so many of them.
They push me toward the capsule, so many hands, those of my sisters, rejecting me because System rejected me. I have grown up with them since infancy, but now their eyes are clouded and glazed with disinterest. They are putting me out like trash, just like discarded food scraps.
“Please! Demi! Go with some dignity!”
I do not have any dignity. I scream, cry, beg. In the end, as I feel my feet sliding onto the capsule, I start to fight, my teeth finding flesh over and over, my hands grasping at hair and clothes. I will not go quietly. I will not be submissive.
“Bring me the probe,” Sister Justice orders.
The last thing I see is a glowing rod reaching toward me. It touches my skin, and I am gone.
I am an exile.
I wake to find myself suspended in midair, falling at terminal velocity inside a glass cage. There is a burn mark on my arm where the probe hit me. The skin beneath is not burned, but there is a big red mark in the form of an S. I have been branded with one last remnant of System that discarded me, but the physical pain is nothing compared to the mental anguish I am suffering. It is like being torn into pieces, every part of me pulled in a dozen directions.
I am plummeting toward the Earth. At first it barely seems as though I am moving at all, but soon the world below is getting bigger and closer with every second.
It is impossible to describe just how far down it is from the tower. I am hurtling into my own personal nightmare more than a hundred feet per second. This long shaft through which the capsule travels tethers the tower to the ground, but it is not the tower itself. Only the upper regions where the highborn live are considered ‘the tower.’ It doesn’t matter anymore, because I am forever gone.
From the tower, the world below looked small. We could see the edges of it. But now I can’t see any edges. It fills my entire field of vision, blue and green and swirling white. It would be beautiful if I weren’t so afraid.
“Two minutes remaining.” System’s disembodied voice plays through speakers.
“Two minutes to what? System! Please! Bring me back up!”
“Request denied. Two minutes until arrival.”
Two minutes pass in panic and growing terror. I see the world expand beneath me, coming into greater focus, growing larger and larger. The base of the tower is occupied with huts and hovels built all around it. Some of the lowborn must have made their homes here.
I hope they’re friendly.
As my capsule touches down, I see to my great horror that there are hundreds of men encircled around the base of the tower. They are not built like the highborn. They may as well be another species. Their bodies are huge and muscled. Even the smallest of them is twice the size of me. They range vastly in terms of skin color and facial features, but they are all absolutely terrifying. Even their faces are different from mine. They have broad jaws, long noses, heavy brows and bristles everywhere.
I start hitting buttons, try to stop the capsule. “System! Please! Bring me back up! I’ll do anything! You may program me as you please! Don’t abandon me to these animals!”
There is silence. System has disconnected me. I am no longer one of the highborn. I am an outcast. Nothing but flesh, sacrificed to the brutal animals of the dirt.
The capsule slows considerably as it approaches the earth, drawing the moment out. They are staring up at me, a rabble of barely clad males. This is the sort of thing I dreamed about in my wrongthoughts. Now I wish I had redirected them to purethoughts. If only I had controlled my mind I would still be up in the tower, one of the blessed ones, an eternal virgin.
The capsule comes to a halt at the base of the tower. I am on ground level. With them. And now I discover that they are all taller than I am. Much taller. They crowd around the capsule, pressing tightly, showing me brutal male flesh. Almost none of them are clothed, and those who are clothed are covered in such a manner that it doesn’t cover anything strategic. Before this moment, I had never seen male genitalia. Now I am absolutely surrounded by cocks. My curiosity is quickly overwhelmed by my fear as they start to bay at me, barking and shouting like animals. I look up above my head, try to find a way out the top of the capsule. If I can get out the top, maybe I can climb back up the tower. Maybe I can somehow escape this terrible fate.
The walls are smooth and sheer. There is no obvious means of escape, besides the door through which I was pushed, and they are already trying to pull that open, though thankfully it is sealed smooth against the capsule edge.
There is a handle on the door with a green light. Throughout the duration of my descent, it was red and inoperable. Now I can open the capsule and leave, but there is no chance of my doing that while these men threaten me from all sides.
A locker in the base of the capsule reveals that there is a small supply of water and some rations, but that is all. These capsules were not intended for more than simple journeys. I can’t stay in here forever. Sooner or later, the oxygen will start to run out.
Besieged by brutal males, I crouch in the very center of the capsule and I cower. The design of my enclosure puts me on display to them all. They press against the glass, staring at me with wild eyes. Their breath creates condensation in the places where their noses are smeared against the exterior and I feel their growls as vibrations through the glass.
It is then that I make the decision. I will die in here before I willingly open this capsule. The creatures surrounding me are less like men and more like wild beasts. The noises they make at me are rough and guttural and nothing like speech.
Their patience quickly wears thin. When it becomes apparent that I am not coming out, they start trying to break the capsule open. At first they try prying at the panels, but when none of them open, they start picking up rocks and bashing them against the exterior. This capsule is designed to withstand more punishment than animals with rocks can inflict—at least in the short term. I can see little micro-fractures starting to form, and know that eventually they will break through and then they will surge in and claim me. They are ferocious enough to tear me apart.
Fortunately for me, methodical work does not seem to be their forte. They bash at what seem to be random intervals, hammering their fists and rocks and bits of wood while grunting and grinding against the capsule. It is a truly grotesque display, and I am horrified.
That horror only deepens when their frustration at being unable to get to me turns to anger at one another. It begins as an accident, an arm flung back with a rock that makes contact with the man behind him. That man throws a punch back, and in short order there is a bloody brawl taking place at my feet.
My screams mingle with their roars as I am witness to the most brutal and vicious attacks, injuries inflicted without mercy. Sister Sudo’s writings did not begin to capture the true stench of this place. The cracks they’ve made have let some of the outside air seep in. I smell a foul odor of decay and… I don’t even know what it is. I haven’t smelled it before. It must be blood and meat and dirt. It fills me with revulsion.
I cry as I curl up on myself and put my hands over my ears, closing my eyes to try to block out the sights and sounds of the chaos just outside my capsule.
The battle seems to rage forever, only dying down when the light begins to fade. Night brings peace, but not rest. I am stuck, curled up in the most pure terror. The moment I begin to relax, some new sound or grunt from one of the bodies outside my capsule brings me back to full alertness. I do not know if the bodies on the ground are sleeping or dead. I am certainly not going to get close enough to find out.
My mind has become as paralyzed as my body. In all my time in the tower, I never gave any real thought to what I would do if I was sent down to the men below. Sister Sudo went down with a weapon that allowed her to keep the worst of the brutality at bay, but I have nothing. This capsule is designed to put me on display, and to give me no easy avenue of escape.
This is cruel torture and torment on the part of those who called me their sister. They meant for me to suffer down here. I have no doubt that I would be hurt by the beasts beyond the glass if they got their hands on me. They have strength beyond imagination, and no real interest in controlling it. It is not ravaging I am afraid of, not intense sexual experiences that would bring me endless pleasure. Sister Sudo wrote of sexual beasts and fierce warriors. I suppose that is what I am seeing, but the raw reality of it makes my innocent fantasies pale.
What I am looking at is the end of my life in the snarling of their animal maws.
“Ragnar! Tiger! Kodak!”
Ein comes darting through the bush at high speed, shouting our names at the top of his lungs. It would be better that he would keep his voice down. These are hostile lands and we are intruders, but something has him excited beyond sense.
Our scout is a nimble whelp on his first mating expedition. He’s already proved himself more than eager to explore the surrounding lands for any hint of a woman. I’m not without sympathy. A man will do anything to find a mate by the time he has reached twenty-one years of age without ever tasting a female. A lot of men Ein’s age would have gone completely feral by now. Every year we lose a few young men to the wilds. They wander off in search of sex and they never make it back. These mating expeditions are our way of trying to ensure we keep our young men alive. Older, more experienced warriors take the first-timer out into the contested wilds to look for women—and, of course, we may find new mates of our own. With four of us, we have a decent chance of bringing one, or perhaps two or three women back to the tribe. A fresh crop of younglings may be mere months away.
“Ragnar!” He comes skidding up to me, brimming with excitement.
“What is it?”
I ask him just to stop him shouting. He sometimes lacks the sense to be quiet. His enthusiasm is too great and he is too used to our lands where our tribe rules. We are out of our territory at the moment. We are deep in Mongar space, and if we are caught here we will have to battle to the death.
“There’s a girl down from the tower,” Ein says. “The highborn have sent another female.”
“Bullshit,” Tiger grunts.
“Why would I lie about something like that?”
“Because you’re a liar, Ein. You always have been.”
Ein does his best to look offended, but he can’t deny that he likes to stretch the truth on occasion. Ein’s stories are things of legend in our tribe. He has a poetic soul, which leads him to trouble more often than truth.
“I’m not lying about this,” he insists.
Ein does not share a mother with the three of us. His eyes are blue and his hair is pale. He is two full decades younger than I. It has been pointed out on more than one occasion that I am old enough to be his father, and there’s no doubt I played father to him as he was growing up. Nobody else could keep up with him. Even now, I’m not sure we’re managing to keep a close enough eye upon him.
“Let’s go look at the tower then,” Kodak says. “We will be able to see the lights once we clear the ridge—if this story is true.”
“It’s not lit up anymore. She’s already down. Mongar’s men have her surrounded. I don’t know how much longer she’ll last inside there. We have to go and get her.”
I look at Kodak and Tiger. I see the disbelief on their expressions. Highborns are not unheard of entirely, but Ein has reason to fantasize about finding one. It is said the boy has highborn blood in his veins.
“We have to go! Now! Please!” There is desperation in his voice. He looks from one of us to the other before returning his gaze to my face. It is I he must convince, and I am not at all sure I believe him.
“It’s a highborn! We could have a highborn!” He practically stamps his feet in excitement.
“And we could have a winged unicorn and flutter all the way home,” Kodak snorts. “Have you seen this highborn?”
“No,” Ein admits. “I got as close as I dared, and saw them doing battle with each other at the base of the tower. Why else would they turn on one another? They were tearing flesh and crushing bone to get to the tower. I tell you now, there is a highborn woman there!”
“If there is a highborn, then she will keep them occupied.”
His jaw drops. “We must have her for our own!”
“There are four of us, Ein, and hundreds of Mongar’s men. It is not worth the risk, even for a highborn.”
He shakes his head, his pale eyes lit with disbelief. “A highborn is the most desirable mate.”
“They’re genetic freaks,” Kodak grunts. “Made by a machine. Some of them don’t even have cunts. Not worth the trouble trying to get it.”
“Not it. Her!” Ein insists.
“Ein, enough,” I interject. “If there is a highborn, we will take advantage of the distraction. Go and scout us a path to the Red River. I have heard of a small female settlement there.”
He looks at me and opens his mouth as if to argue, but he shuts it before speaking and instead nods. He is a strong young man, powerful and proud, but he must follow orders, as all in our tribe do.
Ein disappears back into the wilds, leaving us working at our weapons. I am sharpening my two-handed blade, Siggi. She is a sword five feet long and heavy enough to cleave a man in two. Having sharpened both sides with stone, I now apply oil to the surface, which is useless for hunting any beast besides man. We have not come all this way to wage war, but there have been unsettling signs for several days now. I have seen an owl flying in the day. I have seen the moon show her face while the sun still hangs in the sky. And more than once, the morning has been red, as has the night. These are omens, each of which tells me Siggi will sing before this trip is out.