Hidden inside the tent, Lipsen Be'Laury kept her eyes on the group of Recoverers. The night was black, but the tall silhouettes of the Zoraïs were perfectly recognizable in the light of the campfire. Their voices reached the young Tryker's ears; they were speaking in the common homin language, like all tribes that lived in Nexus.

"... is expecting a new attack by the Kuilde. That's why Liangi Do-Vi left this morning for the Company of the Eternal Tree camp. He will be back tomorrow. He wants to confer with their war chiefs in order to form an alliance against the Karavan followers. If these crazies dare to show up, our two tribes will crush them like insect larvae!"

The Zoraïs laughed sarcastically. Lipsen clenched her hands around her boomer rifle, sniffing. If these villains were fewer in number, she would not hesitate to give them a good lesson in humility!

"I heard talk that a Great Servant of the Kami will attend the Fallenor ceremony. It isn't every day that we get to sacrifice Kuilde relics; Ma-Duk will be satisfied. May he grant us his blessings!"

The Recoverers near the fire all chanted, "Praised be the Great Life Giver, and cursed be the name of Jena, Empress of the night!"

They then pounded their chests and began to sing a war song, while others began to set up a spit over the fire. They roasted a quarter arma and then shared the meat while blessing the Kamis for providing this food. They passed a gourd around.

Lipsen felt her stomach grumbling. The dried fish had done little to appease her appetite.

"A few wild berries would be a nice addition to our meal," suggested one of the Zoraï with short hair, rising from his seat near the fire. "There are some nearby."

"Good idea, Fa," said another. "But watch out for bad encounters like last time. We were afraid that raging gnoof was going to manage to take your crown jewels. That would be a tragedy for the Gai-Gun family and its future heirs!"

The other Recoverers laughed. The homin shrugged, then surveyed the surroundings. He moved away from the fire, with a bowl in one hand. He stopped near the tent where Lipsen was hiding, scanning the bushes.

The young Tryker carefully and silently let the curtain drop to a thin, bare crack and stayed as still as she could, listening with one ear. She could feel the blood rising in her temples and tried to calm the pounding of her heart. She told herself to imagine that she was stalking a prey, that she was accustomed to doing this. No need to panic!

After a seemingly endless moment, the sound of the Recoverer's boots seemed to move away.

Everything's all right, thought Lipsen, good fortune is still with the Trykers!

But fate would have it otherwise.

Without warning, Lipsen felt an overwhelming tickle in her nostrils; in seconds, she felt like her nose was in a vise, as she clamped down hard on the urge. She sneezed.

Through the crack in the tent flap, she saw the departing Zoraï freeze, then turn back towards the tent.

She pulled quickly away from the crack as he turned, then listened as he retraced his steps and stopped in front of the flap.. Lipsen cursed herself for her clumsiness. Was she going to die for a sneeze? Because of a little chill? Hardly a heroic ending! A pause, then the Recoverer hailed his companions.

She heard the approaching footsteps of two more Zorai and the soft whissppp!,of tchai pistols leaving holsters.

Lipsen's mind raced. The image of the meat roasting over the fire, the dried fish, the prayers to the Kamis, the Zoraïs with their frightening masks, were all vying for her attention. How was she going to escape this? An old legend of her people came to mind: the story of the young Wiksie, the first homin to encounter a Kami.

Without thinking any further, Lipsen swallowed, then emitted a sort of sharp croak. She pronounced a few words in a distorted voice.

"Kami hungry!"

Outside, the surprised Zoraïs stood still and exchanged baffled looks.

"Kami, hungry!" Croaked Lipsen, more confidently. "Homins hard of hearing you are! Wild berries, bring me!"

Taken by surprise, the Recoverer holding the bowl turned towards the bushes and quickly began gathering some red berries. The other Zoraïs hesitated, then one of them finally took the initiative.

"Oh, revered Kami, what type of spirit are you?" he asked carefully.

"The Kami of the Lost Souls, so may you call me," she croaked in reply. "During the Fallenor's nights, I appear in this place. Terrible things have befallen here. Abandoned souls wander. Have you forgotten everything, homins?"

Lipsen had no clear idea what she was talking about. But the words of the would-be Kami seemed to trigger some specific memories among the Recoverers. Some of them made a sacred sign to protect themselves from misfortune.

The Zoraï finished gathering berries and came back to the tent.

"Here are a few berries, O spirit of Ma-Duk."

The young Tryker thought for a moment. She recalled the legend of Wiksie once again, and another tale, a Zoraï legend, that spoke of the conversion of the jungle people to the illusory precepts of the Kamis.

"These fruits of nature, you must share among yourselves," she finally replied. This way, by your faith, my hunger shall be appeased."

These words seemed to dispel the Recoverers' last doubts. They knelt and ate the berries, while praising the wisdom of the Kami. Lipsen thanked Jena; her strategy seemed to be working! Now all she had to do was to get the Zoraïs away before they got too curious and asked to see the spirit. Could she get these gullible fools to all leave?

"And now, you must leave this place. In this place, only the afflicted souls may linger. Here is death and torment for the living! Leave, leave!"

The homins stood up and gathered their belongings silently, but quickly. They threw a last look at the tent and its mysterious occupant. A few drops of rain were beginning to fall, landing on their white masks and looking like tears on their impassive faces. A bolt of lightning flashed over the abandoned camp. As if obeying a sign of wrath from the Kamis, the Recoverers disappeared into the forest.

Lipsen held her breath for long moments, until she was sure they were long gone, then breathed a sigh of relief before bursting out laughing. She had managed to fool the enemies of the Kuilde, but she knew she had better leave this place. Still laughing out loud at the trick she had managed to pull off, she quickly put her armor back on, adjusted her hunting bag and grabbed her boomer. She carefully lifted the leather curtain that covered the entrance to the yurt and peered about. It looked like the Zoraïs had really left. Lipsen emerged into the storm, surveyed the surroundings more carefully and then set of towards the North. She had to warn Mithus Xalon of a possible alliance among his enemies.

After climbing a small hill, she turned around to look again at the deserted camp. Her eyes rested on the outline of the tents that were awash with rain and another idea, a crazy idea, occurred to her.

Slowly, Lipsen smiled again; this was going to be good!

To be continued...


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