16.02.22. Note. I am currently improving the text, and plan to re-release it. You can read the first chapter of the story below...

Voice Of The Ilk

— Chapter 1 —

Today was Naming Day in the Ilk village of Volare. To make with the occasion, many came to place flowers and herbs on Lupin's doorstep. The different varieties made the entrance to the house appear overgrown, and wild. No one bothered to knock, they knew that Lupin was likely too busy for visitors.

This Verido *was* busy. Busy searching for the last piece to complete the outfit for today's ceremony. Lupin sighed when seeing the state of the house. The floor of the main room had many objects, pieces of unfinished projects, attempts at honing a skill, any skill. Lupin had tried to learn to knit but the resulting hat was a disaster and was now used as a tea cozy. Lupin had watched others knit before, the motions were familiar to these eyes but these hands could not replicate them. Moments past lacked too much detail and this Verido's brain had a tendency to overestimate how much information it could retain. Everyone had a skill, but Lupin feared to have none, that is unless the art of cluttering spaces could be artful in some way.

Lupin paused the search to check on a bottle of licky root tea, it had been steeping since yesterday's first sunrise outside. The dark circular roots of the plant, heavy with liquid, lay at the bottom of the bottle. The brew was tucked in the growing amassment of plants near the entrance to the house. The drink was syrupy and sweet. "Yep, it's ready," Lupin said, wrenching the bottle from the arms of a fuzzy plant. Its limbs had encircled the bottle overnight, with the goal of reaching the precious beverage hidden within. Lupin carried the bottle back inside, feet careful to avoid the carpet of delicate leaves and stems, allowing them to breathe their last in peace. Licky root was grown here, Lupin walked to the base of Vol's nape everyday to harvest it. Few plants could thrive up here, the altitude did not permit much, but shroos, and small garden herbs were plentiful.

"Look at you! All dressed up and fancy-like!"

Lupin spun right around to look at who was there. It was Rosmus, a neighbour and close friend. Rosmus stepped over the plant carpet guarding the door and came into the house. This Verido was taller and an annum older than Lupin, with hair standing on end, higher than anyone in Volare.

Lupin was looking more dapper than usual, dressed in traditional ceremonial wear. The ensemble consisted of a necklace of blue thread hanging over a bare chest, with a patterned knee-long cloth wrapped around the waist, the cloth was superimposed with a woven isilk mat. "I spent all of last night looking for each piece. But I'm still missing a thing."

"Your hair looks nice blue!" Rosmus said, impressed with the work.

Lupin's hair was short on the sides and long at the top where it slumped forward and dipped partially over the forehead. During special events, Verido people dyed their sandy-coloured hair and faces blue using the crushed pigments of the fruit of the looberry plant. Lupin had covered up most areas, but the paint was too thin, leaving visible broad pale streaks of tan skin. "I ran out of looberries halfway into it." Lupin admitted. When applied correctly, the blue paint covered everything from the bridge of the nose to the top of the head.

"Doesn't show," Rosmus lied. "Oh! I got you a gift!" The visitor held a basket of trumpet flower bulbs. "Thought we could hang around here and plant these! In a quarter annum they'll start flowering! And when they do, well, you know what I'm getting at! No one else tends to your need for intoxicants like I do, eh?"

"Your need you mean. Your house is full and you're looking to invade mine, a space moocher is what you are," Lupin said, "anyway, why are you trying to keep me here? You know what's going on today."

"Yes but I've decided that we're not going to that," Rosmus said.

"Oh, is that so?"

"I've been making decisions for you for a long while now, don't tell me you've just noticed it." There was a bottle strapped to Rosmus's belt, full of red liquid with a wrinkly fruit floating inside it. "I brought kabacho for us to drink! It's been soaking for a full annum. It's going to be real strong!"

Lupin laughed. "As much as I'd like to just sit around and drink with you all day I've got to go. I don't have a choice."

"You do have a choice." Rosmus corrected. "You think you don't, but you can do whatever you want. Come on, don't you think it'd be more fun to do this instead?"

"Fun. Yea, sure. It sounds fun, but the ceremony's more important, I think."

"Who cares," Rosmus said, "why go at all? I mean, you already know you won't be named Voice so you know, why bother?"


"Right. Don't you think it unfair though? To be part of a contest with a predetermined result? Mago's family has always been Voice, since Volare's time, and that's not about to change! When you think about it, there's really no point in you being there at all! Come on, give me a mug that I can fill."

"It's just like you to say something like that..." Lupin said, busy upturning the place, lifting every object. Lupin did find other things thought to be lost, but these stayed in their spot, to be forgotten and rediscovered again at a later, more convenient time. "I'm going. Don't ask me again."

Rosmus, lacking a mug, took a sip of kabacho straight from the bottle instead, then struggled for a moment, trying to finish a thought, having much trouble getting the lips and tongue to cooperate. "So you're fine with pretending you can win this?"

"I'm not pretending! Ah, it doesn't matter. I'm fine with it is what I'm saying." Annoyed, Lupin moved to the other side of the room to look behind a table. "Ha! It's here! I've found it!" The long blue scarf had been hiding there this whole time, wedged between a table and a wall. Lupin put the scarf on, coiling it tight. In truth, this wasn't an official part of the Naming Day ceremonial wear, but Lupin wanted to wear it anyway. The scarf was a gift from Levi, Lupin's mapa. "Anyway, I could never be Voice. Mago's better suited for it."

Rosmus resisted the urge to comment that last statement with an eye roll. "Did you ever think that maybe you're always under-performing because you know you can't win? That whatever you do won't change the outcome, so you know, why try?" These lips had turned a bright red colour then, another side effect of the kabacho.

"I'll find something else I'm good at. I'll see it more clearly when this thing is over. I know it."

Rosmus set the kabacho on the ground, then found an amusing hat and decided to keep it. Ros then picked up a koutra from the floor and tried to play it, a hand holding the neck and the other stringing the isilk threads. "Lupin, singer songwriter?"

"I'd need a better koutra, that one's got a problem. Sounds terrible."

Rosmus played a short song to test the instrument, fingers dancing across its top face. The notes were unbroken, pleasant, and echoed through the house. Rosmus smirked and began to sing, "a quartet of strings. Harmonious singings."

"Yes yes. I get it I get it, it's me, I'm the problem..." Even while admitting this, Lupin eyed the stringed instrument with much resentment, as if the bad playing had been its fault and its fault alone. "I've got to go." The Verido began to move toward the door, stepping in gaps between objects to get to it, then came up to the bottle of kabacho and decided to take a sip. "For my nerves." Lupin said.

"Hey! What if you actually did become Voice?" Rosmus yelled. "We could go drink at The Ear all day! Best view in all of Volare! No one would bother us up there!"

"Now that would be sacrilegious!" Lupin said with a laugh, before breaking into a run. The centre of the village was near but the first sun was high, any moment now the ceremony would start.

Mago was standing in front of the Volare town hall, an imposing edifice on the lowermost area of the Ilk's nape. There were people everywhere, busy wrapping weaved looma vines around poles and hanging wreaths of dried bibiskiss on every door. The volunteers stood on top of tall, skinny ladders. Atop their perch, the workers swayed gently from left to right in complete confidence with the motion of their world.

Much of the happenings in Volare were tied to what was commonly referred to as The Motion. The Motion, the rhythm of Vol's gait, was used to count the time, to rock children to sleep, and to measure their advancement towards their next stop. A giant pendulum erected in the town square swayed too, equipped with a wheel of numbers overtop counting up when the weight swung to one side. Everytime the number hit oneforty, a disc dropped from a pole. After ten discs, or ten 'horos' the pole was switched out with an empty one, marking the start of a new day.

To withstand the motion, Volare had many tall, narrow houses, designed to twist and bend without breaking. Each structure was built around a central pillar positioned in the centre, with each floor permitting a fair degree of sway. When Vol would rock to the right, the first floor of the houses would also move that way, but the second floor would move left, and the third to the right, and so on. This wobbling effect kept the structures intact.

A disc dropped from the top of the pole then, marking a new horo. "Seventh horo!" Someone shouted.

Mago gulped. Naming Day processions were supposed to start at the seventh disc drop of the day. Unlike Lupin, Mago's ceremonial outfit was without wrinkles or dust. The Volarian's short, sandy hair was heavy with decorative beads.

Mago liked to climb, and did well enough in most sports. Many envied this Verido's ability to do well in everything. But today, Mago appeared less confident than usual. These eyes looked up at the Ilk's towering head, hands fidgeting with the ceremonial necklace.

Everyone waved at Mago, smiling and saying things like: 'Good luck in there!' or, 'You were born to do it!' Mago wondered if they said these things to cousin Lupin too, the townspeople were kind, and weren't known to play favourites.

"Mago!" Armyn, Mago's mapa, called out, waving a hand to try and get their attention. Armyn was bound to a push-chair. A younger Verido was there to ferry them around. "Mago! Anyone in there?"

Mago groaned. "I don't have to say yes yes at every word! You know I'm listening mapa..."

"Well, I want to hear you say it."

"I'm nervous, okay. You know I am!"

"Yes, but you forget that I went through the same with cousin Levi, and my mapa went through it too with cousin Laggra. I'm here, right now, telling you that you have nothing to worry about! Our family line is strong, and I know firsthand whose the best for the role." Armyn smiled up at Mago, admiring the blue face paint that Mago had applied so perfectly. Levi had taught Lupin how to be Voice, but then that job fell onto Armyn to teach them both. "It happened ages ago, but looking at you now, it's strange... like going backwards in time."

"Cousin Levi was really good. I heard the stories. Levi almost got the title."

"Yes, that's true. Levi would have done many more great things, but we can't think about what could have been, we've got to focus on what is! Lupin is good, but lacks your focus my love!" Armyn's eyes darted back for a moment, "I have to go! They're waiting for me. I'll see you there!" The Verido helper wheeled Armyn away, both disappeared into the town hall, passing under a banner with the words 'Voice of Volare naming ceremony'.

A small child stood near the banner, trying to sound the words written on it in Ilken with little success."That doesn't sound right at all."

"You almost got it." Mago said, with a kind smile, "Here, watch me." Mago's hands moved into place, cupping the mouth in the right way. Mago took a deep breath, stomach muscles clenching, and then came a collection of soft whistles. The sounds varied in length, pitch and rhythm. Otherworldly, metallic almost. This song was quiet because the receiver was nearby, but for Verido people Ilken was a loud language, usually reserved for long distance communication. Even when low, the song resonated throughout Volare, moving between buildings until it found Verido ears. Once there, it funneled inside the ear drum, and went deeper still, vibrating through flesh and muscle to tickle your brain. Over a few generations Verido Voices developed thick, developed abdominal muscles and ribs to speak this language.

Mago whistled it a second time, at a lower tone, to make sure the child had heard it right. "See? Voice of Volare. You try it! Watch your pitch on the vowels."

Eyes wide, the child positioned both hands and lips in the same way, and tried again but the song stopped short of the outer ear. Lacking finesse, the ear did not permit it to go further than this. Most Verido people could not speak it, but many liked to try. Only Voices had the training and physical capacity to carry words far. They could not vocalize like an Ilk, but for their size, they could produce the loudest sound in the desert.

"Do you really talk to the Ilk?" The child asked.

Mago smiled. "No. Not yet, but if I become Voice then yea, we'll talk everyday!"

"Wow!" Stars appeared in the child's eyes at the thought of conversing with The Great Carrier.

Volare villagers were setting up a small stage near the town hall. They would be playing music here tonight, songs in Ilken by way of plucked instruments like the traditional donmol, or the humble koutra. Mago loved the sounds of these instruments. All children in Volare were raised with music at their lips and fingers.

Lupin arrived then, taking Mago's side. "Well well! If it isn't the Tongue Wart of the Ilk!"

Mago grabbed Lupin's left ear and twisted it with a pull. "Think that if I keep your ear like this for five days that it'll shrivel up and fall off?"

"Ow! Ow! I'll tell everyone you tried to cripple me!"

"They'll think you did it to yourself! You do hurt yourself more often than anyone else in the village." Mago said, twisting it harder.

"Ow! Well yes, but not on purpose! You think I like pain?"

"You like attention, so who's to say!" Mago paused then, "hey, why are your lips red?" Mago said, releasing Lupin's ear. "You reek of kabacho! You fiend! You've been drinking!"

"Before the ceremony? I wouldn't dare," Lupin said with a sly grin, while trying to get some feeling back in that pained ear. "As if you could hold it like that for a give days..."

"Oh you know I totally could and would." Mago said, trying to reach for cousin Lupin's ear again, but then stopped, noticing the scarf. "Levi's freaky scarf!"

"Long isn't freaky." Lupin protested.

"I love it. Coiled around like that, it makes it look like you have no neck. Why did Levi make it so long again?" Mago asked, grabbing the end of the long, long blue scarf, fingers stroking the neatly woven isilk threads.

Lupin shrugged. "Lev just kept adding lengths to it without stopping, saying I would need it long. Never really gave me a straight answer when I asked why. That was near the end anyway, one of many strange things Lev did. Though I can't imagine how long it would have been if I hadn't hidden those last skeins." After a long pause, Lupin spoke again. "How's Armyn doing?"

Mago shrugged. "Mostly fine. Health has deteriorated fast this quarter though." Seven days ago, Armyn was able to walk, but now the shroo infection had moved into the lungs. "Hasn't gone up to The Ear in days."

"Yea, it happens fast." Lupin put a hand to Mago's shoulder then, to offer comfort. "So, when's The Leap?" Both would be without mapas, but at least they had each other.

"Soon." Mago said.

"Well, I'll be there for Armyn, and for you." Lupin said, with a reassuring smile.

"Did you feed Henbi today?" Mago asked, but seeing cousin Lupin's expression it was evident that Henbi had not been fed. "I ought to take it in, you're too forgetful to take care of smellydough. It can't take an infinity of abuse you know." Mago said with a sigh. "I'm surprised you haven't killed it yet."

"I know, I know," Lupin said, feeling guilty. "I always remember to do it, eventually." In fact, Lupin kept a bag of woodgeon berries right next to the jar of bubbling wet flour. "I even ground berries this morning, I just got distracted that's all."

A large crowd encircled them at the town hall then. The suns were about to set. It was time. Everyone around lowered their voices, and watched as the doors to the town hall opened. Lupin gulped. Even a funny-looking scarf wouldn't be enough to calm Mago's nerves now. But Lupin always knew what to say in such times...

"Let's go inside, oh Venerable Nose Hair of the Ilk!"

"Hey don't say that too loud!"

Mago chuckled as both entered the building. The crowd cheered, waving flags of blue isilk, shouting their names.

In Volare, there were no mansions or grand palaces. The town hall was an important, modest-sized building. The walls bore painted murals, images of the Ilk as well as a depiction of their founder and great leader Volare. The table sitting the village's council members was covered with an embroidered isilk cloth, featuring stylized relief images of clouds and suns. The two cousins now stood before a row of 6 council members. Armyn was sitting on the far left, the elder smiled and waved at them.

"Happy you could join us. Today, our Armyn, seventy'be annums old, is retiring after a lifetime of service," the appointed speaker from the council said aloud, smiling at the two Voice candidates.

Armyn bowed a head forward. "I will miss being at The Ear, but my body gave me clear signs that it's time to let someone else delight in this experience. I've learned much of the world through Vol, our Ilk. I've no doubt that the new Voice will do grand things. I have personally trained both, and am very, very proud of them." Armyn glanced at the two cousins fondly. "I will be preparing to Leap from Vol's snout five days from now, I will want to speak to each of you before I go. You, whom I love." Saying these last words, Armyn's open hand turned into a fist. "I will take this love with me to my death."

"We will all bear witness to it, a Leap is a grand thing," the speaker said.

Armyn smiled at this, as did Mago. Lupin remembered when Levi leapt off The Snout. Their friends all gathered round to watch, but they remained at the base of The Neck since The Head was reserved for family. After Lev's Leap, Lupin was given a seed to sow.

A musician began to play a song using a donmol, an instrument with a flat back, triangular-shaped sound holes, four double strings, a long neck, and a raised fingerboard. The song was a re-telling of the history of this city and of its founders. Lupin favourite moment was whens the three founders, Otora, Balandri and Volare, first encountered the Ilk. The three giants were gathered at the foot of Tor peak, a mountain the Central Rim, grazing on sweet grass. Their leader Volare stepped up first, sure-footed, bowing at Vol's hoof. The story was famous to the residents of Volare, but Lupin could listen to it again and again without tiring.

After playing a last note, the musician motioned for Lupin to continue the song in Ilken. The candidates always performed the last chorus on their own, as proof of their mastery of the language. Lupin did well enough, despite missing a few notes, while Mago's performance was pitch perfect. There were other tests, which included recitations and improvised verses, again, Mago triumphed. Lupin's improvisations lacked finesse but all applauded their creativity, no one else could recite elaborate poems on the many ways to prepare looma roots.

The last part of the ceremony consisted of a public reading of their full family tree by Volare's appointed Pattern Reader. Every Verido's skin bore patterns, a series of lines and dots, etched in deep like veins on a leaf.

"Disrobe please," said the Reader, standing up and approaching Lupin first. The Reader was short, and had long wispy brows, these were so long that they tickled the young Verido's face. Mago could see this, and held back a laugh, a smile danced on both of their mouths. The Reader's finger followed the blue lines on Lupin's chest, racing down the arms and then down the back before ending on the face, muttering names and words in a hushed voice for some time. "Lupin, Levi, Laggra and Lunav. Direct descendants of Volare, same klorea coursing through your veins. Very good."

Then came Mago's turn, the Reader followed the patterns, mumbling. The set of wrinkled hands then touched a patch of rough skin. A burn. The Reader looked dismayed. "I can't read you." The finger lay on an old wound, carved there on Mago's backside. Armyn was distraught, recalling the event that caused it. Years ago, the Ilk stepped into a deep crevice. The violence of the motion made the city on the creature's back tremble. Armyn, a hot kettle in hand, lost control and the scalding liquid left a lasting mark on Mago.

"But you know my family! We've been at the Ilk's ear for three generations!" Mago explained, red-faced. "What does it matter if you can't read it? There's no denying where I come from."

The other councillors shook their heads, disapprovingly. All present in the room knew the family yes, everyone in Volare did, but the councillors were superstitious, and tradition was tradition. Appointing someone with a muddy pattern, they said, would offend the Ilk and they couldn't risk it. At these words, Mago froze. These words shocked Lupin too. Armyn said nothing while the rest argued, they said the word muddy often. Every mention of the word hurt Mago.

Then the council came to an agreement. The Reader spoke up, "Lupin," Mago's eyes fell to the floor, avoiding Armyn's gaze, "you will be the bridge between us and our Great Carrier Vol."

Both had undergone the same teachings, but there was never any doubt that Mago would get the role. Can I refuse to be Voice? Lupin wondered. No. Mago would never think of being Voice now, not after what they said. There was nothing to do. The festivities were already beginning. Someone was outside announcing the good news. As per tradition, a ceremonial wreath made of braided isilk hairs was placed on Lupin's head, along with the robe worn by all Voices. Lupin wasn't happy, and could sense the same in Armyn. In an instant, a tiny defect robbed Mago of all purpose.

The Reader led Lupin outside to face the multitude, hands threw fistfuls of dried woodgeon berries in the air and all began to sing. Rosmus stood in the crowd, still in plain clothes, laughing hard, and waving a bottle of half-drunk kabacho.

Should have stayed home, Lupin thought.

All in Volare chanted, repeating Lupin's name like a mantra. The world was a blur, a mess of people amassing close and saying kind things. The eldest of each family added a single bead to the wreath, after a while the weight of it was giving Lupin neck pains.

"You speak for us all when you're up there! We trust in you. May your presence at The Ear grant us many more annums on Vol's back," the Reader said, adding yet another bead to the wreath.

These celebrations were overwhelming for Lupin, but would not last. It was tradition for the Voice to climb to Vol's ear during the day's festivities. The people would sing, dance and play games while awaiting Lupin's return the next morning. Wreath and all, the Voice climbed up to The Ear alone, pushing through the tall tangles of hair on Vol's spine.

Lupin found it hard to swallow, or breathe, even taking steps was difficult. The stomach too was in tangles, constricted by obligation, and responsibility. "I'm going to be sick," Lupin said, swallowing it back, hard, afraid that vomiting too could offend Vol. "What if I say the wrong thing, what if I get everyone... thrown off." The Voice's vision began to blur at the thought of getting everyone killed. "A looberry berry fell from the mountain top," Lupin began to sing a song aloud to try and chase those thoughts away, a song common to Volare children. "It rolled rolled down down down into the yellow yellow sand. Along came a snakadil, and they began to play and play, but it soon began to cry and cry. The looberry berry longed for home, but the snakadil did not know what to do." After singing it, Lupin regretted the choice of song, and swallowed sick all the way up to The Ear.

Vol had large, tufted, parabolic ears. On arrival, Lupin spent a long time looking at them, wondering what sounds they could perceive that these ears could not. It was a calm, windless day. The horizon was not visible, dimmed by a distant sand cloud. All Lupin could hear was the faint noise of music of the happenings in Volare, this, and the sound of the Vol's breathing. Even after being told many times what to do, and what to say to the Ilk, standing here now Lupin seemed to have forgotten it all. Before the Voice could say anything, the Ilk spoke. Lupin could feel its stomach expanding, then air circulated from within its body before coming up the throat to push out of its mouth. Vol spoke in rythmic hums and grunts, a version of Ilken adapted to Verido-ears.

Paying close attention to the length and pitch of each sound, Lupin understood. "No wind." The Voice said in Ilken, smiling. "Want to hear a song I wrote?"

Vol's ear twitched at these words, listening closely. Lupin smiled and pulled out a tiny instrument that looked like a comb with flexible prongs. The Voice began to play a song with it. The Ilk seemed to enjoy it, its ears twisted at every second note.

As time passed Lupin became more comfortable. The Ilk gave infrequent notice of changes in the weather or the terrain. Lupin spent a while listening to the whistled conversations between it, and the others of its kin. There were two other giants in existence, the Ilk of Otora and the Ilk of Balandri, they too carrying cities with Verido people. Few livings things could hear Ilk communicating to each other, and yet it was widely known that their conversations spanned the entire desert. Verido had evolved to detect some of their low-frequency seismic communication, their flute-like ears growing in size and becoming long, and conical, but even then their range was limited. Lupin imagined surfing Ilk song like a wave of sand, traveling in the sky and into the ears of other large desert beasts. This thought kept this mind busy.

The morning after the festivities were over Lupin descended, but again, was forced into more activities and celebrations with the village people. All the while, Lupin thought of Mago, the Verido hoped to stop by the house today... time permitting. That time came later that day, but the new Voice of the Volare Ilk couldn't get past the front door. Armyn let no one inside.

Lupin had to give up, and went to see Rosmus instead. The tall-haired Verido was busy putting a pot together, grinding carapace shavings into a fine powder with a giant mortar and pestle. "How was it up there?" Roz asked.

Lupin smiled. "Amazing. Could have stayed longer up there, but um...I'm not feeling too good. I'm worried about Mago."

"Mago needs time, that's all..."

"Did you know about the burn?"

Rosmus did not look at Lupin, and continued to pulverize some more shavings, "No. It's silly though isn't it? This whole thing? Muddy! What nonsense. Mago's lineage was clear as day." Rosmus mixed a handful of powder with the juice of a looma root, and began to massage it into shape, gradually adding more liquid or more powder as needed. "Land-dwellers name themselves, did you know this? Pattern Reading, as it is now, has become a matter of superstition. Vol doesn't care about patterns or klorealines. We do. We rely on half-baked rituals because we are afraid." Rosmus said.

"Afraid... of what?" Lupin asked, but in truth, did not want to know the answer.

"That our future is not certain, and that your presence at The Ear doesn't guarantee a thing." Rosmus said this with a broad reassuring smile, but that did little to mute the grim nature of those words.

While talking, Rosmus had shaped the shape into a recipient, and was about to start carving shapes onto the outer sides of the bowl, but decided instead to reach into a bag for an object, which was then placed onto Lupin's lap. "Here, I made you a tea cup." The teacup was mottled grey with a blue hue, it had a bulbous shape, and Rosmus had coiled a decorative isilk braid around its handle. "You can tie it to your belt with it, carry it around, maybe have a cup at The Ear. Tea is good for thinking."

"I already have a tea cup."

"Yea. I've seen it. This one is better." Rosmus grabbed the cup again, and set it atop Lupin's head. "It's a Thinking Cup. Forces you to look at the world, makes you question everything. If you need to have a long think, fill it with tea and set it atop your head. It works, you'll see."

"I don't need a cup of tea on my head to think," the Verido said, removing the cup from its perch. "I'll look ridiculous."

"No, you'll appear pensive, which from the outside will make you look smart." Rosmus said, continuing to crush more powder, amassing enough material for a dozen more Thinking Cups.

Lupin climbed to The Ear, everyday, with a new joke to tell. This was a challenge that resulted in many sleepless nights, Lupin was busy, hard at work composing jokes suitable for an Ilk. It was possible that the Ilk did not have a sense of humor, although some annums ago Armyn had mentioned something Vol had said about a grain of sand and a mudbear at a snack bar. Ever since then, the cousins agonized over whether or not it was an attempt at a joke. Thinking about such times made Lupin miss their friendship, they hadn't spoken in days.

"We don't want to see anyone." Armyn had said, dishevelled. After the ceremony both went home, and had not come out since. The only person who had dared to visit was Lupin.

"That can't be what Mago wants."

"I don't like what you're implying," Armyn said, eyes narrowing down, "you can't come here everyday."

"I'm sorry, I know Mago ought to have been..." Lupin stopped, wincing at those last, unspoken words. "Please let me help."

"A curse has befallen us!" Armyn pushed forward and whispered through closed teeth, "it's Vol, it meant for us to fail. Don't you see? It shook the ground, and made me harm my child! Oh I will die with this pain in my flesh..."

Feeling bitter and abandoned, Lupin left. Evidently Armyn was not well, but Mago was likely worse. Was this the end of their friendship? They were family, Lupin couldn't stand the thought of losing them both to this, but insisting further at this point would only cause them more harm. Lupin loved them and didn't want that, leaving was hard but necessary.

Every night Mago had dreams about pushing Lupin off Vol's head, the body crumbling to pieces as it fell. Mago would wake, feeling nauseous and guilty, no amount of positive thinking could chase those horrible images away. Lupin was a friend, getting rid of this rage was more important than grieving. There was no telling how such thoughts could affect Mago's mind. Already there was an itch there, a dark sludgy patch that was hard at work assimilating Mago's remaining good thoughts. The only way to get rid of the sludgy patch was to find Lupin and to apologize for disappearing. Mago had been a bad friend. It was time to move on, there were plenty of things to do on the Ilk, in fact Lupin had hoped to become a Hand of the Ilk after the ceremony, like Levi.

"That's right, I could be Hand," Mago thought. Levi had wanted to be Voice, but even after being denied the role had also adored being Hand. In fact, Levi's work had saved Vol from a major parasitical infection many annums ago, one that threatened the creature's digestive system. It was a worthy, important role.

Mago finally left the house but did not find Lupin home. There was a lot of wind that day, it rushed between the buildings, sounding like a long wailing cry, escaping from the mouth of a creature no mortal could appease. Mago gazed up at the Ilk's head, most of it already engulfed in a thick cloud of dust, and concluded that this is where Lupin was. During stormy weather, someone had to stay at The Head. If ever something bad happened, Vol would communicate it to The Voice, who in turn would translate the message, whistling it to the Hands who would attend to the problem.

That morning there had been talk of a storm coming this way, Lupin had communicated it down and the message had come to everyone's ears. People in the city closed their shutters and wrapped scarves around their faces. Mago did not care to prepare, focused on talking to Lupin. Once at The Nape of The Neck Mago tied one end of a braided isilk rope around this waist, and the other to a security line. This line ran along Vol's spine, people used it to make their way up there. The Hands made use of these safety lines often.

And so began the long, arduous climb to the head. The wind was stronger going up, but this wasn't Mago's first climb in such conditions, and the line system was safe enough. The Verido pushed through angry tangles of Ilk hair, the central line ran right through it. While providing shelter, the hairs gave the climber something else to grab onto. No sand made it in here, though looking up one could see an infinity of grains whizzing by. Then finally, Mago pushed through the last section of hair and arrived at the top of the head.

Lupin stood next to The Ear, although from here, it looked like a giant fuzzy plant. It was dark on the outside and pink on the inside. Once in a while the ear would twist, the Voice caressed it, in an attempt to calm the giant. There was little shelter on the head, nothing to keep the sand from grinding you down. Lupin's head had a scarf, and the shoulders bore a thick cloak, this of course did not rival the Ilk's natural physiological adaptations. The beast eyes were cloudy, a third eyelid drew across them and acted as a protective curtain. A lot of particles lay trapped in the beast's eyelashes too, they too did a good job of keeping the vision clear. The tiny specks looked like insects trapped in a web. Their thick coats insulated them from the intense heat radiated from desert sand, and their gait and wide feet help them to walk without sinking.

The Voice was too busy scanning the horizon for disturbances to notice anyone else was there. The rope tying Lupin to the Ilk lay on the ground. Mago was waiting for the right time to step forward, but couldn't gather the courage to do it. Also, dark thoughts crept into this Verido's mind. How easy it would be to undo Lupin's tether, and the wind would take care of the rest! Mago chased the thought away, horrified. What's wrong with me?

Finally, their eyes met. Lupin's yellow eyes showed through small openings in the blue scarf. Mago was anxious, as if somehow Lupin knew about the dream.

Lupin turned all the way round, back to the wind, and pushed a bit of scarf away to reveal the smile concealed underneath. This smile was enough for Mago to build up the confidence to make that dreaded, but necessary apology. "I'm sorry I didn't congratulate you, and that I avoided you... and my mapa's behaviour..."

"You should be Voice Mago, not me."

"Please don't say that."

"I mean it. Vol keeps correcting my Ilken. It's embarrassing."

Mago smirked at this, but did not feel worthy of Lupin's kindness.

"We're still friends right?" Lupin asked.

They couldn't continue their conversation. The Ilk let out a groan to warn them of an incoming gust. Both Verido braced themselves for impact, but the wind came fast and strong. Sand swept Lupin up into the air, as a flurry of yellow grain swallowed up the world. Mago stayed put, belly on the ground with hands holding onto the main security line. When the wind died enough to stand up again, Mago hurried and grabbed Lupin's tether, the air was still thick with sand and made it hard to see. "Hold on!" Mago screamed, but there was a problem, the line was too light, like there was no weight on the other end.

"No, no, no! This can't be real. It can't be. They'll blame me for it, they'll think I did it!" Mago felt dizzy, and continued to pull. "This can't be real." Then came the end of the line, and Lupin was not attached to it. Tears welled up in Mago's eyes. "Lupin!"

Continue to Chapter 0