Talia had been with the temple less than two weeks. She had appeared in a few of the simpler dances the maidens put on, but Sparr doubted she had been acclimated to the more sexual aspects of their duties. This would be her debut.

As the two kissed, Velyn tenderly began to loosen Talia’s robe. Pale cloth first opened, then fell away. The brunette’s skin was warm in the light of the candles. She had a girlish figure with slim breasts, a flat belly and slender legs. As the redhead kissed down her neck, Talia sighed.

“Aren’t you curious about my body?” Velyn said. She pulled back just enough for her new friend to see the mischievous sparkle in her eyes.

“I… yes,” Talia said. Almost clumsily, as if somehow unfamiliar with the simple garment, the newcomer undressed her fellow maiden. In contrast, the redhead’s body was fuller. Velyn’s breasts were heavier, her hips more pronounced, and body softer. Smiling in wonder, Talia ran her hands down Velyn’s neck to her breasts. “They’re nice,” she said.

Velyn giggled. “You can kiss them if you like.”

The two had been kneeling on the furs, but now the redhead nudged them both to lay down. She guided Talia’s mouth to a breast.

“Oh,” Talia said. Briefly, she hesitated, before circling Velyn’s nipple with her tongue.

“Yes, like that,” Velyn said. She stroked the brunette’s hair.

Talia slowly relaxed. She guided first one breast then the other to her mouth, sliding her tongue in a gentle circle. “Yours are bigger than mine,” the brunette said, before drawing a nipple between her lips.

“Mmmmm,” Velyn groaned. “Your body is beautiful, Talia, and that feels so good. Don’t stop.” She wriggled against the furs.

The two slipped into an embrace. With her free arm, Talia circled Velyn’s back, drawing her close. The redhead for her part continued to stroke Talia’s hair, sometimes urging her partner’s mouth to her breasts. Velyn’s eyes slid shut, as the drummer kept up the slow, steady rhythm.

“You like it?” Talia asked after a moment, a note of uncertainty coloring her voice.

“Oooooh yes,” Velyn assured her. To those watching through the slits in the tent as much was obvious. “And there’s something else nice we can do.” Reluctantly, the redhead sat up, while Talia remained reclining, a look of confusion in her eyes. “Here,” Velyn said.

Smiling at her new friend, Velyn lifted one of Talia’s legs. She kissed the ankle, then the calf, keeping her eyes on Talia’s. Subtly, she kissed higher yet, trailing her tongue along the brunette’s upper calf.

“Okay,” Talia said softly. She leaned back, her eyes fixed on the progress Velyn’s tongue was making up her leg.

“You’re so sweet,” Velyn said. Her lips neared the inside of Talia’s knee. “I think I’ll devour you.”

Sparr’s cock stirred. Liette had offered him more practical garments for the pilgrimage, a pair of rough trousers and a somewhat finer shirt sewn with the Origin emblem. The loose trousers offered no resistance to his swelling organ.

“Mmmm,” LIette moaned. The two were pressed close, with Sparr looming behind the priestess. She smelled faintly of sweet scented oil. Like a rope, her tight blonde braid lay down her back. Idly, Sparr stroked it.

Eyes still locked on Talia, Velyn found the sensitive inside of her partner’s knee and applied her skilled tongue. The brunette moaned once, eyes widening, then moaned again, a protracted gasp of pleasure.

Velyn smiled confidently. “No one’s ever kissed you there before, have they?”

“No,” she said shyly. “It’s nice.”

As pretty as she was, Talia seemed inexperienced. Though Sparr doubted she was a virgin, this was almost certainly her first time being taken to bed by another woman. He wondered if she even understood she was part of a show.

“That’s nothing,” said Velyn. Subtly parting Talia’s legs, she resumed kissing down the young woman’s thigh. Her copper hair spilled across the furs, and across the brunette’s warm skin.

“Oh,” said Talia. “Oh, fuck!” Velyn’s tongue found her slit. “Oooooh!”

Liette shifted position, wriggling her ass against Sparr’s stiffening rod. Sparr shot a quick glance left and right. The priestess had chosen the darkest, most private corner of the tent, and regardless, their neighbors were engrossed in the spectacle unfolding within. Sparr reached into the blonde’s robe to fondle a breast. She moaned.

“You’re so sweet, so fresh,” Velyn moaned. She flicked her tongue against Talia’s slit as it opened to welcome her.

“Oh, oh Omm,” Talia gasped. “That feels so good. Your tongue.” For a moment she was quiet as Velyn pleasured her. “I didn’t know… I didn’t… a woman’s tongue.”

“Give in to it,” Velyn said. Her own voice was a bit ragged.

“I will, oooooh!” Talia’s body arched away from Velyn, as the brunette dug her fingers into red tresses. She writhed against the soft furs, her slim body highlighted by the dancing candlelight.

Sparr fondled Liette’s breasts, pinching and twisting her nipples. The priestess moaned. She wanted a man who didn’t care about her authority, her position, someone with whom she could drop her guard. He could have raised her robe, taken her right there, and she would welcome it. Sparr began to consider the idea.

Velyn, meanwhile, was fully committed to pleasuring Talia. She had circled each of the brunette’s thighs with an arm, holding her in place. The redhead’s tongue explored, licked, and teased her partner’s slit, sometimes wriggling deep, but always returning to her clit. With one hand Talia ran her fingers through Velyn’s hair, with her other she clutched at the furs. Her body trembled as the drummer began to pick up the pace. “Oh, oh Velyn,” she panted.

The redhead didn’t break her rhythm to respond. Instead, Velyn wriggled first one finger into her friend’s slick gash, then, as Talia gasped, another. She curled them up against the brunette’s g-spot, a coordinated assault on both pleasure centers.

“Fuck!” Talia said. Her face was a mask of ecstasy, mouth open, eyes shut, body arching. “I’m going to,” she half-whispered. “I’m… your tongue, I’m… oh.” For a moment she only panted, her breath coming ever rougher. Then, just when Sparr thought she might hold out longer, Talia came.

“Velyn, oh, fuck. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!” Talia’s thighs snapped closed, locking Velyn between them. The tremble turned into a shudder, then a near spasm. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh,” she cried out. Her beautiful, round ass squirmed against the furs. The drummer’s pace matched the tempo of her gasps.

Nor did Velyn lose her focus. Even with Talia’s thighs gripping her head, Sparr could see the redhead’s fingers still teasing the other girl’s g-spot. She dragged-out Talia’s orgasm until the brunette collapsed, panting and spent. Velyn wriggled up alongside her new friend. For a time, neither girl spoke.

“You came so hard,” Velyn said with a giggle. She brushed back the brunette’s stray locks and kissed her. “Now I’m wet, too.”

“You should cum,” said Talia.

“You have any ideas?” said Velyn, a mischievous light in her eyes. It was a scripted moment, but fun and sexy nonetheless.

“I do,” said Talia. She rolled over, stood, and approached the mummy-wrapped prince at the end of the tent. “We have a toy.” With that, she began to slowly remove the wrappings. Velyn sat up to watch as first feet, then toned calves, muscular thighs, and finally the man’s midsection were exposed. His cock swung free.

“Should I stop?” Talia laughed, feigning uncertainty.

“I think you found the best part,” Velyn said. “But, I want to see the rest, too.” She bit her lip suggestively.

Obediently, Talia finished removing the gauzy wrappings. Like the other princes, the youth was handsome, with strong, even features, stylishly careless hair, and brooding eyes. He made a show of stretching, his oiled body reflected in the flickering light. At last, he focused on Velyn.

“She’s ready for you,” Talia whispered in his ear. She stood behind the youth, her lips pressed against his neck, and one hand reaching around to stroke his cock.

“Get him hard,” Velyn groaned. She lay back against the furs, her legs spread invitingly. With the youth watching, she wet two fingers and wriggled them into her slit. “Ooooh,” she said. “Don’t take too long though. I need it.”

Talia obeyed, stroking the youth’s swelling cock while whispering into his ear. “I want you to fuck her,” she said, just loud enough for those watching to hear. “Drive it deep. I want to hear her scream.”

The young man grunted. Talia might have been inexperienced with women, but she knew how to handle a cock. She stroked him expertly with one hand, focusing on the most sensitive part of the shaft near the head, while reaching her other hand between his legs to tug and squeeze his balls. In less than a minute he was ready.

“Take her,” Talia urged. “Take her right now!” She practically shoved the youth forward.

There was no foreplay. The prince stumbled forward, knelt, and plunged his sleek, eager shaft into Velyn’s gash.

“Yes!” the redhead moaned. “Yes, all the way in.”

The youth needed no encouragement. As the drummer again picked up the pace, he began to pump. “Unh,” he groaned.

Sparr slid his hand down to locate Liette’s slit. She was already wet. Without turning his eyes from the spectacle within the tent, he began to tease and stroke her. The priestess moaned, grinding against Sparr’s hand.

“Oh, Velyn!” Within the tent, Talia circled the partners, both admiring and encouraging them. “He’s so strong,” she said, trailing her fingers across the tight muscles of the prince’s back.

“Hard, too,” the redhead groaned. She spread herself for the man, arching her body, squeezing and tugging her breasts. “It’s so good!” Copper hair spilled out artfully behind her. In fact, Sparr noted, the scene appeared to be carefully choreographed. Most of the men watching were treated to the sight of Velyn’s soft body writhing against the furs. Those whose view was blocked could admire Talia as she restlessly paced. The women were treated to the prince’s straining body as he plunged his cock home.

“She likes the pretty boy,” Sparr whispered hotly into Liette’s ear. He held her tight, groping her breasts, and wriggling his fingers into her dripping gash. “She’s never had an animal. Never been plundered in her own chambers.”

“Fuuuuuuck,” the priestess panted.

Within, the drummer continued to pick up the pace. Obligingly the prince did as well. His breath became audible, as drops of sweat rolled from his skin. “Hunh,” he groaned. “Fuck.” His body slapped against Velyn’s.

Talia lay beside her friend, pressing her slim, warm body alongside Velyn’s. She kissed the other girl’s ear. “I want to kiss you when you cum.”

“Yes,” gasped Velyn. Her eyes were slits, her mouth agape. The trio may have been putting on a show, but their ecstasy was real. “Kiss me. I’m… I’m so close.”

Liette was close, too. As Sparr buried and twisted his fingers in the priestess, she ground and pressed against him. Her breath was ragged, and a slow moan began to escape her lips. Sparr clamped his hand over her mouth.

The prince grunted, nearing the end of his staying power. His cock slid quickly in and out of Velyns’s slit as his hips slapped against her. “Unnnh,” he groaned, then groaned again. “Fuck.” He began to shake.

Meanwhile, the two maidens kissed. Talia squeezed and tugged one of Velyn’s breasts with one hand while gently stroking the other girl’s hair and cheek. Their lips and tongues slid together wetly.

Soon, Velyn was too close to orgasm even to kiss her friend. With eyes clamped shut and mouth wide she could do little but shudder as cock slid into her at a rapid pace. “Oh yes,” Talia said, before darting her tongue once more into Velyn’s ear.

“Unnnnnnnh,” the prince groaned. He kept pace with the drummer, frantically into pumping slick, female flesh until he could take no more. “Fuck. Ahhhhh fuck, Oh… fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck!” At the last possible second he pulled out, sending an arc of cum to splatter Velyn’s chest and neck.

“Eeeee,” Velyn shrieked. Talia’s fingers found her clit, sending the redhead crashing over the edge. “Ooooooooh!” she cried out. Her body thrashed against the furs as cum dripped from her breasts. “Fuuuuuuuuuuhhh.”

Held tight in Sparr’s grasp, Liette shuddered into her own, powerful orgasm. Her hips bucked, alternating between pressing back against his rigid cock, and wriggling forward to encourage his intruding fingers. “Mmmmph,” she groaned, her cries muffled by Sparr’s hand. When he finally eased his grip, the priestess’s breath was ragged. “Fuck,” she said softly.

As the priestess’s ecstasy subsided, so did Velyn’s. “Hooooo,” she said, exhaling softly. As the prince stumbled back, exhausted, Velyn and Talia embraced. They kissed gently.

The show was over. By twos and threes, the pilgrims, maidens, and princes made their way to their own, more private, tents. The Lady Affan, who had watched the show with her husband, called over a prince. “Just like he did,” Sparr heard her saying, as she led the prince away. The Lord Affan returned alone to the fire, his expression unreadable.

Liette was equally difficult to fathom. How many more times would he be required to play the role of the brute? The priestess had yet to show any signs of losing interest in him. Sparr’s confidence that he could entertain her long enough was growing. All he had to do was slip away at some point before they returned to Vonde. Now with Kern’s offer of assistance, an escape seemed more plausible than ever.


They made the final approach on foot.

After another full day skirting the valley, the caravan reached the juncture where the single, desolate road to Shong broke off, heading down to the barren plain. The scene was a chaotic choke point where merchant traffic merged with caravans of pilgrims, and hordes of travelers on foot. To make it worse, stalls, shops, inns, and entertainments of various sorts were piled two or three deep along both sides. Buskers at a hundred cramped alleys called out to the travelers, urging them to sample roasting meats, purchase Origin souvenirs, or indulge in pleasures of the flesh. A stout woman garbed in a lavender and brown cloak held the leash of a young man with dull eyes. “Lords, ladies,” she called out, “he has skills, I promise you! Just five minutes and you’ll be on your way with a smile on your face!”

One sight in particular amazed Sparr. Just down a short alley someone had placed a piece of machinery of a similar vintage to the fallen airships. Like them, it had been stripped of any soft, or removable parts, leaving only the bare struts. Sparr couldn’t tell what it had once been. An older man, panting with exertion, was thrashing the object with a tree branch. Leaves, twigs, chips of wood, and chunks of bark flew through the air in all directions. A younger man sat on an elevated chair, calling out numbers.

“… ninety-six, ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred!” He clapped his hands with barely concealed boredom. “One hundred lashes, thank you sir, and may Omm guide you!” The older man staggered off, still struggling to catch his breath. When the man on the chair spotted the caravan, he called out anew. “Good pilgrims! No need to go all the way to Shong, you may curse the machines here, yourselves! Just five tokens each!” When the wagons showed no sign of stopping he called out again. “Three tokens!”

“It’s heresy, of course,” Sparr overheard Lord Gast explain. “Omm himself cast down the machines. It isn’t ours to do so again.”

“But it’s as I said the other evening,” his wife cut in, “If the casting down of the machines is more a metaphorical expression than an embodiment of a discreet act, or series of acts…”

Sparr fell back, shaking his head. Undeniably, something had happened on Kaybe to disrupt the colonization plan. The answer, he was sure, would be found in Shong itself, not in the teachings of the Origin.

The Shong valley, really more of a flat plain bordered by shallow ridges on either side, wasn’t quite as desolate as it appeared from a distance. As the caravan trundled along, it became increasingly obvious that it had at one point been inhabited. The foundations of buildings, outlines of long-abandoned streets, and the occasional debris pile said as much. Sparr found the place spooky. Where there should have been streets, homes, parks, and people, there were little more than ghosts of what once had been, a world abandoned for hundreds of years. Here and there, the erratic breeze kicked up swirling clouds of dust.

Meanwhile, the spires of Shong itself loomed ever closer. Each competed with the next to own the sky, rising higher, twisting more radically, or glinting against the sun with more intricate decorations. Some clearly had been residential, with elaborate balconies. Others must have been office space, although no sign remained of which interest had erected them. Sparr wondered if the predecessor to K2 Genetics was among them. How much progress had they made studying and decoding the native life before things had collapsed?

Closer in, it became easier to imagine the outskirts of a city. Sparr could make out the boundaries of roads, and more and more of the buildings were partially intact. What must once have been a common space was still identifiable, but with little left aside from brambles and piles of rock where walls or benches must have been. Scores of gaunt, silver and brown birds fought for space on one of the few remaining trees.

“We will walk from here.” The wagons had reached a turnaround in the road, just shy of the city center. Liette summoned the pilgrims, Kern, and most of the guards. “You’ll see several families among the ruins closer in. Do not be alarmed. They have made Shong their home, and seek only to scavenge and trade. After we stop, you’ll have some time on your own to explore and barter.”

The group followed Liette, eager to reach what for many was the ultimate stop on the pilgrimage. Shong, and its ruined machines, represented the corrupt world against which Omm had struggled, and served as a stark reminder of what had befallen those who worshipped machines. Nothing was more central to the faith of the origin. Even Sparr, who disdained the exploitative religion, was curious what he would find. Above all, he sought any still functioning machines. If anything still was left intact, Sparr would find it. With luck, he could signal the Odysseus.

The well-worn path snaked between several squat, substantial buildings. Here the group first spotted the local inhabitants. Two girls sat somberly, at either end of a wooden display rack loaded with cut glass of all sorts. Most were decorative, either cut in the shape of the Origin symbol, or more abstract shapes such as teardrops, stars, or spirals. A few had been delicately etched. One of the girls was focused intently on etching a glass fragment held in her lap. The other called out to the pilgrims. “A memory of your spiritual journey! Celebrate your faith. You’ll pay twice as much at the Overlook!” Liette hustled them by.

The Overlook, it turned out, was their destination. The sight practically stopped Sparr’s heart in his chest. Even ruined, the towers of Shong were inspiring from a great distance. The pilgrims had been treated to glimpses of their crumbling majesty off and on for a day and a half. The overlook, in contrast, provided a close up view of the city’s slowly-unfolding destruction. A massive canyon ran through the city center, its origin unclear. At the near end, where the pilgrims gathered, were a viewing platform and plaza. The canyon sloped down and away from there, carving a hideous gash through Kaybe’s rocky soil. The basements and sublevels of the adjacent towers were visible, their exposed sides split open to reveal catacombs within. One of the towers had eroded away until it collapsed into the canyon, sending debris for a half kilometer. The bottom of the canyon was filled with stagnant water, edged with algae. The vista was achingly depressing. How, Sparr wondered, could anything useful have survived?

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