That night, Damon told more stories of humanity's past glory. He sat in pride of place, before a large fire that had been kindled in his honor. Combustible materials were hard to come by in the undercity, and it had taken the combined efforts of a multitude of people to gather enough for the blaze.
As he finished speaking into the awed silence of the large room, the man next to him rose. He held out his hands to quell the subdued buzz of conversation that had replaced Damon's voice. A burly, short man, the clan chief wore his pugnacious features framed by an irregularly cropped short black beard. Despite their incredible toughness, the fibers of his accron coverall were stained and worn, almost beyond their endurance. The almost invisible seams in the sleeves were beginning to come adrift, as the massive muscles in his arms flexed and bulged.
"My friends,' His deep voice echoed around the room, despite the low noise of the crowd. "We welcome my good friend Damon and his companion into our midst. I also give welcome to the chiefs of the clans, and to the Sage, that they may advise us, and guide us.'
At the mention of the Sage, Damon's gaze flicked to that of his companion. In the dark eyes, flickering in the reflected light of the flames, Damon saw his own thoughts mirrored.
If there was to be any problems, they both knew, it was almost certainly going to come from this quarter. Since their arrival in the Undercity, they had heard talk; whispers, of the shadowy faction that controlled and operated the hydroponics farms. It was said that they were descended from the original colonists, and still possessed some of their technical prowess: secrets that they guarded jealously from the others. As operators of what was virtually the only supply of food available to the inhabitants of the Undercity, the Sage held what was tantamount to a stranglehold on the tattered remnants of humanity.
Damon had been to one of the refectories the previous day, and had seen for himself, the passionate zealotry of the Kinsman, as he preached a depressing litany of damnation upon the souls of those gathered to eat. That there were dozens of identical refectories, scattered across the undercity, each preaching the exact same sermon was a thought he refused to contemplate. He listened as the man ranted at the downtrodden mass before him. After half an hour, Damon had listened to all he could stomach. The main theme of the man's tirade seemed to center around mankind's lot. Man had displeased his god, and the Pyr were his punishment.
If they were to achieve salvation, mankind must learn humility, and earn their eternal reward. Man, it seemed, was a pitiable creature, doomed to suffer until the Day of Judgment released them to their eternal reward. The Kinsmen of the Sage, he told his captive congregation, worked selflessly to provide for their less fortunate brothers and sisters, and expected little in return.
We will work hard each day: we work for the good of all: we pray, that our reward will surely come, in paradise. We, the unworthy, pray our Lord's forgiveness.
The litany was repeated several times. Finally, the man had waved a hand, and had allowed his followers to dole out the food; an all but tasteless protein mash.
As they ate, Damon wandered around, greeting the occasional diner. He was aware of the scrutiny of the Kinsman, who stood at his pedestal. The man's thin fingers were tightly clasped around a small black cross of an indeterminate material that hung from his scrawny neck on a thin chain. Behind him, near the large cauldron that held the food, his two followers also followed Damon's movements with glowering expressions. Around both of their necks, smaller but identical crosses dangled.
Asking a man close by, Damon learned that the talisman was called a Holy, and was the symbol of the Sage. All of the Sage wore them, he told Damon, between mouthfuls of the slop; their size and color denoted a members ranking, within the cult. Although never seen, he added with a grimace, it was whispered that the Grand Master was possessed of a cross reputed to be made of white gold, and was a wondrous sight indeed.
"Who are these Sage?' Damon sat down opposite the man.
"They call themselves our spiritual guardians.' The man continued to eat slowly, his eyes upon his bowl, and the spoon concealing the movement of his lips. "They've been here forever, but nobody now knows where they began. They preach that the Pyr are god's servants, sent to earth to punish us for our sins. Nobody would listen to them much, I think, except for one thing. They control the food. Not,' He glanced across at Damon, and curled his lip in a slight sneer, undetectable from the end of the room. "That this muck could be called food. It's made in the hydroponics plant. The stories say that the Pyr left the plant untouched, so that the slaves who were working to expand the city for them could eat. It's assumed that the Sage are descended from those that operated the plant. When it was done, those that had escaped into the undercity had little to eat, and would surely have starved, if the Sage hadn't fed them. Since then, they've ruled over the clan chiefs, by virtue of being the only reliable supply of food. What we manage to steal from the thrall farms wouldn't feed a child. A skinny child, at that.'
"Are the hydroponics so hard to operate?' Damon asked. His new found friend shrugged. "Nobody has ever seen them, so it's impossible to say. The Sage guard their secrets well.' His voice took on a hard edge. "They take the best women, and some of the children, to bring up in the way of the Sage. It's not known what they do to them, but, if a parent loses a child to them, then that child is gone for good. When they return to service, they are Sage, and might as well be a stranger.'
Damon had more questions, but thought it best not to press the man any further. Instead, he thanked him, and left him to his meal.
This was going to be harder than he had at first thought, he told himself. The Sage were not something he had counted on, let alone the stranglehold they seemed to have on the human population. From what he had just learned, it was unlikely that the Sage leaders were going to look kindly upon any overt action against the Pyr. Well, at least he knew now, why the Sage and his followers in the refectory hadn't looked kindly upon his presence. Sooner or later, the Sage were going to move against him. It was probably only the fact that he was so popular with the people that had prevented them from removing him already. They would bide their time, and act suddenly, and without warning.
Unless, of course, he told himself, he acted first.