- Derak of the East 24.03.2016
I shall begin. Behold:
- Of the Jeweled Swamps 29.03.2016
The Lover’s score is 2.
Let me begin by discussing what the historians of the Vicenza Mercers know of the Jeweled Swamps, as those are the archives most accessible to Derak, I would think, when first he began his quest to rediscover the elusive dark crystal. There was a time when the Mercers traversed river the Great to its wellspring, after all, and yet there remain some drawings and accounts of what one may expect of the lay of the land.Deep in the jungles of Kiho and Armen – impossible to say which, for all ostensible usufructs lose meaning that deep in – rises the great cliffbreak Kenath. Kenath lies far south of any slasher plantation ever commenced, and the rock breaks on the northeastern side of river the Great, which means that few explorers from the north have sighted the majestic, imposing wall of stone with their own eyes, being as how they display to the south. Scores of miles Kenath stretches, and whether the river follows the cliff or cliff the river, doubtful that anyone cares.
Southern and western still, towards the mountains, facing the cliffs of Kenath one finds its twin, the cliffbreak Lamorak – equal in greatness to Kenath, yet more remote still, and beyond as many tributaries of river the Great as one would care to count. The two great cliffs are apparently angled to one another, and though they are relatively close, such that the natives claim to see one from the brink of the other, they are definitely not a canyon of any kind imaginable to us; whatever the great calamity or natural process may be behind the fearful cliffbreaks that so dominate the jungles, the valley in between Kenath and Lamorak seems the work of providence, or no-one at all.
Once the traveler upon the river comes in between the two cliffs (impossible as this would be to perceive from the river-bed itself due to the distance from Lamorak) they are actually in the border-marshes of the Jeweled Swamps; while the trice-layered jungle of underbrush, shrub and old hardwood dominates the clifftops of Kenath, immediately below, on the banks of the river, the unseen contours of basal stone encourage a profound wetness in the soil, such that the growth of the greatest hardwoods ceases and the shrubbery reigns unimpeded. A dual ecology reigns, as the marshy shrubs extend to the south of the river, while a peculiar mangrove thicket struggles unbroken alongside the cliffbreak Kenath, seeping in the salty wash off the cliffs and filtering a bluish hue to the leaves and roots of the thin stripe of forest in between the cliff and the river. Nothing of ease and comfort grows or lives on the “bitter” side, as the natives call it.
Further in, the Jeweled Swamps proper begin as the cliffbreaks Kenath and Lamorak grow closer together, reining in the powers of the river in the immense sinkhole formed therein; many are the lakes and pools formed, and massive the sheer mass of water both in the ground and in the air; rain rarely imposes due to the cliffs surrounding the accidental valley, yet waters are everywhere, such that travel through the entirety of the valley, to the rivergap and beyond, is only possible by a boat of some manner. This watery land, roughly triangular in shape as defined by the cliffbreaks, is the Jeweled Swamp; it is unmistakable to the visitor from the first, as the great bejeveled ferns grow their bounty anywhere appreciable land rises from the murky waters.
Regarding the inhabitants, little is known but that they are reclusive savages, nude to the skin, practitioners of shirk and superstition. Nevertheless, the Mercers of old traded with them, and say that they respected the trader’s hide; tools and arms of metal interest them over baubbles, and in trade they bring the skins and bone, root and leaf of impossible fauna and flora. The savages seem disinterested in the bejeled ferns in these accounts, yet for some obscure reason the wondrous fruit seem to never have become an item of interest for the avaricious trader-adventurers.
The old accounts all seem to agree on the mysteriousness of the Swamp, yet they are also equal in warning against deeper excursions towards the southern reaches, where cliffbreak Lamorak casts its near-permanent shade upon the valley floor. As the mainstream of river the Great follows the northern fringe faithfully all the way from the rivergap to where Kenath dives into the ground, this never was a great imposition upon the ancients, as they were mostly interested in crossing through the gap to the mountains. Warning stories about the monstrous animals living in the swamp are many and vague, impressing upon you that it is something of a miracle that there are any native inhabitants to this mysterious place at all.
- It was a simple job… 30.03.2016
A lone man paddles along river the Great. His paddle doesn’t make a sound, but his appearance is a sharp contrast to the surrounding wilderness. Keen is the sight that eyes the bushy shores past which he slides, seemingly ready to defend himself against any foe. The heat of the day has forced him to open up his shirt, revealing a scarred, tanned chest partially covered by a strange-looking, wooden amulet. He has come from afar; his traveling clothes, even if once of quality are now a tattered mess. Now and then his movements reveal strange devices and strings under the cuffs of his ripped sleeves.
The amulet feels hot against my chest; maybe it knows somehow that I am taking it back to its homelands. It still has the spatters of blood of the previous owner and no matter how hard I try to wash it, it won’t come off. Even though I am far from godly, I thank the ragged gods of the thieves every day for the amulet, as without the accursed symbols in it I wouldn’t have the slightest clue where to go.
It was a simple job, to kill the head priest of a newfound sect in the Scarlet City. Certainly nothing I haven’t done dozens of times before. It seems that every power figure in the city needed their own cult these days, so what harm could one more do? But the payment was grand and the job given from somewhere up high so I accepted – the way of life I had wasn’t possible to keep up without sacrificing my world-views.
The temple was something I had never seen before. It was built inside a living tree, even though one had to travel for miles from the City to even find one anywhere. And the insides, they were like a puzzling maze of vines and roots … I had real trouble finding my way to the interior. But I am a master of my craft, and, soon enough, the priest was gurgling and struggling for his life. My poisons are strong, too strong for men of gods who only fulfil small favors, so he died soon enough. I yanked the amulet from his stiff neck and focused on the additional payments the place had to offer.
The crystal seemed peculiar. Dark and glossy it was and the size of my clenched fist. I hadn’t seen such a thing before even though it seems that half of the world’s jewels must have gone through my hands one time or another, if you allow a slight digression to the style of the storytellers. My hands were eager to claim the jewel, more so than my mind, which was wary of a such thing in this odd place, I’m afraid.
The moment my finger touched the accursed thing my mind turned black and I have no recollection of the few days that must have followed. I regained my senses in my old hideout, the classy tavern called Ruby Dancer. I could figure something out from the explanations I gleaned from the staff. I had arrived there yesterday, delirious and feverish, my possessions intact but without the dark crystal that now burned the insides of my mind.
And I saw faces of the dead, the ones I had killed – innocent and foul alike. They have haunted my dreams ever since, they have cursed my mind with second-guessing and softness towards the lives and fates of others. I tried to go back to my profession, but they wouldn’t let me kill for a grand living anymore. They have been my conscience since, or so I hope, because if it can’t be separated from me I have no reason to live.
I searched for the sect, but everyone said that the remaining priests had gone back to their homelands. Even the tree-temple had vanished, leaving me with a thought that it had been nothing but a sick twist of my own imagination. The only thing I had left was the large, wooden amulet.
The research was a pain to a man of deeds such as me, but I managed to figure out where the symbols of the amulet originated – such items were brought back long time ago from the Jeweled Swamps. I cursed bitterly the fact that I needed to leave the City and travel across the known world for it.
I counted my diminishing coins and mounted an expedition quickly; before the expensive wines and women I used to soothe my self-pity would ruin my chances. The travel was long and arduous. I watched my well-paid companions leave me one by one, the shady ones through disobedience and the moral ones through misfortune and death.
But I got closer every day. Every, day.
I didn’t have time to bury the last of my companions as the natives were on our trail. It seems that I still can kill of necessity, as between the seizures of his fever he did beg me to do it instead of leaving him to the mercy of the savages. Still, I have seen his face in my dreams among the others. I look at the amulet and know that as soon as I find the jewel, I will get rid of them for good. This thought alone carries me through. Without it I am as good as dead.
But finally I arrive to the swamps. The wretched place is just as bad as the writings predicted.
- The Dholes Laugh at You 01.04.2016
Derak, how would an assassin continue to live with his blade so blunted? Surely no-one would begrudge you this insane quest, had they been party to these night-terrors of yours – and perhaps worse, the little hesitations of the day, as your swagger staggers at the mere condemnation in the eyes of a goodwife or a commune elder; it must have been crushing to maintain your life in the serene Scarlet, knowing not how many lives your pins and blades had touched over the years.
Even as you breathe easier the further you escape your past life into the wilds, the breath catches in your throat as you set foot on a damp islet on the sweet southern side of river the Great – the stink of the mud is indescribable, forcing you to grab your bag and move to seek higher ground among the ferns and underbrush further in.
The cause of the musky, muddy stench becomes evident as you spook a trio of sleek gorals – peculiar local wild goats – immersed in the business of vigorously churning the mudflat with their narrow hooves. You have observed the beasts from the distance earlier, but the stark reek of their pastime had so far thankfully escaped your nostrils. Whatever it is the goats hunt for in the mud, it has to wait until you move on from your chosen lay-by.
You keep an eye out for any unforeseen dangers as you break out your meager provisions for a midday meal. A high, flat rock juts as a small promontory over the water, affording you a dry break with good visibility around you. A cloak would be a necessity were it not for the thick cloud cover today.
The wilderness journey so far has taken you far out of your comfort zone, to a self-destructive extent even; the canals and alleyways of the Scarlet City are a more natural habitat for you, even the steppes of your youth preferable. A man more prone to self-expression and fruitless emotion would surely have been fractured by the quest, one more in touch with their feelings would have turned back at the diminishment of your guides and companions – that you choose to continue on speaks of deep despair, or a simple inability to alter a course once chosen.
Be that as it may, your musings are distracted by the pack of canines frolicking on the inland shore, in clear view over fifty cubits of water. Dholes they are, akin to fox or wolf, yet at home peeking through the giant ferns and scampering in the sand, or licking each other’s slick coats. As you look on, the dholes emerge from the underbrush to drink and play; in the middle a big one mounts another and they copulate shamelessly, laughing at you the while with piercing barks.
The antics of the dholes prove a fleeting amusement, yet potentially lethal, as you awaken to a light splash of water – the sort impossible to hear to any distance, like the padded oar of a robber’s ferry piddling along. You whip around on your seat and espy the savages at once; their large hollow-trunk canoe has crept eerily close during your contemplations, the three oarsmen near enough to harm you with their spears.
You react unthinking to roll off the outcrop to the counterside, landing in the muddy water with a great splash. The jungle men are shouting now, their voices find echoes in the brush – you dive, forgetting for a moment which side of the small islet your own boat lay. Your long knife detachs into your hand with a flex as you prepare to fight your way out.
In the end it matters little, as six more men appear overland and prevent you from getting onto firm land with long, rock-tipped spears. You can’t help noticing that they know their business as you slowly rise up from the mud. As they do not immediately jump at your seeming hesitation, captivity for now does not seem like a bad idea – you give up the knife to a flint-eyed warrior, not like that makes you any less armed and dangerous.
Your captors are savages of the sort that have infested the riversides ever since you left the last plantations behind; some of them attacked your expedition a week back, scattering your plans to the winds. It isn’t easy to differentiate between the tribes, as they all tend towards nudity and little in the way of material culture. These are close-shaven – head, chin and chest – and wear only parsimonious loin-cloths for modesty. The scars and assured stances speak of experienced hunters, prides of their forest clan no doubt.
The locals jabber at you in a language utterly foreign as they examine your blade with keen interest. The language does resemble some patois or other that makes up the constant background noise in the City, but it is impossible for you to decipher more than a word here or there, so you satisfy the angry and patient queries equally with silent shakes and shrugs.
The hunters prove to be here with three canoes altogether, you can see them gather now on the rocks, a dozen men all told. All seem fit and strong at first, brown to the sun with little in the way of body art – not unlike your own people, really, poorly to the eyes of Scarlet or Vicenza. Aside from wooden fetishes, mud ever-present and tall, well-fed brawn of haughty wildsmen, little distinguishes them. You can’t help noticing that two of the gorals from earlier lie dead and gutted in the second canoe, attesting to the skills of the hunting band – one could be luck, but hardly two of the nimble creatures.
All that becomes secondary, however, when you see the bier in the third canoe – the men are bringing home one of their own, obviously a lifeless corpse. He lies pale in the sun, spear – and a lariat cord? – by his side. A grim elder hunter paddles them to the shore, while a young stripling, an apprentice of a huntsman seems to – grieve? – over the body still. You feel vaguely sorry for the brave, taken down in the pride of life.
The men with you start building a fire for the gorals as soon as the second canoe makes an appearance, not deeming you much of a threat – which makes the feeling mutual, really, as confident as you are in yourself even in this strange country. As the third turns into view around the islet, however, you are prodded forward with suspicion and barely restrained hostility.
Your sinister premonitions prove justified when the canoes beach and angry words are exchanged by the huntsparty. The elder paddling the third canoe grabs your arm (barely missing the clapper of your hidden kestros) and forces you to stumble forward in the mud; the youngster looks at you with tears barely restrained as you bend to take a closer look at the body. His babble, you realize, is different, slower and more measured – its in the Kihon dialect of the northern coast, maybe something you could understand.
Not that you have the mind to talk as you look at the corpse, for the lips are drawn over the gums, frozen in a rictus of poison – the scarlet clamp, well known to those in your trade. Worse still, as you examine the flanks it is easy to spot the clawmarks, hookery and rend-talons, wounds still stained by the purple. This man might as well have been killed by you, and beyond doubt the death occurred in the hands of a bladesman of the trade. One from the Scarlet City, no less, for whence otherwise the clams squeezed for the venom!
- Wooden Social Gathering 02.04.2016
I am stunned beyond belief with this discovery. In the back of my head I have felt that I will not see another civilized man after my company had left me. Seeing this poisoned, assassinated man is like a blow across my face. Who could it be, here across the known world?
Lost in my dark thoughts I faintly recognize the fact that the savages tie my simple canoe to one of their own and I am hard-handedly shoved aboard. They put the young hunter with me in my small craft. Uncomfortably close I can feel his presence, strong yet uncertain. He has wiped off his tears and eyes me with curiosity mixed hate. He keeps his crudely carved stone knife openly near my throat. He expects me to try an escape, I suddenly realize. He wishes for it so he could drive his weapon in my flesh. I try to hide a cold smile. I could kill him at will.
I lose my directions quickly, as the crafts slided with ease and quickness under the hanging leaves. One savage-canoe is in front of me, pulling the craft we occupy in while the other slides silently in behind. They know what they are doing indeed, as even if I could slay the young one on my boat, they would be all over me in an instant, and the muddy shores would become my deathbed. I could stay in my boat and use my death-devices, but their working order is a mystery to me now after the muddy swim I just took earlier. So like a cat I keep at bay and wait for my opportunity.
The trek finally takes us to a small bay, safely hidden from watching eyes by nearly impenetrable thickets around. The canoes are silently pulled on to the shore and as we go ashore I notice half a dozen more hidden in the shrubbery. Some of the men must have been left behind to prepare the goats and take care of their dead comrade.
Trek now becomes arduous with wild men pressing me to hurry from fore and aft. Used as I am to the strains through rigorous daily exercises I make to uphold my killing abilities, this is something different altogether. Where the wild men seem to just fly over the broken terrain with rapid steps of sinewy legs, I struggle with all the obstacles this vile place can put up in front of me. Soon I am drenched with sweat. I fear that if it pours all over my devices they might start to creak …. it has been a while since I oiled them the last time.
Luckily the journey ends before my strength leaves me completely. The village is on high ground, yet resides in a place amidst thick undergrowth, making it impossible to approach it without being heard. We are heard as well, as two brown guards are upon us as soon as we near the place of the village. But when they see the visitors are their own folk, they relax and settle for watching me with a curious eye.
It is not long until we are at the clearing surrounded by folk, men, women and children, all nearly naked, brown and talkative. Hostility and arguing follows, as the hunters apparently tell the tale of my capture and of their comrade’s fate.
A courtroom of sorts is quickly formed on the clearing, its walls made of curious and bloodthirsty people, roof high on the greyish sky. The body of the fallen tribesman is carried at the scene conveniently, as a grisly reminder of why this primitive court was assembled.
The old hunter, with a name of Boikol if I understood correctly is put as a spokesman of sorts. He croaks and croans with an angry voice now and then pointing his bony finger at my direction. Oftentimes he proceeds to explain things to me in much calmer manner, of which I can make out bits and pieces. Seems that I am being accused of murdering their comrade and my fate would be left in the hands of the young fellow whom they called Rai. Apparently he and the dead hunter had some special relationship which caused him to have the right to judge me. And when I glance at his eyes, I can’t find much hope there. I try to explain I was not to blame, but the angry bunch would not listen even if thunder rolled through my lips.
They push and shove me near a large stake jutted deep in the ground and prepare to tie my hands around it. I ready myself for a final battle against the savages, I figure I could take ten, maybe fifteen with me using my devices, if they happened to work. I take a step backwards to an inconspicuous ready-stance and my shirt, torn from the forest-trek happens to reveal my wooden amulet.
The folk steps back like struck with a lightning. Boikol howls the words “Evil of the Tree-Men”. All of the savages wave with their hands furiously, if to evict some dark spell from them. I explain the best I can, in a frenzy of simple words, delivered under threat of death. I try to say that I’m trying to find Tree-Men’s lair for a revenge.
No more words comes from their lips, but they push and shove me towards a hut, made from dried grass and mud, not much different from the others except bit larger. In a flickering torch-light they show me what is in there.
The man looks like a chief, old but erect with majestic physique. He is standing there, lifelike but when I watch closer I can see that his eyes do not blink or chest heave. His skin is covered with something that looks like a bark of a tree, even if perfectly at the color of these wild men.
“The evil of the Tree-Men,” I hear Boikol say from behind me.
- An exchange of Information 04.04.2016
How does one ascertain the presence of death, Derak? Your acquaintance – friend, was she to one such as you – Limahl of the Leper Corporate taught it to you once; such knowledge was necessary in the shadow world of the Scarlet City underwarrens…
Thrust at eyes, little man, see them blink — or throw light to see the pupils dilate. Trust not breath, but feel the pulse.
The sing-song atonality bounces around in your head as you approach the venerable man-statue. Even as the bark looks real, the impression is inescapably one of a man in the most futile entrapment, utterly victimized. There are hack-marks, plain to see all over the wide chest, where the villagers have tried to strip the bark; marks stained with blood. You hesitate to touch the sickness at first, but then, looking at the eyes – or maybe the marks of the stone axe are the cause – you run your hands over the thick cedar-like bark. As a man who knows not himself, you seek to understand this other.
— This man is still alive, you enunciate carefully in the Kihon dialect this Boikol seems to understand. The eyes react not and you cannot feel the pulse through the bark, yet you still know, somehow. There is a tightness to your throat you do not understand.
Boikol looks at you, answer his gaze boldly – the man is judging you. He looks every bit the village elder now, there’s even a shade of a beard on the otherwise bald man – rare for these people, you already know. The dried mud on him, you suddenly realize, is hardly accidental in the way it covers the chest and back, flowing down the flanks almost symmetrically. You can hear villagers outside, men and women debating you, no doubt.
Whatever it is that Boikol is looking for in your face, he seems to find it.
— You are a gentle man, he finally utters to your confusion. — A man with that soul is not a killer and a sorcerer. He does not kill without a cause.
Such judgements are cause for smirking to one renowned for his inscrutability and professionalism, of course. People see what they wish to see, and in this case it works to your advantage.
— You believe me then, that I am neither your murderer nor a Tree-Man of ill intent?
— This I believe. I shall take back the blood-right pronounced on you. We are a vindictive people, but abhorrent of injustice… the consequences of miscarried revenge cannot be afforded in this land. Young Rai will have to satisfy his honor in other ways.
— Why then keep him alive, if you are so just? You gesture impetuously at the cursed man witnessing your exchange. The Kihonite language seems to come back to you with the practice. — Would not death be a rightful mercy? Or is he your enemy?
— His name is Pushka, and he is not enemy; he is kin and a strong man, Boikol replies stepping up to look the frozen man in the eye. — A man stuck down by the accursed Tree-Men, the Shalmali sorcerers. We were seeking his cure when Kurava was struck down in secret murder; shortly after we found you.
— We share a common enemy, you observe to the falling silence, repeating your words from before. — This amulet I carry is a trophy of theirs, and I thirst for vengeance against the curses they set upon me and mine.
— An evil trophy, better discarded, Boikol opines dryly. He looks at you sideways and takes hold of your arm. Despite the age, the man’s large enough to drag you with him wherever he wants to go. Better follow willingly.
Boikol takes you out to the village clearing, and over it, all the while averting the hostile demands and queries of the other villagers; you note that the women are as vocally against you as the men, even as many shield their children from the evil foreigner. With Boikol’s help you get through the gathered villagers to another, smaller hut on the other side of the clearing – perhaps his own, if you had to guess.
— I shall talk with the others, Boikol states to you as he pushes you down inside the hut, to sit on a narrow platform of laths. — It is possible that we may be of use to each other, but the people need to be heard. Do not do anything foolish.
Satisfied with that Boikol leaves you in the hut and joins his fellows outside. Their incomprehensible babble washes over you, but Boikol seemed both authoritative and friendly in a passive way; perhaps he would secure you a badly needed alliance here.
However, that does not answer all of your concerns. If not yourself (for you have not had any blackouts since that evil day back home, with the dark crystal), then who would carry out a murder in this jungle by the means of a poisoned tiger claw or spur knife of some manner? Such an assassin’s tool, in a land bereft of worked metal, poisoned with the scarlet clamp…
You idly count out the villagers congregated in the clearing – over two score adults. No sign of metal tools, and the women as naked as the men, with many lacking even the loin-cloth – though they do adorn themselves with heavy-looking wooden arm and neck pieces, almost like horse collars. While the men are close-shaven, beardless and devoid of bodily hair (sporting mud more often than not), the women seem hairy all around, more like a Scarlet City dockshand than a goodwife. All seem intent to voice their concerns over the new development.
Your musings are cut short by the approach of the youngster, Rai. He’s bearing water, and food, you realize. Some kind of cold porridge, perhaps, although you are more concerned over the boy’s mental state; he seemed keen to gut you in the full sight of his village just a while ago, and now he’s serving you. With fresh mud on his flanks and chest, too, you realize – the locals must really wash and reapply their apparel multiple times every day.
Rai stoops into the hut and stops right in front of you. Instead of proffering his generosity the young hunter fixes a cold stare on you.
— Boikol sent me to question you, stranger. You can have food and water, but you have to answer our questions.
Makes sense, Boikol himself seems fully committed to the impromptu village meeting still on-going. The boy’s attitude could use improvement, but he’s probably not too good at changing gears in short order, the way you had to be at his age – both figuratively and literally. Better tread carefully, as blood-right or not, the boy just might decide to get violent, and the rest of the villagers with him.
— I am happy to answer your questions, you enunciate carefully to make sure he understands. — However, I would also be equally happy with another questioner, if you would rather be elsewhere right now.
— None but I talks your language, the youngster claims, finally deciding to set the water skin and porridge down. — My mother was of outlander stock, and taught me the skill.
— I am not from Kihon, you explain, realizing as Rai’s speech speeds up that he might know the language better than you do. — Boikol speaks, however, although not as well as you.
The youngster looks uncertain standing there as you praise his special skill. Finally he decides to crouch down, perhaps because the height difference doesn’t seem to be providing him any advantage in the simple dialogue.
— My name is Boikolo Rai, he introduces himself with unafraid eyes. — Boikol is my father, and an elder of the troop.
— I am happy to answer your questions, Rai, you formulate your words. — My name is Derak Eastern-Born, and I hail from the Serene Scarlet beyond the sea and strait.
The half-familiar language encourages clarity and simplicity upon you both, which actually might be helping here. You realize that just as your own street-hard habits in the Maric tongue are not crossing over, neither would the boy be so polite were he talking his true language and using the words of his heart. Small blessings.
Regardless, your taciturn habit ultimately turns to your favour: for every question Rai asks, he has to explain himself for you to make sense of what he even wants to know. And while your answers may not always be intelligible to someone who’s never seen a city or a temple or even a ship, you get the impression that the boy does not want to admit this, and thus he foregoes his opportunity to press his questions further. You almost feel like correcting him on this, for what use is an inquisitor afraid of his own ignorance.
As you listen to your erstwhile interrogator, there is finally time to do a little maintenance on your personal gear; even as dipping into water is not an unknown occurrence to a Scarlet City assassin, it is still impossible for you to water-proof everything you carry hidden on your person – not and be able to walk around nimbly, anyway. While answering Rai’s questions and asking for the inevitable clarifications on unfamiliar words and background, you drop out of your shirt and spool out the steel string of your kestros, break down the springwork from your boots, and check the more or less waterproof casing on the clockwork and reagents in your body bag. Oil is the only feasible protection for many of these mementos of the civilized world, so this is going to take a while.
Boikolo Rai looks on curiously as the orderly set of small, intricate items starts growing in front of you. From his viewpoint they probably seem like fetishes or personal jewelry; at least the boy shows no sign of considering the wires, springs and cogs dangerous, and you don’t bring out the hidden blades just now. He even brings you more water to wash the worst of the mud off the leather of your bodybag and boots.
You also learn something of the situation you find yourself in: the hunting band you encountered mid-day had been out from the dawn, seeking a shaman or wise man of sorts, “Pale” by name – their intent had been to promise gifts and worship to the recluse, you understand from Rai, though he clearly does not desire to go into any detail. Pale might be able to help Pushka, the village big man, fore his choking altogether in the vile barkness of the condition you witnessed earlier. (What’s the story of that, now that’s what you want to hear – but everything in its own time.) However, finding the medicine man was not as simple as one might hope for.
Shortly before spotting you the hunters struck misfortune as one of their own, the deceased Kurava, faced his mysterious doom. Rai, who characterizes himself as a “scout” to you, was the closest witness to the event, yet even he did not clearly see the assailant, except that they had a thick white cloak akin to the one you have in your boat, and their fleetness was beyond belief as they disappeared in the underbush after the deed. No reasons nor challenges were ever given, it seems; the assailant had struck like a poisonous snake, with little provocation and no warning.
Rai grows distressed in the telling. As you figure it, the dead man was a sort of mentor or elder companion to the youngster – the word he uses is “master”, but it carries little of the reverence it would in the Kihonite plantations. More of a familial fondness, if you are any judge – which you shouldn’t by any rights be, were you entirely yourself. It feels easy to understand the distress of the boy if only today he lost his teacher suddenly like that, regardless.
Despite your misgivings, it is difficult not to share some speculation and ideas with the poor lad so mystified by the murder. The villagers seem to have largely settled down, you note, which seems to justify relaxing your guard yourself. Besides, with the little these people seem to know of the outside world, they hardly have a chance to solve this murder mystery themselves. Strange thoughts for you, but you play along with the impulse for now.
— So Rai, you begin after checking the outside. — You must have noticed the wounds made by the attacker. They are familiar to me from my land, the Scarlet City. The kinds of weapons wielded by an assassin would leave those marks, and the poison in the wounds was definitely from beyond the sea.
— What then is an “assassin”, he asks, now keenly focused upon your words.
— They are like hunters, but people are their prey, you explain keenly aware of the irony of your situation. — And they do not usually hunt in the bush, but in the houses of men. They are the revenge others are afraid to take, and the assassin is paid for the deed in money.
Rai seems to think this over before coming to the obvious question you’ve been asking yourself as well.
— But what would an assassin be doing on river the Great, then?
Then only answer you have is that they are hunting after you, but perhaps it is not the time to reveal this happy thought. The tribesmen might have simply stumbled upon the wrong snake while looking for their holy man.
Before you have the chance to answer the youngster, though, a sudden scream pierces the silence outside. You stumble up, but so does the boy (no hesitation to him at all), and he’s easily out first, having sat on his haunches closer to the entrance. As he’s not interested in stopping you, following is instinctual, particularly as you hear the unmistakable screech of steel drawn upon stone.
The premonition of steel proves correct as you get out in the afternoon air – the hunter of men is here, a cloaked figure in unmistakable long boots of Scarlet make. The village is in chaos at the sudden appearance, and you can see that she already has a hostage lying at her feet. An assassin of rank, though? Perhaps, but either way she drops your cloak as you appear, and you can see the glint of a sword held to obscure its length within the fold of the billowing white cape.
—Ah, Derak! Just the man I was looking for, she growls in the kind of good cheer you remember only too well – in blood-lust, that is. Who is she, and what does she want of you, Derak? And what’s more important, perhaps: what do you want with her? In your current confused state, do you even know yourself?
- Dance of the Fox and the Cat 05.04.2016
Fox, how can it be, the thought runs in my head when I take a few cautious steps closer. I can see her smile from a mile away … her trademark of sorts. A cold, hollow feeling fills my insides.
It gets worse when I realize most of my devices are piled next to the hut nearby. I do not look at them, as she would instinctively follow suit and get an edge. Something I probably wouldn’t be able to overcome. I thank the fate of the thieves that I had time to wear my boots and shirt before the ordeal.
The natives are gathered in a thick mass of worry and hostile anguish around her so I must step closer before I can see the captive clearly: a young confused native girl at her feet. Small dribble of blood is oozing from the wound at the girl’s forehead, but otherwise she seems to be fine. I scold my own thoughts — I better start thinking of a way out of the situation instead of harboring warm feelings towards a stranger. Ever-cursed be the dark crystal and the weakness it brought to me.
She has held the hostile crowds at bay with her sword and captive, but I wonder how long she can keep it up. My answer arrives quickly.
She takes a courteous spin around, like a dancer of the finest brothels in Scarlet. The difference is small, but striking though. While spinning she blows from her hand a cloud of fine dust. There is no wind under the trees so it spreads in every direction with an assassin-textbook perfection. I jump backwards among the undergrowth and instinctively pull the ragged sleeve of my shirt to cover my mouth and nose. She does the same after her deed is done.
— Don’t worry Derak, it is only the Flower, it doesn’t reach that far, she shouts. I remember her voice from a long time ago. With that voice she could have been a singer. Voice yes, but not the character. Flower is known by all assassins, it is the mountain-flower Yulilies from the Far East, which is known by mundane only in legends. The amount of fine dust she just blew would probably cost as much as a small manor, but Fox always was among the best. The cold feeling in my gut strengthens.
I step closer cautiously. The natives have inhaled the Flower-dust and quickly fall into a drunken stupor.
— Follow me, Cat, she snarls. — They are out of it for long enough for us to escape. And the ones unaffected have fled for now as these baboons probably think I am a witch. Make haste!
— I must collect my things first. She observes keenly as I put every piece of machinery back on the right place. I feel bad for showing her this, even though I know that she can’t figure out their mechanisms, not even if I let her stare them for a year. It took me painful 5 years to understand and construct them and I was taught by the only master of his craft … crazy, but a master nonetheless.
We leave the village clearing and I follow her through the tight underbrush. Conflicting voices in my head argue whether I should follow her or make her stop and pay for the murder she obviously must have done. Lack of understanding, knowledge and control of the situation is like a black wall, building itself in me as we go until I finally can’t take anymore.
— Stop! I go no further if you do not tell me where we are going.
She smiles again. I take a step backwards. The smile won’t reach her eyes. It never does.
— Better to just come along. This has been too expensive already. I bet you have spent some of your nine lives already. She always nicknamed me as the Cat while the others used Puppet. I liked the one she used better. But I’ve had enough.
— No. I will not.
— Fine, she sighs. — No poison then. Let’s at least pretend that we are both professionals. My hand-blades come out with a sound … the damned muddy water has taken its toll. — The Cat still has claws, even if rusty. I hope I can take you alive, she smirks. We begin.
The forest becomes a field of spirals, distances and opportunities. We keep the distance long, much longer than knights or warriors would. We search neither honor nor death. When we occasionally close up, the world slows down and I can feel my heartbeat loudly as the actions flurs around quick and merciless, too fast for mundane eyes to follow.
My clockwork seems to be in working order. It delivers ticks and vibrations to my body and creates an off-beat rhythm which I follow. It makes very difficult for opponents to counter and read my actions as they are timed by inhuman, complex machinery. Miniature gyroscopes and swings telegraph their information to my body through touch. Years of usage have honed my instincts and reflexes to use them in heat of battle, climbing or jumping. Springs in my boots give me ability to jump high and far. I am a fighting marvel of mechanics, countless generations ahead of my time. A prophet of future, fueled by the inventions and formulas of a madman and a sage.
But my opponent is Fox, Girl of a Thousand Blades, and she carries out her name as I duck and weave to avoid the flying instruments of death she sends in my way. She is graceful as a dancer, yet deadly as dozen warriors. We haven’t crossed blades before but we both are on the top of the trade. Legends say she was taught by the magi-assassins of the south, who have all but vanished from the world … if they ever existed at all.
— Your strings work like marvels, Puppet, she mocks me between breaths that feel too slow and natural to my liking. The long expedition has worn me out more than I care to admit, while she somehow seems at ease with her surroundings.
We continue and the field of opportunities slowly transforms into one of demands, risks and reactions. She slowly takes me out of my breath and control. My own attacks become few and far between, risky ordeals of surprise, something she easily counters. All lead to the natural evolution of the event. We close the distance once more and as I try to thrust towards her, she sidesteps and pulls me softly out of my balance. I try to spin towards her but she prevents me by one arm while in the other, dagger rises for the final thrust.
— Game over, she hisses coldly. —We don’t need you even if Daag kept telling me so over and over. Better be done with it. We can look for the jewel by ourselves.
There is a rustling of the bushes as the youngster Rai breaks from his cover and runs headlong towards us. He holds his stone-knife ready for a clumsy blow but fails to deliver as Fox has dealt with worse opponents with her hands tied behind her back.
She has a cruel sense of humor as she doesn’t hit him with her blade. Rather when his wild stab misses because of her rightly timed sidestep, she crashes the pommel of her dagger against his temple. The young man goes down like a bag of rice, never understanding what hit him. But it gives me enough time to regain my composure. I watch at the unconscious boy lying on the ground. He saved my life and perhaps sacrificed his own. Something inside me moves.
I explode into a flurry of attacks of a man without desires of self-preservation. My field of vision is tainted with shades of red and black. Something takes a hold of me and guides my blades and flows through me as a river. When I regain my senses Fox is lying on the ground, gasping for breaths of air between bloody gurgles. My hand-blades drip with blood as I try to steady my breath and mind.
—…You’ll be sorry you did that … Cat. Daag wants the jewel and he will get it. You and I, we are just pawns in the twisted plays of the Magi …
She dies as she lived — on the edge and as dramatically as possible. I hear Rai moan and stumble in the bushes. The young man’s head is stronger than one could imagine. I go and help him get up. Blood is oozing from his head and his eyes wander a bit.
— Why did you do that? I ask with almost irritated voice. I feel that I now have a debt which I can’t easily pay back.
— I tried to pay my debt to the murderer but I failed. She was a witch. We need to go and see Pale.
I agree with him.
- Mutual Admiration Society 07.04.2016
Rai seems to know how to treat wounds and bruises, but ultimately witnessing his staggering around proves frustrating, so you end up working to his instructions: clean water, wide leaves of the “palming broadleaf”, and a certain kind of mud he massages over the leaves himself, sticking them to place. You’re surprised when he does the same courtesy to the scratches in your arms. You feel naked without the light resistance of your wirestraps to your wrists, but the soothing feel of the damp leaves sticking to your arms soon convinces you of the wisdom of the trade.
Derak, you have just slain a chartered assassin on commission, even if you are both rather far beyond the conventional reach of the Scarlet authorities at the moment. Still, your future troubles will be greatly magnified if ever it proves that you were not her target and she was just messing with you as was her wont. It is uncertain whether it would be preferable that her self-destructive attack really was bought and paid for by her erstwhile patron – a patron left to loose ends for now.
These are distant concerns, however, to Rai, who has apparently turned into an ardent defender of your honor: as you return to the village and witness the fear and confusion, he doesn’t hesitate to talk for you; while it is difficult to make sense of their language, it seems that the warriors soon accept Fox as the guilty party to their murder mystery, egged on by Rai’s verbose explanation of the events.
With your honor thus redeemed, the villagers soon show a more hospitable manner; Boikol’s women (wives, daughters, nieces how could you know) carry stools and hard grasswork pillows into the shade of the house, and you are made welcome with a bitter drink of sweet fruit. You note Rai being taken inside the hut by a young woman with worried body language.
— Was she after you, then? Boikol asked while peering at the warriors bringing Fox to the village.
— Yes… you ponder in hesitation. — You should warn those men of being too familiar with the Fox; she may be dangerous still in death.
Boikol looks at you dubiously, but rises then in alarm and steps to warn the men to leave the body alone. The men gesture at you, and you see Boikol shake his head at the one carrying her main blade. One of the women brings you a flat bread-thing on a wooden plate, topped by a thick paste of some sort; her smile attracts your attention, and you recognize her as the one the Fox seized earlier.
Boikol returns forthwith, however, clearly intent on engaging you in further verbaglio. You decide to strike first:
— Tell me more about the Tree-Men, Boikol. I still believe our troubles to be connected.
— Very well. Boikol sits down and takes a sip of the punch. — The Tree-Men are sorcerers of the Shalmali; they make their dwellings in the shadow of the cliffbreak Lamorak, in the south. They came far ago over the mountains, from where river the Great springs. Theirs is a magic of crafting and cunning, shaping and melding, as you have seen. Is that what you wanted to know?
— For now, yes. What of the black crystal?
— Is that what you seek here, then?
— Let us say that I am; not of greed, but to free myself of a burden.
Boikol thinks for a bit. You note how villagers come and go, and how Rai comes out of the hut, drinking from a cup.
— I know not of this black crystal, Boikol finally states. — But I shall ask about it, and perhaps somebody has seen or heard of it. Pale Urgaur may also know.
Boikol stands up and moves in a way you understand to be leisurely among his people, rambling over to the next hut. It seems like the villagers are not expecting any more trouble, though you do not see most of the hunters around.
Deciding to do the necessary, you head over to Fox’s corpse. While trapping herself is not beyond the bounds of possibility in her case, it is more likely that the villagers would accidentally poison themselves on her equipment; better for you to check, and perhaps take anything useful for yourself to make use of.
Rai approaches you obliquely (respectfully?) during your examination, but you gesture at him to stay back. He waits patiently while you divide Fox’s equipment in twain: the poisons and tools, which you pack in with your own gear (including another ample serving of the Flower!), and the blades, which you pile neatly on a woven mat. A lot of blades, somehow she was lugging a bandolier of two score throwing knives, for instance. Not quite a thousand, but more than you’d expect of a slim girl.
— Rai, what do you want? You finally turn to the boy. — In truth, wait a moment – I realized something.
You turn back to the body and pick up the main blade, her graceful sword of the art, along with the scabbard.
— You should have this for your own, if that is acceptable to your station, you explain to the youth. — She was the killer of your mentor, and you faced the viper bravely at the moment it most counted. The blade is also fit for your stature for now, though you are likely to grow out of it in time.
That was more of an explanation than any youth of the Scarlet street brancos would expect, but as always, you are uncertain enough of your mutual grasp of the language, and that makes you enunciate yourself carefully as you proffer the sword.
Rai looks at the sword wordlessly, and you can’t interpret his face now. Just as you’re about to withdraw the offer, he takes hold of the blade carefully from the blunt side and hefts it in his hands. You offer him the scabbard, then realize that he may not know of its use, and take the sword again only to flip the two items together in one smooth movement before handing them to the increasingly amazed boy.
Rai moves the blade carefully in the scabbard to see its function, but you see his sideways gaze on you. Finally he speaks:
— Derak Eastern-Born (the words are formal now), I would wish you to become my mentor in stead of the dead Kurava. While his memory is honoured by none as much as myself, he did not prepare me adequately to the tasks of the troop before his demise, and thus my tutelage remains unfinished. I yearn to the true status of the hunter, and it is clear to me that you are the strongest man in the village, now.
Before you have time to say anything, the young man continues in haste:
— Boikol my father will vouch for my skill and commitment. Furthermore, I believe that you are set against the Shalmali witchcraft of the mountain-holds, despite carrying their marks; I find this calling admirable, and will not hesitate to follow your lead in avenging Pushka, and other wrongs they have committed.
Having said his piece, the boy awaits your answer anxiously, it is easy enough to see. As you gather your thoughts, though, an interruption: a hunter runs into the village clearing from the direction of the river, agitation clear to see in his haste. As your gaze nails him, Rai turns to look as well, his plea momentarily forgotten. The man shouts – something about the Pale shaman?
“Pale Urgaur is on the river!” Rai shouts as he grabs your arm. Frustrated by your slowness, he runs clutching the sword. Follow you will, as does everybody else upon hearing the hue.
You arrive, however, too late – or mayhaps the Urgaur never approached the village very close. What you see is the white flank of a great beast moving through the water in the distance, akin to a mountain of ice but in the way it moves in a determined manner, cutting a wake through the water. The moment of dread is unforgettable as you catch a side profile of the turning head, and see the massive horns of the bull-like being rising from the water before it dives, or perhaps disappears in the grey of the evening fog.
The villagers look on transfixed as the blank swatch of the gaur recedes from view. There is muttering, however, and you note Rai at your side (perhaps in hope of things to come). He translates for you:
— Pale Urgaur came with a message, they say; he often does, and his instruction is highly valued. But who received it? Ah, now Rekla speaks – she was here and heard Pale Urgaur alone, as Tanrik witnessed the tail part of it.
Rai listens to the jabber, while you look at Boikol, whose brow crunches in anxiety. Finally Rai translates for you, the message of the Urgaur:
Pushka was a fool to stand against the Tree-Men; they are to be accepted in their workings, left alone, the Shalmali ways unbothered by the men of the swamp. There shall be no revenge-taking, and journeying in the shadow of the cliffbreak Lamorak shall cease altogether. All this in the wisdom of the Pale Urgaur, spirit, protector and shaman of the Jeweled Swamp, refuted at your own peril and the peril of your kin.
The Match begins.
Rolled a ‘1’.
Monster dice: 1
- Beginnings 08.04.2016
A moment of dumbfounded silence bursts into anxious mess as most men and women of the tribe start speaking simultaneously. Some voices are angry, others seem sad but I can’t make up of individual voices in the chaos. I focus my attentions towards Boikol and Rai.
Boikol stands there in silence with his slugged posture revealing the state of his mind. I can almost see his thought working how to envelope this staggering statement.
Rai on the other hand while confused at first seems now to be fueling a growing anger inside him. He approaches his father using the tongue I can understand also, probably on purpose.
— Father, surely this can’t be the will of our great mentor? Tell me you do not believe it.
Boikol is still for a long time, yet finally answers. His voice carries over the noises of others and they grow instinctively silent. Rai, having done so much translating to me already seems to naturally fall into it again.
— Rai, you must understand that I am the elder of our tribe. Do not for a second think that I wouldn’t want to avenge the fate of Pushka, or Kurava if his fate indeed was caused by the Shalmali. But Pale Urgaur is our mentor and savior. When I remember the countless advice he has given, my mind shivers of the possibility of abandoning him. It is for the good of all of us, even if some revenges stay ungiven and bitter.
The tribesmen then enter something I could understand even through the difficulties of the language to be a heated debate. The young and eager warriors are the ones to shun this idea of surrender, while older men and women favor to follow orders of the Pale. Rai is among the young ones, yet they seem slowly to be outnumbered by the others.
I have never been a talking man, but it is clear something needs to be done. I clear my throat and ask Rai to translate my words to the villagers.
— I am Derak of the Eastern-Born and I have come from afar. It may be that I have brought this doom upon you so I must be the one who will go and destroy it if I can. I admit that my motive for this is not to protect your people, but nonetheless my goals and your goals are equal. I will avenge the Shalmali or die trying.
The people fall silent again, listening to what I have to say. In a heat of the moment and inspiration I continue. I direct my words straight towards Rai.
— Boikolo Rai. You are the one who has suffered the most out of this. Let it be known that he has asked me to become his mentor in place of Kurava. While I might say that I could challenge any man here to a fight and survive the ordeal, I do not belong to your tribe. I do not know your ways or the ways of this place. Thus I am unable to become your mentor.
I look at his expression and feel sorry for the boy. Something I would have laughed at just few months ago. I am not finished though.
— But, as long as I am here and breathing, I promise I will teach you as much as I can in this short period of time. And I am honored to take you, or any man who so wishes with me to fight against the Shalmali sorcerers.
Rai approaches me, takes my hand and kneels at my feet. He glances his father his eyes filled with anxiety. But he continues still.
— I accept this destiny. Whatever it means for me.
Boikol speaks with tiredness in his voice.
— I can’t stop you or the ones who wish to help you in your cause. You have given us nothing but honor and for this we can’t keep you from your revenge. This I say to the men that wish to go with you: My blood is in your hands, our blood is in your hands. If the spirits will punish our people for the disobedience towards Pale Urgaur, I try to take all of the consequences for myself. And if it is not possible, then the blame falls to you. I will speak no more of this.
Some men waver from their decision and go with Boikol. But others stand fast, a dozen fierce warriors next to me and Rai. He shouts.
— You will be proud of us, father.
His voice is stern but faltering. Boikol doesn’t turn to watch. I feel that he wants though, more than anything in this world.
Women approach us — wives, mothers and relatives of the warriors that chose my fate. They bring food and weapons and deliver them crying, as if their loved ones are already dead. I notice that a young woman, who earlier took Rai to the hut brings her food and talks to him with a soft voice. I notice that Rai has a stern look at his face but I suspect that it is hard for him to uphold.
The midday is slowly turning towards an evening. Rai approaches me.
— We better get going tonight and make camp near the canoes. We can cover a lot of ground with them, but the trek itself will take four days or more to the Lamorak — or so I guess as I haven’t ever been there.
The warriors are ready and they cast their eyes on me. After the speech and fight with the “witch” as they call the assassin I am their leader. I feel embarrassed as I do not know which way we should go. Rai notices my plight and points a direction to me covertly. I start that way and the warriors follow.
I know nothing of this sort, so I must improvise. I explain to Rai:
— Three of the most keen-eyed warriors should go forward as scouts. Three others should hold the rear in case of somebody following us.
From the smile on his face I figure that it was not a stupid order. The warriors comply and we head for our journey. I am aware of the fact that they slow their pace not to leave me behind. I hope I can return the favor when we leave the lands of these natives behind. Rai tries to keep his spirits up by quiet chatter as we head for the canoes. I still feel that he is more shaken than he wants to admit.
I have noticed that darkness creeps up quickly in this land and it doesn’t fail to do so tonight. The tribesmen have built temporary shelters near the place where the canoes are held and we head for there to spend the night.
We make a small fire and the men gather around it, surprisingly silent. They must be pondering of the choice they made. I use the few moments before sleep to teach the boy some basics of swordplay. I bet it wouldn’t hurt in the days to come.
When we go to sleep, Rai crawls there next to me. I can feel the warmth of his body against my back when he whispers.
— You know the girl, Ramalien. She is to become my wife. But I can’t marry before I am taught to be a man. Kurava spoke of this but he didn’t yet teach me, yet I have some ideas of the glimpses what I have seen between men and women, or mentor and student. Would you teach me?
This catches me by surprise. I can figure out what he wants easily enough. The people of Scarlet are not uptight though, there are people of different beliefs and orientations when it comes to coupling. I myself have always fancied women over men, but the thought of helping Rai does not strike against my face. I fear that he might get too attached to me though, as I am to leave soon, so I reply with a fatherly embrace and quick words:
— We will talk more of that later. Now it is best to get some sleep, tomorrow will be an arduous day.
Rolled a goal dice of ‘5’
Rolled a Lover dice of ‘3’
Monster dice: 1
Hero dice: 5, 3
- Some Life Truths 09.04.2016
Sleep, Derak? After a suggestion like that? Maybe the old you, but then he wouldn’t be so nice to the boy – a “fatherly embrace”, really? What in Coinbiter’s hell is wrong with you?
It apparently surprises you that sleep proves an elusive prey tonight. Although Rai turns away after a moment, he remains by your side, warming your back against the mild chill in the wind, settling anew on occasion. You can’t help your thoughts drifting to the graces of the village women so frankly displayed by their natural bearing. It is no wonder to you that Rai may be in a haste to progress through whatever these people hold as the gate to manhood. You realize that you never even learned the name of the woman who smiled at you earlier today – why would she, were it not in carnal play? Do the women here play with their hair by the way of invitation, as they do in Scarlet, or was she merely brushing off sweat?
And the men, how come they shave themselves nude like a Scarlet woman? You only now realize the ambiguity of the youth stretched beside you, with his mud-softened skin seemingly impervious to the biting insects that have once more found you despite your cloak. His is a light and lithe bearing, lighter even than your own for his youth, though you suspect that he will grow in time to the stature of his kin, all bigger than you are. You’ve lain besides (and on top of) women less perfect and healthy. Most of them, arguably.
Come the first inkling of dawn, the men of your newly-picked hunting band begin to stir. As silent twilight ghosts they shave their heads with their new steel knives, or wash and spread fresh mud in their rough patterns, all silent with no acknowledgements of each other after a night’s sleep. Rai awakens to the actual sun in his eyes and seems sleepy, but only until he notices you and stumbles down to wash his face in the pure groundswell.
— I am sorry for my impatience last night, Rai states, formally forthright, when he returns. Evidently the boy doesn’t believe in letting things go.
— No harm to it, you state calmly, keeping your eyes to the kestros you started to disassemble for the sake of keeping in routine – and perhaps to avoid this conversation just now. The intricate bolt-thrower does not attract Rai’s attention for long, however, as the camp grows livelier around you.
— Would you let me service you now, Derak Eastern-Born, with what’s the word, a kiss? is what he asks next, forcing you to lay aside your tension key.
— What was that, again? you ask startled, thoroughly confused.
In answer Rai nods towards your left, where one of the bandsmen has retired to take a piss, you’d assumed. Except now you notice that there is another one there on his haunches, near hidden by the bush in front of the standing man. Seeing your incomprehension, he launches into a hurried explanation:
— We are of the tribe of the whistling phou(?), and our animal imitant is the dhole; the wolf, dog of the jungle, the one that makes the whistling howl that pierces the night. I know this is not the custom of all tribes, but like the dhole, members of our troop sometimes enjoy before a hunt. The young serves the old, and the boldness of it pleases the bountiful spirits and strikes fear in our enemies.
You can indeed hear it now, how the man in the bush barks in a sort of imitation of the dhole, definitely not trying to hide the act. It is a triumphant and expectant sound, to be sure, and like the mating dhole the man is evidently enjoying himself. A stranger sight you’ve rarely seen, and its utter alieness mixes heavy in your gut, as you know not whether to be attracted, but know for certainty that you have not the luxury to stand apart and unconcerned with your fellow man’s foibles, not with Rai sitting so expectantly there, pecking at your belt with idle fingers.
— Uh, you start sagely and try to pick clear and concise words in the Kihonite tongue. — I am honored that you want to serve me, but that is not my custom, and we are on a mission here. You are young and inexperienced, besides, remember.
— I am well old enough! Rai cuts in indignant. — Mud’s been sticking to my bere hair as painfully as you please for ages.
His gesturing doesn’t leave much question as to what hair he means. Not the time to get sidetracked, though, as Rai siddles closer and continues:
— I know well how to please a man’s bere, Kurava never had any complaints; you will like it as well. It won’t take but a moment, and you will be more relaxed, brave and fast for it.
You’ve been feeling more intuitive since the… crystal incident, and now it comes to you that Rai appears to be plainly curious about what you’re hiding in your trousers. Pant legs alone probably look exotic for him next to all the incidental nudity around here. Peculiar, the ownership he seems to feel for your privates for the sake of a passing promise of teaching. His gaze actually drifts that way as he speaks, in near amusingly bare way. Might as well be that he’s exaggerating his expertise, impossible to know – you feel keenly the difference between your lives, now.
— Nevertheless, Rai, you reply and turn slightly away, back to your kestros. — I am not interested.
— But what will the band think of you as a man and a leader, my mentor? Rai asks with two of his fingers squirming boldly under your shirt-tails to touch skin upon your waist; playful cunning in his voice is unmistakable, even through the language barrier. — As it is, you are small and hairy like a woman; would you want the brave hunters to doubt your manhood so?
— No means no, Boikolo Rai, you admonish with an edge of frustration in your voice, taking his hand off your belt. — That stays true for men as well as maids, no matter what dholes may think.
For a moment Rai is silent, then, and you fear having offended the frailty of youth. He raises the red scabbard by his side, however, with a forced grin:
— Would you teach me how to service this weapon, then? I believe it to be as formidable as you say, but fear it will not last the damp any better than those brought by Boikol from the north in his youth.
You have just started your lesson on oils and rags when a piercing alarm cry (they’re imitating dholes, you now realize) of a bandsman brings you to your feet – this time faster than Rai, him having the sharp blade on his lap to account for. You barely need to stand and step to the slope to see the matter, the Pale Urgaur almost daintily stepping among your canoes, damp off a swim, rivulets of water running off its bulk. The great bovine seems to go where it wills, with nobody the wiser.
As you race forward with a cry, the men follow you with a worrysome hesitation. They do follow, though, and witness it as one of the canoes feels the massive foreleg of the beast striking down on it. The canoes are large, carved of mature tree-trunks, yet at once the trunk dips down under the weight, and then sinks deep into the mud, flooding the boat. Another strike booms over the splash, and you think you hear a crack as the hoof proves harder to the seasoned wood.
So as to stop the wanton destruction, you attempt to confront the wide, inhuman face of the creature, but it shakes its great head to and fro (those horns, gods beware!), only to fix its gaze upon the leftmost of the men approaching the shore in a shallow arc. The eyes flash, and whatever it is that happens, the hunter stumbles and lets go of his spear!
You stop at once to evaluate, unthinking dipping in your bodybag for the mirror-tint goggles as another man falls to the eldritch power in the Urgaur’s eyes. You have a moment to take in the terrifying bulk of the shaggy white bull – its neck towering above you, the horn-points far apart as to be invinsible from the front – but then a third man twists as if in sudden flight, the rest stand back in fear and the Urgaur finally comes upon you in its neat sweep of your pitiful force. It’s nostrils massive and black, the eyes black as well, but now they flash in color-all.
A puppet with two hearts beating against one another, where none are needed in an empty atrium. Abomination of Shalmali manipulation, no less than any trapped in bark or flesh. His should be the flesh with the brand, ready for use.
It is psychic, and vile! You can feel the blunt pressure as it bores into your skull, worse than any hypnotist or fortune-teller. The words absolute truth, for Pale Urgaur is a being that needs not the flimsy veils of human deceit. You are aberrant, twain in two souls, beholden to both yet master of neither. It was not you who felt for the fool entrapped in bark yesterday, was it? Did you really fight Fox of all people for no earthly reason? You feel yourself sliding into the holy schizophrenia of the magifides ultrant…
Except the fugue cuts short for now – you hear Rai screaming to your right, breaking the reverie. He came in sword unseathed, unhesitating in the anger of the youth at betrayal of the holy. Except now the sword is in the ground as the eyes flash pale color-all and he vails, no more able to shake it off than any of you.
You understand nothing of his babbling, but instinctively you hold onto Rai and try to turn him around, away from the impassive Urgaur. Finally he focuses on you, and whether in recognition or not, you understand his jumbled and confused plea:
— No! Prentice to Pale, never me! I love Rama! A hunter I, no beggar of spirit-lores! No plaything of beasts and beast-men!
Rolled a ‘5’
Monster dice: 1｜5
Hero dice: 5｜3
- Contemplations of a Hero 10.04.2016
When the supernatural torment leaves my mind, the immense bulk of this vile creature still fills me with equal uncertainty. Fight I will, but how an earth could I against such a monster. I think of a moment for grabbing the sword lying on the ground and stabbing the beast with it, but the bull’s massive frame convinces me otherwise. It is then when opportunity presents itself in a form of a coincidence: While frantically searching through my body bag my fingers stumble on the ample serving of the Flower that was found on Fox’s belongings.
Thoughts sidestep from the way of actions. I pick all of the powder of the accursed legend plant and blow it straight towards the massive head of the animal at point blank range. The serving of that amount could stun a hundred men and the price tag of such a deed colds my city-dwelling soul, yet when the dust cloud settles around the beast’s head I fear whether it will be enough.
The bull is real though and its flesh must obey the laws it exists in, I figure as its eldritch power on the men seems to slowly cease. The massive animal drops its head and starts breathing heavily. Clarity of my own thought increases equally as the hideous bull seems to sink into plant-induced slumber. The men that were touched by the great beast seem to share my fate as they shake their heads as of waking from a horrible and deep nightmare.
Two canoes of the tribe were utterly destroyed by the bull, one of them under its enormous hoof still. I herd the disoriented men to collect their belongings and pile them onto the still intact canoes. Rai urges us not to take all the canoes, so that the tribe can fish and move, so we pack the few canoes we take very tight. In a frenzy I command the troop to leave and so we do, silently and swiftly. I can’t help to look behind as we slide away, the great hunk of white is visible for a long, long time before we gain distance and it vanishes among trees and vegetation.
If the hunters were, as Rai before speculated, doubtful of my abilities as a warrior I see quite a difference in their demeanor after the heat of the situation has waned. The men from the other canoe stare me with a superstitious fear in their eyes. The usually talkative people are all silent and we continue our journey plainly. Not even Rai, who sits next to me almost painfully close in the crowded canoe, ushers a word.
We paddle in complete silence then, and I for sure do not mind as I can use the time to swim in the dark pools of my own thoughts. Why does the sacred beast harass us and if it chooses to do so again, what shall I do to avert it in the next time. There is no more Flower to spend and how many times can I get lucky. I paddle myself to sweat to put as much distance between us and the bull as possible. The thought of a sluggish animal such as that against speed of our canoes should comfort me, but this beast hardly fits in realms of normal.
The watery swamp continues for the whole day of paddling, and the next one as well, but in the evening of the second day we reach a great lake, biggest than I’ve seen so far in this region. As the large waterway opens in front of us, so does the view that so far has been hampered by the endless vegetation that fills every curve and crevice of this accursed land. But now, as I gaze across the dark waters I can see the great peak of Lamorak rising somewhere across the vast lake. We make our camp near and take a great effort in hiding the canoes far from the waterline. Without them it would take weeks to go around the great waters.
As the men form our makeshift huts as usual I am drawn to the shoreline to observe the land that is in front of me in the final rays of the daylight. The vegetation across the lake seems different even from this distance, the trees are much taller and the land between the lake and Lamorak seems to be filled with this majestic forest, at least when observed from this angle. I manage my kestros and switches and my mind drifts to the emotions and magic that the great bull invoked in my head.
Is it really true that I now possess two hearts, two souls? Which of them is me, which the abomination. I try not to think too much of the affairs and actions I took in my previous life, as when the days pile up I find it harder and harder to separate myself of the emotions invoked in me by the crystal.
I startle when I hear faint sounds of approach but it is only Rai. He sits beside me in the shrubbery and after a while, as I do not say anything he speaks. It is the first time after the bull attacked.
— Can I make a request, O’ holy one?
— What, I blurt a confused response.
— I just thought that could we continue the lesson with the maintaining the sword if it is not too much of a trouble.
— Of course.
I continue my demonstration of oil and rag but still I feel the awkwardness of the boy’s words.
— Why did you call me holy?
— You stopped Pale Urgaur. I knew you were powerful when I saw you dealing with that sorcerer but now the others have seen your power as well. There is no need for me to confirm it to the others anymore. They will follow your command, as will I. I apologize if I have offended you before, your word is my law from now on.
For some reason this newly given power feels like a slow-strangling noose. I sort my words in my mind for a while before replying.
— You should not follow me blindly. You should not follow anyone blindly, no matter who he is.
— But the tribe has always trusted shaman as an apprentice trusts a mentor. Without this, we are doomed.
— Just … promise me you think of my words.
— I promise.
I ponder on his sincerity but find out there is not much more I can say on the matter.
— I am flesh and blood still, boy, I shout with a jesting tone. — Come on, let’s practice some swordplay before it gets too dark.
No sooner have we begun as I notice some movement from the corner of my eye. Rai also detects it and we go down in the tight underbrush. It is a gigantic shape against the darkening sky above Lamorak. A falcon of sorts if my knowledge doesn’t fail me, but of enormous size. It flies over the lake and it feels that only after few majestic flap of its wings it crosses the waters and glides over the forests we are hidden in. We keep our heads down and lay still until finally we dare to look again. The bird has vanished as mysteriously as it appeared.
— I think we better go to the camp.
Rai agrees without words.
Rolled a ‘2’
Monster dice: 1 | 5
Hero dice: 5 | 3 | 2
- Night of the Tall Tales 11.04.2016
You return to camp in a dispirited mood, mindful of the unknown dangers present in these new woods. The dhole-men seem likewise moody, and perhaps subdued.
— Rai, gather the men up, you give a curt order. He obeys easily, eager to do something rather than just waiting for the enemy to move first.
You organize your hunting band into a tight ring, everybody sitting side by side. The intent is to have the men finally explain to you what they know of the Tree-Men; for too long you’ve had the feeling that things are remaining unsaid out of false probity. When you explain the idea to Rai, he begins nodding – and when the rest of the men hear him, you see them relax. One brings jugs from the boats. Clearly they find your idea splendid.
At first generalities are uttered, which Rai faithfully translates; everybody waits respectfully for him to summarize for you. Clearly he has heard some of this before, but you can tell when new ground is breached as the men focus on Rai and talk directly to him, to make sure he understands.
The way you were told before, the Tree-Men, also known as “witches of the Shalmali”, are magicians, by the sound not so different from the awry men of the old Plainsdom magocracy, or the priest-sages of a hundred mystery cults. You know how to deal with their kind, and at first the hunters tell you little to think otherwise.
As the men of the whistling phou describe it now, the Tree-Men are ill-wind neighbours to proud hunters and wardsmen. They lair in arched caverny and tree-ziggurati of the cliffbreak Lamorak; where the shadow of the great cliff falls grows the shadow-wood of dense timber, dead of undergrowth though the soil is as thick as any in the jungles. Worst thing, animals die there; near all of the hunters tell of having encountered still animals in the borders of the shadow-wood, dead yet untouched, lying forgotten by any and all. The waters under the shadowy canopy are still as well, but the muggers lying under the surface are ravenous, willing to attack humans. No honest man ventures deep into those woords – not unless they seek to kill witches, that is.
The story of the Pulaka Pit
One of the hunters breaks into the telling of a proper story; you can see how the others have heard this before, but listen earnestly nevertheless. Rai translates for you, preserving much of the phrasing. The man describes how, during the last wind-season, on a long trail, he encountered a pulaka pit out in the fringes of the shadow-wood. (Rai explains to you the Pulaka, a type of savoury potato or turnip usually grown in pits dug on the bitter shore of river the Great.)
The unusual pulaka pit attracted the brave hunter’s attention, for it was dug in a peculiar place – on the shores of this very lake, in fact! (You can sort of expect the way this story is going as the men who’ve heard the story before connect the dots.) What kind of pulaka would grow here, far from the salts of the bitter shore? Curious, the hunter decided to plunder the pulaka pit – an honorable deed when done to the sorts of the Tree-Men, you’re told.
The pulaka pit seemed lush at first, gravid with the root-bread so the pit itself was full of greenery to the brim. As he shoveled, though, the brave hunter learned to his horror: he unearthed bones, bodies of men and beast mixed together, a bloody springshead for the plants to grow upon! He left the crop untouched, then, and escaped these gloomy woods.
The story of the Awry Men and Women
Now the stories come eagerly; evidently the men relish in sharing on a subject only too real, and thus rarely tread. Everybody seems to have their own special story to tell.
A second man entertains with a description of a Shalmali trading day he joined up near the rivergap, on the peace of the trader’s skin. He was selling the fruit of the bejeweled fern, which in itself was a source of amusement to the hunters, but apparently the fruit has some demand for the Tree-Men. However, you realize to your confusion that the men are shivering at the description of how the erstwhile tradesman had to haggle for his profit with a Shalmali trader.
— Uh… Rai is uncertain of how to explain the reaction. — The Shalmali have their women haggling and dickering with outsiders. Is that not utmost boldness? They did not protect her, which is to her shame.
Besides, the brave trader also saw a male Tree-Man in his body-covering dress, plucking a bird, to all the world like a woman preparing dinner. For the hunters of whistling phou tribe this topsy-turvy transgression of the social roles only goes to prove the ultimate iniquity of the Shalmali, though the story also makes you wonder as to what the villagers who did not join your quest would tell you about the Tree-Men. Would any of them recognize a lettersman in the taking of the quill?
The story of Kurava’s Wife
Story-telling falters for a time as you ask the men to tell you more about the origins of the Tree-Men. Little emerges, as this is not their interest, but you get the sense of an elder civilization, one originating in the “deep mountains” where they once held their castle keeps. You do confirm that the Tree-Men write on both bark and pergament, even if the tribesmen of your acquaintance have little use for either.
Now, though, Rai wants to tell a story; he asks permission to speak from the men, no doubt due to his lesser status. While he talks the others sit quiet and look at you, even as you are reasonably certain that they catch little of the words; it must be a story they know by heart.
Rai tells of his mentor Kurava, and about his wife, the happy Lamane; the latter joined the women’s village when Kurava was only a scout himself, but the knowledge of the girl encouraged Kurava to win her favour, and thus become a great hunter. Theirs were many happy years.
However, when Lamane came to be a with a child, she grew afraid of childbirth; her own mother had died of the same affliction, and she had trouble sleeping over it despite the support of the village and of her man. So what did she do? Kurava did not quite know where, but one of the village women had gained a medicine to help, and she shared it with Lamane like the women do. This not being any of his bailiwick, Kurava paid no mind.
However, the medicine was of Shalmali make. While the child-birth was safe and easy, later on Kurava felt a detachment from Lamane; she was distant to him in the treasured moments men and women spend together. As a new father Kurava discounted the signs and failed to realize that she had contracted the spirit-disease wherein the soul yearns for the outer universe. He did not know what to look for, not in child or still-recuperating wife.
Only when friends of Kurava revealed to him that Lamane was found treating with strangers did he confront her about it, and find out that she had continued partaking of the Shalmali medicine. It was a kind of berry that, when eaten, brought an expansion to her mind, taking her out of herself. She was desirous for more of the same, and would engage in unlawful trading of the women’s property.
Worst of all, when Kurava tried to confront Lamane about it, she cried and promised to amend her ways. However, later she absconded the village altogether, only taking her child and the barest of necessities. Kurava was certain that she had gone with the Tree-Men and would trek long into the shadow-woods in the searching before giving her up for lost. The women would never reveal to him who was the first to get the medicine, and for this Kurava forswore the company of women altogether, as is honorable.
It is a sad story, of this both you and the tribesmen can agree. Kurava was an enemy of the Shalmali ways after that, Rai tells you.
The story of Derak of the East
Rai, you realize, shared something like his own story with you, considering his close ties to the departed hunter; probably no other here would have told this story to you. Are you moved by such gestures, Derak? There was a time you were not, considering the sentiment foolish.
Nevertheless, tonight you answer trust with trust and tell your own story as well: Rai translates phrase for phrase as you describe Serene Scarlet to the tribesmen, a world as strange as any for them. You tell about assassins, and that you are one – a revelation that may disturb Rai, but perhaps it is better than imagining you a shaman. You tell of the demi-world of the hunter and the occasional hunted that men like you live in.
Most importantly, you tell them about the dark crystal of your memory, and the eldritch grove of the Tree-Men. You show the amulet again, the one you took from their head priest. You even decide to reveal what the crystal did to you, and how the Pale Urgaur accused you of the abomination of soul-craft. You feel lighter for sharing your secrets here, now, with these men accompanying you.
The story of Pale Urgaur
Silence falls after your story peters out, as they do when they reach here and now. Yours is an uncomfortable and strange story, as you carry your curse here and now. However, tonight in this darkness it is a weird you carry together, which makes it easier.
— Come, Rai, ask them, you nod towards the hunting band surrounding you. — Is there anything else I need to know to defeat the Tree-Men?
Before Rai gets a chance to translate, first one and then more of the men explain, each in turn. Rai turns to explain: — We are all of one mind, to destroy the Shalmali poison is a thing of good for the land, the people and the all. This is something you need to know.
Hearing their conclusion, a sort of woodsmen’s hurrah, you join in the exclamation in your own words.
However, one more story remains to be told. One of the men insists; he is Kemala, one of the men struck down by Pale Urgaur’s assault two days past:
— One thing yet remains to say of the Shalmali, for I, too, have seen their mark in the flesh, the only place they say it to truly belong. I saw it not two nights past, when the Pale Urgaur betrayed us. As our eyes met, the way some of you know, Pale showed me visions of the mind, the way some among us know.
— I know not for certain which parts true or false be, but I was terrified by it all the same, Shalmali witches being something I abhor above all else. I saw myself with the brand of the Shalmali, which I know to be false; I saw my mother, which must be false as well; and I saw the same mark, the circle punctured by the pustulent wound, upon the right flank of Pale Urgaur itself, as if burned and pierced by iron.
At this the men put great stock, Derak, perhaps because they are at heart superstitious. However, you cannot say that you would have seen the Urgaur’s right flank yourself, not yesterday and certainly not before, for the angle was all wrong. And when you ask of the men, nobody else claims to have seen the flank clearly either, so you do not know whether there is such a mark or not. These men believe in it, for it would explain how their protector has become a tormentor.
It is clear to all that the night’s story-telling has come to a conclusion; without anything being suggested, the men drift away to their leans. While it seemed a while back that there was spirit still in your expedition, now you are uncertain; it is as if great things were flying overhead again, with you helpless about them.
Rai has appointed you a resting place, and you find him besides you again in the dark.
— If I may, master… he starts in sitting posture. — I would sleep with you tonight, for I am afraid of the dark and the things in it, and you are the only one here I am permitted to show my fear.
You don’t really think about it, grabbing his arm and pulling him down to lie on the same mat. It is the most natural thing in a quiet night like this.
No dice roll
Monster dice: 1|5
Hero dice: 5|3|2
- Preparations 12.04.2016
We get up at the crack of dawn, just before first light and prepare to leave. As soon as we can see a glimpse in the jungle we start paddling as fast as possible across the lake. We put our hope in secrecy and speed.
Still, when the silence is only broken by quiet splashes of our paddles the thought of what we are trying to do overwhelms me. A wild goose chase to the territory of a hostile tribe with a dozen warriors … is there any way to end this but a tragedy. But this is how it is, and there is no turning from the road I’ve taken.
We paddle as fast as we can during the morning mists and make good progress over the lake. In the afternoon we take a small break, slumping tired in our canoes, eat a bit of our rations and then press relentlessly on. The lake seems to be absent of travelers so fate at least is smiling to our endeavor.
The first day takes us halfway of this enormous waterway and we find a forested island to rest for few hours. Men twitch and mumble in their sleep, they are preparing for what is ahead even in their slumber. Sleep evades me and it seems to do so with Rai also. So we talk quietly in the pitch black darkness.
— Rai, when we eventually meet the Shalmali, do as we have planned and follow the others. My fate in this quest is not yours. We shall meet later when the task is done.
— I will prove myself to you and all, responds the boy. His words are strong and proud but his voice betrays him, if only a bit.
— Remember that our plan relies on secrecy and cunning. If we take up arms openly, we will fail miserably. Just stick to the plan and we’ll be all right.
— Yes master.
I truly hope he does as he says. I’ve grown fond of the boy, even if we have known only for few days. The old Derak would laugh and mock me for this. At this moment I don’t want to think what happens if I do find the crystal.
I thrash around on my leafbed for the few hours we are set to rest before the dawn.
The following day finds us already on our way, paddling again like madmen towards the dark, high woods that we now can see across the open water. The peak of Lamorak grows with each paddlestroke like a living, beastly thing and with it my heart is filled with anxiety and hope. One way or another this torment will end soon.
This time we skew from the route that would take us straight to the lands of the Shalmali woods, but instead we find harbor in early afternoon quite far from the border of their lands. Still no one seems to bother our trip and we find shelter in the deep shrubberies. Mosquitoes bother us there endlessly and my head is about to break into two from the endless chirping of the crickets but still it is a quiet place where we can rest and formulate our plans.
And rest we must as the task ahead is both perilous and arduous. We are to set off to the Shalmali lands in the last light of the day, idea is to penetrate deep into their forests in secrecy and to strike with fire and fear into their midst. This time we are to separate as the men of the tribe shall escape, burning every structure in their sight and to vanish into the wilderness where they can’t be followed in the darkness. I am to use this confusion to slip into some of their temples, in search of what I am after. And then to hide and escape from there using my craft. We are then all to meet near the edge of this great lake and start our way back to the lands of the tribe.
The plan is filled with seeds of destruction, but this is all that an able group of hunters this size can hope to accomplish. The men agree, it seems that they are familiar with raids of this sort, certainly more so than I am.
So we rest, and the men gather flammable, dry hay and tie it to the spears and arrow-heads so that we can wreak havoc in the middle of the night. I take care of my wires and strings and then proceed to cook a mixture of water and blue powder in our small campfire. This draws the men in, curious of my doings. I explain:
— This is Cat Eye Powder, extracted from the tall brown grass that can be found around the Endless Moors. It grows there, near the ancient hillforts of long dead kings. If you drink it, it will make your eyes sharp in the dark for the night.
The men seem both enthusiastic and fearful of my explanation. Rai seems proud though.
— We have a magician of our own. Surely this will aid our triumph.
— Do you want this? There is plenty for us all if you’d like.
Most of the men agree and drink the liquid with sour faces. It indeed has a rotten taste to it, but I force it down as I have so many times before. Few men do not touch the liquid and Rai explains that they do not wish to be tainted by magic, not even by good one. I shrug my shoulders, what more can I do.
The day passes and slowly gives way to the evening as we set off on our task. All the men have tarnished themselves with dark mud to conceal their bodies as much as possible for the darkness. This time I join them, I do not forgo my clothes but I do smear the tattered rags I still have for clothes for the same effect. The men brandish blades taken from the dead Fox, Rai has his blade. Ample amount of spears and few bows are at the ready to rain fire on the homes of our enemies. And I have my devices of death, as ready as they can be at these circumstances.
In the diminishing light we enter the dark woods of our enemy. More like wolves are these natives than men. It is the moments like this when their bestial nature can be felt in their presence. I hear the clicking call of my clockworks. It is like music to me, a call to the dance of sorts that I know best.
One of death.
rolled a ‘4’
Monster dice: 1|5
Hero dice: 5|3|2|4
- Bull’s Choice 13.04.2016
The shadow-woods of the Tree-Men are striking in contrast to the jungle riverbanks and the Jeweled Swamps familiar from your journey so far: gone are the ever-present grasses and scrubs, replaced by a spongy turf covered with but dead discards of the great, straight hardwood trees that seem timeless and implacable in the way their boughs weave to cover the sky. The night falls quickly in here – there is no moon, no stars exist in this utterly dark night under the trees. Even the lack of the ever-present bog and pitting of the swampland contributes to the unreality of it all as your pace increases in the dark; aside from the trunks of the very trees there seems to be little to trip you here. You can hear how the hunting band takes to the woods, swiftly gaining ground, as spell-bound as you are with the wide, natural vistas offered among the trees. No thoughts can be afforded to anything else as you focus on listening and keeping up as the men break into outright run, eager for their taste of revenge.
You are death, Derak, as you stalk the night. The thinkers and priests of the Scarlet City would debate endlessly over the nature of man and the dissolution of the ego, yet only you are the one termed Atarax, the calm and the calming, as you proved then with your stillness and willing, at the Fruit Temple, where others would snag by their very souls to catchments that concern you not. This is one of your old memories, untainted by the passions. It is very true to you in the lonely darkness, where there is no contradiction between what you were and what you will become. You twist the small spring-key poking from your body-bag absent-mindedly in the run, out of habit, not breaking stride as you wind the light-spring; its tension will feed to the main as you go, preserving the hidden, dangerous power you carry coiled with you.
You are probably a mere mile or two from the great cliffbreak here, but the hunters you are following seem to be weaving sharply to the left. You only realize the reason as a dark ditch opens up like a scar upon the ground, reflected in the sky as the woodland cover breaks; it is a riverstream, one of those the hunters warned about. A way will need to be found across. You may imagine it in the dark waters, or perhaps your Cat Eyes truly perceive log-like lurkers floating in the dark, muggers waiting patiently to feed. Not even as dark as it will get maybe, but with the dark-eyes used to the forest dim it is difficult for you to say whether the stars should burn so, mixed with the red memory of the last rays of the sun.
As you follow the stream, and the men forging confidently ahead, leaving the boats behind seems like a mixed blessing: the soil seems firm and passage eerily free, but who knows whether you’ll be able to find safe crossing. Who knows whether there truly are flesh-eating lizard-beings in the waters, or if there truly are shapes in the sky, flitting over the stars that burn painful to your sensitized eyes. You know so little, it is admirable how the men step, step, step forward so keenly (akin to your metronome!), following Remak, the one with the most experience in these woods. He seemed like a confident man, not prone to superstitious flight of fancy.
The riverbank features treacherous tree-roots rising high from the ground, and parasitic vines crawling about. It is somewhat frustrating how you seem to be the only one tripping on them, despite your Cat Eyes surely being a manifold better than those of the first-timers eagerly loping ahead. Then again, slowing down has its advantages – cursing those dog-men in your mind as you stagger in the malicious rootwork, you notice a reddish stain in the tree trunk itself. Investigating quickly, you discover something the hunters hurrying ahead completely missed.
Two men are lying against the tree-trunk on the river’s side, only barely above the slope of the high bank. Fully efflorescent, your pupils capture the red of their wounds effortlessly in the starlight. You see the torn wounds, the nakedness covered in welts and bites, dirt, and you see how one holds onto the other, preventing both from sliding down – back – into the water. And you hear the muttering, leaning closer.
— Not dead yet – I’m not dead yet, he is saying, delirious, and you understand him. The language is a Basal one, it is easy to tell, as the Scarlet dialect is as good as any for you these days. The wheat thatch of his hair is just as damning in the dark, as you have seen not a single blond man this side of the straits. These men are not locals, it is easy enough to tell. Forgetting the hunt for the moment, you lean even closer. A feeling arises in your gut, an impulse to help a stranger.
— Who are you? you ask the muttering man, touching his shoulder. Might as well drag the two further away from the stream while you’re at it, in fact, considering your suspicions about the water and the open sky.
It seems to take a moment for the man to realize that he’s being moved, and when he does, he starts struggling. Surprisingly vigorous considering the amount of blood on him, yet nowhere near enough to resist you or even get up. The explanation may be in the paleness of the other fellow, whose blood it may well be – he struggles not when you manhandle him, and the deep wounds in his naked legs are unmistakable despite the mud and dirt over him.
Finally, with enough repetition, you get some sense out of the first man as he seems to realize you are no night-gaunt. — Nother Barach is my name, stranger. Who are you to… speak the tongue of Serene Scarlet in this jungle? Wish you ill upon us?
— I am Derak the Puppet, you reply dryly, seeing where this is all going. — I suppose you are here on the bidding of Daag the Sit-Fence, you and your friend?
Upon hearing your name the man tenses and seeks hold of the tree-trunk to heave himself up, without waiting for you to finish. He quickly realizes the futility – smart man, even in this position. You crouch curiously over the pair, the silvery sheen fully formed behind your eyeballs no doubt gleaming upon them in the dark.
— Uh, Derak… As we’re still alive, I take it you recognized Papak? the man, Nother asks uncertainly before starting to patter furiously. — Don’t kill us! The Fox had nothing to do with us, we just shared a ship to Kiho with her. Besides, we’re finished anyway, there isnt’ any soul-gems here, only blood and disease and death. Papak never even knew about the Fox, that was all Daag’s idea…
Papak… Papak Vicente, here? You ignore the patter of the man desperate for his own skin to take a closer look at the face of the other man. You recognize him instantly, it is the face of a friend, or a friendly man anyway… Papak was elder to you, a deep-pondering man who taught the young Derak his letters after his escape from servitude; showed him the Mercers library. Helped to make the Puppet work for you, long ago, when you did not know what to become. Could you call him a mentor of sorts in the Kihonite language, even, the way Rai calls you? Shocking, the way your new soul casts your old memories in new light – did you always have such abiding friends in the city serene, all the while feeling only hate and lust in your inner mirror?
You continue ignoring this Nother Barak as you investigate Papak’s injuries. He hangs upon the brink of death from blood-loss alone, it is dull despair to you to think of how far from any succour you are here. Your fingers trace the chest and plunge into suppurating wetness and ill-healed scars – the circle of Shalmali cast with red iron on the skin!
— They are horrible, Derak… man-flesh is meat to their ways, and minds made to be broken. Worse than the Lepers, worse than your pe- uh… Only we escaped the pen-caverns, with Papak, he made rope and avoided their creatures. A great white hunted for us, we hid… I carried him, but there are crocodiles in the river, barely got to this side…
The distressed babble cuts short suddenly as you both tense. A wail in the air? Suddenly it bursts out, clear as bell. “Prentice, never me! No beggar of spirit-lores!” It is Rai, you recognize the voice – you forgot all about the band as you stopped!
Cursing yourself for getting distracted you spring to your feet and dash into the woods. Rai sounded so desperate and helpless, almost like stabbed to his soul. Where did the hunters go, did they already find a crossing? The voice sounded away from the river, deeper into the woods…
Yes, Derak, a ruse like that wouldn’t have fooled the Atarax even for the scant three flicker-beats it took you to realize it now. That was enough for it, however, as you are stumble suddenly face to face with the grey mountain of a gaur-bull. Back-pedaling, you stumble against the trunk of a tree as Pale Urgaur steps forward, testing you, its head stable and eyes glowing red to your Cat Eyes.
“I love Rama!” the voice rings out as its snout vibrates, to all the world sounding like Rai. Except snide it is now, and you curse yourself for a fool – the river is that way a scant hundred paces, but you are alone, and the bull is right there in the dark woods with you. Its eyes, red – a thought you already had, and then you try to seize your eyes away, but it is too close and too strong, and coming too fast —
The bull springs forward, heaving its back and neck up, coming in, head going down as the haunches go up, and then it hits you. You twist against the tree-trunk desperately, feel its immense weight scrape your ribs and skin as you evade aside, only to get caught in crushing pressure between the tree and the large, expansive curve of the horn besides, pressing upon your flesh from the side as a low boom sounds from the contact of the gaur and the tree. The bull snorts, its forehead flat upon the tree bark, shakes its head to your agony, and then steps back; you fall as the pressure recedes, feeling yourself broken.
The daze lasts but a flicker – your clockwork is still ticking, and your nerves respond, like you’d never left the workshop. No thought necessary, you stumble to your feet to the tick, 1-2-3 without conscious thought, and you’re up. Not a moment too soon, as the hoof comes down, voiceless in the damp ground – you roll aside and leap off your knees, scrambling to get out of the way of the heavy beast as it steps almost daintily to crush you. You hear the boot-springs screech off their clasps, firing useless in the air as you roll.
Turning to your back, on the ground again, you fire the kestros strapped to your arm blindly towards its general direction. Pray it didn’t loose its spring as well, Derak! It fires true – the bolt rips through what remains of your shirt cuff, foiling the aim, but it hits something – you hear the bellow of the beast! 1-2-3, you are up again, vaguely fumbling at the gearbox to up the tempo as the Urgaur comes again.
But then, its eyes on yours, and you both stumble as it latches on to the parts of your soul you have only known a little while.
Man-Thing Two-Heart, cease thy struggle. Such luxury becomes you not, and death awaits you upon the horns of the bull. There are worse deaths, yes, but only if you go forward; none such as would compare to the horns await when you turn back and leave the Shalmali Ward, safe to twist in the wind to the end of your days. Your friends are already dead, old and new, and you would join them so eager. See it true, and you shall see!
A witchcraft vision! Most men would die here and now, but you have seen this done to others, and when your eyes blind to the world you leap aside. No subtle blade between your ribs, Derak, while dazed by facile secrets. The bull snorts in frustration as it heaves its horns, slashing at empty space you presume in your blindness to the world.
Terrible secrets are uncovered to your eyes, though, that has to be said in the bull’s favour: you can see, as if your own eyes were there, the river-crossing up ahead, the large trunk of a tree fallen halfway in, sufficient for an agile man to cross. As you move to reach for the nearby tree, to get anything between your blindness and the sounds of the Urgaur’s breath, your eyes reveal to you the brave hunters of the whistling phou, crossing the stream. What freezes you to the bone, however, is the sight in the sky – the night-wings clapping to break and fall, the shapes wrong to the night plummeting upon the unsuspecting hunting band. Doomed, one and all, the fools, in between the water and the wings from the stars!
Your unthinking habits save you again, as you kick and kick the hard tree-trunk to wind back the heelspring, moving erratically without putting any thought to it, perhaps imposing hesitation upon the cunning beast circling the tree as it has to guess which way you’ll dodge. Frozen in your mind, your body still follows the unfeeling gear god, going through its routine. And when your waving hand brushes upon the over-bearing monster, you twist around in place and bring the boot-heel up upon it entirely unseen, lost to your vision. The heel springs with tremendous force, your leg throws up uncontrollably, but you turn the fall into a roll and are still probably dead before you can get up – but at least it was a good try!
However, you are still alive and 1-2-3 you’re up, and your eyes finally comes back from their vision journey, you can see the dim sight of the gaur-bull shaking its head and grunting in confusion. As you bring out your hand-blades, the right one fails to spring, but the Urgaur sees the left blade without fail with its devil eyes. And now it is wary, for you have surprised the thing once too often with your outlandish ways and tricks from another world. It is wary, despite its size and strength, and the untold murder resting on its horns.
— You… you planned all this, didn’t you? you ask Pale conversationally, faking confidence. — Papak’s escape, isolating me from the others… And it still was not enough. You are just a big bull, merely cunning, long past the point of thinking like a man.
The vitality of the Urgaur is evident as it shifts its stance. Instead of charging again, however, its muzzle moves, spit flies and it talks once more, parsing speech out of who knows what memories. “Well, eh, mugger-filth, eh, what it be? Die – horns! eh, it be? Abandon – friends – lovers, eh, it be? Blood on – ground, eh, abandon, eh, old – friends, be? Die, eh, who, eh, be?”
You hesitate, but so does the bull. Sweat blinds your eyes as you consider the true vision you just saw, and its repercussions, death of your companions. Papak lying there, ready to perish. You do see clear enough, however, to notice your springbow bolt jutting in the right flank of the Urgaur, center sharp in the metaphorical bullseye of its brand, the circle of the Shalmali. Bleeding.
rolled a ‘3’
Monster dice: 1|5|3
Hero dice: 5|3|2|4
- Two Souls 14.04.2016
The horrible stalemate goes on, an eternity as it feels to me. The bull waits as I ponder, what can I do. To die in the horns of the animal; the logical me could pick that choice. But not the one that feels the blood flowing in my veins and harbors the hatred towards the puppet masters who have orchestrated this tragedy.
I stare at the red eyes of the bull with ones of yellow. Why are there so many assassins of Scarlet here, in this wretched jungle with me? What is the secret of the Shalmali? The questions are an endless maze in my head. I go through them over and over but can’t escape.
The bull grunts and moves its front hooves a bit, shifts the enormous bulk to accommodate a charge to end my life. I still stand petrified, as if struck by the tree-magics of the Shalmali. Even when the bull starts, I still stand, perhaps making a choice by not choosing.
I shout, but the voice is not of mine. It is a voice of command that makes the ground tremble. It is as if the soil itself shudders in the contact of that abomination. It is accompanied by a hot, dusty wind that carries with it a faint scent of death and decay.
The bull stops, shaking its head. It shouts, not with voice of Rai anymore but of low bellow, perhaps his own.
— Man-Thing Two-Heart! Kill you now – eh? Abomination – not back to this world!
It renews its efforts to charge.
— Go back!
The bull stops and takes a few steps backwards, still murmuring.
— Man-Thing Two-Heart! Kill you now – eh? Abomination – not back to this world! Trees over Sand, Life over Death!
— Go back!
The bull turns away and starts walking away from me with stiff steps of unwilling. I breathe and hold the tree with both hands, blood slowly dripping from the wounds it left me with. I feel it again, something I felt when I fought with the Fox, an alien presence. The second soul that inhabits this body. It is not the conscience I thought it to be, and I convulse with the contact of it, but this time it won’t conceal itself but speaks.
— Go back to your “friends” if you must, he mocks. — It is a wonder how far the wretched scum such as you and your kin are willing to go just for money. To die in faraway land for the whims of men who have the money to bid it from them. And what about these others? Wild dogs going for a slaughter.
He lets out a grinding, dry laughter through me that hurts my teeth and soul alike.
— And yet, you are different. Just as I predicted as you were the one who got closest to me. This is why I picked you.
— Picked me for what? I try to hide the confusion in my voice, unknowing whether this entity can sense it.
— Picked you as my vessel. You will deliver a message to the Shalmali. A bloody message that teaches them not to spread out from here ever again. Aeons ago they were beaten by the Magi and they will remain beaten until the world is filled with sand and the sun devours it whole.
— The Magi … the Magi are more a myth than reality?
— Silence! The earth beneath my feet tremors of his anger. — I will help you to gain the dark crystal. It lies in the large wooden Ziggurat. Ha, what a pale imitations those wooden structures are of ours. We once built ours from stone, hailed the sands of the earth to join in choir of adoration for the Dead Kings. For ones like me. Go now, and use your machines. I understand them not, as I am from the world of sand and older than your race. But use them and I will shield you from the magics of the Shalmali until you do. It is the only way to save those dogs, and those others that grovel in front of the altars of gold, what’s left of them anyway. Go and make haste!
The clockwork still runs, 1-2-3 and I run for the crossing of the river. I have nothing to lose, no other way to go, even if what I carry with me sends shivers through my spine. My wounds are but a memory now, still there but somehow distant. Clear is only the sound of the clockwork. I adjust it so that it beats fast, near the limits of what my body can take. I will be dead-tired afterwards, but I do not care.
I reach the tree-trunk and the dhole-men seem to have crossed it already, but my eyes catch a splutter of blood on the trunk as I run with my merciless clockwork. Just as I reach the end of and am ready to jump across I see the reason for the blood as the massive, dark creature bolts from the equally dark waters to catch me. But the reflexes of the beast are honed to catch prey that works with ordinary muscles and not with superhuman springs. The ones in my boots fire and take me high above the reach of those massive teeth. I land running and never look back.
I see the men of the dhole. They are in a circle, spears outwards and surrounded by the men of Shalmali. Devils only know why they are not asleep, or in the arms of their women, but here they are sporting spears and bows and covered from head to toe in some kind of wooden armors, finely crafted to accommodate their moving yet effective against the flint-headed spears of the primitives.
As I approach, I see a dark mass coming down from the sky. It is a falcon I have seen before and it swoops down on top of the doomed dhole-men. Its claws snap around an unfortunate one and his shrieks are heard for a long time coming from over the treetops, receding away.
1-2-3, I tumble in the midst of the Shalmali with a power of a hurricane. The metronome pulses and beats in my veins as I give everything I have to this dance of death. My poisoned darts find their marks in the small openings of their wooden armors and three men fall before they know what hit them. One is quick on his feet and turns, trying to spear me as I move closer. The metronome beats, I sidestep and strike with my hand-blade upwards, just below his chin. The blade, sharp enough to cut hairs with contact enters him easily, penetrates his brain and ends his life. 1-2-3, before he hits the ground I am long gone, deflecting and parrying blows, and firing my devices.
A sound penetrates the all-encompassing metronome. It is a dry sound of a man coming from my lips. Chanting ancient horrors and long-forgotten incantations. Men of the Shalmali that hear it cover their ears and drop their weapons. They run mindlessly from the sound, some ending up running back towards their lands. Others faring worse pick the direction of the river … the crocodiles shall have a feast tonight.
Rolled a ‘3’
Monster dice: 1|5|3
Hero dice: 5|3|2|4|3
- How to be a Wizarding Warrior 17.04.2016
Dead Tree-Men, if such they are, lie scattered around you as you survey the woods around you for further danger. Not discovering any, you pay no attention to your whistling phou followers; instead, you crouch slowly and press your knees to the spongy ground. For some reason you start crawling around as the hunters around you slowly gather their wits and approach. Grunting curses you retain your privacy as you locate the bodies of the hated Shalmali acolytes and delve into their guts with your knives, seeking for metastases. It is an unthinking task for you.
“Being unthinking is definitely one of your strengths, dear Puppet”, you think – or your passenger thinks, you realize. It is in fact he who is crawling, arms deep into the guts of the second body already, looking for something like a, a, you don’t know, a disease bomb? You shake violently and struggle up from the ground, suddenly in profound doubt. How much of what you have done since the dark crystal has been a deed of some long-dead wizard?
“I share this corpus, vessel, ever since the time we better not remember right now. It is obvious even to a simpleton that there are no eyes for me to see, no cerebrum to cogitate, no arms to act but these – yours and mine.” The thoughts are thoroughly indistinguishable from your own in all but content, it is as if being in the grip of inspiration. “Were the Shalmali wiles not entirely beyond your ken, we might let you do as you would. As it is, though, would you prefer desecrating the bodies of the sick and aberrant, or would you rather be surprised by death delivered from beyond the grave, as was the fate of Gerontia?”
That last bit shocks you anew and sends you back into the gruesome task of looking for metastases, armed now with a vague memory of human bodies gravid with pestilence, and worse. You find none, but the pressing concern – obsession – does not really leave you until you’ve felt out the stomach lining of each and every body. They are bodies of men, at least, and aside from the exotic wooden armor and the brand of the Shalmali unremarkable in the dark.
— Derak! Derak East-Born, do you hear me? Rai is saying, almost shouting, you realize now. He’s there in the dark of the woods, a clear enough profile to your Cat Eyes against the slightly brighter shadow of the river behind him. There are other men behind him as well, perhaps, and you finally shake off the fear of the non-existing when you realize that some of them have their spears pointed at you.
— I hear you Boikolo Rai, you mutter. — What is it?
— Derak, you are acting awry, the boy enunciates with care and formality. — The men are afraid of this new sorcery, for it smacks of the Shalmali. What was the curse you uttered? It made limp the knees of the bravest of us, but the Tree-Men were sent into mindless flight. It was… the sounds were like blunt mugger teeth, clamping down inexorably and dragging you into the muddy depths to drown in despair. When Kemala tried to shake you just now, you said it again and sent him scampering.
“The Emblem of Wrath, it is but one small facet of the Equation of the Anti-Life”, your thoughts come unbidden. “A Deeper Magic beyond your ken, Puppet. Merely uttering an emblem is impossible unless your tongue itself would dye the air and paint the world.”
Hmm, that might not be what Rai wants to hear.
— It was… word-witchery in a Thalassic language, you skirt the truth lamely. — Poetry of such power you do not need to understand to understand. I do not understand it myself, but it seems to have driven the Tree-Men off for now.
It is too dark to see much of him, but Rai doesn’t seem appreciably relieved. He does say something that makes the rest of the hunters put down their spears for now. You can hear several voices questioning him, however.
— And what about the defilement of the corpses, mentor? Rai asks submissively, clearly not wanting to be caught in between you and the survivors of the hunting band.
— I, uh, Rai, you should know that I have a — that’s how far you get with the truth before the earth shakes under your feet at his wrath: “You shall NOT reveal my grammatic presence to anyone else!”
— Did you feel that? you ask instead, realizing already while speaking that Rai felt nothing. — No, never mind that. Truth is, I am at my wit’s end with these unnatural woods, yet we need to get further in under cover before whatever that flying thing was comes back. I also need somebody to go back across the stream and retrieve two prisoners I captured earlier.
— I… I am not sure that the hunters are willing to listen to you, mentor, Rai whispers dejectedly. You can’t really blame them, this raid has not exactly gone to plan so far. You are afraid to think of the “Emblem of Wrath” yourself, in case it soils your memory permanently.
— Right. In that case, let us not tarry here, at least, you force yourself to continue before the entire affair disintegrates. — Please tell them to come deeper under the boughs, so we can decide what to do next. Perhaps we need to retreat and regroup.
Rai obeys you after some hesitation, but you don’t stick around to follow the debate; better to lead by example and seek the cover of the trees. While swiping the nameless gunk off your hands and arms you silently curse the ancient grotesque and its baseless fears for having ruined your alliance with the dhole-men so. It is a small mercy that you did not gut any of your allies while looking for ghosts. Your mind does not rebel at the irreverent thoughts, but whether because the Magus is asleep or because your scorn is not worthy of his concern, you don’t know.
It is not like the hunting band has many alternatives, so soon enough they follow you into the woods. They find you slumped under a tree, and follow suit in this as well. You can just barely make out their shapes; a count reveals that four have been lost altogether out of the full dozen who started the raid with you. You don’t know who they were, for it is too dark. Dholes probably harbor little in the way of burial rites, and assassins certainly don’t, so why does the thought of muggers and birds of prey ripping into their bodies bother you so?
Rai, like a faithful pup, is there besides you. After a moment of rest he breaks the silence:
— Mentor, are all assassins sorcerers? A reasonable question, considering his experience so far.
— No, it is just Fox, she supposedly had the magi blood… You don’t really feel like defending yourself as being non-sorcerous against the piling evidence. You feel completely exhausted, and your mission a failure.
— Is your “magic” more powerful than the Shalmali sorcery, then? Rai continues asking, clearly struggling with the strange word. — If it is not, surely we have no choice but to go back in defeat.
— Oh… there is very little real magic in the world, you mutter slowly. — I am no mage (“mayugita”, a foreign memory of the correct pronouncement flashes in your mind), my crazy patron with his αὐτόματον worship definitely wasn’t, whatever Fox was didn’t save her from steel in the gut… I don’t think that even the Shalmali nightmare is real magic, not like the world-wrenching entropy the old mayugitan god-men brought with them. Real magic destroys, and by the act makes possible real transmutation. This… whatever it was that I chanted earlier, it is better if you forget it; in boring to your mind it is worse than anything the Shalmali craft, flesh or soul, might effect.
— I am still following you, mentor, Rai claims after a moment of silence, touching your arm awkwardly in the dark. — I knew that this would be bad when we started. If you have any sorcery mightier than that of Pale, or of the Tree-Men, let us fight fire with fire!
Worst case, Rai is hastening his own doom by clinging to you so. You can see the rest of the survivors talking to each other in low voices, clustered markedly away from you. Perhaps they will conclude that the scout-boy can hardly be held responsible for being loyal to his mentor, evil witch or not.
You perk up from your gloom nigh-instinctually, at first not quite understanding what attracted your attention. Then you spot the movement in the pitch-black shadows; only your Cat Eyes potion, still burning in your eyes, makes the white iceberg floating noiselessly through the woods possible to see at all. It is the Pale Urgaur, come to finish you off, no doubt. Perhaps you should let it – being stuck in a power struggle between pre-human powers is rightful cause for despair, surely. Nobody else seems to notice the grey spot floating in the darkness, probably because of your greater experience with the Cat Eyes, and the potion being tuned to your own experience; for all you know, the sheen-make has already fractured from their eyes.
However, as you sit there and watch, the Urgaur does not seem to be coming forward. Instead, it seems to be moving side-ways, floating towards some unknown goal. As you focus on it, you can see riders upon its back, too – picking up poor Papak and his companion would be just what the twisted creature would do. Probably going back to its Shalmali masters, bringing more flesh for their machinery. You could follow it, but to what purpose? To further the entropic cause of the passenger playing your emotions like a wicked instrument?
Rolled a ‘3’
Monster dice: 1|5|3|3
Hero dice: 5|3|2|4|3
The Match continues.
- A Touch of Humanity 18.04.2016
The world weighs heavily on my shoulders as I peer at the beast from my shelter. As I glance sideways, I can see the upturned eyes of Rai, the whites of his eyes radiating with stubborn and quickly diminishing hope. I feel as I am stuck in a cave, collapsing on top of me from every direction. The men are silent, the moment is tranquil. They wait for my response.
I gather what is left of my resolute, if not for me then for Rai at least.
— This mission has been a failure after another, I agree on that. I can’t blame you if you wish to go back to your tribe, I urge you to do it but before you do, hear my words first.
I take a deep breath. The parasite in me is silent, perhaps he thinks this is not worth his attention.
— I saw Pale Urgaur again when I was separated from you. And this time I saw clearly the mark of the Shalmali on its side. There is no question about it; the mentor of your tribe is under the shadow of these creatures. What now if you go back defeated? You’ll just fall deeper under the power of these hideous sorcerers.
The men are silent, reluctant to follow me still as it appears. No matter, as I have something else on my mind. A gloomy resolution of sorts.
— I do not ask you to follow me anymore, I can see you will not as you fear my power. This is fair as I fear it as much as you do. But when you go back, try to convince the tribe, perhaps others as well to come here and destroy the Shalmali for good if we’ll fail in our quest. Tell them what you and I have seen. I saved you from Urgaur, I saved you from the Shalmali. You owe me this!
I speak no more, and the dhole-men seem to stare at each other, perhaps searching for a common resolution in the eyes of their tribesmen. Then the first man approaches me and puts his hand firmly against my chest. We sit there in silence for a while and then he leaves, without uttering a word. All of the men do this, one by one and then leave in silence, vanishing into the woods like stray dogs in the Filth Alley. Without words I know that they will do as I asked of them. The gesture was warm, thoroughly human and the feeling penetrates the veil of gloom that has been manifesting in me for so long.
I can feel a cold laughter swelling in my guts. “The men of this era, weaklings all of you.”
I yell back to him, replacing the shame I felt for his presence with anger.
— What do you do if I die? All of your hirelings are dead, if you haven’t noticed. Who will do your bidding against the Shalmali if I drown myself in the bottom of that dark river?
“You are but a vessel of my desires, puppet!”
In the heat of emotion I draw a poisoned longblade and thrust it towards my arm. I can feel his power struggling against mine.
— Yeah, you can resist me, you can control me. But if you could do it all the time, you would. You are as trapped as I am, aren’t you? Trapped to this unknown body. With all your powers, if you could render my spirit away you would have done it already. If you could destroy my soul you would have cast me in the darkness like an unwanted thought. But you didn’t.
There is no reply, but the bitter cold I felt has gone down a bit, or so I think.
I look around to find Rai sitting a bit farther away, his head buried in his hands. Uncontrollable sobs jerk his body, yet no sound comes out. I step closer and reach towards him. He jerks my arm aside, maddened with emotions, shouting:
— Keep away from me you wizard!
I grab him despite of his resistance and hold him close. He pounds my back with his fists for a while but then calms down. I hold him still for a long time. When I let him go the anger seems to be gone, at least for now. I would like to ask him why he didn’t go with the others but there is no time as I suddenly realize we should be following the Urgaur. He is long gone now.
— Shall we finish this then? I ask from the boy. He nods in silence. — Whatever happens, stay close to me.
— I will. Where are we going next?
— I saw Pale Urgaur going through the woods after we slew the Shalmali men. He carried in his back two men of my homelands. One of them was my mentor of old. We must try to save them first, if possible. He is long gone now, but he moves slowly, perhaps we can catch him.
— Maybe we can track him, his bulk certainly leaves a mark in this swamp. If we don’t miss it in this darkness.
— We can.
“We must, if we wish to end this” I say within. I feel the cold awareness moving about inside me, in silence.
I approach the spot where I saw the bull go earlier. My cat eyes see the darker patch of the spongy ground that has given away from the massive bulk of the beast. I start a quick pace, drawing Rai with me through the woods. This time it is me who leads, as Rai’s night vision is not as keen as mine. The dark wood is silent and absent of movement. Now and then I glance to the dark sky but see no glimpse of the bird of prey. Perhaps its hunger is sated for now.
I feel we make good progress and our spirits are bit higher.
— What is your mentor like, do you know why he is here?
— For why is he here I do not know. But he is a good man, certainly better man than I.
I feel I do not need to tell the fact that it was I who betrayed his trust and went into a life of an assassin. He was a member of the Free Scholars, a lower class of nobles who had dedicated themselves towards knowledge and studying the ways of the world. After I had fled from Yasul, the crazy genius who taught me mechanics in midst of slavery and whims of his cruel mind he took me under his wing. My skills with mechanics fascinated him, as they were unique in this world, rivalled only by my mentor. He then returned the favor by teaching me history, languages and martial arts. But I was a different person then, one thing led to another and…
But how, and why could he be here. Daag was the contact-man, the one through whom we got our assignments. He geared us for our dirty deeds. Papak hated him with gusto, it was him who lured me into the dark underbelly of Scarlet, or at least so he thinks.
And now Papak and Fox were here, perhaps Daag too, but why? And Daag played both Fox and Papak here without them knowing of each other.
“Is this your idea of a sick joke,” I let out a thought. I get no reply.
As I ponder, the landscape changes rapidly. Forest gives way to a large clearing. The all-compassing peak of Lamorak creates a majestic background for the enormous Ziggurat that seems to grow out of the mossy ground. The clearing is filled with small, odd-shaped tendrils. Like small saplings but of weird proportions. The ziggurat itself seems to be filled with them as well. Pale Urgaur is progressing slowly in the middle of the clearing towards the structure. As I watch, the tendrils ebb and weave around him, creating a path of sorts for him to walk on. The structure itself, through my cat eyes, seems to ebb and weave, making my eyes hurt.
The cold inside me swells. The final match is beginning. Rai squeezes my hand and I return the favor. I fight the urge to command the boy to go back … as he wouldn’t do it anyway.
rolled a ‘3’
Monster dice: 1|5|3|3
Hero dice: 5|3|2|4|3|3
- The Bovine Challenge 21.04.2016
The moon, Derak! Rai must not be seeing all that well in the dim light, but for you the scene unfolds as if it was daylight, once you pass out of the woods. The depth of color is at once breath-taking and horrifying as the saplings wave in shades of green and purple over a black, damp earth, moved by winds unfelt. Whatever the saplings are, they leave the ground beneath dead, devoid of even the humblest competition.
“Bristles, rather, or stamina. Corrosive to touch.” Thinking amused, curious thoughts senseless to the danger while your heart is beating in rising panic at this inhuman otherworld does not help your confusion, and neither does looking up at the towering ziggurat. The shape of the thing is clearly step-wise ascendant, yet the outline remains fuzzy, perhaps due to the bristles covering its heights. The dark shape seems to nevertheless glimmer in the night as its outline wavers, making it resemble nothing more than a massive octopus throwing itself madly against the ever-more imposing natural escarpment of Lamorak.
Shaking your head you step ahead, letting go of Rai – he will have to follow of his own will if at all. As you approach the unholy grounds, the numberless bristles that swayed aside for Pale Urgaur seem curious, the nearest reaching towards you like fingers. A petulant impulse urges you to step boldly among the growths, the way Derak used to be – a master of his domain. Let the passenger worry of the Shalmali sorceries. And of course it does, for when the bristles all around you turn to fold upon you curiously, an unbidden gesture comes upon your left hand: the thumb traces a leisurely path over the fingertips twisted like claws, touching upon each fingernail in turn, quickly increasing in speed as it follows some strange choreography of its own.
“The Syncopatic Ward, painful to ampullae and other etheric sensorium”, you half-mutter as the first bristle leans to touch – and springs back, as if touched by lightning held to your out-stretched hand. Now your right hand is doing it as well, most disconcertingly in a different rhythm to the left, and the bristles fall back as they did for Pale Urgaur. Out of fear and pain rather than respect, though. The ripple of the field of bristles seems unreal as it reacts, the individual bristles shying away from you once the syncopathy has been firmly established.
The white monster-bison now ascends a long ramp upon the face of the ziggurat. Coming closer, you can clearly see how the angular form of the structure is covered with the bristles, growing impossibly out of stone, or perhaps wooden surfaces that form the architecture of the thing. This close the peak of the ziggurat is obscured by its own bulk, causing vertigo as it seems like the entire monument is leaning over you near vertically.
There are people in the bristling field, you can see it now; calm figures standing here and there in the dark, waiting. “Feeding”, occurs to you, the conviction and loathing evident in the thought. Whether these are the Shalmali proper or mere slaves matters not to you as long as they remain impassive and allow you to approach and ascend the ziggurat. You nevertheless strive to see faces in the dark, some sign of captive Scarlenes – as near to country-men as you could have in this distant land.
— Mentor, there is somebody up there, you hear Rai remark, drawing your attention away from the spectacle of the nation in stupor. Raising your eyes back towards the ramp to seek the bull, it is easy to spot what Rai means: a platform halfway up the side of the monument, a fire has been cast where a moment ago was darkness. Its light almost blinding your Cat Eyes in the dark, you can see little else.
— What do you see, Rai?
— A man waits for Pale. He is in heavy dress, a robe. A witch of the Shalmali, I am certain.
— Do not be certain of anything here, Rai; we walk not upon our own earth.
So saying you step upon the ramp to follow the urgaur. While steep, it is nevertheless less so than the stepwise escarpments of the ziggurat, and thus much longer; from up above it must look like a long tongue extending, penetrating into the fields on either side of it. It runs straight, with few bristles growing upon it, and leads directly to the face of the monument. To you it is like walking towards a star, with the fire at the end blinding you to most everything except the heavy shadow of the urgaur as its steps swing calmly forward.
You keep your face turned to the side as you approach, avoiding the unnecessary discomfort of the bright blaze, slowly accommodating your eyes to it. The ramp is hard, stony, giving you confidence. Your hands cease their weaving dance, leaving your wrists in pain at the long exercise.
“The Shalmali devour.” You stand on the brink of some sort of memory, perhaps something the passenger decides to share with you (you can feel the thought, the decision to remember). Your eyes are drawn up high, on top of the ziggurat, where you imagine the dim glimmer of the dark crystalwork the passenger wants you to destroy. You see nothing but the impossible arcs of stone and living wood rising from the high quarter of the ziggurat, crawling upon the cliff-face of Lamorak. Like a flower, the monument opens up towards the cliff, finding support in reaching ever higher.
However, the moment passes. Synchronicity occurs.
— They are sacrificing the captives! Rai remarks in disgust, pushing at you to hurry. As he once again draws your attention to here and now, you turn your face towards the heat of the fire and squint your eyes. Now you can see the lone figure of a man profiled against the bright flames, just as Rai said. He is helping Pale Urgaur shake its catatonic victims off its back. He is placing them gently, setting their limbs. He is raising something from a basket, using long tongs, something serpentine and slithering, living. He is looking at you as he works, though this you barely perceive in the silhouette against the fire.
“Your compatriots are lost to Shalmali craft, Puppet, better not concern yourself with them. Their souls lost upon the brand; their flesh upon the annelid.” You heave yourself in disgust, for once feeling sympathy with the inhuman entropic presence in your mind; rather a final scouring than this.
Pale Urgaur, though, lifts its head (from a basket of feed?) and seems to notice you for the first time. Its head sways from side to side, but then, seemingly independent of its companion, the great bull detaches from the firelight and steps back upon the ramp. It comes to meet you, it sees you and you see it, and while it cannot really touch you with your passenger awakened, you have no difficulty whatsoever understanding.
Two-Heart, upon elder mysteries drawn…
Rai steps in front of you, shielding his eyes. Quick lad, he breaks eye contact between you and the bull. However, this is something you need to hear and understand, and there is a worse devil in your head already. You turn Rai aside gently and let the Urgaur’s power wash over you.
You and I, we have a dance to finish, and upon my flesh I am bid to ward you. Follow me if you would, Two-Heart, in a hunt. Follow me, Boikolo Rai, son of my son. If you will not, know this: whatever your weird would accomplish in this numinous place, it avails you nothing, for upon the morn I shall arrive among the whistling phou to dispense my final lesson. This is sworn, and thus shall occur, unless you stop the Urgaur.
The bull is baldly challenging you, and throwing in a threat for good measure! This being something you can understand and appreciate, you strip the seal from the poison sheath and draw the yet almost fresh dagger with a savage grin. Good for Rai that he apparently did not sense the mental bullying; it matters not, for Pale will be finished here and now. After your last encounter, you truly have bigger things to fear.
However, the great gaur is not playing your game: while you start sprinting forwards, it laughs audibly (ke-ke-ke like a bird) and sways, pitching its enormous shoulders sideways – turning, the bull canters twice, thrice, and then plummets off the side of the ramp altogether, into the dark. The drop must be fifty feet at the least, utterly impossible for an animal of such great size to survive.
Rai, flabbergasted, runs to the edge to peer. He can probably see little. You, of course, see the bull’s white swatch against the dark of the ground as it gets up to its feet. It looks up and exchanges a glance with you, the red eyes shining like dots below.
— Pale Urgaur shied from you, mentor! Rai shouts excitedly, standing up in celebration. In his mind this was probably the climax, with the rest of this mad assault a mere after-thought. After all, what could stand against the might that drives off even the ghostly shaman-bull.
Will you tell Rai the truth? More importantly, will you follow the bull? Can you?
rolled a ‘1’
Monster dice: 1|5|3|3|1
Hero dice: 5|3|2|4|3|3
The Match continues.
- Of Snakes of Wood and Men 22.04.2016
I am facing a terrible dilemma. The same instant my head conjures the idea of following the bull, my parasite raises a storm of objections.
“You will not abandon what we together have achieved here by chasing some magical beast. Get on with it.”
My internal quarrel is cut short by Rai, shouting:
— Look, he is committing the sacrifice. Hurry, stop him!
True enough, the man lowers the writhing thing held in his pliers on top of the first man, who even in his state of deliriousness senses what is happening and lets out a weak, horrified scream. The eyes of the mysterious man in robes seem to be fixed on me, never leaving.
In moments like this time always seems to slow down. I perform a *snap of the Purple Serpent*, a maneuver taught to my by the Contortionist Squad. It is a wave-like squeeze of the muscles all the way from the shoulder to the fingertips. The whiplash catapults the poisoned dagger from my fingers with dazzling speed. While dagger still in midair, I hear the targeted man starting to mutter words. Immediately few saplings around him grow in length, readying themselves to catch the incoming missile of death before its designated target.
I feel my parasite speak alien words with my tongue. He reapplies the Syncopatic Ward gesture quickly but this time my fingers are open and are directed towards the dagger flying towards the man in a low arc. Just as the saplings are about to grab it, they turn away from the blade letting it slip bast the defences. I think I get a glimpse of surprise in the eyes of the man but the hurling dagger doesn’t wait and hits his throat squarely. His hands fly up most un-sorcerously to cover the grievous wound, but Scarlet Clamp works quickly and he falls down due to its effects before bloodloss and trauma gets him.
Rai runs towards the men and I have to hurry so I can catch him. I can see the slithering thing on top of the first man from far away and he seems to be sensing us as he is hissing ferociously as we approach. I push Rai behind my back as I step on the platform and face the creature.
It is lying on top of its now immobile victim and as I get closer, I can see that it is indeed a large snake. Closer look reveals that the scales of the thing are made of wood-like substance, there is a defining, familiar sound of wood brushing against wood when it moves about and raises its head to face my attack. Its lidless eyes are black and glossy and suddenly I realize that they resemble the crystal I am looking for with a striking resemblance. I am so dazzled by this discovery that I almost get caught by surprise when it attacks.
Snakes are fast, but cats trained to kill are faster. I sidestep and strike to the line of attack with my hand blade in one, perfectly balanced motion. A basic principle of bladework: get out of the line and counter, works equally well against sentries as well as cursed snakes.
When the blade severs the creature a sound like splintering of thin wood can be heard and the thing falls down, twitching furiously. Dark blood oozes from the severed head and as it splashes on the ground there is a hissing sound, almost like the one the snake itself made. I kick the carcass and it flies all the way down from the ziggurat. Sapplings down there grab it immediately. I shudder and turn back to look at the two men caught by the Shalmali.
They are Nother and Papak, as I already guessed. Nother got the snake on top of him so I crouch down to see how he is doing first. There is a clear bite-mark in his left arm, where his ragged sleeve is punctured. I strip it off to see in my horror a wooden bark-like surface, that is slowly growing on top of him to all directions from the bite mark, progressing inevitably towards the center of his body mass. His hand is already completely covered by it and ripping of his sleeve reveals that the process of this vile transformation has gone over the elbow already. I frantically search for something to cut his arm off, but I have no tools that could work on him quick enough. It would probably kill him anyway due to the blood loss he already suffered.
— It burns, it burns. Kill me before they steal my soul, he hisses with a broken voice. It is a miracle that he still can speak after all he has been put through.
I bother not to resist his urges, he only has few minutes before the sorcery gets him. I pick a sharp pin coated with Scarlet Clamp and push it through his chest, straight to his heart. The poison is brutal when it is delivered in any other part of the body, but delivered in the heart it gives almost instantaneous death. I work like an automaton of death, and move swiftly to Papak.
The man is still alive, yet unconscious. His vitality is evident as his gruesome wounds have all but stopped their bleeding, yet he will be dead soon if I do nothing.
The lore says that it is the Lepers who first stated that a killer of men must be a healer as well. Limahl certainly is, but I can’t say the same about myself. Still on such a voyage I carry with me some potent ointments of healing, which I have put to good use on this trip already. Rai comes to my side, curiously following as I apply the craft I have to the aid of my former mentor.
— Is this your mentor? Rai asks, nervously looking around.
— Yes, it is a miracle he is still alive. In any case even if he lives it takes a long time for him to recover.
— After you kill rest of the Shalmali with your powers, we can make a stretcher and take him away from this place. He can rest and recuperate in our village.
Mentioning the village brings me back to the challenge of the bull. I stand up and glance over the edge of the platform. The accursed creature is moving slowly, but still visible at the edge of the clearing. He could have gone easily by now, I think. He is toying with me, urging me to follow.
“You do no such thing,” the vile passenger announces coldly. “I will not stop the bristles, thus they will burn you slowly to death if you try to leave this place.”
— Come on, lets move on, Rai catches my attention. I look at his innocent face. Little does he know what the choice I must make means to his people. I try to tell him what we are up against now. I try but I can’t. I figure out it must be the damned parasite that stops me from doing so. Deep down in my heart I know that it is not the case.
I look at the bull for a moment. It crosses the border of the clearing and vanishes in the darkness of the forest. I turn my gaze at the fire that burns behind the now dead sorcerer. It just burns there with nothing under it, giving the impression like feeding itself from the thin air only. The fire is slowly dying though, and it occurs to me that it started waning when the sorcerer died. Still, it emits a low light just like a great fire burned down to embers. And behind the light, in the edge of the platform there is an entrance to the cursed ziggurath. It is like a black, deformed hole in the side of an old tree. The spirit flame is right next to it, but the thing refuses to be lit by it, staying dark and ominous instead.
— We must go there, it seems. I point at the hole to Rai. He seems eager to follow you, trusting your power.
The parasite is silent. It is good, if it laughs now, I might just throw myself over the pedestal and end this for good.
Monster dice: 1|5|3|3|1
Hero dice: 5|3|2|4|3|3|1
- The Climax begins 24.04.2016
You would be a brave man, Derak, if it was not utter, uncaring nihilism driving you forward. Your heart barely beats as you step into the shadows. Actually… you stop at the entrance to the Shalmali sanctum as the insight hits you. Nihilism, no feeling of fear? This, more than nothing else, makes you feel foolish, so much so that you cannot help but lean on the sinewy arch of the entrance, stopping as the light is slowly fading. How could you have been so utterly deluded all these weeks since the dark crystal?
“It is not delusion, my Puppet, when it is your nature laid bare: more than anything, what you thirst is to be a tool, unfeeling and unthinking in the service of a higher power. This is why I selected you. ‘Though you are weak of compassion, every day you still strive to close your self away and be a machine of death. The Calm. Yours is an unworded prayer the Mayugita have finally heard and answered.”
The world swoons as you consider the implications: what you have taken for a foreign influence, your moral compass and sentiment for another man is not; and this passionate drive towards the heart of darkness, this uncaring steel in the core of your being, willing to sacrifice and be sacrificed for victory – is it you, your guise as the Assassin of Gods, or is it merely the Magus compelling you forward against its enemies? What kind of man are you, that you would mistake your own compassion for a curse, and embrace the murderous mind of ancient unlife as your natural discipline, welcome and comfortable to a seasoned killer?
“For your life entire, Puppet, you have been a servant of annihilation, a vessel of the anti-life. Our relationship is natural, and the height of your purpose. Even this primitive mind has long recognized your inability to harness your destructive urge wisely; as the true magic, so are you a tool only suited to the hand of ultimate wisdom – the hands of the Magi. Any other choice is entropy for its own sake, sand without witness. Annihilation is true transformation.”
— Mentor? Derak East-Born? The light is failing, we need to move! Rai is shaking you, and you almost punch him in frustration before realizing that it is the passenger’s emotion at the unwanted intrusion, not yours. Satisfied by the petty snub to its smugness, you focus on the present.
— Yes. I am sorry, Rai. Sometimes I get lost in the nether realms. Perils of the trade. I hope you understand that you should never look for the Ultimate, for it is much better for a man to uphold his position and love life. Being a shaman, assassin or anything else grand-sounding and glamorous simply does not compare.
— Well, yes, mentor, Rai replies with forced cheer. — Did you forget? I love Rama! The Phou are a tribe of laughter, we know how hollow is the wisdom of the scratch-scribing philosophers! When we return, none will naysay my place in the troop, and Rama shall be married to the bravest Man of the tribe. While I am honored to be mentored by a great man of spirit-craft, do not ask me to join that knowledge in this life!
Actively refusing to think of Rai’s chances of achieving his dreams in this life, you step into the darkness.
The interior of the ziggurat is pitch-black, and it seems that your Cat Eyes finally failed on the approach, for even the paltry light shining in seems to be swallowed by the dark. For a moment you think that there might not be anything there, but the floor scrapes to your boot, and there are walls pressing in on both sides, close enough to touch with outstretched arms. The walls are soft, of sandstone or wood, yet noticeably warm and slightly moist to touch.
As you proceed into the dark (unthinking, it is easier), you can hear Rai scraping at everything with the butt of his spear. For you it matters not, and soon enough you can see in the dark; distant pinpoints of light, as if stars in the firmament. Two lights, green and white, close by to one another, straight ahead. And then, as you proceed, a yellowish movement, as a pinpoint in impossible distance nevertheless appears over the two and seems to slide to the left.
Stopping in the dark, you consider. The passenger is silent for now, allowing you to solve this conundrum yourself. The lights seem to resist your attempts at gauging their distance by moving your head and blinking your eyes; to all purposes they seem like the stars in the sky or splatters of paint upon a canvas, flat at an unreal distance. You reach for them to make sure, and nevertheless they seem fixed at the eternity ahead.
“Look to the left, where you saw the streak.” You do as you are told, and spot now the small yet sharp point of light in the infinite distance. Moving a step forward, however, it seems to swiftly track back towards where you came. Rai stumbles upon you and waits patiently, realizing the virtue in silence.
“Can you not see it, Puppet? The bare necessities of light, aimed directly at your eyes, near-invisible from any other angles. So weak, so precise, that the darkness is unbroken yet pierced by illumination. Used wisely, they surely enable the acolytes to navigate their tunnels. It is precisely the light sufficient for the man as well as the annelid, and other beings besides, of the womb of darkness.”
As these straying thoughts seem to achieve little in illuminating the matter, you try to reach for the yellow light. A side tunnel! Simply enough, the lights seem to indicate the architecture of the building, however they work. It is like striding the goosepath among the stars, following the lights. Lacking any better idea, you continue towards the green and white twin lights ahead, letting the yellow side track accelerate out of sight.
Soon more lights appear in the constellation ahead, and you notice a soft, rug-like texture to the floor. Perhaps it is for the sake of warning of the short stairs you almost stumble down, as the softness disappears soon afterwards. The lights multiply and several fly swiftly past, but you are determined and do not stray from following the green and the white. A single light accelerates past above you as well, perhaps indicating a third dimension to the maze.
You can hear Rai breathing hard; it is likely that he is very afraid of this eldritch place. Reaching to place a comforting hand to his shoulder, moving him to your side in the narrow tunnel, does not seem out of place; your passenger does not object as you move on together.
Then, the two original lights diverge, the green and white. Which to follow? The white seems to be going forward, but is it also slowly, very slowly descending? It is the green that accelerates to the left, first slowly and then it is at the side, and you stand in a junction.
Hesitating, you think the thoughts of the passenger: “Follow the white. It shall take us to the root, and then up, up through the stem. You will fight your way through the womb, and you will triumph in their place of power, for the Shalmali are utterly unprepared for what you and I have together become. Then we shall destroy the dark crystal nested in the grand stamen, bare to moonlight. This is what we must do, as you well remember.”
— Derak, Rai whispers. — Do you hear it? There is clapping, and a willful shouting… it reverberates in the stone. There are people somewhere on the left-hand side.
He is right, your inner voice deafened you to it. Whatever else may lie upon the green star’s path, it seems that human beings inhabit those reaches. Which of your guides should you follow? Do you even have a choice? “Do not tarry”, urges your inner voice, but in what manner is this voice more reliable than the youth at your side? You realize a true equilibrium inside, as you prove unable to follow either voice.
Paralyzed by the sudden indecision in the midst of stars, you are easily waylaid in the dark. There is no dramatic struggle to it, and in fact you might not have realized the moment of your defeat at all, were it not for your experience with the poisoner’s wiles. When you realize the sting in the air stabbing your nostrils, it is too late, however. You stumble while Rai outright falls with nary a sound, and while taking support from the wall you try to move, but then you fall as your legs give way. You try to crawl to hide in the darkness before the paralysis sets in, but realize that you know not where to go, anyway. It is your loss, and an ignominious defeat at that.
However, not your end – with barely a gap in your consciousness, you awake to being shaken. It is your friend Papak! He is healthy? Turning your head slightly, disoriented by the sudden change in consciousness, you realize slowly your surroundings: trapped by the Shalmali, you have been taken to what you assume must be further inside their sanctum, a large cavernous room of indeterminate dimensions; perched inside a cage (of bone?) like animals, you can only guess at the surroundings, as the walls lie in darkness, as does the ceiling, and the floor, it seems to be merely a pedestal of grand scope, of water-marked marbled stone in grey and purple hues, with its edges reaching into the darkness. The dismal, defenseless platform is illuminated by bright fires, balls of fire seemingly fueled by nothing. Aside from your cage the floor sees a bustle of activity, for there are a score of men, or what you presume to be men, dressed in gowns and hoods, all busy in a dizzying manner all too reminiscent of what an experience with Scarlet religious life suggests of a mystery cult of particularly ill intent.
However, Rai is there, lying in the cage with you, and so is Papak; at least you are not alone. “Alone? There must be a hundred acolytes here! We are in the womb!” You realize suddenly that the Magus within is concerned, which alone suffices to launch your instincts into near panic. Still, you cannot help but note that for a superior being the mayugita is annoyingly inconsistent in predicting its Shalmani nemesis.
It is awkward in the cage, for it seems maliciously small; not in width, which suffices for the three of you side by side, but in height, such that it is impossible for you to even sit up – the best you manage to achieve is to get to your knees and elbows, but that leaves your back entirely in a blind spot, so you return to lie on your backside soon enough.
— So, Derak? You really came to the Armenite jungles? Papak asks, probably at loss for anything to say. You have not seen each other in years, so it would surely be awkward in better circumstances.
Yet you pay scant attention to your old friend, glued as your eyes are to the Shalmali outside the cage. Their nature becomes clear to you now, as having been something of a connoisseur of the numinous (comes with the territory as the assassin of gods and god-botherers in Scarlet), there are things you recognize. Also things you don’t. However, it is without doubt a holy place of the same cult you faced in Scarlet City, for their symbols are the same, with that accursed ring carved on the floor and stained in blood, and decorous, wooden-seeming stands housing ornate little treasures glittering in the light.
The acolytes illuminated by their witch-fires seem curiously relaxed, near unorganized despite their unnatural environs; some work upon some type of weaving or whittling, it seems, independent of the rest, while others engage in writing upon some sort of parchment, or simply polishing some small items, or sitting still. One even seems to be cooking, or at least kneading a cold paste. The sight is almost homely, the way small everyday items are scattered on the floor in signs of life. However, it is not difficult for you to sense it: the acolytes ward the darkness, and a tense undercurrent it is as they turn their backs to it and crowd near the fires, making their circles pitiably small. Only a few will sit straight and look upon the depths of shadow surrounding you all.
“Here you are in grave danger, Derak”, your passenger thinks, seemingly in control of itself, yet betrayed by the familiar address. “They are low Shalmali, it seems, scrabbling among the secrets of their betters, yet nevertheless they craft. Their craft is man, and if you would avoid joining these others as materiel, we have to escape here at once. In no circumstance reveal your true nature, for then you shall be slain at once. Better yet, take out that silly amulet you have carried here to confuse them further; it shall not avail you to convince them, for it is impossible for you to be of caste, but it will raise questions.”
— Are you with us, Derak? Papak asks again, concerned. — I, I think we are in desperate circumstances here. I need you to have your wits now.
Being the possessed prophet of a forbidden engram seems to habit you to absent-mindedness.
— Yes, master Papak, you answer. — Good farings to you on stormy days as well. Things are beyond desperate here, but I must ask: what in Coinbiter’s name are you doing in Shalmali captivity?
— Shalmali? These are the Shalmali? Papak seems confused by something, but rallies quickly. — But of course we were looking for their ruins. Ruins and crafts, and perhaps the fabled jewels of theirs, namesake of the swamps. It was relatively straightforward to put the pieces together from the questions you had for me at the Juvenalia; I had no idea that you were planning to come here yourself, though.
— I do not understand how you could get in bed with Daag. He does not seem the like to fund an expedition for the sake of science and enlightenment.
Papak looks at you strangely. Uncomfortably you start to realize that one or both of you are missing something here. It is probably you, considering how you do not remember meeting Papak in Scarlet, or even having participated in the Juvenalia. There are many things you do not remember from before leaving the city, cursed be the mayugita.
“It is better for you to remain ignorant, Puppet. Keeps you sharp.”
As a preferred alternative to debating your passenger, you turn to check on Rai. He seems to be breathing, and as he stirs under your hand, it seems likely he will recover from whatever it was that was done to you.
— I wonder what they did to poor Nother, Papak mutters, perhaps expecting you to enlighten him. — He is brave and faithful, one of the better men we picked for the expedition. They kept us in a cave on the cliffs, among other peoples they had captures from the jungle tribes. When they took Karna and he did not return, Nother decided that we would have to escape at any cost.
— Nother is dead, you turn to tell Papak. — Your escape failed, and as far as I know, we are the only survivors from Scarlet City. The Shalmali are savage, and from what I have seen, it is better to die cleanly, should you be given the chance.
Speaking of chances, it took you this long to realize your nakedness; not so much in clothes, but in arms. The reliable ensemble of clockwork and blades you have been maintaining these long weeks against the travails of the jungle has been stripped from you. It is a hard blow for a man used to wearing his tools everywhere. Looking around, you can see a familiar spool of bronze wire being pawed by a clueless acolyte, with the rest of your panoply at his feet. Their work stripping you has been inexpert and sloppy, considering the way the kestros loading string seems to have been cut to get you out of the harness in the first place.
You realize that Papak is actually crying softly, which in itself is shocking; he always could handle himself in the city, and you always looked up to him not only in wisdom, but also in virtue – Papak is one of the few men who could take what Scarlet has to offer and not be dragged down by it. Looking at him closer, his hand seems to be rubbing at his chest, and you remember the mark put upon him. The action is perhaps unconscious, the way it looks like an unthinking animal scratching mechanically at a trap it can neither understand nor escape.
Whether it is much comfort, your reunion with Papak is cut short by an approaching acolyte. You have yet to get a closer look at any of them, but you get the sense that they are not particularly handsome under their gowns and hoods. This one, the way he stands between you and the light, remains mostly in shadow as he observes you. You can see the sly grin, though.
— What do you want! you shout at him and rattle the cage a bit. The man sways a little, as if by wind, but his confidence seems unshakeable. Still grinning, he proffers a stone hid behind his back to you with two hands. Speaks not a word.
As the man moves closer, his gift is evidently no stone – it is a skull, but for the pink seen of the top part, and the pulsing; it is as if something moist and spongy has grown inside the skull, using it as a template to form, and spilling out from the open top until it forces the entirety towards a more globular shape. The man steps forward, evidently offering the thing to you, until he stands next to your cage and crouches to bring his gift level with your eyes. What is all this? You struggle futilely to break the cage as dread of the unknown fills you; most disturbingly, Papak does not seem to notice or care, crying in futile despair as he is.
“They are probably attempting to torture you, Puppet, to prepare your flesh or soul for some greater craft. I shall turn off your pain receptors to foil them, of course, once we see their chosen method.” It is frustrating how uncaring the Magus seems at your impending demise, its despite solely focused on its hatred of the Shalmali. “Do not waste time attempting to talk to them; even as low Shalmali they are forbidden or unable to treat a captive out-caste such as yourself as a sapient being. They have surely gone to utmost lengths to purge all inclination to hear your words as anything but senseless grunting of an animal. They probably hold to a quaint belief of being better than you for being people, as if that was a laudable distinction.”
Sometimes knowledge is not to any sort of comfort. Seeing the grinning man closely, you notice how the skin of his face and hands has a scaly appearance, somewhat similar to the bark-disease you have witnessed before. There is little to prevent him from doing as he wills, so it is somewhat surprising when the man merely positions his skull-thing on the floor next to the cage and then sits back to look at you.
— Wha- what is that, Papak seems to finally notice the skull-thing. You do not really have any better of an idea, except that when the bald, sheeny surface starts to twirl, it certainly starts to seem to all the world like the surface of a huckster’s crystal ball, or a seeing-stone of a fair-star priest. Perhaps it is the same; the hypnotic pull, the compel to gaze into its depths certainly is. Not so strong that you could not look away, but enough for you to know that something dreadful will soon be shown.
As it happens, the surface of the skull-thing does gain a depth of view, and slowly the pink fog within clarifies. It is natural to turn to your side to view it, as the darkening surface suddenly shines with the first rays of the sun – the view is of sunrise. Is it the present, a future, a past? No way to know.
The image you witness clarifies until you can recognize the scene: it is of the hunting band in their canoes, the men of the whistling phou who followed you against the Shalmali. They are making good pace, having recovered their boats and left the shadow-woods behind. By your count, they have left a canoe behind, too. The losses make that easy, of course; there are only seven of them. Now you can recognize the faces, which reminds you of how you never knew which ones fell last night to the Shalmali ambush.
Papak watches too, and starts suddenly sobbing. Is he even seeing the same thing you are? Maybe the skull-thing shows regrets, for you do certainly regret having led these men to their defeat.
Then, you twitch in surprise as the calm scene breaks into terror: it is Pale Urgaur, rising from the waters like a mugger or a shark, upending the two canoes easily with its sheer mass. There is little warning, yet the men react, scampering to shore, probably not even realizing yet that it was no mugger-attack striking at them in the dawn air. Still, knowing the dangers, they had kept close enough to shore to wade up without hesitation, seeking the surety of firm ground.
Yet it avails them little, for the ancient gaur-beast they face is intent on murder: the bull chases a man down in the shallows, crushing him beneath sheer bulk; it springs up, waving its backside unnaturally, and launches out of the water to place an utterly potent hoof straight through the rib-cage of another man already far up the shore. Now they know what it is after them, and Kemala has a spear ready – two spears, he’s a good man who did not lose them in the water. He gives one to whoever’s at hand, and they attack the great beast as it shakes its foot free. However, the Urgaur shakes its head and hits the spears aside with its great horns.
You cannot help but watch in silent, fixed admiration, your own problems forgotten as you witness the bloody slaughter. Now the Urgaur turns its head up, men hold their ears as it seems to shout, and its horns disappear altogether as its color seems to tint redder and redder. Kemala is there, running in with his spear, charging at the heart, but then he is penetrated effortlessly, fatally by a horn – invisible, the horns of the gaur-beast are still upon its head, painted now in blood of the man stuck to them. It is no big thing for the bull to raise its head and shake the dying Kemala to and fro, scattering blood and viscera over his horrified friends.
Losing their fighting spirit, the men still left alive turn to escape. One catches the eye of the bull and falls down at the mere glance; blood spurts from his ears and eyes, pulsing. The three still alive are lost to the vision, as it seems content to hover over the shore and the broken bodies littering it.
You have no doubt whatsoever that the Urgaur sees you, its own sorcery not fooled by whatever Shalmali craft enables this far-viewing. The way it prances to the view and out of it, no doubt at all. How dare the Shalmali harness this beast, this vivacious… storm upon the reeds? They court disaster, or know no fear of hubris. The Urgaur sees specifically you, you realize, when its mouth twists into the highly unnatural grin you saw last night in the woods. It drinks blood, licks it from its muzzle, and you watch it do so. There is no sound to the phantasm, but the bull leaves you no doubt whatsoever; it is on its way to fulfill its promise.
Rolled a ‘4’
Monster dice: 1|5|3|3|1|4
Hero dice: 5|3|2|4|3|3|1
The Match ends – Monster’s score is 6.
Monster total: 17
Hero total: 21
Hero wins the Match.
The Climax begins.
The Hero has 6 Good Dice, equaling 3 Picks.
Choices that must be made:
- Achieve your Goal, to recover your inner peace – achieved by winning the Match.
- Avoid being injured or deprived by Pale Urgaur | Otherwise, Pale Urgaur hurts you severely.
- Kill, permanently imprison or transform Pale Urgaur | Otherwise Pale Urgaur continues unimpeded upon its path.
- Save Boikolo Rai from Shalmali viles | Otherwise he dies, or worse.
- Save Papak Vicente from Shalmali viles | Otherwise he dies, or worse.
- Preserve the Whistling Phou tribe from the Urgaur’s oath | Otherwise the tribe is destroyed with few survivors.
- Destroy this outpost of the Shalmali ill | Otherwise they continue prospering.
- Discover the truth of the Mayugita incursion and your lost time | Otherwise you will be left in the dark.
Whatever you do not pick, the contrary must happen.
- Fatal Choices 27.04.2016
The voice in my head penetrates the vision and brings me down to my senses.
“This vision is our chance. We can draw the acolytes in it for a while, pull their inexperienced wits to this dream. They can escape of course, but it takes a while and thus gives us a moment to move.”
My anxiety of the whole scene that just unfolded in my eyes makes it difficult to grasp his words.
“Can one enter to the vision physically?”
“No, but with blood as fuel one could manifest an idea of himself in physical form through the vision. Why?”
“I want to enter, I want to stop Pale from destroying the tribe.”
“This is folly. You abandoned them once already, why go back now? Do not falter, the hour is dark and our fate lies on the edge of a sandgrain.”
I am filled with a sudden, stubborn drive. For I saw men die horribly and in vain, better for us three to die than a whole tribe of life-filled people.
“Do it, if you wish to ever leave this place.”
The parasite falls silent. After a while he speaks.
“Very well, but there is a price to pay for what you now choose. I separate you now to two beings, one of here and now and the other that is still dreaming the dream. Draw your blood, quickly before the vision ends and our chance leaves us.”
Indeed I feel a vile cosmic pull that separates me in two. One mind controlling and seeing two realities, one of which I am completely engulfed in the vision of the Pale and other where I lie uncomfortably in a cage set in darkness and despair. The feeling is utterly alien, convulsive and unnatural. My mind recoils from it like a belly of a landlubber recoils of the open sea and it takes a while for me to regain my composure.
I have no blades so I bite the side of my arm, until the skin breaks. Warm blood fills my mouth, yet I can feel my lips, frothy with my own life-fluid, forming words on alien tongue. A sizzling sensation fills me, the blood I just spilt flows into nothingness. Matter pulled out of this existence to serve as fuel of the incantation.
“A total transformation, from blood to power. A potent substance indeed.”
The parasite explains, this is a first. Yet I have no time to contemplate on the matter as the power is immediately released. I feel a shift in the alien duality of my being. Like a wind that pushes me towards the vision of Pale Urgaur.
I can feel the heat of the jungle, the smell of blood and loss of hope as I stand among the mangled corpses of the men I sent to their doom. I see clothes on me, pristine travel-garments and all my kestros underneath. I see the Urgaur, perhaps with a hint of surprise in its cursed red eyes. I adjust my clockwork and it hums and ticks. A feeling of familiarity rushes over me, it is so long ago when I could perform in the field of comfortability like this. My hand-blades come out effortlessly, oiled and clean and sharp as a teeth of Sear-Worm they are.
“You are not you, but the idea of you. Nonetheless the bull is still strong. I can’t help you here, but his filthy arts are limited as well. Go ahead and dance your dance, I have work to do.”
Scantly I can feel him acting in the other realm, where I am weak and thin. I see all the acolytes stop what they are doing. They stand motionless, their gaze pulled forcibly through the window to another existence. But the bull fills my attention and I focus where I matter.
It tries to yell me down, and then stare. I feel the heat of his dark intent on me, but it just brushes off. A smile forces itself out of me as I feel the ticks of the clock.
— Man-Thing Two-Heart! Now one, but distant. Kill you now – eh? Abomination – not back to this world! Trees over Sand, Life over Death!
It comes charging powerfully, head down, blood-dripping from the horns of murder. It sweeps left and right trying to catch me. But he is a bull and I am a killer of hundreds. I duck under a huge horn and stab with my left. A tentative sting it is as my blade rips through his white hide and travels a bit in his massive shoulder. I pull back from the counter-sweep and jump farther with aid of my springwork. His dark blood flows from the wound I have given and it shakes its massive head, fixing those eyes again on me. Maddened they are, perhaps realizing my power and his impotency in this field we now meet in.
Yet it will not stop and the dance repeats itself with it charging and me sticking it time and time again. The massive flanks of the beast now gleam red. A foam spurts out of its pores as it breaths heavier and heavier.
My next stab hits the mark of the Shalmali and the bull bellows for the first time. A shout of agony and despair. There is no counter-sweep anymore, the mythic animal is tired out of such maneuvers. The massive front legs give out and it falls, its rear still high in the air yet horns now harmlessly near the ground. Its fate now rests under my will.
I act on an instinct. The hand-blade cuts mercilessly through the hide around the mark of the Shalmali, until I rip the heap of gory hide cleanly off from its flesh. Pale yells like an animal put to slaughter, yet lower and with more resonance. The ground seems to tremble beneath its agony. Blood spurts from the horrible wound.
I ready my hand-blade to thrust through the vile heart, yet my hand stops. I get a glimpse of difference in its weary gaze. Between heavy breaths the animal gibbers.
— Man-Thing One-Heart! You set me free but step in trap! Can’t you see?
My focus shifts a bit and I sense the other reality of my being as well. And there I am like a puppet now, a passenger on a ride without control to my body. Just a simple observer of senses.
I sense the murder as I seem to have broken the cage and now stand outside. One by one I approach the dreaming acolytes and thrust with my hand-blades. The dark one in me stabs every acolyte thrice, first through the heart, then through the brains and finally through the lower belly. One by one he downs all as a murderous automaton until they all lie motioness in the dark. A sight of me reveals a naked, gory figure that faintly resembles a human being. Perhaps rightly so.
I feel the cold presence of my parasite strengthen ten-fold. Blood is indeed power.
He turns me so I can look at the cage that still holds Rai and Papak, dreaming their skull-induced nightmares. One side of the cage is broken, perhaps I have kicked it once the acolytes fell to slumber.
“There is a price to pay,” he shouts in my thoughts and I feel his contentment.
“I am ready to come back now,” I say from the realm of the jungle.
“No need, you can stay there. I no longer need you here to accomplish my task. I can guide your body as I see fit.”
He leaves the room, leaves Papak and Rai. I feel his cold laughter in my innards as I am stuck in the jungle with Pale.
Choices manifest on this turn:
- Avoid being injured or deprived by Pale Urgaur
- I transform Pale Urgaur, free him from the hands of the Shalmali, literally cut the Shalmali brand from his hide.
- Preserve the Whistling Phou tribe from the Urgaur’s Oath
From these picks follows that:
- Rai and Papak are to be destroyed
- The outpost of the Shalmali stays
- The truth of the Mayugita incursion and my lost time are left hanging in the air
- Ride the Tiger 28.04.2016
— Man-Thing, Man-Thing, lost… trapped… The Urgaur seems to be at loss for words. Its muzzle vibrates in frustration as it scrambles to its feet and shakes, evidently unable to phrase itself with mere mimicry. Then it turns its eyes upon you.
Gear-Man, it is no Shalmali craft upon your soul. Death Chief spirit curse yokes you heavily. A true Puppet you are, lost to your own self. An ancient evil awakened, brought here from distant shores. Death Chiefs are long extinct, and well that is for the sake of the world; they are Masters of the Wheel, ever-grinding, leeching the life from every animal imitant, every clan flower to fuel their ever-egoistic toil. Yours is an allegiance of a fool, dooming the world in short-sighted profit.
Your ire rises at the oh-so-smart bull tottering there when the blanking of your other set of eyes attracts your attention. By focusing on your real body, you manage to see as if through a veil… the Magus has closed his eyes, you think at first, but then realize that he must have taken your body into the dark places of the temple. A ghostly sting to your shin confirms it as he stumbles on a stair in his haste, evidently intent on going somewhere. You can feel his frustration as he finally calls a pale witch-light of his own to light his way.
Then you are entranced by the sight of the ancient walls of the Shalmali temple, obfuscated to your sight earlier by the darkness. The stairway you are climbing is a narrow spiral ever upwards, and while the stairs themselves are covered in dense, greenish fur, the walls are ornamented by an ever-changing, carved mural of seemingly chaotic faces and limbs set in stone. Faces with eyes that blink in the light, and mouths that seem to be muttering, though you seem to hear no noises whatsoever from the other side. It is a shocking sight so suddenly, after the covering darkness.
Just as the Magus seems to stop climbing (perhaps in reaction to the sudden noise?), you can see movement at the edge of your vision, some sort of a silvery shape in the ceiling, moving. Just as you are about to shout warning, the Magus focuses upon it – a formless slime with reflecting sheen, sticking to the ceiling yet pooling so as to drop and stretch towards you. You can sense a hint of panic in the Magus as the light blinks out and he scampers down the stairs blind.
— Perhaps those corridors are kept dark for a reason, you mutter with twisted satisfaction before turning your attention back to here and now. You need to get back to your body soon, if for no other reason then because the Magus is likely to get you killed by underestimating the Shalmali one time too many.
Pale Urgaur is now on its feet, walking around – or limping, rather, in a pathetic little clockwise circle. Its bleeding has ceased, you notice, though the flesh of its flank is strikingly pink in the morning sunlight, pink and raw; it will surely suppurate in time, yet for now the unnatural vigour of the animal seems to be sustaining it. You spot a slim strand of flesh stringing away from the flayed flank of the beast, but it takes you a moment to figure out how it still anchors the gaur to the slough of its Shalmali shame. An ever-so-thin filament glistening in the morning air, yet the bull seems unable or unwilling to cut it off.
You step up to the gaur decisively as it rounds away from you, and grab at the string so as to yank it off. It burns, like acid! The bull grunts in evident pain. Realizing that this is the bleed-through, the pin of the Shalmali power glyph (for such things are not entirely unfamiliar to you), you disregard the pain and drag at it with two hands. Finally, with a wet slurp the string gives way, coming out of the flank in a gust of black blood, a nameless organ attached to its end.
— Thank, thank Man-Thing, the bull intones in a low voice and falls down once more. — Death, eh, right fit.
— No death for you today, bull, you avert standing above it, confident as Draag in his lair. — You seem to have some credit with the dhole-tribe, who have impressed me favourably with their common sense. Perhaps you shall find succour with them for your wounds still, or justice for their slain.
— No, no, eh… again the gaur is forced to mind-speech:
A fool once caught remains fool no longer, Gear-Man. As the old wisdom of the life-spirit harmony befits, a good turn deserves another, and therefore am I bound to help you against the Death Chiefs and Shalmali both. I shall carry you back to the Shalmali longhouse by the shortway stomp, and get you there in time to stop your true body from being thrown upon the pyres of sand and flame.
Thinking about the offer, you shrug; not like you have many choices, considering how uncertain you even are about your location in the marshy jungle. As the bull climbs up again with more spring than before, you take hold of its left flank to climb up, avoiding the raw flank as best you can. You’re pretty sure that you’ve seen its best tricks, and though it has seen yours as well, you’re still feeling fine after your recent clash. You actually turn to lock off the clock-tick, confident in yourself should the bull betray you; odds are you’ll need to draw on the mainspring later on without bleeding its strength now. Weird, how your “ideal self” has a fully tense mainspring, like you’d just winded it in a smithery yourself. It’ll suffice to quick-cock your kestros as needs dictate, draw your own weight up multiple stories in the blink of an eye, or simply slice you in two outright, should the amalgam frame break in combat and free up the stored force all at once.
We shall approach from the south, atop cliffbreak Lamorak. Descend from the above is the only way, with the Shalmali alert and us with no wards against them. Downstream shall I run, where the true jungle grows, to scale the heights the long way.
How wonderful. Hugging the massive neck of the beast you hold on as it starts walking in the shallow water, swaying but little. Not particularly fast for its boast, but at least the bull knows where it is going.
“You should save yourself the trip, Puppet. I have things well under control here, the difficulties are merely… temporary. There is no sign of true Shalmali here, mere twitching of things long dead and gone. We shall ensure that things remain thus, your corpus and my intellect.”
- The Shortway Stomp 29.04.2016
The bull jerks and shudders, I guess it can sense my parasite speaking and the thing is ensured when it answers in mind-speech.
Death Chief begone. I know the kinds of you. Long in the past I can see, to a time when my kin roamed this land in great numbers. Shalmali were our kin too, growing things, not killing. But they fought you and for it they started to grow sideways and rotten. Like a tree strangled by black vines. Better if all of you are gone. I cut you off.
The sounds and feelings of my parasite suddenly diminish, as if taken away by a strong current. I am alone with my own feelings and thoughts and the strangeness of the feeling is like a slap against my face. I understand that I have accustomed to my nasty passenger subconsciously even when I didn’t yet know he existed at all.
Death Chief can’t listen to us anymore and neither can you of him. This way, he doesn’t know where and when you are coming. We go now. You hold on to my neck and hold still. We take the shortway stomp, we walk the spirit path, the elder path. I see the stomp of forefathers – of the Peace-Time when men were nowhere to be found. Hold on, Gear-Man.
I look around curiously, instinctively grasping strongly as the bull advised. At first there doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. The beast continues its slow gait one step at a time. Then I hear it, a sound of something walking in shallow water. I look around to find the source, but there is nothing I can see.
A spirit bull, one of many. That is the first that is. In the jungle there are more.
The sound strengthens. At first it is not in harmony with the gait of Pale, but it adjusts and then I just hear one slowish gait, except a bit louder. The feeling of dizziness overwhelms me. As I look down, I can see Pale Urgaur walk on normally, yet further the world seems to go by quicker. My experiences can’t keep up with the alien imagery, making me feel it down my guts … even if imaginary.
We quickly pass from Shalmali shadow forest to familiar swampy bushlands. There at least three distinct sounds connect with ours. Now the sound of the forward-lolling bull is painfully loud to my ears and I find it difficult not to put my hands on my ears.
No let go, Gear-Man, if you fall, you get lost in the long memories of the Bull-Folk. Your ears hurt, but they do not break.
As it speaks, we already go on with a wild speed southward. The land rises a bit and the bushland gives away to a majestic forest, that grows wild on ground as well as high, where tall trees reach for the skies.
This is Spirit-Home. Here many will join.
True enough the sounds of walking bulls trip over each other in my head, until the sound thunders in my head like a thousand storms. If earlier I saw the passing jungle, even if feeling dizzy, now the forest around me is a blur I instinctively fear to look at. I close my eyes and lie against the hulking mass, focusing on the movements of the animal beneath me. I hang on to the beacon of flesh in a storm of the unreal. The stench of the beast is strong, blood, earth, dung and musk reek of power, earthy and raw.
I snap awake like from a slumber as Pale Urgaur stops. World has settled again, and I can no longer hear sounds of animals, ancient or modern. Instead, I can feel the open wind on my face, something that I haven’t felt on weeks.
Surrounding me is a breathtaking scenery that opens from the cliffbreak Lamorak. The border of Shalmali forest and the bushland can be clearly seen from high. It is morning again, I suddenly realize, as the first rays of the sun warm my face and give me a blink of hope for the future, however dim and useless it may be.
Pale snorts and I turn towards the now docile animal. It feels strange having witnessed its murderous power and ill intent, that now it seems to be my ally, at least for the time being.
Gear-Man you must lower yourself from the cliffbreak if you can. Longhouse lies down there, many paces down. I wait ’till the sunset. Call for me and I will come to get you, but inside the longhouse I will not come. Call for me too late and you will never see me again. Hurry, as my Ward will soon wear off and then the Death Chief can see you. Strike fast with no mercy.
I simply nod and step to the edge. The rockface feels oddly porous and for a moment I am afraid that it might break, taking me with it down to a rocky grave. The cliff drops straight downwards and vanishes somewhere inward, leaving the peak hanging ledge-like in the heights.
Long way down I can see the ziggurat, it lies dead center down from the cliffbreak, creating an eerie feeling of connection between the two. My fingers run around my imaginary garments and naturally I can find a length of rope from them. And not just of any rope, but a silk made by the Spider-Wenches of Koralian. It would support the bull, if it happened to suddenly grow a pair of arms and legs and start climbing downwards with it.
I tie the end of the rope on a protruding edge on the rockface and turn once more to look at the bull. It just stands there silently, watching me with keen, reddish eyes. Contemplation comes without warning, as I suddenly realize that even though my vile passenger is blocked from my mind, my thoughts do not feel the same as they did before I touched the dark crystal. Maybe my life before this was just a dream, a mad hallucination of dead witches of wood and sand. A sudden home-sickness touches me. What would I not give now to be in the Great Bazars of the Scarlet? To be touched by the myriad of sounds and smells. To drink a fine wine on some of the busy taverns and winehouses with terraces towards the open markets. Even if I get there someday, it will never be the same again.
I push down the conflicted thoughts and prepare to climb down. The task will be arduous, even for a man of my talent, both real and the imaginary that came with this cursed Magi-reality.
- Derak Descents 02.05.2016
The descend is routine for you, Derak, it’s just twenty times higher than you’ve ever rappelled. You prepare two running knots carefully to control the rope, but the real work will be done by the leather padding sewed to your shirt’s left shoulder for this exact purpose: after you wrap the rope around yourself and begin the descent, most of the running rope’s tension will drag upon your shoulder, helping keep the rope under control. Should your control of the descent waver, the padding will help you arrest the fall without cutting yourself on the thin rope.
The journey down is a simple matter once you are satisfied with the arrangements, mostly you merely need to make sure the rope runs slow enough for you to maintain control. The moment of descent is still a thrill as you first drop your weight on the rope and feel it settle against the stone. The protrusion of the cliff-face forces you to hang freely in the air for the first dozen paces of the descend, too, before the almost imperceptible slope of the cliff allows you to gain a reassuring contact with the massive wall of stone. Looking below, it will accompany you down for the most part.
Below you the great Shalmali ziggurat lies in the light of the rising sun, revealing its natural brownish colour. It is likely the only time of the day for sun to fall upon the wretched place, the way it cuddles the great escarpment. From the above the monument looks square, with the ascend ramp you climbed last night protruding like the idea of a limb from the geometric shape. A number of slim arches rise from the monument further still, arcing upon the cliff-face from the top of the ziggurat; while numerous arcs connect to the cliff lower down, a few reach with impossible ambition towards the heights, reaching maybe halfway to the top.
In your determined descend you soon come close enough to take a better look at one of these arcs; not the highest-most one, as that one leans far to the left, but the second-most ambitious one, which terminates in the cliff-face very close to your line of descend. The material of the arc seems uniformly brown and innocuous, but its geometry is utterly impossible, rise as it does in a fluid arc about two hundred paces high. All the more so when you realize that the slim construction is an ever-so slender stairway, ascending in hundreds of steps from the walls of the ziggurat to an opening in the cliff-face itself. With a bannister on only one side, and narrow as it is, the stair seems utterly impracticable to any mindset but the most death-defying.
You cannot really see much of the cave the slim stair-arc terminates in, but the stair itself is certainly tempting; the rappel is a constant tension on your right hand that controls the rope, and descending stairs, even ones as notional as these, would still be easier; you have already rappelled much farther than ever before, and the sheer length of the rope makes even a simple descent precarious. It would not take much effort to drag yourself sideways a little so as to land upon the stair, as long as you act soon enough – you’d manage it mostly by walking against the cliff-side, the way the slope is here.
Deciding to take the chance, you stop the rope running through your fist and use your free hand to loop it one more time around your shoulder, securing it, before trying to move sideways upon the cliff-face. The maneuver soon proves feasible, largely thanks to the long length of the rope, meaning that ten paces sideways amounts to negligible sideways pull on you. Grateful for the break from the dangerous descent you lower yourself to gingerly try out the stair. You don’t let go of the rope’s tension before checking the cave, but doing that from above, with your anchor point over two hundred paces up, is just a tad too much acrobatics in your current circumstances!
As it happens, the cave seems safe – it opens chill and damp and deep, a place of eternal darkness even with the morning sun slanting upon Lamorak. At first the cave seems empty, but there’s movement inside, and you spot its denizens. Naked, dirty people looking at you dumb, at least half a dozen and probably more deeper in. A citizen of Serene Scarlet could hardly mistake the haunted eyes of a slave, the universal victimization of the weak by the strong. They evidently see you, unreal astral projection or not, and you see the whites of their eyes in the darkness.
Slowly letting go of the rope you stare at the cave-dwellers, daring them to come forth if they would. Your clothes are probably entirely alien to them, what with the body-fitting satins and the looser outerwear on top, covering your instruments. You fix your loose scarf (just the way you would wear it in the City – is this your true self?) to show your face, but as there is no immediate reaction from the slaves, you shrug and turn to descend the stairs. Time is ticking and even if there aren’t any more Shalmali down below, you still have to face your Mayugita tormentor.
Of course the hope that the Shalmali would all have been victimized by the Magus proves fleeting; you spot the guard almost immediately, down where the stair terminates halfway up the ziggurat. There are several on the terrace of the ziggurat, it seems, probably to control the multiple stairways all terminating here. You hurry down, one hand on the rail, barely noting the hazard as the flimsy stairway sways under your weight. It does not shatter under the load, however, whatever the secret of its construction.
The lone guardian is perhaps not an acolyte, for he is dressed in little but a belt that covers even less than the loincloths of the whistling phou; it is easy to see the mark of the Shalmali upon his naked chest, cruelly drawn. Seeing your descend he grabs a spear and shouts something, but as you continue unimpeded and the man gets a good look at you, you can easily see the moment he changes his mind – the point of the spears comes down and before you begin to formulate an attack, the man turns on his heels and starts running for his companions further out on the terrace.
Finally stepping foot to firm ground, two important details draw your attention: the more mundane one is the fact that there are half a dozen Shalmali guards quickly congregating together at some distance, likely debating what to do about your sudden and surprising appearance. The more curious circumstance is the lack of any sign of the bristles that covered the ziggurat last night. The mystery is solved as you observe the side of the structure that falls into the shadow of Lamorak, still covered here and there by the purple, greenish tint and patches of the tendrils. They disappear in the sunlight! Lucky for you, as without the Syncopatic Ward of your fickle benefactor it is not quite evident how Derak the assassin would handle this primal Shalmali defense.
Then again, we might soon get to witness the answer, considering the course of the sun: it will not take long for the south-seeking daylight to trek beyond the escarpments of Lamorak, plunging the Shalmali temple into the stark shadows it enjoys for the length of the long day.
- Battle on the Ledge 05.05.2016
The realization of my problem quickens my imaginary heartbeat. I wonder for a moment what happens to my real self if I happen to die here, be it in the flesh-searing clutch of the bristles or by the spears of those wretched guards.
I won’t stay and find out but rather move to intercept the spearmen. The ledge on which we move is narrow, giving the guards both an advantage and a hindrance at the same time. On the other hand, I have a limited space to dodge and maneuver around their attacks, but they can’t use their superior numbers for full advantage.
I employ a tactic of the Bull, a famous gladiator in the Scarlet. This means intercepting and redirecting the attacks of your opponent, while standing yourself precisely in the centerline for maximal deployment of power. This is a risky way to fight, as your timing has to be perfect to pull it off. Luckily I learnt it before Bull himself failed in utilizing his technique.
The first three of the guards just enter with a swift stab, enabling me to deflect and counter with bloody effectiveness. Two guards after them are more cautious. I take my time luring them to attack, to commit their weight behind the thrust so I can effectively glance it sideways. “Sharp-edged triangle” as we called it, me and Papak when we trained it. The idea is that you stand in the center of an imaginary triangle, pointing the tip towards the enemy. When his attacks come towards you, you learn to deflect them by not pushing them off, but rather making them pass you, allowing them to travel along the sides of your imaginary triangle. If the enemy committed himself while doing so, he is now out of center, out of balance and finishing him off is just a matter of basic killing technique.
Finally the two succumb under my skill, not at all to soon as I can hear a faint humming noise behind me. The border of the shadow is slowly creeping towards me and so are the bristles. I stumble forwards as two more guards emerge from the hole in the ziggurat. Now I am back in the safe again, but the shadow still lurks all the time nearer.
These guards carry large, leather-covered shields with their spears. “A sensible move,” I am forced to think as they employ their tactic against mine: they do not try to kill me with their spears, rather they push me with their shields. While a daring move in this precarious ziggurat ledge, they do not fall and inch by inch they force me backwards towards the shadow and bristles that are awaiting.
Bull-tactic ceases to work in here, as they do not commit and large blocky shield cannot be deflected by refined parries of blades. Luckily my imaginary self carries a lot of equipment with him. While defending, I pick a small clay bottle from my body-bag. My eyes stay fixed in my enemies, I know the exact order of things that my bag holds in all its compartments. I throw the thing forward, causing them to momentarily follow its high trajectory. I am in luck as it lands just behind them in the ground, rather than falling on lower or higher levels. The dry clay immediately cracks open. I cover my nose and mouth with my sleeve, something that my enemies can’t do as they are next to being naked. I also step backwards, closer to the border of the shadow. A difficult move for the bristles are there, waiting.
Out from the cracks of the bottle bursts a fine, whiteish powder, like a baker’s flour, but when it reaches the eyes and skin of my assailants, they let out a hoarse cry. Dropping the shields and spears they cover their eyes, start to cough and stumble away from the cloud. Unfortunately for them, their eyes are filled with tears, leaving them blind and between the cloud and me. I rid the world of their presence, and momentarily think that perhaps this is a release for them as well.
With no guards to stop me now, I hurry forward, as fast as I can towards the peak. The Ziggurat awaits with its deadly secrets, Papak and Rai as well. I do not yet feel the presence of my parasite. Now that I know how it feels to be absent of him, I can easily tell the difference if I do.
- Espy the Capstone 09.05.2016
An entrance into the forbidding depths of the ziggurat might be found on a lower terrace, or by running around to the other side of the imposing structure – but Derak, you have not the time, not when more servants or slaves of the vile doctrine are likely as not to spot you at any moment. Looking around, you realize that up is the only option; the one thing you know is that wherever the mayugita is with your body, it is seeking to go up as well.
You are more than halfway up the Shalmali step-pyramid here, the top (and the mysterious glint of the apex) nearly out of sight due to how narrow the terrace ledges are here on the side of the structure. Experience tells you that it is not a trivial climb, even if it is not nearly as impossible as perspective would suggest; things always seem higher than they are from immediately below.
Any other man would need climbing spurs or some such aid to scale the heights of the next terrace fifteen feet up, but the Cat’s still feeling limber: you push one of the bodies of the guards down from the edge and enjoy a running start before you pounce up to reach for the edge. The jumping springs in your boots are activated by dislodging the step-latch forming the forward part of the sole with a sharp tug against the ground, causing the entire boot to slip forward as the spring releases. For best results you hop up, come down in a crouch and then leap up feet together to add your own power to that of the spring. The result suffices easily to let you take hold of the next step and hoist yourself up an entire storey of the ziggurat.
As you reload your boots to repeat the feat for the next step – no less imposing than the last – you remark once again how weird the building material of the Shalmali ziggurat is. You would expect stone or brick, but the polish of it, and the grain, reminds you more of finely-worked, hard wood. Most disconcerting is how the brown material sweats in the sun, making it treacherously slippery to your fingers as you try for a hold on the next step. At this point it would be no surprise to you if the entire building was alive in some great feat of the Shalmali craft, although your imagination shies away from trying to imagine the unnatural splicing of the animate with the torpid and lifeless required for such a chimaera.
Two more great leaps suffice for you to get up to the flat top of the entire pyramid. The exertion is starting to get to you, and it seems that even your ideal self will sweat profusely in the merciless jungle sun. Better sweat than shade, though, when you look down at the lower heights of the ziggurat; the angle of the sun on the great escarpments of Lamorak is acute, and the expanding shade has already started to engulf the level you started from. If the tentacular bristles covering the structure emerge in step with the shadow, they will soon have the bodies you left behind to play with. Not that you intend to stay and watch what they’ll make of it.
Turning to face the platform at the top of the pyramid, you realize that it is built to scale with the inner shrine you witnessed earlier, the “womb of darkness” as the mage called it. The rectangular shape is the same, as are the self-like promontories and the central recession. The only exception is that where there was a dark pool in the center of the inner platform, here the center is dominated by a kind of a blocky shrine, and the shrine in turn by the unashamedly phallic column elevating the Dark Crystal to rise above everything else!
Aside from the rough-hewn column, the shrine itself stands in stark contrast with the simple yet monumental build of the ziggurat, being of a fine pale color and inscribed with all manner of decorative shapes. You slowly walk closer, trying to make out anything familiar in it, but the fluid shapes and patient filigree of it are ultimately unfamiliar to you, resembling no style of art common in the Scarlet City. It is laden with significance, you are certain, yet little of it penetrates the gulf of history between your peoples. From what you’ve seen, this may be a good thing.
Nevertheless, the Dark Crystal… you shy away from looking at it at first, preferring to survey even the sky rather than gazing directly upon the object that ruled your desires for so long. Why did you even wish to gaze upon it, to shatter it? Was it merely that it was the last thing you remembered from before the incident, or was it the magus, embedding a mesmeric compulsion upon you? Mustering your courage, you gaze upon the crystal… it is larger than you remembered, almost a pace long and wide as your leg… gleaming from numberless facets in the sunlight, but still just a jewel for all that. For a moment you can remember holding its like in your hands, screwing it into a workbench, acidic fluids running in droplets down its glassy surface, but then the fog of memory relapses and you are left with but the memory of a memory, if that. Perhaps mere fancy in lieu of memories locked away by the Magus.
Shuddering you turn away from the dark crystal, only to notice a stairway on the side, partly hidden by the edge of the recession in which the monolith shrine lays. It seems to lead down into the depths of the ziggurat. For some strange reason you feel fascinated by the dark swath of it, compelled even by your gut. A foreboding descends upon you as you carefully drop down into the recess. Not sure whether you should approach or escape, you nevertheless immediately notice it as the shape of a man steps into view, holding a hand to his eyes to shield them from the bright morning sun. It is, of course, your alter ego – naked, covered in blood, gripping on to a single punch-knife, the very image of Derak the Easterner lied bare in his bloody sport.
You startle into action at his sudden appearance, but it is easy to see that the distance is far too much for you to get the jump on him. The Magus seems to not notice you at first for just a moment, though, and when he does you are already running for him, and he steps back a step in total surprise. But then a grin creeps to his face, and the left hand, free of the knife, rises in a strange gesture. You stop at that, as much out of caution as because the eye contact seems to have broken what protection you had from his mind before.
“Well, Puppet – I did not expect the bull to hide you like that. I assume it spirited you here as well. For what, though? I admit that the Shalmali are just as tricky as ever, but in sheer power these latter-day pretenders are hardly any match for me. It would have been easier with your primitive reflexes, Puppet, but I managed well enough, and now there is hardly a priesthood down there to contest the morphic stamen with us.”
It is somehow even more consterning to hear the mage’s voice in your head when he stands right before you, especially as it is not him but you standing there, and your mind seems to be getting occasional flashes of vision from his eyes (your eyes) now that you are again connected. The Magus seems absolutely confident, confident enough to actually step forward and out of the stairway; you reflect him step by step, keeping the distance constant, uncertain about what you will need to do to regain control of yourself. The mage does not seem to be doing anything as far as you can perceive, but at this point it is clear that you have never fought a mystic of this caliber; there probably are none, not in Scarlet and not in the entire Kerabine valley, so there is little you can do to guess at his viles. Worst of all (and this you hardly dare to think, overriding the thought with sharp discipline as soon as it surfaces), the Magus has been able to read your mind as he likes, which may mean that the only thing keeping you alive is your continuing indecision about attacking him.
— I have made my peace with the Pale Urgaur, you explain to your mirror image, shifting balance from one foot to another. — It sent me back here to get my body back.
“No need to be so reserved, Puppet; surely you know by now that your mind is an open book to me. You hate me, and wish to be rid of me almost as much as you loathe the Shalmali. There is a difference, however, for the Shalmali are the enemy, while I am your employer, whether you know it or not. Is not one job as like any other for the Puppet of Scarlet, a name feared in all the cities of the valley and the great gulf?
“We shall destroy this dark crystal, as we did the last one, and you shall be well rewarded for your services. There shall be little reason for complaint, for I understand the kind of man Derak the Puppet is well, through and through.”
— You fear not, then to refuse me my body? Even as you reassure me like a child?
“You are a child, Puppet – an useful one, but do not kid yourself. A fading ideogram is hardly a threat to my higher-dimensional presence, and your will is, as we well know, the weaker. It is best if you get used to it; our partnership is going to last a long while, and take you to places people of this benighted era can hardly dream about.”
- The Crystal 10.05.2016
For a moment his offer tempts me. Something in my inner self yields to the seduction he is presenting. It would, no doubt, be true that he would take me to places, to see things and shape actions that are undreamed of in this age. The Derak that I was, as far as I can remember, would surely take the offer that he presented without a great hesitation.
But that Derak was not touched by the unbearable mind of this eldritch horror. He didn’t have a grasp of humanity I now have. Meeting the mayugita again rises in me an ever-elusive truth, no matter it being based on intuition alone: I am a conscious human being because of him. His presence is like a poison, where having a morality is the antidote. It is like an underlying reaction, or wisdom passed on through humanity through countless generations, a way to deal with the mayugita or perish. It fills me with a morbid calmness – if death is the only way, I will be ready to take him with me if I can.
My eyes wander to the dark crystal, my mind to its challenge. It is a great manifest of my troubles and I take a step towards it. The mayugita reacts immediately by stepping closer. Is there a hint of fear or surprise in my eyes that I see approaching with his vile intent?
“Do not touch it, Puppet. You are a creature of the imagination, consequences could be disastrous, counter to what we have been striving for.”
His tone has a hint of uncertainty in it. Is it possible, that he is not so sure of himself as he lets me believe? His weakness is my motivation so naturally I step forward. He makes a gesture and I stumble on a invisible wall, preventing me from moving forward.
“Come now, Puppet, don’t become a problem. It is easy enough to destroy you, leaving me alone in your body but I would prefer you with me in here. As you have seen, my will and your blades make a good combination.”
Our argument is halted by a sound of steps from the stairway. As we watch, both Rai and Papak walk up into the open air. Their step is monotonous and one can easily see from the glassy stare of their eyes and expressionless faces that they have been bewitched in some way.
They are followed by a tall man. His frame is gaunt, and thin beyond belief. The man is naked, save but a loincloth and his bony arms and feet are unnaturally long. This eerie aspect of him continues throughout, face is long, as are the protruding ears and nose. His mouth is but a blackish hole in the middle and all of his brown skin is covered with bark-like substance. I doubt my senses as I hear a faint creaking when he moves.
The mayugita takes a step backwards on his entrance and the men lock their eyes on each other. Rai and Papak both slouch immediately, like puppets that suddenly have their strings cut. For a moment, there is a perfect silence. Yet, one can feel the intense battle that is taking place in there, between the mayugita and the gaunt man of wood. There is an absence of gestures, words and effects of any kind. Intense stares and air filled with electricity of intent are the only clues of the match that is being fought in front of my eyes.
I act on a whim of the moment and take a quick step towards the shrine and the dark crystal. There is nobody to check my approach so a quick lunge follows the step carrying me next to the phallic structure and the huge, dark object of my nightmares. There it now lies, in neck-height, few feet away from me.
There is no ceremony to it, as I don’t know how long a time I have before the mayugita notices my intentions so I grab the jewel with both hands. The surface feels cool to touch, even though the sun is still scorching its surface. I pull gently and feel a slight, opposing force, as a faint magnet that tries to keep the jewel in place. I take a wider stance and pull with greater force and soon feel a snap, like a string or a root that gives away. I stumble backwards with the sudden release, clutching the thing in my arms.
The sensation is light at first. Like mental manifestation of bunch of bugs or spiders crawling upwards on my hands. But as I check, nothing is there. It soon gets stronger, transforms from a false sense of touch into feelings of an alien presence. Presence that is horribly familiar, yet foreign. It is accompanied by a hot, dusty wind that carries with it a faint scent of death and decay.
I am dual again, I am with Her now and my mortal mind trembles like a leaf severed from a tree. She is like him, but worse. Her waking soul handles my mind like a butcher handles a piece of meat. She invades my imaginary flesh eagerly, and with one thought that resonates in my head.
“I will never serve them again! Never!”
- Memory failure, best failure 13.05.2016
Suddenly things start happening very fast, indeed. She has you, but you are no stranger to the Mayugita spirits at this point; being faster is the key, being more focused. As you understand it, the incorporate magus has no brain but yours, no capability to reason and act without using you as the means. As long as you just keep deciding, acting… don’t let it black you out…
“This vessel is an aetheric reconstruct of a mortal body image?” The foreign, indignant thought enters your mind irresistibly, cleaving with sheer clarity that forces you to ignore any sense of your surroundings, anything that might distract the thinking. Before it can build into a train of thought, however, you drop to your knees on the hard roof, feeling the pain and dividing Her attention. You need to focus your mind, but there’s too much going on here, and Her presence is immense – it is like you can feel Her identity, memory in your mind, closed off to you but for the breath of polished order making up the form. Her thoughts are utterly pruned and precise, devoid of all intuition.
Your deed must have distracted the Magus, for you see the eldritch Shalmali tree-man start raising one arm, flaking bits of bark as he goes. It seems to take an eternity for the Magus to even notice the movement, but once he does, he lets go of your dagger and swiftly places his hands together, as if in prayer. The dagger does not drop, however – it seems to float and waver, only to start to twist and bubble in the air, deforming destructively as natural laws around it become inimical to shaped steel. As the tree-man elevates his outstretched hand towards the sun, and the other hand sideways perpendicular, a black dust or mist glittering with rainbow light scatters from the fingertips. Papak, so far catatonic and uncaring, swings himself up and howls soullessly, the Shalmali crest on his chest flaring and coiling as if to a heart-beat as he lopes to the largesse offered by his master.
The fascinating display of magical might distracts both you and Her for long moments, but then your attention – Her attention, actually – sways back to the dark crystal. You can feel your hands move against your volition, she deigns not to acknowledge you in any way. It is natural to resist, to set the rock of your will against the breath of her intent; your hands shake violently, soon your whole body convulses as muscles fight against each other. You fall to the ground, unable to hold yourself upright, unable to hold onto the dark crystal.
As you tumble around violently, unaware of what is happening around you, it is only a matter of time before you fall on your arm in an unfortunate angle, dislodging the delicate mechanisms of the kestros strapped to your arm. As the mechanized draw-sling is released suddenly from its moorings, the string rips your shirt with terrible force, and the loaded spring bursts from its casing, lashing up your arm, flaying skin as it goes. The pain is excruciating, for a moment you can do little but join Papak’s howling as your blood turns everything red. Your concentration is so affected by the pain, for you are human still, unlike Her. It is a moment of utter lack of concision.
What happened? Why is the skull-thing from the womb of darkness leering at you? It takes you a moment to realize that it is a memory, and a moment more to understand that you are not back in the womb. In fact, you are in bright sunlight, on honest stone, and your only memory of how you came to be here is that biter-damned skull leering. Why is it leering?
As the confusion subsides, you take careful account of yourself, moving your limbs discreetly: you are apparently back in your real body, as you have broken ribs suspiciously reminiscent of your encounter with the Pale Urgaur last night. A sheet of reeds lies atop you, shading you from the scorching noon sun; it obstructs your view, so you move it aside and sit up. You are back atop the great cliff Lamorak, with the sun in high noon. You are alone but for a strange man sitting nearby on a large rock, watching you.
This being one of the more confusing things to have ever happened to you, Derak, it takes you a moment to put your observations together. The man looking at you curiously is old, white-haired, yet wiry as hell, and sharp of the eye; evidently of local stock, he extrudes confidence in this bright summer day despite being practically naked in this wilderness. As you stare at him, he sets down the dark crystal he had evidently been examining. The man does, of course, have an elaborately wrapped bandage of wide jungle leaves covering much of his right side, tied into place with vines.
— Pale, I see you have decided to live, you croak at the shapeshifter shaman in Kihonite language. — What in… damned tit’s name happened?
— This old man rather hoped that you would be able to tell, Gear-Man, he answers fluently enough. — A keen whine was heard, and when the source was found to be over-cliff, Gear-Man was discovered tied to a kind of a rope harness, holding onto yon tool, dangling under the lip of the cliff. This old man dragged Gear-Man up and found him unconscious, and dressed in the reed-coat. The sleep did not last long.
You stand up, finding that though swaying, it is not too much for you. The reed-thing is indeed a coat of some kind, smashed in places as if by scratching cuts; otherwise you seem to have no clothes, and blood has dried upon you in a thin red sheen – whether you own or not, you cannot tell. The tool that Pale pointed out is, as you guessed, your bodybag attached to a specialized climbing reel; the mainspring pops out effortlessly from its oil bath in the acid-brick casing, you must have drained it thoroughly in a mechanized ascend of the cliff. Are these the sparse remnants of your original tools, or somehow still part of your imaginary kit? You cannot help but feel a sense of relief at handling the main-spring, anyway; out of everything in the panoply you’ve built as the Puppet, it and its casing are the only things you could not hope to replace with time and effort.
The examination is ultimately cut short by a burning thirst which seems to rob you of the rest of your strength as soon as you realize it. Limping further away from the edge of the cliff the shade of the occasional tree is easily found, but for water you have to depend on Pale, who seems amiable enough for now. As you sit and rest and drink off a weird gourd he must have found in the woods, a morose mood descends upon you; you may be whole for now, but you have no idea whatsoever what happened down there just now – it is just like your blackout in Scarlet, except now you know enough to be frightened. Examining your body by hand, there seems to be no mark of the Shalmali upon you. However, you cannot kid yourself about it – both the Shalmali and the Mayugita utterly outclass your knowledge of what is likely, or even possible; not only a poison or a curse, but the unimaginable are all possible in your crushing uncertainty. How do you even know that this is real? That you are actually yourself?
Pale seems to be able to read your mind, or at least your mood. — Do not be too hard on yourself, Gear-Man. Where the Death Chiefs ever consume, you have proven a stone-hard kernel of the alamatta seed, unwilling to be crushed and digested. As life yet continues, you may yet hope, heal and forget. Self-doubt helps not.
Unwilling to acknowledge the advice, you get back to your feet to collect what remains of your equipment. The reed coat will have to serve to shield you from the sun for now. Pale follows you to the cliff’s edge, evidently intent on continuing the conversation.
— The black crystal, Gear-Man; you clutched it coming up, yet it seems spent of whatever charm you hoped of it. I would advice you to throw it back, let the Shalmali have what belongs to them; ill fortune befalls those who trust in themselves against Shalmali lore, as this old man well knows.
Not having any reason to disagree, you nod tiredly while rigging a rope harness to help you carry your things. It may be a good idea to collect the rest of your rope from the cliff as well; not that anything human or inhuman could hope to climb the rope all the way to come after you without the aid of your climbing reel, but it is a good, light rope, and may yet see use on your long way home. However, as you move to untie the rope from its rock anchor, you notice that there is still a solid weight to it, aside from the negligible mass of the silk itself.
Curious, you start dragging whatever it is up. Testing the weight, you ask Pale to help, but it doesn’t take long for the two of you to realize that the sheer length of the rope may make the task not quite worth your while. However, crawling to the edge and peering down lights the fires of your premonition (or conscience, even); you have an ever-deepening fear that this is one load you should be willing to drag up, no matter how thirsty the work.
You finally hoist the load up with Pale’s patient, seemingly tireless help. Further aid from him enables you to drag the body at the end of the rope up to the cliff. It is, as you already knew, the lithe form of Boikolo Rai, strangled deep to his flesh by the thin silk looped around his neck. The old man turns away from the sight of the unnatural fracture of his wrist, and the look of utter despair in his eyes, the stink of his bowels, and the fresh Shalmali brand upon the boy’s chest. You would as well, but that you need to untangle the rope. Better you do it, for the hasty slip-knot is one of your own tying, beyond any doubt of your dexterous fingers.
- The Passing 13.05.2016
The sun is soon setting. I chose the burial place with Pale, but requested that I perform the ritual by myself. He instructed me well enough on the way as the death-ceremonies of the Dhole are simple affairs and practical.
Death is all-present, all-encompassing. The small frame of Rai is positioned in the shallow grave. He is in peace now, I keep saying to myself even though his features haven’t changed from the sight of horror he was before.
I throw the first mud on top of him. “Do not think of him. He is but flesh now gone,” Pale had said. “Dhole-man is but a dog. Think of yourself, what did he mean to you?” I think of how we sat together on my boat, he keenly intent on killing me and I confused. We were both, confused. It feels so long ago, yet it happened only few mad days ago.
I keep piling the mud on the dead boy. Sweat pours from my pores and he is slowly covered. I remember how he pushed himself to me, in all ways possible. His choice for a companion was poor indeed. Papak and Nother as well, even though I didn’t see Pale go, there is no way around it. I am a dangerous man to be with. When I was in Scarlet, it didn’t bother me, but lot has changed.
I am one now, or so I think at least. Still, the mayugita left his mark on me. It is just as restricting as the brand of Shalmali. I now am a servant of my own, awaken consciousness. Where shall it lead me, not even the wisest could tell.
Rai is covered, the sun slowly sets. I listen to the sounds of the nature, of the never-silenced, stubborn and lush life of the swamplands. I think of my inevitable return to the Scarlet. It will see the return of Derak Eastern-Born so I have decided, yet I will never see it the way I saw it before. It was an endless opportunity for new pleasures and new perilous tasks to unlock more exotic pleasures. But when I shall cross again the Vineyard Gate, I will arrive to a foreign city. What are the perils and pleasures for a man I am now? The City has taken many lives, and the ones it devours the easiest are the ones that have lost their way. Shall I, after all of this, become one of them.
I leave Rai behind, as the living have always left the dead. Some leave without a single thought for the one that has passed, others carry the burden as long as they live. I go somewhere in between, follow the faint glow of the Pale’s bonfire.
The death-ceremonies of the Dhole are simple affairs and practical, yet deep in their own way as I have found out.
I arrive and sit against the old man by the fire in silence. Finally, after a long while he speaks:
— Tomorrow I’ll take you to the borders of this land, Gear-Man. This concludes our bargains and we are both then without yoke. For your sake I hope you don’t need to come back. I shall do what I can, now freed. I will think of you, Gear-Man, when you travel in your man-made jungles. I hope you will find your way.
I thank with a nod, suddenly out of words. I feel cowardly content that he is not taking me back to the dhole-village. Certainly he can settle things with the tribe better than I ever can. There are no more words that night.
The sounds of the swampland night mix into my restless sleep. I shall go, and see what tomorrow brings.
- Derak East-Born 14.05.2016
The episode ends.
I add a new location: “The Scarlet City, where death lurks amidst the flamboyant”
You add a new location: “The plains dotted by the crumbling towers of the Magocracy”
The pen shall sit still, until called forth again.