I finally managed to get an explanation out of Inifra today, though I’m sure there is more under the surface of what we discussed. She said that she will continue with us until we have found Salisir, because we have proven ourselves friends of her people and enemies of her enemies. She said that if there is a dark threat growing on the horizon in the form of Demons and Daemons, then she cannot afford to turn a blind eye.
I asked her if she had known Salisir. She seemed familiar with him the last time we saw her before the Akari Grasslands. She shook her head silently. Eventually she said that she had never known him herself, but her most recent predecessor had. Finding out what happened to Salisir was another reason to remain with us.
Again, I felt a misplaced pang of jealousy. Clearly she couldn’t mean that she loved Salisir? And even if she did, who am I to stand in the way of that? Why should I feel jealous for the affections of a woman who doesn’t even appreciate my presence?
She says that there are no tributaries near us, but once we reach one she will be able to travel ahead and gather information. In the meantime, she has started asking me to consider fighting the KoraKora directly. She resumed her argument that while my calling as a Tetrarch might be noble, it served little purpose if there was no peace already established.
What good is saving the world, she asked, if the world you’re saving has fallen into chaos on its own?
But she has it all backwards. That’s what I’m trying to get her to see. The power we contend with is more powerful than entire armies of KoraKora. If I fail in my calling, then no amount of good deeds or high service will help the people who are left. If one of the Demons ascends unopposed, it will destroy everything.
I agreed that the KoraKora are heinous to their very core, it would give me no small pleasure to kill them all outright, but I cannot be distracted by them when we could be on the verge of an ascension and not even know it. I have to find out what happened to Salisir. I must discover what he discovered and make my decisions from there.
Perhaps, if there is no threat at the heart of the Nanten, we can be distracted by the plight of her people. But even then, what good could we expect to do in such a nightmarish place as this?
We found an abandoned village today, but before we could move on Inifra asked us to sit and wait. These empty villages we discover, she said, are not abandoned. When they hear strangers approaching, or one of the villagers sees us in advance, they scatter into the jungle to hide. She said that they will stay there for days if necessary.
Dionus asked why we should wait if they could be gone for days.
Inifra said that once they knew she was there, they would return.
She was right. Perhaps an hour later a few figures appeared in the shadows of the undergrowth that ringed the village. Inifra didn’t wait for them, but instead rose to her feet and walked out to meet them among the grand leaves and vines behind which they hid. Soon the entire village had returned. They remained silent around us, deferential.
Inifra looked like a mother among her children. Elegant, calm, and composed in a way that could only instill confidence in those around her. She truly is a high priestess at heart.
The villagers, however, were not worshippers of Infiri. She said that it didn’t matter. They respected her goddess and by extension they respected her as a holy woman. The small clearing where we sat was flooded with Nantese trying to get a look at Inifra. We’ve never seen a village so full. She sat on a log near the center as if it were a high-backed throne and began to address them.
She started by asking them whom it was that they feared in these parts. “Zorga.” The answer came back in a unanimous hush as all heads around us lowered. Who is Zorga, she asked. No one responded.
The silence persisted for a painful length of time. Finally a little girl approached Inifra, unafraid. Her hair was braided tight against the scalp in lines where it joined at the back of her head and erupted in a springy mess of curls. Inifra translated what she said for us.
“Zorga is evil.” The little girl was startlingly confident. “Zorga is a thief. Zorga is a murderer.”
Inifra asked the girl her name. “Timber,” said the little girl. “Will you kill Zorga for us?”
This horrified those who were close enough to hear. One of the women close by grabbed Timber by the arm and shushed her sternly until Inifra raised her hand for her to stop. She asked again who Zorga was.
Finally an elderly man stepped forward and slowly bowed himself until his head was level with Inifra’s lap. “Zorga,” she translated what he said. “Is the bandit king of the mountains. His stronghold is no great distance from here.”
Inifra asked him why they feared Zorga so. She had to ask much more sternly a second time before the old man would speak.
“Zorga is lord of these parts. Zorga takes what he will as tribute, and we pay it gladly.”
“That is a lie!” Timber shouted from behind the woman who had grabbed her. Inifra asked how it was a lie. “He is lord only because the KoraKora do not touch him. And what he takes we do not give freely, but lose at great cost!”
Again she was shushed, but Inifra immediately cut the women off. She gestured for the child to step forward. Her stewards reluctantly allowed her to. I admired the boldness of the child.
Inifra asked how it is that the KoraKora do not touch Zorga. Is he strong? Is he powerful? “No,” Timber said. “He is a fool.” This mortified the women nearby. Dionus started quietly making light of this to me which made it difficult not to laugh out loud at the old hags.
“He takes from us our young men to give to the KoraKora. Every village near the mountains loses its young men this way, and this is how Zorga keeps his place.”
Inifra asked where new young men come from if they are so frequently taken.
“He gives them to us,” Timber said as she lowered her gaze. Inifra translated for us before she realized what Timber was implying.
I could sense the Atmosphere respond to Inifra’s rage. Whatever power she commands was barely under her control for a moment, but it passed. When it had, she thanked Timber for her honesty, then told the assembled gathering that we would help them if they wished.
No one responded. No one even looked up, with the exception of Timber whose tearful eyes were locked on Inifra. Inifra simply nodded and rose, which seemed to be the cue for everyone to disperse as they pleased.
I told Inifra we didn’t have time to help them. We didn’t even know who this Zorga really was, or what forces he might command. Inifra shook her head at me as if disappointed. “Don’t you know that there is no one to help these people?”
I asked her how she expected us to be of any help. We had a mission already. We didn’t have time to hunt down bandits in mountains.
“You say Salisir has been gone twenty years,” she said. “What is a few more days? Look at how terrified they are. We cannot leave them like this. We will help.” And then she just walked away from me.
I was stunned. How does she always leave me speechless at moments when I have so much to say?
Balthandar saw this as our opportunity to leave, but Dionus seemed uncertain. “We should help them,” he said. “What kind of men are we if we leave them like this?”
To my own astonishment, I agreed. There is a chance that a Demon is close to ascension in the heart of the Nanten, and instead of taking up the hunt to find and stop it I have taken up residence in a tiny hut for the night. Tomorrow we strike out for these mountains and the bandits that live within them. They have no idea what punishment is coming for them.
Mountains. I haven’t seen mountains since we crossed the Blight Sea, and I doubt we will see any on this journey. Not that the maps of the Nanten we have been given have proven completely trustworthy, but I have seen no indications that there are mountains.
We’ve scarcely had to climb any hills in months, and now there are to be true peaks?
Whoever this bandit Zorga is, I already hate him. Not for the horrid wretch I’m sure he is, and not for the terrible things he has done. No, in a way it’s almost too easy to hate him for those things. Those feel cliché. I hate Zorga because suddenly I find myself on a detour from my only true mission.
I hate slogging through this jungle, and now I am slogging through it towards a goal that will not advance my own. The Nantese should learn to stand up for themselves. To fight.
I haven’t bothered talking to Inifra about it at all today as we marched. I would only manage to anger her with my own frustrations. And for some reason she has brought that girl Timber along with us, and as little as I may care, still, I don’t want to offend our little guest.
If nothing else we should manage a good fight. I’ll take that as the solitary consolation in deciding to follow Inifra into the mountains. I wish Starlark was here to join in. The old Starlark. He would love a little quest like this.
Timber spent the morning asking me an incessant string of questions about the Old Empire. Inifra acted as her interpreter. The two of them shared a good number of giggles that I didn’t understand. Women. Timber is quick to help around our camp, however, and is certainly clever.
She wanted to know about our buildings, so I told her how tall were the Temple Spires, and how grand the halls of the capital. I told her that there were no trails in the Old Empire, but broad roads paved with level stone. I told her that there were no huts, but mansions and castles raised from granite.
She found this all quite excessive, though for all I know her responses were somewhat tainted by their interpreter. Where were our wild places? How could we know the mother trees if we used them instead of respected them? Why would we want to wrap ourselves in dead stone and empty space?
Timber asked about the women of the Old Empire. Were they beautiful? Was their skin as pale as mine? How did they dress? How long did it take them to do their hair?
Ages, I responded to the last question. Timber and Inifra both giggled at that. “Men are the same everywhere,” they agreed.
I told her then of the Festival of Stars during the season of light, as it had so recently passed. How the women all wore things that glittered. They spent fortunes of time and money on preparing for the balls that would be held at its apex. Each of them walked the streets under the light of two full moons, glittering and glistening like galaxies on two feet.
I told her how they would dance with masked men, for no man’s face is deemed worthy of the light of the moons in the Old Empire. Timber liked that. She asked if our women were always held in such esteem. I told her that we believe women to be the highest creatures on earth.
Timber frowned at Inifra’s translation. She said women aren’t treated with respect for long anywhere. I asked her how she knew better than I how women were treated in my own country. She said that any man who wraps his words of women in flowers does so to keep them entangled in the stems. Then she moved away from us and walked on her own for a while.
What a strange girl. She is feisty, and wiser than the children of home at her age. Inifra said Timber was an orphan, and I asked her why she brought the girl along in the first place.
“There is more to the girl than meets the eye.” She said that priestesses were made at all ages, it was the maturity of the spirit within them that dictated when they were ready.
So she was to be a priestess to Infiri? I was more than a little shocked at the idea as Timber’s tribe didn’t even worship Infiri.
“Service to the gods,” Inifra said, “Is service to the gods. This will be her test, and should she pass it she may continue with me until I have deemed her ready.”
As if women weren’t a breed altogether different, make them Nantese and they become complete enigmas.
Timber’s presence makes me miss Kantoo. While altogether different from the boy, she adds something to our party that only a child can. I’ve never taken children on any of my hunts, to do so would be deemed irresponsible back home.
In the Tetrarch we wouldn’t dream of allowing our young to enter the field until they had completed at least three years of the Scourge. Even then their involvement would be limited. But the children of the Nanten aren’t truly children, are they? With the constant threats, the lack of adults to care for them, and the specter of death looming in any number of forms, how could one expect them to be?
Children like this would have a lot in common with Salisir, though his own innocence was ruined later than theirs. How many of them harbor vengeful purposes like he did?
Kantoo certainly didn’t seem to wish revenge upon the KoraKora, but he was eager to help us escape them. Was that his own personal rebellion taking shape in our flight? They killed him for it in the end. I don’t believe in vengeance for its own sake, but why shouldn’t we return death and violence upon these monsters that plague entire regions?
Still, what good does such action serve? If the Nantese can’t learn to stand up for themselves, someone new will take the place of any evil we evict.
We should continue along the path upon which we were set. After this detour to find Zorga, we must focus on discovering what happened to Salisir.
Inifra seems wholly unconcerned with what we will find once we arrive at Zorga’s stronghold. If he has any strength in arms around him it seems prudent to me to begin asking questions. At the very least we should be scouting the area rather than walking heedlessly into it.
I asked Inifra why she was so confident and all she said was that the rains were coming. She said it with a knowing smirk, though what she knew she elected not to share.
It seems as though I have lost my voice in the matter. I feel compelled to follow Inifra. Somehow I trust her. Why I do is not so easy to pin down. Strangely I am at peace with this, though my anxieties surrounding our circumstances are ever present within me.
Still I find that I don’t doubt Inifra’s judgment in the same way that I don’t doubt my inability to influence it. I have become an observer to what can best be described as a force of nature. Whatever Inifra intends and whatever she will do are beyond me to control. She speaks of peace constantly. Of seeing the Nanten unified not under a government, or a religion, but a common desire for the good of each other.
As long as I follow Inifra, so will Balthandar and Dionus. I only hope this intuitive trust in her is not misplaced. If it is, I fear I will lose theirs in the process. Dionus seems far less concerned than Balthandar who does not see the wisdom in following Nantese where we should be leading them. Where I should be leading them. I am only beginning to understand the weight that Balthandar has placed upon me as he follows and protects.
Dionus for his part is steadily becoming himself again. He has been aloof since he has returned to us, constantly gazing off into the distance. His mind has often been elsewhere. Every passing day draws him to engage us more, however, and I feel confident that soon he will be fully present. I am simply glad that he is present at all.
If I am incapable of completing any other task within the Nanten, at the very least I will succeed at keeping these two men with me. They are the dearest friends I could possibly ask for in a world that would otherwise see me dead.
I couldn’t believe my eyes today, but there truly are mountains ahead. We came upon a lake, and there across from us they rose above the trees of the Nanten.
They aren’t the soaring peaks of the Northern Range, nor are they the broad giants of the Highridge Mountains, but they are taller than simple hills. With the exception of a few cliffs, they are covered in the same trees and undergrowth as the surrounding area. They appear like waves of green rising in the distance.
What’s more, we can see smoke rising from near their summit. It’s fascinating to observe such an obvious sign of life from a distance. Every other group of Nantese we have met so far has done everything they could to hide themselves.
Why are these not afraid? Should that cause us to fear them in turn?
Inifra is as confident as ever. She has almost taken on an arrogant posture. There is something she is looking forward to in this. Something she wants to prove. She said that the men we face do not hide themselves because they believe they are powerful. It also means that there is little likelihood that they have control of any magic.
Men who have magic in the Nanten, she said, hide it. Bantish, Prestorn, even Tarsh the ferryman, all of them hide their power. There are many who would use such men to their own ends, she said, and rumors circulate that the rest are killed. Only the most powerful dare make themselves known.
I haven’t told her this, but I understand better than she can imagine. I too hide my own power, and have done so since I was a child. Most expressionists in the Old Empire can reveal at least some of their ability and remain safe. I cannot. It is so ingrained in me to keep it a secret that I cannot even bring myself to write about it. Among our party, living or dead, only Dionus knows what I am.
Inifra cannot hide her power, she said, for it is the mark of her office and the proof of her station. She said that she is powerful enough to fear few within the Nanten. The men ahead of us will have strength of a more conventional sort.
Balthandar has stopped complaining about her, though he still doesn’t understand why I follower her so willingly. I think Dionus understands, however. He never questions it. He simply supports me in all things.
There are great changes that have been wrought in Dionus, and all of them appear to be good. He is never anxious. He is always calm, even calmer than Balthandar, and speaks with an even tone. Dionus is still light in his banter and as witty as I’ve ever known him, but the edge is gone. There is never a subtext to decode, never a jab waiting just beneath the surface.
He is simply happy to be alive and with us again. He’s said as much on a few occasions. What fears of the Nanten that plagued Dionus have left him. He is at peace.
I wish I felt so confident. We are on Salisir’s trail, but no closer to having any real answers about his demise. Suddenly we are following a Nantese priestess who somehow incarnates the goddess she serves. We are marching towards an enemy that is not our own on behalf of a people who would rather we did not. And we know nothing about this enemy. Not truly.
And the KoraKora could be anywhere nearby.
How can I feel confident or safe in the face of all that?
Now that I read back over what I have written, how can we expect to survive for long? It’s been a miracle that we’ve made it almost five months as it is.
Let us hope that Inifra’s confidence is not self-deception, and we shall see what this Zorga in the mountains can do against her.