We are unsure of what path to take. It would seem that Inifra has found our destination, namely that of the fabled Nantese Falls, but how to get there is the question. They would be some distance to the east after we reach the Nanten River north, which we should do any day now.
The resulting discussion is whether to continue by canoe to the falls or to move on foot once we have arrived at the Nanten. Staying on the river seems to allow the KoraKora to keep track of us well enough, whereas if we turn west for a few days then put to the northern shore, we may be able to throw them completely off our trail.
We could then march east until we reach the falls, where canoes would be of little use in any case. The falls themselves are a result of one of the great mysteries of the world. The legend of their magnitude is only matched by that of their origins.
When the Arbor King still ruled, Matasten, his capital, was at a slightly higher elevation than the rest of the kingdom. The city itself was built upon a hill where the Nanten River split around it. Her towers rose above even the trees of the mighty jungle surrounding it. That is until the collapse of the kingdom and its plunge into a darkness from which it has yet to recover.
No one knows what exactly happened during the series of coups that laid waste to the political structure of the Nanten Kingdom. Rival faction after rival faction took power in a leaderless revolution whose gruesome brutality was reported around the world. Everything came to an end the day of the collapse.
Whether it was a coalition of breakers, or some power not yet documented, the topography of the Nanten was changed forever. To one hundred leagues in every direction from Matasten, the ground simply dropped a few hundred feet. The result was that the civil war of the Nanten Kingdom was entirely contained by massive cliffs. For a few miles in from the cliffs it is said that the ground was left in a ruinous state by the collapse. But after that, supposedly, everything survived just as it was.
The world knows this area within the Nanten as the Great Recess. The Nantese call it the Great Hole.
The Nanten River, one of the greatest rivers in the world, reversed its flow. Until then it had flowed from the eastern reaches of the Nanten, gaining speed and girth as it flowed around Matasten and angled south at the Highridge Mountains. It emptied down near the Stone Lord’s keep. The flow at its mouth was known to push ships hugging the coast off their course during the rains.
Then the collapse happened and the mouth dried up. The water that collected in the mountains and ran into the western stretch of the river were carried back up and through the jungle. Now the water runs towards Matasten, whether from east or west, making it the only river in the world to flow opposite directions of itself.
Where that water goes is unclear, for though it still encompasses Matasten it does not overflow its banks. As I said, it is one of the great mysteries of the modern world. I cannot wait to see it with my own eyes. All we have to do is decide how we are to get there, and avoid the KoraKora along the way. Thankfully, it would seem those horrid cannibals are less of a threat to us every day.
We found Inifra today, alive but completely exhausted. She was being carried in a third canoe that met us as we continued north. There were three canoes with her carrying men and women dressed for war. Nantese warriors, a strange sight yet a familiar one at the same time. They hailed us through the rain and when we converged we discovered Inifra among them, unconscious.
Her trip north had been carried out at a furious pace, Nonda translated. She used the rains to move even faster, but had exhausted herself in the process. She was pulled from the river a few days before by a handful of fishermen to whom she uttered her last words before she fell into the coma:
“Get me to my friends south. Tell them he made for the falls.”
We can only assume she meant that Salisir had made for the falls. What drove her haste to the point that she would exhaust herself? The KoraKora may be close, but her followers have kept us steadily ahead. Why was she in such incredible haste? It sounds as though, had she not collapsed, she might have made it to us days early.
Balthandar does not appreciate the increase of the Nantese among us. He has taken personal responsibility for Inifra’s care nonetheless. I appreciate that we have added to our number. Perhaps the key to defeating the KoraKora lies not in ourselves, but in mobilizing their Nantese rivals against them.
Dionus asked Nonda if there are many warriors left among the Nantese along the river. Nonda said that all and none are warriors. The Nantese were brave once, but no more. Not in the face of the KoraKora.
Dionus laughed. “Perhaps we will have to change that.”
Where has Inifra gone? Our guides have set themselves at a ferocious pace downstream. All they will tell us is that we must hurry. They take turns poling the bottom of the river as hard as they can, and only trade places to rest. It is as though we are in a race against time itself.
Time. Though I can suppress the urge to shift it, I cannot so easily resist the curiosity to wonder what would happen if I did. How could I change things? This has been the persistent question that has plagued me all my life.
If I went back and, instead of running, stood and fought the chief of the KoraKora on the borders of the Deadwood, what would be different? Would his death have dispersed his tribe?
They mourned a week for his brother, how long would they mourn him? Would it have led to a struggle for succession? Perhaps they would have forgotten us completely in the midst of their own political infighting. Or perhaps I would have died right then and there, surrounded and overwhelmed by a savage nation.
Second-guessing the decisions of our past is one of the things that makes us human. What doubles that burden upon me, unlike anyone else, is that I could go back and change any one of those decisions. But what if I go back too far? What if I never wake from the shift? No one knows what happens then, when you careen past the day of your birth into the oblivion of preexistence.
Similarly, I could explore the future. I have before. I could shift forward just long enough to see what’s coming. But what if I shift too far and pass my death?
That, to me, is the greatest of the curiosities. I want to jump ahead, to gain an advantage on my enemy. If I am to be defeated tomorrow, learning that today can show me what I need to alter so as to win. I have done so before, but the potential effects have always scared me. How many divergent histories have I cut short by shifting forward? Not many, I think, for it was a rare excursion of reckless youth when I did so.
Still, my recklessness somewhat curbed, it is a challenge not to entertain the idea again today. Shift ahead a week and unravel this mystery of Inifra’s location. See where the KoraKora might meet us along the way and avoid it or turn it into an ambush.
Yet in doing so, with every shift, I increase the chance that I will lose my grasp on consciousness. I run the risk of losing myself to the shift and never waking again.
I met a Timeshift who had done just that before I entered the scourge.
My mother found him in a poorhouse in Silverdale, a week’s journey from Silver Hall. Rarely is the Beacon allowed to leave his or her post. The risk is almost always considered too great. But somehow, only a fortnight before I was taken into the scourge, she managed to get away and take me to Silverdale.
We went in secrecy, boarding a small vessel on its way to Calheart only to slip off in the night before it weighed anchor. We left in a carriage whose windows were covered with thick curtains so no one could see us. My mother was not nearly so famous in the Old Empire back then, but still, prudence was always her way. Risk and Syltra na Tetrarch do not frequently fraternize.
The carriage itself was rickety, nothing to draw attention. It smelled musty, bathed in the odor of neglect. The driver was a friend of my mother’s, a man I had never met before nor would ever see again.
In that poorhouse there were more than a few men whose sanity had long left them. Cared for by the generosity of the Crestwards, they were left lying on their cots to live out their days in whatever hazes had settled on their minds. Except one.
That’s the first thing I remember: this man in a cloak, hood casting his face in darkness, standing in the corner of a long cell. The shaft of light that poured into the room without touching him only heightened the sense that he was somehow dissolving into shadow.
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t do anything. He just stood there. One of the passing healers explained that he would do as he was told. He could eat, drink, and use his latrine as normal. But he would always return to that corner. He had been there for years.
The hood, the healer said, was for the sake of the poorhouse staff. It was there to hide his eyes.
When the healer left, my mother approached and told the man to step from his corner. He did so, casting a long shadow across the room. She reached out, slowly pulling back his hood and lowering it to his shoulders. I will never forget that gaze.
His pupils were gone, as were the iris and any sign of human vein or color. They were as glass orbs containing a swirling mist. He was handsome, a stern jaw with salted stubble only a few days old. His head slightly bowed, he stood as if he had been waiting for orders before suddenly losing himself in thought.
“Touch his hand,” my mother said to me, distracted by the swirling of the man’s eyes. I refused to budge until she repeated herself in a command. “Take it and hold it in your own.”
I stepped forward. My heart races even just to remember that man’s presence. He was powerful. I could sense it, feel it like walking into the wind. I reached out my hand and for a trembling moment I contemplated running from that place.
Then my mother commanded the man to take my hand. He did so quickly, and in his grasp the world fell away. I could see his eyes. They were restored, lost, and so terribly sad. I cried out. He shook his head silently, then looked off beyond me. My gaze mirrored his own, looking beyond him to where the world flitted by. They were not images of my past nor my future that rushed past us, flickering in no discernable order or direction. They were his.
I saw him as a boy, as an old man dying somewhere far from Silverdale. I saw him born, I saw him wed, I saw him lose and I saw him gain. Contradicting stories of past and future. All that could have been and everything that would never be.
The moments of his life were compressed into the briefest of instants, then dragged out for agonizing eons. His pain became my own. His joy flooded me to bursting, then drained and left me hollow.
All of this was confusion. I looked at him again, neither of us able to speak. Help me, his eyes said now that their maple rim and coal center were returned to them. I cannot find my way.
And then I was back in his room. My mother’s hand on my arm, her other pulling his away from my own. I raged at her, screamed at her, and beat her back. I had to help him, to draw him into himself. She couldn’t see it. I knew that, because she held his hand now and nothing happened to her.
Let me help him! She held me by the shoulders and knelt to my level. She had never once spoken to me on my level. Her words then became the warning by which I have lived since.
“He is beyond the help of all men,” she said. “As will you be if you ever lose control of your ability. You can see and understand him, for he is a brother to you in a way no other man shall ever be. Let his fate be not in vain. Heed his warning.”
She let me look at him for a while longer. I have never felt so helpless, standing in the shadow of a man whose name I never knew, yet whose soul had coursed through mine. How could I just leave him there?
We were in the carriage and riding back to New Rinoa before I realized it. Neither of us spoke the rest of the trip. Not as we snuck into the port, nor as we pretended to disembark with the crew of the vessel we had supposedly taken out. We kept our silence among the Tetrarch escort sent to bring us home. In fact, we never said a single word about that visit to Silverdale all the rest of our lives.
I found out that man’s name years later: Goldrindal. I have prayed for his soul to find its way home every night since I met him. In the same breath I always pray mine never joins him.
Still no sign of Inifra. Even our carefree guides have grown concerned. That solidified for me the sense that there is something wrong. Nonda and his companions now focus more on propelling us downstream and less on joking and singing among themselves.
Their subdued humor has allowed the gloom to creep steadily back in upon our tiny armada. The trees are increasingly difficult to see through the rain as the river widens. The change is subtle, steady, but noticeable. It leaves far too much room for wandering thoughts as we travel.
I will say that riding in these canoes has proven a gift. I’ve longed for a horse, a carriage, anything in which to ride. I hate marching, especially when wet. I didn’t realize just how sore and tired my legs were until we found ourselves on the water instead of in it. I think we all needed this break.
The canoes themselves are hollowed out from solid blocks of wood. They are long and wide enough that we feel comfortable, even with four of us in each. If it wasn’t for the constant need to bail water, it would be downright relaxing.
Instead we are constantly soaking. It was nice to drop our regular search for drinking water, but I wouldn’t mind a dry day or two.
Timber has made friends with these men easily enough. She still reserves her smiles except for rare occasions, but Nonda has a knack for pulling them out of her. He puts in enough effort; he deserves what few he gets. The girl makes herself useful as much as she can, bailing water to give our guides a break or preparing their food as they navigate.
She is so small, so fierce. Far from balking at violence, she willingly takes part as necessary. She believes in her value, and that of her kind. She stands on it. Yet she doesn’t seem to hold herself in any higher esteem than the rest of us.
I can see why Inifra picked her out and brought her along. If we survive this, she will make a fine priestess in the same fashion as Inifra. Now I can only hope that Inifra returns to us alive and well. We need her if we are to stand against the KoraKora.
We heard their horns this morning, muffled as they were by the rain. By the Wing, but they are not far from us at all. Not nearly as far as I had hoped.
Inifra should be back any day now, but there has been no sign of her. I know that if anyone can take care of herself in this jungle, it is Inifra, but I cannot help worry a little. There are dangers in the Nanten that no one can face alone.
I worry about her because she has begun to feel like one of us. So far my survival can be attributed almost entirely to either my companions or dumb luck. There is little doubt I would have died by now without friends by my side.
And then there are those who have helped us along the way, like these men and their canoes. They instantly treated us like friends, and only because Inifra sent them to us. I cannot imagine showing the hospitality to complete strangers that they do. Even if I were ordered to take care of someone, I would never behave like this.
They aren’t the first. It’s humbling. I would rather act like them, but I don’t know how.
Then there are those who have given us knowledge, like Bantish, or those who saved our lives in the night, like Prestorn. Even with my companions, death has ever been near. During this entire journey we have relied on the good graces of the Nantese we have met along the way.
If Gorung hadn’t taken us under the palace in Senida, we may never have found the vaults in time to make our escape. If Inifra hadn’t shown us how to deflect the attentions of the Makonga, we would still be plagued by it. Perhaps we would have given into it.
I entered this jungle thinking I would subdue it. Instead it has shown me just how powerless I can be on my own.
We float down this river as the rains pound us unceasingly. Water below and water above, with water in every crack and cranny we could hope to keep dry. Nonda and the other guides maintain uplifted spirits. They laugh as much as they talk, and sing more than they do either. It’s almost enough to keep the gray drudgery of this voyage at bay.
Gods, I wish I was lighter of spirit like these men.
We had to run the canoes aground this morning. I was thankful that our guides chose the western bank as I fear how close the KoraKora might be on the east. Our guides were quick to gather fruit and a few roots to replenish their supplies, but then they just waited by the boats.
I asked them why we didn’t continue immediately. Nonda said that the water would boil. I asked him why mattered if we were in the water. Wouldn’t it boil all the same? He looked at me like I was an idiot.
Nonda turned to another of our guides and said something. The other guide pulled a large bird out of the canoe that they had yet to pluck and clean. He tossed it to Nonda who threw it out into the river. Within seconds what we could see of the river was thrashing violently.
“He are a fish,” Nonda said. “He move in pack, and eat all bird on surface.”
“Not just bird,” he smiled. “Fish eat any thing on surface. Many thing. Move silent, move quick. No see him come until late.”
I asked him how he knew they were coming if they were so silent and quick.
“Like KoraKora, he always send scout. Next time I show you.”
I asked him what it was called. “Bromnom.” When I asked him what it meant, he laughed. “It mean nothing. Sound you make when you eat.” Then he pantomimed an eating frenzy, making the noise ‘bromnom bromnom bromnom’ as he did so.
His companions joined in the pantomime until they couldn’t contain themselves any longer and fell over laughing.
We got back in the boats after an hour. Nonda poled us out until the current took over. So the boiling river is just fish. I suppose that’s no small thing. Perhaps it is less mysterious than a boiling river, but it remains as dangerous. I hope it isn’t long before Nonda can show us how to spot them coming.
Balthandar is always sharing fables and stories from his homeland. I decided to share one today. It’s a classic about Timeshifts, and a favorite of mine. Still, it’s one that I never tell for fear that by doing so, somehow, I will reveal that I am a Timeshift myself. I cannot continue to harbor such fears, especially now that my companions know what I am and do not reject me.
Most people take this parable to mean one should appreciate the time they are given. I take it as a personal warning:
The Goblet of Time
There once was a farmer, who found life quite boring
His days seemed but toil, his work left him snoring.
The wife and three children he had were quite new
Excitement was lacking, good moments were few.
Then one day a Timeshift appeared at his door
The man wore a cloak, and a goblet he bore.
“This present for you,” his voice clearly chimed,
“Will help you move life on to happier times.”
The goblet was filled to the brim a deep red,
Ornate inlaid gold, and covered with gems.
“This liquid is time, which spans your whole life,
“Drink only a little and move past your strife.”
“The more that I drink now, the more time goes by?”
The Timeshift just nodded, the goblet held high.
“So hard times and boredom may be quickly past?”
“Only moments you love need tarry to last.”
The man took the goblet, “But what do I owe you?”
“An exchange, if you will. That time I can use.
“It will pass in a flash, but it must go somewhere,
“My reserves could use all of the time you can spare.”
“That time you may have,” said the man with a nod.
“For only through joy shall I take pause to trod.”
The Timeshift just smiled silent thanks as he parted,
And the farmer returned to the work he had started.
As he sweat and he toiled beneath the hot sun,
He thought, if he wanted, could quickly be done.
A sip from the chalice, very small on his lips,
He found the sun setting, by his field he did sit.
His work lay complete and sweat caked his brow,
Yet no memory formed of exactly how.
No satisfaction, though his muscles were sore,
Then he smiled to believe all the time changers’ lore.
When his children cried or his wife grew upset,
A drink from the chalice and he’d jump past regret.
Ne’er to remember all the things that he missed,
For he only spent time in the moments he wished.
Those moments seemed fewer as days carried on,
When they came they were quick, though he wanted them long.
His children grew distant, his world always changed,
And soon he knew little of what was arranged.
He couldn’t stand boredom, nor undergo strife,
Ne’er dealing with problems which seemed to run rife.
So he drank and moved time, from moment to moment,
Ne’er stopping to deal with his one true opponent.
He drank to move days and then months and then years,
His happiness waned in the shadow of fears.
His family were strangers, his life an unknown,
A hollowness burrowed down deep in his bones.
Then one day the goblet ran low to the dregs,
He saw wrinkled hands wringing tightly to beg.
Memories, he pled, either happy or sad,
But his life now was done, nothing more to be had.
For happiness builds upon difficult times,
And challenges bring our fulfilment as nigh.
True love comes through work, and great joy discipline,
To circumvent these then is foolhardy sin.
I love that. I will say this, though: I wish one could really siphon time off people. It would make me feel much more at ease with just how little I know I have.