We have yet to tell Starlark that the wraiths walk the streets at night. Balthandar gave him a potion to sleep again last night, and he is again improved for it this morning. His mood is still fragile, and he refuses to speak of his time apart from us, but he has begun speaking with us again on his own.
Our search of the city began with little to differentiate it from the rest. Then the distant knocking noise resumed.
We were all startled, but the noise put Starlark on edge. We explained that we had heard it only a few days before, and coaxed him into moving quickly to try and discover its source. We came close before it ceased, entering a small square which seemed a likely epicenter. The buildings here were decorated in various fashions, but the central theme to all of them was eagles.
At the center of the square, on a raised patch of grass, stood a solitary pole. Spiraling up around it was a series of smaller dowels, or perhaps handles sticking out of it at regular intervals. At its peak stood a solitary carving of an eagle in flight, and at its base lay a ceremonial staff made of heavy oak.
Marks on the side of the pole and staff alike indicated that this was the source of the knocking noise, but the wielder remained a mystery. The square itself was close to the edge of the city, and as we came to the rolling waves of golden grass Starlark stopped dead in his tracks.
“There,” he said. He didn’t point, he just stared out beyond the city. “A man.”
It took us a moment longer, but soon we could see the shape of shoulders and a head in the shimmering gold. Someone was trying to hide in the grass, watching us.
Wordlessly Balthandar and I spread out to the wings, acting as though we had dismissed whatever we had seen. Then, once we had given ourselves enough space so as not to be outmaneuvered to either side, we sprinted into the grass.
The figure before us immediately took flight. The hunt was on. Unlike running in the jungle, we were no longer inhibited by our packs. There was no consideration to be made for roots or unseen drops in the foliage. We could just run. It felt good, but the pleasure of the run was drowned by the exhilaration of the chase and the fear of the unknown.
We had seen no living soul within the confines of Senida. Who was this spying on us? How dangerous was he?
As we gained ground on the stranger he tried to break to the left, towards me, but soon realized he was only cutting the distance between us more quickly. Again he ran directly away from us and we strafed slowly left to reestablish our positions behind him.
And then Starlark drew his bow, stopped for the smallest of instants, and let loose an arrow. It took the stranger clean through the calf mid-stride. Starlark may be fragile when idle, but in action he is still himself.
The stranger continued to stumble away from us, sobbing as we drew near. We grabbed him and rolled him onto his back. Quickly we realized he posed us no threat. He was an unarmed boy, not much younger than Kantoo, and terrified beyond his senses at the three of us.
We visibly put our weapons away, trying to calm him. Starlark wasn’t so quick to be helpful, spite overcoming his reason so that we had to actively push his bow hand back and to its holster. The boy kept crying but didn’t scream when Balthandar removed the arrow. As Balthandar bandaged the wound, and we did our best to apologize without a shared language, the boy calmed down and stopped crying.
His fear wasn’t entirely vanquished, and he shied away from Starlark at all times, but he waved for us to follow him. He couldn’t walk well at all with the fresh wound, so Balthandar picked him up and carried him the direction he had pointed.
Soon Senida vanished over the horizon behind us, and as we neared the edge of the golden waves we came upon a large grove of trees. The boy indicated that we should stop, then shouted something to the trees. It took some convincing on his part, but soon dark faces appeared among the shadows. Suddenly a large group of armed men appeared.
All of us immediately reached for our weapons, but the boy quickly raised his hands to keep ours from moving and made a noise that communicated, “No, wait.” The group of men in the trees came forward half the distance to us, then laid down their weapons. Their leader stepped forward and reached out his arms, as if to take the boy from there.
The silence of the exchange was as strange as it was unnerving. Balthandar nodded and walked forward, passing the boy into the man’s waiting arms where he was inspected and then put down to hobble back on his own.
The man then began to quietly ask Balthandar questions. Starlark moved to join him but the other group immediately dropped in their stances. We were not to approach.
The conversation continued for some time, though it was painful to watch without being able to hear a single word. The man speaking to Balthandar looked tense, on guard. He was not afraid of Balthandar, though he certainly should have been. He was afraid of something else. Something he was speaking of to Balthandar.
Finally he bowed, then backed away to the waiting line of warriors. All of them picked up their weapons at once, and then retreated slowly into the waiting grove.
Balthandar didn’t move for some time, and then slowly turned and walked back to us.
“The Lost Children,” he said as he indicated we should begin walking back to Senida. “That is the name of the wraiths of the Grasslands.”
The boy, he explained, was an exceptionally curious member of the tribe’s scouting party. It was why he didn’t disappear when the others had run. He had wanted to see us.
Every few days they were sent to Senida to beat the pole at the eagle square. The eagles would come to the call of the pole, they told Balthandar, but only if the land was safe. The people lived there, in that section of the city as well as a few others, but when danger drew near they fled to the grove to hide.
The Mortuga, he said, were the first sign something was wrong. They began to migrate away as we drew near the city. Then the eagles left. If the eagles would not return to the sound of the pole, then the danger remained.
I asked if we were the danger and Balthandar said no, sometimes they have visitors. I asked about the wraiths, and he shook his head to that as well. The wraiths are a sign. The man told Balthandar that the Mortuga fear no human, as we had discovered, that something darker was following us.
I asked what he meant but Balthandar refused to say any more for the moment. He simply said we needed to return to Senida before nightfall.
Balthandar told me the rest once Starlark was asleep. What follows us, he said, is darker than the Lost Children – the Makonga is what hunts us now.
I couldn’t believe him for a minute. I had heard of the Makonga before coming to the Nanten, a mythical monster. A slouched figure that walks on hind legs, its body withered and hairy, its face a bare skull. They say it searches for a face. When it finds a face that pleases it, it lures its victim into the jungle with the voice of someone he loves.
Then the Makonga kills the owner of the face and takes it for itself, using it to lure yet more victims into the jungle and to their death.
The Lost Children, he said, are its victims.
They are confined to the tall grasses in the northwest portion of the Akari Grasslands, he was told, but when the Makonga draws near they grow stronger. Thus they could climb onto the obsidian, and eventually cross the blood river which otherwise serves as a natural barrier.
Now they are here, and it can mean only one thing: the Makonga is coming for us.