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.