The Blight Sea itself is as dead as its surface is calm. The perfect contrast to the thriving jungle it leads us to. There are no fish that probe its depths. At least, what lives in this sea you would not recognize as fish should you see them.
Tarsh seemed to find his lucidity once we took to the water. I trust him no more for it. He eyes our gear constantly, licking his lips unconsciously as he is carried off to distant dreams.
He is weathered and gnarled from age and exposure. It’s hard to distinguish him from the wood he hammered into a barge. This thing is little more than a floating platform, ten paces across in either direction. The aft port quarter is covered by an overhang of dried palm branches, but aside from this there is no shelter on board.
The sail holds the wind well enough, in spite of the numerous holes and tears that cover its surface. Tarsh just stands at the rudder, day and night. His mumbling has gotten clearer, but he still stares at us like we’re hiding food under our clothes.
He has ferried others across the sea to the shores of Nanten, he told us, but none of them ever come back. Whether that’s a veiled threat or a warning, I’m still uncertain.
He still won’t speak of Salisir, no matter how we ask.
He did tell us a story I had never heard before. The Blight Sea, he said during one of his more lucid moments, had not always been so large. Nor had it always been devoid of life. I thought it worth noting:
“Once,” he said, “There was a tribe that lived near the center of where this sea now sits. A poor tribe, dyin’ of thirst in the grasslands that once bordered the Nanten and rested between the two great mountain ranges. Well they prayed, and they prayed, and as things got desperate, Infiri heard their pleas.”
Infiri is the name of the local water goddess, he told us. Some variation on the Dread Gods of old, but one that he claimed is very much alive today.
“She told the chief of this tribe, ‘I will give you my water, precious as it is in dry places. But you must never tell anyone of its whereabouts. Keep it a safe secret amongst only yourselves.’
“The tribe swore to keep the secret close, and gave Infiri their fealty with joy. So Infiri drew a lake up out of the tribe’s withered well, and left them with a great supply of fish to eat as well as water to drink. Time went on, and the grasslands tribe flourished along with the landscape. Until one day an Imperial trader came along.
“’Tell me,’ says he. ‘Where do you get your water? We wish to establish trade with the Nanten, and need a place to refill our casks along this route.’
“’Not here,’ says the tribesmen. ‘We have no source that could satisfy your thirst.’ And so the Imperials moved along, but not with any lack of suspicion. There was a lushness to this tribe’s territory, and a bounty of game. They knew there was water, and they bided their time.”
Our ferryman burst into song at this point. As dry and crackled as the skin on his hands, and obscenely loud for the silence of our surroundings. I didn’t understand a word of it. It made me uncomfortable.
“One of those tribesmen,” he said after he had stopped singing. “He got greedy. And as the traders came by with their furs and their spices, well, he had to have some for himself.”
As best I understood what followed, the tribesman gave the location of the lake to the traders at an exorbitant price, but they couldn’t find it on their own. Some enchantment of Infiri’s kept it hidden from outsiders. And so the tribesman had to show them the way himself. It didn’t take long for the traders to sully the pristine lake, between their pack animals and camp followers they did their damage quickly. Then Infiri showed up.
“That goddess…” Tarsh, our ferryman-turned-storyteller, let out a long whistle. It dropped an octave as he shook his head. “Don’t scorn a woman, that’s what me mum always taught me. It should follow for the man of thought that you never scorn a woman who’s a god too. Terrible idea.”
Infiri was furious that the tribesman had broken his promise. She boiled the waters in an instant, killing everything in them, then opened fissures in the earth. Water erupted from most, and salt came spouting from the rest. The entire valley was flooded faster than anyone could escape.
“Them traders, they tried to run. Didn’t make it far. Nor did that traitorous tribesman. Scalding salt water destroyed the entire region. When it settled, well, you’re floatin’ on it now.”
When I asked him if he believed the story he just shook his head. “Apt story for the Nanten though. A warning they should’ve heeded.” I asked him what he meant.
“The jungle’s always been fierce and treacherous territory. That won’t ever change. But people used to live there peaceful-like. They warred to be sure, still human as any of us. But it weren’t so different from other parts of the world you’ve seen. When the Imperials came they brought more than trade. They brought their greed.
“That jungle there,” he pointed to the rising darkness on the horizon. “It don’t take well to greed. It turned on those people, and it never relented. As for Infiri, she hates Imperials to this day. Her beauty is famed, no man can resist her. The difference between her and any other witch you’ve heard of is that she don’t seduce. She just kills.”
Perhaps that’s where my dread comes from as the waters continue to flow past. A jungle that has already rejected my kind. That has turned on its own with ruthless impunity. And gods whose vengeance has yet to be slated.
Perhaps that’s why, for the first time in my life, I wish I could turn back rather than move ahead.