The rain has finally stopped. With no sign that it might, it ceased suddenly and completely. Within minutes the sun was shining. Brilliant blue skies stretched as far as I could see as if the very idea of clouds was yet unconceived.
We can see out over the entire swath of the Great Recess. The cliffs continue off to the north and south of us, gently curving before they disappear over the horizon. Below us is a canopy I never thought I would stand above. The massive trees of the Nanten only reach two thirds the height of the cliffs.
Below I can still make out a few ruins that tumbled from Hamada into the Broken Circle. That is the name they give for the broad swath of empty land that rings the Great Recess at the base of the cliffs. For two miles or so there are massive convoluted mounds of broken stone and earth. They appear as though they were once smooth hills that are now laid open by dry cracks and jagged rents.
Some smaller trees grow on the unbroken portions, but none of the mightier trunks rise from its surface. The people here speak of the Broken Circle as if it were a graveyard, haunted by the worst sorts of monsters. The rains drive most of those monsters into the cracks and caves beneath the surface. Otherwise it is an impassable section of land.
There is a path, Inifra said, that leads across it and into the jungle. That path, she said, is only really used by the bravest of traders. It follows one of the few routes that remain unbroken, and thus do not require that one enter or cross any of the crevasses. Still, it isn’t all that much safer.
Dionus spent much of today out on one of the stone pillars that lays fallen over the edge. He stared out over the recess, the wind whipping around him and tugging at his cloak. He said it reminded him of flying. That was sufficient, he said. At least for now.
Balthandar and Timber have made an odd pair the last few days. He seems to have become so attached to the idea of protecting her that, even in the midst of our newfound safety, he rarely leaves her side. I’d never seen Balthandar surrounded by children until she dragged him into a group of them today. It was also one of the first times I have ever seen him so visibly uncomfortable. I had to walk away so as to keep from laughing at him.
For my part, I have spent most of my time today with Inifra interviewing the locals. There is little consensus as to where Salisir may have gone, but more and more of the people have pointed us north. There is a mighty stone bridge that crosses the river at the top of the falls which their fishermen still use daily. They say that there was once another powerful trade city that lay a few dozen leagues north which built it in conjunction with Hamada.
Apparently it wasn’t as lucky as its trade partner. The entire city fell over the cliffs and was destroyed in the Broken Circle. There is a village that was built just west of the cliffs by the survivors, and it was to that village that we are repeatedly told Salisir went. This appears to be the direction we must head.
While I would prefer to make directly for Matasten, there are no guarantees that Salisir didn’t die long before he made it himself. We must continue to follow him until we know for certain where his body lies.
One more good night’s sleep, I feel, and I will be ready for our trek across this bridge and back into the jungle. My sleeping mat, the one final luxury I have from home, is so frayed that it seems worthless. Strangely, though I have always carried a mat upon which to sleep, I no longer unroll this one as frequently as I used to. I think I may leave it here in Hamada when we go.
The KoraKora have been spotted to the east. They are not approaching Hamada, but rather are preparing to raid the fishing village that offered us information. It would seem they are to be punished for the slightest of associations with us. And to think I was willing to believe the cannibals scattered.
A small barge arrived this morning with the news. It left the village only a few days before the warning reached them. News of the KoraKora’s approach was spreading quickly through the jungle. Upon arrival, the captain of the barge searched out Inifra to beg her help on behalf of the village. The morning rains were coming, he said. Let her make haste to the east at once to save her people.
She immediately gathered what few belongings she had and made for the river. I asked if we could help and she said no. The trip up the rapids would take a week or longer by canoe, and by then it would be too late. She needed to go immediately and would return as soon as she could.
Dionus stepped forward and offered his help. He could make it there even faster than she. Inifra refused, so Dionus turned to Nonda and asked where the village was. The south bank, a day’s march east of the tributary we took north. He looked to me and I nodded.
Whatever will bring Inifra back to us safely.
Still we stayed silent. My friendship with Dionus no longer requires words. He boomed into the sky and within seconds was gone from view entirely.
Inifra cursed and leapt into the water. That was the last we saw of either. An hour later the rains returned. They lasted for an hour or so before the sunshine broke through again.
I am so anxious for my companions that I have walked out to the precipice from which Dionus stood only yesterday in hopes of feeling something else. Fear of falling. The rush of the knowledge that one misstep and I could die. Just like them. I cannot help them now. There is no intervening on their behalf, with blade or the shift of time.
I will stay out here until the sun sets. I am not a man of prayer, but tonight I beg gods both Dread and Swift to steady the hand and guard the heart of both Dionus and Inifra.
There is no word from the east. Though this is what I should expect, it is eating at me. Inifra and Dionus are gone to fight a battle whose urgency demanded that I be left behind. I cannot stand it.
How long does it take them to travel that far? How far are the KoraKora from that village?
How could I have been so foolish as to believe that the paltry show of force that followed us into the rapids was all there was to fear? Of course, even if they found a massive number of canoes to use in their pursuit, the remainder of the KoraKora would continue on foot.
Gods, but I’m such a fool!
For all I know there is another army moving this way even as I write. Our strength is divided. Balthandar and I cannot fight a large contingent of KoraKora on our own for long. Even if the warriors of this city prove able to stand against the cannibals, there are scarcely over one hundred that we know of. One hundred untrained Nantese warriors cannot withstand one thousand bloodthirsty KoraKora, even with the best sword and spear in the world at their center.
We must begin preparing some form of defense, just in case.
Another day and no real news. I should hope that Inifra and Dionus have arrived by now. Even more, I hope that they are safe.
The rains came for another hour this morning. Somehow they felt intrusive. They were doubly frustrating as they interrupted the work Balthandar and I have set for our hosts. We began barricading their central hall last night, and have continued that work all day today. It stands in the far northeastern corner of the city, with its northern flank covered by the river and its eastern by the cliffs.
It seems the most defensible position out of any in the city. It also serves as a choke point for our retreat over the river should we need to flee. Great quantities of stone and timber have been piled up along the external entrances to the bridge so as to force any attackers to follow through the hall. Once that work is complete we will begin another layer of fortifications a block or two out. Balthandar also had the two remaining explosive devices from Senida stashed in his pack. We are uncertain how we should put them to use, but I am glad to have them.
It was difficult to get the Nantese to offer us any help at first until a second barge arrived at the docks. They carried more news of the KoraKora moving through the jungle, slaughtering villages and worse as they went. Though there was no certainty that they were approaching us, the possibility spurred more people into action. Many of the citizens are yet unwilling to uproot and move closer to the fortifications, but this is unfortunately the norm.
The balance of convenience and safety is often difficult to sway until true danger arrives. One can only hope, in cases such as this, that there is still time to respond when it does.
Timber has found a group of other children with whom she has been able to spend a fair amount of time. They seem to regard us with a greater deference because of whatever it is she tells them. In turn, their parents were among the earliest to offer their aid to our effort.
We cannot flee any longer. The KoraKora will hunt us to the ends of this jungle and back again. With stone structures and a small but willing force to defend it, we stand our best chance of defeating the cannibals here should they arrive. If we are lucky, they will be a divided force, weakened in numbers and fatigued by their march.
Let us hope that at least some small measure of luck may fall our way in this encounter. We need all we can get. That is enough for now. I am running low on empty pages in this journal and should try to conserve them.
The KoraKora are moving against Hamada. A flood of refugees has come pouring into the city as the cannibals approach. They carry with them the most horrific stories of torture and slaughter. Worse, however, are the reports of the KoraKora’s numbers.
Though fear may inspire exaggeration, there are most likely thousands of KoraKora approaching Hamada. We know that there were at least 5,000 warriors with their chief in pursuit of us at one point. Whether that many remain with him now, and regardless of how many were split to assail the village to the east, that leaves plenty for an assault on Hamada.
Worse yet, he is among them. How he knows where we are, I do not know, but he is coming for us. He is coming for me. I fear now that the assault on the fishing village was no punishment, but a diversion. Only our most powerful members, as far as he knows them, could have made it in time to rescue the village. With Inifra among us he must have known we would try.
All that matters now is that his tactic worked. Inifra and Dionus are nowhere near, and we are outnumbered at least twenty to one. Gods, but we are done for.
There are no other expressionists in Hamada. We’ve searched high and low, but we are constantly assured there are none. Expressionists this close to Matasten, they say, are not long for this world. I am not convinced. There must be a few that are in hiding and who, like me, refuse to come out from fear. Who refuse even to save their own city.
I will not withhold my power when the moment comes, and I know now that it must. I will shatter the very foundations of time to stop the chief of the KoraKora. This ends here.
They are coming. The KoraKora will reach Hamada tomorrow, and we can think of nothing to stop them. We have created two rings of fortifications around the central hall, razing more than one building in the process to do so. The wrath of the cannibal nation is about to descend on Hamada and there is naught to do but wait.
The river rushes past us and over the edge of the cliffs with a ferocity that only the KoraKora can match. They have pursued us relentlessly for months. Over hundreds of miles and through numerous skirmishes, they have not stopped. They will never stop. If we do not hold and finish them here, we will be running from them all of our lives.
There is still no sign either Inifra or Dionus. The people are terrified. We have sent all of the women and children north over the bridge. Well, not all of them. Timber remains. Balthandar’s Klotian sword never leaves her hand, now a permanent extension of her arm. If we survive this I have promised her that I will teach her how to use it properly.
There are other women who have stayed. They have found or fashioned spears and knives for themselves and have taken posts along the fortifications with grim determination. They know the horrors they face by standing alongside us, and yet they remain. If nothing else, I will always respect the strength and courage of the women of the Nanten.
Unfortunately for us all, “always” may not be such a long time to hold onto. There are great plumes of smoke rising from the jungle to the south and west. Scouts have been spotted within miles of the city’s scattered limits. Their rattling horns blast day and night, and the deep boom of drums has begun to roll through the trees.
The KoraKora are here, and they do not want us to doubt it. Fear runs hot through the Nantese that have stayed to guard the bridge. Fear runs hot through Balthandar and myself. There is nothing I want less than to be eaten by these monsters. I do not want to die.
We will face them tomorrow. I am certain of that now. If I am left one thing to pour my life into, may it be the removal of these traitors from the ranks of humanity.
It is an unbelievable pleasure to have these pages between my fingers again. Alive, every moment I receive feels unbearably sweet. Having my journals returned to me only heightens the sensation. As if the torture of waiting for the KoraKora had not been bad enough.
They attacked us before dawn. The horns and drums carried on through the night, but never approached the city. We thought they were still preparing off in the jungle, when in reality they were amassing on our borders to strike without warning.
What few scouts we had were overwhelmed without making a sound. The only alarm was a scream from the first layer of fortifications as the KoraKora flooded over them. Balthandar and I were not there yet. We had woken early, anxious and unable to sleep well, but were still finishing preparations at the second (middle) layer we had built.
That scream was all the warning we would receive. Immediately we roused any defenders that were sleeping and began lighting and throwing torches over the makeshift ramparts. The yellow-painted bodies of the KoraKora looked like skeletons in the torchlight. They moved silently forward, creeping until they knew we could see them.
We released what arrows we had to shoot and they responded with a volley of their own. The shower of missiles subdued our line. They didn’t relent until their comrades were climbing to fight us. By the time the KoraKora stopped shooting, half of the defenders were dead.
Balthandar and I held our position as long as we could, but our flanks dissolved and we were overwhelmed within minutes.
We fled to the hall, barricading the doors with large stones. Archers shot down into the KoraKora from the floors above while others cast down stones. Entire sections of the hall’s outer catwalks had been loosened and were now leveraged and slid out onto the writhing mass of KoraKora.
Still, no matter how many were crushed or shot, more poured into the square below. Many began scaling the walls, while others called for a ram to be brought forward. They had constructed ladders in the jungle and others had ropes with hooks. Hundreds of attempts to breach the hall were being made at once.
We were unable to fend them all off. We had to call for the retreat before the KoraKora were among us, or there would be no point. What forces we had left withdrew and fled across the bridge. There was one last bastion on the far side which could be garrisoned to hold the KoraKora back. At least long enough to give the refugees on the far side a chance to escape.
The KoraKora made it over the walls then and began pouring in through the upper levels. Balthandar had lingered to set his trap and suddenly we were locked in a fight before we could get out the door. Slowly they pushed us back. No matter how many we killed, more came. Soon we had the bridge to protect our flanks, but even then we were steadily being pressed. Arrows began to fly from the walls, landing indiscriminately in the fight.
And then he was there.
The chief of the KoraKora, covered in bones and the brightest of feathers. His warriors stopped fighting before we could see him. They held back even before he walked through the doors. As he did so they parted before him to make a path. Silence turned to a slow chant, which built in volume and fervor as their chief approached us on the bridge.
Soon the KoraKora were stamping and howling, cutting themselves and writhing with a collective bloodlust greater than any I have ever seen. The chief raised his arms and the KoraKora went silent. He reached over his shoulder, drawing a double-bladed bone sword off his back. Both blades ran up from the hilt, one large and the other slender. The smaller blade ran along the dull side of its larger counterpart, coming to its point at three quarters the other’s length, a gap of only an inch between them. A fascinating weapon.
He made a curt call and a captive was brought forward. One of the children Timber had befriended. Even the waterfall beneath us could not diminish the weight of the silence as that poor child was dragged forward. With great pomp and ceremony the chief inspected his sword, appeared displeased, and then plunged it into the boy’s chest. When he withdrew it to inspect it again he grinned.
“My blade finds today good for drinking,” he explained in the common tongue. His deep voice quivered when he talked. “I have waited long to avenge your murder of my brother.”
Then he shouted something in Nantese and the KoraKora cheered. I’d had enough. My blood was boiling to a rage. This man had chased me for months for killing his brother. For killing a man who was trying to kill me. I was itching for this fight.
I knew he was good when he stepped in to meet me. It was his footing, the grace of his motion. He was quick and skilled. Trained by the Klotians no doubt, or at least someone who had learned from them. His form was perfect. I adopted a Windswept stance and he immediately countered with a Southern Diamond.
He knew his swordplay. I had an advantage as I was better, but not enough to find my window. I was tired from fighting all morning. He was not. The KoraKora erupted, chanting and roaring for their chief as we rotated and spun along the bridge.
It would be a stalemate, I realized. Everything was going to come down to chance, and I needed to end it. To end him. That’s when I decided to shift time. If there was ever a time to cheat in a fight, it was then, so I slowed time and pushed my body to move ahead of it. But my blade did not slide past his.
The shock ran deep. He was a Timeshift. He had known all along. My gut dropped as he grinned. He was dragged along with my perception of time, the two of us locked in step even as I tried to pull away. I could feel him grasping for it, working to gain control of time over me.
And then the hall exploded. Balthandar had set one of the two charges at the base of the structure. The devices could direct their blast with startling accuracy, and he had set it away from us to shatter the structure’s foundations. The KoraKora were blasted and crushed by the hundreds. The cannibal nation stood in a moment of shocked silence before their chief turned on me in a rage.
Every tendon and vein in his neck sprung taught as he screamed at me. Then his real assault began. He swung his bone sword in a hailstorm of blows, hammering at me and bellowing the most terrifying noises. It was all I could do to signal Balthandar to set his second trap. I couldn’t make it. I knew I couldn’t make it, but I told him to do it anyways.
I knew in that moment that it was better I die if it meant this lunatic went with me.
He pressed into me, shards of bloody bone flying from the force of his attack. He pushed me back. I could barely stand against him. That was when I saw it and cursed myself. His fault, I found it all too late to use it against him.
I needed to master the situation if I were to shift time. If I were to trap him on that bridge. So I did what I have never done before. I let his sword pass my own. Gods but it tore through my shoulder like fire. The blow was an unexpected victory for the chief, one that elated him far too much. Elated him just enough to distract him. Thank the gods it worked.
With his focus on my shoulder, he didn’t notice the shift. He didn’t realize that in those two seconds of gloating, he was dead.
That bastard grinned as he hauled his blade free of my upper chest. He swung his sword around to finish me. Then Balthandar’s second blast ripped the bridge to shreds beneath his feet. Though I was behind the blast, I wasn’t spared the concussion. It knocked me senseless, and when I came to I was struggling to breathe.
I was underwater. But not for long.
Within seconds I was flying free. The mixture of water and air confused me for only a moment before my heart sank. Or rose. I guess it depends on which way I was flipping at the moment.
I was falling hundreds of feet to the Great Recess with a gaping wound in my left shoulder. Even if I didn’t die on impact, and somehow survived drowning, I was going to be weak. I was going to sink, or get eaten by something worse than a Bangara. Worse than the KoraKora. I was going to die.
I can’t explain it, but the certainty of it made me smile. Images of Hamada emptying out as we fortified the hall filled my mind. Images of Nantese children. Lives the KoraKora couldn’t claim. Lives across the entire jungle were safe now, if only for a moment. Lives were avenged. Bolton. Kantoo.
I could die, I decided. And then everything went black.
I woke up a day later, lying on a tiny island in the lake that forms beneath the falls. Inifra was there. She had dragged me from the water and bound my wound. She had saved me again.
“I thought that was it,” she said through tears. “I thought I was dead.” Strange words, considering I was the one who nearly drowned. Who was stabbed, inches from being blown to pieces, almost crushed by a massive fall, and then nearly drowned.
I had never seen her so undone. She wept over me. She watched me as I slept. She kept me safe until my companions could finally descend the cliffs and rejoin us. But they cannot rejoin us. The path at the foot of the cliffs is connected to one of the only safe passages across the Broken Circle, and that is miles south of here. We cannot meet along the cliffs, but must find a way to be rejoined within the jungle on the far side. Balthandar refuses to be tossed by Dionus, and though he himself can fly, Dionus cannot carry him.
Somehow Inifra managed to find my sword at the bottom of this lake. Dionus has been able to bring us some supplies and my pack, but he cannot carry full-grown adults. The distance across the Great Circle, he says, is too far to safely throw us as he did on the Grasslands. I sent him to help Balthandar and Timber across the Broken Circle. Inifra and I must find our own way into the jungle.
The minute we leave this island we are in the thick of it again, but I am glad to be alive and satisfied at how things ended with the KoraKora. Gods be good, but I hope they are destroyed forever.
My wound is deep but clean. We will give it until tomorrow and hope that is enough time to start moving. Thank the gods for Martingue broth and my armor, without which I would be dead twice over and crippled ten times again.