Category Archives: 5.06
The spiderwhale clicked its mandibles together, bare inches from Chaff’s face. Eyes that were almost comically small compared to the rest of its body leered at him, and he shrunk behind the body of the big guy as it stared at him hungrily.
The man on its back slipped off easily, landing with a splash in the marsh water. “Strangers do not come often to the Quiet Marsh,” said the man. He stood like some fierce apparition before them, brown skin decorated with dyes and paints and tattoos. “Goodman Gopal, you let those who are not kazakhani walk so freely?”
Gopal shrugged. “You let me walk free, Wozek, when I first came. They deserve at least that chance.” He seemed entirely unperturbed by the presence of the massive spiderwhale, although Jiralla flapped agitatedly overhead. The bathawk was barely restrained violence and anger, snapping and squawking from a perch that had not yet been knocked askew by Wozek’s behemoth.
Wozek crossed his arms. “There was no war, then. Now I hear of such things as the Rape of Alswell from my messengers, and have cause to fear for my people. Two plainsmen come to my home. What would you have me do?”
“What children could bring war here?” asked Gopal. “The plainsmen have never been bloodthirsty. You have nothing to fear.”
The marshman considered Gopal for a moment, before turning back to Chaff and Lookout. “Let me see your tabula,” he said. “Just a precaution.”
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes, and she nodded. He dug his disk out of his belt and held it in front of him, close to his chest. He didn’t have much else of an option, with the eight-eyed beast staring down at him.
“They’re not slave spies either,” said Gopal, exasperatedly. “They just want to get through the marsh.”
Wozek’s face darkened immediately. “To where?” he asked. “The city of Kazakhal? The Maw? Or the deserts beyond?”
“Moscoleon,” said Chaff. “The Temple Moscoleon.” He hadn’t told Gopal or Sri that yet (or, now that Chaff thought about it, even Lookout), but at those words both Gopal and Sri immediately stiffened. He wondered if he had said something wrong.
“Pious,” remarked Wozek. He nodded. “Well, who am I to stop a pair of faithful pilgrims? Come, I shall go along with you. You are welcome to spend the night with us, so long as you spend just the night.”
He lifted himself bodily onto the back of the spiderwhale, slinging himself into the saddle on the creature’s back. Chaff had heard before the marshmen followed strength above all other things, but just how strong did one of their leaders have to be? The boy patted the big guy on the side. “No riding now,” he whispered. “We separate, we harder to catch, yeah?”
The big guy tossed his head, and did not take his eyes off of the spiderwhale. Wozek sat comfortably atop his mount, waiting for Chaff and Lookout to move first.
“Come on,” said Sri, pulling on Chaff’s hand. “We don’t want to keep Wozek waiting.”
“Who is he?” Chaff whispered, as they walked away. He tried to keep his voice low, although the marsh was so quiet that his voice carried anyway.
Sri looked over her shoulder. She, like Gopal, did not seem concerned by the spiderwhale or the man riding it. “He’s the leader of the village down the way. They come and go with the seasons, but he always makes sure to visit us when they’re here.”
“He impatient or something?” asked Chaff.
“Just very important,” said Sri. “He has places to be, people to talk to.” She leaned over and whispered, much quieter, “They say he used to run with a Jhidnu traveling circus before he came to Kazakhal. He’s very much kazakhani now, though.”
Chaff was about to respond when the sudden crashing footfalls of the spiderwhale began in earnest, as the beast stepped clear over the two of them. Chaff had to jump out of the way of its massive tail as Wozek steered it forward, and shielded his book with his body as water splashed over them.
He exchanged a look with the big guy, and they slogged on. The further in they walked, the deeper the marsh grew, and Chaff was beginning to tire of wading through the muck. Goosebumps spotted his bare skin, and he was cold and dripping and exhausted. The sun was up there somewhere, but its warmth could not penetrate the fog or the mist.
“So…” said Sri, softly. “You’re going to Moscoleon?”
Chaff nodded. He was about to tell Sri why, but then bit his tongue. Perhaps it was better not to.
“We were going to go there, once.” Sri’s expression was distant. “I would be careful. The road is dangerous, even when it doesn’t seem like it.”
“OK,” said Chaff, simply. He looked around, trying to think of something to say to fill the awkward silence. “Thanks for defending us back there, yeah?”
Sri shook her head. “That was all Gopal. I think he feels like he owes something to…your people.” She looked Chaff in the eye, and Chaff did not break her gaze. She had rather pretty eyes, bright and brown, that were too often hidden behind the hair falling around her face. “Chaff, did I ever tell you about Rituu?”
Chaff pursed his lips. If she had, he didn’t remember it. “Who that?” he asked.
“He was like a dad to me,” said Sri. “He and Gopal took me in when I was just a kid. They bought me off a slave auction, and then they freed me, just like that. He and Gopal…they loved each other.”
Sri stopped. Chaff turned to look at her; she seemed apprehensive, and was biting her lip, waiting for Chaff to answer. “Yeah?” he said. “So?”
“You don’t think that’s…weird?”
Chaff made a face. “Nah,” he said. “Love’s like kings and gods, yeah? What’s it got to do with me? People always yelling about the Ladies and the Seat and the revolution, but if they don’t do nothing to me then they don’t mean nothing to me. Maybe some elector in the Libraries got something to say ‘bout it, but not me, yeah?” He gestured for Sri to follow. “Come on! They’re getting ahead of us.”
Sri smiled and bounded ahead to catch up.
“So what about this Rituu?” asked Chaff. “Why he so special?”
“He was the biggest fibber there ever was, for one,” said Sri. “Just the grandest imagination there ever was, always telling stories about how he was the prince of this nation or that or how he had sailed past the three seas when he wasn’t yet grown-old. And he did have quite a few really amazing true stories. He was from Shira Hay, you know? Wandered all across the south, even went up north as far as Mont Don once.”
“Where’s he now?” asked Chaff.
Sri paused. She looked down. “In the owl’s embrace,” she said, her voice firm but her tone somber. “With the Lady Winter. That’s what I was telling you, about the road being dangerous. When I had seen seven summers, we, Gopal and Rituu and I, all decided to go to Moscoleon. It had gotten dangerous in the east, with the plutocrats pulling their guardsmen off the roads and the king not doing anything about it, and we just thought…it’d be a better place to go. You know that song, The Road to Moscoleon?”
Chaff shook his head.
Sri hummed the tune, singing softly, just like she had sung the old marshman children’s rhyme. “The road to the Temple is watched by the Ladies. The Ladies! The Ladies! In Moscoleon! Both prayers and blessings alike, they shall these. They say these! They say these! In Moscoleon! It just seemed like a good place to go.” She sighed, deeply. “So we took the back road, and one day, while we’re going through it, we meet this girl. She leads us back to an inn, and we find out that she’s been adopted by a couple too—a man and a woman, not like Gopal and Rituu.”
The path had become much easier to walk with the spiderwhale clearing a path for them, although Chaff did not pay much attention to what was up ahead. He focused on Sri.
“Rituu decided that it was a good time to teach me how to use a tabula. I was a slave first, even if only for a little bit, so I never had one of my own. The girl takes her first, too. The plan was to learn together.” Sri closed her eyes and shook her head. “It just went wrong. She summoned her beast first. It was too strong, too aggressive, too powerful. I don’t know why she did it alone, but she couldn’t control it. And the wounds…she must have died. I can’t imagine anyone surviving that.”
It was like the kids in the ghettoes that didn’t belong to a gang or a crew. Easy mistakes to make, with no one to watch out for them, got them killed on Albumere.
“She was just a kid, the kind to rush into things. She didn’t know any better, and it was no one’s fault. It was like a wild child dying, it just happened. But the woman who took care of her, she was so angry.” Sri held up her hands like she was holding something. “We all found that girl, lying there, at the same time. The woman got Rituu by the throat, and she kept screaming, ‘You did this!’ Over and over again. ‘You did this, you did this!’ Gopal tried to stop her, but she had this beast, this animal that came after me and…he had to choose. We didn’t fight, we just ran.”
There was silence. Sri’s story was over. Chaff looked ahead, and realized that Gopal and Wozek hadn’t been talking either. Their heads were just slightly turned their way, and their mouths were shut.
Sri cleared her throat. “So be careful, OK? Be careful on the road to Moscoleon.”
“You hear that, Lookout?” said Chaff. “We gotta…” He stopped. “Lookout?”
He spun around. She was nowhere to be seen. Immediately, sweat broke out on Chaff’s forehead. Hadn’t Sri’s story been about a girl who wandered off on her own? And now Lookout was somewhere, by herself, in this cursed marsh?
“Come on, big guy,” he said, dragging himself out of the water and onto the big guy’s back. “You seen her? You know where to go?”
The big guy’s long neck twisted as he looked from side to side. Even if he hadn’t seen her, he had better chances than Chaff ever would.
“Wait, Chaff!” shouted Sri. “This marsh is dangerous! You could drown!”
“She could drown!”
The pounding of the spiderwhale’s feet stopped, as Wozek turned. “What is the boy doing?” he shouted. “Where is he going?”
“I be right back!” shouted Chaff. The big guy bounded out of the water, twisting to go back the way they had come. Chaff felt a sudden, horrible vertigo as the big guy’s hoof slipped in the mud and his knee buckled, but the camelopard righted itself before falling into the marsh. Bleating, the big guy slowed just enough to prevent another fall. Even so, Chaff’s mouth became very dry. The big guy had sunk to his knees in that pit; how deep might Lookout have fallen?
To his surprise, Wozek was not following him. Chaff supposed it made sense: so long as he ran away from Wozek’s village and not towards it, he wasn’t a threat. All the same, if their positions were reversed, Chaff would have stopped Wozek to make sure he wasn’t going back to get help or allies to-.
Chaff shook his head. That was an urchin’s way of thinking. The urchins were treacherous, murderous scumbags, and thinking like them wouldn’t help find Lookout. Just the opposite, in fact.
There were no tracks in the water, but Chaff saw footprints in the mud on higher ground. “Up, up,” he said. “That way, big guy.”
A white mist clung around them, so dense that Chaff could barely see at all. He kept looking over his shoulder; he knew the way back to Sri and Gopal, he was sure of it, but nonetheless it would be very easy to get lost in the fog…
He yelped and grabbed for the big guy’s mane as the ground sloped steeply upward. “Lookout!” he shouted. “Where you go? We gotta get back to them, yeah? They gon’ show us the way out, that’s right.”
The Quiet Marsh had only its usual response.
Chaff did not know how long he walked back, calling for Lookout. He needed to find her. He couldn’t just leave her behind. Every step forward, though, felt like he was getting left behind himself. How long would Sri wait for him? How long until Wozek decided enough was enough?
“Lookout!” shouted Chaff. “If I do something wrong, I sorry!”
He looked around, waiting.
A figure moved in the mist, and Chaff froze. His heart beat very fast. It looked like a man, and the last time he had seen a man in the mist it had been less than settling. At this moment, he wanted nothing more than a torch: not to light the figure, but to burn it.
He heard a faint mumbling. “Little by little, big guy,” said Chaff. “You see what I see?”
The big guy flicked his tail and nickered.
“Quiet now,” whispered Chaff, as they approached the shadow. The mist swirled, so that at one moment it seemed to be just ahead of them, and the next it was several body-lengths away. The closer they got, the less human it appeared, and Chaff was just about to give it up as a tree stump or rock when it moved again.
“Lookout?” he called out, forgetting his own admonition to be quiet. “You there? We can use you right now…”
Again, he heard a low mumbling. He strained his ears, but couldn’t make out the words. “You stay, big guy,” he said, slowly clambering off the camelopard’s back. “Don’t you go running off too, I don’t have no patience to go looking for you.” The boy reached into his belt and his tabula, ready as he approached the figure.
He caught the end of its muttering. “…to the sea,” it sighed, in a deep, mournful voice, so deep that it seemed to shake Chaff’s very bones. “All rivers flow to the sea. All rivers flow to me…”
Chaff edged forward, resolving in his heart of hearts that Kazakhal was the weirdest place on Albumere.
The figure shambled forward slowly, wading through the water. Chaff could make out something that looked vaguely like a head, draped with vines like dreadlocks, and its hunched back, all covered in moss and vegetation. It stumbled forward, deeper into the mist, and hesitantly Chaff followed.
“What you doing standing there, big guy? Let’s go!” hissed Chaff.
The big guy tossed his head, annoyed, and descended back into the water to follow.
Chaff followed at a safe distance, although he didn’t know what distance was safe for this thing. Its arms were like rope made out of twisted roots, and they descended into the water, going too deep for Chaff to see where they ended. In fact, Chaff could only see the creature from its waist up, as the rest of its body swayed and rocked through the water.
“All rivers flow to the sea,” it continued to mumble. “All rivers flow to me.”
“You know where Lookout is?” Chaff asked, his voice small and quiet. The shambling thing did not respond, and Chaff shrugged at the big guy. “It like a two-part beastie, yeah? Like a plantman or something. Can humans be part of two-part beasties? It’s not like we two-part alr-.”
The monster cut Chaff off as it can began to make heaving, retching sounds. Chaff watched with horrified fascination as it stopped, swayed, and swelled, the vines that seemed to either make up or surround its body expanding until finally brackish water began to spew from approximately where its mouth should have been. Great waves of the stuff hit Chaff in the chest, and he had to cling to the big guy’s leg for support as it washed over him. The creature continued to vomit water into the marsh, the vines covering its body tensing and twisting and snapping as it did.
“Yike,” gasped Chaff, spitting water out of his mouth. He had fallen under, but the hand holding the wobbling book had managed to stay dry. “You take this, big guy, I don’t want to deal with it no more,” he muttered, tying it around the camelopard’s neck with his scarf. He looked back at the shambling figure, which had resumed its plodding journey forward.
“How long you think it’s been doing that?” he breathed, as he followed further. It was against his better judgment to stay so close to something he understood so little, but Chaff’s curiosity itched to be sated. He had to know just what this thing was. Perhaps Lookout had thought the same, and by following it he would find her.
Another shadow loomed in the mist, and Chaff held his breath. It grew larger and larger as they approached, and as the details and shapes began to break through the fog Chaff realized what it was.
It was a gigantic tree root. Like some bulbous, bloated snake, it stretched on in front of Chaff; its full size could not even be seen for the fog, but Chaff was sure it had to be massive.
“How’d that song go again, big guy?” asked Chaff. “The one Sri sang us? Poltergeist that haunts the hollow, hung himself where none could follow…” Chaff hummed tunelessly to himself as he gently touched the great root. He followed along it, behind the poltergeist of the marsh, but he could see neither the trunk of the root nor the tree it fed.
“Must be a big tree,” said Chaff, to the big guy. “A real big tree.”
He heard it again. A distressed, choking sound echoed through the marsh, and even though Chaff lagged so far behind the poltergeist, he could still feel the waves lapping at his submerged legs. He stared at the ground, thinking. If Sri was to be believed, the poltergeist was located at the center of the marsh.
Perhaps, Chaff thought, the exact center.
Chaff followed the poltergeist, wondering just how long it would take a man, even a man such as it, to puke an entire swamp into existence. He made a face. “That’s really gross,” he said, to the big guy, and the big guy flicked an ear in agreement.
They caught up to the thing easily, it moved so slowly. Chaff wondered if he was the first to think of the theory. Surely other people had seen this thing; surely they had left with their lives? The poltergeist hardly seemed to be a threat at all. Perhaps, Chaff thought, with a little glow in his heart, he wasn’t as dumb as he thought he was. He wanted to tell Lookout.
“All rivers flow to the sea…” the man continued to mumble. “All rivers flow to me…”
This was taking too long. “You talk, yeah? You tell me where my friend is, that OK?” said Chaff, and he reached out to tap the poltergeist on the protrusion that appeared to be its shoulder.
The poltergeist stiffened immediately. It turned so that its waist looked like a twisted up roll of cloth, and stared at Chaff. Its arms dangled by its sides, and while at first Chaff had assumed the thing didn’t have a face, now he saw two spots in its “head,” glowing points like jade green fire.
Then it tackled him into the water, moaning. Chaff coughed and spluttered, struggling to sit up, but the weight of the thing held him down. He managed to hold his head above the water and sucked in breath, spitting the marsh out of the corners of his mouth. It took a few seconds for him to realize that the poltergeist was not holding him down. It was just…holding him.
“Father, father,” it moaned. “Brother, son. War we lost, can’t be won. Father, father, we did wrong. Now he’s got us, now we’re done. Took us apart and put us back together! Arms for legs, eyes for ears, disk made of sap where our hearts should be!”
Chaff stared at the poltergeist, at its burning green eyes, inside the slack jaw made of vines, not even sure where to begin his questions. Before he could, though, he heard a sudden humming.
The surface of the water rippled as the vibrations shook the marsh itself. The poltergeist slid off of Chaff, and the boy fell back into the water. When he emerged, wiping the grit of the swamp from his eyes, Chaff saw it again. The man made of bark, standing just so he was shrouded in the mist.
“Brother, brother, sister fair,” mumbled the poltergeist, shambling away, resuming its lonely walk. “You’re not going anywhere…”
Chaff ignored it. He did not have time for the ravings of an old ghost. It was the master he wanted.
The humming had stopped as soon as the poltergeist walked away, and the bark-made man had disappeared as soon as the humming had stopped. Chaff grit his teeth together, running as fast as he could through the deepest part of the marsh, searching for a figure in the mist.
There! He saw it! Chaff set out in a headlong run, determined to catch him.
Chaff stumbled to a halt when the figure came into view. It was not the bark-made man. It was a man made of flesh and blood, with a prone Lookout lying at his feet, with a struggling Sinndi in his hands. His hair was tangled and disheveled, and there were shadows on his face like he had not slept for days.
“Found you,” whispered Al Innai, with murder in his eyes.