Chapter 3: Into the Wild

Wukkar swung the torch all around, the alien noises of the dark jungle causing him to panic. A few paces behind him Avuksik was nervously fiddling with his spear, his eyes darting around rapidly. When a suspicious leaf brushed against his leg, Avuksik pounced, ramming his spear into the mud. Several tense moments passed as he struggled to pull the point free. After sunset the jungles had come to life, filling the air with sounds which Virpan found familiar while her companions found them unnerving.

Over the course of the trek Avuksik felt himself gradually going mad, while Virpan remained calm and aloof. A rustling bush brought him and Wukkar to a stop. They stared at it suspiciously, Wukkar waving his torch at it as Avuksik readied a spear. Virpan sighed, walking right up to the bush and pulling the leaves apart. A small bird hopped away in fright, taking flight moments later. She smirked at the frightened boys.

“H-how did you know…”

“The soft chirp,” she replied, “back to the trek then?”

“Can we make camp, please?” Avuksik asked, lowering his spear, “It’s unbearable walking around at night. I still remember the monsters mother described.”

Virpan scowled. “The monsters aren’t real,” She said shaking her head, “Karriv’s patrols are. We need to get further out.”

“How much further?” Wukkar demanded.

“Just, just a few hundred yards or so,” she assured them, “not that far at all.”

Reluctantly they followed after her. Throughout the night the alien sounds seemed to follow them, lurking just outside their tiny sphere of light. Virpan never paid them any mind. Several times she slowed and guided them on a circular path around an unseen hazard. After many minutes of walking they arrived in a clearing, the silvery moonlight illuminating the area invitingly.

“Surely we can settle down here?” Wukkar asked, waving his torch around the clearing’s edges.

“No, this is a predator’s dwelling, we must press on,” she replied, starting up again, “Come on, only a few hundred more yards, I promise.”

Once again they continued through the jungle, the moaning from Virpan’s companions beginning to eclipse the sounds of the night. After crossing two creeks and cutting through a bush patch they came to another nice clearing.

“This place looks good,” Avuksik said quietly.

“Nope, it’s overrun by ants,” she said, tapping her foot on the mounds. “Just a few hundred more yards, I promise, and then we’ll rest.”

Wukkar and Avuksik exchanged a weary glance before trudging after their still energetic leader. Tree after tree, bush after bush, step after step, on and on it went for what seemed like forever. Long into the night Virpan at last came to a stop.

“This looks like a safe stop,” she said quietly, pacing around the perimeter, “you can set up your camp here and we’ll call it a night.”

“Oh, oh thank you,” Avuksik said flopping down to the ground with a loud thud.

“That, that was not, just a few, few hundred yards” Wukkar wheezed, squatting down to rest.

“If you say so,” Virpan muttered.

Tired and hungry, the two unrolled their blankets and began devouring what provisions they had. Meanwhile, Virpan strolled off into the trees looking carefully through the branches. After a few minutes, she returned to the clearing with several sumptuous pieces of fruit and a honeycomb. Avuksik stared at her, wondering how she’d managed that. Once his stomach was full, he curled up on his blanket, ready for a long nap.

However, the cacophony of alien sounds all around them kept him awake and worried. Chirping bugs became snapping twigs beneath the paws of some monster stalking them through the night. Cawing birds became the terrible cries of cannibal hunters tromping through the jungle in search of prey. Strange squeaking became rodent monsters moving beneath the ground.

Then there came a new sound from nearby, one which eclipsed all the others. It was an odd humming noise that stood out against the other sounds of the night.  Curious, he rose to investigate.

By the dim moonlight he carefully navigated toward the sound emerging onto the bank of a calm pool of spring water. In the middle there stood a figure, water dripping from its frame. His heart skipped a beat, for a moment thinking it was a water spirit. Then he realized it was Virpan. She was bathing in the water while quietly singing, appearing completely natural.

It took only a moment to ruin the sight.

The branch he was leaning against gave way, sending him crashing down into the water. Immediately the quiet melody ceased. Sputtering, Avuksik staggered to his feet, looking sheepishly at Virpan. She remained still, staring blankly back at him. For a few moments they stood in silence. Then she turned away and ignored him, though the melody did not return. Feeling terrible, Avuksik trudged back to the campsite and flopped down onto his blanket. He didn’t even try to dry off. He deserved to be wet and miserable.

As impossible as it seemed, eventually he drifted off into a horrible sleep, hunted by cannibal bird monsters and their rodent-jaguar pets. Hunted and trapped, the smell of cooking meat awoke Avuksik from his nightmares. He sat bolt upright, snapping his head back and forth while the monstrous visions faded back into nothing. While breathing a sigh of relief, something which he hoped was a caterpillar fell out of his hair.

After a quickly check confirmed it was a harmless bug, he rose and walked to the cooking fire where Virpan was roasting a several chunks of meat. Then the events of the previous night flashed back through his mind. For a moment Avuksik hesitated, wondering if he could be forgiven. Then Virpan extended out her hand and offered him a piece of fruit. He took it awkwardly and sat down nearby. After tentatively taking a few bits he spoke.

“Uh, so, what are you cooking?”

“Snake,” she replied, “Found her nesting at your feet.”

“Ehket!”

“I’m kidding,” Virpan said smiling, “Really, though, I don’t hold anything against you.”

“Oh, good.”

“I don’t hold last night against you. The whining, moaning, and slowing me down are a different story.”

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know you felt that way about it.”

“I’m used to going my own pace, and, well, uh,” she broke off suddenly, and seemed to stare off into the distance for a moment. Then her eyes snapped back to Avuksik. “Get Wukkar up. Now, wake him, now!”

The look of concern on her face left Avuksik genuinely unsettled. He quickly rousted Wukkar. Vripan paced back and forth, glancing at the bushes near the creek while they hastily packed. The moment Wukkar and Avuksik were ready to leave Virpan started slowly walking towards the rising run, urging them to quietly follow. They exchanged a glance, remembering everything that she had brushed off without a second look.

Rustling sounds around them became even more terrifying than before. The sounds seemed to creep closer with every passing minute. Avuksik’s imagination began forming images of monsters, and demons and witches lurking just out of sight. After pushing through the foliage for what must have been several miles they came to the bank of a wide stream. A low growling emanated uncomfortably close behind them.

“W-what was that?” Wukkar asked, leaning back against a tree. Virpan flashed him a look of warning, and shushed him to silence.

“A jaguar, inspecting his territory,” she hissed as she, stepped into the stream. “And he’s not gone.”

“Eh, heh, oh,” He sputtered, backing into the water.

“We need to cross, before he decides we smell like food.”

With an ominous purring coming from just out of sight, Avuksik and Wukkar quickly waded after Virpan. Around the halfway point of the stream, Avuksik worked up his courage and looked back. For a moment he saw a huge catlike head peering out from a fern, a long tongue licking around the lips. Then it was gone, though not forgotten.

Wishing he had not turned around, Avuksik tried to block the image from his mind. On the other shore Virpan stopped for a moment and leaned against a tree, giving them the signal it was ok to take a short rest. Wukkar dropped down on the beach, the color starting to return to his face. Then he doubled over in pain.

“Oh, food,” he said, digging through his bedroll, “where is my food?”

“You ate it all last night,” Avuksik grumbled, quite hungry himself, “here, I’ve got just a bit left.”

“Hang on,” Virpan said, shaking her head.

In a flash she had vanished. Avuksik gnawed on his last tiny cracker, wondering what they would do without her. As quickly as she had left, Virpan returned laden with fruit. She sighed, giving out her spoils.

“Make this last, please, it’s hard enough finding food for myself.”

The two men ate the feast, filling up in no time. After finishing breakfast Virpan started walking off again. The two quickly followed, knowing how lost they would be without her.

-#-

Father Sanja stumbled down the trail, his cramping legs screaming for a rest. The warriors surrounding him ignored his plight. Several times his mind wandered to message, wondering if Virpan was savvy enough to evade Karriv’s trackers. If she and the message could make it to the mountains then he could bear a painful existence in Karriv’s dungeon. The jungle finally broke depositing them on the end of a long maize field.

The warriors slowed their pace, much to Sanja’s relief. At the far side stood the Politlapitlo wall. The ancient barrier separated Karriv’s city from the people he ruled. A door covered in spikes barred the entrance, a wooden portcullis dangling overhead. The guards flanking the arch nodded to the returning warriors, the door flying aside. Beyond was a roadway of uneven stones leading to a raised plinth where Karriv’s palace stood.

Small plants sprouted from between the broken paving stones, a gloom hanging over the entire plaza. The procession marched towards the palace, a number of brutalized peasants milling around the area. Partially collapsed buildings stood near clogged, neglected waterways. The plaza below the palace was lined with a number of impaled criminals. Sanja was hauled into the entryway and down a dank corridor into Karriv’s throne room.

The vaulted ceiling was barely visible above him. A few shafts of light fell into the smoky chamber from narrow slits high up on the walls. Most of the light came from sickly torches clinging to the columns. The walls were draped with tapestries depicting the exploits of Karriv and his forbearers.

At the far end of the room sat the warlord himself. He was a towering man with powerful muscles, clad in a cape of feathers and matching crown. The warriors formed a line before the throne and bowed, one forcing Sanja to his knees as well. Karriv looked them expectantly, tapping his scribe on the shoulder.

“Make special note of the date, Tomalsa, for this moment will go down in history.”

“Of course, my lord,” he said, scribbling it onto his parchment.

“Splendid,” he said, rising from his throne, “now, Sanja, it has been quite awhile since we last spoke.”

“Not nearly long enough,” he croaked, trying to remain defiant.

“Don’t be that way,” Karriv said, snapping his fingers. One of the warriors clocked Sanja in the shoulder with his club, a torrent of pain rushing through the old man. “We could have had a fruitful relationship, you and I.”

“Never, never would I bow to your evil.”

“Such a pity,” Karriv sighed, shaking his head. “Fortunately your compatriot Panto has been much more forthcoming.”

“That snake,” Sanja spat, “may his bones be scattered to the frigid wastes below.”

“The snake is sacred to my tribe, old man,” Karriv said, “and he may have saved your order. All I ever desired from you Valtorites was a little cooperation.”

Sanja silently shook his head. Several quiet moments passed.

“Nothing more to say then?” Karriv asked. He gave Sanja a minute to reply, but the old monk held his tongue. “Very well.”

Karriv snapped his fingers. On cue a gaunt man with cold, dark eyes appeared from the shadows. He wore loose yellow robes and carried a staff carved with runes. A row of tattooed glyphs on his forearms revealed that the man was a sorcerer.

“Haiwthash,” Karriv said quietly, “escort our new guest to his quarters, see that he is made comfortable. Then extract every scrap of information locked in his pretty old scull.”

“Of course,” Haiwthash said tonelessly.

He walked to Sanja and grabbed the old man’s bindings. His grip was surprisingly strong. He forced Sanja to his feet, murmuring alien words beneath his breath. Unable to resist, Sanja marched with the sorcerer around Karriv’s throne and down into the dank dungeons.

With the old man taken care of, Karriv turned to his warriors. “A little bird has told me that our dear friend Sanja has dispatched a letter to the west. I would very much like to read its contents.”

“Consider it yours, my lord,” the captain said, nodding his head.

“You will be going as well, of course,” Karriv said nodding, “but I really cannot take any chances here. Ja’eshuk!”

From a darkened corner of the room emerged a tall, slender figure dressed in a dark colored camouflage suit. A number of knife hilts protruded from bulges in her clothing. She marched up to Karriv, only her cold, jade eyes visible from beneath her headscarf. Karriv inspected his master hunter.

“I trust you know what I wish from you?”

“Of course, my lord,” she said, bowing, “I shall hunt down the messenger and bring you his head.”

“Excellent, but you won’t be going alone,” he said. “Hishlozu! Come here my master of blades.”

He waited for a moment, his master warrior a no show. Though her face was hidden, Karriv knew that Ja’eshuk was smirking. Embarrassed, he made the most of the situation.

“Ja’eshuk, go fetch him, and inform him of your assignment. And that I want him to be present during my meetings.”

Ja’eshuk nodded, gliding out of the room to begin the hunt. As she left the chamber, Tomalsa rose from his seat. The pasty bean-counter hesitated for a moment wondering how best to word his concern.

“Go on,” Karriv said, sensing his subordinate’s unease.

“Uh, well sir, I was considering that the messenger must have a considerable lead by now, and, could have taken .”

“Indeed, the thought had crossed my mind.”

“I have no doubts about Ja’eshuk’s skills,” he said, glancing over his shoulder, “do not misunderstand. But perhaps it would be prudent to, prepare for every, eventuality.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“I have a few contacts in a mercenary guild on the far side of the Krags,” he said quickly. “One carrier pigeon and we’ll have a man ready to head the messenger off.”

“Do it.”

Tomalsa bowed, already thinking of a mercenary perfectly suited to the task.

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