Iku told me how different his second arrival to Leowi was compared to his first. When he was brought into the village from Koura after the unfortunate incident at the warehouse, he was barely treated better than a prisoner. Even though Leowi has something of a reputation for being wary of outsiders and a generally unfriendly place, he had not expected such a cold welcome. He expected a similar sense of dread when he returned along with Jutek, however to his surprise he saw a village that had an air of peace and serenity about it. It seemed that the Leowians had mastered the art of hiding their comfortable and inviting way of life from foreigners under a shroud of spite, possibly in order to preserve it. His description of the view, of the people tending the fields as children helped and played around them, of the gentle wind carrying joyous voices was made all the sadder by the knowledge of what would later befall the village.
The gates of Leowi creaked open, and into the village came Captain Imuz’s troop of guards, still surrounding Iku and Jutek. The village was much like Iku remembered it – wide, open spaces, huts and tents strewn about with little by way of organisation, stands and stalls haphazardly placed often in the way, the odd bonfire crackling and the ever pervasive smell of honey lingering in the air. And the bees. Leowi was known – granted, by few – for its honey, and many of the locals were beekeepers. As the group travelled to a large building near the center of the village, they passed by a small clearing where a number of guards were training. Jutek tapped Iku on the shoulder. Again, the being’s intent to be gentle failed and Iku hissed quietly. Nevertheless, he looked back at his companion. “Jutek! Amah Jutek!” – The large being said with enthusiasm while pointing at the guards. Iku raised an eyebrow. “Imuz, stop for a moment!” – He said. “What now?” – The captain was clearly bothered, and anxious to meet the elder. “Just a moment.” – Iku chided him. He turned back to Jutek, and pointed at him. “Jutek.” The being nodded. Iku then pointed at Imuz. “Jutek?” He made sure his tone was inquisitive. The being nodded again. Iku pointed to one of the other guards around them, and once again asked. The being nodded for a third time. He then pointed at the guards training off their left, and repeated the question. His companion nodded one more time. Jutek isn’t his name, it’s his profession. – He thought to himself. Iku then pointed back at Imuz. “Imuz.” – He said. Then he raised his hand to his chest. ”Iku.” He then pointed to the previous guard. “Kovi.” – He said. Then he pointed at Jutek, expectantly. The being thought for a moment, shrugged and shook his head. “Jutek.” – He said, with a twang of sadness in his voice. “He isn’t called Jutek, Jutek means he’s a guard, or soldier.” – Iku explained enthusiastically, even though the guards around him were thoroughly unimpressed. “Fascinating. Can we proceed?” – Imuz asked, impatiently.
The group finally arrived at the large central building. This was the village hall, and the residence of the elder. The practice of villages electing elders as spiritual leaders reached back beyond recorded history, though it has been increasingly abandoned, especially since the War of the Broken Spear. Out here, however, far from other settlements, the old ways prevailed. The elder was the de facto ruler of the village, and the guard answered to him. As the group arrived, they were approached by one of the guards stationed there. He approached Imuz, and raised a balled fist to his heart as a salutation. “Captain.” – He said, monotone. The sudden widening of his eyes indicated that he noticed Jutek. “Wha… what is that?” – His fear was apparent. “That is for the elder to decide. Iku’anga here happened upon it on the southwest beach. It came from beyond.” – He almost whispered the last sentence, then turned to Iku. “Allegedly.” – The guard quickly signaled his counterpart and the pair opened the large, robust doors of the hall before Imuz’s group. Jutek had to stoop in order to fit through without damaging the frame. They came into a large dark room, illuminated by a few dim braziers. The back wall was stone, and bore many carvings. Eight large symbols, and eight smaller ones below each, were most prominent, with lengthy passages of writing below them. In Front of this stone wall was a small throne, woven from exceptionally large pink flower petals – and in it sat the elder. He was Ixaman, like Iku, but shorter, more frail. His plumage was larger and more dense, however its colors were weaker, and the white had turned to grey over the years. The gaps between his hardened scales were more pronounced, and many bore scars and tattoos. The elder’s eyes were closed, his breathing barely noticeable. Iku could not decide whether he was meditating or asleep. “Revered elder. We come before you in humility bearing news of great import…” – Imuz spoke as if reciting a speech he was forced to learn. “The lone guardsman posted to the Nameless Coast left his station and came to the village. He came with what he claims is justification for his transgression, however your insight is required, as is your council. The guardsman has encountered… met, a being unlike anything we’ve seen or heard of before. The guardsman claims the being came from… beyond.” The elder’s eyes remained shut throughout Imuz’s speech, but snapped open upon hearing the last word. He immediately noticed Jutek. The being was even more intimidating and fearsome in the dark, as onlookers could no longer be sure where his black armored body ended and the shadows begun. The flames dancing in the braziers were soothing and calming, however their reflections on his black, jagged armor were violent and foreboding. His small, deep eyes had a sinister glint, in spite of his efforts to take on a peaceful facial expression. The elder regarded him. “Step forward.” He said, with not a hint of fear in his voice. The guards surrounding Jutek stood aside, forming a corridor of sorts towards the elder, however they were now alert and tense. Though Jutek did not understand the words, the situation was clear to him, and he took a few slow steps forward, making them as gentle as he could manage. The elder rose, and regarded Jutek. “And where do you hail from, traveller?” – He asked. Jutek first cocked his head, then looked back towards Iku. The small Ixaman pushed past the guards and ran next to Jutek. “He does not speak our language, nor does he understand.” – He said to the elder, bowing quickly in between words. Imuz shot him and angry look. “And who are you, guardsman, to speak without being spoken to?” – The elder asked, anger in his voice. “I found him, Revered Elder.” – Iku replied. The face of the elder softened, if only slightly. “Hm. So you are the one who left his post? That is a grave crime as you undoubtedly know.” – The elder said, and looked back to Jutek. “I know of you, Kotahitanga Iku’anga Ohipa, and I know your past. I would be inclined to exact judgement based on that alone, however… I cannot ignore this. Not even knowing your dishonor can diminish the importance of this discovery.” – He looked back at Iku. “I must know everything that you can tell.” – He said. Jutek was shifting his weight from one foot to the other, nervous. Iku touched his hand gently, and tried to calm him with his gaze. Looking back at the elder, he began. “He’s called Jutek. I think. I might actually just mean he’s a guard, or soldier, but I’m not sure. He washed ashore some days past. He was the only one, but he managed to tell me that there were others. They were on a ship. He alone survived.” – Iku explained. “And what of this ship? Why did the others perish?” – The elder asked. Iku was unsure of what to say. If he told them that he didn’t actually see the ship, he only saw smoke rise from the Talons one day, and Jutek washing ashore soon after, they might think he is some kind of demon or other fell creature. “Am I sure he isn’t, though?” – Iku pondered. For the first time since their shared meal, he was wrought with doubt as to the danger posed by his companion. “Speak then, speak.” – The elder encouraged him. “The ship… I saw the ship run up on the jagged stone ring around the Talons of Lixam. It was far, on the southwestern side, the ship was but a speck. Smoke rose, and later Jutek washed ashore.” – He lied as much as he thought he must. “The Talons?!” – Imuz cried, and immediately drew his spear. The other guards followed suit. “The Talons are cursed, and so is he! Iku, why did you not say? We should never have let him into the village!” – The captain continued. “No, no, he didn’t come from the Talons, Imuz! His ship run afoul!” – Iku replied. “Stand down captain. If this being were harboring the ill will of Lixam, Leowi would have fallen already.” The elder said to Imuz. This seemingly calmed the captain, but he did not sheathe his weapon yet. “Elder, I must suggest greater caution, we cannot know its intent…” – He began. “Captain. I told you to stand down. I have encountered much that is new to me in my years, and many dangers. I do not feel this being is harboring ill will.” – The elder said with absolute calm. “Now, I believe Iku and… Jutek have much to tell me, but these are not ideal circumstances. Captain, please take your men and wait outside my doors.” – The elder said. “Elder, I must object…” – Imuz began his plea. “Now, captain.” – The elder’s voice was strict. Imuz opened his mouth for further objection, but decided against it and simply bowed and turned. His men followed suit, and soon only the elder, Jutek and Iku were in the dark hall. “Now, Iku. Please, continue.”
Iku told the tale of his and Jutek’s journey from his post to the village in as much detail as he could. In the meantime, he and his companion both dropped to a seated position on the floor of the hall. Through his recounting, the elder’s gaze remained fixed on Jutek. Once Iku was done, the old Ixaman remained silent for many moments. “I am perplexed by this. The Talons have always been a place of death. If your interpretation of his tale is correct, this being is the only known survivor of any encounter. And to think he is from the beyond! Never in my many years have even rumors of such a discovery sprung.” – The elder’s awe lent him a newfound air of youth. “As elder, I was elected to guide the people of this village with my knowledge and wisdom. I guide them by the ways of the forces that govern our world. However by no measure of lore can I offer counsel in this case. I am afraid, Iku, that your journey has not yet concluded.” – He said. Iku noticed a shift in the elder’s disposition towards him, as if his presentation of a riddle the elder could not solve earned him respect. “This issue is not one in which I alone may decide, for it could have implications for all of Ixamil. I will call for a conclave in Koura. There are no rules, no traditions that could apply to this unique case which dictate action. Naturally, Jutek will need to appear at this conclave. He seems to trust you, thus your presence is also required.” – The elder said. “This is it! No longer will my name be scorned! No longer will I be exiled to a forsaken beach!” – Iku knew that fortune was at his side. To be invited – or, rather ordered – to be present at a conclave of elders without actually being one carries with it great honour. Iku would surely be given a position in the capital after it concluded. The whole while, Jutek sat quietly, shifting his gaze from Iku to the elder and back again repeatedly. “Huzlet? Huzlet Jutek?” – He said for the first time. Both Ixaman looked at him, puzzled. The question was clear in the being’s eyes: what will happen to him? Iku placed a hand on Jutek’s massive knee to calm him. “We’re going to the capital, Jutek.” – Iku tried to convey his meaning with intonation rather than words. He turned to the elder. “Revered Elder, could I be so bold as to request paper and a quill?” – He asked. The elder nodded, and produced the items from a compartment below his vibrant throne. Iku quickly scribbled a couple of huts with a circle around them, showed it to Jutek, and pointed downward, to the ground. “Leowi. Village.” – He said. Jutek nodded quickly. Iku then drew larger huts and buildings, and a bigger wall around them, and pointed at it. “Koura.” – He said. While Jutek was beginning to lose track, he comprehended that Iku is speaking of another settlement. Iku then drew two sets of small and one set of very big footprints going from the drawing of Leowi to the drawing of Koura. He pointed at the two small footprints, then to the elder, then to himself, and finally to the large footprints and to Jutek. The being understood, and nodded enthusiastically. He pointed at the quill in Iku’s hand. “You want to draw?” – He asked, handing it to Jutek. The tiny quill was ill-fitting in the large armored hand of Jutek, who only managed a messy and rough drawing on the soft paper. Showing it to the two Ixaman, he cocked his head to indicate a question. The elder could not make out the shape, however Iku recognized a messy version of the strange ship Jutek drew into the sand days before. “He’s asking if there are ships in Koura. I imagine he wants some way home.” – Iku translated to the elder, before looking at Jutek and nodding. The being, satisfied, turned the page back to himself and stared at it, possibly dreaming of the ship. “You realize he will not be permitted to leave for some time…” – The elder whispered to Iku. “Nor can I guarantee he will be. Ever.” – He said, eyes narrowing. “Ever? Elder, we can’t keep him there against his will! I doubt we could even if we wanted to, but what gives us the right?” – Iku asked, barely hiding his outrage as the suggestion. “You must understand, young one. This is unprecedented. He may have been peaceful so far, but you cannot ignore the possibility of a threat. We know nothing of him, nor his people. The peace that now reigns over Ixamil is young and fragile, and we cannot anticipate the outcome of the conclave.” – He explained. “I understand you might have begun to feel kinship towards this being, but remember where your loyalty lies. Remember your blood.” – There was warning in his voice. “We three and some guards will leave for Koura in two days. You should rest in that time, for the road is long. We will travel by foot for two weeks before taking boats downstream for another four days, and then take the North Road for a week more before we reach the capital.” – The elder said. He pulled a small rope laying next to his throne, which in turn pulled on a small bell near the door, making a soft but demanding clang. Imuz stepped in a moment later. “I am here, Revered Elder.” – He said. “Our visitor and young guard need lodgings for the next two days. Make sure the… Jutek, has ample room. Select three of your men and prepare to leave for the capital, you will escort us. I will be coming too.” – The elder told him. “O-of course, wise one.” – Imuz said after a moment’s pause. The elder turned to Iku and Jutek. “And now leave. Take your rest, and I will send word of the conclave. Recover your strength, you will need it for the trek ahead.” – He said. Later that evening, Iku and Jutek saw a tuft of colorful smoke rise from the village hall. Unlike smoke usually does, this trail did not dissipate, and the higher it drifted, the more vibrant the colors were, until they began to glow dimly. The smoke just rose, and rose, and was undoubtedly seen hundreds of fields away. The elder of the next village would read the message out of the colors, and send it to the next, and the message would travel along the many villages of the island until it reached Koura.
The next two days passed without much in way of occurrences. Jutek was seemingly fascinated by the way of life led by the villagers, and displayed a keen interest in their rudimentary mechanisms. However, it was magic that most intrigued him. He watched attentively when a young acolyte of Water threw a mixture of Skytears into the ceremonial pyre, causing a patch of clouds over the crop fields to darken and expel rain upon the thirsty plants below, with nary a drop falling two huts away. Most of the locals were quite visibly afraid of Jutek, though this did not seem to bother the large being. He stayed with Iku the whole time, following him everywhere. At one point Jutek attempted to inquire as to how and where to relieve himself, by way of pointing towards one of the guards who was attempting to “water the shrubs” while on duty without drawing attention to himself. Jutek’s pointing and loud speech drew the attention of several villages as well as Captain Imuz, who promptly scolded the guard. None of the water-closets of Leowi were built to… support a user of Jutek’s size or weight, so Iku accompanied him to the treeline outside the village, allowing the being to answer the call of nature in the thicket. The elder called for a feast to welcome Jutek their first evening, and while the villagers avoided him during the day and regarded him with suspicion, they seemed to loosen up thanks to the music and plentiful food during the feast. None shied away from sharing a table with Jutek, who ate with ferocity. While not once did he object to the diet of lean, dried meat, fish and assorted fruit he ate while with Iku, it was clear that he greatly enjoyed real food. Throughout the night, he repeatedly attempted to praise the quality of the provisions, and while most understood his meaning, the display was somewhat disquieting. Though Iku technically was a resident of Leowi, being a member of its guard, he had no lodgings in the village. He and Jutek were given accommodation in an emptied hut meant for guard contingents travelling through – even though none ever did -, giving the two of them space meant to house 18 strong Ixamil soldiers. Even so, Jutek’s size made the hut seem almost too small for the two of them. The next day was spent with rest and plentiful eating. Jutek was up early, as he was intent on experiencing as much of Leowi as possible before they left. During the day, Iku offered to accompany one of the jungle patrols, as he wished to retain the favor he had gained with the elder. To his dismay, the offer was accepted. Naturally, Jutek followed him along. Before soon the being found himself at the front of the group after Iku told the others about how easily Jutek tore through the overgrowth. Upon their return, Iku was given a new set of equipment. He received armor, a new spear, a dagger, a small waterskin, the length of rope and a small carved whistle fashioned from the house of a snail. “Leather armor! A dagger!” – Iku thought, ecstatic. When we was sent on his way to his beach post for the first time, he was given an old, dull spear and no garments. He set out with but the robe on his back. Now, he was given a set of light leather armor, composed of a harness with one shoulder pad adorned with a Leowian sigil, a pair of gloves, a bracer and shin-guards. His dagger was full tang and double bladed, its hilt wrapped in coarse hide strips woven together. A larger waterskin was given to Jutek for the journey ahead. The night once again marked a feast, however the guardsmen who were to accompany Iku, Jutek and the elder turned in early.
The company gathered at dawn, in the small clearing behind Leowi’s gates. The elder appeared in a vibrant, bright red garment with yellow accents, bearing a large wooden staff with a golden flower at its tip. Imuz trailed close behind him. The three guards who were to accompany them were an Ithipaaksi male called Huli, a Miztoxi male called Kumiz and an Oomagtl female named Finto. The company, totaling seven, carried several packs of provisions, supplies, and various tools. While much of Tnipatla was connected by a network of patrolled roads, all of which eventually led to Koura, Leowi fell outside of this network, and thus the journey would take the party through large stretches of wilderness, especially in the mountainous regions of the island. “Companions, Revered Elder. We are about to set out to Koura. Myself, Iku and the Elder have all completed this trek before. Kumiz, I believe you served at the river guard post where we will embark on boats. For the rest of you, this is unknown country. We travel as light as we dare, and will hunt if necessary. The trip to Koura will take about a month, depending on our pace…- He trailed off, glancing at the elder timidly and with slight embarrassment on his face. “Frailty may indeed come with age, my dear captain, but this elder is still swift on his feet.” – The elder said, joke in his voice and scorn on his face. “O-of course, Revered Elder.” – Imuz bowed. Regarding his men, he turn back into the confident and strong leader that he was to all other than the elder. “We will take few rests and keep urgency in our stride. The conclave is set to convene in Koura seven weeks from yesterday. I intend to be in the city early.” – He said. “Let us depart.” – He walked over to Iku and Jutek while the guards strapped on their packs and started towards the now open gate. “I’m not sure how well you can make yourself be understood by this being, but try to explain to him that our journey will be long and hard, but we must hurry…” – He said. “No need. He will suffer the least, I assure you. Not I, nor your guards could ever hope to match his endurance, not with Swiftfoot speeding our steps.” – Iku interrupted the busybody captain, who was clearly annoyed by the boldness of one who amounts to a subordinate. Whatever lecture or objection he intended, Imuz kept to himself. He nodded quickly and hurried to the bow of the company. By that time, a small crowd had gathered around them in spite of the earliness of the hour. Among them were the families of Imuz and his guards. Though they said their goodbyes already in private, the wives, husbands, siblings and children gathered to see them off. Even though they would be gone for several months, and the journey through the wilderness had its dangers, the air was not filled with sorrow. The public’s fear of Jutek had turned into curiosity by that time, and while none knew exactly, all suspected the weight of his discovery. Excitement and anticipation filled the air, as if the very vibrations of it were whispering to the company that every denizen of Leowi will hold their breaths until they hear news of them. And so, the company set off. They followed a narrow trail worn out of the grassy plain by many feet before they reached the treeline opposite of the place where Iku and Jutek emerged days earlier. This time Jutek hurried ahead and assumed the role of leader early and without waiting for it to be asked of him, though he often glanced backwards for directions. Iku trailed behind him abreast with Imuz, as the trail cleared by the massive being was wide enough for both of them to fit comfortably side by side. Behind them came the elder, quite closely, and behind him came the three guards at a polite distance. “Those claws of his are quite useful.” – Imuz said, seemingly with little care, to Iku. “And yet you do not seem pleased.” – The Ixaman replied. Imuz looked him in the eye. “We – our peoples – have lived in this jungle for centuries. We lived with it, respected it. Our trails were narrow, and we allowed nature to reclaim it in between uses. It was fair. Your friend here tears saplings from the soil roots and all. He does it because we asked speed of him. He may not be hostile, you said as much… but it would be foolish to think him harmless.” – Imuz was concerned, and clearly still mistrustful of Jutek. “I- I know. Even after all this time, part of me still fears him, but not for fear of malice. He’s different, unlike anything I’ve ever seen or even heard of. An outsider. But I’ve also seen in him familiar things, things I recognize. The way he regards the night sky, with the same awe I too feel.” – Iku explained. “No, Imuz, he is not harmless. Not at all. But neither are we. And like us, he will exercise restraint, I guarantee this.” – Iku returned Imuz’s gaze. “I do hope you are right, Iku.” – He said, turning his head. Only then did they realise that Jutek’s head was slightly turned their way the whole time.
The trek through the jungle was arduous. After some time the vegetation grew so thick that it slowed even Jutek down, though it could also have been fatigue. The company carried on without rest until well into the afternoon, when they finally arrived at a small “bubble” devoid of trees or too much vegetation in the jungle. It was far too small to be called a clearing, and above it the canopy was unbroken, however the trees around bent and grew in ways which resulted in a slightly larger, open area. Here they stopped to eat, rest and get their bearings. Imuz and Iku discussed which direction they should go, as Jutek’s presence made it reasonable to consider more direct paths that would be otherwise inefficient due to dense vegetation. After some minutes, Imuz turned to the others. “We’ll be straying off the regular route hence. Provided Jutek can continue to clear the path ahead, taking a more direct route up the mountain will allow us to shave a whole day off our journey.” – He said. “Should we impose upon him, though?” – Huli asked. “With all due respect…” – He quickly added. Imuz furrowed his brow and turned to Iku for an answer. It took the Ixaman a moment to notice the silence and look up from the map. “Uh…Yes, yes, I think Jutek will gladly help us with this.” – He folded the map and turned to the others fully. “I’m not sure if he even gets tired at all. He certainly never showed any sign of it before.” – By this point everyone was looking at the large being, who sat unmoving, jaw frozen in the motion of chewing, ever since his name was uttered. “Futo hüzmet?” – He asked. Iku hopped closer and indicated with his arms and by shaking his head that Jutek should not be concerned. The being seemed annoyed at the lack of any further explanation, but left it at that. Considering this the end of the exchange, everyone settled. Iku went up to Jutek, and sat down next to him. He tugged the being’s arm, and unfolded the map for him. Jutek immediately recognized the drawing of the three ominous stone pillars that made up the Talons of Lixam, and based on that he could approximate where they were. He placed his finger on the small dot indicating Leowi, and pointed backward in the approximate direction of the village. Iku nodded, smiling. The Ixaman then walked two of his fingers up the map from Leowi to Koura, and jabbed the capital’s dot on the map. Jutek understood. The roads and paths connecting various locations were also indicated on this map, and the dotted line representing the path between Leowi and Koura wound all about the jungle and mountains in between the two. Iku placed his hand on one of Jutek’s claws, then he showed him that their path will be a straight line between the two settlements. The being looked up for a moment, into the thicket, then back at Iku and nodded. Looking back at the map, he began examining the whole thing. Based on it, he was now on an island, one of many. The southwesternmost island, in fact, with only the ever hated Talons further in this direction. This island, called Tnipatla, was roughly shaped like a “Y” laid on one side. Westward were four smaller islands, which seemed to be extensions of one branch of the Y, while northward were a number of exceptionally large sandbars, two of which were big enough to support permanent settlements. North again of these was a large, circular island which rose out of the sea as a plateau, called Āwhio. To its east was a large cluster of dozens upon dozens of smaller islets named the Moloni Pebbles, one of which was home to the recently founded Kāinga City which acted as the grand capital of all the islands. To the east again was an island resembling an “L” rotated 180°. On its western leg was a large desert, wherein five cities were positioned in a perfect cross. East of this desert were some foothills which grew into a mountain range, home to the highest peak of the archipelago. South of it was another mountain range with snow capped peaks, and south again was a jungle, which was home to the Ixaman, Iku’s people. The island itself was known as Matua, and was the largest of them all. South of Matua lay a rather characterless island, Itemoya, with just plains and some jungle decorating its surface. Between Tnipatla and Itemoya lay a pair of islands collectively known as the Mahanga, and individually as Tuakana and Taina. Granted, Jutek could not read any of the writing on the map, only recognize the shape of the islands. Based on how close to the shore the dot of Leowi was in spite of being days away, the islands were each as large as individual nations. Jutek spent a few minutes examining the map, with its many abstract symbols representing various geographical formations and regions. He recognized some, while others were a mystery to him. Once he looked up at Iku, indicating he was done studying the map, the small creature folded it up and tucked it into his belt. Iku plopped down next to his companion, who was noticeably seated somewhat farther away from the group. “I know this must be difficult for you, Jutek. In a strange land, alone…” – He muttered at the being. “You can’t even understand our words to you or each other. I can’t quite imagine how frustrating it might be.” – Iku continued. Jutek looked at him while continuing to eat. There was understanding mingled with sadness in his small, deep-set eyes, as if even though he did not understand the words, he understood Iku’s meaning. “Kumiz, Finto! See if you can catch anything by way of food.” – Imuz ordered the guards. “We rest here until nightfall, then we carry on.” – The Captain was more generous with their pace in light of their new path. “You would have us wade through the jungle after dark?” – Huli objected. Imuz shot the guard – a veteran, which is why he allowed himself the comment – an angry look. “We may have spared a day, but our task is still urgent. We are a company of seven, and Jutek’s size alone will prevent any predator from mistaking us for a meal.” – The Captain replied. “A troop cannot travel with just one mule. You depend too much on our guest.” – Huli rebutted. “And you depend too much on your years as justification for your tone, Huli. Be silent, or you’ll be welcome to trek home on your own. Through the jungle. At nighttime.” – Imuz met Huli’s gaze, and held his ground. Imuz was younger, and thus less experienced than Huli, leading the older guard to often feel that he should be giving the orders. While this frustration was not severe enough to lead to resentment – Huli genuinely respected his Captain’s capabilities – it did lead to friction. When the previous Captain died in a bandit raid 4 years earlier, Huli expected to receive the position, however when a contingent of reinforcements replacing the dead guards arrived from Koura, so did a new Captain – Imuz. Ever since the nations, tribes and isles of Ixamil unified under a single banner 45 years ago, the capitals of each island sought to exact greater control on formerly independent communities. This lead to tension and mistrust in many villages throughout Ixamil, however luckily Leowi always maintained good relations with Koura, and Imuz did have blood-ties to the village on his mother’s side. After a few quiet hours, Kumiz and Finto returned bearing a number of large rodents which were found in great numbers throughout the jungle. They immediately skinned and gutted their bounty, and with the help of the elder and a ritual pyre, enchanted them with the seal of Preservation, ensuring that they will remain fresh even days later. “Never knew it would be this handy to have a shaman along.” – Finto joked. “Have some respect. The elder is more than just any shaman.” – Kumiz chided her. “And his hearing is better than his age would suggest!” – Shouted the Elder from the other side of their impromptu camp with a laugh. Finto didn’t know how to apologies suddenly, and all the guards tensed in anticipation of the Elder’s wrath, puzzled by his merriness. When the dreaded scolding and punishment did not come to pass, the guards remained clenched in lieu of any further reaction from the Elder, whom they always knew as a strict and thoroughly humorless man. Soon night blanketed the world in its dark yet warm embrace, indicated by the fact that the golden blades of light which cut through the canopy were replaced by a soft, dim omnipresent glow. The Elder produced a mixture of herbs used for navigation, which he tossed into the small pyre. Upon catching fire, the small leaves and weeds puffed up a cloud of smoke, after which the flames began leaning to one side as if blown by wind, even though the air was still. The direction in which the blades of the fire jutted indicated north. With the help of their burning compass, Imuz pointed in the direction which led straight to Koura – which was, incidentally, the opposite direction as their originally intended path – and the group gathered. Jutek produced his monstrous claws, and began trimming the thick jungle ahead, chewing a path through the vines, trees, shrubs and other plants woven together into a near impenetrable natural wall.
Jutek tore through the thicket without rest or any indication of fatigue well into the night. The wide warpath he left behind him provided comfortable footing for his companions, any yet its sight disquieted the group. Imuz even asked the Elder whether the increase speed was worth the destruction. The old Ixaman understood the Captain’s worry, but assured him of their urgency. The troop walked without rest until they reached a small clearing next to a tall stony cliff-face. The three moons hung above them in the company of the myriad colorful stars. “We rest here for the night.” – Imuz said. “What’s left of it…” – Mumbled Kumiz. Imuz did not hear the remark, or simply chose to ignore it. “We’ll scale the wall when morning comes. The mountains ahead will be difficult to traverse, as the thick jungle will be coupled with steep rises and dangerous falls. Iku, make sure our friend is prepared. I’d hate to see him fall to his untimely death – and even if he’d survive, we’d hardly be able to pull him up.” – The captain said. Iku simply nodded while unpacking his things. Finto and Huli set a pyre, while Kumiz and the Elder prepared two of the rodents. At one point Kumiz shot a sideways look at Jutek, and reached for a third with a grimace. Imuz walked about the campsite, scanning the treeline, while Iku was showing Jutek the cliff face, indicating they will be climbing up tomorrow. Once the meat was well cooked and flavored with a bit of seasoning that the Elder thought wise to bring along, the party sat around the fire. Jutek was given a whole rodent, which the other two were distributed between the others. Jutek was reluctant at first, noting his larger portion, but after Iku managed to convince him to accept it, the massive being consumed the entire animal in two bites – Iku was sure he could have managed with one, however Jutek probably did not wish to be impolite. The others ate their portions, and Jutek was once again watching the stars the whole while. His obvious awe did not escape the attention of the Elder, who produced a small, decorated sack upon the completion of his meal. “I see our guest is intrigued by our stars. I believe some introductions are in order.” – He said with a smile. “Elder, with my greatest respect, I think the company requires rest before tomorrow’s journey.” – Imuz interjected. “It will not take long, and all of you would benefit from some time devoted to the forces, young Captain.” – The elder replied, scolding Imuz. The Miztoxi simply nodded in defeat. Instead of turning to Iku as a go-between, the Elder looked at the large black being instead. “Jutek! Look here my son.” – He said with a smile. It took Jutek a short moment before he tore his gaze from the sky. The Elder waved his palms towards himself, inviting Jutek closer to the fire. The large being got off his log, which cracked under his weight, and sat on the ground, so close to the fire that it would have been painful for any of the others. He looked at the Elder, and cocked his head expectantly, with curiosity in his eyes. The Elder reached into the decorated sack and produced a handful of dried herbs in all the colors of the countless stars dotting the night sky. He gently sprinkled them into the pyre. At first the flames simply played a lightshow, until they dimmed enough for one to stare into them without having to squint, and then to Jutek’s astonishment, images appeared in the fire. The world around him blurred, and the images in the blaze sharpened. The others all looked into the flames attentively, experiencing the same sight. The image was blue with a tiny speck in its center, which began to grow. Eventually Jutek realised that it was not growing, but rather coming closer. Soon it turned into many specks, and Jutek recognized the archipelago he saw on the map. The islands began spinning, and a rhythmic humming could be heard. “The history of Ixamil stretches far beyond any recording, scripture or legend, and while it undoubtedly existed before, we mark our beginning with the discovery of the great forces.” To his amazement, Jutek didn’t hear the word with his ears, but rather in his mind. What’s more, he understood them! The spinning image of the map was cut into eight slices, each turning a different color with a strange symbol within each of them. “Fire, Water, Life, Earth, Light, Wind, Time, and Emotion.” The eight slices moved outward as if a curtain was being pulled from before a stage. A slew of images replaced one another in quick succession, showing scenes like farmers tilling the soil, a family warming themselves beside a fire, fishermen throwing nets into the sea, and elderly Xotlil cradling a newborn, seeds being blown off flowers by the wind and more. “These are the underlying forces of the world around us. They rule and govern in a way no elder, no chieftain and no king ever could. They are eternal and always around us.” Then, an image of a large pyre appeared, with various beings surrounding it, mixing various herbs and crushing them in mortars. “The forces gave us magic, with which we’ve achieved vast advancements. We rule the weather. Our crops never succumb to drought or harsh winters. Our ships are never consumed by storms out at sea.” The next few images were of various temples and shrines, were dozens gathered to pay tribute. “In gratitude, we give back to the world which nourishes us. We revere the forces and respect them. Whenever we indulge and take more from nature than is necessary, we endeavor to give back as much. As our lives, we dedicate our deaths to the forces.” A new image appeared, showing the silhouettes of a family standing on a hill, gazing into the night sky. In a flash, a new star appeared right above them. “When our time on this earth is over, our souls travel up and away, illuminating the night sky as one more star, burning ever bright.” The images ceased, and the world around Jutek came back into focus. He was somewhat disquieted by the experience, but any feeling of unease was swept away by awe and curiosity. The others around him were seemingly less affected, with the guards clambering to their feet with neutral expressions. “Kumiz, you have first watch. We should all get some rest before dawn.” – Imuz said, and started fiddling with his things. Jutek, Iku and the elder remained by the fire. “Your friend scans the sky as if he never saw it before.” – The elder said with a laugh. “He probably never did before he washed ashore. At least, that’s what I think he tried to tell me once.” – Iku said. “I wonder what kind of stories he would have to tell.” – Wondered the elder aloud, after which he produced a small bottle from one of the folds of his robe. He took a deep swig. “I’m sure he’d be more talkative if he’d have a bit of this!” – He said with a laugh. Iku looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Umm… are you alright, Revered Elder?” – He asked. “Now my son, we’re adventuring! Finally I get to stretch my legs and leave that boring little village, and you expect me to keep up the charade of the humorless old shaman? Ha! Every moment I spend in Leowi I need to be serious, speak words of wisdom at length, fast every three weeks, and make sure my gaze does not linger upon the curves of the… hmm, ahem.” – He feigned a few coughs at the end. At this point every member of their party – even Jutek – was staring at the elder with expressions of disbelief. “Oh come now, are you truly surprised?” – He asked, scolding. “Can’t I live a little?” – He shook the little bottle at the guards. “Join me! Come now, join me!” – He said. The guards exchanged confused glances, but no one moved. “I can order you, if you wish.” – The elder said, voice both foreboding and mischievous. Huli was the first to move. He stepped up to the elder, took the bottle with a bow and took a large gulp. He felt as if molten ore had just been poured down his throat, and immediately burst out in violent coughs. The sound of Huli’s suffering mingled with the cackling of the elder was sure to scare away any animal nearby. Once the Ithipaaksi recovered more or less, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and extended the other, still clutching the bottle, to Imuz. “Not bad.” – He said with a sly smile. One of Imuz’s eyes twitched, and he tentatively reached for the small bottle. About ten minutes later, each member of the company except for Jutek suffered through the ordeal of stomaching the elder’s preferred ichor. The bottle had migrated back to its owner, who took another large gulp and smiled at his guards after. “One of the few instances of truly useful magic. The bottle never empties!” – He said with a laugh. Then, after a third hearty swig, he handed the bottle to Jutek. The large being produced another one of his iconic head cockings. Slowly he reached for the small bottle, which compared to him was downright tiny, and plucked it out of the elder’s hands as gently as he could manage with two fingers. He looked around at the six expectant faces fixed at him, tentatively, and then he drank. And drank, and drank, and drank, and drank. For two minutes straight, quiet, heavy gulping could be hear from deep inside the being’s throat. Eventually Jutek lowered the bottle from his mouth, and handed it back to the elder with nary a cough nor grimace. The elder took the bottle, and turned it downward while still open. Naught but one drop left it. “Never in my years… it will take at least until tomorrow for it to refill after that!” – The elder looked at Jutek with newfound respect. “Finally, one man enough to hold his liquor!” – He shouted happily, slapping Jutek’s knee, which clanged. The elder grimaced a tad and rubbed his palm after. Imuz, Kumiz and Huli were visibly annoyed at being bested by both their elder and the newcomer, while Iku and Finto were having a good laugh at the situation. Jutek was simply sitting as he was, somewhat confused at the commotion, but he seemingly understood that what he did was appreciated in some manner, a fact which clearly made him happy. After this, everyone settled down and eventually they all went to sleep – even Kumiz – thanks to the effects of the elder’s brew.
It was high noon when Imuz drowsily woke to the call of his bladder. He had only taken a single mouthful of the liquor, but he felt like he had just awoken from a night of hearty drinking. Relieving himself still half-asleep, he enjoyed the heat of the warm midday sun cradling his face. Midday sun… Curses! Midday sun! “Everyone! Up! Up, now!” – He shouted in panic. Huli, Finto and Kumiz all jumped to the feet immediately, weapons at the ready scanning their surroundings for danger – only, they all wobbled a tad while doing so. Jutek was also on his feet, claws at the ready, while Iku and the elder were drowsily peering about while half seated. “What is it Imuz? What do you see?” – Huli asked the captain. “You can put down the spears, all of you… unless you plan to heal a headache and turn back time with them. The sun hangs right above us, and here I am wishing it would fall. We won’t make the peak before nightfall.” – Imuz said. “How high is this cliff?” – Finto asked, disbelief in her voice. “Not this one Finto, we’ll clear this cliff in an hour. The country ahead is mountainous, and out path will take us to a plateau beyond which flows the river Onu, our goal. Safe places to rest between here and the plateau are scarce, and you would not wish to be on a cliff face once the sun surrenders the sky to the Three.” – He sat down, shoulders slouched. “So do we risk the climb, or waste a day waiting for the morn?” – Asked Huli. Instinctively, everyone looked at the elder for guidance or instructions. “Hmph! Leowi’s finest, and it takes but a bit of brew for you to bring delay upon us.” – He muttered, then looked up the cliff. “This early in our journey we cannot afford to lose time, for we know not what other misfortune will befall us later when we’ll be thankful for the time we now spare. I doubt we need to worry about our guest, the rest of you are skilled and nimble, and I assume responsibility for myself. We shall proceed.” – He said. Imuz nodded grimly. “Then we proceed with haste. Kumiz, Finto, prepare the ropes and the other equipment. Huli pack their things and yours. The rest of us will gather our belongings and take care of the camp. We begin climbing within the hour!” – Imuz shouted. Kumiz and Finto grabbed their packs and ran over to the foot of the cliff. Out of the packs came large rolls of rope, hooks, nails and a foldable bow and a handful of metal arrows. The others finished packing up the camp swiftly, and soon everyone was gathered at the foot of the cliff. Kumiz tied the end of one rope to a metal arrow and aimed at a small crack high up which he made note of earlier. After a moment, he released the arrow which flew true, and became lodged in the crevice. Finto pulled the rope back with all of her weight. It held. Kumiz was already lining up another shot when Jutek stepped forward, grabbed one of the ropes, and with a mighty leap cleared half of the height of the cliff. Small claws on his feet secured him, while he clumsily but surely tied a strong knot with the rope on a piece of rock jutting out. He then “hopped” back down and attempted a smile. “Well. I think we’ll clear these cliffs before nightfall after all.” – Imuz muttered.
Soon the whole party was on top of the first cliff. Jutek secured the remaining ropes in one go, and even carried the elder up on his back while the others scurried up the ropes. Imuz looked at Jutek with newfound respect and gratitude. “If you can keep this up, we’ll make good time indeed!” – He said with a smile. Jutek noted his tone and facial expression, understanding the gratitude. True enough, the group ascended swiftly, crossing the level areas and small valleys in between the jagged cliffs with haste, reinvigorated by their fortune. About three quarters of the way to the plateau, they decided to rest for a short while. All members of the party, though their spirits were not dulled, were tired and sore. All but Jutek. Iku turned around and looked out to the horizon from the edge. Though he had made the trip from Koura to Leowi before, the road went through thick jungle, with foliage blocking any vistas. Now, however, he witnessed what was truly a most beautiful sight. The sun was slowly setting, painting the sky warm hues of orange, yellow and red. Very faintly the technicolor stars began to glitter, as a thousand squinting eyes. Below and before Iku the vast southwestern stretch of Tnipatla was laid out. Covered almost everywhere by a dense, lush, rolling jungle, the island was an ocean of greens. The sand-belt around the coast could also be seen, though from this distance, it looked fairly narrow. Nonetheless, the bright yellows and tans of the beach practically glowed. The island was wreathed in an endless sea of turquoise, with white foaming waves licking its shores. In the far distance, a small clearing could be seen with faint and thin trails of smoke rising. “Leowi…” Iku thought. In the distance, out at sea, the three foreboding pillars of grey stone tore into the sky, however even the Talons seemed an odd kind of beautiful. Even at this distance, they seemed massive, towering over the world itself. Only then did he realized that Jutek was also staring at the vista, with as much awe as he. Noting their wonder, the elder walked up to Iku. “So serene and beautiful, no?” – He asked, with a smile. “Yes, Revered Elder, it is indeed.” – Iku said, unable to tear his gaze away. “Today, you’ll see such sights all across Ixamil. I don’t mean the beauty of course, none will match that of Leowi’s surroundings! No, I mean the serenity and peace. But it wasn’t always so.” – The elder said. “War seldom touched this part of the world, and never since it has bore the name Leowi. The rest of our lands, however, bear many scars. Scars which the current fledgeling peace will hardly heal.” – He sighed at the end, then looked to Jutek. “I cannot divine in what manner, but I feel as if you’ll have a grand part to play in our future yet.” – He said. Imuz then walked up to them. “Revered Elder, I…” – He began. “Oh, stop it with this ‘Revered Elder’ talk! I’m fairly convinced it tires you at least half as much to say it whenever you address me as it does me when I listen to it. I have a name, so use it.” – The elder snapped. “I, uh, well… Tawhito… I wondered if you were hungry.” – Imuz was confused, afraid, and unsure of himself. The elder – Tawhito – glared at him as if a thousand bolts of lightning would strike the captain by virtue of his damning gaze alone. “My dear captain. Lest I misconstrue your care for an assumption of incompetence, allow me to assure you that I am more than capable of deciding when and what I desire to eat, and to act upon that decision. “ – He said slowly. Imuz froze for a moment, then backed away amid frantic bowing. Once he was out of earshot the elder let off a little laugh. “You enjoyed that.” – Iku said. Having been raised in the city and later being exiled to the beach on his own, Iku never developed the respect many villagers inherently possessed for their elders. “A little. But it does him good.” – Tawhito said. “Embarrassment in front of his guards does the captain good?” – Iku asked. “Imuz has a brilliant grasp of tactics, is learned and can hold his own in a fight even better than Huli. He also happens to be an abysmal leader troubled by a sickness of the esteem. It was not my decision to make him captain, nor would I have had I been asked. But captain he is by the decree of Koura, and so it is up to me to ensure that he becomes a good leader. His heart is in the right place, he just does not know it yet.” – Tawhito said with a smile. “Can a smith mold metal to his will without heating it? I’m sure the ore isn’t particularly grateful for the hammer and anvil, yet all swords have an air of inherent pride about them.” – He continued. “I guess you were keen on the hammer in my case too, yes?” – Iku referred to his very public and very humiliating exile. The elder looked at him, and his mouth slowly curved into a smile. “Now, now, you don’t think I harbored any ill will towards you? Sending you to that beach was a directive from Koura, not from me. Naturally, nor you nor the villagers knew this.” – Tawhito shrugged. “There is a… kind of persona and behaviour expected of elders. Unless we’re hardy, unsociable and at times cruel, we might be mistaken for a priest. Or worse, a wizard.” – The elder had an odd ring in his voice. “And are you either?” – Iku asked with a raised eyebrow. “Well let’s just say that I utilize the forces more often than I worship them.” – Tawhito gave Iku a toothy grin. “Come now, let us eat. We have yet a hard journey before us.” – He turned semi-serious. “Even if we have a large and strong stranger to throw us partways.” – Tawhito smiled at Jutek. Iku and the elder joined the others who were sitting in a rough circle on makeshift seats fashioned from stones, stumps and logs. The other were eating in an awkward silence, with Imuz taking noticeably long to chew each mouthful. Eventually Jutek joined them in their crooked circle, and in lieu of any debris to sit on, he planted himself firmly on the ground, shaking the birds out of the nearby trees. By the time they were ready, a good third of the golden disk illuminating their world had dipped below the horizon. Imuz was studying their map in the failing light, conversing with Huli about what direction they should continue. “We could ascend further towards the river station, where they’re sure to have some boats ready, or we could cut through the valley here, arriving at the river a thirdways downstream at the crossing.” – Imuz explained. “Jali is assigned to the crossing for this season. He’s sloppy. I’m not sure we’ll find any boats there, and we can only walk so far before the falls.” – Huli said. “Jali, Jali… oh, yes, the Xotlil. However if we embark at the crossing we’ll save ourselves having to traverse the rapids.” – Imuz said. The Xotlil were a fox-like Ixamil race who hailed from the icy slopes of the Fingers of Xami. Their pelts come in various shades of white and gray, making them stand out in both the tropical and desert areas which dominate the archipelago. “Afraid?” – Huli asked with a sly smile. “Cautious. Have you ever tried getting through them with someone as heavy as Jutek aboard?” – Imuz shot back. Huli nodded, conceding. Imuz looked back at the map. “We head to the crossing. We’ll make better time downhill than up.” – He finally decided. “And if there won’t be any boats?” – Huli asked. “Then we’ll build some. In any case, poor work ethic is hardly common among the Xotlil. Finto! Kumiz! Get your things, we’re going through the valley!” – He shouted to the other guards. Kumiz let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, you’re going to like this!” – Iku told Jutek enthusiastically.
The party had to clear a few more cliffs before reaching the spine of their branch of the mountain range. The peaks rose even higher to the northwest, where the source of the river was also to be found. An ancient pathway could be faintly seen winding towards the towering mountains. “The Nilan pass. We very well might be the first ones to use it in over three hundred years.” – Tawhito said. “It used to connect the cities of Gako and Onupe, on the northern and southern beaches.” – He continued. “What happened to them?” – Finto asked. “Consumed by war, during the Age of the Great Storms. The path fell out of use soon after. As the various villages and trading posts along it became deserted, it became far too perilous to be worth travelling.” – The elder explained. Iku felt a desire to brave it anyway, to explore the ruins and learn the history of this once busy highway. “Luckily our path takes us elsewhere.” – Imuz said, pointing to a much narrower offshoot from the main path leading to the northeast, down into a valley. By this time the sun had fully set, blanketing the world in a colourful darkness as the sky played its usual performance. Kumiz peered down into the valley, where a similar, faint swathe of color could be seen. “I did not know there was a lake there, especially of that size!” – He said. “Oh, it isn’t a lake.” – Imuz said with a smile. “A village then?” – Finto asked, hope in her voice. “No, not a village.” – This time it was the elder who interjected. The party took off. While the path downward allowed for quick and safe passage much of the time, the party had to traverse precariously narrow ledges overlooking seemingly bottomless canyons on occasion. One time the ledge was so narrow that instead of walking, Jutek extended his fearsome claws, dug them impossibly deep into the cliff face – the massive talons tore through age-old solid rock like it was loose soil – and climbed across above the others until they reached a section of the path wide enough for him. After a few hours of travel, the faint glow in the distance started getting stronger and stronger. “We are nearly there.” – Imuz said at one point. True enough, looking back Iku could see the tall peaks in the distance, however around them the cliffs were shorter, less barren and less densely packed. Once they turned a corner, they finally saw the jungle again and nary a cliff in sight ahead. However to the group’s despair, between them and the jungle stood an extremely wide crevice, spanned only by a thin and impossibly narrow stone bridge barely wide enough for even the guards or the elder to cross. Huli walked up to the edge of the fall and kicked a stone in. Not even after several minutes was the silence broken. “Prime.” – He said, looking at the bridge, which lacked any kind of handrail. “That canyon is at least twice as wide as how tall any of the cliffs were before.” – He looked at Jutek. “Can you clear it?” – He asked, pointing at the other side. Jutek cocked his head, and walked up to the edge. He peered at the other side, contemplating. After a moment, he stepped back, looked at Iku and shrugged while shaking his head. “I don’t think he can make it.” – He said. “Forever be they cursed… if only the ancestors who built this damned thing be alive today, I could push them over myself.” – The elder grumbled, and continued cursing under his breath. “Finto, Kumiz. You two go over, take as much gear as you dare and set up camp. We’ll figure something out. Huli, go with them.” – Imuz said, keeping his calm. “Why?” – The Ithipaaksi asked. “That bridge would probably crumble even under the six of us at once. You three go over, we’ll follow once we find a way to get Jutek across.” – The captain said. Huli nodded slowly, and beckoned the two other guards to follow him. Between the three of them, they carried with them more than half of the group’s supplies and gear, with the intention of unburdening those who remained as much as possible. Huli stepped onto the narrow lick of stone first, and edged forward. He looked back and nodded as indication of the bridge’s stability. The other two guards followed him closely, though Huli was surer on his feet and hurried ahead. The veteran Ithipaaksi was almost on the other side, the others were only halfway across, when a shrill crack tore through the air. Everyone froze. Huli looked back slowly, terror in his eyes. Even at a distance, a large crack could be seen running in a spiral around the bridge near its center. “Drop the gear! Do it now!” – Huli shouted to the others. Finto a Kumiz started undoing the many straps and bindings with which they secured their packs, and one by one, bits and pieces of equipment began to fall into the abyss. Instead of hearing the impact of their gear, the group heard further cracks, and the bridge began to buckle. Finto was in front of Kumiz, and she no longer had any gear on her. The Miztoxi was still struggling with a bundle of rope weighing him down when large bits of stone began falling off the bottom of the bridge. “Kumiz, stop moving!” – Huli shouted. “I can get it!” – He shouted back. “Kumiz!” – Huli pleaded. “I can get it, I can get it!” – The Miztoxi was determined. Just as he finally unbundled the length of rope, the stone under him gave way. He screamed as he fell, but suddenly stopped with a jank. Finto had caught part of the rope that was still attached to Kumiz. He quickly grabbed onto the rope, lest it become undone around his waist. Finto was standing on the newly formed jagged edge of the bridge, the stone under her cracking as well. She’ll fall if she doesn’t let him go – Imuz thought to himself, grimly. The stone was cracking further. The captain steeled himself. “Finto! You… you have to let him go!” – He shouted. Iku stared at him in disbelief. Kumiz became panicked, and frantically tried to clamber up the rope. The sudden movement caused the stone to crack quicker. “You can’t be serious!” – Huli shouted back from the far end. “I won’t let him fall!” – Finto shouted. Kumiz was screaming and shouting unintelligibly the whole time. “You will both fall if you don’t! Finto, this is an order!” – The captain shouted again. “Curse your name!” – The Oomagtl replied. A large piece of stone broke loose from the ledge on which she stood. Imuz, took a deep breath, and grabbed a bow and arrow from the gear that was still on their side of the bridge. He cocked the arrow and took aim at the rope. “No, captain! Don’t!” – Finto pleaded. Iku looked first at the captain, and then at the elder. Tawhito was silent, and observed the scene as if watching a performance. Kumiz was becoming increasingly frenzied pleading for mercy and bellowing insults one after another. Imuz closed his eyes and let the arrow loose. It flew true, and the sharp metal of its head sheared through the rope. Kumiz’s scream could be heard for a good minute as he fell. Everyone was still and silent until the dreaded voice was no longer heard. Finto glared at Imuz with rage that could be seen even from the other side of the canyon. Huli recomposed himself the quickest. “Finto! Hurry!” – He shouted. Larger and larger chunks of stone were falling from the stump of the bridge. Finto finally tore her nightmarish gaze from Imuz and ran as quickly as she dared towards Huli. Bits of the bridge were falling right out from under her feet. She had to jump the last length to the thicker portion of the bridge where Huli was standing, who hopped back to give her space, and helped her stabilize herself. On the other side, Imuz’s eyes were still closed. Jutek did not know where to look, and was shifting from one foot to the other. The elder’s eyes were locked on the captain, and Iku’s were fixed on the elder. Imuz finally opened his eyes, and stared into the black abyss before him.