Monday, October 22, 2012
Horizon Dreamer, Part 2
title: Horizon Dreamer, Part 2
author: Jesse Rebock
[Part 1 Summary: Taqu, a young boy born to a tribal clan on an isolated, remote island, was always considered a strange child since he always questioned things that his tribe took for granted. His 'outside the box' thinking garners the interest of the clan shaman, Sarum, but the alienation of his kin.
The eruption was thought to be a sign from the spirits, interrupting the wedding of Yura, the chief's daughter, to another young lad named Kajak. Kajak was killed during the eruption - along with Yura's mother - and Taqu was to blame, even though a chance premonition on Taqu's part managed to save the majority of the clan from destruction. To save his life, Sarum took him under his wing as her apprentice.]
The wiry clansman stood upon a stretch of lonely white beach, the village off in the distance. He watched his kin bustle about the stilted huts as they cleared debris from the sandbar. Last night there had been a powerful Heavy Wind that had passed over Home Island, causing destruction as the winds did every rainy season. But the last several seasons had been weathered more effectively than ever.
New designs for huts proved resilient to the Heavy Winds, in spite of the village having been built right on the coast. The river of fire cataclysm, known by the name of u'chazta, that demolished the precious village seven seasons ago was never forgotten by those who lived through it. They believed that occasionally clearing blown palm leaves from their homes was preferable to sleeping with their heads on ground that might open up to swallow them at any moment. But in time, the memory of u'chazta faded.
When the new village was constructed, there was a challenge at first, but no one had any skill or memory of how to build a home. The Clan was so accustomed to simply moving into a house that was abandoned by an older generation that the urge to build was forgotten. To this task, Sarum had stepped forth and demonstrated a surprising knack for designing the construction of their homes. The Clan was thankful for her expertise, and assumed that her knowledge was only natural for a shaman. After all, who but a mystical medicine woman could come up with the idea of supporting huts on stilts, so as to keep them safe from the waves on the beach?
"Taqu!" cried a voice from behind the man. He straightened at the sound, the dangling bones and trinkets on his person clinking as he turned.
"Hello, Yura," he said softly, the sight of her never failing to make him smile. She had sprouted into a beautiful, affable woman over the seasons, and she wore the simple self-made reed-woven garb common for the women of the Clan. Taqu never failed to notice how she swayed with every step. Her hair was long, dark, and held in place pleasantly with a strand of hemp cord interwoven with small seashells. But most of all Taqu admired her smiling eyes, which seemed to capture the light of the stars and moon.
Yura regarded him for a moment. He too had grown, tall and lanky. Not as powerfully built as most of the braves of the Clan, but he walked with his back straight and his shoulders up. His hair, also, was grown long; unplucked on the sides as was the tradition for most Clan men. Instead, he wore it tied behind his head, beads and shells braided into thick tendrils.
"You look sad," she remarked. "What bothers you?" Taqu turned his gaze back to the village across the lagoon.
"Nothing," he said simply. "The water is clear today, the sky is clean. The sungod will return to us before the day is out." Glancing upward at the overcast above, Yura could hardly interpret whatever signs the shaman's apprentice was reading. To her, the sky was gray because the sungod had left to go on his seasonal hunt through the heavens, like everyone knows. The sungod would return like always, but how Taqu knew it to be so soon she could only guess.
"Preparations for the wedding are almost finished," she said happily.
"I know," was the calm reply.
"Well, don't you think we should be there? It is a big day for both of us, after all!" Taqu turned his gaze back to her, his emotions sufficiently masked. He nodded, and together, they left. It was always considered lucky to have weddings at the end of the rainy season. The weddings themselves were often very simple affairs, but the Clan often took great joy in preparing the finest and most extensive banquets possible. Every variety of fruit had been painstakingly gathered from all over the island, and over a large fire there smoked dozens of lagoon fish. Mushrooms, seeds, nuts and all manner of sea vegetables had been gathered as well, cooked in stews or roasted with sea salt collected from the shore. Gourd drums provided for exhilarating music, and there would be dancing, singing, and much eating.
Things had already gotten started by the time they arrived on the scene. Yura walked alongside him, glad to see all the familiar faces that smiled back at her. But they did not look at Taqu. Ulgram approached them.
"Come, Yura," he said to her, nodding slightly to Taqu. Ulgram seemed more willing to acknowledge Taqu's presence than the others. "Your father is waiting." He guided her away and left Taqu standing alone. He could see Yura being brought through the crowd to stand alongside her father, who was ever silent and stern as he overlooked his people.
The shaman's apprentice lingered for a moment, then took his place along the fringe of the crowd. Taqu could remember the days when the Clan would look upon him and see nothing but a troublesome, less-than-useful boy with a penchant for spending hours staring at the horizon.
No longer. While he would still spend time staring off across the waves, the people looked at the shaman's apprentice differently. He had grown to become an individual not undeserving of respect, but to most he was still quite odd. In fact, association with Sarum had distanced him further from them; even Taqu's mother, who had passed on to the spirit world two seasons ago, did not know him as a boy turned man. Just an odd boy made eerie.
But Taqu did not relish his reputation. He'd since come to understand that the fear was simply what gave Sarum power, and was necessary for being a shaman. Besides, as much as the others kept their distance from him, they were still utterly terrified of Sarum, and would, in spite of everything, turn to him instead when they had questions for the shaman.
He surveyed the crowd. Everyone a familiar face, but that of a people he had never known as friends or family. All except one.
"Quit staring," Sarum mumbled, her voice startling Taqu. Appearing beside people from seemingly out of nowhere was a trick she had yet to reveal to him.
"I'm not staring..."
"Don't even bother arguing, either," she snapped. "You've got a job to do. Get to it."
Taqu glanced back at the crowd. Yura was still there, but her husband, Zeo, was nearby.
With a sigh, the shaman's apprentice nodded and focused. He stepped into the crowd, everyone seeing him but not looking directly at him. Once he reached the central village fire, he stopped, building suspense as he had learned from Sarum. Then, with slow movements and complicated hand gestures, he tossed a tiny object into the flames that no Clan person could see. The fire immediately turned a tremendous green, spewing sparks of blue and bellowing white smoke, yet the heat was the same. There was bright light, causing many people to look away.
As their gazes turned back toward the shaman's apprentice, there were gasps of surprise. A shimmering silhouette swayed in front of the fire, a black mirage that moved with the flames. The people blinked; more silhouettes appeared, all of them moving to the same rhythm. The light faded, and the Clan realized that there were many Taqus dancing before them, all in unison.
The shadow-like images danced to music that the drummers were playing. Then there was chanting, and the dancing became more frantic. Everyone was getting excited; some people were frightened, others wanted to dance as well, but no one dared interrupt the sun-dance.
It was this ritual that was practiced only by the shaman, and it was done in praise of the sungod, praying for his safe return from his seasonal hunt. Every year there were many days of clouds overhead, and it was common knowledge that if the sungod could not be seen, it meant he had left to go hunting in his stars. Therefore it was the shaman's duty to perform the sundance, calling the sungod back to them, for the Clan people loved him and missed his warmth.
The many Taqu's jumped and threw their hands in the air, shouting words that not even the Clan people understood. Then, all at once, the images stopped, turned towards the fire, and with a mighty leap, jumped into the coals.
People gasped with surprise again, for the fire turned black, and for a moment no one could see anything. The light slowly returned, and when everyone's vision returned, there were gasps for a third time, but there were also screams of terror.
Where the fire once was, there now loomed a tremendous serpent as tall as a palm tree and with coils as thick. It twisted around the coals of the bonfire, shimmering scales of black and orange and yellow. The snake's full length could not be guessed, for people scrambled to get away, having seen nothing like this before. Surely there were snakes on Home Island, but nothing nearly as monstrous.
It swayed gently back and forth, unblinking eyes staring down upon the Clan people who fled like mice. But before there was total panic, there was a flash of light, and the people saw the snake had disappeared and that the central bonfire had returned to normal. The people were shaken, and talking among themselves, but no one noticed that Sarum had remained in the back of the crowd, unmoving. She didn't even blink.
Taqu stepped out from behind the chief's raised seat, a look of calm upon his face. He idly walked over to stand next to Sarum, who was content to watch the Clan recover themselves.
"I wanted you to do well," she said, not looking at him. "Not to over-do it."
"I think the sungod will have noticed," Taqu replied calmly.
"That was not the dance you practiced."
"Not that you saw me practice, shaman."
"The snake was a nice touch, though," Sarum said after a moment. Compliments were not common from her, and Taqu received it gladly, slight as it was.
Someone in the crowd shouted and pointed upward. Everyone looked to the sky, expecting to see the snake's return, but instead there was a break in the clouds, and sunlight peaked through. There were shouts of joy and delight as the light grew, and where the overcast had shrouded the island in shadow, making the central bonfire appear bright and fierce, now it was as little more than a torch.
The sungod had at last returned, warming the trees and sand and rocks and people equally. The sungod had returned, banishing the grayness of the Heavy Winds, and the people were happy.
It was at this time that Or'jar spoke to his Clan, his voice booming out loud and clear. He praised the sungod for his kindness and mercy, exalting in his return. The cloudy days of the Heavy Winds were a normal cycle, but without the sungod the people knew that Home Island would forever know only cold days and dead fruit. Everyone knew this.
The seasons had been hard on the chief. Although it was the Clan way to not speak of those who had passed into death and to the spirit world, the memory of Kajak and Agal did not fade easily. He had changed from a reticent leader into a positively uncommunicative one, remaining as the head of the Clan. Rather than speaking ot the Clanfolk directly, he often deferred to Ulgram.
Thus as time went by the Clan saw less and less of their leader. After the new huts were constructed, following the expert instruction given by Sarum, the Clanfolk were able to conduct themselves in the usual fashion. Rarely even did Or'jar venture far from the village, spending most of his time secluded in his home.
He had even delegated the honor of proclaiming weddings to his daughter, rather than perform that himself, except when Yura was married to Zeo. Several weddings had been performed since u'chazta, but rarely on the day of the sungod's return.
It was the duty of the shamans to predict this day, and perform the sun-dance rite that would usher in the new season, but it was the now the duty of the chief's daughter to bond two people of the Clan as mates. Everyone knew this.
Yura raised the Knife of Leadership, announcing to everyone that one of those people dear to Or'jar would at last be married. There were cries of happiness, for there had been few weddings since u'chazta.
Ulgram stood nearby, tall and proud. To his flank was a woman named Krianni, who had lost her husband several seasons ago to a finboar.
Sunlight glistened off the black blade of the Knife of Leadership, a bright yellow sheen on the shining metal, unlike anything seen elsewhere on the island. Though a spear no more, the prestige garnered from wielding such a badge was well understood by all. But today was not about the wielder of the Knife. Today was Ulgram's day.
Krianni was a strong, solemn woman, who carried with her the sorrow of losing her husband, but she and Ulgram had grown close in the seasons following. Krianni's child was old enough to walk on his own now, and Ulgram looked to the youngster only with warm smiles and soft words. He and Krianni made a great match, and the Clan celebrated in the way they knew best: by feasting.
Taqu had no disrespect for anyone in the Clan, but he had no particular love for most of them either. Ulgram, however, was a man who had treated him comparatively well, even before he became the shaman's apprentice. Krianni, too, was a kind woman, even if she had spent most of Taqu's remembered life ignoring him. Taqu supposed that that was a decent definition of kindness.
He turned to follow Sarum as she made to leave, satisfied that all attention had gone to Ulgram and his new wife. Within minutes the village was behind them and the sounds of celebration faint.
"Now don't get me wrong," Sarum said abruptly as they walked. Their steps had taken them along the beach, and the sand was easier on her tired soles. "The snake was a nice touch, and the dance wasn't bad. But it wasn't that good either."
"Thank you, shaman."
As they made their way towards the forest and away from the seaside village, the sound of drums and the glow of firelight fading behind them, Taqu heard his name being called. He turned to see someone running towards them. Again it was Yura; no one else ever called him by name except Sarum and Or'jar. The old medicine woman glanced back, looked at Taqu, and shook her head as she continued walking without him.
"Taqu," Yura said once more, panting slightly. The shaman's apprentice kept his eyes on her face, but could not ignore the heaving of her chest as she breathed. "Where are you going?"
"Home," was his simple reply.
"Your dance was really amazing," she said. "You do it so well, better than Sarum, I think. She is teaching you well, I heard father say he'd never seen anything like your dance."
"I'm glad it pleases you," he said, his voice soft.
"Thank you," she said. "Zeo loved it too." Taqu did not reply, but nodded quietly. She stood with one arm behind her, grasping it at the elbow, and kicked a bit of sand with her foot. "Please visit us soon," she added. "I know Ulgram wanted to thank you, also. I've never seen him happier than today. It's a good omen to get married on the day the sungod returns to us. Not even Zeo and me were that lucky."
"I'll be sure and speak with him later," said Taqu.
The sunlight glistened upon the waves as they rolled upon the sand, a rhythm to unheard music. They stood in silence for a moment, their separate worlds beckoning them back.
Taqu nodded slowly, then turned and retreated to the forest, leaving Yura alone on the beach. She stared after him for awhile, looked up to the breaking clouds in the sky for a moment, and walked back to the village. Taqu was always so mysterious, even to Yura.
"Finally," Sarum grunted as Taqu entered their secluded hut. She did not look at him, busy at the table grinding some herbs into powder with a clay bowl and a blunt stick. "I suppose you're ready, or shall we get started after you've gotten yourself nice and comfortable?" He had taken his time walking back to the hut, choosing a longer path that allowed him a clearer view of the waves through the trees and more time to think to himself.
"I look forward to the day you teach me how you move so swiftly," said Taqu, taking his cloak of reeds and placing it at the door next to Sarum's staff.
"I look forward to the day you stop staring at Or'jar's daughter like a child stares at his favorite fruit on a high tree."
"All fruits fall into reach once they're ripe."
"Bad trees make bad fruit, ripe or not," she growled. "Enough of this. There is something more important that requires our attention. Retrieve for me the Book of Visions, over there."
Taqu walked several steps to a wooden shelf, lined with texts. As a youth the books meant nothing to him. Just another mysterious trinket that Sarum sometimes carried with her when she would visit the village and tell stories. But she did not read stories to the children anymore; not long before u'chazta, Or'jar had taken steps to keep the children occupied whenever Sarum came to the village. After awhile, she stopped trying to read entirely. They were too afraid of her, like everyone else.
Except for Taqu.
He knew exactly where the Book of Visions was kept, but he allowed his eyes to pass over the rows. Taqu could remember when Sarum taught him to read - he was hesitant at first, but once he realized how valuable it was to 'see words from the past," he learned the symbols quickly. Some of the books in Sarum's possession were thick and full of nonsense. Words with no meaning and pictures that meant nothing. Others were written by Sarum herself, cataloged records of rituals, places where herbs could be found, or even names of clansmen that no longer lived.
But the Book of Visions was different. On its pages were written the most powerful of all magics: numbers. Through the Book of Visions, Taqu learned about timekeeping and cycles, something never fully grasped by the Clan. Taqu came to understand that many things that had happened before could be predicted again. Times when the sungod left for his home, how many days the Heavy Winds lasted, the time of year certain rare fruits were available, even when the finboars were most active. It was all here, and with this knowledge alone Sarum commanded considerable power.
Sarum grunted as Taqu handed her the book. It wasn't a large book, but the pages were thick and strong; dried palm leaves cut into sheets and bound together with tough fibers. She sifted through the pages quickly until she found the page she was looking for. With a dab of ink, she used a bone quill to sketch a small symbol into a chart that Taqu didn't recognize. He had seen the Book of Visions before, but never this particular page. Judging from the dates written on the chart, he guessed that she had made this many seasons ago.
"You see this?" she asked him, pointing to the top of the chart, "how long ago was this?"
"U'chazta," said Taqu quietly. He could never forget that night, no matter how easily the sheeplike Clan seemed to do so.
"Right. You know those shudders we've felt over the seasons? Sometimes, at night, when it feels like thunder underground."
"Yes, the Deep Rumbles."
"Well, I've been keeping track." There was a small hint of pride in her voice as she spoke. "These marks here. Notice anything?" Taqu stared at the chart, following the pointing of Sarum's wrinkly fingers.
"Ever since that night, the Deep Rumbles have been happening more often," he said after studying the chart for a moment. "What does it mean?"
"It means change," said Sarum. "I hear it whispered in the breeze, in the cries of the gulls. I feel it in the sand, in the roots of dying trees."
"Who knows? I will attempt to commune with the spirits, but they are often silent. And besides," she added. "They said nothing about u'chazta the first time."
Taqu had a week of relative peace before a matter of the tribe was brought to his attention. A runner had come to fetch the shaman, but Sarum insisted on sending Taqu in her place.
Once in the village, Taqu was greeted with the usual cold welcomes until the runner brought him to a home that the apprentice knew quite well. All he had been told was that someone had fallen ill, and that the healthful fruits typically used to cure whatever scant disease that appeared in the Clan had no effect.
He was shown into the hut, although he needed no invitation. Inside, half a dozen people were crowded around a supine figure who lay breathing heavily. It was Zeo.
"Taqu," said Yura, one among the crowd. "Thank the sungod you're here...is Sarum coming soon?"
"She will not," said Taqu, keeping his voice even. He knew the Clan had not quite gotten used to the idea of him being able to perform most anything that Sarum could do, but to hear Yura make an assumption sent a spike of anger he was not used to feeling. He said nothing more to them, however, except when asking questions about the illness. Spectators around him glanced at one another uneasily, but dared not interfere.
"He has the Dreamer's Sickness," said Taqu after hearing some answers to the symptoms. "Zeo will drift further and further into sleep until he can no longer awaken."
"It isn't too late to save him, is it?" Yura asked pleadingly.
"No," said Taqu, "but there isn't much time." He reached for a small pouch on his side and called for someone to fetch boiling water. Without explaining his purpose, he began preparing for a simple cleansing ritual; those who had seen Sarum do it in the past would recognize the circle of stones and placement of the bone fetishes upon the earth around the afflicted. But what few noticed was how the arrangement was different from Sarum"s. Taqu had tweaked the spell, adding his own personal touch to the effect which, in his own opinion, improved the desired results.
But what the onlookers did not know was that one misplaced reagent could reverse the effects of the cleansing spell. And upon placing the last of the shining stones, Taqu sat and deliberated. He knew many things hung in the balance; he was confident, but if he failed to heal Zeo, then he would lose face, and so would Sarum. Also, Yura would be saddened. Taqu did not wish to cause her anguish, but he knew that if Zeo was removed, then there might be a chance...
He cleared the hut, making certain he and Zeo were alone, but the lying man was unconscious. Yura left hesitantly, but after a moment, she nodded silently and beseeched Taqu with a pleading glance before departing.
Alone, the shaman's apprentice stroked his hairless chin and adjusted the last stone in the circle. Then, satisfied that the result would be as he planned, commenced the ritual.
Later that evening, after the sungod had retired and the stars had begun fill the sky, a warm breeze passed through the village, causing the torches around to flicker. People outside Yura's hut waited anxiously, but none more than Yura herself. Or'jar and Ulgram were nearby, offering what comfort they could with their presence, while most other Clanfolk tried their best not to linger and go about their lives without staring too much.
At last Taqu emerged from the hut, parting the hanging beaded doorway, the jingling of shells and bits of dry wood announcing movement. From outside, no one could tell what was happening during a cleansing ritual; in fact, whenever Sarum had performed the spell, no witnesses were allowed either. Part of the magic, the Clan had learned, was that the shaman and the afflicted must be alone. Why the spell worked this way, no one could guess, and they preferred it that way. All that mattered was that the affliction, however rare as it was, was cured.
Taqu stepped out into the torchlight, all eyes suddenly upon him. As the flickering light played across his painted, unreadable face, he looked in turn toward Ulgram, Or'jar, then Yura. They waited, painfully, for him to speak.
"Zeo will recover," said the shaman's apprentice, "but it will be slow. The Dreamer's Sickness is potent, and he was nearly lost. He will likely awaken in a few days."
Tears streaked down Yura's cheeks, shining in the firelight. She gasped and leapt forth, embracing Taqu. Everyone was surprised by her blatant display of affection; few people spoke to Taqu or Sarum, and fewer kept very close, let alone actually touching them. Or'jar stiffened, but said nothing, and Ulgram, while surprised, smiled.
"Thank you," Yura whispered into Taqu's ear. The sound of her voice so close, the realization that her lips were inches away, sent a tingling sensation down Taqu's spine, and for a moment his statuesque countenance was broken. He reached a hand, was about to pat her on the shoulder, but his eyes locked with Or'jar, and his expressionless visage returned as he let his hand drop. Yura let him go, looked to Taqu, and smiled, wiping away a tear. She ducked into the hut to attend to Zeo.
Taqu felt unbearably awkward, and willed himself away before anything got worse.
"I've returned," said Taqu as he crossed the threshold of his home. He was still accustomed to Sarum knowing he was coming long before he arrived; she was never surprised by anything, it seemed. Taqu guessed she used some small bit of magic to see around her hut most of the time, another spell she neglected to teach him.
But in the last several months, Sarum seemed more distant than usual. On one occasion, Taqu actually startled her upon entering the hut. It was one of those moments that Taqu never forgot and had been wondering about ever since, and from that time on he always announced himself upon returning home.
There was silence answering him. The hut was dark; usually Sarum had a few candles burning at this hour. Taqu called her name, to no avail. Perhaps she had left for some obscure reason "but at this hour?
Taqu placed his reed-cloak on the hook near the door and fumbled for a flint. Striking the rock, he lit a nearby candle he could see in the starlight from outside, and once the wick took flame he walked in to light a few other candles.
The light cast long shadows upon the floor and walls; hanging objects looking odd in daylight now positively grotesque in half-dark. Jars filled with strange liquids and small things floating around reflected or refracted the light, and as Taqu searched for another candle to light, he paid the scene no mind, so accustomed to the odd things as he was.
His eyes caught something unusual on the ground behind the desk. Nearly dropping the candle, Taqu rushed to find Sarum on the floor, her tiny, wrinkled form motionless.
He turned her over, and was relieved to hear a short rush of air pass through her mouth. Taqu was not a very strong man, but Sarum was not a very heavy person either, and for the first time Taqu felt how skeletal the medicine woman actually was. As he lifted her from the floor, he couldn't help but compare her to a frail, withered bird.
Taqu carefully brought her to her room and gently put her in her bed, covering her in multiple quilts stitched from knitted blankets. Sarum lay still, groaning a little but breathing rhythmically. Taqu stood for a moment, watching her, then left to retrieve a chair and pulled it alongside her bed. Normally he slept in a separate room, but tonight he knew he would not rest.
Sunlight shone through the slotted window of Sarum's room. Early morning birds chirped and cheeped, and though the new season had begun with the return of the sungod, the mornings were still chilly in these early summer days.
Taqu lay with his head at the foot of Sarum's bed, a raised contraption unlike any of the beds in the village; unlike Taqu's own hammock. Indeed Sarum's hut and nearly everything in it was strangely made. More complex construction affording for more efficient use. The chairs were solid and high, the tables were stable and flat, the walls were strong and straight. Everything was made from planks, something no Clan could understand when constructing their own homes. Not even Taqu knew how something long and flat like a plank could be cut from a tree, no matter how many times Sarum explained it to him. And her home was so old that no one could remember who built it, let alone how.
Taqu awakened to feel Sarum's withered hand upon his. The old shaman shifted around a little, and her eyes slowly opened. She looked around, confused at first, then her eyes rested upon him.
"What happened?" she said, clearing her throat.
"Found you last night collapsed on the floor." said Taqu. "Can you remember nothing?" Sarum cursed.
"I think I remember fainting. Was rather hoping I was wrong."
"You aren't well, Sarum. What can I do?"
"Start with some hot tea," she croaked, her scraggly voice showing a hint of annoyance. Taqu knew that she held no anger for him, but rather it was embarrassment. Understanding that she ought to be alone for a few minutes, Taqu went to prepare some herbs and heat some water in a gourd hanging over a the fire pit outside.
When he returned with a steaming cup, made from a rare seashell, he found that Sarum had not moved. She lay with her head back, staring at the ceiling, deep in thought. She waved for him to place it nearby on a small table next to her bed, where a candle and some flint also rested.
"Drink," said the young man hopefully.
"Taqu," said Sarum, ignoring him, "There is something you must do. There," she pointed to the other side of the room, "the shelf. Find for me the map of Home Island, the one inked with blue for the water channels."
Taqu did as he was asked. And while this certainly wasn't the first time he'd seen the maps - they had been studied extensively - he hadn't the faintest idea what Sarum was going to ask of him.
When he came back to her, she had him help her sit up and view the map. It was an amazing piece of work, something that Taqu greatly admired and Sarum always smiled to herself about whenever she gazed upon it. Among the host of skills Sarum had mastered, map-making was something she truly enjoyed, and looking upon the ink etched into the wide piece of smooth animal skin, her eyes twinkled with pride.
Taqu looked upon the map as well, seeing every detail written. There was a strong shape in the middle that took up most of the paper, signifying Home Island, but there were also details of rivers, the forest, the meadows, the waterfalls. Areas were marked with notes, signifying the growing place of a medicinal herb or the home of a poisonous animal that kept its dwelling there throughout the season.
Taqu could see the village, and the area, cross-hatched with dozens of thin black strokes, that was where the village used to be before u'chazta. Few people visited that place. He could see the area on the far side of the island, territory avoided by everyone on account of the finboars living there. Only the braves ever went that far, and even then, never further than they needed.
"This, here," said Sarum after her marveling. She held the map on her lap and placed a finger upon a certain place that Taqu knew, but had never been.
"That's," he said, swallowing, "That's the Dead Islet."
"Yes, it is."
Home Island was considered a safe place. As long as clanfolk kept to the village, harm usually did not befall anyone, with the rare exception of u'chazta. Sickness was rare, with the exception of Zeo. Injuries were rare, with the exception of those caused by the finboars, who usually kept to their side of the island anyway. But there were places on Home Island that Clanfolk simply did not go.
The finboar grounds were avoided because the creatures were aggressive and territorial, like everyone knew. Sarum's hut was avoided whenever possible because the shaman was terrifying, like everyone knew. The site of the old village was avoided as well, simply because people were uncomfortable visiting a place so familiar yet so changed; nothing remained but for a huge swath of black stone that had long since cooled but had not yet been reclaimed by the forest.
But the Dead Islet was a place that was simply never spoken of. Where Mt. Heaven was believed to be the place where the spirits of dead Clan would ascend to join the sungod in the sky, the Dead Islet was home to all things evil and horrifying in the world. Some Clan believed that that was where the shamans derived their power, for no one had actually been there and its existence was only spoken of in tales to frighten children into behaving.
But Sarum knew the place existed; the map here proved its location. Taqu wondered if it was simply a spot drawn on the map or if something as unsettling as the Dead Islet truly existed.
"You must go here," said Sarum feebly. Taqu blinked.
"Yes, there is no time. You must go there, and bring something back. I should have done this myself long ago, but I am too weak for the journey. And I should have had you do this long ago, but I never thought you were capable...but there is no time."
"Time for what?" said Taqu.
"I can't prepare you for everything you'll find there," she said, "but I can tell you what to expect along your journey to the Dead Islet, and that which I now task you to seek." Taqu looked back to the map, his mind slowly comprehending what was being asked of him.
"How am I to get to the Islet?" Taqu was painfully aware that he could not swim. No Clan could, for what use did a tribe of people have for going in the water when all things were provided for them on dry land?
"I will tell you how to cross the strait, and get you to the Dead Islet," she said, tapping a small drawing on the map. "But first, you will need this," she said. She slowly lay back and turned to the other side of the bed. Taqu could hear her open and shut some sort of box, and when she came back to face him, Taqu nearly started at what she held in her hand.
"The Death Mask?" he asked.
"Indeed," was her reply. Seldom seen by Clan, and hardly ever worn, the Death Mask was a ceremonial piece of headgear that was used only when performing death rites; it was the single most frightening thing known by the Clan, for when Sarum donned the mask, she was no longer the shaman Sarum; she was an angel of death.
The philosophy of masks had long since been discussed between the two. Taqu understood magic as well as he could, but he also understood the psychological power that Sarum held over the Clan; the mask was one such object of power, for it was the imaginations of the clanfolk, limited as it was, that caused them to fear the shaman more than anything else.
Whether the mask itself was entirely a ploy or if there was genuine magic involved, Taqu didn't know, but he couldn't shake the eerie feeling he had whenever he looked upon it.
"This mask will imbue you with the ability to face whatever awaits you on the Dead Islet," said Sarum. "Take it and wear it only in the direst of times. It's power is real, I assure you, but it is limited; more so than the Clan might think."
Taqu nodded, and was given the mask. He held it carefully, feeling its weight, inspecting the intricacies of the carving, the beads handing from the sides, the carefully painted contours that made it into the likeness of a skull.
Sarum started coughing abruptly, and Taqu put the mask aside to hand her the tea he had made for her. She took it, sipped it some, and stilled herself, closing her eyes and breathing deep. Her breaths did not come easy.
"Listen now, boy," she said to him, clearing her throat. "We have much to go over."
"Taqu!" Yura cried. She was sitting at Zeo's side, weaving reeds into a basket. "Zeo is doing better already. It's only been one night and he has already showed signs of improvement. He's...what"s wrong, Taqu?"
He stood in the doorway, expressionless as ever. Yet Yura, as ever, seemed to be able to read his emotions unlike anyone else. Not even Sarum could really tell what Taqu was thinking or feeling, but somehow Yura always knew.
"I depart soon, on a journey, for Sarum. She is sending me away, and I will be gone for some time." There were times when Yura would not see Taqu for days at a time, but there was always the assurance that he would always be within reach, usually at Sarum"s hut. But somehow she knew that he meant something different.
"Where are you going...?" she asked timidly.
"The Dead Islet."
Yura gasped and brought her hands to her mouth, dropping the unfinished basket. It bounced off the sand at their feet and rolled away from her bare ankles.
The Dead Islet was a thing of legends; the place where no one dared think of going. It was out of reach of the Clan, and rightfully so, for she had been taught that he sungod forbid any person from going there. In ages past, the Dead Islet was part of the island, and the great sungod drove all the ghosts and monsters the world onto that peninsula, then sunk the land around it to form a tiny island, imprisoning them. Everyone knew this.
But since Yura had become an adult, she never put much thought in the Dead Islet, for it was out of place, and therefore out of mind. In the rare cases when it was mentioned, usually by the shaman or perhaps the chief, the conversation always ended with the ritualistic assurance that it was safely far away. Yura herself hardly wondered whether or not the place actually existed; it was more like another world, a place where the evil spirits that Sarum had banished would go.
No man in their right mind would go there.
"Taqu," she said sharply, "Why? Why are you going?"
"Sarum has tasked me," he said simply.
"You can't go to the Dead Islet! The ghosts will take you away! Besides," she added, "How do you expect to get there? You don't know it's there - but even if it was, how can you cross the sea to it? Only ghosts know the way..."
Taqu was silent. He himself wasn't certain how he would be getting there either, but he had to trust in Sarum's instruction. What choice did he have?
"You're really going, aren't you?" said Yura, her eyes wide and moistened with tears. "Please, let me get father - maybe he can send a few hunters with you."
"No, this is something I must do alone."
"What must you do alone?" said a familiar voice behind him. Taqu turned and saw a man approaching him. Most other Clan kept their distance, but Ulgram marched right upon Taqu and stood next to him.
"Taqu's going a journey past the Finboar Grounds," said Yura. "He's going to the Dead Islet!" Ulgram blinked.
"Are you now? Do you know the way?"
"Yes...mostly," said Taqu. It was true he knew the general direction, but having never actually traveled close to the Finboar Grounds, he knew that once he reached that part of the island, he would be relying entirely on Sarum's map.
"Well," Ulgram grunted, "it seems to me you'll need a guide. I don't know what brings you to the Dead Islet but I'll see that you get there."
"You know where the Islet is? You've actually seen it?" asked Yura, her eyes wide.
"Not exactly," Ulgram replied. "But I have glimpsed it, once, when I was young. What makes you think you'd be going there alone, lad?"
"I'm not asking for assistance," said Taqu annoyedly.
"I'm not giving you the option," said Ulgram. "The Finboar Grounds are a dangerous place. Sarum, in her younger days, might be safe there, but you - you're still an apprentice, boy. The Grounds are no place for men to walk around alone and lost."
This had escalated much quicker than Taqu had hoped.
"Yura," Taqu said, turning to her. "I came to tell you because Sarum is...she may be ill. I need you to look after her while I am gone." Yura blinked.
"Sarum is...sick?" It seemed impossible for the shaman to be ill. She was ancient beyond belief and wise beyond reckoning; how could she herself be afflicted with sickness? Furthermore, she herself had never been to the shaman's hut, even though Taqu lived there. The thought of approaching it was enough to keep her awake at night.
"Yes," Yura heard herself say, "Yes, of course. Since Zeo is recovering so quickly, I'll visit Sarum."
"Thank you," said Taqu, who knew how difficult it would be for her to look after the ancient crone as well as her unconscious husband.
"When do we leave?" said Ulgram.
"We aren't going anywhere," said Taqu. "You are staying here, and I am going-"
"Don't even bother trying to argue, Taqu. You may be on your way to being shaman, but you don't know the hunter paths and finboar trails." He leaned in close. "What if something were to happen to you, lad?" he whispered. "Think of Sarum." He paused. "Think of Yura."
Taqu looked to Ulgram, seeing a glimpse of a man that somehow Taqu had never seen before. Ulgram was always Or'jar's lieutenant, a distant man but not quite as distant as the rest of the Clan. Taqu nodded, and Ulgram smiled a toothy grin.
"How soon can you be ready to depart?" Taqu asked.
"Within the hour. I will meet you at the beachhead shortly." Taqu agreed, and feeling immensely proud of himself, Ulgram strode off to make whatever preparations he had to make, and Taqu was left alone with Yura again.
"Before you go," Yura said, reaching behind her head. She untied a woven cord, and reached with one hand to grasp Taqu's and turn it face up. She placed the necklace she had been wearing into his palm, and closed his fingers around it. "Take this," she urged. "For luck. You've been so good to us, Taqu. Whatever business Sarum has for you at the Dead Islet, I hope it is over with quickly. I owe you so much more than this ... for Zeo. And Ulgram, you know he's always liked you."
Taqu opened his fingers to look upon the pendant. It was a simple but pretty adornment; a dried blue starfish, uncommon among things found on the island. Taqu knew he would treasure it forever.
A rare smile crossed his visage, and he nodded to Yura. As he turned, staring down at the pendant, he made for the beach where he would wait for Ulgram.
They wasted no words upon meeting, and set out immediately. It was at least a day's journey to reach the Finboar Grounds, but Taqu hoped to make it there sooner since only two of them were going.
Ulgram brought with him a spear and a small sack, filled with some tools and dried fruit; a standard for any hunter setting out upon the island.
"The swiftest way to reach the eastern coastline is along this beach until it ends at the Rocky Lagoon," Ulgram was saying as they walked. "From there, there's a path that we'll follow along the ridge."
"That'll lead us to the foot of Mt. Heaven," said Taqu.
"Yes, and once we get past the ridge, it'll probably be after dark."
"There should be caves we can use for camp, right?"
"Of course," Ulgram said. "We should be able to find the usual place that the hunters use every time they pass to and from the Finboar Grounds."
They continued along the beach, passing a stray clansman entertaining himself at the water's edge with a crude fishing pole. He saw their approach and started to wave, but upon recognizing Taqu, thought better of it. Instead, the clansman rolled up his fishing line and gathered the few fish he had caught, and hastily retreated off the beach.
Taqu was accustomed to such behavior, but Ulgram was not. Throughout the boy's life, Ulgram had seen people either pick on the lad or ignore him entirely. Lately, though, people avoided him almost as much as they avoided the shaman.
Ulgram fell behind by a step and looked upon the young man from behind, fully grown and wiser than most other Clan, but distant, unreachable. Ulgram could remember when the boy's own mother had passed on to the next world, and Taqu had barely shed a tear.
"Ulgram," said Taqu, causing the lieutenant to start. Did the shaman's apprentice catch him staring through the back of his head? "When was the last time you were on this trail?"
"It has been a few seasons," said Ulgram. "Only once since u'chazta, I think. But I went on it many times with the hunters when I was young. I could take you along the path with my eyes closed."
"Tell me about the time you saw the Dead Islet," Taqu said. A shiver went down Ulgram's spine as the memory came to mind.
"I didn't see much," he said. "But I know I saw it, when the mist broke. There's a monument on the beach, facing the Islet, that I saw also, but the Islet itself is usually hidden by the mist. In my younger days, Taqu, I might've been able to hurl a stone that would reach halfway between the beach and the Islet. It's close enough to see, but so very far, and the water is deep.
"Even as I looked upon the Islet, I thought I felt like I was seeing something I ought not be seeing; like the spirits were angry simply because I cast my eyes in that direction."
"No one else saw the Islet?" Taqu asked.
"I'm not sure," Ulgram replied, shrugging. "We were too busy dealing with the Ancient One." Taqu remembered that name; it was the title given to a finboar that has lived on that side of the island for ages. Taqu heard the hunters sometimes referred to him as the finboar father.
The sun was high overhead, but had begun its descent for the western horizon. When at last the beach ended in a rocky outcropping, it was time to turn inland and make through the forest. Taqu could recall seeing this ridge only a few times in the past. His occasional sojourns into the forest to collect herbs and other reagents did not often take him this far east. He found himself strangely excited at the prospect of going somewhere he hadn't gone before. Usually it was the hunters and only the hunters that went over the ridge line and into the Finboar Grounds.
For hours they walked in silence, passing under old trees with twisted roots and over exposed rocks pushed out over the ages by the ridge line.
They gradually ascended upward as they went inland. Taqu could hear a distant roar up hill, a continuous sound unlike that of an animal or storm. As they walked along the narrow path, the ground becoming more and more precarious as they went, Taqu brushed aside some foliage to behold a great expanse.
Before them the ground gave way to a sudden drop, and far, far below a stream rushed from out the side of the ridge. Ulgram paid the view no mind, so accustomed to it as he was, but Taqu stopped for a moment to observe his surroundings. Ahead stretched a rope bridge, reaching across the cliff gap and over a tremendous waterfall.
Taqu didn't realize how high they had climbed. If he fell, he might have time to scream long enough to empty his lungs before he hit river below.
"This way," Ulgram had called. Taqu saw him stride across the rope bridge fearlessly, bouncing with the movement of woven ropes and old planks that held together for who knows how long. Seeing Ulgram cross, Taqu tentatively gripped the sides and gingerly placed a foot on the first plank, slowly putting his full weight on it, one step at a time. Were he paying attention, he might have seen Ulgram smile as he tried to hide his laughter, but Taqu was too focused on stepping across the bridge.
After the first several steps, Taqu was almost convinced that he would in fact not plummet to his death. Seeing Ulgram beckon him gently, Taqu made his way across without incident. He released a sigh, grateful to be on solid ground.
"I hope you had fun," said Ulgram, grinning, "because there're two more to go."
That evening, Taqu and Ulgram huddled around the smoking tinder that would soon become a fire. Ulgram was hunched over the dry sticks, scraping flint against another stone to make sparks.
Taqu simply sat and watched. He'd already unpacked the few things he brought and gathered some extra wood to be put on the fire for the night. Usually evenings were pleasant and dry, but this early in the new season, and especially this high up from the beaches, it felt colder than Taqu was familiar with.
He cast his gaze towards the mouth of the shallow cave in which they were. This was one among several natural shelters in the mountain that the hunters had secured and used over the generations, and Taqu favored this one because he could see over the trees and off onto the ocean. The view, in fact, was better than any he had seen in all his days down in the village, watching the sunset from the beach. Looking outward, Taqu could see some tiny wisps of smoke near the furthest visible bit of beach. He could even make out fires blinking in the distance.
All the while the sun descended, setting fire to ocean and sky, merging them in a tremendous splash of orange and yellow and red. The sunset itself was nothing particularly new, but seeing that the village, the beaches, all of Home Island were utterly insignificant, Taqu was forced to pause and wonder like a child.
Ulgram, a master firestarter like every self respecting hunter, grinned to himself as the kindling absorbed the sparks and a tiny flame appeared. In minutes they had a cozy fire burning, which illuminated the interior of the cave.
Taqu kept staring out upon the horizon until the sun was gone, and when he turned to see the fire, his eyes were suddenly drawn to the walls. The flames danced and cast a few shadows flickering around the small room. Vividly clear were a number of murals painted upon the walls using various colored ochers. Taqu peered curiously at the murals, recognizing shapes and caricatures.
"Every hunt is recorded in one of these caves," said Ulgram. He pointed to one figure, a crude drawing of a man wielding a spear with a feather tied to the handle. "Over here is Yungar, my father. Right here is Satti, a man who has long since passed into the next world, but I remember him fondly. That there is Or'jar, before he was given the Spear of Leadership." Taqu followed Ulgram's outstretched fingers, absorbing every detail. Ulgram could see wonder in the lad's eyes.
"Where are you?"
"Me? Oh mine is one of the other caves. It's nothing very impressive, but every man has their mark in this mountain." There was quiet for a space. Taqu wondered if being taken as the shaman's apprentice was really the best thing that could have happened to him.
"You're father is in here too, somewhere," said Ulgram, looking amidst the crowded figures. Taqu blinked, but otherwise showed no outward interest, instead turning his head and looking into the fire.
"Did anyone ever tell you about him?" Ulgram asked. Taqu shook his head.
"All that I was ever told was that he died before I was born."
"Well that much is true, yes. But there's more to the story than that...have you never been curious?"
"What does it matter?" said Taqu. "He's gone, a man I never knew. You know the Clanlaw; aren't you never to speak of those who have passed on to the next world?"
"That was one of Or'jar's decrees," said Ulgram. "One I never approved of. But we are not in the village now, and besides, since when have you ever really followed Or'jar's rules of how to conduct yourself?"
Taqu smiled at this, and Ulgram grinned.
"You have the same smile, you and your father," he said.
"What was he like?" Taqu asked.
"He was a good man, I knew him fairly well. He was well liked by everyone in the clan. Well, almost everyone. I grew up with him, you see, and he rarely got along with Or'jar. It wasn't until after we went on our first hunt that they were finally friends."
Ulgram grunted with a smile and stood up to walk along the wall, tracing his finger over it, searching.
"Well, remember I told you about the time I saw the Dead Islet? That same day. It was simple, really. Ah, here he is!" Ulgram pointed to one figure, hardly different from the rest except for one small detail; a large hoop hanging off of one ear. "Ha! That's him alright, him and his beloved earring. The Ancient One took that from him, though."
"What are you talking about, Ulgram?"
"Your father saved Or'jar from the Ancient One, but your father was wounded in the process. Not badly; I heard the Ancient One almost gored him with his tusks, but missed, instead getting it caught in the earring. Your father's ear was completely torn off." Taqu shuddered. "After that day, everyone called him Taqar One-Ear."
At last, a name. Taqu had no particular attachment to the word "father," but something in him fell into place, he felt somehow relieved to know his father's name.
"But that wasn't how he died," he said.
"Oh no, that...that was many seasons later, after he was married to your mother." Ulgram seemed hesitant to continue.
"Ulgram," said the shaman's apprentice. "Tell me what became of my father."
"It was during the Heavy Winds. A storm was passing over Home Island. Most people stayed in their huts for days. But I heard that your father left his hut, and was taken by the storm. Your mother chased after him, but he was drawn to the sea, and swept away before she could reach him. We thought he was drowned for sure. Didn't see him for days later."
"He survived after that?"
"Yes, somehow. None of us, not even Sarum, knew how he lived through it, but we found him on the Great Beach after the storm ended. The great sungod favored Taqar One-Ear that day, for the ocean spat him back out. He was unconscious for three days.
"When he finally awoke, we were all relieved, but none more so than your mother. But he was "different, somehow. He was barely the man we remembered. He was mad...driven insane by whatever he saw. I once heard him speak of a land filled with ghosts. How could anyone feel normal after what he's been through?
"He was with us for several months before he died. He just...didn't awaken one day. Your mother was pregnant with you at this time, but Taqar...Sarum told us he was possessed by a ghost of the sea, which allowed him to survive the ocean, but like I said, it drove him mad. His passing was hard on everyone, especially your mother. And Or'jar."
Taqu watched the flames as Ulgram told him the story, hugging his knees and resting his chin on his arm. Ulgram couldn't help noticing that it was the same position that Taqu had always assumed when he used to stare out on the horizon when he was a youngster. In fact, there was even a resemblance to Taqar, in his final days...
Ulgram shook his head. Those days were gone, and while he felt it was the right thing for the boy to know his heritage, Ulgram couldn't help but wonder what Taqu was thinking, for he could read nothing from the apprentice's emotionless expression. Ulgram himself might have petitioned to marry Taqu's mother to become the boy's surrogate father, but he had waited too long. Eventually Sarum had taken the boy under her wing anyway, but still Ulgram always wondered if only he had acted sooner...
But alas, the sungod planned on things playing out differently.
"So that's why my mother never liked me," said Taqu, breaking the silence. His voice was bitter. "Because I reminded her of Taqar One-Ear.
"She changed after Taqar died," said Ulgram softly. "From that day on, she grew more and more distant from all of us."
Ulgram looked at the lad, always so emotionless, always so unwilling to share his thoughts. Always an enigma to everyone. Taqu spoke no more that night, and Ulgram supposed it for the best.
They set out early the next day, and made good time. They took a moment to look off ahead from a cliff.
"There, the Great Beach," said Ulgram. Taqu could see the break in the forest far away, where a huge expanse of open sand lay along the sea. And beyond, a small, black spot just off the coast...
"And the Dead Islet," Taqu murmured.
"The easy part's over," Ulgram said. "Between here and the Great Beach are the Finboar Grounds. They're more active in the evening, so we have until mid-day to get there and back."
Once they reached the relative flatness of the forest below the ridge, Taqu felt the earth beneath him. This was the one part of the island that never knew his feet, and he found the sensation exhilarating.
They went on, following a worn trail eastward that wound through the trees and rocks. Taqu constantly looked around, stories of the finboars coming to mind. He had never seen a live one, only those brought home by the hunters, and even in death they looked ferocious and ugly.
Ulgram walked first, his spear at the ready, every step carefully placed. Though Taqu could not tell, Ulgram's trained senses were open and alert; he listened for changes in the birdcalls over their heads, he occasionally sniffed the air for the characteristic malodorous scent - something he had described to Taqu as being somewhere between rotting fish and old, unwashed hair. It was considered difficult to miss.
They walked carefully, alertly, and even passed through areas that Ulgram knew for fact was favored resting places of finboars. They crossed a meadow, where Ulgram knew for certain was a favored grazing place of the finboars.
"Strange," he said to Taqu, standing tall and surveying the area around them. "They should be here." Taqu looked around as well.
"Where could they have gone? Are they hiding?"
"You don't understand, Taqu," said Ulgram. "Finboars don't hide. And around this time of year, they are numerous. Something is wrong."
They continued onward, and saw evidence that finboars indeed occupied the area, but according to Ulgram, they hadn't been here for some time. The scratched tree bark and broken underbrush was from last season.
"I see it!" Taqu exclaimed. "The Great Beach! We're almost there." He made to step forward, but Ulgram halted and grabbed his arm.
"Get down!" he whispered abruptly, and pulled Taqu to the ground. They held still behind a fallen tree and peered over it carefully.
Just ahead of them, beyond the tree line to the Great Beach, there ambled a large, dark mass. Taqu found himself beset by a powerful smell, and knew what it was they saw.
The two men held their breath and lay quiet as the finboar passed. Even from far away, even through the trees, Taqu could see that the animal was huge, its shoulder reaching his waist. He could hear the thing snort and grunt as it rooted through the brush, seemingly oblivious to the apprentice and the veteran hunter.
Taqu felt a tap on his shoulder, and he looked to Ulgram, who motioned that they could move now, quietly. Following Ulgram, Taqu got up and out of the grass, and rushed for the beach.
As they broke out onto the sand, Taqu had a moment to look at the hoof prints left behind by the finboar. Gigantic, easily half the size of his own foot, and deep in the sand. They hastily made their way out onto the open sand, where finboars did not typically go, preferring the shady undergrowth of the forest or the shallow sandbars.
"Yes," Ulgram said to Taqu's unasked question. "That was the Ancient One. We're better off avoiding him if we can."
"Is that the monument you spoke of earlier?" Taqu said, pointing ahead. Ulgram followed his finger, and nodded. Taqu nodded as well, fitting the pieces together. The monument of which Ulgram spoke was also something that Sarum had marked on the map; she told him it was a structure, and upon closer inspection, he realized it was a small building not very unlike that of Sarum's own hut: built of planks.
And, beyond it and off shore, there hung a low cloud over the water. Taqu was certain that that was where the Dead Islet was.
Ulgram, of course, did not recognize the weathered, wooden thing as any sort of structure, but rather as an unnatural formation of gray wood. As he watched Taqu approach it purposefully, feeling the walls, searching for something, Ulgram could only guess that whatever he was doing was related to shaman business, and thus was beyond his understanding. Ulgram looked around, holding his spear ready, keeping an eye out for the Ancient One.
After circling the structure a few times, Taqu found what he was looking for, and pulled. The wood creaked and a section of the wall swung open, though the pull was difficult on account of the sand built up around the edges outside. Taqu stared inside, amazed that everything Sarum had said was true.
Ulgram saw Taqu emerge from the structure pulling a strange object, also made of wood, by a rope tied to one end. To him, it looked like the shell of some immense sea turtle, turned upside-down. It glided over the sand, leaving a peculiar trail behind.
"This is how I'm getting to the Islet. Sarum called it a "boat." She said it would be here."
Ulgram followed Taqu but kept his distance away from the boat. He had seen nothing like it before, and assumed it was some sort of shaman magic. If it was indeed capable of bringing a man to the Dead Islet, there was no doubt in Ulgram's mind that it had some connection to evil spirits, and thus was best left to Taqu.
Taqu eventually made it to the water and pushed it into the shallow waves, find that the boat floated very nicely, just as Sarum said it would. She warned him to have it float for a few minutes to check if water built inside of it, but Taqu saw that it pretty dry within. Satisfied, though a little afraid, he hoisted himself into the boat and grasped the oars, following every bit of instruction that Sarum had forced him to memorize.
Ulgram watched Taqu curiously. He always knew Taqu was strange, but the lad looked positively outlandish in the magic boat thing, a device that defied the laws of the world by not sinking. Taqu pulled the oars a few times, and found himself drifting further away from the beach.
"Wait for me here," Taqu called out. "But if I'm not back before nightfall, get somewhere safe." Ulgram did not reply, instead he stood in thought, amazed at the sight he beheld.
As Ulgram shrank, Taqu suddenly became aware of where he was. He was further out to sea than any Clan had been; he could no longer see the sand beneath the waves, and somehow out here the wind was colder. He looked over his shoulder as he passed into the fog. The Great Beach was difficult to see, but behind him the Dead Islet appeared.
Every couple of strokes Taqu looked over his shoulder again, seeing the tiny black island growing bigger and bigger. A chill ran up his spine once more as he looked upon it before he resumed his rowing.
Finally Taqu drifted close enough to touch the dark rock with the oars. He awkwardly disembarked, placing a foot on the rough, porous stone. Mist surrounded the Islet like a wall of cloud.
After securing the boat on the rocky shore, safely away from being carried off by the waves, Taqu embarked into the Islet, noting every detail. Some dead trees were rooted here, twisted and frail; a faint wind constantly blew, sounding to Taqu like the groan of an angry ghost. The place was eerily still; there were no signs of life to be seen - the Dead Islet was aptly named.
He climbed a small hill, careful not to slip on the loose rocks underfoot, and when he reached the top Taqu could see the next thing described by Sarum. The skeletal remains of a thing the shaman called a "ship" lay beached ahead upon the rocks; it looked almost like the bones of a great whale, but Sarum had told Taqu it was more like a large boat. How something so huge and alien could possibly float was beyond Taqu, but he put aside such thoughts and descended the other side of the hill to search the wreckage for the thing Sarum wanted.
Ulgram felt another chill as he stood upon the beach, listening to the waves wash upon the sand at his feet. It was so very eerie on this side of the island. He noticed that there weren't any seagulls here, as though even the animals were afraid of the Dead Islet. Ulgram looked around, and realized for the first time there was no sign of life on the entire beach. No kelp washed ashore, no shells in the sand. Truly this place was an unholy ground. The sooner Taqu returned, the better.
Ulgram shuddered again, and chanced a look over his shoulder. His eyes widened. Something large had emerged from the forest and was ambling its way along the beach, towards him. Ulgram held his spear ready, but knew he alone couldn't face the Ancient One. Against all odds, against all hopes, it approached, and Ulgram's mind raced.
The wreckage of the ship was vast, but thankfully Sarum had given Taqu detailed instruction of where to look, and how to get to it. The wreckage was made up of little more than a pile of broken driftwood, much of it rotted away or covered in bits of sea plants. But there was one part, though covered, that seemed undamaged by the ages.
A small storage chest, not unlike ones that Taqu saw in Sarum's hut, lay unblemished amidst the wood. Taqu was certain that this was the object that Sarum wanted. Taqu tried to lift it, but found that it was secured to a solid bit of wooden construction with a strange, heavy rope made out of hard, clinking links. He heaved, but the rope was far too strong to break.
He had come so far to retrieve this. Taqu had traveled the breadth of Home Island, crossed the most dangerous places known to the Clan, and was now standing in a place that was until recently thought to be legend. He would not leave this Islet without the box.
Taqu heaved again, weakening the wood. He could hear creaking, but knew he wasn't strong enough to pull it out. The wood was damp, too - he couldn't set it on fire to burn out the links. This was an obstacle that Sarum had not warned him about.
As he stood, thinking, he searched other parts of the wreckage for some means of breaking the chain or chipping away the wood. His little stone knife would not be sufficient, and it seemed like there was almost nothing available for him to use. Most of the magic taught to him by Sarum was the illusory kind, effective for tricking the minds of the Clan but not for enacting real change.
A sound behind him drew his attention. Taqu turned, and froze. Heavy footsteps echoed from the hill, pushing over stones and sending them rolling towards Taqu at the bottom. He couldn't see at first - a ghost? An evil spirit of the Islet?
A huge snout poked over the edge, followed by a heavy head and a thick neck, webbed spines along its back. Two sets of stocky legs held the creature up, and behind, almost the same length as the rest of its body, dragged a flat, salamander-like tail, also lined with spines.
The Ancient One looked down the hill upon the small and insolent interloper. A low growl emanated from the hulking finboar, and it lowered its head in a threatening display of muscle and tusks. Taqu stood completely still, his eyes wide but locked with the finboar's.
The Ancient One bellowed a challenge, and charged down the hill, demonstrating surprising agility. Taqu had a few precious seconds to react, and with no weapon he could hardly hope to make any sort of stand.
The Ancient One made a final lunge for him, and Taqu dodged, rolling to the side. One of the finboar's great tusks missed him by a hair's width, drawing a red line across his neck. When Taqu regained his footing, put a hand to his skin, and felt that the wound was minor, he realized that the attack had torn the starfish necklace from him.
The finboar recovered from the lunge as well, skidding on the rocks and re-angling towards him. Taqu could see the blue starfish dangling from its tusk, stolen from him, but something else caught his eye.
A band of stiff material, dirty but still shining gold, was stuck on the same tusk. A hoop.
Taqu glared at the finboar, a growl rising from his throat. He grimaced, bearing his teeth in a feral sneer, and reached for a pouch at his side - damn! It was gone, the pouch that contained the same illusion powder he used when performing the Sun-dance for the Clan. As the Ancient One prepared for another charge, Taqu instead pulled forth the Death Mask and tried to put it on. The finboar leapt for him, flailing its head to and fro, swishes of its powerful tail propelling it forward.
Taqu dodged again, but barely, and as he rolled he pushed the mask upon his face, the straps sliding behind his ears. He lifted his face, and couldn't believe what he saw.
The Ancient One was there, but it wasn't alone. Around it there hovered a handful of wispy shapes, like steam from a doused fire - but the shapes had faces. Angry faces.
And they were everywhere.
Taqu found himself surrounded by spirits, each of them vague in detail but powerful in expression. The Islet was surging with them. They hovered overhead, they swam in the air around him, they crawled on the ground like insects. All the while the Ancient One running towards him.
Taqu drew his short knife, made from a sharpened piece of obsidian, and held it in a tight grip. The Ancient One lunged again, and this time Taqu lunged as well, passing his knife over the thing's face as he flew past it, cutting a long red gash.
A guttural roar. The Ancient One was furious, writhing its head from side to side and opening its mouth as wide as it could go. Taqu saw rows of teeth and all of the beast's multiple tusks, and the sound nearly made Taqu lose his footing.
The beast collided with part of the ship wreckage, entangling a tusk with the links that held the small chest in place. For a moment, the finboar struggled, unable to pull itself free. Taqu snarled and leapt.
He landed upon the monstrous creature, avoiding the stiff spines protruding from its back. The finboar squealed with rage and thrashed, and Taqu clung with his legs and free hand, readying his knife in the other.
He stabbed, throwing all his weight into the blow. The resulting wound was minor, the blade of the knife only as long as his shortest finger, but Taqu was able to pierce the thick hide of the beast's neck. Again and again he drew the blade out and thrust again, sending streams of blood out upon the rocks and all over his hands and arm.
The Ancient One swung in a mighty heave, and a loud metallic snapping sound signaled the breaking of the links that held it down. And though Taqu could feel the finboar's strength waning, he too was near exhaustion. But still he stabbed.
A low groaning squeal escaped the finboar, and Taqu felt the thing start to fall. Leaping from its back as it toppled, Taqu landed awkwardly nearby but keeping his footing.
The Ancient One twitched on the ground, the ghosts of the Dead Islet all watching but keeping their distance. Taqu stood, straightened his back, the knife in his hand dripping and splattering the rocks. He reveled amidst the ghosts, the kill, the beating of his heart.
Another pained grown escaped the dying creature, and Taqu felt himself overcome with pity. Only seconds before, he was fighting for his life against a furious mass of spines and sinew. But now, the finboar was fast growing cold, and would soon be unmoving.
The shaman's apprentice stared down through his mask at the dying animal, and knelt beside it. He reached to push the thing's head to the side, noting all of the stab wounds he had inflicted. The creature flinched, but could offer no resistance.
He felt for the finboars throat, thick and strong, but vulnerable, and extended his knife one last time. And, with a forceful jerk, he ended the Ancient One's suffering.
Taqu stood once more, reveling in the scene around him. He removed the mask, and as it slid off his eyes, the spirits around him disappeared. He was no longer in an arena of ghosts, but in the shadow of a hill on a tiny islet, drenched in warm blood.
One of the finboar's tusks was missing - broken off by the strain of tearing the links of the storage chest. Taqu found it next to the box itself, bloody but intact, and still attached to it was the blue starfish necklace and, miraculously, the golden earring as well. Taqu scooped up the treasure and inspected it closely, marveling at his fortune.
The earring itself was meaningless to him, but the fortune of having it stuck onto the same tusk that took Yura's necklace was staggering. There was a lot of power in this, and he supposed it would make a potent talisman.
Perhaps strong enough even to heal Sarum.
He collected the box, a short length of the linked chain still attached, and made to leave. Taqu glanced at sky. It would be twilight soon. Ulgram must still be waiting.
But before he could even begin climbing the hill, Taqu felt an odd sensation. He looked around, seeing nothing but the corpse of the finboar, the wreckage of the ship, the scattered rocks. Normally he might have shrugged off the feeling and kept going, but instead Taqu had a gut feeling, and reached for the Death Mask and put it on.
He surveyed his surroundings. The ghosts had gone. He was entirely alone. Turning around, he saw nothing strange. It was as though he never put the mask on in the first place. Confused, Taqu turned once more to head back the way he had come.
But a smoky, pale finboar stood in his path. Taqu froze.
"And so I go," Taqu heard a deep, throaty voice say. It wasn't heard through his ears, but rather he felt the voice in his mind, and he knew that its owner was the Ancient One.
"I was the last of the finboars of this island," it rumbled, "but I was bound to stay here, unlike my brothers and sisters, who have left, until my death. I thank you for releasing me from my tortured body, for I was old, but cursed. I have aged, but could never die."
He did not know how to respond, but the ghost seemed to understand this. Taqu felt a wave of relief wash over him, as though he could feel the spirit's emotions.
"But hear me, young shaman," it continued. "My time on this island has ended, and very soon, so will yours. I am the last of the spirits to depart this place, and with me gone, the cycle will turn once more."
And with that, Taqu found himself beset by a vision, impressed upon him by the Ancient One. A glimpse of what was to come passed before Taqu's eyes, and he was afraid.
A gentle gust blew over them, and the ghostly, wispy form disappeared in the wind. Taqu shouted after the spirit left, but his voice rang out unanswered in the fog.
"Ulgram!" Taqu called as his boat ground against the sand. He called for him again, but there was no answer. He saw the finboar's hoof prints trailing from far off, near the forest, down into the ocean. Everyone knew that finboars were amphibious animals, but nobody knew that the Ancient One made its home on the Dead Islet...
"I'm here!" called the other man. Taqu saw Ulgram timidly emerge from the boat shack and rushed towards him. "Taqu, hurry, the Ancient One is nearby. I saw him swim towards the Islet!"
"You need not worry about him," said Taqu. He beckoned Ulgram. "Get in."
Ulgram stopped walking and stared at the boat. Like every Clan, he was deathly afraid of the water, and the shaman's magic boat was something he did not understand, and thus was also a warrant for fear.
But eventually Taqu urged him into boarding the small craft, and after they cast off, Ulgram held tight to the sides. As Taqu rowed, Ulgram noticed the necklace - Yura's blue starfish, but now with a broken finboar tusk. And a golden ring onto the narrow end!
Taqu rowed swiftly and, keeping close to the coastline, Ulgram marveled at the surrealness of it all. For a moment, with grim determination painted on Taqu's face, Ulgram thought that the shaman's apprentice was even more intimidating than the shaman herself. But out here, so close to the great open ocean, it was difficult for Ulgram to think of anything else except how deep and mysterious the water was beneath them.
About as deep and mysterious as the shaman's apprentice that rowed him along.
And were the two men standing on solid ground, they might have noticed the sand shift under their feet as the earth shuddered with a Deep Rumble.
It was morning by the time they arrived at the village. Ulgram was astounded at the time they had made using the magic boat - a fraction of the time spent traveling on foot. Though both were tired, having taken turns rowing for hours and hours, the morning sunlight energized Taqu.
They were a strange, most unexpected sight to behold. To see Ulgram and Taqu return home so soon, and from the sea of all places, was completely unheard of - most people stared unbelieving even as they debarked from the boat and pulled it ashore, safe from the waves. Taqu thanked Ulgram, asked him to instruct the Clan to bring the boat to Sarum's hut, and turned to rush there himself. It felt good to run on solid ground after the rocking aboard the boat.
Taqu arrived panting at the shaman's hut, the box retrieved from wreckage under one arm and the sack containing the Death Mask and newly made talisman in the other.
"Sarum!" he shouted, dashing into the house. He didn't even think of wiping off his feet before entering, a habit the shaman had insisted he do whenever coming home. "I did it! I've got the lockbox!"
He searched the rooms, starting with her bedroom. The sheets were nicely made, but no sign of anyone. The shaman's hut only had a few rooms - it took less than a minute for Taqu to ascertain his home was empty. He made to leave, but was surprised to find Yura in the doorway.
"You're back," she said, looking just as surprised as he was.
"Where is Sarum?"
"Where is she, Yura?"
"Oh Taqu, she passed into the next world. Just last night."
Something broke inside Taqu"s chest. His knees gave out, and he struggled to keep from falling.
"How...?" was all he could say.
"She just" fell asleep and" and stopped breathing," said Yura. "She was so peaceful. She was smiling when her eyes closed. And this," she added, walking past him and into the hut. Taqu was too overwhelmed to notice that Yura seemed to have gotten over her fear of this place.
"She wanted me to give you this." Yura picked up a roll of parchment made from a cured palm leaf. Taqu took it and saw that Sarum had written something upon it with inks. He always found it remarkable that the clanfolk seemed incapable, or unwilling, to grasp writing.
"What does it say?" asked Yura. Taqu's eyes scrolled over the parchment, reading.
"Taqu," it began, "There are a hundred things I wish I told you, a hundred things I wish I could write here for you now, but I sense my time is near. By the time you read this, I will be gone.
"I know you found the box as I hoped you would. I also know of the trial you faced upon finding it. When you donned the Death Mask, I was able to see what you saw, and witnessed your triumph over the Ancient One. Not bad for a man who was never a hunter.
"Along with this letter are some diagrams that you must follow to the tiniest detail. You were always good at following my instructions, Taqu, but none are as important as these.
"Change is coming, the spirit of the Ancient One proves that. You have to be prepared for anything, Taqu, and don't ever forget: we might serve the Clan as shaman, but we will never be family in their eyes. You will need to remember this in the coming days.
"The key to the lockbox you retrieved is inside the chest, near my bed. Use the contents to further my last task, which I give to you now: survive. Yura is a sweet girl, she has her uses, but do not let her blind you.
"I owe you my thanks, for I had bound myself to the spirit of the Ancient One, long ago. As it lived and aged, unable to die, I shared its fate. But I realized my error, for I was imprisoned in this old body and would remain so until the Clan was long gone and I would be truly alone. I sought a way to escape my fate, and then I met you, one among the Clan who could overcome your fear.
"I knew you would be able to defeat the finboar, and thus release me from this island, and thus I release you. Your purpose has been fulfilled, and your fate is now your own.
"Farewell, Taqu. I will forever hold you dearly in my heart, even in whatever afterlife awaits me."
"It says that you took very good care of her," said Taqu to Yura. She smiled, but knew there was much more to be said. Secrets between master and apprentice she would never know.
"Taqu," she said suddenly, eyes blinking. "You are shaman."
All at once Taqu realized the gravity of her words. It was true. Sarum never mentioned anything about a ceremony, or any sort of initiation rite. In fact they never spoke of his succession as shaman. It was just one of those topics that Taqu assumed Sarum would tell him when the time was right.
Later, Taqu stood at Sarum's grave, her twisted walking staff planted like a tree nearby. Yura stood close behind Taqu, as did Ulgram and Krianni. Or'jar, too, was present, and behind them most of the tribe bore witness.
Taqu held the talisman in one hand, twiddling it in his fingers. His head lowered, and he put on the Death Mask. People around him gasped as he turned to face them, but they could not see the hopeful sorrow in his eyes as he searched the crowd. He scanned the area around him, hoping, searching" but there was no sign of the ghost of Sarum.
Wordlessly, Taqu straightened his back and left the clansmen to their thoughts. There was no need for ceremony, no need to tell the sheep what they already assumed.
There was no mourning. No one showed signs of grief, and Taqu hated them for that. Most of the Clan had come simply to confirm for themselves that the old crone had in fact died. Some people even seemed relieved.
Yet Taqu himself could not hope for anyone to understand his mixed feelings about her passing. She had been an outstanding mentor to him, but he still felt betrayed for having been used as a tool for her own purposes. Now, with her gone, a new notion of freedom, and of imprisonment, flooded his consciousness.
This steeled Taqu's resolve. There was work to be done.
A month passed since Sarum's death and Taqu enjoyed all the fear and loathing that came with the honor of being shaman. Seemingly overnight, the Clan respected Taqu for his authority, but despised him for being more alien than ever before.
The diagrams Sarum had left for him were, as ever, easy to read though heavily detailed. Taqu had been working diligently on the project ever since, and after a month of labor, he was nearing completion.
The boat from the Great Beach, supported on stilts on the shore, was dismantled in key places and rebuilt with new materials. Parts of it were redesigned entirely, and even now it was barely recognizable.
From the top spouted a tall, sturdy pole, from which there would hang a large piece of canvas for a sail. The oars would still be used, but a more advanced rudder was now placed in the rear of the vessel, and its overall size had increased. Compartments were built, installed, and secured into place.
The lockbox that Sarum had Taqu retrieve contained something he did not expect. When he unlocked the little box, he was surprised to find simple papers within, though they were smoother and thinner than any of the leaf-pages that Sarum had used. There were some papers amidst that Taqu couldn't understand, but several he recognized as maps.
Maps of the sea, and a huge world beyond.
Taqu had grown up knowing that he never belonged on this island. He never felt a part of the tribe or its strange rules, and never expected to find a content place here. But he never really entertained the notion of leaving Home Island either. After all, where could he go? There was nothing but ocean out there - Home Island was the entire world, and thus the only thing worth thinking about. Everyone knew that.
But Sarum changed all that. With these sea charts, with this new sailboat design, and with his newfound power as shaman, Taqu was emboldened with a hope he had never before felt. Thanks to Sarum, Taqu could at last see what lay beyond the horizon.
Other islands? Other tribes, maybe? Perhaps he could bring something back from his travels. Or, perhaps even, he could take Yura and they could sail off to a new island...
Taqu shook his head as he worked, tightening a cord that held one of the planks secure while he wedged a wooden nail into place. Sarum always told him he should remove himself from the tribe, because they would never see him as an equal. But Yura was different.
Taqu was so focused on refitting the new sailboat that he hardly noticed the subtle changes around him. The Clan was adjusting to the loss of Sarum and having Taqu in her place, but there were things happening around the village that were becoming difficult to ignore by even the most blissful of the sheeplike clansmen.
Birds were seen less and less, most having taken flight abruptly in large flocks, headed west to join the sungod. The favored lagoon for fishing, where tasty morselfish were most easily caught and cleaned, seemed to favor deeper waters and could not be found. Even the hunters, who had since left to hunt down a finboar for an up-and-coming lad's rite of passage, returned empty handed. There were no stories of bravery or even cowardice when facing a finboar. In fact, they said there wasn't a single finboar to be seen.
It was evening. Taqu looked to the sky to see that it was unusually dark. According to the Book of Visions, a storm or two might be expected around this time, but nothing serious. Just some cloud cover for a few days. Taqu knew he would have to explain to the concerned Clan that it was only temporary, and that the sungod would be returning to them shortly.
Before retiring to the shaman's hut for the night, Taqu decided to go into the village for an uncharacteristic stroll. If there's one thing he did differently than Sarum, it was that he made himself plainly visible for all to see, which helped to lessen his feelings of awkwardness. He rarely wore the Death Mask too, seeing no need to frighten them unnecessarily, but he always kept it on his person.
He had no particular goal in mind as he walked. Most of the Clan had already bid their nightly farewell to the sungod and gone to bed or were huddled around fires, sharing sweet fruits or roasted meat and fish, telling stories or otherwise simply enjoying each other's company. The people were content. They seemed to be growing more tolerant of Taqu, though the tolerance was negligible.
Satisfied that no one needed him this evening, he left, though he stopped a moment in front of one particular hut. From inside he could hear the familiar giggling of a certain woman, followed by the soft chuckling of her husband. Taqu stared longingly for a moment, and willed himself away. Being shaman meant he had freedom, and he wielded considerable power over the imaginations of the people, but somehow" it wasn't enough. Somehow, he was also a prisoner.
That night, he slept alone, as he had for a month, in the secluded shaman's hut.
Taqu awoke with a start. It was morning, but he knew not what roused him. A dream? He could recall nothing. Then he could hear a distant rumble, like thunder in the earth. He willed his beating heart to slow, and made to rise from his bed, when a powerful quake pushed him back down. There followed another rumble, this one louder than before, and Taqu thought he heard the sounds of startled clansfolk in the distance.
It was windy out. The storm overhead would not likely bring rain, but the normally pleasant breezes were always made harsher with the storms. Taqu took his mask, his reed-cloak, and the small sack of reagents he always carried, and went outside.
A short walk away was the beach, where his sailboat stayed secure. He then went on the trek to the village, where he expected to assure the clansfolk that the overcast was nothing to fear. But when he arrived, the people were more anxious than ever.
"The shaman!" someone shouted.
"Taqu is here, thank the sungod!"
"What's going on?" he asked the nearest person.
"The Deep Rumbles," said someone. "There were two this morning. What does it mean, shaman?"
Ah, two of them, thought Taqu. So that's what woke me up.
But before Taqu could answer, a booming crack like thunder echoed out over the island. Everyone's heads turned toward the source - everyone looked toward Mt. Heaven.
There was a second explosion, and black smoke could be seen rising from the summit of the mountain. Another Deep Rumble shook the earth so abruptly and so powerfully that some Clan were knocked off their feet.
Screams rose and the people started to panic. Most of them didn't know what was happening, but in the spirit of mob mentality, they lost their senses simply because that was what everyone else was doing. Some families ran into their huts, others dashed to tell the chief. For a moment, Taqu was ignored, strangely, and he saw the chaos happening around them, and felt a terrible feeling in his gut as he gazed up to the peak of Mt. Heaven. Orange and red sparks spouted from the top, careening across the sky and leaving long black trails of smoke behind.
Everything was happening so fast. The ground shook, the people ran and screamed, and flaming rocks could be seen crashing into the forest. Even now a glowing river of fire could be seen oozing from the top of the mountain, and Taqu thought to find the only person who mattered to him on the entire island...
Another terrible rumble, and the very ground bucked, sending people into the air. It then sank, and sank, and suddenly parted, and there, in the center of the village, a great hole formed. Sand cascaded down into the blackness, and the hole widened. Taqu could hardly believe his eyes as huts toppled down, screaming people clinging to the wooden frames or free-falling down, until their voices could no longer be heard. Sea water poured down from the shore, but the hole was impossibly deep, and growing impossibly wide. Dozens of people were swallowed in seconds, and Taqu for all his newfound power felt completely helpless.
He saw Or'jar hanging over the edge of the hole, which seemed to stop widening for the moment, trees and huts dangling precariously over. Or'jar was holding someone by the hand, someone who was nearly about to fall into the blackness...
"Hang on, Ulgram!" Taqu heard Or'jar shout. Taqu rushed to his side and tried to pull them up, but Or'jar's grip loosened. Ulgram looked pleadingly at Taqu. He lost his grip.
Ulgram tumbled into the darkness. Or'jar stared, unbelieving.
"We have to move," Taqu urged. "We have to move NOW."
"Yura!" Or'jar called out as he was pulled away from the pit, nearly crying. "Yura!!" Taqu took the chief by the shoulders and assured him that they would find his daughter. They rushed off, away from the sinking village and into the forest.
"He isn't here," said Yura, emerging from the shaman's hut. Zeo waited outdoors, far too frightened to step any closer to the building, let alone inside.
"Where's he gone?" said Zeo, looking around. "We should return to the village. Maybe he's there."
Together they rushed away from the shaman's hut and toward the village, where distant screams and a low roar of cascading water could be heard. The wind was picking up, adding to the confusion as their voices were carried off.
They heard a whistling sound as something bright appeared overhead. Zeo shouted, but by the time Yura looked up, a flaming boulder crashed down and exploded on the ground near them, sending them both rolling.
"Yura!" Zeo shouted again, regaining himself quickly. She wasn't moving, and he shook her by the shoulders. Gaining no response, Zeo looked around frantically at the smoking damage around them. The flaming boulder had destroyed several trees and set fire to the undergrowth.
Some figures emerged from the smoke, and Zeo strained his tearing eyes to see. He could hear a familiar voice calling out, barely audible through the screaming of falling rocks and the distant roar of increasingly harsh wind.
"Over here!" he shouted, and the figures hastened towards him. Zeo was relieved to see both the chief and the shaman appear through the smoke, each of them panting and weary.
Taqu ran to Yura's side, Or'jar arriving several breaths behind him. The shaman put his hand over her mouth.
"She's still breathing," he said, and both Or'jar and Zeo felt relief wash over them.
"Shaman, what's going on? What is happening to Home Island?" said Zeo.
"U'chazta," said the shaman grimly, and they looked at one another in turn, their fears confirmed.
"We must make for the shore," said Or'jar, a wind of authority returning to his voice. "It isn't safe in the forest."
"Take Yura, both of you, and go," said Taqu. "I will meet you there."
"Where are you going?" said Zeo suspiciously. Taqu glanced at him, showing an expression that dared Zeo to question him again. Zeo backed down, suddenly feeling very frightened at the shaman's uncharacteristic display of emotion. But he nodded, and he and Or'jar both lifted Yura by her arms and feet, and swiftly made for the beach.
Taqu turned and dashed in the opposite direction.
The ground was shaking frequently, more and more flaming rocks falling from the sky. Taqu narrowly dodged one, leaping to the side and witnessing a tree getting smashed into splinters where he had just been. The air was becoming thick with ash and smoke, and through the gloom Taqu could see a glowing movement beyond the trees. A slow, ambling river of flame, consuming everything in its path.
Taqu redoubled his speed, finally breaking out from the foliage and sprinting toward the shaman's hut. There was no time to gather all that he wished he could; books and trinkets that Sarum had made, some of them imbued with magic, others merely toys that played with the imaginations of the Clan. There were stocks of valuable materials, reagents gathered from the dangerous places of the island - a lifetime of baubles and jars and things the likes of which Taqu still could not guess the identity.
He found the naval charts from the Dead Islet lockbox, rolled them in a palm leaf cover and felt heat rising from beneath the floor. Smoke filled the room, and he could hear a growing fire on the far side of the house. He fled the building, jumping through the door and landing roughly on the ground outside.
Taqu ran, feeling the heat rising at his back, and turned just before leaving the clearing. Lava had surged under the hut, burning away its support stilts, and even as he watched part of it was leaning into the molten rock, burning to nothing. His home collapsed, and Taqu ran.
"Hurry!" Taqu said as he found Or'jar and Zeo at the beach. Yura had come to, and was looking around, frightened. From here the four could see the peak of Mt. Heaven, bright orange at the top, burning and smoldering and spewing fiery death. "This way," Taqu urged, and they followed him down the beach.
Another rumble. The wind was whistling in their ears, and the sand felt loose under their feet. It was difficult to run, some of them stumbling as they went. The ground started to sink.
"Father!" Yura cried, and Taqu turned to see another hole forming behind them, Or'jar caught on the edge. He struggled to keep from falling, but his feet found no grip and he went on his knees, and in seconds the sand swallowed him up to his chest.
"Yura...!" was the last thing Or'jar could say before the earth bucked again, and the sinkhole suddenly widened. The chief disappeared into blackness, rocks and sand and seawater following him.
Yura screamed and nearly leapt after him, but both Taqu and Zeo restrained her. She kicked and shrieked, but they pulled her away from the widening sinkhole.
"Shaman," said Zeo as they walked, Yura sobbing in their arms. "What are we going to do?"
"The only thing we can do," said Taqu.
"Can you save us, shaman?"
Taqu pressed his lips together into a thin line.
"The sailboat," he said. Zeo nodded, a glimmer of hope shining in his eyes.
They made their way down the shore, braving rumbles and witnessing more sinkholes occur around them. Flaming rocks soared overhead, some of them splashing into the ocean with a plume of steam.
When they made it to the boat, Taqu rushed to make one last inspection. He had followed Sarum's handwritten plans perfectly - the sailboat was a perfect manifestation of her drawn idea. Everything down to the pitch used to seal the planks and bent poles, the corded vines to fasten the sail, the thick-woven fibers for the canvas sail. The only thing that Taqu did not do was test it.
But there was no time.
He called for Zeo to help him knock out the supports. They removed the logs used to hold the sailboat in place, and once it thudded into the sand, they pushed it to the water. Zeo knew clearly what the sailboat could do, but how it functioned and why it could float was something he dismissed as shaman magic. The sailboat was a strange thing, but he was too overcome with fear of u'chazta to keep from touching the shaman's magic boat.
Taqu stood alongside the boat, wind tugging at the rolled canvas on the mast. He found that the vessel appeared waterproof, and grunted his approval.
"Where will you take us?" asked Zeo, staring at the craft as someone might view a poisonous snake. Taqu gestured toward the sea.
"Away from here," was the simple reply.
"And when will we come back? When will u'chazta end?" Taqu stopped, and turned to face Zeo.
"We won't be coming back." Yura gazed at them both, unsure if her ears were working.
"Leave Home Island?" Zeo gasped. "Forever? What of the Clan? What of those left behind?"
Taqu said nothing, but his eyes darted to Yura. She could see him beseeching her with his expression, normally so statuelike, but now rife with desperation.
"You would abandon the Clan, wouldn't you?" Zeo snarled. "You would leave them behind, save yourself with the magic boat that only you can use! Coward!" The words caused Taqu to flinch.
"Yura..." said the shaman, softly, pleadingly.
"You are nothing compared to Sarum!" Zeo shouted. "And the Clan does not need a shaman! The sungod will return to us - he always does - and he will save us, like he did during u'chazta before. The sungod will always make safe our people, with or without a cowardly shaman!" He stepped away, furious.
Yura stood between them, her hands covering her mouth. She shook her head, frightened, looking at the two men in turn.
"Yura, please," Taqu said, extending an outstretched hand.
There was a moment when Yura's eyes met the shaman's, and something passed between them. For a moment, Yura could see into Taqu, understanding him, feeling his emotions. How could she have had any doubts about it before, it was all so obvious.
"No," she said to him, and frowned. Tears cascaded down her cheeks as she stepped away from the shaman, away from the sailboat, and went to Zeo's side.
The ground rumbled again, prompting them to hastily flee the beach. Casting a final accusing glance to the shaman, Zeo sneered, and he and his wife disappeared into the forest.
Taqu stood alone, unable to feel the wind tugging at his hair, the sand shifting under his feet. Everything seemed so distant, everything seemed so unreal. The smell of the ocean and the smoke, the roar the of the waves nearby and the fires far off. The sky was dark not with clouds, but with ash, and Taqu could hardly believe how much his world had changed.
But it was never his world to begin with. Sarum knew that.
He turned, summoning strength he did not know he had, and pushed. The sailboat slid gently into the water, and he hoisted himself over the edge and used the oars to row himself further out until the waves pulled him away from the island.
He kept rowing, watching the beach go further and further away. He rowed with all the strength left in him, he rowed as though possessed.
Home Island shrank, and soon looked small enough to hold in his arms. Mt. Heaven exploded, a thundering cracking sound echoing over the waves and out to sea. A tremendous amount of lava spewed forth, and in minutes the majority of Home Island was covered in fire. More explosions resounded, and Taqu could actually see chunks of landmass topple into the ocean; Mt. Heaven roared at the sky one last time, and collapsed into itself.
And then Home Island was gone.
A day passed and Taqu found that he could adjust even to the most impossible of environments: out riding the waves like a resting seagull. He learned how to use the canvas sail, finding that the wind could be harnessed to pull the sailboat swiftly along or even against the waves.
He lived off the dried fruit and drank spring water from gourds that he had stored in one of the compartments aboard. The fishing pole he brought along was useless; he discovered that there were no shallow-water fish out this far.
Each night he gauged his direction using the stars as per the naval charts, and each day he followed the sun, always west. When there was wind, he unfurled the sail and steered the rudder; when the air was still, he rowed.
In all directions there was nothing but open ocean. In all directions, clouds were his only company, and even they ignored his tiny presence. Taqu could remember how small Home Island looked from far away, and was frightened at the thought of how tiny he was. He dared not think of how deep the water was below him; the very idea of falling overboard terrifying. He had long since tied a rope around his waist, attached to the sturdy mast, just in case, but still he caught himself every time a large wave rocked his boat, and on several occasions he felt as though the craft would tip. But Sarum's design proved to be effective not only in grasping the wind and pushing forward, but also in keeping stable. Yet after large waves, Taqu rushed to scoop water out.
It was not until the second day until Taqu finally saw something that was different from the endless rise and fall of the waves. A spray of white, like steam from a hot stone dropped into water, spouted a short distance away. Several more sprays happened around it, and Taqu recognized them to be whales - creatures that he nor any Clan had seen except for one that had beached itself many seasons ago. Sarum had taught him they were gentle creatures, but larger than he could ever imagine.
Taqu peered over at them, placing the naval charts he had been studying on the bench. He leaned carefully over the side, trying to get a better look, and happened to glance down.
The sea water was a dark, deep blue, but fairly clear. He could see far down below him. Or would have, if his view weren't obstructed by a passing shape.
A whale swam beneath him, and it was all Taqu could do to keep from panicking. All the water beneath him was suddenly darkened with the passing silhouette below, and the sailboat rocked a little more than usual as he felt the current shift with the whale's movement. After awhile it continued on, uncaring of Taqu's presence, and he was grateful.
A sea wind kicked up, and Taqu tried to hold himself steady against the ribs of the boat. But he was not quick enough to snatch the naval charts, picked up by the gust and carried off.
Taqu shouted, cursing his carelessness. The papers flew off out of reach, and eventually out of sight. With them he knew he had at least some form of direction; without them he knew he was floating aimlessly.
He checked his food and water stores. Even while trying to keep his consumption to a minimum, they were running low already. He would have packed more supplies, but there was no time...
The shaman picked up the oars, seated himself, and began rowing toward the sun.
The next day Taqu's morale faded. He had run out of food and nearly run out of water. As night fell for the third time, he began to despair, and replay all his memories that lead up to this moment. How could he have done anything differently? Should he have stayed behind and shared the fate of the Clan that so alienated him?
The stars that night were clear and bright. Taqu had a vague understanding of the heavens; Sarum had taught him how the stars always changed, but some of them remained fixed in place. But without the naval charts to help him find his bearing, or the strength with which to use the oars, Taqu found that all he could do was lay back and feel the rocking of the boat.
By morning, Taqu's water stores were dry, and there was no wind to pull the sail. He drifted along for hours, his mind thinking going over the mistakes he made again and again. Should have packed more water. Should have packed more fruit. Should have weighed down the charts.
Should have stayed with Yura...
Taqu felt the hot sun bearing down upon him. He knew that drinking sea water was as good as killing himself; every Clan knew that. But he was perhaps that last person left alive in the entire world. Taqu knew he would shrivel up in the sun like one of the fruits he consumed, alone.
He exhaled, closed his eyes, and waited for death.
"Careful! I said careful, Mr. Jackson!"
"Sorry sir, doin" me best."
The sailors leaned over the port bow of their galleon, The Defiant, prodding with hooked poles. It was strange enough to see flotsam this far from the trade routes, but stranger still to find a small boat floating out in the open ocean. Naturally the captain of the Defiant had been notified, and word was already spreading throughout the huge ship that a discovery had been made.
"Where do you suppose he's from, sir?"
"Couldn't say "til he wakes up, Mr. Jackson, but my guess is that "e's one of them Iwagati people. Has the look of an islander, he does. Primitive folk. Don't usually have much to do with the trading nations."
"They savages, these Iwagati?"
"Who knows? We'll keep a close watch on him "til he comes to. Poor bloke. Looks like a prune, he does."
The sailors aboard the Defiant placed the stranger in the infirmary, where he was nursed by the ship's physician. Once word got out that the dark-skinned man was already showing signs of recovery, all those aboard were excited to learn the story of the drifting islander.
The Defiant was a trade ship, equipped with multiple masts and playing host to dozens of passengers in addition to almost a hundred sailors. The cargo route the galleon usually followed was usually uneventful but for an occasional squall, but this time of year it was often smooth sailing from the nations of the Urama subcontinent to the Straits of Gaethres. If trade was good, the Defiant might continue the route along the mainland coast, skirting the jewel cities of Ajazil and Alhaz. Life was good for captains of trade ships in safe waters, swollen with valuable goods from exotic lands.
If the wind was in their favor, The Defiant would make berth in just a few days, after months of faring the sea.
"Y'see that there?" pointed one of the strange men covered in cloth. "That there's Alabist, biggest port in all the Gaethres islands."
Taqu followed his finger, not understanding his words but understanding the gesture. They stood amidships, facing west, the sun setting far in the distance.
When Taqu awoke, his reed-cloak had been removed, his hair had been washed, and every part of his body cleaned to a level he never thought possible. He was in a strange bed, enclosed in an unfamiliar room, wearing clothing that covered his entire body.
He had awakened to see strange, pale faces all staring down upon him, speaking in a language he couldn't possibly hope to understand. Words and expressions and gestures completely unintelligible; for a while Taqu thought he had died and gone to the spirit world.
Time changed that conclusion. He understood he was riding upon a boat as big as a whale, and that the people aboard were from some other tribe. Most of them would cast a few words in his direction, and unable to comprehend the syllables, Taqu would ignore them and explore the ship.
Today, though, the endless ocean ended and in the distance Taqu could see a large landmass, something ten times larger than Home Island. Even as the sun set, he could see lights, hundreds of lights, upon the shoreline and further inland. He couldn't understand their words, but he could understand the excited tone as people around him got busy preparing various parts of the ship for, what Taqu assumed, involved docking ahead.
He cast his eyes at the sunset. The same sun went down on the same horizon, but he was so far from the only home he had ever known that it felt like another world.
"Don'tchyoo worry," said the man next to Taqu. "They'll learn you right in the city."
Taqu glanced at the man, so alien with his clothing and pale skin and facial hair. He left, leaving Taqu to look out upon the ocean for awhile longer. His fingers twiddled the talisman, made from the finboar tusk, his father's earring, and Yura's blue starfish. He still had Sarum's Death Mask, but left it in the cabin with his reed-woven cloak.
Then, without a word or a tear, the shaman of Home Island cast the talisman into the sea and turned and prepared to face beyond The Edge Of The World.