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Search & Scrutiny XI

Aaka slowly regained her higher consciousness over the course of several days, during which reality would turn from dreamlike to awakened. She did not yet interact with the girl, because she didn’t yet trust her own senses and thoughts, but after she had been carried for two days in something she was absolutely sure was a glass jar with grass stuffed in, across something she was absolutely sure was a road between fields, Aaka decided to speak to the girl for the first time in a long time.

“I see you’re well.” She opened.
The girl quickly shot back. “I see you finally decided to speak.”
“So, you knew how I was?”
“Normal spiders just don’t behave that way. Do you want to come out of your sickbed?”
“No, this isn’t too bad. Maybe later.”
“I’ll cut a bigger hole for you into the cork. Clara made that place for you. She was very grateful to you for saving her.” The girl seemed like she wanted to say a lot more about Clara, but didn’t.
“It was your idea for me to stay with her. But I’m glad I’m not dead.”
“Can you even die? This far from Louissos, he could never recapture your spirit in time, could he?”
“Maybe if it was in a place of power and he was prepared for it. No, out here, I am utterly dependent on you.”
“I managed to get information. We are southeast of Kalonitz, heading to a place called desperation corner.” Aaka noticed they were still walking on a stone road, most likely imperial in origin.
“Where’s that?”
“Where the Impjasegi and the Veshurky mountains meet. There’s a corner, just before the Impjasegi mountains curl south, you know, to form the western border of the western Asundered Lands?”
“I saw it on a map once.”
“There’s the usual pass, by the city of... what was it called? Doesn’t matter, I wrote it down. That usual pass uses the imperial road. But further to the south, within that corner, there’s a place that slave liberators call “Desperation Corner” because many runaway slaves, desperate to reach free lands, cross the mountain mass all in one go, right over the tops. Apparently, a hidden trail there allows you to pass, but barely anyone ever makes it.”
Aaka tried to wrap her head around that much geology. “And that’s important... why?”
“Because it’s where everyone goes missing! The forest of dreams is hidden, so anyone who enters probably can’t leave, like the merchants said.”

Aaka hadn’t thought about that. At the beginning, the girl had asked for information no one would have. Instead, she realized that such a secret place would leave a big hole in the map, so she started looking for holes in the map. She was smarter than she looked at first. How could someone like her do something as stupid as entering a blood pact?

The travels along the roads were calm and uneventful. It wasn’t every day that she made stop at a traveller’s camp, but she bought provisions from travelling merchants whenever she could, leaving her most durable rations untouched.

They made ground and the day came that the girl stood before a fork in the road. They had entered the foot hills and the stone road clung to the valleys, winding down from the mountains in the distance. For a long time, the vista of the mountains to their right had accompanied them, and by now, the mountains ahead of them were just as close. They could clearly see where the two mountain ranges met and merged into one. Like walls of grey tipped with white, they rose in the distance, heralding hardships and uncertainty, looming ever closer and ever more dreadful.

At this fork where they now stood, the stone road took a bridge over a broad and shallow stream, flowing out of the valleys of the foothills to the south. It was very wide, but wouldn’t reach above her knees at the deepest point.Accompanying the stream was a dirt road and further up the stream stood a watermill and several other buildings, shining in the sun in tones of yellow, red and green.

“That must be the village of Ploshga.” The girl said. “And beyond Ploshga, only wilderness and mountains. It will be our last chance to stock up.”

She took the dirt road running along the east bank of the stream, towards Ploshga. She arrived soon and fund a general goods store. She used the opportunity to buy a few more rations that would last her long, for when she couldn’t find anything in the upper mountains.

The shopkeeper, a thin, old woman with a gaunt face and squinting eyes, pulled the girl close just as she was about to leave. “Do you intent of going into the mountains along the stream?” She asked with a hushed voice.
“No, and even if I did, it would be none of your business.”
The woman spoke even quieter now. “Don’t do it, girl. Many people go there and vanish. The mountains are cursed. The ghosts of the miners, that were entombed in the tunnels during the Great Sundering, have been hungering for flesh all this time now, and their hunger will never be satiated.”
The girl put on an annoyed face. “I won’t be in danger. But you’ll be in danger if you ever tell anyone I was here.” Then she left the shop.

“What was that about?” Aaka asked the girl as they were walking out of the village along the stream.
“What should it be about? I am tired of people telling me I’m not safe and trying to help me.”
“You are still blaming yourself for the bandit attack? You are a young girl travelling alone. It’s only normal for people to be concerned, Nannade.”
The girl seemed troubled. “Please don’t use that name.”
Aaka would have raised an eyebrow if she had any. “It’s your name, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. There’s this new being. Nannade was different than I am.”

The girl was starting to question her identity. Most people entering a pact end up clinging to their identity, trying to retain the bits of humanity they could still feel. But the girl had already rejected her old life. Aaka remembered her reaction to the blood in the vial turning black. All Aaka knew was, that the vial contained a powerful ward made with the Nannade’s mother’s blood. It was natural she had formed a strong bond to it, why renounce it now?

For a while, there was a silence between them and the girl just kept walking upstream, leaving fields behind them and coming ever closer to the hills and rocks of the foothills. The girl eventually picked the conversation back up. “Besides, ghosts of dead miners? Does that even happen?”

Spirits, ghosts, demons, and angels were all nebulous terms and the entities in question were undefinable by nature, but the common folk hardly ever got anything about them right. It was something that needed to be experienced rather than learned or studied.

“Sometimes, extraordinary circumstances can cause occult phenomena.” Aaka told the girl. “But thirteen centuries are a long time for one such thing in such a remote location.”
“But if it were true, they could be the cause for the disappearance, couldn’t they?” The girl had raised an eyebrow.
“Difficult to say. I don’t remember much about my first travel there. Louissos followed a call and the countryside seemed to open up for him, as if the geology itself was concealing the valley.”
“That sounds like a problem. If people can only enter if they’re called.”
“It could be an illusion. With the help of spirits, maybe you can make it.”
“And you couldn’t help me?”
“I can get you in once you find it. But to find, no, I am a spider. If you want someone to help you with geography, ask the spirit of a migratory bird, like a goose or a swallow.”

The girl didn’t answer anything to that, she just kept on walking. The sun had disappeared behind the mountains and the sky was turning dim too, so she prepared for the night under a small group of trees. She didn’t light a fire, just ate her cold, dry rations and drank from the stream. It flowed faster and narrower the further up the foothills they came and was icy cold and clear, not like the slow streams near the cities that were rank and disgusting.

The next morning, right after lighting a fire, the girl took a bath in the stream. “Before water becomes a rare commodity, I just want to get a bath one last time.” she had said.

She was sitting by the fire, getting herself dried and cooking some of her cured meat in a stew with a bit of dried root vegetables. She knew how to survive in the absolute wilderness. Dense and deep forests covered most of Sturreland, and Aaka had heard that her teacher Garetas used to abandon her in the woods as a test of toughness and determination. She would certainly make a good ranger or scout. Maybe she would even prefer a life without anyone having to care for her.

She spent the next days travelling upstream. The terrain turned steeper and rockier. Two days after they left Ploshga, the girl came by a large, peculiar boulder, surrounded by three smaller boulders, in the stream.
“This must be the first marker.” she said to herself and got out her notebook. “Somewhere here must be a brook that flows into the stream. We must follow it until we reach a waterfall around fifty feet high. That’s where the trail ends. That’s where the last person ever returned from. Apparently, one of the slaves had doubts about the safety and turned around there and managed to get back to Kalonitz to tell the underground about it.”

The girl decided to take off her boots and leap onto the boulder. It was around twenty-five feet high and its surface was smooth, but her claws still found a secure hold and the girl climbed to the top. She looked around and found the brook that was running into the stream. The stream made a slight bend towards southwest while the brook came from southeast, from one of the nearest peaks to them. It actually seemed to have a pass from the looks of it, but finding a trail there would prove difficult. The brook flowed from a steep and deep valley in the side of a mountain, coming from somewhere amidst the rocky crevices and gorges.

A day of travelling upstream from the boulder, they reached the waterfall. It came as an abrupt end to the walkable trail, almost vertical stone walls to the left and right, and to their feet a large pool of fresh, clean water had gathered. The girl made a remark about maybe bathing another time, but she couldn’t find any more firewood in the area and she also recognized the pettiness about her cleanliness in such a situation. “I just feel like spoiling myself from time to time.”

She looked for a way up and she could have probably scaled the walls, even with her luggage, but she decided to explore her options first. If she didn’t take the same path as the people who disappeared, she had little chance of finding out whether the forest of dreams was really at the end of the trail. She tracked her own path back and when she came to a certain corner, she noticed that there was a narrow foothold going up the side of the narrow valley, only visible if one was coming downstream.

She filled all her water skins in the brook and then tried to squeeze herself through the narrow gaps between the stone. She was successful and found herself on a hidden trail leading up the mountain, showing signs of frequent use. “This must be it.” She said with a hint of jubilation in her voice.

Night fell soon and she made stop at a small and gnarled tree clinging to the rocks. If anyone were to use the trail, they would have to ask her to move out of the way. There was little space elsewhere to lie down. Before she fell asleep, the girl listened to the wind howl through the rocks. “Something is here with us. Not just spirits.” she whispered.

When she woke up the next morning, she noted the same presence with them again. She tried singing to the spirits, but nothing reacted. “It became harder and harder to speak to the spirits around these parts. I guess the language has shifted.”
Aaka didn’t think the girl was interpreting the situation correctly. “Runes and the runic tongue aren’t universal, but even in the most distant parts of the world, they still carry importance and power. It shouldn’t be possible to have shifted this much.”
“That is why I was looking for a place of power. I could have learned so much about the spirits and tongues in this area. And maybe I could even contact someone in Sturreland, like Faan.” the girl seemed to drift off into nostalgia.
“Don’t be distracted by what’s behind you, girl.”

The girl set out for the day, but her suspicion that she was being watched only grew. Again, she tried to attract spirits, but they were very adamant to stay away. Normally a few would gather around by themselves out of pure curiosity.
The girl stopped by a ledge giving her and broad vista over the valley below. She could see that they were still travelling alongside the stream below them, which was taking more and more drops down ever higher cliffs. “I think I should try elemental runes here. The life force around these parts isn’t as vibrant and varied as the forests and plains. The mountain itself is probably channelling elemental streams.” the girl said.
“Do you seriously believe you have time for that?” the spider reminded her. Aaka was set on pushing the girl forward to so she could fulfil her mission.

Finally, they heard something betraying their stalker’s presence. A small stone was kicked loose on the other side of the gorge, and a shape rushed back between the concealing rocks. Both the girl and the spider had seen it. They waited a moment, then then the girl yelled.

“I know you’re there. I mean no harm to anyone here.”
No reaction.
The girl’s voice took on an annoyed tone. “I’m going to come over there soon enough, and I’ll remember you ignored me!”
No reaction.
“I was set upon this path by Vlatiko and Zivadin from Kalonitz, you can trust me.” It had probably been unwise to first threaten, then soothe her pursuers.
Slowly, two heads peeked forth from behind the rocks. Aaka could tell they were men wearing rough but tough outfits and wielded crude spears. They stepped onto an open part of the trail they were walking on and a third, smaller figure was accompanying them, a young woman, probably only a few years older than the girl herself. The girl waved to them and the three people waved back. The young woman pointed towards a point ahead of the girl’s trail, then set out towards that point.

The point was a deep chasm, through which the brook flowed. Halved logs and boards had been nailed together to a primitive but sturdy bridge across the chasm and the girl could pass over it to the other side of the gorge. The woman and the two guards were already waiting for them.

The woman made a bowing gesture and the girl responded in kind. The woman had very long and dark hair woven to many braids adorned with silver hair pins and barrettes, and wore a simple long dress made from undyed linen but adorned with many stitches across the cloth. The guards wore something that looked like thin but hardened leather vests and caps, as well as silver rings and necklaces.

The girl crossed the bridge and stepped closer to the woman.
“My name is Tanasha, and these are Lazallo and Nicholai.” said the woman. “We are of the hidden village. You must have come to us to seek a safe place to stay.”
“My name is Ssil and this is Aaka,” the girl replied with a gesture towards her shoulder. “and no, I seek the danger that the people trying to cross mountains here fall victim to.”
The woman’s face bared a look of confusion. “Then you are not an escaped slave?”
“I sort of am.” Replied the girl and tilted her head to the left. Then she brushed her fur to reveal the pink burn scars underneath.
“I understand.” said the woman. “No matter your request, we are willing to help anyone who escaped slavery. We still request you surrender all your weapons for now.”

The girl complied. She took all the throwing knives out from behind her bracers and shin guards, four in total. One of the guards put all of them in his satchel, then the woman and the guards turned around and went ahead on the trail, one guard walking behind the girl. They walked up until noon, when they finally arrived on a protected plain on the northwest side of the mountain. Aaka had sought an opportunity to talk to the girl about her choice of name, but didn’t dare to do it so close to the woman. She was obviously an awakened medium and could overhear them easily. High rocks formed a natural wall around the edges of the plain, and boards had been nailed together into a ramshackle wall around a village of simple tents and huts. Many people moved between them and a spot further to the back, where the solid cliff face met the protected plain. Several fires sent smoke up the mountain, and the air was mostly still and cold.

After they had reached the gate in the board wall, the woman turned to the girl again. “This is our hidden village. We allow anyone who promises to keep our secret and to be a part of our community to stay here.”
The girl looked around. “Are you the leader of these people? Or is there someone else I need to talk to?”
“I am the young shaman. The shaman is very old and as his apprentice, I take care of most things around here.”
“I see. There are some things I need to talk to you and the old shaman about. Where can we go?”

The woman led the girl to a hut further in the back. The guards stayed outside. Inside was the old shaman. He sat in a big cushioned chair, covered in blankets. His skin covered in wrinkles and scars. His eyes had turned milky and his hair was shaven short.
When the girl came closer to him, his face showed a sudden interest. “Tanasha, what peculiar person have you brought here?”
“She said her name is Ssil, she bears the brands of blood sigils on her neck. She seeks our aid in passing through the mountains.”
The girl bowed to the shaman and spoke up. “You probably see that I am no common crolachan. Since you have trusted me so far, I will be honest with you. I have entered a blood pact out of foolishness some while ago and I am on a mission to prove my humanity to the Lodge of Sturreland.”
The face of the woman showed horror, the man began to contemplate the girl’s words carefully.
“Hmm mmm.” He finally broke the silence. “I have no reason to distrust you, as long as you obey our rules and do not harm us. But what brings you here?”
“My first test of moral commensuration is to find the forest of dreams, also called the neverwhere woods and cursed woods, which is said to lie beyond these mountains here, to the south east.”
“I know of no such place. But there are many hidden places in the mountains and some of them seem to be utterly impossible for our scouts to find, similar to how this village is impossible to find for outsiders. Strange fogs settle in the valleys and howling winds make some passages impossible to weather. I cannot promise you that you will find what you need, but I can consult the spirits on your behalf.”
“I tried calling to them, but none would answer. Is that your doing?”
“Yes. We plead to the spirits to keep us hidden. And part of that is that they themselves hide. Now, Tanasha.” The old man turned to the woman. “Please, show our guest some hospitality and after that, prepare the rites.”

“Yes, teacher.” Tanasha bowed and the beckoned the girl to follow her. As they were walking through the village towards the cliff face, she started to talk to the girl again.
“I never would have guessed you to be a pactitioner. I thought that’s just how Crolachans looked.” A few people in the village stared at the girl and avoided her gaze and her path. It was not as bad as in the crowded city however.
“Most people can’t tell. That’s a sort of twisted joke by fate, for me to grow up where I am an outcast anyway.”
“I thought Aaka was your familiar.”
“No, she just accompanies me, to make sure I can take the required tests.”
“And you travelled all this way from Sturreland?”
“I still have an even longer way ahead of me, I am afraid to admit.”

As Tanasha was walking head of the girl, Aaka could clearly see the many scars on her back, most likely from whipping and other punishments. She did not try to hide them, as did the other inhabitants of the hidden village.
“How do you survive up here?” The girl asked.
“We have found the old silver mine and cleared out much of the rubble. We mine the silver and trade it for food and some commodities by a contact in Ploshga. We must however protect his identity. We also raise goats and rabbits for anything else we might need.”
“And the people who try to cross here don’t get lost, they just join your village?”
“Oh, they do get lost, we make sure of that. No one here can know of our village. That’s why we kill most of them coming without blessing of the Kalonitz underground, or the spirits will make them endlessly walk the many paths and ledges around the mountain, until they turn around, die of exhaustion or simply fall off at some point. But you had a familiar with you and the spirits sang weird songs of you. That’s why I decided to observe you for a while. It seems it was a good decision.”
“You’re not afraid of me?”’
“If the shaman isn’t, then I have no reason to be either. He looks deeply into people’s souls and I guess he saw no monstrosity in yours. Is there any other reason I should be afraid of you?”

The girl didn’t answer to that. They entered a long hut built out of solid wooden poles and taut linen. Inside, it looked like a dining hall, with many tables made of wood and almost no chairs or benches but instead, large rocks to sit on. They seemed to try and conserve as much wood as possible, a scarce resource hard to transport up the narrow paths. The hall seemed capable of seating around thirty people, but only half of the seats were filled at the moment. Tanasha told the girl to sit down and went to get her a bowl of stew and some bread.

While the girl was eating, Tanasha asked her many questions. “How long have you been running from your master?”
“Six years. But he never seemed to have chased me. My teacher said he investigated and found the bounty is still up, but it was taken care of, my teacher says. I suspect everyone who knew of my existence, name, and value, is dead.”
“Who is your teacher?”
“An arcanist. I also had a witch in Sturreland teaching me at the same time.”
“And why did you form a blood pact? Did your teachers tell you to?”
The girl paused, put down the spoon and looked into the air, contemplating. Then she looked into Tanasha’s eyes and said “Actually, I don’t think it is any of your concern.”
The woman seemed surprised and insulted by that response. “We trust you, you could trust us.”
The girl put down the spoon again. “I guess you’re right. I... I got really irritated at that question, I am sorry.” she hung her head and her ears as well. “I guess I was impatient. It was weird. The spirit that is with me now had been with me for many years, occasionally. One night, when I was especially impatient and angry with my teachers, I decided to follow the spirit’s advice without thinking about it. Its words easily flowed into my mind and convinced me instantly, as if I had already agreed to it long ago. It taught me the ritual. I knew what I was doing very well. I guess that’s why I haven’t turn into a grotesque monstrosity.”
Tanasha was eager to know more and the girl barely got to eating her meal. “Does that normally happen with blood pacts?”
“Almost always I am told. I once killed a werewolf who was a result of a blood pact. It was disgusting, but pitiful.”
“And do you regret your decision?”
“Every day. My regret is like a second heart, pumping pain through my mind. My sleep is restless. For a while, I was more afraid of living than of dying. Maybe one day, I will be so disgusted with myself that I’ll throw myself in the maws of some beast. But the serpent wouldn’t let me get hurt. Its mind is as connected to my body as my own is. It is useful for fighting and keeping lookout, but everything else is scary to even think about. I do not recognize my own face at times. I have changed. And the worst part is, if I ever decide to live among my own kind, I will be instantly recognized as different and wrong there too.”

After this monologue, silence was kept between them. Tanasha seemed too embarrassed to ask anything more.

The girl quickly finished her meal and the two headed back outside. Tanasha showed the girl important places in the village. The blacksmith, the refinery, and the quartermaster’s store were all inside of the mountain. Ventilation pathways had been carved into the stone or constructed out of lead. Storage rooms were also hewn into the rock, keeping food and water cool, even in the summer. Some of the tunnels were held up by wooden poles or even brickwork. Tanasha explained how the spirits made sure they were safe in the tunnels, thanks to the sacrifices of the villagers, the mountain could heal cracks and strains slowly over time like a living being would. As they went deeper, Aaka felt that they were nearing a place of power, and she could tell that the girl felt it too. When asked about it, Tanasha just said. “It is the spirit’s home; we do not enter and do not know of any pathways into it.”

The girl did not investigate any further into that matter. Tanasha retrieved some items, herbs and salves as well as candles, from a storage chamber and they returned to the shaman’s hut. When the girl asked whether she could help, Tanasha said “Stay out of it. These are not your spirits to deal with.”

The girl witnessed the séance that the old shaman set up. It was not much different from what she had learned. A rabbit was brought into the hut and the shaman started to sing in an old, runic language. The girl’s face showed that she had trouble understanding it properly, but tried to remember elements of it anyway, most likely just in case she ever needed to speak to spirits in this area again.

A presence answered them. Old and scarred. Wise and fractured. It was a monumental entity, Aaka could not make out its shape or purpose, “simply existing” seemed to be already too complex of a purpose to describe this primordial force. Elemental spirits were rare but vast. This one was towering above, below and all around them.

The old shaman asked the spirit for directions to the forest of dreams on the girl’s behalf. The young shaman had prepared a bowl of ash and a piece of paper with a large space in the middle surrounded by runes marking it as a map. Aaka had seen something like this many times before. The young shaman would scatter the ashes over the paper and the spirit would guide the motes of ash onto the paper, with the ever so weak influence it had on the material world, so that the ash would form a pattern. But before, that, the spirit was paid its due. The old shaman took a knife and plunged it into the rabbit’s chest. The spirit was pleased by the bountiful offering it had received.

The ash was scattered and the pattern it formed looked like a complex construct of lines, straight, jagged, curving, widening and narrowing. The young shaman said it was a map of the tunnels and caverns inside the mountains.
The girl tilted her head. “So I actually have to go through the mines?”
“The tunnels run in many directions and there are still many exits unknown to us. It would not surprise me if one of those tunnels lead through otherwise impassable peaks, or if they allowed you to slip by the spirits guarding the valley you seek.”

The séance was over. Warmth returned to the room. Both shamans looked at the girl and awaited a response. She stood up and bowed deeply. “I thank you both so much.”
The old shaman answered in a serious tone. “To uphold our peace, forget that we ever existed. That way, it will be easier for both of us.”

Aaka could tell that the statement reminded her of her own words to Clara and Benny. She recovered her composure and bowed again. Then she left the tent.

The girl walked to the edge of the plain and looked over the landscape. She could see the spires and halls of Kalonitz, the bright line of the imperial road stretching far beyond the horizon, the massive rocky spines of the Impjesagi and the Veshurky running to the west and north. If the air had been any clearer, she might have seen the river Trohr to the west, beyond which her home of Sturreland lay.

Tanasha approached the girl.
“How long will you be staying with us?” She asked.
“I plan on leaving first thing in the morning.”
“Then please, sit and sing with us tonight.”
The girl agreed without thinking for long. Tanasha smiled.

Their camp fire, big enough to have seats for the entire village around it, roared up into the night, carrying their songs into the sky, from their little freedom in the mountain’s cradle.

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