Slate awoke feeling guilty. He knew he never would have made it to shore past the government ships by himself, probably not even off the Passage Islands. It had all been Hatty. But Hatty had paid the price. A part of Slate felt like he owed the universe for the difference, like his luck had been too good and was sure to turn. But Pilotte’s easy demeanor made him feel much better, reminding him that there was nothing to be immediately worried about. And so the two left the cave, and found a thin trail through the remaining jungle, coming off of it not long thereafter into a park. Slate used a fountain to wash off soot from the blastporters and dirt from the cave, and then he and Pilotte made their way into Jaidour.
Many of the towering buildings were decorated with surreal sculpture, grotesque faces tinged green and yellow with moss, and the faces at street level were just as intriguing: so many hundreds and hundreds of faces unlike any he had seen before, bearing greater variation than he ever imagined the human form to possess. The multitudes of emotions and stories behind the faces seemed unfathomable, and while Slate felt a bit rude staring, he simply couldn’t help it.
Slate asked one of the strangers how he might get to Aurora Falls. He learned that a trade freeze had interrupted passenger travel north over the sea, which was the usual and shorter route, and that his only other two options were heading through the Ojikef Jungle, which the stranger heavily advised against, or a three-week land route that wound around the southeastern shore of the continent and then back up into the interior.
“What do you think, Pilotte?” Slate asked his companion after thanking the stranger for the advice. “I want to get back home as soon as possible. I don’t want it to take three weeks to deliver Guh’s package. What about you?”
Pilotte smiled as if to say he didn’t really care.
“I guess I’ll have to give it some thought,” Slate said to his companion. “Thank you for the input.”
The two made their way down the swirling green avenues in mid-town, where the buildings were shorter but more opulent, looking for somewhere to eat. On the sidewalk, one of Jaidour’s more colorful citizens was poised beside a statue, shouting at passersby.
“The end is near!” the man cried. “Opal Pools will be the end of us all! Repent! Repent while you still can!”
Slate noticed that few of the other men and women in the street were paying the man any mind.
“Do you think the end is near, Pilotte?” Slate asked his friend.
Pilotte sniffed haughtily as if to say such thoughts were nonsense.
After a quick snack of trual, which proved to be the only Pilotte would ever reject, the two turned up a steep, cobbled street for no reason other than Slate liked how it looked. Soon thereafter, voices calling in his direction came echoing down the street.
“Catch him! Catch that boy!” they cried.
Slate turned back to see a young man with white hair and a deep scar across his face come running frantically down the street in his direction. The look on the young man’s face was one of sheer panic. Not far behind him were his pursuers, a small mob.
Slate slipped into a doorway along the side of the road to get out of the way. Somehow, despite the two being the only people on the street, the young man being chased by the mob managed to smack into Slate and knock him over. The two fell into a door together, which popped open from the impact, and they tumbled onto an entryway carpet.
“What’s the matter with you?” the stranger growled, throwing Slate off and kicking the door shut again.
“What’s the matter with me? What’s the matter with you? You look like you’re in a lot of trouble.”
“Good work genius, I am. Here,” the stranger said as he unloaded half a loaf of bread, a wheel of cheese with a bite taken out of it, and a nearly-picked cluster of salops from under hit shirt.
“What’s all this?” Slate asked.
“No idea,” the stranger answered as more and more goods came out of his shirt collar. He jumped up to try and see out a small window alongside the door, but couldn’t reach. “You had it when I got here.”
“Come on,” Slate said, letting the obviously stolen goods the stranger was handing him fall to the ground. “Did you really think that was going to work?”
The stranger almost smiled and answered, “I had to try, didn’t I?”
The mob outside knocked twice on the door, before they could be heard squealing and running away from Pilotte. Soon, their clamor dissipated, and the street was quiet.
“That was quite a crowd chasing you over some bread and cheese,” said Slate, checking out a window next to the door to make sure the coast was clear.
“Well, it’s not the first time I’ve helped myself to their goods, let’s just say that,” said the stranger.
“Why do you steal from them? You think it’s okay?”
“Because I’m hungry and I don’t have any money and no one will give me a job.”
“Fair enough.” Slate said. He now opened the door to the street slowly, revealing Pilotte’s huge, hairy face through the crack. At seeing his smile, Slate opened the door a bit more, and checked both ways to make sure the men had left. “I think we’re in the clear. Do you think they’ll be back, though? Does Jaidour have police?”
“Of course they do,” the stranger said.
“Would the police here get involved in what you did?” asked Slate.
“Do you think they should?” asked the stranger.
“Well, then we can be friends! Is that your snarlingwulf?”
“Yes, it is. Well, he isn’t mine, it’s not like I own him. You don’t own a snarlingwulf. But he follows me, everywhere. Pilotte is his name. Mine is Slate Ahn. What’s yours?”
“Pilotte, Slate, my name is Ertajj Khomz.”
“Ertajj, it’s… nice to meet you. Do you live here, in Jaidour?”
“No,” Ertajj laughed. “No, no.”
“What are you doing here?” Slate asked.
“Well, I’m actually still working on that.”
“Nothing. Thing is,” Ertajj said, “I snuck my way onto a freighter back in Cole and it ended up here by chance. I didn’t plan on Jaidour at all.”
“Why did you sneak onto the freighter?”
“You name it.”
“Okay. I’m new here, too. From Alleste, originally. That’s on Aelioanei. I’ve just had the most horrible experience with pirates, and…”
“If you have to know, the real reason we left were the jackals that burned our homes to the ground. First, they condemned the whole community. We were growing our own food, we had our own money. That doesn’t work for them, does it? Can’t tax it, can you? Development, as they call it, was just an excuse to get rid of us. Just like they get rid of anyone who doesn’t fit into their system.”
Slate listened as Ertajj went on a wild rant interlaced with political ideology and conspiracy theory. When at last he reached some sort of conclusion, Slate had no idea what any of it had meant.
“Oh yeah, I understand,” he lied.
“So, there’s that,” Ertajj said. “Now I’ve not been in Jaidour a week and I’ve already got a bad reputation. What a life! That’s why you gotta have friends. Like you! Come on, let’s see if we can’t find my other mates.”
“The people you came here with?” Slate asked.
“Yeah. It’s me, Juke, and Dahzi. The Miscreants. They should be in the park. Wanna come?”
“I suppose we can do that,” said Slate, making sure Pilotte seemed alright with the decision.
While Ertajj led the newcomers downtown, he offered endless commentary on anything and everything. Ertajj claimed to know the true history of Jaidour, how it had been stolen by people from the east after a mass-murder of the original inhabitants. It was for the natural resources the ground possessed that the invaders had taken their land, and as far as Ertajj saw things, little about the character of the Jaidourean people had evolved since then. In every house, the angry young man from Cole saw a monument to cruelty. Even the street signs supposedly bore names that told those in the powerful elite the city’s true history, written in blood. It was entertaining, and sometimes funny, but Slate sensed a deep hurt beneath Ertajj’s performance.
“Well, here we are. Jaidour. Proterse! All the way across the ocean. And how are we going to get to Aurora Falls, buddy?” Slate asked Pilotte as the two waited outside a market while Ertajj bought cider.
Pilotte dropped his jaw and panted.
“I don’t have any idea, either,” said Slate.
“Hey, Slate, I found ’em!” interrupted Ertajj. He had found his friends, Juke and Dahzi, across the street, and had somehow gotten intoxicated in the short time Slate had been waiting.
“It’s Stanton and his Calloray, isn’t it, then?” the taller of Ertajj’s friends said of Slate and Pilotte.
Slate recognized this as a reference to the tale of Stanton the Pretender.
“That’s The Legend, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Not bad, Ertajj, he’s up on his Legend,” the young man said.
“Absolutely,” said Slate. “And you must be…Vuvpil?”
“Cha-cha! From the mountains of the skies! No. Actually, I’m Juke. Nice to meet you.” Juke’s skin was dark, and he had distinctive tattoos on his forehead and hands.
“Aw, look at them making friends,” Ertajj said.
“And you’re Dahzi?” Slate asked the third young man.
“Yes, I have been for some time now,” Dahzi answered. He voice was quiet, and his heavyset frame and big eyes gave an air of childlike innocence.
“Well this is just perfect, isn’t it?” Ertajj asked. “What are we standing around for? Shall we get somewhere a bit more…secluded?” he proposed, flashing the bottle of cider hiding inside his coat.
The group took a long walk through the jungle surrounding the city, joking, stopping for drinks and pipes, and talking. They climbed trees and skipped rocks. In fleeting moments, Slate felt like he was young again, back with his brother in Alleste. When the sun went down, Slate and his new companions drank and laughed themselves to sleep around a campfire.
“Another beautiful sunrise,” Slate said groggily as he rose the next morning.
“Meh,” Ertajj said, opening one eye to espy the waking day. “Same as any other.”
“Where should we go today?” asked Juke. He had been up for some time.
“Let’s go downtown and see what trouble we can stir up,” said Ertajj. “Who we can piss off.”
“Sounds good,” said Juke.
Pilotte walked out in front of the others as they made their way downtown, his tail wagging happily.
“Don’t have to worry about anything with him around, I bet,” Dahzi said of the wulf.
“There’s always something to worry about,” said Slate.
“These houses make me sick,” said Ertajj, scowling at the opulence around him. “They’ve each got enough room for a small village, and the city’s got a problem with homelessness. Bunch of Ghasts living around here, I’m sure.”
“Ghosts?” Slate asked.
“Ghasts. Not ghosts.” said Ertajj.
Dahzi giggled. “Ghosts. Ha.”
“Ghasts?” Slate asked. “What does that mean?”
“He’s thick,” Ertajj grumbled.
“He just doesn’t know,” said Juke. “Slate, if you believe it, the Ghasts are a secret society that controls the world from behind closed doors. How or where or why they originated is unknown. Supposedly, they travel the known lands, collecting information and artifacts from the Golden Age of the Gods. The time before the Fall.”
“The Books of Knowledge,” Ertajj interjected.
“The Books of Knowledge?” Slate repeated.
“That’s right. What do you know about them?” asked Ertajj.
“Oh, nothing. No more than you, I mean. Have you ever met one of them?” Slate asked. “A Ghast?”
“Oh no, I’ve never met one, no,” Juke said. “I don’t mean to make it sound as if they’re ubiquitous; it is all very underground. You hear about the Ghasts every once and a while, over a campfire or in gossip. Personally, I think it’s all very interesting, but I don’t believe it. It’s a myth. An urban legend. I live in the real world.”
“I believe,” said Ertajj.
“Really?” asked Slate.
“Don’t listen to Ertajj,” said Juke. “He has a wild imagination.”
“Jealous,” Ertajj said.
“Keep dreaming,” said Juke, rolling his eyes.
The five stopped to buy more cider and pipe moone, and jerky for Pilotte, then found a park at which to enjoy their indulgences. Once Slate had enough cider, he started telling the others what he had learned of the Books of Knowledge from Guh, stopping just short of revealing that he possessed some of the books himself.
“And here I thought you were a clueless island kid this whole time,” an impressed Ertajj said after Slate had finished. “Turns out you’ve heard some things. Bring it on, Opal Pools, that’s what I say. The faster we get this society ready for the revolution, the better, I say.”
“The revolution?” Slate asked.
“The coming revolution,” Ertajj said. “When the politicians and their vain stabs at power are finally brought to justice. They horde, they lord over us and suppress the knowledge our ancestors left us. Their greed vilifies humanity!”
“Oh no,” Dahzi sighed, putting his head in his palm.
Loud with drink, Ertajj continued. “Since we first crawled out of the caves and began our domination of nature, human history has been a story of struggle, contests between exploiting and the exploited, those with information and the oppressed ignorants. But now we’ve got Opal Pools, and the Green Shield! And the Book of Knowledge! It’s the end of empires! The truth will set us free, and not only the truth and the knowledge from the book, but the knowledge of the book! Let everyone know that they have been subjugated and programmed from birth to be a pawn in the elite’s games! And that these days are over! Let each one become their own god!”
“Tell it, Ertajj!” cried Juke and Dahzi in a tone both joking and sincere.
“I will, you nonbelievers!” Ertajj went on. “When that day comes at least I’ll be ready, while the rest of the world will suffer. I’m ready to die for the new world. I’m ready.”
“When the cider stops flowing, you’ll be singing a different tune,” Dahzi said.
“Tell it, Dahzi!” Juke said with a laugh.
“I heard that the Book of Knowledge was created by an evil sorcerer,” Dahzi said.
“Daz, there aren’t any sorcerers,” Ertajj said. “Just stupid men who can’t and shouldn’t be trusted with whatever is in those books. Man’s stupidity is his ruin.”
“I guess. Though, it would be better for people who could be trusted to possess the books, right?” Slate asked. “If they even exist?”
“You show me one person that can be trusted, and I’ll consider it,” Ertajj said in a dark tone, after taking a long swig of cider.
“You certainly can’t be trusted, you squatter. You loiterer!” Juke said.
“Or you, you shifty native-born!” Ertajj retorted.
“Or you, you island-born rube!” Dahzi said to Slate.
The three friends from Cole laughed. Slate smiled politely.
“Anyways,” he said. “I don’t think I ever told you guys, but I’m headed for Aurora Falls; do any of you anything about getting there?”
“I know it’s not easy, with the trade freeze,” said Juke. “What are you headed there for, anyways?”
“I… have to pick something up,” said Slate. “It’s why I’m here on Proterse in the first place.”
“Pick something up?” Ertajj asked.
“Well,” said Ertajj, “I hope it’s not too heavy.”
Slate rolled his eyes. “Do any of you know anything about passing through the Oji-something Jungle? I understand that it would be faster than the three weeks it would take to go the southern route?”
“It would be faster, but the Ojikef is a very dangerous place, Slate,” said Juke.
“I don’t really have three weeks, though,” said Slate.
“Why not?” asked Ertajj.
“I have to get back to Aelioanei,” Slate answered. “There’s a girl there…”
“Oh, but you don’t have anybody,” Ertajj interrupted. “Please. Whatever. Come on, boys, let’s go find something worthwhile to do.”
“You… now? You’re all leaving?” Slate asked.
“Just like you,” said Ertajj. “See you ’round, Slate Ahn.”
Dahzi gave a sad smile and Juke nodded an apology as they followed after Ertajj, who stalked off without another word.
“Goodbye!” Slate called after the three as they faded into the street crowd. “Guess it’s just you and me again, Pilotte. Come on, let’s see what we can see about this Ojikef Jungle.”
Along the far outskirts of Jaidour, Slate stopped at a general store, to ask if they knew anything about hiring guides. After the clerk told him no, Slate was approached by a dark man in a leather hat and a long, black coat who had overheard his query.
“Did I hear you say you’re looking for a guide for the Ojikef?” the stranger asked.
“Yes, why?” asked Slate.
“Because I might be able to help you,” the stranger said. “Ever been through before?”
“No, I’ve never been in at all.”
“Hmmm. Where do you want to end up?”
“I need to get to Aurora Falls.”
“Alright. I could get you through the jungle to Chreopoint; you’d be on your own after that. It’s about a week-long trip. What’s with the wulf?”
“That’s Pilotte,” Slate said. “He’s coming, too.”
“He would make it easier. But listen,” the stranger said, “I’m not taking just you two. The dangers are too great and the pay too small for one person and a wulf. Find a larger traveling party and it might be worth it for me. At least four people.”
“Four?” Slate repeated.
“And we couldn’t leave for a day or so, on account of that rain we had. We get too cold and wet in there and we might catch Direwreck Flu and die very painful deaths. Unless that sort of thing appeals to you.”
“Not especially. So when is the soonest we could leave?”
“Well,” the stranger calculated, “I’d say, to be safe, three days from today, if the rain holds off until then.”
“And what would you require as far as payment?” Slate asked.
“Fifty pieces of goldquartz,” said the man, scratching his stubble.
“Alright, fifty pieces,” said Slate, downplaying the large sum. He didn’t have that much. “Now, how can we find you? If I can find two others?”
“Any of those fifty pieces for me now?
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Well. I’m usually downtown. I only just got back from a trip through today, in fact. Muddy as a sty in there. And we lost one.”
“No, a sock. Anyways, kid, my name is Theolus Reever. Look me up near the docks in town, at the Blinking Fish, if you’re serious about making the trip. I’ll be there for the next three days.”
“Certainly, thank you, Theolus. My name is Slate. Are you heading downtown now? I am. Perhaps we can travel together?”
“I travel alone, except when I’m pulling people through the Ojikef,” Theolus said. “No offense. I’ll see you soon, if you’re serious.”
“I am, trust me,” Slate said. “I’m so thankful I ran into you.”
“That’s great. Till next time,” said Theolus, considerably less gregarious than when he had first thought he had a sure sale.
Slate waited for Theolus to disappear down the thin road and then he and Pilotte started their own way back to town. It took almost two hours, though when he got there, Slate realized he hadn’t considered where he might stay. He was also pondering where he would possibly get enough goldquartz to pay Theolus when he heard a voice call out to him. He looked up to see it was Juke.
“Hey, Slate!” Juke said happily. “Where you headed?”
“Juke!” Slate cried with great relief. “Oh! What are the chances I’d find you here?”
“Probably. Hey, I was wondering, do you have any idea where I might be able to make some goldquartz?”
“I don’t really know the town,” answered Juke. “But you might ask Dahzi, he’s got a lot of money.”
“He does? You… think he’d lend me some?”
“He does. And he might. But you’d have to ask him yourself. I can’t answer for him. He and Ertajj will be back from Buxd’s Cove later tonight.”
“Oh. They’re gone? Why didn’t you go with them?”
“Just didn’t want to. Ertajj can be a little much.”
“I could see that,” Slate said. “What do you want to do until they get back?”
“Well, I might have come upon a bit of moone...” Juke teased.
“I’m headed to the park, want to come wait with me?”
“I could use the break,” Slate said. “Let’s go.”
The two lazed in the park, passing the time and a pipe of the relaxing moone. Pilotte caught a decent-sized curnot for dinner, which the three enjoyed around a fire. Slate was far from his worries when Ertajj and Dahzi returned, laughing and singing at the top of their lungs.
“I smell drugs! What’re you vagrants up to?” shouted Ertajj as he charged up an embankment to where Slate and Juke were relaxing. Dahzi shuffled along behind him.
“Don’t oppress me, oppressor!” said Juke.
“Hey guys! How was it, how was your trip?” asked Slate, struggling against the moone to rise and greet his friends.
“Jukey! Slatey! Fellas!” Ertajj said. “I smell moone, don’t I? Any of that left? No? Shit. Anyways, Buxd’s Cove, it was great. Amazing, colossal, incredible. I had always heard the girls in Jaidour had a cold shoulder, but I’ll tell you what, the rest of them is plenty warm!”
“Had a bit of luck, did you?” asked Juke.
“Did I ever. Even Dahzi got lucky!” said Ertajj.
“It’s true,” said Dahzi, huffing and puffing as he finally reached where the others were congregated.
“That’s great, guys,” Slate said. “Listen, Dahzi, I need to ask a favor...”
“Looks like someone found out who’s got the deep pockets,” said Ertajj.
“I know it’s awfully forward,” Slate continued, “but I was wondering if you could loan me fifty goldquartz?”
“For what?” asked Dahzi.
“For a guide through the Ojikef Jungle,’ said Slate.
“What, you weren’t going to invite us?” asked Ertajj.
“I honestly thought you didn’t want anything to do with me,” answered Slate.
“Only when I thought you didn’t want anything to do with us,” said Ertajj.
“Oh, no. Dahzi, would it be too much?” asked Slate. “To loan me the money? I can repay you when we get to Aurora Falls.”
“Sure,” Dahzi said. “I wouldn’t mind. And we’re going with?” he asked Ertajj.
“What, are we going to slum it in Jaidour forever? All these larts around here, I wouldn’t be able to stand it,” Ertajj answered.
“Thank you all so much,” Slate said. “I already even found us a guide. His name is Theolus Reever. He says he makes the journey through the jungle all the time.”
“Who has the gall to charge fifty pieces of goldquartz for guide services? How long is the trip, a week? At most? It’s not as if he’ll be preparing our meals,” said Ertajj. “Will he?”
“I agree with Slate though, I think we need his help. Have you heard the stories about what happens to people in the Ojikef Jungle?” Dahzi asked.
“No,” Ertajj responded.
“Of course you haven’t, because none of them ever leave,” said Dahzi.
“Aw, please. You’re being offensive to Jukey here,” Ertajj said. “Those savage Nions in there are his ancestral people, you know.”
“Hardly,” said Juke, a bit defensively. “I was raised in the same society as you were. And I share Slate’s fears about traveling through the jungle by ourselves. I think we could use a guide.”
“What does that mean? Nions?” Slate asked Juke.
“Where’d you think he got the marks from?” Ertajj answered for Juke, referring to Juke’s facial tattoos.
“Come on, Ertajj,” Juke said. “Stop it.”
“Never be ashamed of who you are,” Ertajj laughed. “Juke is from the jungle, Slate. He’s a Nion, raised as a non-Nion. Didn’t you ever wonder about why he looked so weird?”
“I never thought he looked weird at all,” answered Slate.
“Simple Slate,” Ertajj sighed. “You’re just the sweetest tit around, aren’t you? Anyways, you think it’s alright to entrust ourselves to this random guide you found? That’s the recipe?”
“It’s better than going alone,” Slate said. “I’m going no matter what, but he said he needs at least four people.”
“Fine, fine,” Ertajj said. “Go in there alone and you’ll die. But your guide is getting fifty goldquartz minus the cost of two jugs of cider!” He bounced back down the park’s embankment toward a corner ale shop.
“Never a dull moment with that one,” said Dahzi.
“Though sometimes you wish there would be,” said Juke.
The next afternoon, Slate found Theolus where the guide had said he’d be, at the Blinking Fish, a foul-smelling alehouse in Jaidour’s fish-packing district. The young man gave Theolus half of the payment for the journey, on promise of the other half when they reached Chreopoint. Slate imagined that the money would likely be spent on drinks before the afternoon was over, but he had no choice other than to trust that he hadn’t just given borrowed goldquartz to a scam artist.
For the next two days, the four friends scavenged around town for things that might help them in the Ojikef. They found packs, coats, boots, some bug netting, and a few canteens. Only somewhere as affluent as Jaidour would have such a store in its dumpsters.
Camping on the banks of the mighty Jai River amongst the fragrant mewdock flowers, Slate cherished the opportunity to sleep under the stars and how much fun he was having. His delivery was proving to be quite the adventure, and it wouldn’t be long until he delivered his package for Guh and was on the way back home.