Slate, Ertajj, Juke, Dahzi, and Pilotte sat bored and waiting on the far outskirts of Jaidour.
“So, Slate. This Theolus person. You gave him half our goldquartz. How exactly do you know him again?” Ertajj asked.
“I met him here,” Slate said. “Down the road.”
“Down this road? When?” Ertajj asked.
“A couple days ago. When you two where at Buxd’s Cove.”
“And what made you think to trust him with our goldquartz?” Ertajj asked.
“My goldquartz,” Dahzi corrected.
“I… We... He’ll be here,” Slate stammered.
“What makes you so sure, Slate?” Juke asked.
“Because. I know he’ll be here,” Slate answered.
Another hour ground past and tempers were about to break when at last a wagon pulled by a tired, gray horse came into view down the dusty road. The wizened horse wheezed to a stop and Theolus offered no words of apology or explanation for his tardiness before he immediately began tossing supplies down onto the road.
Slate watched for a moment, waiting for acknowledgement. Theolus threw a length of rope at his feet.
“Why are you standing there?” the guide asked. “Tell the other three to get on over here and start gearing up. We’ve got a lot of time to make up if we’re going to get to a campground tonight.”
“But it’s so late in the day already,” Slate said. “We’ve been waiting...”
“We can’t be here after dark, because we’ll get robbed, killed, or worse,” Theolus interrupted. “The fyre addicts living out here in the far reaches will bite you to watch you scream. We’re far better off in the jungle. Just trust me to do my job, and get your friends over here to do theirs.”
Slate hastened over to his friends. “Told you he’d show. He’s saying we have to leave right away,” he informed them. “We have to leave tonight because of something called fyre addicts.”
“Oh, if there are flamers around here, he’s right. I can take just about anyone, but those people are crazy,” Ertajj said.
“Hey, kids,” Theolus called from the wagon, “Quit your jaw flapping and get over here!”
Goods and tools were parceled, then stowed and strapped into packs and bags. After a small lunch of jerky and nuts, the expedition loaded into the wagon. The old horse could hardly get the full wagon moving again, but once it did, it never faltered.
“Alright, kids,” Theolus said after four lengths. “This is where we get lost.”
“Is he joking?” Dahzi whispered. There was nothing but thick jungle on either side of the road.
“I hope,” Ertajj answered. “Either way, this should be fun.”
The guide let the old horse free and gave it a smack, which sent it back in the other direction. Without wasting a second, Theolus started into the thick.
He set a pace that was hard for Slate and his friends to keep, what with so much weight on their backs, but Theolus didn’t care to hear their complaints. The Ojikef provided distraction from the toil: it was wild with color and life. Beyond the small trees and flower bushes along the road, taller trees with broader palms began to appear. Orange and purple vines twisted and wove themselves through the trees and water trickled everywhere, in small and steady drips and cascading falls. It was beside one of these larger waterfalls where Theolus stopped for the first time, after almost two hours of continuous hiking.
“This would be the beginning, then,” he announced.
“The beginning of what?” panted Slate.
“The trail to the jungle,” said Theolus.
“What jungle?” asked Dahzi. “A different jungle?”
“How many jungles you think there are around here? The Ojikef Jungle. I hope you boys didn’t think that we had made the Ojikef yet,” laughed Theolus. “Because we’ve got two more hours until we hit the campsite, and that’s just inside the first stand of mille trees. Drink up now if you’re thirsty; this water is clean. We won’t stop again.”
Ertajj groaned and threw a handful of leaves and dirt at Slate, who was too tired to retaliate.
By the time Theolus located the campsite, the others were so exhausted that they fell asleep before dinner was ready or their tents were raised.
Slate awoke to the soothing sounds of a rain shower. He opened his eyes to see the rainclouds hanging lower than the jungle canopy itself, rolling like an upside-down sea through the treetops. He imagined little ships sailing across the upside-down sea, and what wonders the tree-top worlds might hold for the passengers.
The gray dissipated as morning broke and new chirps and howls changed guard with the night’s. The rest of the expedition rose as Theolus prepared a stark breakfast, but before anyone had much of a chance to eat it, he began shouting orders to return to travel. Without so much as a cup of glint between them, the group was up with their packs on and moving again.
The heavy rain over the prior weeks had left the spongy floor of the jungle muddy, a slippery kind of mud that acted like a vacuum sucking at the travelers’ feet with every step.
“How much longer should this take?” Ertajj asked.
Theolus answered, “If you mean the whole journey through to Chreopoint, well, that depends. If it rains any more, it could be a while. A long while. If the rain holds off, we should be able to reach the Ojikef River in four days, and then, if all that goes well, we could make Chreopoint about three days after that. But don’t think about days, it’s useless.”
The jungle grew darker as denser growth allowed less sunlight to penetrate. Slate sensed something scary but familiar in the darkness, a mechanism inside that he had perhaps never had to use outside the jungle, a phantom anxiety. It occurred to him how the dark thoughts spurred long ago by the mysteries of the deep jungle must have had a powerful hand in shaping humankind’s fearful nature.
Slate assumed at first that it may have only been that paranoia, but over the course of the second day, it began to seem as if Theolus was growing displeased that the travelers were keeping up so well. He would drive harder at any sign of one of the young men faltering, and answered even the smallest complaint with venomous condescension. Though Slate had neither the energy nor clarity of mind to bring accusations out in the open, it was telling that Pilotte had taken to walking in the guide’s blind spot.
At dinner on the third night, Slate thought he would confront Theolus outright, rather than let the anxiety brew.
“Theolus, I understand that you are familiar with the jungle and have made this trip many times,” he said. “But I have to ask, why do we have to drive so hard? We haven’t encountered anything so far that would necessitate moving so frantically.”
“Ever seen a walecat, kid?” asked Theolus as he sank his knife into the chest of Pilotte’s latest kill.
“Yes,” Slate said.
Theolus muttered something under his breath as he pulled his knife down the animal’s belly. “Well, sorry you boys are having a tough time of things,” he said. “I really am. But if we were to encounter some Nions, you’d be thanking me. Things could get much worse. Be happy we’re moving this fast.”
“I don’t see how moving quickly helps us avoid...” began Ertajj.
“It’s about averages, okay?” Theolus said angrily, his knife dripping with entrails. “Think: fewer days in the jungle, less opportunity for the Nions to cut off your scalp. Less chance of rain, less chance we get sick and die. How hard is that to understand?”
“Don’t get so upset, Theo. I was just asking a question,” Ertajj scoffed.
Theolus sneered. “It’s Theolus, boy. I don’t need any of your questions. Ask another and I’ll take your goldquartz and leave you to your own devices,” he said. “Believe me, it would be much, much easier!” He sat back down to his butchering as if nothing had happened.
On the fourth day, the jungle was loud and hot, and the trail sank and rose continually, with never a stretch of level path running longer than ten steps. Slate sweat and worried over how he had gotten his new friends involved in such an awful ordeal, and whatever it was in the dark growth that seemed to be stalking him.
The team had just passed into the territory of some screaming tree tandos when Slate noticed Pilotte’s tongue lolling from his mouth. Slate stopped to offer the wulf some of his canteen, when a crackling noise of quick movement came from atop a hillslope on the right side of the trail.
The young men cast wide eyes at Theolus, who responded without words that they needed to hide. Under Theolus’ mute instruction, the boys dashed under the cover of a glossy palm bush. The whip-fast old guide bounded off an exposed root onto a low tree branch. He pressed his back against the tree’s trunk and waited.
As Slate watched from hiding, seven men appeared over the crest of the hill and began to descend onto the trail. They crouched low as they moved, their shoulder blades rolling with the coiled power of walecats’ and their legs sturdy and thick as dalcrags’. Once the seven had coalesced on the trail, only feet from the palm bush that barely concealed the four young men, the Nions began to move toward the tree where Theolus was hiding. They encircled it and stopped, all in perfect unison, then silently turned their heads up at the guide.
“Run! Run, boys!” Theolus shouted, breaking the silence.
Dahzi screamed and scrambled out from under the palm bush. The seven-headed tribesman spotted him and the other hidden trespassers, and fractured.
Two Nions descended on Dahzi, who fell to his knees, put his hands to his ears, and howled. Slate threw his pickaxe in the direction of Dahzi’s assailants, only for it to miss and disappear into a mass of thick growth. Juke was next to break from cover, jumping onto the back of one of the men moving for Dahzi. He was thrown from the Nion’s back through the air, and landed against a rock with a crack so loud that it echoed.
At this, one of the Nions shouted something unintelligible, which stopped short the other six. They began moving together toward Juke, who was unconscious. Theolus took the opportunity to slide down his tree and crawl over to where Slate and Ertajj were gathered.
Since the appearance of the Nions, Pilotte had seemed not defensive but ultra-aware, his ears pressed forward, his tail tall and still. Something about their presence caused the wulf to act differently than Slate had ever seen him act before.
After the jungle inhabitants had observed Juke, one of them came toward the trembling trespassers, asking in perfect Protersian, “Why are you with this boy? How long have you been with him?”
Theolus began to respond, but was silenced with a high-pitched yelp and steely glare from the native. “I ask one of the young ones, in the bush,” the Nion said.
Ertajj spoke, answering, “His name is Juke, and he is my good friend. I have known him since I was seven.”
“We are all passing through the jungle together,” Slate added. “Theolus, too. He’s our guide.”
At this, the Nions reformed their circle around Juke and resumed discussion. After a few minutes, during which Dahzi managed to regain control of himself and Theolus seemed like he might have run off at any second, the seven tribesmen formed a straight line.
The man in the middle stepped forward to speak. “What is your business in the Ojikef?” he demanded. “Have you not heard the rumors that we kill those who attempt passage?”
Theolus attempted a sincere smile and plead with the men, “Your legend is well known, certainly, and we have much cause to fear. We mean no disrespect. We wish only to make it to Chreopoint. We only have so much time, and ocean travel is currently not possible. Please, if you let us continue on our way, we will never speak of our meeting.”
The Nion announced, “We will care for this dark boy here, who bears the marks of the Banowa, and you, too, if you are his friends. Come. Follow us.”
Two of the tribesmen lifted Juke’s slumped body off the ground and began carrying him away. The rest of Theolus’ party had no choice but to follow.
Upon reaching what Slate assumed to be the village of the Nions, he and his weary fellow travelers were led into a small hut. The tribesmen kept Juke with them, leaving the others in the hut to eat and smoke. After four hours or so, the tribesmen re-entered the small hut with Juke bandaged and clean before them, and took seats amongst their guests. The leader took a deep inhalation of smoke from a pipe adorned with a red flower that he wore on his belt, and blew a purple cloud up and out of a hole in the roof. He passed the pipe to Dahzi, seated to his left. The leader began to speak.
“We have spoken with Juke. We have determined that you are to be granted passage through our jungle. We will take you first to our village.”
Theolus choked on his drink. “Of course, of course, we would be honored to visit your village!” he sputtered.
“Good. Please wait here for us to summon you in a short while,” said the Nion leader.
Then passed a quiet five minutes during which the pipe was circled around the hut. Once it was finished, the Nions stood, bowed in synchronicity, and exited. Ertajj’s sigh of relief spoke for everyone left behind.
“Do you boys have any idea what this means?” asked Theolus, dreams and delusions bubbling up in his eyes. “No one has ever been to a real Nion village before! This is sure to pay, sure to pay, boys, sure to pay!” he raved.
“No one but, say, the Nions, right, Theolus?” asked Ertajj.
“Shut up, Ertajj,” the guide barked.
Shortly thereafter, the Nion tribesmen helped the travelling party lighten their loads, taking some of the gear onto their own backs before leading the way back into the thick. As it happened, they all spoke Protersian well, with clear, deliberate enunciation, which they used to calmly answer an annoying litany of questions from Theolus.
“So what is the name of where we are going?” Theolus asked.
“Our village doesn’t have a name. It is our home. So we say we are going home. This is yiente, off our tongues. Or Ojikef, off of yours.”
“How long have your people lived where we are going?” Theolus asked.
“What do you mean, where we are going?” the Nion asked.
“This location we are going to,” Theolus responded.
“We have lived on Alm forever,” the Nion said.
Theolus was quiet for a moment and then asked, “So why is it that you don’t let anyone pass through the Ojikef?”
“It is for the benefit of the land and of time.”
“Excuse me?” Theolus asked.
“So that Mother Alm and Father Time may still have a place to run free,” the Nion explained.
Theolus chuckled. “And you kill people for such nonsense?”
“We kill no one. Perhaps you’ve heard rumors that we kill people. Rumors are stronger than clubs,” the head tribesman said.
“So you’re not going to kill us?”
“No. But you were going to die without help. You were headed into a valley from which you cannot leave.”
“I thought you said you’d made the trip before?” Slate said to Theolus.
The guide smiled awkwardly and shrugged.
“You would not survive on your own,” the Nion said. “You are lucky we have found you. Come.”
Slate shot Theolus an angry glare, which the alleged guide ignored, as the team began to follow after the Nions.
After climbing for some time, the party reached the highest ground in the surrounding jungle, where it was barren and dry. It wasn’t long that the group was in these heights before one of the Nions stopped, posed, and released an astonishingly loud sound from his lungs. Soon, a cry came back from somewhere down in the valley below. The party followed a game of call-and response past yawning cave-mouths gated over with vine and branch, back and forth over a clear, winding river glimmering with darting, silvery fish. At a slight bend in the river, near a field of grass, they came to a stop.
“Here,” the Nion leader announced.
“Is this the village?” asked Ertajj, looking around. “It’s just more of the same.”
“Quiet, boy, show some respect,” said Theolus.
“Lessons of respect from Theolus? Maybe that’s why we came all the out here to middle of nowhere,” said Ertajj. “To find the lost treasure of Theolus’ humanity!”
Everyone laughed at Ertajj’s joke except for Theolus, who grumbled incoherently.
While waiting for the Nions, who had retreated into another of their circular conversations, the outsiders took seats on the dewy soil next to the river. Pilotte splashed about in the crystal water, trying to catch the elusive silver fish that streamed between his legs.
Two native women appeared from seemingly out of nowhere. They looked much like the men, though they were shorter, with finer features, and their faces did not bear the tattoos the men’s did. The Nions exchanged greetings and had a brief conversation. The two women then turned from the men and spoke to each other alone, before one of them spread her arms and began to move toward the river.
“Men of Jaidour, welcome to our home,” she said. “We are pleased that you are here. We hope that you will come with us to our village, where we can care for and feed you.”
“I will!” Theolus said without hesitating.
Slate looked to his friends for their opinions. Ertajj threw up his arms as if to say he didn’t know what to do or care, Juke nodded enthusiastically, Dahzi simply smiled back, and Pilotte seemed perfectly at ease, as if to say the Nions offered all the protection the group needed.
“Okay,” Slate said. “I mean yes, I agree to your request.”
“Of course!” Dahzi and Juke said at the same time. They congratulated each other on their synchronicity.
“Sure, whatever,” said Ertajj.
“Wonderful,” the woman said. “It is agreed, then. Please leave all of your things here and follow us.”
“What do they mean, leave all of our things? Are they kidding?” Theolus asked one of the tribesmen.
“Your possessions will not be harmed, I promise you,” the Nion said. “You cannot carry your outside goods into our sacred space, it will offend the gods,” he explained. “You may wear your clothes however, as that is your taboo.”
Well, if there is anything missing when we get back, I’ll know,” Theolus said. “I want everything I have exactly as it is when I return.”
“Don’t worry, Theolus, your things will not be touched,” the man promised.
The foreigners shed their packs and all but their lightest clothes, revealing bruises and cuts that testified to the danger of their journey thus far. Slate felt uneasy leaving Guh’s Books behind, but trusted the Nions when they promised security.
Ducking low through a tunnel of twisted branches, the group at some uncertain point crossed into the Nion village. Its grounds were smaller than Slate had expected, and the village plainer, assembled mainly of long huts built around fire pits. It was clean, though somewhat claustrophobic, and buzzing with happy activity. The villagers seemed to have already received word of the visitors, as a heavy, old woman in a lart pelt came waddling hurriedly up to Juke.
“It’s true!” she said of his tattoos. “You have the Banowa! Child, where did you get this?”
“I don’t know,” answered Juke. “But I’m hoping you can tell me.”
“You come with me, child!” the woman said joyously, grabbing Juke by the wrist and pulling him off as he waved a surprised goodbye to the others.
Theolus hastened around the village, trying to communicate with the tribespeople. When it became clear they wanted nothing to do with him, he retreated bitterly to where Slate, Dahzi, and Ertajj were sitting beside a huge viliali tree.
“Stupid heathens,” Theolus grunted. “Living in the dirt.”
“They’re not living in the dirt, Theolus,” said Dahzi. “They live in huts.”
“Primitives, nonetheless,” Theolus said.
“Howso?” Ertajj asked him.
“Howso what?” Theolus responded.
“How are they primitive?” Ertajj asked.
“Look at them. Walking around half naked. Nothing to show for themselves but sticks and stones,” Theolus said.
“If I lived in the jungle and hadn’t been told there was anything wrong with it, I’d probably be half-naked, too,” said Ertajj.
“They don’t have any culture,” Theolus said. “No libraries, no opera houses. No museums. They haven’t elevated themselves above animals at all.”
“Oh, Theolus,” Ertajj laughed, “You’re such an ass.”
“When’s the last time you were in an opera house anyways, Theolus?” Slate asked.
“That’s not the point,” Theolus answered.
“They don’t live much differently than we did back in Alleste, on Aelioanei,” Slate said. “I don’t think they’re primitive at all. At least they know an impassable valley from a passable one.”
“Shut up,” Theolus said. He looked around scornfully. “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
“Good luck finding your way,” Dahzi said.
Slate and Ertajj busted out laughing.
“You’re all bunch of ingrates,” Theolus said, kicking at the dirt before stomping off.
Juke returned to his friends a short while later, seeming somehow different than he had before.
“Hello, brothers,” he said to his friends.
“Hey there, buddy,” said Ertajj. “Where’ve you been?”
“Truly, where have I been?” Juke asked. “Where are any of us?”
“Uh… In the jungle?” Ertajj responded.
“Perhaps,” Juke said. “But at the heart of it, where are we, really?”
“What’s the matter with you, Juke?” Ertajj asked. “What did they do to you?”
“Only reconnected me with my true self,” said Juke.
“Your true self? What do you mean?” Dahzi asked.
“I mean that these are my people. The belonging I’ve been seeking my whole life… I think I’ve finally found it here,” Juke answered.
“Belonging?” Ertajj scoffed. “What about us? I thought we belonged with each other?”
“I don’t doubt that to be true,” said Juke. “But I think that I may want to stay here a while, to learn more about my heritage.”
“Aw, crap,” Ertajj said. “I don’t want to stay here, Juke, it’s hot and sticky and awful.”
“I don’t expect any of you to stay,” Juke said. “But when you leave, I don’t think I will be going with you.”
“Nonsense!” Ertajj roared. “I don’t know what you’re on about, Juke. We’re here two hours and you’re talking in riddles. It’s supposed to be us against the rest of the world, don’t you get it?”
“It could never be only us forever,” Juke said. “I understand why you’re upset. But this isn’t the end for us. I just need some time, to figure out who I am.”
“I’ll tell you who you are, you’re a fool for wanting to stay here,” Ertajj said. “But you know what? Fine. Whatever. Do whatever you want. We don’t need you.”
“I’ll miss you, Ertajj,” said Dahzi.
“And I’ll miss you too,” said Juke. “But this isn’t goodbye forever. Just for the time being.”
“Crap,” Ertajj said. “Well, great. We’ll go have fun without you.”
“Don’t be bitter, Ertajj,” Juke said.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” Ertajj barked. He scowled at the others and then stormed off.
As he was leaving, Theolus came stalking up. “What a waste of time. There’s no great mystery here, after all,” he said. “Not any treasure, nothing! What a bust. We’re leaving tomorrow morning.”
“Leaving for where?” Slate asked.
“Chreopoint,” Theolus said. “We’ve got to wrap this up.”
“Do you actually know how to get to Chreopoint, Theolus?” Slate asked.
“Of course,” Theolus answered.
“Have you ever actually made it through the jungle before?” Slate asked.
“Maybe I have, and maybe I haven’t. But I got some new directions now, anyways,” said Theolus.
“You’re a piece of work, Theolus,” said Slate.
“Yes,” said Theolus, “Yes I am.”
The next morning, some of the villagers helped to replenish and repack the visitors’ bags, and a small feast was prepared for their departure. After all in attendance had eaten more than enough, Juke stood up to make a speech.
“Please excuse my words, I don’t mean to give any of you indigestion,” he began.
The group gathered around the long table laughed.
“Theolus,” Juke continued, “I must thank you for your help so far. The village offers you this small treasure in thanks.”
A tribeswoman tossed the leathery guide a pouch containing a few pieces of goldquartz nugget.
“This is raw goldquartz! They said they didn’t have any!” Theolus snorted, before managing a, “Thank you.”
“And what can I say about my friends…” Juke began, but he was cut off by Ertajj.
“That’s about enough,” he said, standing up and leaving the table.
“I’m sorry he has to be like that, Juke,” Dahzi said. “We’re going to miss you so much.”
“It’s alright, he’ll see,” Juke said. “We will meet again.”
“Of course you will,” Slate added, though he couldn’t really be sure.
After final goodbyes to the Nions, Slate, Dahzi, Ertajj, and Theolus squeezed back out of their village, followed closely by Pilotte.
“Here we are,” Theolus said when the team reached the banks of the Ojikef River. “I told you I know where I’m going. Our raft should now carry us all the way to Chreopoint.”
The raft, a gift from the Nions, was a light-weight craft sewn of thick and durable hin canvas wrapped around four hollow wooden tubes. The raft held the weight of the travelers and their provisions well, and was well-balanced, so that they could move from side to side without sinking any of the corners too far into the water.
“Do you know anything about rafting?” Slate asked Theolus. “Or is this your first time for that, too?”
“Shut it,” mumbled Theolus.
“Why are we still listening to this guy, anyways?” Ertajj asked.
“Listen, I may have been heading the wrong way for a second, but I would have gotten us to Chreopoint, okay?” Theolus said. “The heavy storms changed things… the landscape looked a lot different, alright? I’m going to see you through, you can take my word for it.”
“I won’t be recommending you to any of my friends, in any case,” said Ertajj.
“Pity,” Theolus said sarcastically. “Now, come on. We’re going to need to cooperate. We’ll all have to follow my paddle orders, whether you think I’m capable or not. Cooperation is just how rafting works.”
“We’ll listen, Theolus,” Slate said. “Just, please, do your best?”
“I don’t need you telling me how to do my job,” Theolus said. “Let’s push off the bank. On three.”
The raft slid down the silty banks and into the foamy river and the team started to float downstream.