The river journey was easy and unremarkable at first. There was a long stretch that wasn’t rafting at all, where the river disappeared under rock, but other than this section, when the team had to portage the light raft, there was little to complain about. The crew was able to enjoy exotic birdwatching and the food that the Nions had sent with them as the raft swam slowly down the course of the Ojikef River, sharing the languid pace of the puffy clouds drifting overhead. On either side, the banks were unbroken green walls of vines, leaves, and trees. Endless, thousands of trees.
Two days passed by almost without incident, save for a brief terror on the second night, when the team was startled awake at their campsite by a wild lart that nestled in to sleep with them. Pilotte caught the animal as it tried to run away, which made for a delicious breakfast the next morning.
Later in the morning on that third day, the raft came to a three-way split in the river.
“Which way?” Slate asked Theolus.
The guide didn’t look to have an immediate answer.
“The one on the right,” he said after a few seconds of deliberation.
“Are you sure about that?” Ertajj asked him.
“Sure I’m sure,” Theolus said, his expression belying his words.
Not fifty feet later, rapids broke up the smooth course of the river. Roots and fallen trees started to clutter the waterway, creating whirlpools and dams that pulled at the raft. Seeing that the situation was getting more dangerous, Theolus ordered the others to begin securing down supplies.
“And you’re sure these rapids are the right way?” Ertajj asked again.
“Just do what I tell you and we’ll be alright,” Theolus barked, avoiding eye contact.
The crew was strapping packs and oars into canvas holsters when the raft met the river’s first major drop in elevation.
“Drop!” hollered Theolus, noticing the drop only as it happened.
Ertajj nearly fell out as the raft plunged into a churning mess of bubbles and froth. Dahzi managed to reach out and grab him, clinging to the raft by grabbing hold of one of the oars with his other hand. Ertajj briefly got stuck in an eddy that spun him around and around and tried its best to pull him from Dahzi’s grip, but the eddy wasn’t strong enough to hold him, and spat him out after a few rotations. Slate helped Dahzi pull Ertajj back onboard, just before Theolus announced another drop ahead.
“Tie yourselves down! Quickly!” Theolus said. “We’ve got more trouble coming up!”
The front half of the raft lurched out over the edge of what was revealed to be not just another drop in the river, but more of a waterfall. The raft perched there on the edge of the falls for a short while, teetering and threatening to dump its passengers and their belongings over the falls. Pilotte poised to jump, torn between staying with Slate or making the jump to shore that only he could manage. Instead of either, the wulf turned and leapt out over the waterfall, diving into the pool below. Farther and farther the raft crept out from the edge after him, until its bottom could hold the horizon no longer.
The raft slipped and tumbled down the falls. It cut into the frothy water like a diving bird, smooth and swiftly, as the crew tied to it was pulled down with it, their vision obscured by a white wash of bubbles. For one, clear moment, Slate saw the underwater world around him, how close the sides of the raft were to slabs of rock which surely could have destroyed it had it fallen just the slightest bit to the right or left. And then the buoyancy of the raft caught up with its dive and pulled it back out of the water, and the four tethered passengers were yanked from underwater with it. The punishingly loud storms of water bashing down on the rocks all around drowned their screams.
The raft then managed to bump and spin and slide just so off the lurching, angular stones at the base of the falls, and continue down a bit further along the river, to where there was a calmer current. The crew was of course pulled along the same lucky route that the raft found, all the while thrashing and struggling to get back on top and gasping for air, as Pilotte followed along the banks, barking wildly, desperate for how he might help.
As Slate was variably dunked below the current and tossed up above it, he tried to get the attention of his other crewmates, but the confusion was too great. He also failed to climb back into the raft using one of the oars as a ladder, when the oar became lodged somewhere between two invisible rocks below the water’s surface and split, then was torn from his grip by the angry undercurrent.
For a moment, Slate thought he saw that the river ended, not too far ahead, but that didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t a delta, a merging, or split with another river, instead it looked as if the river just stopped. As if it reached the end of the world. Beyond was nothing but clear blue sky, not marred by even the slightest wisp of cloud.
The river became calmer as it approached the end of the world, allowing the four travelers to partially or totally pull themselves back into the raft. Just as the raft met the seeming end of the river, Theolus managed to rip an oar from its binding and jam it into the crack of a boulder in the middle of the stream, which at last halted the raft’s movement.
“All the way in boys, hurry, get in!” he urged. “Don’t know how long this will hold!”
Slate helped Dahzi and Ertajj out of the water. It was then that the whole crew had a moment to take notice of how much higher up they were than the ground below, so very far below, with its thousands of jungle trees stretching out from the riverbanks for lengths off into the distance. The oar Theolus had jammed into the boulder snapped, already broken from the first fall. The raft surged forward.
“What are we going to do?” Dahzi cried.
The raft rode clear to the edge of the soaring waterfall, where Pilotte stood barking wildly, spun around once, and then fell. It actually stayed level for some while, and the crew experienced the odd sensation of riding the air as if on a sled. They were able to peer over the raft’s edges and see the pool waiting below. And up above, along the edge of the fall, was Pilotte, howling as he watched them shrink from view.
But then the raft tipped, and began turning top-over-bottom, faster and faster, its crew all the while fixed inside by gravity. The wind whipped and battered the airborne raft, as green turned to blue then to green over and again and again for the terrified passengers. And then they and the raft met the waiting pool with a resounding, thunderous smack.
The air was knocked out of Slate’s lungs and the raft blew apart on impact. Slate was now was hopelessly trapped in the ratty folds of the disintegrated raft with the others, drowning as the hollow logs that had previously been the raft’s sides met and enveloped the crew under the force of the water. Slate fought against the canvas and the water with wild desperation, as did the others, but the forces around them proved impossible to assail. Slate began to cry with frustration, suffering the kicks and punches of the others struggling to free themselves, then saw red, and then purple, which finally faded to black. His felt his fingers stop working, and then an odd moment of relief, before his other senses faded to nothingness.
When Slate regained consciousness, he was lying on a rock in the middle of the river. Ertajj was splayed next to him, breathing, but still unconscious. Dahzi was on a smaller rock across the way, but Theolus was nowhere to be found.
“Ertajj?” Slate asked. “Ertajj?”
There was no response. When Slate went to move toward his friend, a deep, stinging pain shot across his back. He winced and bore it, managing to stand up on the slippery rock.
“Dahzi?” he called across the water.
Dahzi mumbled something inaudible in response.
“Dahzi, are you okay?”
Dahzi pushed himself up and looked around to see who was calling him.
“Slate,” he called when he spotted him, “Are we dead?”
“No,” Slate answered. “I don’t think so.”
“Where’s Pilotte?” Dahzi asked, now pulling himself up to sitting. “Where’s Theolus?”
Slate searched the banks of the river. “I don’t know,” he said despondently.
Ertajj suddenly lurched up, shook, and coughed water out of his lungs, gasping for air.
“Ertajj!” Slate cried, falling to his side.
Ertajj continued to cough and wheeze until he could breathe regularly.
“Good Gods,” he finally managed, panting. “What… the… hell.”
“Are you alright?” Slate asked him.
“I guess, considering,” Ertajj answered.
“No broken bones for anyone?” Slate asked.
The three friends searched themselves, then each other, and, miraculously, none of them had been severely injured, beyond scrapes and bruises. Slate had the worst of it, a bleeding laceration across his back.
“Where’s that bastard Theolus?” Ertajj asked, standing up on shaky legs. “Is he dead? I’ll kill him!”
“He’s nowhere in sight,” Slate said. “Neither is Pilotte.” Suddenly remembering his pack, he realized it, too, was gone. “And neither are any of our supplies.”
“Theolus!” Slate called out. “Theolus!”
There came no response.
“Great,” Ertajj groaned. “Our guide and the goldquartz, gone. Well, no reason to sit here like a couple of dirallias. Let’s get the hell out of this damn river.”
The three left the river for its banks.
“That son of a bitch,” said Ertajj. “I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, but if Theolus is in fact dead, well, the river did the job I would have. Idiot had no idea where we were going. Dragged us over a damn waterfall!”
“I really don’t think he meant too,” said Dahzi.
“I’m sure the Nions told him about the split in the river, he just probably didn’t listen,” said Ertajj.
“I just can’t believe I lost Pilotte,” Slate said, searching the water but hoping he wouldn’t find the wulf’s body there.
“Well, we know he’s alive. I mean, I saw him watching us fall. Didn’t you?” Ertajj asked.
Dahzi and Slate nodded.
“Still no idea how he’d find us down here, though,” Ertajj said. “That had to have been a quarter of a length, that fall. Now Pilotte’s all alone, and we’re easy prey.”
“Oh, what are we going to do?” Dahzi asked, gnawing nervously on his worn-down thumbnail.
“Well, we should follow the river,” Slate said sadly. “It’ll lead us out of here.”
“How much longer do you think it will be?” Ertajj asked.
“No idea,” said Slate.
“Great,” Ertajj said with a sigh. “This is just great.”
The three walked along in silence, until they found the wreckage of their raft, caught in a root system along the riverside.
“It’s completely shredded,” Dahzi observed.
“But, look! I think I see some of our supplies,” Ertajj said, running ahead. “I need some sort of long stick,” he said.
Slate found one, which Ertajj used to fish out a pack caught up in the tangle of wreckage.
“It’s my pack!” Ertajj said. He opened the soaking bag and dumped its contents out. “Which means we’ve got something to eat! I mean, the bread’s ruined, but we can salvage the meat, and the zans.”
“That’s good news, at least,” Slate said. “There’s a decent amount of food there.”
The three sat and ate a little of the food, careful to conserve their rations, as the birds in the surrounding jungle made a cacophony. As he ate, Slate wondered what would happen to Pilotte, and what he was going to tell Guh Hsing about the books he had lost.
“So, that delivery to Aurora Falls isn’t going to make it, is it?” Ertajj asked, echoing what was on Slate’s mind.
“Obviously not,” Slate said. “I feel just terrible about it. And about Pilotte. And about bringing you all here. Hatty. The Falls. Just, everything.”
“Nobody to blame but Theolus,” Ertajj said. “Seriously, what a moron.”
“Come on, now,” Dahzi said. “He’s probably dead. No need to beat a dead moron.”
Ertajj chuckled. “Still.”
“It’s not his fault, it’s all mine,” said Slate. “That any of us are here at all. I just wanted to get it over with, the trip, I was so foolish. What do I know about jungles? About Proterse? About anything?”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Slate,” said Ertajj.
“How can I now be? What are we going to do now?” Slate asked.
“I’m going home, as soon as I find a road that leads there,” Dahzi said. “I think I’ve had enough adventure.”
“Am I still invited?” Ertajj asked.
“Of course you are. You, too, Slate,” Dahzi answered.
“Thank you,” Slate said. “But I’ve got to go tell my friend in Aurora Falls what happened, and then I really need to be getting home.”
“Aurora Falls is still so far away,” Ertajj said. “Why not just skip it and come with Dahzi and me?”
“I can’t,” Slate said. “Guh will be expecting me.”
“Expectations aren’t always met,” Ertajj said. “Case in point.”
“I know, but I have to go,” said Slate. “It’s the only reason I’m on Proterse at all.”
“Reasons change,” Ertajj said. “Maybe your real reason for being here was to meet us!”
“That’s a happy coincidence,” Slate said. “But my delivery was really important.”
“Fine, fine,” Ertajj said. “Do what you want. Dahzi’s family will treat us well, though. Did you know he’s a prince?”
“A what?” Slate asked.
“That’s right, he’s a prince. An honest-to-goodness, about-to-inherit-a-kingdom, prince,” Ertajj said.
Slate looked to Dahzi, who nodded sheepishly.
“Where you think he got all that money?” Ertajj asked. “He just likes to slum it with the likes of us. Don’t you, Dahzi?”
“I certainly wasn’t ready to be a King when I left home. But I think I’ve seen enough of the world now. I’m ready,” said Dahzi.
“A prince? Really?” Slate asked, making sure he wasn’t being toyed with.
“It’s true, Slate,” affirmed Dahzi.
“Well that’s incredible,” Slate said.
“Yep. The whole kingdom of Morai, it’s all going to be his,” Ertajj said.
“That’s amazing, Dahzi,” said Slate, though he didn’t know anything about Morai.
“Is it? I didn’t have anything to do with making the country. I happened to be born into it. That’s all,” said Dahzi. “I just hope I’ll be a good ruler. It’s a lot of responsibility.”
“I’m sure you will be great,” Ertajj said. “Just being concerned about whether or not you’ll do a good job is probably a good sign that you will. Anyways, are we all done here? The flies are killing me.”
“I’m ready,” said Dahzi.
“Sure,” Slate said, looking back up the river in hopes that he might spot Pilotte if he looked hard enough. Still there was no sign.
Slate, Ertajj, and Dahzi walked all day and then found an overhang to sleep under when the night came. The next day they rose with the noisy jungle and continued along the riverbank, talking and striving for high spirits despite their situation.
After lunch, during which most of the rest of their food stores were depleted, the banks of the river became congested with trees that made hugging the exact side of the waterway impossible. The three were forced deeper into the darker jungle.
“I don’t like it in here as much,” Ertajj said, tugging at a difficult vine.
“No,” Dahzi said. “Me either.”
The way grew tighter and tighter, the greenery closing in on all sides and choking out the sun overhead. Huge insects crawled around the tight passageway, chittering and tickling the strangers to the jungle with their long antennae and hundreds of legs. And then, something huge started moving through the growth alongside the three travelers.
“Do you guys hear that? What is it?” Ertajj asked.
“No idea,” said Slate. “Try to keep your voice down.”
The deeper into the growth the three went, the closer the mystery in the nearby jungle came. The noise of breaking branches and snapping vines grew to be almost as loud as the fateful rapids had been the day before, and then, in a clearing, the source of the cacophony showed itself.
“Pilotte!” Slate cried, overjoyed.
The wulf struggled to turn around in the small clearing, his excited tail whacking the travelers as he spun, but when he did, Slate was doubly surprised to see his sack of books dangling from the animal’s mouth.
“And you’ve got my delivery!” he cried.
“That’s… unbelievable,” remarked Ertajj.
Slate lunged at the wulf and unleashed a fury of scritches.
“I was so scared I was never going to see you again!” he said, welling up with tears. “Oh, Pilotte, I’m so glad you found us!”
The wulf seemed happy enough but annoyed with the claustrophobic surroundings.
“I know, it’s terrible in here, right?” Slate said. “Let’s go, let’s go! Find us the way, Pilotte!”
The wulf took the lead, burrowing a tunnel through the jungle wide enough for the others to follow after. It wasn’t long before the choking jungle broke, and the four travelers were able to walk along the riverbanks once more.
“Alright! Back on the banks! And with Pilotte! Isn’t it amazing he found us?” Slate asked his friends. “And with my bag?”
“Honestly, yes,” Ertajj answered. “But we’re still in the jungle, I’m afraid.”
“Much safer with Pilotte here, though,” Dahzi said.
“Doubtless,” Ertajj agreed. “I just wonder how much farther we have to go. That’s another very large mouth we have to feed.”
“Well, if a snarlingwulf can find you in the middle of a jungle, perhaps there’s reason for optimism,” said Slate.
“You go ahead with that,” Ertajj said. “I’ll carry the pessimism until we find a way out of here. And I’m sure Theo’s corpse is singing a different tune, also.”
Relief came sometime later, when the team spotted a watermill set up along the Ojikef River.
“Civilization! We’re saved!” Ertajj was the first to exclaim.
“Thank goodness,” Dahzi said. “My legs are killing me. I’m not made for this sort of physical activity.”
“I don’t think anyone is made for this sort of physical activity,” said Slate. “Let’s see if anyone’s home at the mill.”
There wasn’t, but almost as good, there was a road, leading from the mill out of the jungle and onto a wide, flat plain.
“Aaah,” Slate said overlooking the plain. “Look at all that flat, treeless wonder.”
Ertajj smiled and grabbed Dahzi’s arm. “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” he asked.
“Maybe once or twice,” Dahzi answered. “Now, I’ll be really happy when we find an inn.”
“Let’s do that, then,” said Ertajj. “Down the road, boys! Down the road to dinner!”
The four came to a small village named Marsh Hallows, which they were surprised to learn wasn’t far from Chreopoint, their original destination. There was an inn there, run by a sweet old couple who were happy to listen to the boys’ tales of adventure and feed and house them for the night.
When the morning came, there was a small breakfast brought to the room.
“Biscuits. How I’ve missed biscuits. Oh, I’m so very ready to go home,” Dahzi said, buttering a biscuit. “I never thought I’d say that.”
“I could use some time in one place, myself,” said Ertajj. “Morai sounds like a good oasis.”
“So we’ll split up today, then, huh?” Slate said sadly.
“Only for a bit,” said Ertajj. “You go complete your extremely important delivery, then come see us.”
“How would I find you?” Slate asked.
“Morai is the only kingdom left on the continent,” Dahzi answered. “Our people have never wanted a change to democracy or republic like the rest of Proterse. So, it’ll be easy to find; just ask about.”
“How far is it from Aurora Falls?” Slate asked.
“Not far,” Dahzi answered. “Maybe a day or two by foot, obviously less by horse.”
“Watch yourself, though,” said Ertajj. “The closer you get to Opal Pools, the worse.”
“Why’s that?” Slate asked.
“Because,” Ertajj answered. “Those people are monsters. Isolationist, techno-fascists.”
“Well I don’t want anything to do with that,” said Slate.
“Honestly, if you’ve got any time at all, come see us and we’ll treat you to some real luxury,” said Dahzi.
“If I can, I definitely will,” Slate said. “And if I can’t, I’ll make sure to send you that fifty goldquartz I owe you.”
“You don’t owe me anything, Slate,” said Dahzi.
“Well. Thanks for coming with me through the Ojikef,” said Slate. “Sorry it was such an ordeal.”
“An ordeal to remember for a lifetime,” Ertajj said. “And we would never have done it without you.”
The friends said goodbye to one another outside the inn, and parted ways. Slate stopped before a turn in the road to look back and see Ertajj and Dahzi getting into a carriage, then watched the carriage disappear behind a cloud of dust kicked up by the horses carrying it. Sadly, he doubted he would ever see them again.
“Looks like it’s just you and me again, buddy,” Slate sighed to Pilotte, who smiled. “Let’s finish this thing up so we can go back home.”