Chapter 4 - Into the Manderlands
He has the build of a full-grown man, belied by his youthful – and somewhat flamboyant – garb. He’s stylish, although it’s clear that his “style” has recently absorbed a righteous pummeling. He drags his body forward slowly, deliberately. But his wounds mask a countenance of unusual power – and grace.
Ulises says we should just kill them. He always says that we should just kill them. He’s usually correct. But I’m given no authority to make such decisions. I am the watcher condemned to simply… watch. I am the guard who must stand silent while the larder is raided. I am the vestigial feet, still trailing behind the serpent, still serving some kind of ceremonial purpose. But in the end... I am useless. A security ornament.
The interlopers are Inqoan. They’re always Inqoan. They come seeking indentured labor. They come seeking comfort boys to work on their nother-streets. They come with eviction orders. They come demanding tribute. Whatever the excuse, they come to drain another precious drop of Diasporan lifeblood.
The transaction is always unidirectional. They only take. They never give. And I always find myself wishing that I’d followed Ulises’ impetuous advice to slaughter them before they could ever reach the camp.
Four Inqoans are such an inconsequential inconvenience that it pains me to let them pass. It would be so easy to dump them in the muddwood. It would be so easy to make them truly disappear.
But the elders fear the repercussions of oppressors who feel aggrieved. They’re so afraid of any backlash that might arise that they’re blind to the immediate threats that walk right up to our doorstep.
We could have ambushed them anywhere. We’ve been tailing them for a half dozen klicks. And despite my general lack of authority, I may just have pulled the trigger on a bit of “frontier justice”. Ulises has certainly been advocating for such. But once I got this crew firmly in my sights, I just… I just couldn’t bring myself to give the order.
The woman is tall. And lean. She’s what an engineer would sculpt if you asked her to create “human”. Every muscle. Every tendon. Every reach of sinew. It’s all there to be admired by the “sensualists”. She’s a walking automaton of efficiency.
Her party is being actively driven into the mud by the pouring rain. They look weary. Every step is purchased through sheer force of will. She walks with a confidence that implies she knows where she’s going. But her frequent, wild-eyed surveys of the land tell me that she’d rather not be here at all.
Of course, she’s also a fucking Inqoan. That creepy, grey, mottled skin. The milky eyes, shielding any hint of humanity. The razor-sharp teeth, catching stray reflections from the emberstools. The long, stringy, dishwater hair trailing damn-near to her knees. She’s both a model of ergonomics – and a walking, talking nightmare. Just like the rest of her rotten arbyrkin.
But I can’t bring myself to kill her. Not yet.
Of course, the easy explanation is that I’m not authorized to. But let’s be honest. I’ve erased plenty of would-be invaders on this trail – listless Inqoan souls who thought they could turn their fortunes by wandering into the Manderlands and pillaging our hapless kinfolk. But it’s not protocol that stays my hand.
I can’t actually claim it’s compassion. Rather, it’s… curiosity. The woman has someone strapped to her back. Granted, it’s another of those scrawny Inqoans. But, still… I have to admit, I kinda wonder why she’d be inclined to mule someone – anyone – over such obviously-contentious terrain.
Her colleagues are no less intriguing. There’s a boy, desperately dragging along another slightly older… boy. But boys aren’t typically riddled with wounds. Boys don’t typically look like they’re returning from war. Boys don’t risk their own safety to tow other damn-near-dead boys into hostile lands.
No. Most definitely, this party is not the “typical” Inqoan party.
I’d like to think that we’re stealthy. The rain crashes from the sky in buckets. To untrained ears, there is no sound but drops cascading against their own hoods.
As I watch our quarry, I realize that they’re far past the point of prudence. They’ve stopped covering their tracks. Her colleagues have stopped surveying the trail. At this point, they have but one unified concern – survival.
There is no more utility in subterfuge. I loose a beacon whistle, and within seconds my compatriots drop from the caps of the mighty emberstools. They have staked out defensible positions on the aft road. On the fore road. And… well, there are no other feasible escape routes off this road.
The nottlebrush, licking the stems of the giant emberstools, grows so thick that it’s nearly impossible to tread more than 10 meters to either side of the trail. I’d like to brag about the efficiency with which we’ve surrounded these “invaders” – but the simple fact is that these stooges aren’t even trying.
They’re injured. And hungry. And weak. By the time that I drop before her on the trail, I nearly expect her to grovel in compliance.
Me: You seem to have lost the Gotten Road.
This woman – this rangy, scraggly, feral woman – shows no sign of alarm at our “arrival”. Her head raises a bit – as it is strained by the burden of her human cargo. I can see, that she sees, the entirety of our force materialized around her party. I watch her count us, even if she doesn’t realize that I’ve observed her tally. She bores through my countenance with a force that is entirely disproportionate with her womanpower.
Chey: You should know that we turned off the road of our own accord. Afterall, you were watching us.
I’ve encountered lesser souls who fled as soon as we dropped from our cover. She… is not one of those souls.
Me: We are treatied to this land. This is Diasporan territory.
Her pause is all I need to know about her allegiance. Inqoan leaders have seeded these lands to us. But their “rank and file” would rather lose an ear than admit we have earned this soil. The look on her face confirms that she’s no better than the rest of them.
Chey: We are not here to negotiate racial treaties. Nor national boundaries. We are here for more urgent matters.
Me: Do tell…
She tosses a head nod to the human cargo slung passively across her shoulder.
Chey: He’s dying.
The figure draped over her back looks less lively than last week’s meat. The rains may have “cleansed” him, but a thick, black, viscous fluid clings to the corners of his mouth and slowly marches onto her hood. His head is swollen such that it may burst at any moment.
Me: Dying? Or dead?
Chey: He draws breath.
Me: That’s a weak standard for life.
Chey: It’s all we have left.
Chey: We’re not looking for just any Diasporan. We come to hail Lorelei.
Ulises betrays her truth with the look on his face. I’ve counseled him about this before. A single expression can undermine the most solid of negotiating positions. He is too impulsive – too indiscrete – for this work.
Me: Lorelei is expecting no visitors. Especially no Inqoan visitors.
Chey: One of our party hails from the Manderlands. He knows Lorelei well.
Ulises stifles a chuckle and I shoot him a stern look of admonishment.
Ulises: Alive? Not a single one.
Chey: This is not the entirety of our party.
Now it’s my turn for indiscretion. I cannot conceal my confusion, nor my annoyance. I look at Ulises, but he just shrugs, furrows his brow, and shakes his head.
Chey: Your men follow too close. The Elladoran brings up the rear.
As if on cue, my lookout whistles from his elevated position atop one of the far emberstools.
Me: Arlo! What do you see?
Arlo: Another approaches! An ebony ranger. Tall, with long braids. And eyes of crimson. He’s hobbled.
I lower my spear and close the distance between me and the woman. She does not flinch. She does not react, other than to stare me dead in my face.
Me: Tell me now. Exactly how many souls have you dragged into our lands?
Chey: He’s the last one. He could also benefit from Lorelei’s touch.
Me: I don’t know what kind of game you’re–
My words are broken by a new whistle from Arlo. We are all in suspense of his next report.
Arlo: He’s got a dracon! A full-grown specimen perched on his shoulder. A black predator with shimmering wings.
Ulises: Oh, my lord!
I can’t afford to turn my gaze from their leader. But Ulises’ outburst annoys me to no end. I don’t understand his exclamation.
Me: What, Ulises?? What does that mean?
Ulises: It can only be… Kamini!
Me: And who would that be? Do you vouch for this straggler?
Ulises: Vouch for him? I grew up with him!
Ulises: Right here! In the Manderlands.
Me: I’ve never heard of this soul.
Ulises: He left… several years ago. To join…
Me: To join what?
My other men openly gush with an odd mixture of excitement and… uneasiness. No one wants to speak.
Ulises: He’s one of us.
Me: An Elladoran? One of us??
Ulises: He… well, he was raised by Lorelei.
The strongleroot is already tightening its grip on my longboots. We can’t stay here for long, lest we become fertilizer for the emberstools. The rain is lessening somewhat. If it calms too far, or halts altogether, we’ll be dead in the middle of a fresh borer swarm. But this situation is designed in every way to raise my suspicions, and my duty is not simply to question travelers up to the point that it becomes inconvenient for my crew. Before I can weigh all the possibilities, I see him. Rounding the bend. He is… like nothing I have seen before.
He has the build of a full-grown man, belied by his youthful – and somewhat flamboyant – garb. He’s stylish, although it’s clear that his “style” has recently absorbed a righteous pummeling. He drags his body forward slowly, deliberately. But his wounds mask a countenance of unusual power – and grace. Ulises darts to him like a child.
It’s no use. Several of my other men follow Ulises’ lead. They dance toward him, oozing joy. That fucking Inqoan woman has the nerve to smirk.
As my charges approach Kamini, the dracon launches from his shoulder, punishing the waterlogged winds. Insects, even birds, lay low during the torrents. They can’t combat the downward force of the heavens’ fury. But the dracon cares not. He slices the air with reckless abandon. His leathery wings glisten in the driving rain.
A slapstick choreography ensues. They’re set upon Kamini – until that dracon takes flight. As it rises, they all halt – and retreat – in tandem. The transient excitement of reuniting with this Kamini has suddenly been replaced by a primal fear of the little demon that previously rested on his shoulder.
It emits several startling cries that could easily be ascribed to a creature several many times its size. They eye it with wariness. When it dips its head, they scurry further back. When it rises again, they gingerly resume their approach toward Kamini. This folly continues through several rounds until Kamini silently raises an arm, swings his hand in some kind of private gesture, and the dracon slowly beats its way downward until it is back on his shoulder.
They’re finally free to fully approach him at nearly the same time that he catches up with the rest of his ragtag crew. They hug him. They slap him on the back. A few even give him mock jabs to the face (for some baffling reason, this always qualifies, amongst the penis-carrying set, as “affection”).
Every time they touch him – even with the most glancing of contact – he winces something terrible. It’s not just irritating him. It’s apparent that they are causing him severe pain. But he does not stop them. Nor does he protest in any way. He simply… absorbs it and patiently waits for the pleasantries to subside.
Every pained expression that visits his face is oddly mirrored in the countenance of the dracon. It flits and protests. But it will not take flight again. It has been called down to its standard perch. And it obeys.
Me: Well… I suppose you're the beloved “Kamini”?
Kamini: Suppose it’s good to be loved. Who are you?
I don’t believe he was trying to be rude. But so help me, if my own men weren’t fawning over him with ridiculous puppy eyes, I’d smack the ever-lovin hell out of his swollen face.
Me: I’m Zyra, a captain of the Shield.
Kamini: How long have you been here?
I don’t think he truly understands just how close he is to purchasing death for him and his entire crew. If any of my men don’t like it, I’ll be happy to include them in the slaughter.
Me: I came to the Manderlands nearly… I guess it’s been three years now.
Kamini: So that was…
Ulises: A few months after you left.
He files that away in some kind of mental calendar. Before he can completely piece it together, deeper realities snap him to the present.
Kamini: We seek Lorelei.
Me: So I’ve heard.
Kamini: Our man is clinging to borrowed time. Another’s wounds are already festering.
Me: Normally, I’d hold you here until the elders approve your–
Kamini: We need Lorelei. Now.
This arsehole has quite a set on him. If he were a bit older, and living with us as the arbyrkin that everyone claims him to be, I just might order him back to my quarters. Have several rollicking nights of toe-curling passion. And then tell him to get the fuck out.
But for the moment, the tables seem to be turned. My own men are damn near ready to lay face-down in the mud - just for the pleasure of providing him a walkway.
Me: I would expect someone with such dire needs to show a bit more respect.
Kamini: Lorelei won’t be showing you much respect if she knows you let my family expire in rain.
Wait. What?! Did he just call these fucking Inqoans his… family?! What. The. Fuck?! I’m honestly having trouble even processing his words. He would have shocked me less if he started eating his own dracon. But as I survey my team, it’s apparent that I’m the only one bothered by what he says.
Before I can properly sort the possibilities, he moves directly toward me in a manner that is entirely too familiar. His bruised face peers directly into mine. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is that his words, now, are softer. Deadly urgent… but, pleading.
Kamini: We need your help. You’re all we’ve got.
And somehow we’ve come to this odd inflection point. He stares at me urgently. This urgency is shared by the feral Inqoan bitch behind him. And, I hate to admit it, but it’s also shared by my own men. I am… trapped.
Me: Fine. Yes. We will bring you with all speed to Lorelei.
A palpable sense of relief falls over everyone. I didn’t even realize the extent of the tension – until I saw it released from their faces.
Me: Arlo! Range ahead and tell them to be ready to raise the gate!
Arlo: Yes, ma’am!
Me: Ulises. Bind the Inqoans. Be mindful of their wounds, but hold them tight.
Everyone stops. I mean, everyone freezes like they’ve been captured in a spell. The tension immediately returns. All eyes lie uncomfortably on me.
Me: Excuse me?!
Kamini: They will not be bound.
Me: That’s not your call, snotnose.
Kamini: They’re my family. They will not be bound.
Chey: Kamini… it’s okay.
Kamini: I said, they will not be bound.
Despite his injuries, he seems to have grown by several centimeters in just these last few moments. He looks a mess. But he also looks… powerful.
Me: Then they’ll die here, left to rot under the majestic shrooms, slowly pulled under the surface by the strongleroots.
Kamini: Good luck explaining that to Lorelei.
And now I realize why I can almost imagine fucking him. This cocky shite’s in need of a good breaking. And if he didn’t have the stench of Inqoan all over him, I could be just the woman to humble him.
But, alas… this is neither the time nor the place. Maybe it’s the pounding rain, but it feels like there is nothing else to be heard in this world but my words, and his. Everyone else is apparently under the same impression.
Ulises: Yes, ma’am.
Me: Fashion a carriage. We gotta get the dying one off her back. Get two of our strongest to take him forward, as fleet as possible.
Ulises: What about the others?
Me: They will march with us.
No one moves. No one scatters under my command.
Me: What is it?!
Ulises: Are we to… well, you know…
Ulises: Should we still… bind the others?
Me: No, Ulises! Now get to work on that goddamn carriage!
Ulises: Yes, ma’am.
That bitch – that fucking Inqoan bitch – is still smirking! Good lord I pray that I’m the one who gets to strike that goofy grin off her freakish, ghastly face.
Me: You’d better hope that Lorelei still holds you dear to her heart.
I’m not expecting his pause. He’s thoughtful. Introspective. A cloud of self-doubt overtakes his features. He looks to my men, scattering about as they prepare for the trail, and there’s a strange hesitance in his voice.
Kamini: I hope so, too. I really want that. But why?
Me: Because, if she doesn’t stay my hand, I will personally ensure that you and this motley assortment of fishfolk are never seen outside the Manderlands again.