Apparition Upon The Mountain
They gathered the belongings that they had pulled out for the night. "Remember not to get too close to the edge," Chyna said. "I don't know if Dedication could pull off another miracle like he did yesterday again."
"I learn fast. I'm sticking to wherever he puts his feet and not straying even a toe’s breadth from it." Chiapos kinked his neck back to look up at the remainder of the mountainside that they still had to climb. Darkness still abounded but he was able to see the daunting black shadow of the jagged peak pressed against the sky as a formidable giant unwilling to give up its prized slope to any mere mortal. The Teeth were indeed formidable and he did not all together share the optimism that Chyna had regarding the conquest of this intimidating rocky tor.
The temperature remained bitter cold and the winds added their icy bite to make the couple’s climb all the more dangerous and their clinging to life all the more tenuous. Yet, they made steady progress with the buffalo, Dedication, at the fore and the two humans behind him. The buffalo seemed to know where he was going. Either there was a well-laid trail beneath the snows that Dedication instinctively followed or he had been here before and had made this climb in the past.
"You've done this climb before, haven't you baby!" Chyna cooed to the beast, somehow seeming to know what Chiapos was thinking.
Dedication never made one false step. He kept away from the precipitous edges and clung his huge bulk as close as possible to the side of the cliff as they zigzagged across the mountain's face and neared the summit. Chiapos was amazed at the progress that they had made when he dared to face his vertigo to peer down. He could see the spot where they had made camp the night before hundreds of yards below. If it would have been daylight when they had selected their sleeping site he very much doubted that he would have ever chosen such a place as what he looked at down below. He had slept in cramped hovels before where he had been allotted more space than what the three of them had slept upon last night. And those tight places were not sitting upon the edge of a sheer drop. It was truly a miracle that they had not slipped and fallen from that tenuous perch.
The morning was progressing rapidly. Although it was cloudy and bleak, it did not start to snow until the early afternoon and then it snowed like he had never seen before. It came down on an almost horizontal angle and it had sharp, biting ice pellets mixed in with it that stung any part of their bodies that were misfortunate enough to be exposed to the freezing precipitation. For Chyna that was only her face. But Chiapos had to endure a constant bombardment by the stinging ice all over his bare arms and open chest. It was a mixed blessing being immune to the cold. Cenan's milk was not an elixir against pain and finally the Rainwaterman was forced to don the greatcoat that his sister, Lachi, made for him when he left Rainwater all those months ago. The garment had been made from the skins of tamed goats meshed with long grasses. The stitching that his sister had painstakingly done to meld the skins into a rugged winter coat was quite pleasing to the eye. Looking upon this coat stirred up feelings of regret within him once again about ever embarking on this vainglorious quest. Once donned the goatskin and grass coat proved to be an effective shield against the stinging ice pellets. He realized that if he were capable of actually feeling it, it would have proven to be also a very warm coat. Lachi had done well.
The buffalo suddenly stopped and bellowed deeply. Chyna and Chiapos, who both had been climbing with their heads held down facing the ground to avoid the biting ice, together practically crashed into the animal. Before he could look up, Chiapos heard Chyna cry, "In the name of the Mammoth!"
When Chiapos lifted his head, his eyes were blinded by a harsh, brilliant glare. Nothing he had seen before was as bright as this light. "What is it?" he yowled.
But before Chyna could start to answer, his eyes came into focus and much to his awe he realized that what he was looking upon was something he had seen months ago back in the Tester. It was the ghostly outline of a woman appearing to be suffocating engulfed within an eerie elephantine-shaped mist. It was an apparition of Cenan within the Mammoth of the Tester!
The vision was only a dozen yards ahead of the travelers on the steep, winding trail. As before back in the Tester, all was silent, no sound escaped the wraithish cloud of the Mammoth. The Rainwaterman turned to see if his companions were seeing what he was seeing. Dedication showed signs of being extremely disturbed and was nearing the point of bolting. Chyna watched in reverence. Chiapos sensed that she recognized what she was gazing upon. But he returned his main focus upon the chilling apparition ahead of them. It did not have any sensual qualities to it that made it seem that it was actually there. It was something from beyond this world.
The buffalo began to twitter his huge haunches back and forth. He dug his fore hoof into the snow and began to throw the icy slush back at Chyna and Chiapos. Chyna tried to calm him by petting him on his back and telling him in soft tones to quiet down.
Chiapos remained transfixed by the ghostly image. It seemed that Cenan and the Mammoth were frozen in time and that everything had stood still for them since that late afternoon in the Tester when they first entered their communion. Back then, Chiapos had surmised that the Appointed Servant was in some form of transcendental communication with her Lord of the Tester, King of the Auras, and that it was not a case as what appeared to be of one entity trying to kill the other. This time, he still held onto that same conviction. What were they talking about? Why had they suddenly appeared here?
Cenan's eyes were still rolled back, exposing only white frightening orbs. Her colouring still maintained that deathly hue where it seemed that her breath was finally going to evaporate from her ancient and timeless body. Nothing had changed a fragment even though for everything else time had marched on. Had the ancients been in this state all this time? It was hard to believe.
It appeared that Chyna's efforts were working in soothing the buffalo’s edginess. Dedication was no longer taking on a threatening pose. Chyna took this opportunity to say to Chiapos, "It is just like you had described it to me. What do you suppose this means?"
Chiapos shook his head to show his doubt. "I have no idea." His eyes never left the image before him. He did not dare to draw any nearer to it lest he get drawn into it as well. The misty veil that he felt intuitively to be the Mammoth, was an ever-shifting and amorphous cloud that more or less constantly maintained a rough, abstract outline of a mammoth. It was at once terrifying and at the same time compelling. He wanted to run away like he did the last time back in the mighty forest and yet he wanted to stay, transfixed by its mystery and its power. But this time, his urge to flee was not goaded on by someone whom he had mistakenly thought of as Straye. This time, he had Chyna at his side and he knew for certain that she was genuine and not an imposter trying to lure him to his death.
With Chyna at his side, he felt that he was strong enough to be of use to Cenan if she was so inclined to receive aid. But the High Priestess of the Mammoth of the Tester was in no need of mortal help. She was not dying. She was in communion with her master. Or so it seemed.
"Why do you think that they have chosen this moment to make an appearance to us?" Chyna whispered softly into the Rainwaterman’s ear. Before he could make a conjecture, she continued, "Just when we are on the cusp of entering into the city of Tanejul? It has got to be an omen!"
Chiapos nodded in agreement. "A good omen," he said, for at that moment he felt invincible and that no Aura in Ascension was going to defeat him nor Cenan and the Mammoth nor the people of the town on the other side of the mountain. He was so overwhelmed by this feeling that he shouted, "Hail to the Mammoth of the Tester! And hail to his Appointed Servant, the great Cenan!"
Whatever comforting Chyna had given Dedication had become completely dissipated after the Rainwaterman’s cry of allegiance to the ancient beings. The buffalo snorted fiercely, lowered his head and charged headlong towards the Mammoth and Cenan. In the few short seconds between the collision of beast and apparition, Chiapos sensed that he could see Cenan's eyes open and stare directly into his soul. Her eyes were silver!
When Dedication's monstrous bulk burst into the strange mist, it broke up and dissipated into a thousand different elements with each misty element being hauntingly similar to a woodcock in flight for the briefest of moments. The shards of mist were blown away almost instantly by the wind.
It was like the apparition had not been there at all, yet it had to have been. He had seen it. Chyna had seen it. The buffalo reacted to it. It was very odd and very disturbing. Had Cenan's eyes remained unfocused and shut, he would have taken what had transpired as an omen forecasting a benign future, but her eyes opened and her pupils were silver. This unraveled Chiapos’s resolve to its very core. Silver eyes had become symbolic of the Aura in Ascension to him just in the same manner as the formerly neutral bird, the woodcock now had evil connotations. Martok, the little lost boy from the ancient past, had eyes of silver. Martok was the first manifestation of the evil or Dark Aura that he had come across. Those silvery eyes in the apparition that they had just witnessed could only mean that the Aura in Ascension was behind the mirage. The whole event must now be interpreted as a malicious affront to decency. Would Dedication have responded with such hostility had it been a true image of Cenan and the Mammoth? Animals seem to have an innate understanding of the moral integrity of a character or situation and this intuitive sense is the basis for how they react to the person or situation. Dedication responded strongly and clearly that what had transpired was not borne of the natural goodness of the Earth. Dedication knew that it was not Cenan or the Mammoth that had appeared. He knew that it was an ill-begotten image concocted by the enemy of Nature, the Aura in Ascension.
Chyna must have sensed his doubts for she asked him what was wrong and when he told her about the silver eyes of Cenan, she told him that she did not see any such thing. The woman in the image had eyes rolled back in her head and that not once did they ever expose any pupils, silver or otherwise. She believed that what they had seen was an oracle of good fortune and not some trickery by the Aura.
"I know what I saw!" Chiapos countered. "Those silver eyes looked directly at me and tore away at my outer veneer to peer at my essence inside."
"Don't aggrandize yourself too much, Chiapos! I was there and I saw everything,” Chyna responded, showing clearly that she did not wish to have her assessment of the situation belittled. "Maybe what you saw was a flash of light caused by Dedication when he charged into the apparition. There was a lot of electricity discharged at that moment. Maybe it just so happened to seem to you that the sparks came from the woman's eyes but I am telling you that they didn’t!" Chyna was still trying to be conciliatory towards him in trying to offer him an explanation of what he thought he had seen.
"I wish that that were true but deep in my guts, I know what I saw. I've been fooled once too often by this Aura. I'm starting to get the ability to see through his guises."
"Then what about when you first met me? You thought that I was the Aura!"
"Only for a moment, Chyna, but then I was able to see you for who you are. It was Samarin who continued to believe that you were the Aura."
Chyna laughed out loud. "Don't be fooled by him! He knew full well who I was! It was just a nasty scheme of his to be rid of me so that he could plunder my grandfather's household. And if that petty thief can fool you, don't you think that a supernatural being like the Aura would have little problem duping you into believing anything? I tell you, Chiapos, what we saw was good! Trust me!" she extended her hand out to him. "Darling, believe me when I tell you that I would never steer you wrong!"
But Chiapos was not ready to give up his suspicions so readily, especially when those suspicions may save the little company from walking into a trap. "I want to believe you but what about the buffalo? Don't you place any trust in the way Dedication reacted to that sight?"
"Dedication is just an animal," Chyna said, her face showing disappointment that she had not won over his trust. "Animals always respond to novel things with fear and when they feel that they or their loved ones are being threatened, they will respond by attacking. Dedication acted perfectly normal for a buffalo and I think that he once again displayed some heroism, sacrificing his safety for what he believed to be a danger to you and me." She patted the beast on the flank. "You did well, my friend," she said to the beast. "You continue protecting us but I tell you, what we saw was good. The fates may be on our side afterall!" Turning to Chiapos, she then added, "The fates are on our side but we must make haste to Tanejul to take advantage of it."
The Writing is On the Wall
Chiapos investigated the site where he had seen the Mammoth and his High Priestess locked in their cosmic embrace. He could see that there was no disturbance in the snow outside of the hoven tracks made by Dedication. One would expect that if there were something really there the snow would have left indelible proof. But there was none. It was like the ancients were never there at all - and perhaps, they were never there at all and that both he and Chyna were making too much ado out of flickering atmospheric anomalies. Maybe Chyna concluded the same when she tugged at his arm getting back his attention on the climb.
The Teeth of Tanejul was not so willing to give up its summit so easily. The last one hundred and fifty feet in elevation proved to be equal in a test of endurance as all the rest of the mountain had been. The trail that led up the slope narrowed so much that it was often little more than a tight-lipped ledge. They had to practically walk with their backs strapped against the cliff-face while inching onward and upward spread-eagled. Making it additionally perilous was the fact that this threadbare incline teetered on being almost vertical.
It was absolutely remarkable watching the buffalo move along this trail. Dedication often had to take leaps over the narrowest points and hope that his buttocks or expansive chest did not bump into the wall and send him hurtling down to a terrible death. It was phenomenal and if it were to have been described to Chiapos by somebody else, he would have found it unbelievable. Yet, he saw it with his very eyes.
But the Teeth finally succumbed to its opponents and Chiapos, Chyna and Dedication finally were upon its craggy top in the early afternoon. It had been a straining effort but they at last did it. They championed the Teeth of Tanejul. However, Chiapos did not spend any second thought upon his accomplishment of endurance. There was something there that took his mind away from the Teeth altogether.
Having heard of the town of Tanejul ever since the days that he was in his swaddling clothes and through countless evenings of listening to the elders and his family recite the Challengelore, Chiapos had developed a very precise mental picture of the town. His image of Tanejul had been of a place much like Rainwater except on a larger scale. He had thought that Tanejul was a large village made up of hundreds of thatched huts and rudimentary lean-tos all laid out in a circular pattern around an open amphitheater where the elders and interested parties would gather nightly to prognosticate on the civic state of the town. In his mind there was a section of the town that was devoted to the entertainment of all those that pass through. This was the interesting district where one could get a taste of the different ethnic, exotic cultures that made Tanejul such an important hub and trading post for all of Mallog’mor’ach.
What he saw on the other side of the Teeth in no way corresponded to this well-developed image of his. As an afterthought, he should have been tipped off by the large wooden homes that he had witnessed when he crossed the prairies. Those estates had shown no kinship at all to the huts of Rainwater. And as much as the prairie homes were an architectural progression above his village huts, so was what he now witnessed in the great valley below a dynamic evolution over the prairies.
Tanejul was as alien a place as he could ever imagine. It sprawled from the foothills below him across an expanse of land that stretched practically as far as he could see. Near the distant horizon there was a fat snake of a river that lazily meandered through all that far away section of the city. There was even more of the city past the river and the horizon.
The entire town was gridded by hundreds of streets and avenues that crossed each other in a regular pattern. Between these streets were wooden buildings and stone buildings and grandiose monumental structures that just did not correspond to his notion of a residence at all. Some of the latter climbed vertically to heights the size of small angular mountains and the land that they covered would have held his village three times over. How did the Tanejulians build such things? How could they get so high in the sky?
Strewn throughout the city Chiapos could see statuary of immense proportions. The Challengelore had mentioned these giant gold-plated sculptures of the ancient founding generation of Tanejul. Each Challenger in one way or another said that to behold these monuments was to lose one’s breath. Even prepared with this foreknowledge, Chiapos was still astounded by their sheer power and elegance. Had he breath, he would have lost it. But for all of its beauty, Tanejul had an ugliness to it on a scale that he had never witnessed before.
The air above the town was hazy and almost sooty in colour. This gave the entire town a greyish pall that seemed to Chiapos to be unnatural and almost unhealthy. There were no trees to be seen anywhere. Even the much-heralded wide thick river, the River Gibbins that meandered through the far end of the town seemed to have a sickly cloying atmosphere to it.
Even from their aerie vantage, high up in the Teeth, Chiapos was distinctly aware of the odours of smoke and burning and the fetid smell of waste that just hung in the air as if it were a permanent fixture to the town. How could people live under these conditions? It was rank and foul and perverse to nature. "Is that smell the work of the Aura?" he asked Chyna. It would have been unthinkable to surmise that the wretched smell could be manufactured by anything natural.
She said no. "The air is as fresh as it has ever been in Tanejul."
Chiapos was disgusted. "It is horrible, how do people stay alive? I would be sick to my stomach if I had to live with a smell like that!"
"You get used to it," Chyna smiled. "You only notice the bad odour of the town if you have been away from it for a while."
"I don't think that I could ever get used to that!" Chiapos complained. He was not sure if he could ever get used to the reality of Tanejul, dank and dirty, compared to the idyllic clean, wholesome image that he had held of the town through the words of the Challengelore. This was not a place that deserved to be romanticized. It was a place that should be condemned and avoided by future Challengers. He swore that he would make a point of describing to those that would listen to his story the oppressive bleakness of this place and recommend that Tanejul not be a requisite stop on any future Challenges.
"Like it or hate it, it makes no difference because what you see and smell is Tanejul. It's the place where I was born and the place where I spent most of my life," Chyna said with a resignation that displayed her disappointment that her companion was not enthralled by what he was seeing.
"And it is the place where a lot of the adventure tales that I grew up with took place," Chiapos conceded, recognizing that he had unintentionally hurt Chyna. "Where is it that we are going?" He changed the subject. He could not lie to her that he liked what he saw. It was better to move on.
Chyna pointed to a distant spot on the far bank of the River Gibbins. "The last I saw of Everan and your friend, Straye, they had locked themselves up in a house in that district. That area is known as the Gibbins Quay."
Chiapos surveyed the area that Chyna indicated. It was an area that seemed even more rundown and disease-ridden than the other districts of Tanejul. None of the great statues that marked the rest of the city could be found in Gibbins Quay. There were no trees in that area, there were hardly trees anywhere throughout the town but Gibbins Quay seemed especially bleak and sparse. "I have heard of Gibbins Quay often in the Challengelore. It is a place that is always described by the warmth and generosity of the people. I could never have imagined that Gibbins Quay would look as forlorn as it does."
"Once you are down there, your new impressions will subside. All towns have an innate ugliness to them that make them look like scab tissue upon an otherwise serene landscape but once you become part of the milieu, you will discover that it is more than just the physical attributes that comprise the beauty of a town. Gibbins Quay is as warm and kind of a place as your Challengelore has described." Chyna said encouragingly. Then soberly, she added, "At least it used to be before this paranoia gripped the town. Now the people do not take to strangers to well. They attribute all the woe and distress that has stricken the city upon the travelers and visitors who wander through Tanejul."
"They aren't aware that it is the Aura in Ascension that is causing all of their troubles." Chiapos nodded. "Tell me what is different down there from before? You said that the foul air and the somber fogs were always characteristic of Tanejul. So, what is different?"
"You can't see it from up here," Chyna said as she looked down upon the town with wistful eyes trying to conjure up what had been before. "It is something that you feel more than see. Where you do see it is in the eyes of the residents. There is no humour left in them, they are downcast, sullen and ready to give up the world. One thing that I do notice from up here is that there is hardly anybody out on the streets any more. There was a time when all the streets, lanes, and avenues were congested with hundreds of people milling around, going about their daily business. Tanejul was a hustle-bustle town. The streets look deserted to me now."
Upon the mention of people, Chiapos gazed down upon the town again and this time was able to look past the buildings, the monuments and the dank air. There were people roaming about down there, many tending to carts drawn by beasts of burden. Buffaloes appeared to be the most common pack animal. To his impression, the streets were very crowded. In fact, he had never seen so many people at once in all of his life. Rainwater had maybe fifty to sixty people at any given time. And during the course of his Challenge, he had come across very few people. He could almost count them all in the course of one quick thought. But here, he was looking down at at least two hundred people and Chyna said that the town looked deserted. Incredible! "Do you think that there is any chance that we might see Samarin from up here?"
Chyna laughed. "I wouldn't be able to recognize my own mother from this height! Unless Cenan's milk has given you the eyes of an eagle, I doubt very much that you will be able to see your Samarin either from up here!"
"No, her milk hasn't given me that power," Chiapos answered meekly. "What part of town do you think he would be in?" he asked.
"Highwaymen and brigands such as your Samarin can be found all over Tanejul. They don't seem to focus in on any one locality. Samarin could be anywhere down there. With that said, however, he would be looking for someone willing to pay a high price for the Wood of Faerie that he pilfered from you. My guess is that he is on the other side of the Gibbins in a district known as the Montoo where many mystics and shamans who would be interested in the Redeemer frequent." Chyna pointed to a southerly location near the horizon. Tanejul sprawled out that far.
From his vantage up here on the Teeth, Chiapos could not make out clearly what the district Montoo exactly appeared like, but it did seem to have more trees which to him was a sign that it was not as melancholic a place as the rest of the town. The Challengelore did not make any mention of the Montoo district, so it was terra injudica for him. "Then it is to the Montoo that we will first go!” he declared.
"I'm not going there!" Chyna protested. "I'm going to where my brother is! And that is where I thought that you would go too!"
Chiapos had feared that Chyna would say that even though he half-expected it. He had mentally rehearsed this conversation many a time as they had neared Tanejul and still had not found Samarin. In each of his trials, he could only come up with the one reason why they had to hunt down the highwayman first. Now that the situation had finally come to fruition, he could find no other answer other than the one that he practiced, "I can't be any help to you and your brother and my friend without the Redeemer. I must find it first before I can be of assistance."
He imagined that Chyna, herself, had expectations of this difference arising and that she, too, had a mental plan on how this conversation would run. He believed that Chyna would protest and claim that he did not need the Redeemer and that Everan's and Straye's lives were in peril and that no time could be wasted on a scheme that had only the narrowest of chances of succeeding. She completely surprised him when she answered, "I think that that is a fine plan but I think that I should go to my brother and wait for you there."
"But your life will be in danger!" Chiapos complained. "If you stay with me, at least I will be there to protect you."
"That's very chivalrous of you, my love," Chyna responded, kissing him on the cheek. "But I'm capable of looking after myself. This is my home town, afterall."
A little stunned by Chyna calling him her love, Chiapos almost lost his line of reasoning. "But I need you with me because this is your home town. I won't be able to find my way around Tanejul without you."
Chyna giggled. "You have come hundreds of leagues thus far without losing your way. You found Tanejul without the help of others. Surely, you can guide yourself about within the confines of a small little town!"
"Small!" Chiapos cried. "I bet you that the Tester is nary as large as what I see before me!" He swept his arm over the horizon to indicate the breadth of the town.
"Once you are down there, you will be surprised how cramped and small the place really is!" Chyna said. "And I think that it is time for us to get down there."
They began working their way down the townside of the Teeth. The slope of the incline was not anywhere near as treacherous as the approach side. The foul and bitter weather that had made battle with them on the prairie-side of the Teeth had taken on a gentler facade here. The path was snow-covered but it was not very slippery and offered a decelerating influence on their downward progress. The trail was also much wider which gave Dedication ample room to maneuver. There were chutes of grass that poked out of the snow that the buffalo appeared to find delectable. It was apparent that Dedication had been along this path before since he often targeted his direction towards where he knew the best-tasting grasses would be.
All the while they were going down the mountainside, Tanejul grew bigger and bigger. About one third of the way down, Chiapos was no longer able to see the farside of town where the district of Montoo lay. Chyna talked continuously about how Chiapos would be able to navigate himself about the town and about where he would be able to find her and Straye and Everan. She made him recite these directions back to her several times until he knew them by rote. She stressed the importance that he try to pass himself off as a townsman whenever possible to avoid the suspicious wrath of the people he encountered. Part of his lessons was to learn how to speak in the vernacular and the accent of Tanejul. A Tanejulian tended to have a pause after the sound of the letter 't' and also had difficulty with the 'g' sound. She made him try some sentences using the Tanejulian accent and she laughed when he did so. "You will be able to fool some Tanejulians," she said. "The deaf ones! Try not to speak too much in the company of strangers!"
As for his clothes, she said that they were an open declaration to everybody that he was from out of town. Tanejulians wore headpieces as often as possible and they liked long, flowing, white robes in winter. When Chiapos said that he did not have such garments, she pulled a robe from her packet. "This one is mine but I think that it should fit you not too badly." They paused as Chiapos donned the apparel. It was snug at the shoulders and the hem only came down to his midcalf but all and all Chyna said that it would do the job. "I'm afraid that I don't have a male's headpiece so you are going to have to go without but don't worry I'm going to cut your hair Tanejul fashion and you should not attract too much attention."
Chiapos, who had long, black hair that fell to his shoulderblades, was not particularly keen on getting a Tanejulian haircut. Back in Rainwater, only men who had passed the rites of initiation into adulthood were allowed to have hair extend past their earlobes and the length of one's hair was a source of pride and community importance. To get a Tanejulian-cut would diminish his stature in Rainwater but the times dictated that he comply with Chyna's wishes. She pulled out a knife and started hacking and sheering his hair. Tanejulian men wore their hair shortcropped and baldness was something to revere. When Chyna was through, he was able to feel the wind tickle his scalp. He ran his fingers over his head and was surprised that there was almost nothing there to get them tangled in.
"Have you been shaving your face along your journey?" Chyna asked.
"No, why?" Chiapos puzzled.
"Is that all the beard that you can muster? The men of Tanejul like to have long, pointed beards. It is a sign of their virility and their wisdom."
"Well, then I guess your townspeople would brand me a fool!" Chiapos joked. "The men of Rainwater rarely wear whiskers."
"I suspect that it's because they can't grow proper beards," Chyna said. "Tanejulian men are as hairy as buffaloes. I think that you are going to have to pass yourself off as someone much younger than you are."
Chiapos shrugged his shoulders. "I'm in no hurry to grow up. I can pretend that I'm a few years younger."
They had reached the outskirts of town. What Chiapos did not notice from higher up was a stone wall that entirely circled the edges of Tanejul. It was made up of thousands of large thick blocks, each almost identical to the other and each stacked in staggered rows that allowed no breach in the wall's solidity. It stood about sixteen feet in height and appeared to be easily scalable compared to some of the other obstacles that he had overcome along his path to get here. He started to jump up and tried to manage to get himself a grip on the lips of the blocks.
"What are you doing?" Chyna cried.
"What does it look like I'm trying to do? I'm trying to get on the other side," Chiapos huffed.
"There's no need to do that. There's a gate about a half mile over there." She pointed to the north where the wall got visibly higher and formed an arch over a doorway. "It's much easier to go through the gate than go over the wall. Besides the top of the wall is guarded by poisonous snakes."
This froze Chiapos on the spot. "Poisonous snakes?" He had heard of serpents whose bites would kill a man in a matter of minutes. The poor victim would die in the most agonizing manner. Snakes were always icons of horror to him. "Wait a moment!" he suddenly laughed. "It is winter. Snakes sleep this season away."
Chyna laughed heartily. "I got you on that one, didn't I?"
Chiapos laughed too. "Remember, I don't have a beard, I am whimsical and foolhardy."
"And that is precisely what I am afraid of!" Chyna turned suddenly serious. "You are not savvy to the ways of the town. You will expose yourself time and time again and that can be very dangerous in these times. Remember, avoid people as much as you can and when you have no choice but to interact with people, let them do the talking and trust in your common sense as to whether they have good intentions towards you or not. I wish that you would stay with me instead. I could look out for you."
"We've been through this," Chiapos moaned. "I have to get my Redeemer back. You won't come with me so what choice do I have?"
"I will tell you what choice you have. You will take Dedication along with you."
"Dedication? What is Dedication going to do for me except slow me down. You can't be serious?"
Chyna took hold of him by the shoulder. "Dedication knows the town. He has walked these streets many a time and probably has a stable for himself somewhere here. Just follow him and people will leave you alone. They would see that your buffalo is domestic and not a stranger to the town. No foreign traveler would be in possession of an animal that would be comfortable in the streets of Tanejul. I have seen men from far away places enter town with their beasts of burden. No sooner than the countryside gives way to crowded streets, these animals would get agitated and difficult to handle and often bolt about like a madness suddenly possessed them. Dedication will not behave that way and thus would not draw attention to himself. You will be safe with him."
"But Dedication is not going to take me to Samarin," Chiapos pointed out.
"He might, you don't know. Most of the buffalo stables in Tanejul come from the other side of the Gibbins and there are many such barns in the Montoo. Follow Dedication and see if he doesn't take you to the river. I bet you that he does."
Chiapos was not very keen on putting his trust and his well being into the hoven limbs of a buffalo but he had to admit that Chyna's plan did make some sense. "Very well, I will stick with Dedication until he starts to take me away from the river, then I will part my ways with him."
There was a path that followed the wall. It was a dirt path that contained many puddles from the recently melted snows. Chiapos was amazed at the astonishing homogeneity in the composition of the wall. How did they get so many stones that were so similar to each other? The Challengelore spoke of the wall that surrounded Tanejul. It never made mention for what purpose the wall served but Chiapos guessed that it had something to do with the defense of the town.
Chyna must have sensed his curiosity about the wall for she said, "This wall has been here in some form or other as far back as when the town of Tanejul was first founded. There were periods in the distant past when Tanejul was at war with some of the neighbouring regions and this wall proved to be a boon in keeping out any enemies. But ever since the town became an important trading centre, there really was no need for the wall except as a means to shield the town from avalanches and rockfalls that periodically sweep down the mountainside. These walls have saved some of the households on the other side from obliteration. But I think that their biggest importance lays in the fact that they serve as a reminder to all Tanejulians about times long ago when people had laid down their lives in the defense of the town. These walls are a memorial to their heroic spirit and they foster a pride in the townspeople of today about being Tanejulians."
They reached the huge archway that dwarfed the rest of the wall. It was undaunting to Chiapos to see the height that the archway reached. How did people ever get up so high? It was beyond him and he believed that no Rainwaterman could come up with a satisfactory explanation. All along the arch that was comprised of shale and flagstone were delicate designs that bore no meaning to Chiapos. They were squiggles and lines and circles and dots seemingly put together in a haphazard fashion but at the same time giving a delightful impression to the eye. They bore no resemblance to anything he had seen in the physical world from which he was accustomed. He asked Chyna what kind of animals or spirits the carvings represented.
"What are you talking about?" Chyna was puzzled.
When Chiapos pointed out the carvings, it was apparent that Chyna was stifling a laugh. "You truly don't know what that is?"
"No," Chiapos said flatly, feeling that his plain-folks Rainwaterman naïveté was shining through once more. It seemed that his village was completely out of tune with everything that lay beyond its borders.
"That is writing!" she said. She had managed to contain her laughter and was truly trying to be helpful.
"You have never heard of it, have you?" When Chiapos shook his head, she tried to explain. "Writing is a means of conveying thought between two or more individuals. It is like the drawings and paintings that you have seen back at my grandfather's place except what is being drawn is an idea. Writing is the drawing of language."
Chiapos was trying to grasp what she was getting at but he could not cognitively get a grip of the concept that she was conveying. She tried to be clearer and even pointed out individual symbols that were associated with individual ideas but the whole explanation was moot. The Rainwaterman simply was not mentally prepared for such notions.
"This one here says ‘This is the Way home. Put trust in your primal thoughts and you will find welcome here!’" she said as she ran her fingers over what she said was writing.
"What?" the Rainwaterman was completely bewildered.
"That is what is says on the arch. It says, 'This is the Way home. Put trust in your primal thoughts and you will find welcome here!’"
"I never heard anything say that." Chiapos was more than puzzled.
"That is what those drawings are saying. Writing is another means of language. It doesn't have to be spoken." Chyna was starting to act like she was getting a little nonplussed with his ignorance.
"None of that is important!" he waved his arm at the archway and its symbols. "Let's step inside." Some complicated notions were not worth the effort to try and understand. And with that said, he entirely dismissed any need to know about writing.
Sights and Sounds of the City
They walked underneath the arch. It stretched about forty feet above them and it was nearly as wide. Chiapos was feeling a tad inferior for himself and all his village people. They had nothing at all to rival the grandeur that even this ancient gateway possessed. The underside of the arch was made up of hundreds if not thousands of small stones that Chyna had said were called bricks. These shone in a golden colour that showed that the Tanejulians were masters of metallurgy as well as other artisan skills that no Rainwaterman could lay claim to. "What keeps those bricks as you call them from falling down? It seems to me that they are defying nature," he asked about the dome over his head. He felt suddenly intrepid that by uttering these words the magic spell that held them up would be broken and the bricks would come tumbling down on his head.
Chyna smiled. "To tell you the truth, I don't know but there would be some people in the town that do know and I'm sure that if these were happier times they would tell you."
Chiapos never responded because Chyna's answer got him to thinking that when people start massing together in large groups such as in a town, not everybody is going to know all things about everything that goes on within the group. It wasn't like that in Rainwater. Anybody could do anything in Rainwater. There was not that much to know. Here, there seemed to be so much to know that it would be impossible for all that knowledge to rest in any single mind. The people would have to rely on each other more in Tanejul than they would in Rainwater where every adult was relatively self-sufficient.
As they passed from beneath the gateway, Chiapos suddenly felt that he had stepped into another world. Even his nose was shocked with what it drew in from the air. Here, was a smell that was foul yet still retained a human identification. It was a smell that was both repulsive and familiar. It was the stench of waste and refuse that all households produce. He had smelled it on a smaller scale back in Rainwater on warm, summer days. But here it was more present and it hung in the frigid air. It made him uncomfortable.
His ears were bombarded by a myriad of sounds coming from everywhere at once. It even emanated from the place where he was standing. These were the random noises that people make when they go about their day-to-day business. Coughs, sneezes, flatulence, footsteps, conversation, the movement of furniture, the cries of babies, domestic arguments, the barks of dogs and peddlers selling their wares, and a dozen other sounds fought each other to gain his attention. Rather than isolating himself on any one sound, he heard the whole cacophony at once. It all melded into something that was much louder than a murmur. It was more akin to the rumbles of distant thunder. It put him on edge.
His eyes had the most difficulty adjusting to his new surroundings. Not since the depths of Corvyx had he felt as claustrophobic as there was too much to see at once. There were buildings of all shapes and sizes made up of all forms of materials. These were all bunched up together as if they were engaged in a juvenile shoving match, as if they were a nestful of hatchlings fighting each other to get at the spoils within their mother's beak. Everywhere there were people milling about. These were people of all ages interacting with each another in every conceivable means of intercourse that can happen between individuals. From the tight closeness of a newborn to his mother, through the games of prankish youth, through adults standing on a corner laughing over some joke or others haggling over some proposed barter, through to very old people who seemed as lost as Chiapos himself was feeling, everything was happening at once. Nowhere along his travels through the wildlands between here and Rainwater had he seen so many animals in one place. There were dogs and ducks, buffalo and yaks, hogs and weasels. One man was even leading a bear on a leash. But there were animals there that he had never seen the likes of before, animals that he had not even heard described in the Challengelore. He was too overwhelmed even to try for a general description of these creatures. Everything was very overwhelming. He had never felt so small and insignificant and he had never felt so fascinated.
"It's rather quiet on the streets," Chyna commented to the awestruck Rainwaterman’s bewilderment. "I wonder what has happened to all the people. It seems like the town has been deserted."
Her observation astounded him. He couldn't even imagine what it would be like if the town wasn't 'deserted.'
"Something terrible has happened here," she said. "This is very ominous. You had better be very careful Chiapos. More careful than I had said that you should be earlier." She said these words in her normal volume.
This puzzled him. If she wanted him to be careful, shouldn't she be taking the same care in passing off her warning? He asked her this, trying as much to talk softly and using a Tanejulian accent. She laughed. "No one is listening to us. They are all wrapped up in their own little worlds and they haven't the inclination to care what we are saying to each other. By the way, don't bother with the accent. It gives you away. Just speak only if you have to. Your clothes are doing their job. They aren't drawing attention to you."
They were walking along a muddy street that was perhaps a couple of dozen feet wide. It stretched as far as his eye could see and all along its path, there were people. Once again, he wondered how Chyna could perceive the place as being deserted.
After about five minutes of walking along the avenue, they came upon a junction of another street that adjoined this one at a perpendicular angle. As Chiapos gazed down it, he saw another entirely different world of different buildings and people and animals. "That's the road that you take to get to the river. I have to follow this one," Chyna instructed.
Chiapos could feel the muscles in his face grow tight and could feel a flutter in his heart. "You're leaving me now?" he piped, unable to get control of his voice. Suddenly, he felt very afraid.
There were the faint crescent shapes of tears at the bottom of Chyna's large and lugubrious eyes. She could not speak at first. She could only nod.
He embraced her. She had been his strength just as much as the Redeemer had been. He felt forlorn and weak and there were strong urges in him to give up his pursuit of Samarin and to go with her to wherever she was going. Suddenly he was awash with these emotions and he started to say, "What if I just go along with..."
"Don't say it!" Chyna said sternly. "We need you to recover your Wood. I have seen you with your Redeemer. It is magic. We need that magic if we ever hope to conquer this malaise that has set upon us and the rest of this city."
Chiapos could not voice any disagreement. His heart wanted to stay with her but her reasoning was too strong and he could not overcome it. He had to be reunited with the Wood of Faerie. Something amazing happens whenever he is forged to the Redeemer. It was something that was far more than he could ever be on his own and sadly, it was something far more than he could ever be when he was teamed up with the woman from the prairie. She was right. He had to fetch the Redeemer. "I promise you that when I get my staff, I will be back with you in all haste." he vowed sincerely, kissing her on the brow and wiping away the tears from her eyes.
"You won't be with me unless you know where to find me," she smiled bravely and proceeded to give him directions that did not make any sense. She had made him memorize them before when they were coming down the mountain but in this moment of deep emotions, he had a hard time remembering them.
"I will be there for a full moon cycle if all goes to plan," she continued once she was satisfied that he had the directions memorized to the house that she would be in at Gibbins Quay. "If things are worse than what I think, you might not find me there but if you have the Redeemer in your possession, I have the notion that you will be able to find me no matter where I am."
"I swear to you that I will find you whether you be here or a thousand miles away. I will find you!" he promised solemnly.
"Then be off with you!" Chyna said, her eyes glinting with tears. "Remember the directions and good luck, my lover!" She kissed him on the lips and never did her lips taste so sweet to him. She pulled away from his arms and started to walk away. Dedication started to follow her and when she became aware of it, she turned and slapped the animal on its snout. Chiapos could see that Chyna's face was red and contorted by heavy crying. The sight ate at his heart and it was an image that he could never forget.
"You are coming with me," Chiapos said softly to the buffalo, gently tugging at his ear.
Dedication seemed perplexed and unable to comprehend what was going on. He groaned his morose emotion and stood uneasily by the Rainwaterman's side as the two of them watched Chyna disappear into the crowd. Chiapos wished her well in his mind and guiltily realized that he had not spoken his blessing to her face. It also occurred to him that she had never revealed the secret cache that she had carried with her ever since they left Stoon's ranch house all that time ago. She had said that it was something that was direly needed by her brother Everan and Straye. Chyna was going into a very difficult situation, a situation that he did not fully understand. Were Everan and Straye prisoners of the Tanejulians? Was Chyna walking into a trap? Would he ever see her alive again? It was paramount that he returns to her side as quickly as possible. Damn that Samarin! If he had not stolen the Redeemer, Chyna would not have had to go into this dark abyss alone. Chiapos wanted to ring the thief's neck and he took pleasure in visualizing the image of the brigand being throttled.
This was wrongful thinking, he realized. He could not allow such dark thoughts into his mind if he wished to wield the Redeemer. It would not permit him to be vengeful or malicious. Its magic only came into being when his heart was pure.
"Come, Dedication," he said. "Lead me into the bowels of this netherworld." He tapped the beast on the flank and the buffalo seemed to comprehend his command, as it swayed its tail and veered itself down the adjoining street that stretched out into an unknown realm for the young Rainwaterman.