|OUR HEROES:||Tira Wolfsdaughter||Hank Woodman||Haiku Odsdottir||Gustav Mahler||Persia|
The Columbia enters the port city of Orodon. It is a strange affair all built on docks and piers in an otherwise brackish swamp. The whole city seems constructed of wood and lit by oil lamps that reflect in the greenish water. They meet with no opposition. In fact, the locals seem excited to have visitors from as far away as Tallon. While the River Master seeks to open trading negotiations, Tira is approached by a local adept. The adept refers to her as Cousin. She soon discovers that all adepts in Orodon are referred to as Family and Brother or Sister. Adepts from other cities are all Cousin. Since the Columbia is obviously an important ship, containing a Master and a Novice, the crew is invited to feast at the Archon's Table. Most accept the invitation with a few notable exceptions. Gustav has made friends with a bear, a huge descendant of polar bear stock named Hûn. Hûn invites the giant to a local tavern for a rowdy evening. Persia declines all invitations, still smarting from her embarrassing escapades in Karkul.
At the Archon's dinner, Tira learns several more things about the Orodonians. They eat gator meat, and although it is not from Beast gators, they do not appear to mind overmuch if it were. Beasts are definitely second-class citizens, if that here. They are closer to a servant class. Hank gets into a long discussion with the local city planner about techniques of wood preservation. The River Master inquires about James Bay, their next destination and they are told by Orodon's general that it is a deeply weed-choked shoreline. She further states that there are tales there of people who walk on water.
Gustav is having a good time on his own. He has decided to try and invite as many kinds of beasts as possible to the pub. Preston the Squirrel and Tip the Otter accompany him, but Persia still remains on the paddle wheeler. At one point when all are feeling merry, Hûn challenges Gustav to a wrestling contest. The giant lets the bear win.
Back at the Archon's palace, Tira has expressed a curiousity about Orodon's Standing Stones. She is informed that they are called the Sunken Ones. The Archon, a jovial man named Mandar, agrees to an after dinner jaunt to visit them. They stand in a pool of water surrounded by a wooden deck. He shows them how ingenious piers can be extended to allow access. Tira manages to touch them while they all are talking and gets a similar sensation to those she felt from Tallon's Dancers of Dawn. The feelings are not nearly as overwhelming, but she has only a few minutes to investigate.
On the way back to the Columbia, they meet up with Gustav's party. The latter crew quickly sobers up in the presence of the River Master. It is on the journey to the boat that something occurs to Tira. She had been bothered by the expressions on some of the faces of the people she had seen. While watching a beast Rat assist a Squirrel lamplighter she notices the vacuous look on the rat's face. It seems that the Orodon's have solved the problem of what to do with criminals and prisoners of war. The masters of the city reduce their psyches to a placid agreeableness. These servants are thralls, slaves to the community. It is disturbing to the Tallonites, but the Orodonians regard it as a humane solution.
The next two days sees the Columbia to James Bay, and it is every bit as weed choked as they were warned. The Columbia can approach no nearer than five miles from the shore without her paddle wheels becoming fouled. The River Master has provisions placed aboard the launch and tell the party that they will have to row the remaining distance. The Columbia will do without it's launch during the estimated twenty days the trip will take.
The expedition consists of Tira, Haiku, Gustav, Hank, Persia, Char and Hugin the Crow. Nyra acts as their guide, though she has not been to this specific location before. Hugin flies scout for the party, finding a path through the everglades. After several hours of rowing, the party is horrified to see Hugin felled by an arrow. In their haste to rescue him should he still survive, they are themselves attacked. Shooting Hugin was a ruse to lure them into an ambush. They are quickly assailed by poison darts. The dart shooters are indeed walking on the surface of the water as they were warned. They are small, slightly built, filthy, hairy people with large thick lily pads strapped to their feet. Poles with similar floats on the end double as balance devices and blowguns. After some initial combat, they discover that the launch's sail acts as an effective shield against the darts. Nyra leaps into the water to do combat at one point and succeeds in killing one of the attackers. The party discovers an antidote to the dart poison on the fallen weedwalker. They administer it to those who were hit and proceed with the sail as protection. When they find Hugin they discover he is wounded but can be saved. Hank is chosen to retrieve him, being impervious to the darts.
Once ashore they seem to have left the weedwalkers behind. They hide the boat as best they can and set forth on foot. Nyra cautions them about the many dangers of the Wilds. She tells them that soon they will reach the road she has twice followed to Tallon. And sure enough, they quickly encounter the remains of a raised roadway. The ancients had made a strange road of wooden planks and metal rails that still runs for miles through the Wilds. This is their path. It is a clear guide to their destination, but easily found by predators and unfriendly savages. They travel cautiously.
The first odd thing they encounter is a huge game trail, many yards wide. Nyra informs them that this is the trail of a Bronto, an old trail that she has followed in her trips to Merikia. A Bronto, she explains is a huge worm-like beast, hundreds of feet long. She says they are not aggressive, but to beware their parasites.
After passing a herd of grazing caribou, Persia spots an odd set of shapes in the sky. They look like spiky floating balloons. Nyra warns that they are Hindenbergs, odd gas-filled plant spores that burst into flame on contact. Tira had seen these in her youth in Nunavut, where in the damp jungles they are merely a nuisance. Now they must beware, for these odd seeds could start a wild fire.
Of course, as the day wears on, it becomes evident that this is exactly what has happened. The party is confident that there is enough distance from them and the black smoke on the horizon, but they are soon endangered by the previously spotted herd of caribou. Spooked by the fire, they have stampeded. Taking shelter as best they can, they weather the stampede with no serious injuries.
It is on the eigth night that their worst encounter occurs. They have begun to bed down for the evening when Tira is alerted to an odd charge in the air. Long before the tell-tale hum and electrical crackle appear, she has alerted the party to the imminent arrival of a reaver. She has encountered these strange black renders f the spirit in the past and is confident that if the party stays together, she can send it away. She has done so in the past. Indeed it was the one thing that saved her from being eaten by the gators of Nunavut.
Gustav and Nyra, bith of whom have been victimized by reavers in the past are particularly frightened, but the Reaver at first takes little notice of them, instead mutating a few trees near them. Eventually it does notice them, and despite Tira's best efforts, it attempt to engulf Gustav. Hank places himself in the way, gambling that his animated body cannot be riven. This leaves no room for Tira to interpose herself and the reaver surrounds the giant and the manikin, just as she grabs them, pulling with all her might. Miraculously, she pulls them free unharmed. In the meantime, Nyra and some others have broken ranks, believing the reaver uncontrollable.
As soon as this happens, the reaver arrows off in their direction, but it inexplicably passes them by. That's when they see the reaver's true target. The noise and activity have awakened a nearby sleeping Bronto, the gargantuan creature Nyra had warned them of. The reaver enters the bronto's body, it's strangely immaterial subsance disappearing into the mountain of flesh. The immediate distress of the mammoth creature dislodges it parasites, humanoid insects called bloodsuckers. They normally feed off of the huge herbivores, but when one is in mortal danger they will flee, taking blood from the first victim they find. This is unfortunately the party.
They run, not even bothering to break camp. Only hank stays behind, being bloodless, to pack an secure their belongings. The rest flee until their retreat is blocked by a canyon, over which stretch the rusted remains of a steel trestle. As they begin across, the bloodsuckers are upon them. Persia makes it to the far side with ease, her feline grace lending her speed. Tira is next, but sees that on the far side, the cat companion has new troubles. Some nasty many-headed reptilian chimera makes the canyon its home, preying on those who would use the bridge.
While the rest hold the bridge against the Bloodsuckers, one leaps past and goes for Tira. She inches backward carefully caught between parasite and chimera. Persia creeps down the edge of the canyon, enticing the creature to follow her. She uses her mother's sword on the chimera, managing to wound it enough to dislodge it from the side of the crevasse. It falls to a messy death. This gives Tira enough maneuvering room to allow Haiku to dispath the last bloodsucker.
The party gathers their remaining belongings and leaves the area as quickly as possible. They spend the night resting and tending wounds. As far as can be told, Neither Hank nor Gustav appear to be harmed by their encounter with the Reaver.
Two days later, they reach the nearest camp of the Huron tribe of the Kabekki, at the edge of Lake Abitibi. Here the Huron do some small farming and cure the hides of caribou, turning them into clothing, armor, and other products for use in their campaign against the Ottawa, a rival tribe. Abitibi at one time in the past had a marina, and all of the building materials seem to have been scavenged from things one would expect to find in such a location. They are greeted by the chief, a older man named Dave, and his wife Sarah. They accept the hospitality of the tribe and are invited to spend the night and share dinner. Hank and Gustav find work to do in payment for the kindness, while Tira asks to be taken to the scout, Zachris.
Dave tells them that they were recently attacked by a reaver three days ago, and that Zachris was one of the victims. Most of the riven were driven off or killed, but they saved Zachris, hoping to trade him to Tallon. The scout was oddly affected by the reaver. He looks unchanged, but all of his actions have been slowed, as if his anima was reduced to nearly nothing. He cannot be seen to move, though he changes position. It is like trying to watch the minute hand of a clock. By the description Chief Dave gives of the reaver, it sounds similar to the one that attacked the party. Hank rigs up a harness to transport Zachris. Tira trades for the prisoner, giving Dave seeds used by the farmers of Tallon. If any will grow in the Kabekki soil, it would be a new food crop for them.
That evening, they eat heartily if simply on caribou and vegetables and watch the dances of the Kabekki. In the morning, they leave. Nyra decides to remain behind with her tribe. They bid each other farewell.
For two days, they walk the old rails. Hank and Gustav keep careful watch on Zachris, trying to give him food or water and listening for speech. The best they can make out is an odd clicking noise from the riven man, but they do notice him take several sips of water through the course of the night.
On the second day, Persia and Tira notice that they have been spotted by a party of Rat scouts. There are half a dozen of them riding hard to intercept them on small sturdy ponies. They have little time to prepare, but they stash Zachris in some bushes and take what meager cover they can. The rats stop short and take positions of cover, while preparing their bows. The leader of the rats, a nasty named Captain Redeye of the company of Black Fang, gruffly demands their surrender and is answered by arrows and sling stones. Battle is enjoined until Tira manages to start an actual parley. She is hiding in a tree and uses her knowledge of rats to imitate the speech of one of Norway's followers, trying to intimidate him into believing that a company of Norway's troupes are nearby. Redeye is suspicious, but seems content to parley a while.
During the discussion, They learn many things. Firstly, that Norway is no longer occupying Shakka-Go. Second, they learn that the rats were displaced by armies from the previously unknown adept city of Saginaw. Mention is made of their thunder-beasts, whatever they might be. Eventually, the party realizes that Redeye is stalling while the large army of rats behind him slowly catches up. They can see a cloud of dust on the horizon. Things begin to heat up and suddenly, Redeye perceives Tira in her hiding place. He rushes at her and as he gets closer recognizes her from her days of imprisonment by Black Fang. He claims that there is a bounty on her and that there will be a share for all who help him capture her. At this moment Gustav, who has been using the time to creep up behind a rusted old overturned flatbed rail car, flexes his muscles and throws his mighty frame against it, trying to crush the rats who are using it for cover. He breaks a hole in the corroded car, but fails to overturn it. Nevertheless, the rats behind are briefly cowed believing it to be one of the mysterious thunder beasts of the Saginaw. He and Persia then steal the ponies the rats had dismounted.
All combatants break cover and engage in melee. After a few moments, all the rats have been slain, and several of the party are wounded. With very little time to spare, they gather the ponies, all the rats and their weapons, and working together, topple to old rail car down the side of the road bed and bury the rats as best they can. Gustav tells the party to take the ponies and go back the way they came. They can break off the road in an hour or so and make for a distant hill. He will stay behind since he is far too large for the ponies and would slow them down. As they gallop off, he runs away from the road and finds a place where he can watch from hiding. No sooner has he thrown himself into a thicket of bushes, than the rat band comes over the last rise. They are not an army. They have the appearance of an entire displaced community, males females and children. There are slaves, wagons, and pack animals as well as armed warriors. Gutsav watches with held breath as the several hundred strong band passes the area of their fight. He is about to relax when he notices that some rats have discovered the buried bodies. A cry goes up and trackers are called.
In his thicket, Gustav sweats as he sees the trackers pick up his marks and begin to walk directly toward his hiding place. Worse, they stop directly in front of his cover and dismount. They appear to think that some rocks upslope from him would make a good ambush spot. He can stand the suspense no longer. He bursts from his concealment and lays into them with his massive club. The surprised rats are frightened so badly that two of them are dead before they can even get their bearings.
The fight is short and although Gustav is further wounded, he emerges victorious. He retreats to the rocks that they had been observing and calls out to the rats on the road, who are watching all of this. He tells them that they had better leave him alone, and that it would be best for them to keep on their way. Unfortunately, the rat warriors have been issued this ultimatum in front of their females and offspring. They cannot back down and keep face. Another armed band approaches, this time carrying bows and other equipment. The main rat band continues on while these warriors settle down to taking care of this trange giant they believe is responsible for the deaths of not only the trackers, but of the scouting party lying crushed under the flatcar. Arrows prove of little use. Smoking him out is not very effective either. Eventually they surround the makeshift stronghold and begin pelting it with rocks. Gustav returns some of them, but fears to put his head up lest an archer be waiting. Finally, he notices that the barrage has lessened. He listens carefully and realizes that they are planning to rush him from several sides while one keeps chucking stones to cover their approach.
He bounds out and engages the rats in savage melee, roaring like a demon. He swings his mighty club in deadly skull shattering arcs, but the rats are many and armed with cruel-looking scimitars.
Meanwhile, the rest of the party has started toward their rendezvous point. Taking a covered position on a hilltop, they can see that the rat band stops for some time at the site of their confrontation with Captain Redeye. They realize Gustav may be in trouble and they try to work their way back through the hills to come to him from the other side. It takes them hours, for the land is rough with no trails. Halfway through their trek, Tira feels a sharp pain, though no source is visible. She has her suspicions but merely tells the party to hurry as fast as they can.
They arrive in late afternoon. All is quiet. The rat band has long passed. After a brief investigation, they discover Gustav. He is lying on the ground near the bodies of seven dead rats. He has been slain. Mighty as he was, he could not overcome them all, not when he was already wounded. They are shocked and stunned. Gustav had always been the strong pillar of their group. The dependable friendly giant. Bitter tears are shed while a grave is prepared. Haiku says a requiem used by the lawspeakers of Yzlon when no Gothi priest is available. She says that the gatherers of the slain will take him to a great hall where he will feast in plenty till the end of the world. The words are sincere though broken, but bring little comfort. The company travels on until nightfall and pitches camp in silence.