We have left this day for the Archon's expedition to seek the lands beyond the Great Kraken Lakes. The way will be hard, but it is a challenge that none of adventurous spirit could reject. My greatest misgiving will be that I may be gone for two years and thus will miss seeing my son enrolled in the Academy. He will be accepted, of course, and Elias's money will see to his tuition.
Our course is dictated by copies we have made of several fragments of ancient map. We will take the southerly course around the great ruins of Shakka-Go and thence circle in a counterclockwise direction. When we reach the outlet of the lakes, we will decide whether to continue through the Kabekki Territories or along the coast.
Our party has been hand picked and trained. Besides myself, Zachris will be co-head. He has been in Ontar before, while I have travelled mainly West and South. Beyond the party of porters and pack animals, we have seven soldiers hand-picked by General Hannon. Their captain is Kell, a warrior and veteran of the Karkulite war. He seems grim, but is a good tactician. One of the soldiers is a remarkably talented artist.
Of high station, but little practical experience is Burke, a student-psychist of the Hall of Art. I would have preferred an adept of greater seasoning, but the Archon assured us that he is the lad for the job. He is far too clean.
My second misgiving comes from a last-minute appointment. Ningan the Scholar has ordered an addition to our party. Since the expedition is funded by the Archony, I cannot object. The party till now has included no women and no beasts. The Archon has asked that we include a feline female named Mranda. I do not understand the inclusion and have never worked with her before. I believe she is a confidant of Master Ningan. She is taciturn, which does not bode well for morale.
Nevertheless, I will give her, like all members of the expedition, the right to include entries in the log, provided they are clearly attributed.
We have passed Karkul. Upon the advice of Captain Kell, we have avoided the City of Stone. I have no love for the Karkulites since losing Ellina during the Night of Small Fires. We had some trouble explaining ourselves to the Karkulite sentries, but a small amount of gold paved our way through their farmlands. Burke says that we were observed through our entire passage, though I myself spotted watchers only twice.
I have consulted with Hadrian and believe our best course is not to make straight for the Lakes, but to continue due east, skirting Great Nunavut and the lands of Mundaba. Ontar is infested with rats, and the vermin are fighting some civil war amongst themselves, if such a term can be used to describe their chaotic doings. We should have been ambushed twice were it not for the keen eyes and ears of Miss Kitty. She in nearly Sighted in her awareness to enemies. Burke appears to be resentful of her abilities in this regard, but as he was asleep during both occurrences, he should have more charity. Mranda does not seem to care, though she avoids Burke. She has spoken scarce a dozen words since our departure. She does not laugh even at the course jesting of the soldiers.
I have never been south of Ontar, and the land is rough. We have crossed the remains of several small roads. This morning we fought a Chimera. We were hard pressed, for it was a great armored beetle-like thing. One of the soldiers was wounded but should be able to walk in a few days. We have camped in a high circle of stones.
I recant my reservations about the feline, Mranda. At midnight of the third evening since stone camp, we were attacked by a party of Mundabans. I have never seen people of their like. Had I seen them individually, I would have assumed them to be riven. Scarce three feet in height, they dress in leaves and bark. Though small, they are very strong and wield sharp axes and spears. They are quite frightening to behold, wearing dreadful war masks which cover their bodies. At first, I thought they were some breed of chimera. Two of our party were slain in the initial attack. Soldiers France and Macelroy were killed, the first by a thrown hatchet, the second by a spear in the throat. The Mundabans were driven off by fierce fighting. Kell fought like a machine, ordering his men into formation after the immediate surprise. They are terribly efficient. Mranda surprised me the most. I thought she had fled, for she was nowhere to be seen. It was not until dead Mundabans began falling from the branches above us that I realized she had taken to the trees. She is lithe and graceful and a fighter of first magnitude. Once she beheaded a dwarf just as the little berserker was about to skewer me.
After the battle, we examined the slain. The Mundabans are different proportioned than pure humans, with oddly elfin features. Some are beautiful, while others a merely grotesque. Zachris theorizes that they are descendents of many riven, arriving at some melange of features greatly departed from the norm. They used no metal, merely wood and stone.
The next evening, after dinner, several of the soldiers fell to discussing the battle. I thought that this would engage Mranda, but she ignored them. This caused some of the men to bristle and again to make crude comments. Nothing. Wherever Mranda's fire is, it comes out only in battle. Nevertheless, I have asked Kell to instruct his men to stop using the diminutive term, Miss Kitty.
After several more weeks, we have reached the ruins the ancients called Minapolis. Although I have traveled far and wide, I have never seen ruins so great. They are as far beyond the ruins of ancient Karkul as the Archon's Palace is to the rudest farmer's hut. They go on for miles. Many streets are still covered with the rough black stone the ancients called Asfalt. Broken concrete and rusted steel stick out of mounds overgrown with scrubby trees. We have left the mighty stands of Nunavut far behind.
Burke was uncomfortable in Minapolis and afflicted with apprehension throughout our passage. Zachris and I would have liked to explore more, looking for books or other records, but the adept kept insisting that the city had some spiritual oppressiveness of which only he was aware.
Two of our porters were eaten by carnivorous spiders.
The month's end has brought us to Shakka Go. We examined the city very little, since our adept once again moaned of some nameless dread. I am beginning to regret his presence. Captain Kell agrees, for his men are attuned to Burke's moods and see his fear as a bad omen.
Once more we have done battle. We have been forced to flee from Shakka-Go. We had seen signs of rat activity, but had no idea theyswarmed the city in such great numbers. It may seem odd to our own modern people, but the cities of the ancients are colossal. All of Tallon and her farmlands could not fill one quarter of Shakka-Go. An army could be swallowed in the mounds and ruins if they are disciplined. Apparently, these rats are well led. I shall allow Captain Kell to explain:
The rats are exhibiting military precision unlike any I have encountered. These are not the mercenaries of Black Fang's company, but a modern army under the command of a large white vermin by the name of Norway. Norway is attempting to hold a great tower that stands in ruined splendor at the edge of the Great Kraken Lakes. It is in better condition than most buildings, though the top is missing. Prometheus alone knows how tall it was before the Rex Infernae.
We have decided to quit the city, though it is a marvel. Our artist has discovered a glass-covered stylized map of the city's ancient boundaries and we delayed long enough for him to copy it. It is unhelpful for navigation, but may be of novelty interest.
We have been attacked by a reaver. At the supper hour, Burke stood suddenly and screamed. He began to run and would have vanished into the darkness had not Mranda restrained him. While he jibbered, a bolt of lightning erupted from the ground. Fingers of power traveled along every surface and my hair stood on end. Mranda looked like a porcupine.
Suddenly it appeared. I have seen reavers before, but only once so close and that time it took my best friend. Only myself and Kell seemed to be entirely rational. The soldiers were breaking apart and Mranda was striking the adept. I have never seen such behavior, though to her credit, Burke warranted little respect. I have seen adepts repel reavers in the Shattered Isles, and we counted upon Burke to do the same here.
The reaver showed no hesitation but seized one of the porters. His screams could be dimly heard from inside the monstrous sphere. I could see him writhing through the smoky surface. Poor chap.
Seeing that our only hope lay in flight, we split into three groups and separated. We were to rendezvous at midnight at an ancient manufacturing plant we had seen ealier. It was difficult to communicate in the darkness and panic, but we managed.
Myself, Zachris and Mranda formed one group. Two of the soldiers took the remaining porter, While Kell and the last soldier grabbed Burke and carried him from the site.
I am writing this by firelight, since Burke and Kell have not returned. The porter and the other soldiers caught up with us soon after. I can only assume that our remaining comrades are lost to us. We shall wait five days.
With no further word of the others, we have reluctantly quit the area. We scouted for nearly a week, but have discovered nothing. May their spirits find Cosmos, even in this wretched land.
Did the Ancients produce nothing but trash? For four days we have discovered thousands of pieces of bottles, cans, glass, metal and plastik. Some were once brightly colored, others appear to have been tools. Three times we have come across ancient roadways, thick with the rusted remains of their metal carriages. Countless roads have we crossed, including the curious rail roads. We have discovered the answer for that, though. In Shakka-Go we saw a huge field of giant metal contrivances. Great vehicles that ran along the rails when they were straight and true. What use they could be I know not, since they obviously could not turn aside to avoid hazards. Hadrian believes they were used to carry trade goods, but I feel this to be wrong. How could you stop trade in time of war? An enemy could use the rails against you.
I don't now if I should rite here, though Hadrian has said I should if nede be. Hadrian and Zachris are sleeping off the effects of a great quantity of fermented fruit.
Yesterday we were attack'd by what we first assumed were Kymeras. They are like big lizzards or birds. We first thought they were riven animals, because neither of them had ever seen anything of the like. But when they appeared in packs, we relized that they were of a kind, and not uneke. The thyngs were fast and deadly, with grate claws and tethe. I do not thynk they wer inteligent, but they were cunning, which can be wors. I now what a hunt'r looks like. These creetur's were hunters, pure and simpl. What is most disterbing is the fact that each wor an iron color.
There were 3 of them. They are ded. Some of us are alyve, but just barly. Zac and Hadrian wer in grate payn. I found the fermented fruit to give them the relief of slepe. The soldiers and porters were carry'd off.
Oh Ningan, why did you send me to this crewel and evil wilderness? Bett'r I should hav died in Tallon. But you always now best, don't you? Do you now what happened the Nyt of Small Fyres? I suspect you do, though I have never told any. Who would believe me? I am sory I have return'd your friendship with cold distans, but the Archony mixes ill with the strete. Plese watch over my daughter. Mayk sure she has a bett'r lot than I did under the Red Witch.
We have spent the last month in a place of relative safety. We are in a small town of the ancients, once a shipping area. We have a small but intact and defensible house on a hill overlooking the Great Kraken Lake called Mishgan. It is easy to see how the lakes got their name. They are alive with the most horrific of monsters. From the porch of this villa, I can count five even now. Sometimes there are titanic battles with red water frothing about the combatants. How the lakes support so many huge carnivores would provide an interesting study for a scholar.
My thanks go to Mranda, who has tended our wounds with unceasing devotion. With the time required by our convalescence she has finally opened up and spoken. I will not tell her tale here, for there are names in it that may not be safely recorded. In any case, I have grown to greatly admire her. She is strong and resilient, possessed of a kind and generous nature. A pity she was born a cat; she could have been great in human morphia. She has taught me much of Merikian life I had never considered. During the reign of Kanukka, we were never told the full extent of her people's treatment. Or perhaps we knew but didn't care.
We have left the town whose name we never learned. This is an odd area, a peninsula between two of the lakes. We have decided to continue along the coast.
Success, a bird (a Talker), has given us some help. She was nervous around Mranda. Apparently cats in the wild have few restrictions on their diet. In exchange for some food and medicine, the falcon, whose name is Drakka, has given us the lay of the land. She says that there is a city of humans due east of this position, perhaps several days march. We have decided to forgo our course and m ake directly for the city. We shall approach cautiously, in case they should be less friendly than the Merikian League.
We have discovered the fate of Captain Kell. There is a road leading from the presumed city. The road is marginally maintained, and farmlands can be seen in the distance. At either side of the road, there is a line of posts, like a picket. There are the remains of human beings... nailed to the posts. Though he has obviously been dead for some time, we can clearly discern the uniform of our Tallonite captain, and the soldier named Kalvin. We could not discover signs of Burke.
Neither of the bodies were in good enough shape to see if they had been riven. We discussed our options from cover and decided that whoever these people are, they must be unfriendly to say the least. We felt it unwise to approach the city in our condition. Mranda's hearing is very sharp and she can move very silently when need be. She scouted and told us that the natives speak Anglish, not to different from Merikian Anglish. With her help, I have disguised myself as a peasant and plan to infiltrate one of their remote farms.
Hadrian has not returned, though a week has passed. From the distance we are camped, we cannot clearly make out individuals. Mranda believes Hadrian to still be working the fields. The day he entered the farming collective, soldiers rode up on an immense draft animal. Like a whale and a snake, yet possessing mighty legs, it carried them upon an armored fortress mounted to its broad back. Such a beast would be terrifying in war. The soldiers stayed there for several days while work crews came and went, doing repairs on the defenses of the farm. They left this morning, but it is now night and Hadrian has not returned. Damn writing by firelight. If Burke was fit for nothing, at least he could make clear light.
I have returned. I have spent a week among the farm-slaves of the Saginaw. They are the crudest and most uneducated peasant I have ever encountered. Savages of the Shattered Isles are more literate and cultured. When I say they are slaves, I mean of the most debased sort. All spirit and fire has been removed from them. Perhaps they are thralls, like the ones I have seen do labor in Orodon. But I believe they are just crushed. They barely questioned my presence. When a band of warriors arrived to supervise a work crew, I thought surely one of them would finger me as a stranger. But they say or do nothing without instruction, and they were not told to look for spies. Nevertheless, I was fearful of sudden discovery the whole time and am glad to be out in one piece.
They could tell me little of their capitol, yet I believe I have learned enough to make us avoid the place without an army. The city is named Saginaw, and lies near a bay of the same name. I do not believe they have a navy, though the farmers may just have been ignorant. The Saginaw have Standing Stones, so they are not barbarians. They must know something of the Word and the Way. The farmers claim that they are ruled by the Unseen Ones, the Lords of the City. These must be the adepts.
Apparently the adepts are few in number, though extremely powerful. The workers said that they created the Thunder-Beasts, their name for the huge lizards that serve the Saginaw as animals of burden. The Lords of Saginaw are apparently very protective of their power. Children with the sight are identified at an early age and taken away from their families. Their relatives are told that they go to live in the Forbidden City, where they are feasted and educated, happily treated. I thought this a fairy tale, but said nothing. I do not think the adept children of Saginaw have a happy fate.
I think this corrupt society is explainable in one way. The soldiers talk pretty freely among the rustics, when they are not beating them or bedding their women. (By this, I refer to the defense laborers. The farming people are fairly repulsive to look upon). I overheard enough from them to learn that the Saginaw have an artifact from the age of the Demon-Kings. This is the source of their power. I assume it has something to do with the Thunder Beasts. Doubtless the exposure to the artifact has warped their spirits and turned them from the Word and the Way. Also from their speech, I came to the conclusion that they have ventured only very small distances into the Wilds. One of them was bragging to the others of how he had traveled a full day from this spot beyond the environs of Saginaw. The grisly remains on the pickets were apparently to dissuade any strangers from entering their lands.
Before I close for the evening (for I am very tired), I feel the need to say something briefly about the soldiers. Some of their clothing and equipment was odd. They all wore spectacles, but they seemed to have little to do to help their eyesight. By this I mean they removed them at night. They wore them only during the bright parts of the day. They seemed to be opaque, for they looked like mirrors. The reflective coverings over their eyes gave them a dehumanized appearance.
Saginaw is a place to avoid. I have decided that we shall leave in the morning.
The land of the Saginaw is far behind us. We are continuing north. The weather has become uncomfortably cold at night. Our oil cloths are not enough cover, so we have spent a few days hunting some caribou for their skins. Once properly tanned, they will provide protection. The day continues seasonably, though.
Toledo, Fremont, Elyria, Cleveland. These are some of the names of ruins we have encountered. Few of them have anything standing and most are half drowned, as if they are sliding into the lakes. Twice we have had to alter course to avoid dangerous creatures. We are becoming aware that this is a pattern. How do barbarians survive out here? Thank Prometheus for the cities. Though I have great joy in the freedom of the wilds, there is tremendous comfort that somewhere, people are safe, protected by laws and walls.
Waterfall. Cascade. Cataract. Deluge. No words can describe the sheer scale, the wonder of this marvel that is Niagara. As if the world had been cracked in two and the halves ill-joined so that all the waters of the world spilled from one to the other. The roar as one approaches is deafening. I wish I could see it in spring. There is a pier of rock at the top that leans out over the heights. I believe there are buildings on it. Great birds or bats circle it as well, though not at the height of day. If there are people up there, perhaps they are carried there by these winged things. I wish I could tell more, but my telescope was broken in the attack of the small Thunder-beasts.
At night, the bats (for that is what I believe them to be) fly across the lake. They return with nothing, so they are not gathering food. This mystery needs solving. The remains of a bridge cross the river below the falls. The center of the span is broken, but the water here is narrow and less turbulent. We shall build a boat and cross.
The boat crossing turned out to be easier than expected. We were unmolested by Krakens, and indeed saw none. Perhaps the fiercest of them are above the falls. Nothing of size could survive that terrible drop.
We traveled around the lake for several days. Eventually we discovered the fortress. A great dome of curious construction at the water's edge. Farmlands surrounded it. The center of the dome seemed missing, as if open to the sky. We have met and talked to the farming folk around the city. The man who was most helpful was a wizened old fellow. He seemed curious as to where we came from. He ended many of his sentences with an interrogative sound, as if he were asking a question instead of making a statement. He said that the city was called Tronto. He called the fortress the Dome. Tomorrow we shall meet these Trontans.
Thank Prometheus we had the foresight to hide the journal outside the city. Tronto has been our prison for over two and a half years. At first, we were greeted warmly, even feasted by their Archon, whom they call King Gregory. We were asked of our exploits and recounted our travels. We eventually asked if there were standing stones in Tronto. At this, Gregory became suspicious, though we did not discern it at the time.
We asked if we could see them, though without Burke, we had no hope of reading them. Permission was reluctantly given, and we were escorted to them. The fortress of Tronto is amazing. Partially a relic of the Ancients, partially the restoration of the Trontan Masters, it is a huge dome, large enough to cover a great portion of the Serenity Gardens. There are buildings within the dome and terraced farming about its edges. I believe the dome to have at one time been an arena for watching combat sports of the ancients. They could wage whole battles, even scaled down wars within its confines. Beside the dome is a great tower, like a needle piercing the sky.
In the center of the dome, were the stones. They are larger than the Dancers, but not so graceful, being rather short and blocky. Zachris expressed surprise that the Prometheans would leave the stones in the middle of such a relic. We were told after a moment's hesitation that the Trontan's had moved them there. They had drawn them from their spot near the base of the falls forty years ago and re-erected them in this stronghold. Tronto is not very big, less than Orodon in size, yet they labored to move them and succeeded. Despite our distaste at second-guessing the will of the Prometheans, we mentioned that Merikians build their cities around their stones, not the other way around. This was a mistake.
We were immediately questioned about what we meant. Every explanation seemed to only serve to make them more and more hostile. Eventually we discovered that they believed their stones to be the only stones. The Book tells us that the Stones contain the Truth of the World. The Trontans figured they had the only record of the Prometheans, and hence the lock on the Truth. They believed themselves to be the center of creation and their whole power structure was based on it. We had nothing to prove our story, Burke was long gone.
We were interrogated, none t0o gently and then clapped into great chains. Harness were placed around our bodies and we were attached to great chains. We soon discovered what the chains were for. Three days later, the Kyrops attacked. Kyrop is their name for the Bat-people of Niagara. The Kyrops had revered the Stones and were angered by their theft. For years they flew over the lands of Tronto dropping stones from well above arrow height. And this is saying something, for the archers fire from atop the great needle.
Now either the Kyrops cannot carry heavy stones or the Dome of Tronto is morphically enhanced, but the stones cannot penetrate the roof. The adepts of Tronto are hardly masters. They might be able to strengthen the dome, but they could not animate it, or they would not have needed the chain slaves. They could not read psyches or they would have known our story to be true.
For years we toiled. At dawn we would open the dome. We would be unhooked and made to work in the inner terrace farms. At dusk, we would be returned to the chain and close the dome once again. Yes, the Dome of Tronto is so engineered that it can be opened to the sky and closed again upon the command of the King. All it takes is a lot of labor.
Finally, after years had passed, a chance to escape came. King Gregory was old and had many enemies. He was not so well guarded as our own Archons, and he fell to an assassin's poison. The news was announced at dusk as we were being led back to the chains. Apparently, this was some kind of signal. Instantly all was chaos as rival factions sought to assert dominance. I do not know the issues or the names of the players, slaves were told little.
In the confusion, several parties of slaves attempted to break free. We overcame our guards and ran for the gates. Many were shot and killed, but some escaped. Beast trackers were sent after us and I ran for many days. In several weeks, I decided to try and recover my Journal. I had carefully wrapped it and hidden it in a cloven stone. It was still there. I have written this with ink I have made from the blood of a lizard I have killed.
I have found Zachris! He has escaped as well. We each heard the other skulking about in the dark. We ambushed and nearly killed each other before we discovered our identities. Zachris ran the same day I did. He was wounded in the side by an arrow, so we have decided to travel slowly. With any luck, we can beg for hospitality from a Kabekki tribe.