Chapter Ten: The Jungles of Zamburrha



by

Josie Beaudoin







Galen had relieved Ruby at maintaining the preservation spell on Jasper’s body. The drain on the old woman had been considerable, and she slept deeply while Galen, both younger and stronger, took over.

“Have you ever seen a body laid out before that’s not buried right away, where their hair and fingernails continue to grow?” Galen asked Morgan as the ship was docking. Morgan nodded. “His aren’t growing.”

“Well that’s probably the preservation spell,” Morgan answered. “You’ve stopped everything, right?”

“We’ve slowed it down at least, yes. If we’d stopped everything he’d still be fresh, no smell, no discolouration.”

“How far gone do you think he is?”

“He’s not gone,” Galen reminded him. “He’s not actually dead.”

“How far dead would he be by now if he had died back there? It’s been four days, hasn’t it? He’s showing some signs of advanced deterioration, and other signs that he’s fresh. There’s been no rigor mortis at all, but his skin is turning black. And yet no bloating, no rotting. The smell isn’t decay, it’s sweet-ish. No hair or nail growth, as you said. It’s the most baffling ‘corpse’ I’ve ever seen.”

“Just out of curiosity, Master, how-”

“I worked with the bodies of executed criminals as part of my studies growing up, scores of them. It was part of my training. Laric never did this for you? I would have thought he would have plenty of excess corpses lying about. Well you’re a remarkably good healer for someone who hasn’t studied anatomy directly.”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t help me much here.”

“I don’t think it’d help me, either,” Morgan admitted. “This is completely beyond my comprehension.”

Emmy came into the cabin.

“We’ve docked. Let’s get moving. Is he ready?”

This is insane, Jasper thought. I can’t believe they’re doing this.

“You’re quite sure you have to bring him?” Bartok asked, coming in.

“Yes,” Morgan and Ruby said.

“We don’t know how long he’ll last, even with the preservative spell. We have to have him with us when we get there. We’ve been over this.”

“I know, I just don’t like the idea of you tramping through the jungles carrying him. It’s going to be dangerous enough as it is.”

“You’re just jealous you don’t get to come along,” Emmy said.

“You’re damned right I am,” Bartok said. “I’m bigger and I’m stronger than you are. I should be out there with you.”

“With me gone you’re the ranking officer, and you’re to stay here,” Emmy said. “Don’t make me give you your orders again.”

“You won’t have to, but I don’t have to like it,” he grumbled.

“No, you don’t, but when we come back the captain will want the ship all in one piece. Make sure it stays that way, and that it stays here.”

They headed off into the city: Emmy, Galen, Morgan, Nyda, Geleth, Kemen, and of course Jasper, carried by Galen and Kemen in a hammock slung on a pole. As he did so often in his life, Morgan slouched through the crowd, drawing as little attention to himself as possible.

If Morgan was worried that people would notice him, his fears were unfounded. The people of Ligma were busy watching each other. The two sides of the war were clear in the appearance of the two beliefs. Both peoples wore kilts or loincloths, but some shaved their heads and wore heavy makeup, while the others kept their hair long and their faces untouched. Fear and suspicion were apparent on everyone’s faces. Here in Ligma they had found an uneasy truce, living side by side with only occasional riots and murders, but the war was obvious. A troop of Ria wandering the streets was of no concern to anyone.

“Well this explains why you didn’t dress us as locals,” Morgan said to Emmy. “I was wondering about that.”

“Nobody wants to look like a local here,” she replied. “We’re safest looking like ourselves. The Ria have a strict non-involvement policy when it comes to Lander politics, especially Landers at war.”

Morgan nodded.

“So what do we do now?”

“Go south,” Emmy said. “Head for the wilderness and hope we find this thing before Galen can’t hold the captain anymore. All we know is “in the jungle,” but that won’t help us much. Half of this continent is jungle, and it could be anywhere. It’s also lost and invisible. I really don’t see how we’re going to find it except by blind luck.”

“Well the prophecy did say it could only be found by a blind man,” Morgan said. “Perhaps it doesn’t mean literally, perhaps it means something else.”

“It’d better, because we don’t have a blind man.”

“Yes, I had noticed that. But if it’s there, I think Galen can find it. He’s got a knack for knowing the land, what you might call ‘seeing’ it with magic rather than with his eyes. I’m hoping having him along will give us an edge others might not have. Some blind luck, maybe.”

From local merchants they bought nothing: everything in the marketplace was suspect, be it shoes or food or a pack animal. Everything they had they brought with them from the ship.

The only roads leading out of the city went east or west, along the coast. Deciding at random, they took a road going east, and once out of sight of habitation, with no other travelers on the road, they headed south into the wilderness.

There were no paths, but then, no one knew where they were going anyway. The dense foliage overhead did not prevent thick undergrowth, and they swung their swords back and forth to clear a way. Everyone took turns carrying Jasper’s hammock, though Morgan tired easily and had to limit his turns. Kemen found the easiest trails through the underbrush, fallen trees and over or around hills, while Galen kept them heading generally south despite the sun being hidden from view.

The jungle seethed with life. Everywhere they looked were animals scampering through the trees and branches. Insects kept up a constant buzzing and whirring, while large mosquitoes whined in their ears and bit at them mercilessly.

They stopped for the night and lit a small fire. While they were eating, Morgan drew Galen aside.

“Do you remember what I taught you back in Erlaya about feeling the land?” he asked.

“I do, Magister. I even used it during our search for water.”

“Good. I want you to do it again. Look for anything... out of place. Or a piece of high ground where a temple might reasonably be built. Presumably they wouldn’t want their temples to be swallowed by mud and swamp. On the other hand, perhaps there is a spot that feels somehow holy. I don’t know, look for any or all of those things.”

“Magister, you do know this temple could be a thousand miles from here.”

“I know, I know. I’m trying not to think about it. I’m going on the assumption that the old woman told us the prophecy for a reason. I think we’re meant to find it, and if so, then it has to be somewhere near here.”

“Do you really believe in prophecies, Sir?”

“I believe there are mages who have visions,” Morgan answered. “In fact I knew one back in Krisadon. Once you’re trained in magic it’s very rare to see things, but mages are unfocussed, and can often pick up on things magicians can’t. I believe her prophecy was sincere, at least. Whether or not it’s true is another matter. Now give your vision a try, and tell me what you see.”

Galen nodded and focused his Vada on the land. At first it was difficult to see anything, the world was so choked with distractions. Monkeys chittered in the treetops as they settled in for the night, fearful of the fire, while ants marched in files across the ground heedless of anything in their way. The air was full of the croaking and chirping and whistling of a dozen species of frogs. Even at night the jungles of Zamburrha echoed with life.

The land itself yielded nothing unusual, though. Swamps and tree roots, rolling hills and the occasional cave, but nothing within Galen’s range that seemed promising as a temple site. He did mention a cave that stood to the south, and suggested they might overnight there the next evening.

“If we can get that far,” Morgan grumbled. “It seems like we walked all day and barely got anywhere. I think the road might be a dozen feet away.”

“It isn’t,” Galen said. “We traveled nearly seven leagues today, though not in a straight line, of course. Still, we’re probably at least ten miles from the road. Sir, if you’ll excuse me, I really should be taking care of Jasper.”

“Of course, go on.”

The Ria kept a rotating watch through the night, but nothing happened. In the morning they doused the fire, packed up their few belongings and headed south once more.

The preservation spell could only do so much. In the sweltering jungle heat, Jasper began to bloat. They took his tunic off and continued south.

After hours of struggling through the forest, Galen suddenly announced there was a road ahead. Ten minutes later, they came upon it.

“We could have found this and traveled on it yestreday!” Geleth said.

“I doubt it,” Nyda said. “Look at it. It’s old, overgrown - this road hasn’t been used in years.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” a Zamburrhan voice said.

Morgan cast a reproving glance at Galen.

“We’re surrounded,” he said, “and you didn’t warn us?”

“I’m trying to keep Jasper’s body from decaying,” Galen answered. “It’s taking more and more concentration with every hour that passes.”

“Floaters,” one of the Zamburrhans said. “What are you doing so far from your little boats? How dare you violate the sanctity of this land?”

There were at least thirty of them, Zamburrhans with their heads shaved, heavy makeup applied to their eyes. They bore hunting spears, and each carried a sword and sling at his waist. Their bodies were oiled and here in the open-ness of the road their perfume became more obvious than in the dense jungle.

“We’re looking for something,” Emmy said.

“North is that way,” the Zamburrhan spokesman said, gesturing back the way they had come.

“Yes, we know,” Emmy said. “We’re looking for a temple, actually.”

“We will take you to the temple,” another dark-skinned man answered. “We will take you there and offer you as sacrifices before the pyramid. Your blood will please the holy Ilop.”

“Are you sure?” another asked. “They are not heretics.”

“Of course they are,” the first answered. “They do not worship Ilop, do they? That is not as evil as worshiping him wrong, but it is still evil. They are unbelievers, and they will pay.”

The party was taken captive. The Zamburrhans tossed Jasper’s body aside, refusing to bring him along.

“This one is dead,” they said, “and his blood will mean nothing to Ilop.” They moved off with their new sacrifices at spearpoint.

“Tell them we are on a holy mission,” Morgan said to Emmy who was keeping up a running translation for the Landers, “and that we must be allowed to proceed.”

“Not I,” Emmy replied. “You don’t know what ‘holy’ means to these people. If it’s not for their god, it must be destroyed.”

“Sounds familiar,” Morgan muttered.

Emmy turned on him.

“We do not destroy Landers!” she said. “We let well enough alone, as long as we are let alone. We know the truth of God, but we do not punish others for their ignorance - even their willful ignorance. We do not force our beliefs on the unwilling. And we certainly do not sacrifice humans to appease Her!”

The other Ria murmured agreement, and Morgan backed down.

“I only meant that it seems if something is not of your god then it’s wrong in every way,” he said. “I have yet to discuss religion with a Rian who is the least bit flexible.”

“This is true,” Geleth replied, “but everyone has the right to be wrong if she chooses.”

They trudged east on the jungle road, Jasper’s body growing smaller in the distance. Soon he was lost to sight.

No, he thought desperately. Don’t leave me! You can’t just leave me here! Jasper listened as the group moved away, their voices fading in the distance as they discussed theology. They spared not one word for him, just abandoned him in the road and walked away. If he could, Jasper would have wept. Instead, he lay still and listened to the sounds of the jungle all around him. At least I’m not an appetizing meal to a hunter, he thought. Not if what the others have been saying is true. I wonder how long it will be before the scavengers arrive?

It did not take long. The scavengers arrived almost as soon as the Ria and their captors were out of sight. The scavengers were dressed in loincloths of leather. They had long, black hair and wooden clubs. They whisked down out of the trees and picked up Jasper’s body, hammock and all, and followed the road west, away from the others.

“This one,” they said, “will make a wonderful sacrifice for Ilop, for he is already dead.”

Jasper, screaming threats and curses in his heart, was taken by the western army along the road through the dense jungle. He heard the forest suddenly stop and there was a huge openness around him, with many voices and the various sounds and smells of domestic animals. The heat struck him and the sunlight showed red through his closed lids.

“What is this?” a voice demanded.

“We found this body on the road. It was abandoned by the heretics.”

“Take it to the embalmer.”

“Yes, sir.”

Again his hammock swung back and forth, the rhythm that would ordinarily soothe now bringing him nothing but dread. Soon the bright sunlight was darkened, and he smelled salt, but not like the sea. This was a dry salt scent, mingled with spices he could not identify, and for some reason it frightened Jasper to a panic he had not felt before. What are they doing to me? he wondered.

“You have another one?” a new voice said.

“We found him on the road to the accursed lands.”

“Let me see the body.”

Jasper was taken from his hammock and laid out on a table.

“What is this?” the new voice asked. “This is not a heretic, it’s a Floater.”

“Are Floaters not improper followers of Ilop?”

“Aah, good point. I shall summon the priest.”

Footsteps departed, and there was silence in the tent. Jasper thought he was alone, but could not tell.

What seemed an aeternity later, feet and voices approached, and Jasper heard his condition being described yet again: a dead Floater.

Is that what I am? Jasper asked. Am I dead? Am I going to spend the rest of time trapped like this? Just a dead Floater?

“Doubtless the heretic’s soul will delight in joining with that of holy Ilop,” an old voice said. “He knew only wrong in life, yet now he can - now wait. This man is not dead. Why would you bring me a live man? I cannot send him to Ilop! His soul is still bound to his body. Fools!” He raised his voice in anger. “You! Come and take this man away, he is unfit! Put him outside, he does not belong here!”

I’m not dead, I’m not dead, Jasper repeated. Oh thank God I’m not dead. This man must be a magician, they all say the same thing. I just wish someone would tell me what I am.

He felt himself being moved once more, out into the bright sunlight and placed on the ground. All around him were the sounds of animals and men. There was a loud cry in the distance, and suddenly everything around him was moving. Animals crying out, wood and leather creaking, footsteps pounding on the ground. The Ilopian army was on the move, the wheels of their camel-drawn chariots throwing up dust that settled slowly down on top of Jasper as they drew away into the distance.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Morgan walked down the road in a towering fury. He could not fault Galen for not resisting, but there was no one else to blame. He simply was not ready to take on that many targets at once. Attempting it might have gotten them all killed.

But they had lost Jasper.

Morgan had been battling despair for days, completely dependant on the reassurances of Galen and Ruby that his brother still lived in some way, but the thought of Jasper trapped inside his body made Morgan’s stomache wrench. He could not feel what was going on, and in this vital moment, he was working blind. Moving away from Jasper’s body, Morgan knew, would weaken and eventually break Galen’s preservation spell, and it was quite likely Jasper’s thin link to life might well break with it. Morgan, used to despair, did what he had learned to do in recent months: he turned despair into anger. It was the only way to resist the turning-inwards he had learned during the past few years.

“Magister,” Galen said, breaking Morgan’s concentration. “There is nothing I - there were too many of them.”

“Hold your tongue, apprentice,” Morgan snarled under his breath. “Don’t speak to me.”

Galen fell silent. Morgan’s anger and grief were holding him together, and perhaps, Galen thought, they should not be assuaged.

Fear and anger emanated from the rest of the group as well. Everyone was upset at losing their captain, and several of them were thinking of the recent brush with the slavers. Galen found very little from Kemen though, for the scout was busily mapping out the return route in his mind.

The day passed without incident, and they camped for the night on the road itself. The prisoners were tied hand and foot and spent a very uncomfortable night. It was some time before they could walk the next morning, but walk they did, continuing on east with their captors.

At last the jungle ended, and they found themselves in a huge open area dominated by the strangest building Kemen had ever seen or heard of. It was massive, covering nearly as much ground as the Golden Palace in Gurthiri, but its four smooth sides angled to a sharp point dizzyingly high above his head. It was a pyramid.

“Oh, is this where we are?” Morgan said. “I remember reading about pyramids. Never thought I’d see one, of course. I didn’t realize we were where they make them. They’re bigger than I expected.”

“Archard,” Emmy said, “They’re going to kill us. This is no time to be commenting on architecture. What are we going to do?”

“Emmy, I really wish you’d stop asking me. You know more about these people than I do. You tell me. What are they doing to do?”

“They’re going to lean us over an altar one by one and cut our hearts out to sacrifice them to this - this ‘god’ of theirs.”

“Hmmm... that does seem to present a problem. What would you recommend we do? Can we talk to them? Should we fight? We’re outnumbered about a thousand to one, but we could die fighting if you prefer it to sacrifice. Emmy, stay calm. Panicking right now isn’t going to help anyone. If we want to get out of here, we need to stay calm. If we can’t get out of here, we might as well be calm anyway.”

“You don’t seem particularly worried about dying,” she said.

“I’m not. In fact, I’ve come to expect it of late.”

“So you’re not going to help us escape?”

“Escape how, Emmy? If you have a plan, I’ll listen.”

“No, but you could come up with one. You’re smarter than all the rest of us put together.”

Morgan sighed and shook his head. Emmy went over to talk to Galen instead.

It seemed the Ilopites had a constant sacrifice going, for there was a huge line of people leading to a stone temple standing before the pyramid. Black, oily smoke drifted up in a thick rope from the temple. Most of the sacrifices were resigned like Morgan and offered no resistance, though a few had to be restrained. Guards with whips walked up and down the line making sure everyone stayed in place. The hot sun beat down and scorched the victims, a preview of what lay in wait within.

“You have to understand the mindset of these people, ma’am,” Galen told Emmy. “Even if I could kill every soldier and guard here - which I couldn’t, not simultaneously - the slaves themselves would rise up against us. They don’t necessarily want to be killed, but they believe it is the will of their god, and as such they accept it and will see it carried out.”

“So you’re saying we should just give up?” Geleth asked.

“I’m saying I can see no way out,” Galen said. “If anyone else comes up with a plan I’d be more than willing to listen. Look, they’re bringing up more behind us.”

“We could make a run for the jungle, get lost in the trees,” Nyda said. “Look at the sky. There’re clouds moving in, there’s going to be a storm. They’d never find us.”

Galen shook his head.

“It’s been done,” he told her. “Many times, in fact. The locals know this part of the jungle tree by tree, and a storm won’t stop them.”

“That’s not a rain cloud,” Kemen said. “It’s a dust storm. How very odd, with this much humidity, to have a dus-”

“It’s an army,” Morgan said. “The other ones are coming. Look, this place is pitted with scars and burns. It’s nicely patched and painted over, but it’s been attacked a lot. I’d guess we’re near the border of the two warring territories. Well you wanted your plan, there it is. Escape in the chaos.”

“If they get here before we get to the temple,” Geleth said. “Who knows how far off they are?”

“They’re not far,” Galen murmured. “I can feel them coming. They’re proud and fierce and ready to kill. They’ll be here soon. Soon enough, I hope.”

The Rian prisoners were not the only ones to notice the approaching cloud. The guards became more nervous, shouting orders to the prisoners and tightening the line up. To everyone’s dismay, the line also began moving faster. Perhaps the sacrificers thought more deaths would appease Ilop enough to destroy the attackers. Whatever the reason, the Rian group was nearing the temple door as the approaching army became audible. They were at the door itself when the army broke through the jungle roads and into the temple complex.

The astonishing animals were bigger than the llamas Galen had seen in the southern mountains. They were buff coloured, with huge humps on their backs, and they pulled chariots which carried two or three warriors apiece. They made strange bellows as their riders screamed war cries at the waiting soldiers on foot.

“Everybody inside the temple now!” Morgan shouted above the clash of the meeting armies.

“But they’re killing people inside,” Geleth said.

“They’re killing more people outside,” was the answer, and Geleth was dragged indoors.

The darkness of the temple interior provided no relief from the heat. The crush of bodies, both living and dead, and the glowing fire behind the altar combined to make the temple a furnace. At the altar five priests were working in unison, holding sacrifices down and removing the hearts while acolytes carried the bodies away to the pyre in the rear.

“Sir, is there enough chaos now that I can intervene?”

“I’d say that was a reasonable premise. Get busy.”

Galen nodded, and concentrated. Moments later, the priests began to catch fire, but they were extinguished by the beaters present, for often the flames would come from the fire behind them, and this they were used to. Galen turned his attention to the guards instead, lifting them one by one into the air and spinning them about before smashing them against the stone walls.

“Get their hearts,” Morgan suggested. “The priests. Try again, they’re still working.”

“Their hearts? How can I do that? They’re not dry, not flammable.”

“Everything’s flammable,” was the grim answer, “if you have the strength. Let’s test your power, Galen. Pure raw power - can you set something wet on fire?”

“Do we have time? How about this?”

With a loud ‘whumph’ there was a wall of fire between the altar and the sacrifices. One of the guards shook off his daze and saw Galen’s gesture as the fire flared up.

“Holy man!” he shouted above the din of screaming, frightened people. He began making his way towards Galen with a sword in hand. As he neared, the Ria surrounded Galen.

“Hands off!” Nyda said. “That’s our holy man, and you’re not gonna touch him!” She took a blow from the sword, a gash across her arm welling with blood, but the guard was borne to the ground by the others and disarmed. Emmy took the sword and as a group they moved towards the second guard. He was still unconscious, and his sword was taken and given to Geleth, the next best fighter.

I wish Paige were here with a bow, Morgan thought. She’d put these men down fast enough. Still, thank Quphic she’s safe on the ship with Reina! This is no place for a nursing mother. Just the thought of his little niece distracted Morgan from the moment. Apart from Paige herself at that age, Reina was probably the most beautiful baby in the world.

“Morgan, look out!”

A spear came whizzing right for the tall man, an easy target in the chaos. Morgan ducked, and the stone point only nicked his ear as he dropped to the floor to hide behind the others. This was no time for daydreaming.

Kemen grabbed the spear where it had fallen and lofted it towards the altar where it clattered uselessly on the stones.

“Damn!” he said. “I should have held on to that!”

The sacrifices were continuing. True believers lined up to do their part in the battle raging outside, to give their lives to the god for the greater good.

“I can’t hold them back!” Galen shouted.

“You don’t have to,” Emmy said. “If they keep coming one at a time we can take them.”

“That’s a big ‘if,’” Morgan said. “There’s got to be at least ten of them in here.”

“With two down and six of us,” Emmy said. “We can do it.”

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Jasper opened his eyes. At first he saw nothing, was not sure he had moved his eyelids at all, then he began to see stars shining high above, twinkling in the blackness. He still could not move, but his eyes were open. Ruby, Galen, the strange priest in the salt-scented darkness, they had all been right. He was not, after all, dead. The stars blurred as tears of relief seeped from his eyes. He felt them trickle down the sides of his face and right into his ears, which commenced to itch. Feeling was beginning to return to his body.

He had not willed his eyes to open, and now he did not will them shut, but they did so all the same. His chest, arms and face throbbed with pain, and he thought I must have a fever. He heard a wind blowing softly across the open-ness, carrying the scent of the jungle as well as small dust particles moving over his skin, stinging and biting at him. I’m alive, he thought again. I can feel. I am back from the edge of... from the... The past few days were blurring, and he was not entirely sure what had happened. That worried him a little, but not much. He was not very worried about anything. He lay there and let his body feel, let his eyes open and shut, let his breathing increase, without thinking much at all.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“Is it over?”

“Looks that way.”

“Can we get out of here now, please?”

“I think it’s safe enough. They don’t seem to be thinking of anything but each other.”

The Rian group poked their heads around the doorway of the stone temple that stood before the great sheer-sided pyramid. Soldiers from both sides milled about, but it was clear the charioteers had won. Some were picking up the dead while others defaced the pyramid as well as they could. Spear casting was highly ineffective against the gleaming smooth walls, but camel dung was thrown as high as possible, disgracing the noble monument.

The dead were put in chariots, tied across the backs of camels, or laid upon sledges dragged behind the chariots. The living, having been conquered, were stripped of their weapons, jewelry, and other finery, and chased off. Kemen took off his gold ring and hid it in his mouth. He would not surrender the Aiyana’s gift to these warriors who would doubtless melt it down. The group stepped out of the doorway and into the bright sunlight. They were entirely ignored.

“Excuse me,” Emmy said to a charioteer. He stopped with a body in his arms and looked at her. “Did you pass anyone on the road coming here? Someone lying down on the roadside, resting, perhaps?”

“Which road?” replied the warrior. “There are three roads leading from the sacred temple to this profane blasphemous land.”

“That one,” Emmy pointed to the spot where they had come out of the forest.

“I was not on that road, Floater, but if our army did pass someone on the way they would have killed them immediately.”

“What did he say?” Morgan asked.

“He said he doesn’t know,” Emmy said. “Let’s get going. The captain is at least a day’s travel away from here, and the afternoon is wearing on. I’d like to be a ways down the road before the sun sets.”

They wound their way through the milling army as quickly as they could, and reached the road within an hour. It was choked with chariots already heavily loaded with the dead and their belongings and heading back the way they had come.

“They want the dead,” Kemen said. “If they find Jasper before we do, they’ll-”

“They’ll take him,” Nyda said. “And the odds are they already have found him. We need to find out where they are taking these bodies, where they will have taken the captain.”

“Do you really think there’s any hope left?” Kemen asked.

“We’re going to believe until proved otherwise,” Emmy said, summing it up for the Ria. “Let’s get moving, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”

They spread out and lay down on a few of the travois being pulled by the camels. Travel was much faster than by foot, for the camels moved at a trot, covering the distance with little effort. They did not stop for the night, but continued on tirelessly in the darkness. As dawn broke the victorious army returned to their own temple complex. There was a great cheering from the civilians, and the army shouted back a war cry as the camels bellowed and huffed in the morning light.

There were pyramids everywhere. Unlike the Ilopites who had one huge pyramid, the Ilopians used the pyramidal form for most of their buildings. These pyramids varied from the Ilopite one in one other way: the sides of the pyramids had steps so the tops, which were flat and often had small buildings atop them, could be accessed.

Clambering off the sledges, the Ria looked about in confusion.

“Floaters,” a voice called. “What are you doing here?”

“We’re looking for one of our own,” Emmy said. “Have you seen him? He was very ill when the heretics captured us and forced us to leave him.”

“If he was near to death, he may be outside an embalming tent.”

“He was near to death, but very dear to us,” Galen said. “We do not wish to be parted from him.

Geleth translated.

“Our raid was fruitful,” a soldier said. “If you friend has not been embalmed, the priests may return him to you. They will be very busy now.”

It was no exaggeration. Only the best of bodies had been selected from the battleground, but the Ilopians still had hundreds of cadavers to sort through. Their guide led them through the crush of bodies, living and dead, to a relatively open area where dozens of tents were set up. Outside of each tent was a pile of bodies too far gone to use.

“Your friend will be here if he is not already being preserved,” the soldier said.

Beside the fifth tent, they found Jasper. His skin was a bright, painful red from exposure to the tropical sun, and his chest liftend slowly as though reluctant to move the burnt skin, but it moved – Jasper was breathing.

“Captain!” Nyda was the first to Jasper’s side, but the rest were no more than a heartbeat behind. Galen shouldered the others out of the way.

“Don’t touch him!” he ordered. “Let me see him.”

“Back up and let him work,” Morgan said.

The rest of the party scrambled back almost as quickly as they had crowded forward, though with less enthusiasm. Galen leaned forward and put his head on Jasper’s chest, listening for a moment. The others held their breath in eager anticipation. Then Jasper’s eyes opened, blue as the sky they stared into. The group gasped almost as one.

“There’s a pulse,” Galen said. “His heart’s beating. I don’t understand it.”

“His eyes are open,” Morgan said. “Jasper, can you hear me?”

I hear... Jasper thought. It was too much effort to speak or nod, and he was unsure what he would say anyway, but he heard.

“This shouldn’t be possible,” Galen stated the obvious. “He was dead. I mean, his soul was still here, but his body was dead.”

“You said he wasn’t dead, all this time you kept saying that,” Kemen said.

“His body was decaying,” Galen said. “He was trapped in it, but it was dead. At any rate, I’ve no idea how it came back to life like this. Look at him, he’s...”

Jasper’s eyes shut again, and did not reopen. Galen listened to his heart again. It was still beating, slowly, and his shallow breaths continued.

“We need to find out how this happened,” he said. “Find one of the ‘embalmer’ in this tent and get him out here. I want to talk to him.”

He was quickly brought, a wizened old man with skin like brown leather and a little smile on his wrinkled face.

“You are his friends?” the old man asked. “I see he is recovering. It is a good thing you came for him, to take care of him. I see that he means a great deal to you. Be warned, though, you will have to take great care that he does not fall off the sides of your boat when you take him back, Floaters. He will not save himself.”

“What are you talking about?” Emmy demanded, while Geleth kept up a running translation for the others.

“He was poisoned, no? With yarogero, am I right?”

“How do you know what poison it was?”

“Because he was dead but still alive,” was the old man’s answer. “This is a symptom of yarogero poisoning. Now what you must decide is whether or not he was lucky. He is alive, but not of the living.”

“Wait,” said Morgan. “I don’t understand. Explain this yarogero to me. What does it do?”

“It is lethal, always lethal, but not always permanent,” the old priest said. “Within one, or perhaps two days at the most, some recover. It depends on how much of the poison he received. Your friend must have taken only a small dose. Here, through the cut in his arm, yes? I suspect if he had swallowed it he would be dead beyond recall by now.”

“But this man was dead for nearly a week,” Galen said. “Ruby and I kept his body from... By the Ya’Sret! We kept his body from healing itself. We stopped the death process, and kept him dead. This is my fault. It’s my fault.”

“What happens now?” Morgan asked. “Will he recover?”

“One poisoned with yarogero may recover the use of their body, but the mind is almost always destroyed. Your friend is alive, but he has no willpower of his own. Some regain the use of their limbs, some even regain speech, but no one fully recovers from yarogero. I see he can open his eyes. He may be doing this deliberately, or it may be the body acting on its own. Until more time passes, it is impossible to say. Take care of him. It is possible he may speak to you again someday, though I doubt it.”

“Why is that?”

“You say you interfered. You used magic? This can upset the natural process, can cause unexpected problems. The magics may have disrupted his healing by slowing it down. His recovery is stunted, like a tree without sunlight.”

Emmy put a restraining hand on Galen’s.

“We still have the temple to find,” she reminded him softly.














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