By the 35th day of the sixth expedition it was starting to feel like we'd never get home. From swamps to woodlands to hillside and rocky crag, we kept going. When most people envision a hillside territory they probably think of rolling hills, but this wasn't like that. In fact, some such hills were so tall they were a hair away from mountains. I recall we followed a sort of canyon or crevasse trying to find a way around, always headed downhill, and when we did, I wasn't sure I wanted to cross to the other side at all. The bridge – if a bridge it could be called – was made of old wooden boards and rope. Well, mostly rope. It swayed like a swing in the breeze and looked as if it was going to break once any weight at all stood on it. Twenty feet separated us from the river's waters, but while a twenty-foot fall into rushing currents may not kill you, breaking some bones is still a possibility. Bear crossed first to make sure it was safe. Nagata carried me on his shoulders, for which I was very thankful – both of us likely weigh the same as Bear in his armor.
After the bridge, the ground kept on sloping downwards. You could still spot herds of mountain goats here and there, and likely their predators – snowcats. We were fortunate enough to find only their tracks.
Around our 40th day out, however, Nagata found other kinds of tracks. He couldn't immediately tell what had made them, but it only took me a glance to be able to tell him – mites. Three-toed, tiny humanoid tracks definitely had to be mites. And according to Nagata, either a very energetic one or several had gone through here. We took advantage of the fact we were still in high ground to gaze around, looking for clues as to where they might have headed. At first it seemed pointless to me – mites are burrowing creatures, so they might well be right under our feet. Yet in the distance, atop a hill and very much lonely in this area was a huge sycamore tree. Not a healthy and vibrant tree like we'd seen before, mind you. No leaves graced its branches. We were still a way's away, but it looked in all dead.
Nagata offered that it might be Bokken's brother's tree again. I shuddered at the thought. For some reason, every time it was mentioned, that story had such a creepy undertone it made my skin crawl. Still, this territory doesn't have many trees, and Takeshi figured this might be worth investigating.
Like I said, we were still pretty far, so we camped for the night not long after. Usually, when we do, we take turns to watch, and I like to get the middle of the night shift. Not only I can see perfectly well, but it's also when it's quieter, and it allows me some time to write my journal, take care of my nails, or simply have some quiet moments for myself. At first I recall I was pretty scared during my watch. I was always sure something was going to wobble out of the darkness behind me, grab me and whisk me away before I could sound the alarm. I grew more confident as time went by, even if we were attacked at night before. My brothers both sleep lightly, and even when they sleep I know they'd likely come to my aid if it was to happen. The night before our travel to the great sycamore tree, for a heartbeat, I saw my nightmare come to life.
I was sitting away from the fire as the others slept, and was doing some logistics. The number of trail rations we had left was hardly an evidence of how much longer we were going to stay out. We had made a habit of hunting and foraging whenever possible, so we could complement whatever supplies we brought along. And I knew from the start this would be a long trek, but over a month had gone by and we were running short on supplies. And I was tired. So tired, in fact, I took to doing inventory to stay awake.
Then I heard something dragging large feet in the darkness, not that far away from camp. I picked up my shamisen and nudged Takeshi – who, bless him, at once lifted his head and didn't say a word. I silently pointed in the direction of the sound. I'm not sure Takeshi could see much, but I did. It was a large creature, biped as far as I could tell, but with long, thick arms and what looked like a mess of tentacles covering its body. It shied away from the light, but as it went by, I could tell they weren't as much tentacles as roots. It was a hulking shambling mound, a living plant, and one we did not want to contend with if we could avoid it. Takeshi and I (and Nagata and Oksana, because Takeshi carefully woke everyone up in case the thing changed its mind and decided to attack) saw it go away into the darkness once more. That was close!
The sycamore tree was nearly a hundred feet tall I reckon, and stood isolated atop a lonely hill. From afar we couldd tell it was sick – even at this time of year the branches were bare of leaves and the bark looked brittle and discolored. I'm no expert, but if it wasn't plain dead, it was likely headed that way.
Monkey was likely considering climbing it judging by how he sized up the lower branches, and Oksana knocked once or twice on the trunk. It didn't sound hollow. It was Takeshi who finally figured out what was wrong with it, because as most of us were looking up at the trunk and the top, he had been observing the roots. And on noticing an oddly-shaped root, he moved it with the handle of the naginata to reveal what looked like a shaft, burrowing down into the earth. Mites – it had to be mites again.
I didn't want to go in there for various reasons: bugs were a distinct possibility, it's dirty, and it's mite-sized. I would have a hard time climbing down, let alone Bear, who's twice my shoulder width and at least two heads taller than me. Still, Takeshi insisted we investigate, and even as I was trying to reason against it, Monkey jumped in and Oksana followed suit. Moneky's voice reached us from the bottom: it wasn't too big a fall, but we should prepare to crouch.
Bear helped me inside – the shaft led to a dark tunnel. Oksana was already lighting up a torch, but I had a moment to examine it in the darkness before she did. I could barely stand straight, and everyone else had to crouch indeed – the tunnel, with exited both to the left and right, was likely of comfortable height for mites, but mites we aren't. Uncommonly, I asked Bear to take the back of the line. If Oksana was at the front with a torch, I'd rather be at the back. It doesn't hamper my vision and I could likely see anything coming before any of the others. Nagata carefully took point and made for the right. Once the tunnel took a turn, I stopped seeing him. I couldn't tell what was happening – but when I heard screeching mites and blades cutting the air, I didn't need to be told Monkey had found resistance. I turned my back on the group to guard the left end of the tunnel, and began playing, stealth be damned. I only stopped when I heard Nagata's voice again – he was telling Bear that "one got away, further into the earth". Takeshi thought we should see what lay on the left end of the tunnel before venturing further in, to try and leave no resistance at our backs. Of course, for that, we had to invert positions.
It was a bit of a miserable moment. Bear retreated back into the shaft to make room, then Oksana and I went flat against the tunnel wall to let Nagata and him through. Again I stood at the rear, and still concerned that at any given moment I might spot a mite or thirty clambering my way. And once the tunnel to the left curved as well, I lost sight of Monkey and Takeshi. I heard them saying something about "giant centipede" and my heart sank – why am I in the land of the giant things?! A spider has no right being the size of a horse, much less a centipede! How does this happen?!
I only managed to finally peek inside once Nagata and Takeshi had cleared the area (which was so quickly I hardly had the time to position my shamisen and play a note). Disgusting little cave. The ceiling vaulted a little higher here, and mounds of dung were packed like nauseating nests, with round, opaque eggs resting here and there. Takeshi was destroying them when I finally came in the cave – a couple of dead centipedes nearly the size of a small dog had met my brothers' wrath. Nagata said another mite escaped and pointed us to the other end of the cave, where a ramp seemed to descend further in a corkscrew fashion. Of course, by now it was unlikely that our entrance had gone unnoticed, so we simply gave chase, rushing down the ramp. It became colder, and belaying Oksana's torch, darker.
When we reached the end of the ramp they were waiting for us, alright – a small army of angry, blue-skinned mites. But of course, we have fought mites before, and they're usually not that difficult to beat: Nagata flew to the middle of them, wakizashi first, and Bear braced and waited for some to approach, picking them clean with the naginata one by one. Those who didn't fall to Oksana's sleeping spell got yelled at.
Once the fight was over, however, the noise didn't stop. Peeping further in we could see several holding cages, one of which housed a very upset kobold, howling for help. I was going to try to speak to him, but Takeshi simply said we'd be back and moved on. He told me then that the kobold was obviously a prisoner and that he didn't want to open the cage door before we knew the grounds were clear. The chamber with the cages led to yet another one – more mites were waiting for us, and this time, a larger one and its giant tick mount joined the fray – likely the chieftain. Even so, and again – not the toughest of fights.
(sidenote: I've so far been witness to a giant spider; giant frogs; a giant tick; and giant centipedes. The Greenbelt indeed is the land of the giant things. My theory was correct. If I see a giant cockroach, I'm sprinting back to a ship and starting anew elsewhere. WHY?! Why are all these things so large?!)
Once the new array of mites had been cleared, we began looking about this chamber. So far we had seen a nesting ground of sorts, what looked like a jail, and according to Nagata, who saw the right side of the initial tunnel, a workshop. This had all the makings of a war room however: a mite-sized table stood at the center, its top carved into a kind of map, and colored pins here and there seemed to mark important landscape. Neither of us could make much sense of it, however. We also found an odd figurine of a demonic-looking crouching idol. This was strange: it looked like nothing else the mites had, and the degree of detail was too great to have been manufactured by them. It held no magic, and Takeshi assured us that was no deity he knew of. It seemed to be exactly that: a figurine depicting a horned, hoofed, evil-looking creature. I dropped it in the bag of holding - perhaps later on, someone might be able to shed some light on this mystery.
The only exit out of here was to the right. An opening on the wall led to a great chasm within the earth. On the other side of the chasm there was a similar opening, and ropes connected the two. We couldn't see baskets or platforms, so I suppose the mites did some tightrope walking from one side to the other. Not a prowess any of us would want to try, of course. Takeshi reasoned that if there was an opening on the other side, maybe we could access it through the workshop. We knew now this end of the cave complex was cleared. (sidenote: well nothing kept mites that might be on the other side to tightrope-walk and try to catch us on our backs, but considering how many casualties we had caused among their kinsmen, it was only natural they weren't very inclined to do that).
So we backtracked: past the chieftain's chamber, past the jail (the kobold glanced at us as if he didn't believe we were going by and leaving him caged again, poor thing), past the disgusting nesting grounds, back on the tunnel, again to the workshop. Now seeing it for the first time, I could understand why Nagata had named it: several shabby worktables spread about the chamber held instruments (between tools and torture implements by the looks of them) and raw materials for crafting. A dead mite – judging by its injuries, Nagata's work – lay close to what looked like a miniature catapult. Nagata told me that when he peeked inside there were two of them, one operating the catapult to hurl iron caltrops into the other's mouth and apparently very giddy about it. Why? It's anyone's guess. According to Nagata, he managed to strike one down, and the other fled through an opening on the wall, leading to some kind of chute.
Takeshi went in first. I heard him barrel down the chute, and his landing was accompanied by the screeching of at least four mites. Nagata jumped in right afterwards, and I heard Bear bellow from beneath, so I imagine Monkey landed on him or near enough. Then Monkey shouted that there was no room.
I stood in the workshop and began playing to inspire them. The sound carried across the cave well enough that I wasn't sure I wanted to join them and maybe bring more harm than help.
Later on, Takeshi would tell me of how he indeed landed on a platform on the other side of the chasm, and right into the waiting blades of six mites. Takeshi is a great fighter, but cramped space is always a problem for him – the naginata is a perfect weapon for open spaces, but not caves or tunnels. Nagata doesn't have a similar problem: near or far, the wakizashis will reach where he needs them to. However, he jumped in right after Bear and wakizashis first… and nearly ended up in Bear's lap. On hindsight, he told me, it was a good thing that Oksana and I chose not to fall down the chute after them. We wouldn't have had enough room to defend ourselves if the lot had gone in.
My brothers clambered up the chute once more, once the mites were all finished, and we began looking about for anything we could use here. Oksana and I rushed back to the jail, to free the poor kobold, while Nagata and Bear stayed behind to inspect the workshop.
The kobold was very relieved that we returned to free him after all. His name was Mikmak, he told us, and he hailed from the Scottsdale tribe! Of course, at once, I had a thousand questions for him: what was he doing here? What was going on at Scottsdale? We had heard about some issues concerning his tribe, so could he tell us what they were all about? Mikmak mentioned some kind of issue with the ruling powers in Scottsdale, and that his chief, Sootscale, had sent him and others of the tribe to retrieve a special idol for the tribe's shaman. I reached for the bag of holding and showed him the demonic figurine we had found in the chieftain's chamber – was this what he was looking for?
The bulging of his eyes told me that yes, that was it. Then the way he looked over my head and began slowly crouching like a scared rabbit told me something larger than myself was standing right behind me. And the way he then vanished into the next chamber told me it was probably not Takeshi.
Oksana and I looked over our shoulders.
(sidenote: very well. I thought I had seen a giant centipede here, but I was obviously mistaken. Of course, my fault. NOW I was seeing a giant centipede. And they grow larger than small dogs. Or large dogs. Or donkeys. Teehee, silly me! WHY?!)
The thing clacked its pincers at us. And, I realized of a sudden, my brothers were all the way around the cave complex. The first thing I thought to do was get away as far as I could and start playing battle music. Judging by the way sound reverberated off the cave walls, they would hear it even from far away. They would know we were in trouble. But while they didn't get to us, Oksana and I had to defend ourselves somehow. Sleeping wouldn't work on the thing, and it was far too tough to be affected by my shouting. The only thing I could think to do was, retrieve my wand of burning hands from the bag, and try to use it. (sidenote: practice more – it took me three tries to get it right!) Fortunately, and as we know each other well enough, Bear and Monkey had heard the music from across the complex, and came in the other side. We surrounded the centipede, and managed to throw it down.
Nagata was ready to continue on the streak and skin Mikmak alive, but I managed to halt him in time. I explained to my brothers what Mikmak had told me, and Takeshi asked him what the significance of the idol was. Apparently, he explained, a kobold shaman had come to their tribe some time ago, carrying the figurine as a god or spirit of great power. The mites stole it, which prompted chief Sootscale to send in parties to retrieve it. Otherwise, the curse of the idol would fall upon the tribe. The chief, according to Mikmak, had been throwing every kobold at his disposal at the mites, eager to retrieve the treasure so as not to incur in the curse…
We all exchanged a glance. There was nothing particular about the figurine. It wasn't a holy symbol, a summoning device, not even magical. It was a plain, creepy-looking figurine. Now there was only one question that needed answering: did its owner know it was a decorative piece and nothing else?
Mikmak couldn't answer the question, of course. And we didn't tell him right away the figurine did nothing. Instead, Takeshi offered to escort him back to Scottsdale, where we could deliver it by hand to chief Sootscale, and enquire about this shady shaman of theirs. Then we finally clambered back outside, and camped for the night at the base of the sycamore tree.
It took us a day and a half to reach Scottsdale, and for the duration of our journey, I think Mikmak was happy to have our company. Kobolds can be vicious as a group, but a lonely one usually falls on the category of prey rather than predator. During our journey, he told us more about the Scottsdale tribe: of how their once large numbers have dwindled ever since the shaman demanded the figurine be recovered, and of how his arrival spelled a lot of misery for the tribe in general. The chief accepted him as a wiseman and under his guidance they began worshipping his god. Yet his god was not a good one: it demanded sacrifices and violence, and in many ways the tribe ended up being directed towards warfare they had not at first intended to invite into their lives. Chief Sootscale is a good chief by Mikmak's account – but like every other kobold in Scottsdale, he is afraid of the idol, and what might happen to the tribe if they don't pacify him.
The more I heard about this, the angrier I felt. Once more, none of us had told Mikmak yet that the figurine was just a figurine. But we were going to. Without many exchanges on the subject between us, I think we all wanted to simply understand if this "shaman" himself believed his own lie, or if he was conning the whole Scottsdale tribe.
Mikmak led us to an outcrop of large boulders, forming a sort of framed entrance to a cave. As we approached, we spotted a very old wooden sign that read "Oaktop Silver Mine". Takeshi snapped his fingers and said he recalled hearing about it. The old silver mine had been lost along with the rest of the Greenbelt, but by all accounts and until it was lost, it produced silver aplenty.
A kobold jumped out of the cave as we approached, to greet Mikmak, seemingly happy (and surprised) to see him. Which is telling enough of the general life expectancy of anyone sent to retrieve the worthless trinket from the mites.
(sidenote: alright – I was pretty angry when I got to the mine. I'd been hearing about Mikmak's woes for a day and a half and it was making my blood boil)
After a brief introduction – this kobold's name was Nakpeek (I think; once we began getting introduced to kobolds, with so many "niks", "piks", "tiks" and "riks", it was a bit hard to keep track – and they all look alike as well), we were led inside the mine. It wasn't half as cramped as the mite tunnels. After all, the mine had once been manned by humans – even if now, by all accounts, it was the Scottsdale tribe's lair. At my side, I knew Brother Bear was counting units, just in case. Further down the mine, in areas probably dug after the mine was abandoned, the ceiling of course became kobold-sized, and while I could still walk fairly straight, everyone else had to duck. We went by a plethora of mechanical traps, some more evident than others, with our two guides telling us where to step and what to avoid. Nagata seemed interested enough – likely trying to spot a trap before anyone pointing it out, and improving his detection skills.
Everything seemed reasonably normal for a mine converted into a tribal lair. And then we reached the temple chamber. This one was larger than normal and odd symbols plagued the walls and ceiling, and I got the distinct feeling they had been drawn in blood. I tried to make sense of them, but I was losing my time. Takeshi, at my side, mumbled "Gibberish", and confirmed my impression. The presence of dried blood and the smell of the place nearly had be losing my calm and bellowing this was all a fake. But a lady keeps her cool regardless – so I waited to meet the chief, and then perhaps we could all lose our calm together.
Across the temple was the largest chamber so far, which seemed to serve the kobolds as a throne room or mess hall. Here was chief Sootscale, clad in feathers, bones and warpaint, who rose from his seat at our approach to ask the one question we had been waiting so long for: what were we doing here?
So Bear began speaking, and briefly telling the tale of how we have a chart that allows us exploration of the Greenbelt, of how we were exploring these lands and stumbled upon the mite lair, then went on the clear it out. The chief seemed thankful for this, as they have been at war with the mites for a time. Then, Takeshi produced the figurine, handed it over, and asked the chief if he recognized it. Again – by the bulging of his eyes, he needn't reply. Bear went on to explain about how we had found Mikmak caged in the lair, and what he had told us about the shaman and his vicious idol. So we had to ask: was the idol here before the shaman arrived? And when chief Sootscale said that it wasn't, that it was brought by the shaman…
I'm glad Takeshi spoke because I wouldn't have known where to start. Bear very politely informed the chief that this was no idol. It had no power. It was ivory, plain and simple: maybe worth some gold pieces, but that was all. It wasn't holy. It did. Absolutely. Nothing.
I need to make a little comment here. Most of my life, I've lived upon humans and humanoids, usually people who look very much like me. I am used to recognize the signs that they are upset or enraged, and I believe this is true for anyone in any species. When I meet radically different people – say, the boggard, or kobolds for instance – it's hard sometimes to determine how they are feeling. A kobold can probably tell if another kobold is feeling upset, however, and as I looked at the chief with figurine in hand, despite the fact I couldn't see the anger in his face, I could see it in the rest of the room – because some began to cower, some drew their weapons, and some simply ran out of the chamber. From the chief's throat a low growl emerged, which became the closest he can probably get to a roar, as he smashed the figurine on the floor and stormed out of the chamber.
We followed suit, as the chief bellowed for the shaman. We went further inside, and into what once had been the chief's chamber, now decorated with more of the same balderdash he had written at the temple. At the center, before a cauldron, stood a kobold unlike any we had seen so far. His scales were a rich purple, and this, as far as the tribe we had seen so far, made him unique. He lifted his head from the brew to see Sootscale nearly charge toward him, and lifted one clawed hand, chanting as he went.
I recognized the spell easily: cause fear. And well enough, chief Sootscale charged back out of the chamber just as fast as he had gone in. We weren't so easily swayed, however: once Sootscale ran out, Takeshi ran in.
It was the first time I had encountered someone who could cause a fear effect in others, and I confess much of the battle is a blur to me. I remember Takeshi was in serious danger at one point, and that some of my spells misfired or were ineffective. But at the end, we emerged victorious, with the kobold shaman dead, and his realm of fear ended.
Once we had seen to our wounds, chief Sootscale thanked us for the assist. They'd been living in this nightmare for over a year, and now it was over. As a reward, the chief gave us the pick of the kobolds' treasure hoard – Takeshi instead struck an alliance with them, providing supplies that the kobold do not easily come by in exchange for some of the silver in the mine, if the kobolds wouldn't mind trading it. The chief agreed. Before we left, I also asked him for one final token: I wanted an instrument that belonged to kobold culture. He offered me a flute made from bone. This would be the start of my personal collection! My brothers thought it was creepy and I shouldn't take it, let alone play it – I kept it all the same.
On the way out, I picked up an old journal from the shaman's corpse. It was written in a language unknown to me, but fortunately, I've been learning a particular channeling of magic that allows me to decipher or understand languages that I may not know. I read it later on, in the evenings during meals, and whenever the ground wasn't too difficult to walk that I could afford to have my attention elsewhere. That's how I came to make sense of the origins of that shaman character.
His name had been Tartuk and he was originally born a gnome, of all things. His tale was bizarre: he had died in battle, when his village was invaded by ogres. In fact, according to the journal, Tartuk had been attempting to surrender himself to the ogres when he was killed. However, his death stalled the invasion long enough for the village to regain composure and fight back. He was hailed as a hero, and therefore the village pooled their gold to have him reincarnated. Now, I'm not sure if something might have gone awfully wrong during the reincarnation, or if it's simply a stroke of bad luck, but Tartuk returned as a kobold, with scales as purple as his hair had once been. It drove Tartuk insane, as evident by how misshapen his writing became, and how twisted his thoughts. He fled his village to integrate a kobold tribe, using the odd coloring of his scales and the magic tricks he had retained from his previous life to pass as a wiseman. He had the kobolds raze his village to the ground, and then stayed with them until eventually – by using the same terror tactics he had been applying with the kobolds in Scottsdale – he collapsed it from within. Then he moved on to the next, with the same story. And the next one. And likely he would keep on doing it, according to his journal, until he finally grew tired and took his own life.
I told the tale to the rest of the group, and I plan to keep the journal as a memento of the events. Especially because nobody would believe this story unless I could prove it was true. We camped for the night not far from the Scottsdale tribe, and then finally, just short of 50 days since we left Oleg's Trading Post, we made home.
UZUME'S CULTURAL EXCHANGE – The limerick
I haven't had much of a chance to consider this country's poetry and music – there just hasn't been enough time, and much less chance for talks with those who often produce these forms of art. But while living at Oleg's Trading Post, a curious type of poetry came by my ear, and of all people, it came from Oleg himself.
This kind of verse, which he calls a "limerick" is a short, five-verse composition, often in simple wording and with humorous or risqué subjects. The first time I heard one was during one of the evening meals. I know Oleg as a kindly fellow and a very skilled merchant, and so I sometimes forget that he was a soldier. And limericks, for simplicity and theme, were likely the kind of poetry he was likely to come by. On one such evenings, I overheard him telling one to one of Lord Garress' men at arms. I could hear the rhyming but the words escaped me. When I approached to ask him to say it again, Oleg changed color and said perhaps it was not the best thing to be said in "mixed company". I tried to persuade him, but he wouldn't repeat it. The man at arms laughed, and that's when I first learned the name of such verses: a limerick.
It was Svetlana who came to the rescue. When I asked her about limericks, she sighed and asked if I had been listening to the "old fool" doing his "barracks talk" act again. She knew some limericks as well – milder ones, I understand, and could give me an example:
There once was a man from Greyhaven,
Largely considered a craven,
He got caught in a mess,
so he put on a dress,
And passed as a damsel unshaven.
They are not at all easy to do but very entertaining. She had a few more to tell me – and of course, I had to take my own tries at them, or I wouldn't be much of a bard. My results were limited and I won't be sharing them as soon as that, but I'll keep them around just in case I can perfect them at another time. This is the one I like best:
There once was a wandering bard,
who caught her whole party off-guard:
She could well sing a tune,
give her allies a boon,
But boy, are limericks hard…