Heart of Darkness

Welcome To The Jungle

Shadow Edge led us further and further into the jungle. It was odd, being enveloped by unknown flora, but my friend confidently led us forward. It was not a pleasant trip, but I had marched in worse conditions and I soon fell into more or less normal marching order. The comfort of the familiar stride as well as Pearl’s teaching allowed me to accept all bites and stings from the unseen critters. I would register and be aware of their bites but it was more of an academic appreciation of what was happening, as if something experienced by someone else and not really relevant to me and what I was doing.

And so I marched along the strange paths my friend showed me until finally he stopped. It seemed as though we had marched for the better part of the day and the sun was setting. Shadow Edge and his subordinate arranged a campfire but Keemia kept to herself. Perhaps the presence of that woman disturbed her, perhaps my friend’s argument was still weighing her down or perhaps she was merely tired. The meal was shared in awkward silence for the most part while Brilliant Veil exercised during her free time, a rookie mistake that surprised me. Extended marching during a campaign drains you more than one expects she was wasting energy and water her body needed to recuperate. I told her to take it easy though she seemed to agree only due to it was me telling her and less so because she agreed with what I said.

We settled down and went to sleep, except for Shadow Edge who took first watch. In time, he switched with me and I took over to watch the camp, though I got the impression that my friend kept a keener watch than me, even in his sleep. Which was perhaps a good thing since it was difficult to know where and in what direction I should pay attention, noises came from all around in a strange and unpredictable rhythm.

I was not the only one to be distracted by it, as Keemia soon joined me. She had been stirring and sleeping poorly. We spoke for a long time in hushed voices, largely about the incident about her and Shadow Edge. She worried about him and his keen senses, she felt vulnerable knowing she could hide nothing from him and asked if I felt the same way. I tried to explain that it was no less strange then her ability to see through the masks of others. She was hesitant to agree to that so I asked, hesitantly if she worried about me as well. My power disturbed her far more than Shadow Edge’s.

She further explained that what truly hurt her was the lack of trust she felt Shadow Edge had for her. She was never planning to allow the woman to get hurt badly, that was why she had asked Jahandar Shammar, the Righteous Inferno, who bested the Dynast Ragara Yartal, whose wits solved the puzzle of the dragon Wong Bongerok, whose handsome form seduced Queen Neskarah, and whose hammer forged the daiklave Iron Rapture to help her and not me. Because she assumed that if she had asked me, I would have murdered her. That was how my friend viewed me, a thug who would mindlessly break and kill anyone she pointed at. That was her interpretation of me.

I was silent for a moment, gathering my thoughts and for a brief second wondering if she was right? If that was what I had to do, what I had to become, for my friend to keep me by her side, would I? I…did not want to answer that question; instead I answered what I would have done. If someone threatened her, I would protect her. If someone shamed her, I would defend her honour. And perhaps more importantly, if I believed that what she was doing was wrong, I would tell her. It is lonely, being powerful; few dare to question us, to speak frankly to us. I did not want to add to that loneliness, even if that would make her think less of me…

I don’t believe that my words offended her, but I am unsure if I would be able to tell even if I did. Still, she smiled. That was as good a start as any. She said she felt calmer and would try to rest again but she worried about continuing the march the next day. I offered to carry her as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, and she seemed grateful but asked if I was truly ok with doing so. Only then did I remember, remember that even though it should be something obvious and simple, it would never be that for me. But I agreed with a smile and let her go to sleep. My friend needed to rest and I was able to help her.

My worries did not leave me and after what felt like days, alone in the dark, Dawn returned and with it the camp began stirring. Shadow Edge began preparing for the day, and eventually it was time to follow through with my promise. I went over to Keemia and let her climb up on my back, and for the first time since I entered the jungle was I aware of my nakedness and of her. I felt her on my back and her thighs underneath my hands and with it came a wave of uninvited emotions and reflexes.

I became hard, nauseated, frightened…lessened. And countless other things, old threats and lessons from long before flashed before me and once again I felt vulnerable. I kept walking, trying to hide my discomfort trying desperately to find Gao’s marching order once again to focus my mind, but I couldn’t find it. Thankfully rain soon followed to help hide my face.

We continued for several hours before we set camp. And so I was able to settle Keemia down. As we sat down my thoughts were distracted by Brilliant Veil. She was moving more slowly, less controlled and we soon realized the cause. One of the creatures had bitten or stung her and she risked getting a fever. Keemia assured me that she was fine and asked that I would carry the princess instead. Was Keemia really fine to walk again? Was she avoiding me? Did she notice that I was damaged? Countless scenarios flashed across my mind, each adding new worries and I had to actively force myself to calm down.

I did not want to hold anyone else, but it was a request from Keemia. Besides she was my student and she needed help. On the plus side, my delirious worries at least helped to distract me from thinking too much about Brilliant Veil and the strangeness of carrying her. So the day continued until Shadow Edge led us to a large stone slab out in the wilderness. I rid myself of leeches and whatever other creatures that had latched onto me and sat the girl on the moss as carefully as I could.

I strayed a few feet from the others to calm down and let my brain start working normally again. As I did I realized the strangeness of a stone like this in the middle of the jungle and soon realized that it was a house of some kind, sunken into the ground. I quickly scanned the interior and then led the others inside, happy to have been able to help. There were traces of someone living there and my Learned Friend Shadow Edge concluded it was likely the home of a ‘Wise Man’. The hermit was not at home and so the bed was empty and that’s where we placed Brilliant Veil who quickly fell asleep. I went out to gather moss to help prepare beddings for Shadow Edge and Keemia when I saw the shape of a long armed orange creature, the Wise Man. I let Shadow Edge know and continued my work until the creature stood before me. I greeted it in Old Realm and explained what was going on.

It seemed to understand me and reacted when it learned that we were solars. It wrote a symbol, depicting the sun, and it was trying to add something to or around it with dirt but it kept being washed away by the rain. My heart skipped but the creature showed that it had not met any other chosen and after a brief exchange with Shadow Edge he left.

I went inside with the moss and prepared the beddings for my friends. Keemia was clear that she was to take watch that night and wanted me to rest, thanking me for my help. While I still worried about what she thought of me, I began to settle down, realizing how foolish I had been acting. Since my friends argument my nerves had grown weak. I was supposed to be a Solar Exalted, Man’s Champion, I could not have panic attacks and worrying about ‘What ifs’. I settled down on the stone floor to rest and fall asleep. As my eyes grew heavy, the memory of the Wise Man’s drawing replayed in my mind. Thinking back on it, it looked a bit like the drawing of a Zenith caste. What if he was trying to tell me something about Galatea….what if he knew something. What if…

It was going to be a long night.

2 +1

A Welcomed Respite

Galatea was eagerly listening to Keemia as he recited her latest poem. It was beautiful even though I couldn’t really hear the words. That didn’t matter though. Behind me Shadow Edge was debating with Clear Sky again, both of them enjoying their back and forth. To think that after so long we were finally all together again. Finally I could see Galatea again. She had her face turned towards Keemia, obscuring her features, but as if noticing my gaze she slowly turned to face me.

A awoke at dawn as the rain stopped falling outside, for a brief second I heard Janira say good morning; a leftover from the dream. Shadow Edge was keeping watch around Brilliant Veil, we were inside the crumbled house out in the jungle, not my home back at the Blessed Isle. We were not once again united, we still had not found Galatea…

Brilliant Veil never did end up getting a fever and woke up in a reasonably good condition. We ate the last of our supplies and headed out to continue the trek. Keemia said she did not need my aid and while I was in some was relived to hear it, I also worried that she pushed herself, or that she would avoid me. But she didn’t, we did not have many chances to talk, but we did so when we had the chance. She told me a little bit about her family that still lived in Adorned With Wisdom As A Sapphire. There were stories she wanted to tell, but did not feel comfortable to speak of around everyone else. While disappointing in one sense, the fact that she considered talking about something personal with me was a great relief and I looked forward to when she would be ready.

The days went on, Shadow Edge seemingly always finding new paths and new sources of food from the strangest of places until one day he suddenly stopped. He said there was a lake and people close by. He bravely went on ahead, telling us to wait behind and stay hidden. I readied myself to go to his aid should he need it. He was away for 5 minutes, then 10, then 15, each minute an eternity. Suddenly my friend returned, with a strange complexion on his face. He explained that the serpent men were being eaten by an enormous creature on the other side of the river. He was unsure of what to do, if we should fight or flight, but even while saying so, he seemed to be pleading me not to let more of those people die.

We would do what was right, and with that I began hurrying towards the monster my friend had described. My friend had not been exaggerating, the thing was enormous. Serpent men hailed arrows and rocks at it but it didn’t seem to notice. I charged the creature, and fought it at the bottom of the river. It felt as though I was fighting a mountain, each punch merely chipping away small pieces of rubble. But I did not let up, and continued to chip away at it, as I knew my friend was doing from up above. Finally, as I began to run out of air I had finally managed to whittle it down enough to strike true.

The river parted from the impact and the creatures flew up on the side of the river, my friend skewering it before it hit the ground. The creature was drawing its last breaths as I ended it to stop it’s thrashing. Our friends soon joined us and we arranged to scavenge bits and pieces of it, apparently such trinkets and trophies were valuable. Soon after Shadow Edge had started gutting it he pulled out the creature’s heart, cut it in two and handed it to me. I was unsure what I was supposed to do with it, but he quickly began eating it and so I followed suit. I did not quite understand the meaning behind it, but it was clear that it was something important to my friend and he was sharing it with me.

They also carved out scales, teeth and other such things which I offered to carry, two bladders however were removed and stored carefully. Finally we moved on and crossed the river and soon met with The Serpents Who Walks As Men, as I expected they were beastmen. They had run away when we engaged the creature but seemed curious about us, well me and Shadow Edge, they refused to look at or even acknowledge the others. It angered me, watching Keemia be treated so, but I remembered the men lived separately from women and Keemia did not seem to mind.

Shadow Edge presented one of the bladders to one of the men who drank from it. It seemed disgusting, but the man, Apoyakan seemed honored to be doing it, and happily led us to their village. There we found a “speaker-man” called Bandesi who told us more about his people.

He explained that the two sexes were forbidden to interact with one another except during specific days. Because of this, Keemia wanted to go to the women’s tribe where she could speak with people, and while I disliked splitting from my friends, we dropped off our friends there and returned to the male tribe. On our way back, my friend asked me about our exaltations, of our duties and of our castes’ different roles. I explained that the castes did not define or govern us; it was an extension, an amplification of ourselves, not anything that constrained us. We continued talking and I was glad to see my friend take interest in what we are. It seemed as though he finally began to accept it.

There we met Utan-Kulak, their wise man who spoke to me in old realm. He explained about the fair folk’s curse on their people and of Sang Nila Utama. It took some time, but I realized that he was talking about the Eclipse who once ruled An Teng as queen. But wat he said did not make sense, he spoke of her as if she was a monster, someone who brought the fair folk and other monsters with her. There was little time to wonder about that though, as soon drinks, food and other things were presented to us and so the night went on.

It was a pleasant break from the weeks of marching, and though I missed the presence of Keemia it was nice to speak freely with my friend long into the night.

4+1

A Longing To Forget

I awoke the next morning to see my friend missing from his bed. I went out to look for him and saw him addressing the wise man. This confused me since my friend did not know old realm, but it seemed as though Bandesi was helping him to translate. My friend wanted to add to his tattoos on his arms. He told me about the meanings of his old tattoo’s and the importance of them, and I felt proud to have him share his stories with me. Soon however I had to leave, as I had to keep my distance during the procedure. It was clearly a ritual with a lot of meaning, both to my friend and to the beastmen, and chanting and dancing rang out throughout the village

A few hours later he joined me and showed me his new tattoo, pride and satisfaction clear on his face. It was of the Dragon Father, it seemed as though killing the monster meant more to him than I first realized. The beastmen asked me to retell his story, and so I did. I stayed largely truthful but also avoided mentions of my own contributions. I would not lessen my friend’s moment. And so the day went on with celebrations for my friend. He had to wait until venturing deep into the jungle again, and so we only visited briefly the female tribe to let them know.

What we met was Fashionable Friend Keemia, covered in feathers and other adornments, practically glowing. She had made herself at home with the people in less than a day, in an entirely different way than myself and even Shadow Edge. The men hailed us as heroes yes, but from the outside, while it was clear by the way the others cared for her that she had been accepted as one of them.

The mood was however soured by the news that Shadow Edge’s mercenary had gotten ill and would slow us down. Keemia suggested leaving her in the village but Shadow Edge refused, a pity I thought. It would have been good if we could have gotten rid of that barrier between them. Alas we would carry her with us, although thankfully on a stretcher this time. We agreed to leave early the next day and so we returned to the village. There the celebrations kept going, now with new feasts and drinks. I spoke with Utan-Kulak about the path to the obelisk, and he told me of the dangers; of leaping frogs, of red flowers and white stones and of the Kroxigor, those among his people that had been claimed by the curse. He also once again told me about Sang Nila Utama, and the supposed evil she had wrought. Again it was strange, in some versions he spoke of her death by the hands of the Dragon Blooded while at other times he spoke of her as if she was still alive and how the Fair folk still feared her. He told me of a house of hers nearby the obelisk; perhaps we could learn more about it there.

While we ate some of the men began showcasing their skills in combat. They were practicing Snake Style, perhaps understandably and they were by and large talented in it. But I noticed that while some of them had understanding of their katas, they were unable to grasp the subtle differences when applying them to real combat, even sparring. I spent an hour or two giving them pointers, directing their blows as best I could despite the language barrier. And once again I felt the excited surge of once again training “troops”.

I went to bed content and relayed to Shadow Edge my talk with Utan-Kulak, although I kept most of his ramblings on Sang Nila Utama to myself, since there was no point in worrying him about things that could not be true. When I mentioned the flowers he reacted, he explained that they would make you forget your most painful memories, and eventually it would take everything. I realized it was the Nepenthe flower, with that…with that even I could forget. So much pain could simply be taken from me. “But there is no point in that, painful memories are learning experiences”. My friends words came unexpected and struck me deep. Something, I didn’t care what, broke next to me, crushed by sudden anger. What exactly was I supposed to learn from…_ that_? I knew my friend meant no disrespect, but I did not trust myself to speak and instead I focused on getting to sleep.

We woke early the next day, neither of us mentioning the previous night and went over to meet with the others. Keemia waited outside of the village, singing, seemingly at peace. Next to her were Brilliant Veil who still seemed to be reeling after the celebrations.. and then there was the mercenary. She claimed to be good enough to walk, but my friend convinced her to lie down on a stretcher and with that we continued our journey. As we moved Keemia sang the song of the female tribe, thus warding off the male tribe but we did encounter the female tribes twice during our journey, each time, Keemia traded with them for food and other consumables but other than that our travels were uninterrupted.

Finally we reached another large river, similar to the one with the Dragon Father. Shadow Edge led us across where the water was shallow and what met us on the other side where bones and skulls, warning us not to go any further. But there was also a large tree, marked by each wise man, and possibly wise women for countless generations, and showed that we were on the right path. The red hue of the foliage continued, an effect of the elemental pool of fire, but other things also changed. Large groups of frogs swept across the trees like wind and a subtle alien wrongness clung in the air. We were entering the Bordermarches.

During our second day after crossing the river, we encountered the flowers. Shadow Edge once again warned us to ignore them, but as we walked I could not help but think of all the pain I could be free from. I could forget their screams as they died, their fear and sadness. I could forget… Rakios. I approached one of the flowers in a moment of weakness, and stared into it, a sweet fog swept over my memories; Her wounds, slowly bleeding out without anything that could save her, her pain…her regrets…her face.

With a sudden angry snarl I yanked away from the plant, my caste mark shining. I would not forget Galatea or my friends, not even for a second. Any time with them were precious… even the painful ones. That pain was nothing compared to what came after they were gone. I would remember and I would endure, and finally I would meet them again. I ignored the other flowers and continued forward until Shadow Edge breathed out that we were safe from them. All of us seemed to be fine, but it was with both regret and determination I continued forward, away from the Nepenthe…

A few days later we finally found the white marble stones and eventually the obelisk. It was long since broken down, but once it seemed to be upholding an oath, but all that remained that could be read was “…paragons of virtue and obedience”. At times that was how the people of An Teng had been described. We had all complimented Sang Nila Utama’s governing skills, perhaps it was a monument of her people?

Once there were roads going back and forth here, remnants of one such road led to where Utan-Kulak had said Sang Nila Utama’s house laid. Dark clouds were gathering and to avoid sleeping outside in the rain, and more importantly, learn more about what happened here and hopefully put a stop to whatever fair folk that were harassing the beastmen, we followed the ‘road’ until we reached a cathedral, in a far different style than most of An Teng, the design more at home on the Blessed Isles than in the south. The walls were made of immaculate white marble, but they had been overrun and claimed by the jungle. The door to the cathedral seemed long gone, as if daring anyone to enter. We each lit our caste mark and entered. While left abandoned for what must have been over a thousand years, the interior remained whole as if cared for. At the center of the large room stood a large monument to the former queen of An-Teng. It depicted her commanding The Pale Mistress and other beasts and plagues to chase down the people of An-Teng.

Oh Sang Nila…this was not what you once told us. This was not the righteous An-Teng you showed us. Why…why did you lie to us?

2 +1

Paragons of Virtue and Obedience

I stared at the monument, not saying anything. This answered a lot of questions, but created new ones in its place. Keemia stared as well in horrified fascination. It seemed as though seeing Sang Nila Utama command An Teng’s Bogeyman and through it create laws and regulations lasting thousands of years truly drove home the potential power we could wield over Creation. But it also drove the question as to if it was right or not? Shadow Edge asked if that was normal for Solars to do such things, as if already wondering if it should be something he should prepare himself to do in the future.

Who was I to say? All I knew was that she had lied to us, kept this from us when we visited her but perhaps her reasons, whatever they were, were valid? Perhaps the alternative would have been worse, and still, it had worked. Yet…it did not seem right.

There were other murals next to the monument, one of the Golden Lord, seemingly pleading to her for something with an anguished look on his face. On the opposite side was a man strung up and crucified with his people abandoning him. He was a night caste and…by Sol Invictus Shadow Edge remembered him! He recognized him, he remembered the First Age! I could not constrain myself and lifted him up, celebrating. Finally we could share stories, finally…I would be remembered.

But, my friend’s downcast eyes told me everything. He remembered this man, whoever it was, but he did not remember The Brotherhood and he didn’t remember Me. I sat him down without saying anything, I should be glad and I was, to some extent. The fact that he had begun to remember was a good thing, a great thing even. It might mean that he would remember me…_eventually_.

The conversation did not have time to go any further however, as Shadow Edge warned us about a large group of…’people’ approaching us from the south. My earlier excitement must have drawn their attention. We hid the mercenary and Brilliant Veil in an underground vestry while we prepared for out attackers. Keemia dressed in clothes that would better serve her fighting style and Shadow Edge moved up to gain a good vantage point.

I drew strength from the fading sun and waited. Lightning struck and suddenly the Kroxigor champion stood outside the door. The light faded and immediately he was at my throat. Keemia leapt over us to keep the other kroxigors from swarming me…protecting me. But she would be in danger fighting them alone so I had to finish it quickly. I summoned all the strength I could muster and launched the creature in to the chandelier, crushing his skull as he went.

Soon after I did so, the kroxigors began retreating. While it kept Keemia safe it also gave an opening for the Raksha commanding them to get away. Brave Friend Shadow Edge dashed out in the now heavy rain outside and began climbing up towards the roof. There atop a tiger sat a woman wearing a golden mask, an imitation of Sang Nila Utama. She had an arrow knocked at Shadow Edge and was preparing to shoot when Keemia shouted at her to stand down. She had taken on the role of diplomat, much like Takeshi had so very long before her. The Raksha spoke of her and her brother-husband’s game, of reenacting the fight between Sang Nila Utama and her Night Caste lover. How the former queen on An-Teng had betrayed her lover and her people…

Noble Friend Keemia tried to convince the Raksha to retreat, to go back to the wyld and unmake themselves as they no longer needed to retell the solar’s stories as the Solar Exalted had already returned. The argumentation was good, she chose each word and inflection carefully to string the creature along, and for a time it seemed to be working, but even as she put forth her case, the mask focused more and more of its attention on me, it’s hollow eyes seeing more than they should.

The Raksha wanted me in return for agreeing with Keemia’s demands, a bargain she immediately turned down. “But he is merely a whore” came a whisper in my ear as if from right next to me. I staggered back as the Raksha laughed sensually at my reaction. She knew, she knew and she would tell them. She would tell Keemia and she would never look at me the same again. In a low, harsh whisper came Keemia’s order “Shadow Edge, Kill her”.

My friends were fighting for my sake and finally I could move, but I was unsure about who to help. The kroxigors would swarm Keemia, but Shadow Edge…a pained scream came from atop the cathedral as the Raksha bit into my friend. His attack had left him vulnerable and was now being eaten by that monster. I made my decision and hurried along the vines and foliage as fast as I could and did not stop to land a proper punch but merely slammed into the thing, hurling blow after blow, not truly caring where they landed just as long as it drove her away from him.

I drove her down through the ceiling and we all went down, including Shadow Edge who kept up the attack even as we fell. I didn’t even try to cushion my fall and slammed down and immediately crushed the creature along with its mask. At the same time Keemia stumbled back into the cathedral, injured! She was still fighting however and had slain several of them, but I would not give them a chance to turn the tide on her. Fuled by rage, shame and pain I turned towards them, they would all die for what they had done.

They ran, even mindless as they were, they knew that death was all that awaited them here, so they ran. I was about to make chase but as I saw my two wounded friends, wounded while protecting me and my honour, the rage left me, leaving me feeling hollow. Keemia, Matriarch Jelang, descendant from the great merchant princes of Jalan, to whom family and upbringing was so important…

How would she react to learning that I was nothing but a whore?

2 +1

Heart of Darkness

The Brotherhood of Virtue Riklurt Sydow