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The rain suddenly came down even harder, and lighting flashed across the evening sky. Lipsen ran towards the nearest tent to find shelter. She lifted the heavy leather curtain that protected the entrance. As she had expected, the tent was empty, except for a tiny fire grate; the occupants, whoever they were, had long since deserted the place. The abandoned camp was like a ghost town. The young Tryker shivered.
She set down her boomer rifle and her hunting bag against one of the wooden arches, then quickly cleaned the grate so she could light a flickering fire. A peaceful warmth began to fill the yurt. Lipsen slipped off her tashok armor and relaxed, silently thanking the Goddess for giving her this refuge. Outside, the grumble of the storm rolled like a war drum. The shadows cast by the slight flames in the fireplace seemed to dance to the rhythm of the rain that hammered down on the tent, furious that it wasn’t invited inside. Lipsen retrieved a piece of dried fish from her bag and chewed on it distractedly. Her golden eyes stared off into the void, while she pondered her reason for being in the forest of Nexus.
Lipsen Be’Laury had braved many dangers in order to meet the Kuilde chief. The tribal guards had been surprised to see a young Tryker hunter approach the entrance of their camp, carrying a torbak carcass. It was a gift for Mithus Xalon, she had said proudly. She wanted to join the ranks of the Kuilde, in order to serve the Goddess Jena and her disciples of the Karavan. The guards had laughed at the boldness of this little homin. Who did she think she was? To become a member of the tribe was an honor and a privilege that was granted to very few. But Hiang Sai-Ju, the host, had stepped forward and welcomed Lipsen. All homins who sought to serve the Goddess should be warmly welcomed. He suggested leaving the torbak with the tribal meatcutter, then offered to accompany the young woman to the chief’s tent.
Lipsen followed Hiang Sai-Ju, walking under the shadow of the metal vessel that hovered over the camp. The green rays of a Karavan signal swept the surrounding area. A feverish atmosphere seemed to reign over the village. Hiang Sai-Ju explained that the Kuilde were at war against the Recoverers tribe, who were Kami worshipers. The Recoverers had attacked the camp the night before, stealing their precious sacred objects. They would surely destroy them, as a sacrifice to their demonic masters. They had to be recovered at all cost.
Lipsen finally found herself facing Mithus Xalon. The Kuilde chief was a tall Fyros with an impassive face. He examined the young Tryker from head to toe, and Lipsen felt herself redden all the way to the roots of her blond hair under this intense scrutiny.
- “So you want to join the Kuilde? Why?”
- “The most powerful agents of all the Karavan belong to your tribe. Your faith in Jena is unshakeable. My grandfather was one of your members, when your influence extended throughout the ancient territories. He died like many others under the kitins’ stingers, during the Great Swarming. I want to reclaim my heritage and honor my ancestor. I want to serve the Goddess.”
- “What can you contribute to our tribe? You seem very young to me.”
- “I am an experienced hunter, despite my young age. I track all kinds of game, from peaceful armas to fierce bodocs. I track predators. I can imitate the cry of many different animals and I know the art of camouflage. I will hunt for the tribe. I will fight your enemies.”
- “You seem to be very brave and determined. But these are only words. You must prove yourself, Lipsen Be’Laury.”
- “I am ready. What must I do?”
- “For one season, you shall live in the forest of Nexus. If you are a huntress, nature will provide all that you need. You shall not sleep among us but you shall be serving the Kuilde. Hiang Sai-Ju will tell you the tasks you are to carry out. Follow the way of light in order to be worthy of the Goddess.
Lipsen made a disappointed pout, which she quickly hid, bowing to Mithus Xalon. A whole season of waiting!
- ”I shall do as you wish. I will prove that I am one of yours"
Several weeks had passed since this exchange with the Kuilde chief. Lipsen had accomplished several missions for Hiang Sai-Ju. She had explored the entire northern part of the region. She had hunted arma, yelk and even bolobi for their meat. She had defended herself against cuttlers, those carnivores whose striped hides are nearly invisible among the ferns. She had carefully avoided the bandits and gibbaïs that haunt the forest. Nexus was a dangerous land for imprudent travelers.
She had slept out under the stars, enjoying the mild early autumn weather. Lipsen was not afraid of solitude, but she still appreciated her brief stays at the Kuilde camp, when she came to bring the spoils of her hunting. The tribe still had not managed to recover the relics stolen by the Recoverers, despite several attempts. The Recoverers’ goal was to “cleanse” Nexus of the Kuilde influence, in the name of the Kamis and their master, Ma-Duk. These fanatics had announced a great ceremony for the end of autumn, practically challenging their enemies to stop them from sacrificing these precious objects. Lipsen was horrified by the situation. It was difficult for her to understand these homins who had sworn to be faithful to the Kamis. The nature demons were twisted beings, with a disturbing appearance and who did not hesitate to kill without remorse any miners who were too industrious. She had met one of these spirits near Fairhaven. The horned creature had tried to lure her with words, but the young Tryker did not fall into the trap. Lipsen had mocked the Kami, making fun of its hesitant voice and ridiculous posture. The demon had not reacted, returning to its silent contemplation of a flower that waved in the breeze. Such inconsistent creatures cannot be trusted to direct the destiny of homins.
Lipsen began to explore the southern part of Nexus when the weather began to turn bad. The first downpours were soon replaced by violent storms, and the young Tryker longed intensely to be finished with her initiation period so she could be safe and dry inside a Kuilde tent. That is when she found the abandoned camp. It almost seemed as if Jena had taken pity on her and had sprouted this providential shelter directly out of the Bark.
The young Tryker sneezed loudly, sending the flames dancing in their grate. Oh, great, she thought - all I need is to get sick! She must not give in. The rain was still beating on the leather walls of the yurt. Lipsen wondered who might have built this camp here. Explorers, bandits, smugglers? And why had they fled? Maybe the kitins, who had been active in the region for a long time… These questions were running through Lipsen’s mind. Then all of the fatigue that had accumulated throughout the day suddenly overwhelmed her, and she stifled a yawn. She had certainly earned a bit of rest. A few minutes later she was sleeping a light but restful sleep.
Lipsen awoke abruptly. The fire had gone out. The rain had stopped, and snatches of voices reached her ears. She recognized the staccato cadence of the Zoraïs’ speech. Squelching a sneeze, she slipped quietly to the entrance of the tent and gently lifted the leather curtain. There was a group of Zoraïs gathered around a campfire. With their faces lighted up by the flames, they looked like ghosts, with pale masks and large white armor made of willow. They were wearing crimson boots. Lipsen held her breath. She had recognized the colors of the Recoverers!
Hidden inside the tent, Lipsen Be’Laury kept her eyes on the group of Recoverers. The night was black, but the tall silhouettes of the Zoraïs were perfectly recognizable in the light of the campfire. Their voices reached the young Tryker’s ears; they were speaking in the common homin language, like all tribes that lived in Nexus.
- “… is expecting a new attack by the Kuilde. That’s why Liangi Do-Vi left this morning for the Company of the Eternal Tree camp. He will be back tomorrow. He wants to confer with their war chiefs in order to form an alliance against the Karavan followers. If these crazies dare to show up, our two tribes will crush them like insect larvae!"
The Zoraïs laughed sarcastically. Lipsen clenched her hands around her boomer rifle, sniffing. If these villains were fewer in number, she would not hesitate to give them a good lesson in humility!
- ”I heard talk that a Great Servant of the Kami will attend the Fallenor ceremony. It isn’t every day that we get to sacrifice Kuilde relics; Ma-Duk will be satisfied. May he grant us his blessings!"
The Recoverers near the fire all chanted, "Praised be the Great Life Giver, and cursed be the name of Jena, Empress of the night!"
They then pounded their chests and began to sing a war song, while others began to set up a spit over the fire. They roasted a quarter arma and then shared the meat while blessing the Kamis for providing this food. They passed a gourd around.
Lipsen felt her stomach grumbling. The dried fish had done little to appease her appetite.
- “A few wild berries would be a nice addition to our meal,” suggested one of the Zoraï with short hair, rising from his seat near the fire. “There are some nearby.”
- “Good idea, Fa,” said another. “But watch out for bad encounters like last time. We were afraid that raging gnoof was going to manage to take your crown jewels. That would be a tragedy for the Gai-Gun family and its future heirs!"
The other Recoverers laughed. The homin shrugged, then surveyed the surroundings. He moved away from the fire, with a bowl in one hand. He stopped near the tent where Lipsen was hiding, scanning the bushes.
The young Tryker carefully and silently let the curtain drop to a thin, bare crack and stayed as still as she could, listening with one ear. She could feel the blood rising in her temples and tried to calm the pounding of her heart. She told herself to imagine that she was stalking a prey, that she was accustomed to doing this. No need to panic!
After a seemingly endless moment, the sound of the Recoverer’s boots seemed to move away.
Everything’s all right, thought Lipsen, good fortune is still with the Trykers!
But fate would have it otherwise.
Without warning, Lipsen felt an overwhelming tickle in her nostrils; in seconds, she felt like her nose was in a vise, as she clamped down hard on the urge. She sneezed.
Through the crack in the tent flap, she saw the departing Zoraï freeze, then turn back towards the tent.
She pulled quickly away from the crack as he turned, then listened as he retraced his steps and stopped in front of the flap.. Lipsen cursed herself for her clumsiness. Was she going to die for a sneeze? Because of a little chill? Hardly a heroic ending! A pause, then the Recoverer hailed his companions.
She heard the approaching footsteps of two more Zorai and the soft whissppp!, of tchai pistols leaving holsters.
Lipsen's mind raced. The image of the meat roasting over the fire, the dried fish, the prayers to the Kamis, the Zoraïs with their frightening masks, were all vying for her attention. How was she going to escape this? An old legend of her people came to mind: the story of the young Wiksie, the first homin to encounter a Kami.
Without thinking any further, Lipsen swallowed, then emitted a sort of sharp croak. She pronounced a few words in a distorted voice.
- "Kami hungry!”
Outside, the surprised Zoraïs stood still and exchanged baffled looks.
- “Kami, hungry!" Croaked Lipsen, more confidently. "Homins hard of hearing you are! Wild berries, bring me!"
Taken by surprise, the Recoverer holding the bowl turned towards the bushes and quickly began gathering some red berries. The other Zoraïs hesitated, then one of them finally took the initiative.
- "Oh, revered Kami, what type of spirit are you?" he asked carefully.
- "The Kami of the Lost Souls, so may you call me," she croaked in reply. "During the Fallenor's nights, I appear in this place. Terrible things have befallen here. Abandoned souls wander. Have you forgotten everything, homins?"
Lipsen had no clear idea what she was talking about. But the words of the would-be Kami seemed to trigger some specific memories among the Recoverers. Some of them made a sacred sign to protect themselves from misfortune.
The Zoraï finished gathering berries and came back to the tent.
- "Here are a few berries, O spirit of Ma-Duk."
The young Tryker thought for a moment. She recalled the legend of Wiksie once again, and another tale, a Zoraï legend, that spoke of the conversion of the jungle people to the illusory precepts of the Kamis.
- "These fruits of nature, you must share among yourselves," she finally replied. This way, by your faith, my hunger shall be appeased."
These words seemed to dispel the Recoverers' last doubts. They knelt and ate the berries, while praising the wisdom of the Kami. Lipsen thanked Jena; her strategy seemed to be working! Now all she had to do was to get the Zoraïs away before they got too curious and asked to see the spirit. Could she get these gullible fools to all leave?
- ”And now, you must leave this place. In this place, only the afflicted souls may linger. Here is death and torment for the living! Leave, leave!"
The homins stood up and gathered their belongings silently, but quickly. They threw a last look at the tent and its mysterious occupant. A few drops of rain were beginning to fall, landing on their white masks and looking like tears on their impassive faces. A bolt of lightning flashed over the abandoned camp. As if obeying a sign of wrath from the Kamis, the Recoverers disappeared into the forest.
Lipsen held her breath for long moments, until she was sure they were long gone, then breathed a sigh of relief before bursting out laughing. She had managed to fool the enemies of the Kuilde, but she knew she had better leave this place. Still laughing out loud at the trick she had managed to pull off, she quickly put her armor back on, adjusted her hunting bag and grabbed her boomer. She carefully lifted the leather curtain that covered the entrance to the yurt and peered about. It looked like the Zoraïs had really left. Lipsen emerged into the storm, surveyed the surroundings more carefully and then set of towards the North. She had to warn Mithus Xalon of a possible alliance among his enemies.
After climbing a small hill, she turned around to look again at the deserted camp. Her eyes rested on the outline of the tents that were awash with rain and another idea, a crazy idea, occurred to her.
Slowly, Lipsen smiled again; this was going to be good!
- “Your plan is quite… unusual.”
Mithus Xalon scrunched his eyes and thought. His face had a bluish tinge, colored by the glowing cube that lighted the inside of the tent. In Lipsen’s mind, the Kuilde chief was practically a guardian of the Karavan, a being of masterfully restrained power. Sitting across from him, the young Tryker could barely conceal her anxiety. The Fyros truly impressed her.
- “But it might work, and the stakes are far too great for me to commit the error of excessive caution.”
Lipsen felt an immense wave of pride well up inside. She was going to show the whole tribe what she could do!
- “Do you think you can do it alone?” Xalon asked, getting to his feet.
- “Yes,” she replied, nodding and rising as well. “A whole army of warriors would do me no good in this plan.” Although she was smaller than the Fyros, she felt confident in speaking so boldly to him.
- “That is not what I was thinking of,” answered the Kuilde chief with a smile, as he opened a carved wooden box on the floor beside him. “The blessings of the Goddess are a kind of assistance that one cannot refuse.”
The Kuilde chief held out a small object to the young huntress. It was a crystal with a rounded shape, as clear the water in the lakes of Aeden Aqueous, with its iridescent reflections.
- “This is a teleportation crystal,” the leader said, handing it to her. “Break the crystal and you will be transported to a safe place.” Lipsen bowed before the Fyros and thanked him respectfully.
- “Now I must prepare the tribal fighters, in case the Company of the Eternal Tree decides to lend its assistance to the Recoverers.” He smiled softly again and laid a hand on her shoulder. “May the light shine on the perilous path that you have chosen, child of Jena.” Lipsen nodded again, smiled, then left the tent.
In the late afternoon, the sun’s rays could barely pierce through the clouds. Lipsen left the village carrying a large sack that contained all that she would need. She had to hurry to reach the abandoned camp before nightfall.
The moon was ensconced in the middle of the sky when the Zoraï saw the tents. A light drizzle was forming droplets of water on his tan-ko armor, like night-time dew. The Recoverer entered the camp, drew out of his bag the amber vase that he had taken from the foot of the sacrificial pillar and approached the yurt with hesitant steps.
- “Revered Kami of the Lost Souls, I have brought you this object as an offering, so it may be returned to nature in accordance with our customs.”
He placed the vase before the entrance to the tent. A few minutes passed. Emboldened, the homin leaned towards the leather curtain in order to lift it.
Suddenly, a plant-like hand shot forth from inside the yurt to seize the offering. The recycler leapt up, crying out in surprise. Then a voice came from within the tent.
- “With this sacrifice, you shall receive the favor of the spirits. Your name is known to the Kamis, Fa Gai-Guan!"
The Zoraï recognized the strange voice of the Kami of the Lost Souls and fell to his knees, then prostrated himself on the ground.
- "Glory be to Ma-Duk, glory be to his Disciples!” he shouted with fervor.
- “You have faith,” came the quiet reply. “A sacred mission you are worthy of accomplishing. Do you accept?”
Fa Gai-Guan lifted his head. He put his hand on his chest before speaking.
- “Yes! I am at your service, O Guardian of Atys!"
- "A greater sacrifice, the tormented souls demand," intoned the Kami. "Only then will they be granted rest. There are impious relics held by your tribe. Let Liangi Do-Vi, the Recoverers' chief, bring them here before dawn. My messenger you shall be, Fa Gai-Guan! Go. Now!"
The homin jumped to his feet then flew like the wind to the Northeast. He seemed to be filled with a fervent zeal and nothing could have stood in his way.
After a few moments, in the tent, Lipsen slipped the amber vase into her sack with a chuckle; everything had gone exactly as planned. She carefully removed her tashok gloves. The camouflage of moss and twigs had convinced the awestruck young Zoraï, but now she now had a few hours to perfect her disguise, before the other Recoverers returned with her "disciple."
The young Tryker feverishly set about her work.
Darkness still swallowed the first tentative rays of sunlight when the Recoverers turned up again at the camp. They came in a large group, guided by Fa Gai-Guan. In the midst of the warriors marched Liangi Do-Vi. His bald head looked like a threatening skull decorated with mortuary paintings. He brandished an imposing kanka mace. Two homins followed him closely, each one carrying a closed willow basket.
The Zoraïs gathered in front of the yurt. Fa Gai-Guan got down on his knees and spoke.
- "Your will has been done, O Kami of the Lost Souls! This very night, we have brought to you the most powerful Liangi Do-Vi, supreme guide of our tribe. Praised be his name!"
The Recoverers' chief stepped forward.
- "Spirit of Nature," he prayed aloud, "grant us the privilege of beholding you with our eyes. Then our hearts will be filled with your presence." He spoke with calm assurance and just a touch of cynicism. His prudent attitude was in contrast to the mystical exaltation of Fa Gai-Guan; he wanted to see this mysterious Kami with his own eyes before giving up his precious cargo.
The moment of truth had arrived.
A form leaped forth from the tent, slamming back the flap with a loud snap! The Zoraïs, startled, stepped back. Despite his small size, the Kami of the Lost Souls made an impressive spectacle. He crouched, like the salamander spirits of the desert, his moss-covered body bristling all over with branches. His head resembled a fish of the forest oceans. Huge autumnal ferns adorned his back, like sylvan wings.
- ”Good you have been, to respond to my command," cried the Kami, in a high-pitched voice. “A sacrifice for the lost souls! Did you bring the objects taken from our enemies?”
The two porters with the baskets moved forward and laid their precious cargo on the ground, then stepped back, bowing all the while.
- “Here are the Kuilde relics,” Liangi said. “Just from their appearance, there can be no doubt that they are from the Karavan.” The Recoverer reached into a basket and displayed two metallic cubes covered with strange inscriptions.
- “These sacrilegious objects to nature shall be returned!" exclaimed the Kami, adding, "And so, by this offering, the homins who have died here may return to their long path to the happiness of Ma-Duk!”
The Kami accompanied his words with strange signs that only he understood, then spoke again.
- “Now go you must!" it said, pointing back the way they had come. "The living are unbearable company for the dead. May the Great Life Giver bless you!”
Rather then turning and leaving, Liangi Do-Vi laid his hand on one of the cubes. “O Guardian of Atys, we would like to watch the sacrifice. By bringing you these relics, have we not earned this privilege?” The Kami jerked with surprise and gave him a look that seemed to say, “Who is this homin to challenge my authority?”
Under her plant-covered helmet, Lipsen was sweating and not from the heat. This damn Zorai seemed determined not to leave and she could feel her costume starting to come apart at the seams, just a little bit. If she didn’t get them out of here fast, it might come apart and then the fat would be in the fire. Her fat, their fire.
No choice, she thought; time to kick it up a notch.
- “For your accomplishments, you shall be rewarded,” she croaked approvingly, then hardened her voice into a command. “But the offering must be made by me alone. So it is demanded by the spirits of this place. Now go!"
The Recoverers looked at one another, troubled, but their chief held his ground.
- "We have always served the Great Life Giver loyally," he stated, standing his ground. "The sap of my tribe has been spilled to obtain these relics. We deserve to be present. We do not fear either the dead or the living!”
The Kami remained silent. He seemed to be thinking, then finally spoke again.
- "Loyal servants, you have proved yourselves. I shall grant you this favor. Stand back, homins, lest the recovery take your life!" he cried, waving his arms.
The Zoraïs quickly took a few steps backward as the Kami approached the cubes, murmuring incomprehensible words. In his right hand, crystalline particles shimmered, sparkling with rainbow colors.
Liangi Do-Vi's eyes narrowed; where had he had seen lights like this before? It seemed familiar… Yes! In the hands of Karavan followers! He instinctively jumped towards the relics…
Too late. Scooping up the sacred relics against his chest, the Kami of the Lost Souls crushed the crystal and disappeared in a gale of laughter as bright as the rising sun.
Lipsen Be’Laury was invited to join the Kuilde at the end of the autumn. Over the years, she became the tribe’s greatest huntress, the stuff of legends.
Nowadays, she ranges throughout the northern parts of the forests of Nexus, tracking wild beasts to help feed her clan. She avoids wandering towards the south and has never, ever, returned to the abandoned camp.
Maybe she won’t return out of fear of meeting a real Kami of the Lost Souls.
— about the adventures of a young Karavaneer in the Nexus.