Diary of Skolla Shawni

From The Coursebooks Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Written by Skolla Shawni and published in A.Y. 5751, the Diary is a rather chilling first-hand account of his life and adventures with a young woman he calls only "Zeph" (Zephanie Gahliardi) with whom he grew up and later went on a lengthy adventure; and thereafter of the later parts of his life as he struggled to deal with the events he witnessed, and eventually resigned himself to a life of poverty in order to understand the depth of what happened to him, and who-and-what Zeph really was. To the scholar, it is one of the most striking illustrations of how big Arindell really is.

Contents[edit]

Preface[edit]

Let me begin by saying that I am not sorry about my later life. I wish, sometimes, that I had not made the mistakes I made in my wreckless youth, but I am not sorry for the turns of fortune and fate that my life has taken since then. I do not write this to better my lot or for mere profit; I have spent a lifetime coming to understand the events I am to relate to you, and I wish only to see this information circulated so that, cruel and unrewarding as my life has been, I can pass from it knowing that my understanding endures. Though I may yet draw breath for many years, consider this transcript my last will and testament.

Our Journey[edit]

The Early Years[edit]

I was born and raised in Zathra, and will always remember my childhood as the happiest times in my life. There were rough spots, ups and downs, to be sure; what is life but an endless series of peeks and valleys? I was loved by parents and had many friends, and idled away my time on the pursuits of youth. The pleasures of the young; of life and love and anger and jealousy and a thousand other emotions that felt so strong in those aeons past. I recall feeling alive, but I know now that I never truly lived.

Zeph was a sweet girl. I can't say where or how I met her, she was just there. A normal part of life. A neighborhood kid like any other. We'd run and play and swim and laugh; in our younger years I thought her no different from any other youth. She was of average height, perhaps tall for a girl, with long and flowing blond hair and a vibrant, living smile. Her eyes were the strangest shade of gray; and that, one, singular feature stood out to me in our youth.

We had our time together. On our abouts our formative years there was a spark. Youth, especially early teens, always call it love, they sigh and swoon and claim to have a deep connection, as if 'liking the same music' were somehow the cornerstone of a lasting relationship. We'd grown close and ours was, to me at the time, very deep, though I never felt the same from her. I am uncomfortable even now, both because of the personal nature of our relationship and of what I know of her know, in divulging too much of what went on between us, but I will admit to a level of intimacy that, to my young heart, was the highest too which two people could aspire.

I said, I know that Zeph was not faithful, there were mitigating factors, and our friendship survived. There were around twelve of us in all, very close-knitt, friendship can survive anything. It was important, it turned out. I know, now, that I would not be alive today-such as my live is-if it were not for the bond I carried with those people.

The Journey Begins[edit]

Let me diverge for a moment to tell you a bit more about Zeph. She was a very intense child, and not the way one normally characterizes overly-dramatic youth. She was strong-willed and possessed a fortitude of spirit unmatched in anyone I have as yet seen. I have now lived these past thirty-two years in Arindell, walking the streets alongside Slayer Dragons, and for what I have seen, none of them has the sheer will I saw in Zeph.

I remember, once, when we were perhaps twelve. We visited a museum on the outskirts of Zathra, which sat on the edge of the Nara. While the other students milled about, admiring scultpures and being kids, she stood, along the river, facing up stream and staring into the distant mountains. As I stood behind her (admiring her, for I had these feelings of romance), I heard her speak.

"I want to walk those roads again..." was all she said, and to no one. She had not seen me standing behind her. She'd often been prone to flights of fancy, of course, so at the time I dismissed it.

Now, Zeph had spoken of 'our grand adventure' off and on all throughout our childhood. In our early teen years, while we held each other in what I was then certain was deep and affectionate love, she'd whisper to me quietly about the adventure we were going to have. I promised to follow her to the ends of the earth and back, because I was young and stupid, but she was completely and fully serious.

Our city sat at the mouth of the Nara River, spread across the delta where the waters meet the sea. The coast along this region of the [{Greater Continent]] is pretty well populated, and Zathra is a major port city, yet just a scant few hundred miles inland not a single soul dwells. A few hundred miles past that, and there is but an empty wasteland where no grass grows.

Yet further still it is known there lies and ancient, ruined city. The once mighty capitol of the feared and hated Marcon Alliance. It was this city that Zeph believed well and truly that we would one day visit together.

Writing in this present year, it has been some five millennia since any mortal being walked the paved roads of that city. No expedition has been launched, not even Finious Aberton, who by himself journeyed as far as Centered, had glimpsed it's aeons-dead coastline(though I know from my research that, had he not died, Fineious would likely have gone. Death, I think, was a preferable choice). So you can understand my misgivings, but I still pledged to follow her-and I meant it. Even after our love dwindled to friendship, I meant it.

Still, not a single one of us thought Zeph was serious until she bought the boat.

That day I remember. She had a surprise, she begged us all to meet her at the waterfront. She was excited, she was thrilled she was maybe fifteen. I remember the day, not the date. The boat itself was a simple affair, twenty-two feet long and made of lightweight sheets of aluminum. A skiff, you could practically hold it out of the water with one hand. We didn't believe her when she told us it would take us all the way to Lake Bentika. We were right, of course, but that did not stop us from trying.

I know now where she learned it, but at the time I had no idea where Zeph learned to handle a boat. We'd never sailed and she'd never discussed it, but here, now, she knew how to operate the water-craft like she'd sailed one like it her entire life--and more. We spent the summer taking turns, learning to operate it, and exploring the islands and tidal marshes of the delta.

Zeph had begun to prepare in earnest, teaching us skills and honing our equipment. We started to camp more frequently, using the boat to go out without adults. Instead of bringing along stoves, Zeph made us learn how to light fires, and to build our own stoves that could be ran on things we found in the wilderness. She taught us to forage, to fish, and at the time it all seemed like grandiose fun.

Still, I don't think any of us truly believed that we would be going on Zeph's grand adventure. As seriously as she took it, it was all just... a dream, to the rest of us. It wasn't until we had finished our primary schooling that Zeph asked us out right who was going and who was not. She had been planning. For years, perhaps even since early childhood, she'd been saving money, soliciting donations, and amassing a very considerable sum to pay for the expedition. And now she presented the plan to us: she had enough in her coffers to modify the boat we had and to purchase two more, plus all of the supplies and gear the twelve of us would need for the eighteen-month excursion.

This was her plan: using the flat-bottomed boats, we'd make our way up river. There were no real maps of the area, but by her estimates, the jounrey would be five thousand miles. She said it would take us just under eleven months, and five to return home(aided by the current). That would leave us a full two months to explore the city and to bring back as much treasure as our little skiffs could carry.

I won't lie to you and claim that the notion of treasure didn't have anything to do with my decision. It was quite a large part of it, in fact. I'd heard the stories of the ruined city many times, no one ever mentioned treasure, but Zeph hadn't been wrong yet. I knew how much she enjoyed history, perhaps she'd found something no one else had. Still, of the twelve of us, only nine agreed to follow Zeph that day. Of the course of our preperations, two more left. That made eight, total, including Zeph, in two boats.

We spent the entire next year, day in, day out, preparing for the journey. We modified our boats, adding a cabin large enough to sleep four people. We added masts and learned how to tack up stream. We took apart the outboard motors and reasembled them, made modifactions and learned every aspect of the equipment. We practiced every conceivable skill, and when Zeph decided we were ready, we set out."

Hard Travel[edit]

The first two weeks of our journey were glorious. It was like any other camping trip, we sang and laughed and joked and had a wonderful time. But we quickly reached the end of civilization, and soon after, we ran out of food.

Ok, not 'food' food, we were well-stocked with hardened travel rations. We ran out of sweets and snacks and the sort of food teenagers would prefer to live on. We were young and invincible, about to spend a year and a half with no parents! But two weeks in, we'd run out of tastey things and were left only with what Zeph had packed. I will be fair and frank and admit that it was very good food. She'd spared no expense. Our larder consisted primarily of a sort of hard-baked biscuit, which was inedible on it's own but formed the basis for the bulk of our meals. Crumbled up and mixed with other foods, then topped with an array of spices, I dare say we ate better than I did at home(or, I admit, through much of the rest of my life...).

There was dehydrated trail foods of every sort. Pastas and rice chiefly, with dried chicken and beef. We'd take a packet meant to feed four, and add in crumbled biscuit and seasonings until it adequietly fed the eight of us. No one was ever left hungry, and little was ever wasted. We augmented our food stuffs by hunting and fishing, bringing in trout and birds for the first several months before finally going after real animals.

We'd all learned to shoot, and we carried guns. Not for defense; between the eight of us, we had packed four riffles, always with the intent to use them for hunting. We had spare parts and ammunition, but though we'd fished and killed birds, there was much hesitation in taking down game animals. We were not hungry, I must be clear, but dried food made into soup and seasoned grows very tiresome, and the desire for some different thing finally drove us to take aim. Zeph brought down the first one, bringing down a water buffalo as it paused to drink beside the river.

We were perhaps five months in to the journey, at this point, and as we feasted, a growing suspicion was finally brought to light. Zeph had insisted that when we began, we had "at least eighteen months worth of food" packed, but based on our stores, we felt it was probably more like fifteen. As we cooked and ate the buffalo(it was young and tender and quite delicious - I said we were hesitant, I didn't say it was a mistake), she told us she had always planned that we'd augment our food source along the way, much as we had, and that our remaining stores would easily last another fifteen months. There was some argument, but we believed her.

The second problem arose as we checked our progress. I said no maps existed, but by our best estimates, we had covered only a third of the distance--with the most treacherous runs still well ahead of us. Zeph had always insisted that 'we would get faster as we traveled', and that the way back would be much shorter. For all her planning, she seemed to give a lot of contradictory answers. But I think the promise of treasure, and the level of trust, kept us going. If we only continued at our current rate, we'd still reach the city in fifteen months, so it was agreed we would hunt and fish more aggressively, and try to ration our food. We still held that it would take "just five months" to get back.

Let me take a moment to tell you about cataracts. On a river such as the Nara, that flows chiefly through deserts, there are occasional areas where it becomes wide, shallow, and swift. These places are dotted with rocks and nearly impossible to travel against. We used our outboards some, but we had to save the fuel for the mountains. So our method often reported to using poles and pushing against the shallow river bottom. It took us a week to navigate one that was only a few miles long. Another that we scouted on foot to be 12 miles looked so impossible that we simply dragged our boats around it. It took us three weeks. Unloaded, the boats were light, and we dragged them over sand. But we still had to move all of our supplies. And the cataracts were not the worst.

You think you may be prepared for something, but you never are. The vast, trackless desert bisected by the river had felt like our greatest challenge. There was little game and few fish. But then winter came. I will not say we were utterly unprepared; we had very fine clothing and still plenty of food. What we had not prepared for, though, was the effect on the river. Zeph's plan involved us being in the mountains and using the winter floods to cross rapids. But we were still in the desert. We could tack against the current, but it slowed our progress even more. Eventually, we found that simply getting out, and dragging the boat in teams through the water while we walked on the banks, was faster. Finally, we gave up entirely and simply ran the engines, desperate to progress against the torrent.

It was the heart of winter when we reached the foothills. There were no impassable water falls, but the river ahead was choked with ice and full of treacherous rocks. The area was forested by now, and we had another meeting. We were nine months into our adventure and still less than half way. But we refused to turn back, Zeph gave a pretty impressive speech, but we didn't need it. Two weeks in, when we ran out of snacks and comforts, we may have given up. After nine months... we weren't stopping until we reached Lake Bentika.

We pulled our boats out of the river and up some ways, then carefully leveled them out. We'd brought along what was effectively a tent to go over each one, and we actually lived in quiet comfort. In the foothills the winter was not severe. There was some six feet of snow, it was cold and demoralizing, but we had plenty of food, and we had each other. To idle away the time, we practiced our hunting, killing more animals than we needed and testing methods of preserving their meat. It was a hard time but I think we were all happy. The stress of not traveling, and a perceived abundance of supplies(and Zeph's clear forward-thinking in bringing along very warm clothing) had us all in good spirits.

When the spring thaw broke we started scouting ahead, and soon came across something... terrible. Not fearful in the way our journey would later become, just bad. We'd only been in the foothills so far, but a few dozens miles ahead the real mountains began, and the river flowed through a deep canyon. This meant fast currents, rapids, and possible waterfalls surrounded by treacherous cliffs.

Still we pressed on. We were eleven months in, now, and nobody was willing to give up. We used the spring thaw to get over the worst of it, and the first canyon was simple. Still, we were nearly out of fuel, and some short months later, we encountered the next canyon.

It was larger than the first, and we could no longer use our outboards; we had precious little fuel remaining. A hard decision was made. We found a cave near the river, and over the course of four days, we took the engines(four of them in total, two from each boat), all of the fuel, spare parts, and tools, and stocked them there on a bed of rocks and tucked under a tarp. We covered the cave entrance with stones and logs, and built ourselves an elaborate cairn to mark the spot by the river side. No mortal men will ever find those outboards, but we thought we would the following year.

Our boats lightened, but with only sails and oars and poles, we started through the canyon. I experienced a terror unlike any other that month. It was by no means the worst I would experience on that journey, but at the time it was the worst experience I had yet encountered.

Zeph already had the method worked out. When the rapids got bad enough, we'd go ahead of the boats, auger eye-bolts into the stone, and use pullies and winches to jack the boats along the top of the rocks. This mean getting out of them and jumping stone to stone through treacherous rapids. When we ran out of fuel completely, we abandoned gas winches in a second cave and settled for a hand-crank comalong. It was extremely slow travel, some days we'd stop for the next and be able to see our morning's campsite. Others, we reached sundown with so little progress made that we had to tie-in the boats and sleep on the river, which terrified me even more.

Finally, after fourteen long months, we reached the end. Not our destination, but we had finally encountered something we could not pass. Up the end of a long, narrow canyon who's current we could not row against, a single, enormous waterfall carried all the waters of the Nara river over an escarpment three hundred feet tall.

Zeph cried.

It was not the tears of mere defeat, or the sobs of an angry child or anyone merely upset over a failure. She collapsed, lying on the dirt sobbing uncontrollably. I remember her words, the way she shouted 'It wasn't here before, this wasn't here back then' haunted me as much as the day she talked about walking those roads again. I'd known all along that she was special, but this worried us all.

No one had ever seen Zeph cry like this, in all our years. For her, no one wanted to give up. We decided it could not be much further and, with a single-minded unity we had not even felt that day on the docks when we set out fourteen months earlier, we picked up Zeph and made plans to walk the rest of the way to Lake Bentika.

We had penetrated further into the interior of the Greater Continent than anyone had since the time of the Mage Wars, and we were unwilling to give up now.

Ruins[edit]

We found a place to pull the boats ashore and dragged them far away from the river to a protective grove of trees. We had little food left and took as much as we could carry. Hard decisions were made, we wouldn't be so much 'camping' as surviving. We left the sleeping bags and took blankets and bivouacs, the plan being to use fires and body heat to get by. Having to sleep huddled up with several people may not be ideal, but it would save us much weight.

Zeph was now possessed with a strange compulsion. She'd always been driven, but now it almost seemed beyond her very control. She couldn't stop herself, she wouldn't turn back with us, and if we left her, she'd die trying. On long nights she'd sit away from the fire, staring in a direction we didn't know until we'd carry her to bed. When we walked, she'd guide us, and we exhausted ourselves trying to keep up.

We followed the river for a time until Zeph insisted the terrain was starting to become famillair. We'd seen ruins off and on throughout the entire journey. In the desert, we'd spot carved stone blocks and bits of walls reaching out of sand dunes. In the forest and the mountains we saw little, but once we got away from the river, we'd find stone foundations and wells. I grew keenly aware of stonework. We saw mostly rough cut, crudely carved, with mortar long gone, but, sometimes, here and again, I'd see two polished and perfect stones, neatly fit together so tight the black of a knife could not slop between. Stranger still, this finely worked stone often lay beneath the cruder elements.

As I recount this tale so many years later, I wish I hard kept a diary then, and I wish I remembered the day we first saw it. It was visible above the hills we struggled through, a massive stone pinnacle, a monolith of clearly artificial origins. This, we knew, without anyone needing to say it, was out destination.

It was clear by now that we were no longer in an untamed wilderness, but in a forest that had grown over a metropolis. We were not hiking on trails but walking roads, climbing stairs, using tunnels finished with stonework. The parts that had been built to last had lasted, the rest was gone.

It took us another four months after abandoning the boats, but nearly on the day we were supposed to be home again, we crested a hill and were allowed to behold, for the very first time, Lake Bentika, and the cursed city on the island at it's center.

Since the day Zeph first collapsed crying, I'd felt a sense of foreboding. It grew, a little bit, every day, as we walked closer to the monolith. The size was enormous, the scale unfathomable. It towers, three thousand feet tall, above the island, itself filled with similar spires, domes, and many, many other things. It was not beautiful. The Marconian style favored sharp angles, black stones, and tall pinnacles made to represent swords. Every one of us, save for Zeph, felt the same fear as we gazed upon that aeons-dead city. Our deep and unsettling fear was made all the worse by the strange juxtaposition, abject terror beside Zeph, whom I tell you had always been a bright and cheery girl, was now the happiest that I had ever seen her or anyone. She was ecstatic beyond all measure.

It took another three days to hike down the hill, and two to construct a raft. With the light fading, we set out and paddled most of the night, pain and exhaustion filling our bones, but unable to stop less Zeph go on ahead and drown herself attempting to swim the distance. The night was as black as pitch when we landed. We still had flashlights and lanterns, and it was only through our combined pleading that Zeph agreed not to take off at a run. Still, beyond the point of exhaustion, no one slept. We sat on a stone dock together, and in silence, we waited for the dawn.

City of Death[edit]

At first light we fast-marched through the ancient cobbled streets and the maze of towers and buildings. The fine stonework I had observed was replicated a thousand times over. Every building looked perfect, pristine. There was weathering, yes, some structures had falled. Sand and dirt had blown in and become mud in the rains, but aside from a few sparse grasses, no plants dared to grow here.

We followed many roads and grand thoroughfares through the city. At squares we found fountains filled with mud. Some held dead trees, long petrified by their time in the shade of the buildings. There was artwork, too. Depictions of great battles and powerful sorcerers. Every surface was covered in weathered carvings. We dared enter only a few buildings, and saw little of interest. Certainly, many more impressive carvings and sculptures, but curiously little furniture. Perhaps the wood had rotted away, we didn't know."

Zeph was now a being fully possessed. I loved her deeply and cared for her, and I was frightened about where she might be going. The imagery we witnessed grew darker and more terrible the deeper we went into the city. Finally, in the early afternoon, we arrived at the foot of the great spire.

I will not describe the carvings or the ephigies we saw there. But for the sake of understanding, let me briefly tell you of the square. It was massive in dimension, round, with a raised dais upon which that pinnacle sat. It stretched up into time immortal, it seemed, and we dared not craine our necks skyward. Around the base of it were perhaps a few dozen bodies. They had not been touched by carion eaters and had clearly rotted where they fell. No one dared speak, but we all knew with grim certainty that they had not lain here undisturbed since the city still held life. These bones were of a much more... recent vintage.

It was here on the dais that Zeph fell, laughing and crying and screaming with unbridled joy. Her words were haunting, but clear. 'I am home again.' 'At last, I see you again.' 'This is me. This is where I belong.' There was no speech and she was speaking for no one but herself. She said all of that, she said more, she spoke of fathers, of ancient times, of glory, of life, death, and rebirth. She cried tears of happiness. She turned, for only a moment, and looked back, smiling, and meeting each of our eyes. 'Thank you,' she said.

And without another word, she turned her eyes back on the monolith, tilted her head back, let out a long, slow breath, then laid down and gave up her life.

No one had to touch her... no one dared try. Zeph was dead as certainly and fully as the bones beside her that had lain still for some hundreds, some thousands, of years. They, too, had gone on long journeys, and they, too, had fallen screaming and crying, in the exact same way.

We left the square and made for the lake, but the darkness soon fell and we were forced to spend a long, bitter, cold night in one of the abandoned buildings. We slept, I think, all of us, fitfully and lightly, our exhaustion so total. There was crying, my remaining friends all spoke of dreams, terrible nightmares. Being chased by monsters, witnessing sacrifices, all scenes depicted on the walls of the room where we slept. I dream of only one thing. Over, and over, and over again, I watched my best friend die.

At day break we made all haste to the shore of the lake, but could not find our raft. In our haste, we had become disoriented, and now were not even certain we were on the same side of the island. We had little food left, none of us had eaten in days, but none of us was willing to stop, now. Still, in our moment as explores, we discussed briefly remaining in the city. No one wanted to, but we'd spent so long and given up so much to get here. Still, it was agreed that we would leave, that nothing we could possibly find here was worth stayed for, worth trying to bring back. The city was dead and we should not remain within it.

We followed the shore until we found a narrow point in the lake and swam across, using floating logs and each other to help us. Then we simply ran, as deep into the forest as we could. When night fell, we ate our rations, ravenous, raw, and started a crude fire to dry and warm us. Another fitful night of nightmares, and we kept going. By the third day we could no longer see the city through the trees, but we now knew we were very utterly, completely, and fully lost.

Only now, out of sight of that cursed city and the lake surrounding it, we felt safe to stop. I was odd, but we felt compelled to bury our friend. We built a large cairn of stones over a pile of sticks we laid out in the shape and a person, and we held a solemn funeral for our dear friend. We carved her name on a rock. Somewhere, in a trackless wilderness, her burial site still lies.

The Long Road Home[edit]

I think it's hard to understand, but after the horror we witnessed in that city, after seeing the way Zeph died--which some may characterize as calm and peaceful, but I tell you it was not--we were happy to simply be away. We discussed in detail our options. We could, we knew, go back. Finding the lake again would be simple, then we could follow the shore until we found our campsite, and backtrack, eventually, the boats. But none of us could stomach the thought, it would mean spending days or weeks on the shores of Lake Bentika, sleeping in the shadow of that city. So we considered what we knew of the geography of the Greater Continent. The interior was known in only the broadest fashion. Mountain ranges, lakes, deserts, all anyone knew was about where everything was in relation to everything else. If you live on a round world, you might have a globe that shows the whole of your planet, and you might be able to point to a spot about on the continent where you think you might be. This is about how well we knew our location, now, or thought we did.

Rather unfortunately, as you likely know, the Greater Continent is frought with vast stretches of space in which you would rather not find yourself. Deserts are bad, but we know the region around Centered is worse(being, as it is, contaminated heavily by radiation). But the bulk of the bad places were on the far side, tens of thousands of miles from us. We knew about where we were, and we had a compass. We could cross the Barrier Range, we thought, and find ourselves in the Lowland Hills, but a treacherous crossing, on foot, with little gear, would be impossible.

We could also, we reasoned, attempt a wide circle around the lake, crossing hundreds and hundreds of miles on foot, and find the Nara again, and our boats. But that, too, meant spending far too long near that city. As well as the very real concern that we would end up following the wrong river. We could also be far more lost than we though, and find ourselves in the endless maze called the Teeth of the World.

In jest, I first proposed the simplest plan, but after discussion, we realized it was the best option. Using the mountains as our guide and our basic cartography, we would travel to the north-east, following any large river we found, and simply keep walking until we reached the coast. The coast was inhabited, we knew, and if we followed it, eventually, we could get home.

I will not tell you this was a perfect plan. It was a terrible plan. But that is where we were. Our very best option, the only one any of us felt willing to undertake, was to begin a journey of thirteen thousand miles on foot with few supplies.

Counting from that day, it was fully twelve years before I set foot in Zathra again.

There is little to tell of our long journey. We avoided the Teeth and kept to valleys, always going downhill, always staying near rivers, and always, always searching for any signs of civilization. We found ruins, some old, some new. We once found a logging camp with writing in Common and a date only some three hundred years old. We had to survive, so we had to hunt, fish. We built shelters and fires.

Our few comforts of technology wore out quickly. I think we were still in sight of the lake when our flashlights died. We abandoned anything we didn't think we could use, and became expert survivors. Edible plants, easy game, even preserving food, we learned it all and mastered it. There were happy times, it was not the life any of us had meant for ourselves, but it was life. We'd go to bed tired with our bellies full. I think we all decided, on the day we buried Zeph, that being sad and feeling sorry for ourselves would not keep us alive.

What is strange to me is through the whole journey, we never once discussed our time in the city. We talked of Zeph often, but never of her death. it was like she was just out of earshot, like the nights when she'd sit away from the fire and stare. We missed her. We missed many things. But we made new things for ourselves and found new reasons to be happy.

The winters, I think were the worst. That first winter after leaving the lake, we tried to keep going, and paid for it dearly. We nearly starved and many of us were ill. The others worked to keep us alive(I was one of the few who stayed healthy, and I remember little beyond desperately trying to find enough firewood to keep my friends alive). I am... ecstatic to say that no one was lost who could have been saved. We made it through that winter, and when fall came the following year, we set out to find a permanent camp. With preparation, shelter, and an essential willingness to eat damn near anything, it was much easier to get through that winter. Side note: bear eyes are very tasty if they're frozen.

We took seven years to reach the coast. Of the seven of us who left the cursed city, only six remained. Calli died in a rock slide. She died suddenly and experienced no pain. All of us were close and we felt the loss, but as I stoof over her cairn, I spoke the words that gave us all the strength to keep going. I told the others that she hadn't been sick, that she hadn't died of an injury, and when she was lost to us, it wasn't a self-sacrifice. She was simply out, and then we was gone. There was no 'if only we'd been able to treat her sickenss, or properly fix her injury', no, she just died, and now we had to keep going.

We lived on the shore for an entire year, hoping to spot a passing ship and be rescued. We kept a signal fire at the ready, and one of us was always watching. We never saw a ship, and after a year, we decided to rescue ourselves. We gathered as much salt as we could carry, dried fish we caught, worked to perfect a system of turning seawater into drinking water. It was vital, we'd camped near a river but we may not find fresh water following the coast.

For three long years we kept up as we had, following the coastline and making a winter camp. By the fourth year, we had reached a warm enough climate to keep going during winter, and finally, as the even of our fifth year grew close, we stumbled upon a shipwreck.

It was a light sailboat, made of fiberglass and wood, washed ashore in a storm and half buried in the sand. But it was also new, recent. There was no doubt in our minds that it was only a few years old. It was the first sign of recent human civilization we'd seen since those few weeks after leaving home.

Glorious homecoming[edit]

To this very day I burst out laughing when I imagine, from the perspective of a bored tourist, what it must have looked like that day in the rain when we walked into town. It was a small, sleepy, boring little resort town that liked to claim it was a fishery, but all it really had was a bunch of hotels and vacation homes. The center of the town was one paved main road lined with little shops and cafes. These were the first modern buildings or other humans we'd seen in thirteen and a half years.

Five of us walked into the city that day. Doon, who stood on the cliff beside us that day we reached the sea, later drowned while swimming. None of us knew he'd gone, and we did not find his body until the following day.

Still, the five of us walked, bravely, proudly into that town. We were dressed in animal skins with boots made from hide. We wore vests, remnants of vinyl jackets, and had camping backpacks of a modern, if dated design. The women's hair was cut short, then men had scraggly beards. We were all gnarled, weather-beaten, and hardened. Whats more, we were adults. We'd left as adventurous children, but we'd grown up.

From the small town, we reached out to our families, who had long since given us up for dead. Some didn't believe us, others simply cried. The townsfolk were kind, one of the lodges gave us rooms. I slept in a bed and sat on a toilet for the first time in thirteen and a half years.

We stayed in the village for three days, then took a fairy to a nearby city. From there, with money sent from our families, we booked passage on a series of ships. It took us eight months of travel to reach Zathra.

Aftermath[edit]

Its very hard to describe what its like to spend thirteen years in the wilderness. To say coming back was a shock, well, that doesn't even start. The five of us who made it back alive gathered on the dock we had set out from, and mourned the loss of the three who did not return. For a long time, we gathered, but we found that, even after so many years, we had only really stayed together because we needed each other to survive. We were childhood friends, and had we not gone on the great adventure, we would have take separate paths. I loved each and every one of them, but we needed space.

For me, the adjustment was jarring. My parents had never given up hope(and had actually financed most of the voyage home once we reached civilization). My childhood bedroom was untouched, so my first night back in Zathra, I tried to sleep in my old bed. I couldn't, and tried the floor, and eventually went out to sleep in the yard. For twelve years, I'd spent every night wedged between two of my friends. Sleeping alone felt foreign. I couldn't bath, I didn't know how to shower. Hot water against my skin gave me hives.

My parents were loving and supportive, and without them, I don't know what I would have done. They helped me adjust, they put up with a lot, and they spent long hours just talking to me and helping me cope with my return to the civilized world. They encouraged me to write, but I did not understand what had happened to me. Why did we take this journey? Who was Zeph, really, and why had we followed her? That, I think, was the biggest problem for me.

I learned to sleep in a bed again and to live among the civilized word. I got used to bathing in showers and living indoors. I taught myself to read and write again(skills we had not practiced in the deep woods). But above all, the thing that was hardest for me, was searching for a way to accept what had happened. How to fit it into my life.

My friends had little trouble. They simple picked up their lives where they'd left them, finding work or attenting secondary schools. One of us became a wilderness survival instructor. Some moved away. For me, I lived with my parents and went through the motions. They let me go a full year before trying to make me find a job, but I couldn't. I was a man, but a wreck of one. I told them time and again that I couldn't understand what happened to me, so my father told me. Simple, two words; he said: 'Find out.' If it was important enough, find out.

My Life, Since[edit]

For four years I lived in Zathra and spent my time in museums and libraries, reading everything I could to try and learn what had happened and why. History, never a favorite subject before, seemed to hold the best answer. My parents supported me, but grew weary of the burden I made on them. Eventually I started working at the library to pay some of my own way. But by the end of four years that Zathra, my home and the one place I had longed to be, would not hold the answers I needed.

Over ten years I traveled, visiting the great libraries, until, eventually, over many years and with many stops, I came to Arindell, crown city of the Alliance, and home of the greatest library known to mortal man. I supported myself by working in that library, living in abject poverty and using every scrap of free time I had to read and to research. I was homeless, for a time, but still I showed up to work. A coworker eventually let me live with him for a little money, and I sometimes found work as a research assistant. I had no secondary education, so most of the time I worked as a page. My job was to stock shelves, returning books that had been checked out, helping customers.

All the while, I read, and read, and read. Over thirty years, I lived and I read. I made friends, I did other things. But mostly, I read. And finally, after a search that had no consumed me for forty-four years, I had enough to piece together what happened.

The Truth about Zeph[edit]

This is what I know. Many dispute my findings, and I will not claim that my work has been as thoroughly cited or my sources verified, but I know these things and these things are true.

Zeph was, it should be obvious, connected somehow to the Marcon Alliance. With this as my starting point, I began my research there. Precious little survives of that most hated enemy of the Mage Wars, and so little of it discusses or describes the individual people. Few accounts, scant descriptions, and even less of actual names. Some cultures since then have even actively and willingly destroyed records, in the belief that by erasing the names, they could erase the people.

But the Marcons were a tenacious lot, and found way to avoid this. Reincarnation, allowing themselves to die and be reborn into new bodies, conceived and raised, yet retaining all the knowledge and powers they once had. Zeph is among these ranks. She began her life as Akeron Kaido, a powerful warrior-mage who rose to prominence during the height of the Marcon Alliance. As a member of the Lords of Chaos he wore the Mantle of The Inevitable, and became very powerful and highly placed within the Marconian power-structure.

It is no surprise, then, that he commanded the necessary resources to reincarnate, and under then Marcon tradition he retained all of his political powers. 'He' lived seven successive lives as a high-ranking Marcon officer; four as a man and three as a woman (the only way women could hold power under Marconian rule). The Marcon Alliance was still strong when, at his seventh death, he failed to return, and would not be born again for dozens of generations, emerging during the Second Chaotic Period to lead what was left of the Marcons.

Zeph next appeared in the mid Golden Age where she led an uprising and fought the Slayer Dragons, earning the honor of being killed by Genghis Sater himself. The people of that era did not know she was a reincarnated Marconian sorcerer.

In the late Golden Age, Zeph appears again, this time off-world (by my best information, the first time she is born onto another world). As Venta Fani, she became a charismatic cult leader, claiming to be a god and using her considerable magic to sell the act. The world she lived on for that life had no mages, and contemporary critics passed off her abilities as illusions, simple parlor tricks; and she was happy to let them believe. She had her followers and whatever pleasures she desired.

I find references to her, now and again, in the Second and Third Ages. I believe with each successive reincarnation, the ability to retain her considerably skill as a sorcerer dwindled. Perhaps some artifact of the reincarnation process gone awry. There are bits and pieces, I see her in many historical figures, usually as a business mogul or a leader, though of many of her lives I can never be sure. The one distinct factor is when I find in these people a great yearning to walk the streets of the Marcon capitol. It is mentioned, often in their diaries, and when I made my initial list, there were far too many names that held that one fact alone. I will explain, in time, how each of them was born of a different reincarnation line.

For Zeph, I look for other details. She is typically happy, often playful. Her lives are characterized by strong friendships; and while I believe she was once a great evil, I know find that she seeks only closeness.

I do not believe that Zeph will again walk among the living in my time; but I hope that, if she does live again, she finds new friends that will love her as much as I did.

Revisions[edit]

Some publishers found the end of Shawni's story 'too sad to be read', and supplied an extemporaneous end of their own; these may have varied, but most of them describe 'Zeph' as having thanked her friends for the visit to the Marcon site, and returned with them alive, only to forget her previous incarnation entirely in later years, as she resumed a 'normal' life. This last was to explain Shawni's lifelong search for her origins, in so far as it makes him anxious to know the truth, but unable to extract it from her or any of their comrades.