The Fifth Path (18/30)

The First Draft of the Autobiography of Baal Uras, Soon to be 28th King of the True Land

Running Title: The False and True: Reforged in the Outland Seas

Composed Simanu 23rd In the 59th Year of Baal Shamas

Chapter 15: The Northwall Gap

Things moved fast after the whole business with the pirates was put behind us. I was not particularly comfortable with the pirate admiral that rescued us, and obviously not so happy with the pirate siblings who had enslaved me for a month. As such, the idea of traveling on board a pirate vessel for the next leg of our journey was not something I particularly relished. Considering how much of our escape was owed to my Scholar, and his obvious interest in the pirate captain of this particular vessel, combined with the fact that this was pretty much the best possible scenario as far as being able to travel easily and far made the decision for me. The woman in question was likable enough. She respected my status as a Baal but also made sure that I respected hers as the captain of the vessel we were traveling on. I was not exactly happy with the fact that she technically worked for the admiral who had caused all that trouble years ago in Xexan, but it seemed like the command structure was pretty loose most of the time, at least for people like our captain, who were respected and trusted by the admiral.

Route planning was one of the things we started to do first after we gave up on the chase of the pirate siblings. My Scholar was still complaining about not getting his journal back, but considering he got to sail on a ship captained by his new girlfriend I figured he would be able to deal. I’m less sure if the decision to abandon the chase was a good one for my Protector. She still had unresolved issues with the pair for certain, which she continued to be unable to talk about, but were somewhat deducible based on surrounding evidence. I am afraid I must admit that I don’t know enough about the mind to know whether getting some kind of resolution in that matter would have been good for her, or simply reopened those wounds again. Maybe just leaving them all behind was the best choice. I was worried about her though. She was usually upbeat and focused, but occasionally she would seem to zone out, not being quiet in the moment, and those times felt dangerous. I hoped that time and distance would heal those wounds. I know good food and the chance to walk around free of shackles for a bit did a great deal for my own mental state.

If there is one thing I was left with from the experience though, it was the need to actually be worthy of being a Baal. I have been less and less sure of my innate superiority as told by the priests as this journey continued. That time as a slave really pushed that belief to the limit. I thought about it, and I think perhaps in the middle of that time, I lost the belief entirely. But now, with time to reflect, I think I just needed to change my attitude about it. Instead of assuming my superiority was intrinsic without effort, I instead have begun to see it as something of a responsibility. If one is to be a leader, then one needs to hold themselves to a higher standard. One needs to be better than what they would be if they did not have this added responsibility. And so now, looking forward, being the person I was born to be has become my goal. I do not think I have yet achieved my potential as a Baal. But if I would keep that title, then I must do so. I will be Baal. I must be Baal. I was born into it. I have no choice but to put my heart and soul into becoming that which I am destined to be. Destiny is a responsibility and not a guarantee. Or at least the conclusion I have come to so far. I shall need to consult with the priests upon my return to ensure my mind has not been corrupted by the influence of the false land.

All that aside, deciding where to go ended up being relatively straight forward. We needed to go around the Green Sea, cross over its northern edge, then head further north in order to reach our final destination. There were two ways to do this. As I have explained before, the Green Sea is incredibly large. To go around the entire thing is an incredible voyage, especially as the Sea curves east at the far north, necessitating not just a journey north, but also around the eastern hook. However, there is another option. The point where the Green Sea turns is a strange one in terms of tides. There are shifts and movements in the water there that make sections of the Green Sea part, allowing boats through unhindered. The danger of course is that these tides change over time, and the effect is something like a maze, with any given bit of said maze potentially disappearing in minutes or hours. It was a difficult and dangerous route, and as such few attempted it. My Scholar’s girlfriend seemed to think nothing of it though. And since we would be put months behind if we didn’t take that shortcut, we are once again taking a risk on traveling through the Green Sea. I would be as upset about this as my Protector was if only I was not instead incredibly excited. Somehow our near “death by starvation and exposure to the elements” previously had not curbed my enthusiasm for the place. Tackling the Northwall Gap was a chance one only got once in their life, and I was not about to pass it up.

As we traveled north, I picked up my third alliance with a foreign power as almost an afterthought. We had to stop at a small island to stock up on supplies for the long journey north, and I was informed that the port town was also the capital of this small nation. I made my way over to the palace, which was not in fact a palace but a courthouse, and made a simple but profound trade and culture agreement with the rulers of this small place, who were in face a panel of judges, each elected by a different segment of the populous. The idea of elected leaders was one I had heard of in my studies and in my travels, but actually seeing it was something else entirely. These “rulers” that I was speaking to had no divine blood, no “mandate of heaven”. They simply did a good enough job that people thought they should keep doing it. Though the very idea seemed anathema to me initially, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered why it felt that way. In the false lands, where there is no Bel to give divine commands, what real way is there to determine who might rule the best? Perhaps a choice decided my men was no worse than one decided by blood or the will of false gods. It could certainly be much worse. Then, if a ruler failed to live up to their expectations they could be replaced bloodlessly, and not using the sacrificial alter and the scream of the crowd so oft used to destroy the false Baal in homeland. I must be truly corrupted by the outlands now. I shall need to be purified by the priests. Yet such a purification is far from now. For now I have my own mind and thoughts alone.

With that agreement reached and the land of Yiasmit now a proud ally of the holy land of Bel, we moved on, ever northward. In my quest to become worthy of my own title, I used the time aboard the ship, waiting to reach our next destination as an opportunity to learn. I tried learning a bit more Xexan from the many multilingual crew members as well as picking up and understanding more and more of how boats and ships functioned and how one would run such a vessel without the fine help of these well trained individuals. I also finally got around to getting me and my Scholar some training in the martial arts. I had been meaning to get my Scholar better prepared for such engagements ever since his unfortunate stabbing, but my Protector had always been sick at sea, and on land we had always been busy, so it had not yet occurred. If there was one positive from the whole pirate scenario it was that somehow my Protector seems better able to hold herself on board ships. Not having to watch her writhe around in obvious pain for the entire duration of sea voyages was certainly a nice change. And so she was able to give us some training. While all of us had different favored weapons, my Protector was a master, and thus knew her own weapon as well as dozens of others, and was thus able to instruct me in my axe fighting as well as my Scholar in his choice, a pair of knives, one long and one short.

When we first began, the crew members not actively working would stop and watch our training, curious about our fighting techniques. They seemed to get a kick out of watching me and my Scholar get repeatedly disarmed and knocked over by my Protector. After a couple days though, the captain decided she was not going to give up this opportunity to get all of her people a bit better trained, and soon everyone that wasn’t working was training, or in the case of the captain and a few others that were particularly skilled, training others. It was a regular battle academy, with people learning and teaching all sorts of different weapons and styles. There was an ongoing sparing ring where folks could challenge one another, and a nightly tournament which was very competitive for the simple fact that the winner got double helpings at all meals the next day. It started out being largely a tournament between people of middling skill such as myself, but as each day a new champion was crowned, and that champion was annoying enough that better people decided they needed to show them a thing or two, the level of skill improved over time.

As was only appropriate, the final night before we faced the Gap the tournaments final round was between my Protector and the captain, both having only deigned to enter on that final night. It was a battle to behold for sure. The winner was decided only by a sliver, as it was one such chunk of wood sliding into the foot of our fine captain that distracted her sufficiently to be disarmed by my Protector. Credit to the woman, despite her obvious annoyance, she crowned my Protector all the same, and spoke nothing but her praises, never once using her still bleeding foot as any sort of excuse. Later that night I overheard her being asked about it, and her response was that checking ones footing is an important part of any battle, and that it was her fault she had been so injured.

On the next morning, the whole crew allowed to rest well and sleep in for the tough days ahead, we prepared to face the Northwall Gap. My Scholar had a notebook of tides and seasonal variations and was checking it against what we could see before us and the day and month. The crew was checking all bits of the boat, making sure there were not leaks or bends or breaks, that we would only die if we made a poor choice, not if we did everything right but the boat wasn’t strong enough. Then, after a brief prayer session, in which seventy eight of the thousand odd gods of the Xexan faith were specifically called out, we set out into the Gap. It started slow and easy. The Gap was wide, the tide was slow, and the boat rocked little. Time passed, and I began to wonder if the dangerous nature of the Gap had been nothing but overinflated stories. Then of course, we came to our first intersection. A tiny, fast moving section of clear sea continued on straight, while a slower and wider, but windy one turned off to the right, into the green of the Northwall. As we approached, the captain called out orders as my Scholar recited bits of his book in the strange sounds of the Xexan language. As much as I had improved in the last few days, it seemed that the Hishtu man had continued on at his own incredible hurtling pace, learning a language never before truly known by any true lander. I was glad he had been chosen as my Scholar. Had I had anyone less competent we would have been dead a hundred times over by now. Though, considering his nature in designing the route, perhaps we would not have taken quite as many risks either. Still, hurtling through the tiny gap, moving faster and faster, I would not have traded him for the safest Fifth Path in history.

I tried to keep track of the other path we could have taken, watching it move further and further away from our own, disappearing into the green expanse of the Northwall. I climbed up the sail, trying not to disturb the pirate who was already up there, watching the path we were actually on, and kept following the other path with my eyes, until it vanished to nothing. We had chosen correctly it seemed. With that fact established I turned my attention back to our actual path, seeing on the horizon yet another choice. The pirate next to me had seen it a moment sooner and was shouting down to the captain below even as I was seeing the choice. This time there were three paths, each very similar to the other. None seemed faster or slower, or more or less windy. It seemed like a gamble pure and simple. And yet, a moment later, after consulting with my Scholar, the captain shouted an order, and we all prepared to take the rightmost path, the opposite choice as last time. We zoomed forward, and turned at just the right time, having very little time to maneuver, with the path widening into three for only a short distance indeed.

As we raced through the Gap, the tide became faster and faster, while the paths became smaller and smaller. That our captain was able to move this relatively large ship through these tight corridors without making contact with the green sides which would latch on and disrupt the journey was incredible, especially as the paths took tight turns and zigzags. It was about two hours into this journey of hard decisions and lightning reflexes that the first mistake was made. The captain had been making turns and decisions at an incredible pace for that whole period of time, and that she might have become exhausted by that point is not in any way a mark against her. We made a wrong turn, and we soon realized we would be hitting a dead end. Thankfully our pirate observer saw this well ahead of time, while we were close to another path, and our captain was able to make a snap decision, slamming us into the green barrier that separated the paths. We slowed for a moment, but our momentum was such that we managed to break through without being stopped and returned to the correct route. But as I looked behind us I saw the undersea trailing of green kelp that had stuck to the bottom of the boat. We could only make so many mistakes like that before we would be trapped.

Over the next several hours a few more situations like that occurred. We went down a wrong path, or were not able to turn fast enough on a tight angle and we slowed for a moment before pulling away. Each time though, we slowed more, and each time the volume of green which trailed after us under the boat increased. As if the Gap was testing us, at this point we began to encounter sandbars, or small islands dotted across the Gap, turning good routes into deathtraps, and making even those that were not fully blocked off much tighter for we had to fear being caught by the green as well as beached on a rise of sand. As I watched however, we seemed to be almost aiming for the islands and the sandbars, our ship moving closer to them, barely missing, scraping the edge of the islands, being just a moment away from beaching on the shore. I began to question the decision making of our captain at that point, as I watched her choose between two routes, one straight and clean, the other with multiple rising sandbars to dodge and worry about, selecting the later with no hesitation. We scraped and dragged and we made it through, but it was a close thing, and when I saw that the other route rejoined with this one, that we could have avoided all of that, I considered stepping in, perhaps advising another to take the lead for a while so that our captain could rest and restore her rationality.

I watched as we once again made a mistake, taking the wrong route and having to move through the green to avoid being mired in it. Thinking about how much kelp we had stuck to our ship, I wondered if we would make it through at all. But strangely, we seemed to have done better than before. When I looked back after we completed our maneuver, I saw less green trailing then before. Straining my eyes, I looked back at the sandbars we had just passed by, and realized that what I had perceived as a failure of rationality had instead been the height of it. Our captain had been intentionally moving us close to and scraping against sandbars and islands in order to scrape the accumulated seaweed off of the bottom of our boat. I saw little green strands on each shore we had scraped by. I shook my head. Once more my hubris seemed to know no bounds.

In the end there was just one final challenge that had to be overcome. The end of the Northwall Gap was a final fast and straight path, with no curves or bends. But, it was exceedingly narrow. As we approached that final section, our scout reported what he saw, and after some calculations, we determined that our boat was too wide. We would be caught by the green. It seemed cruel that we had made it so far only to fail in the final stretch, but our captain and crew were having none of my doom and gloom. Called into action, every man and woman on the ship began to move below deck, gathering everything with weight they could find and hurling it overboard. If we could reduce the weight of the vessel, it would rise in the water and the width of the part touching the water would be less. I joined everyone else, dumping food and provisions, even large caches of gold and silver. We even had to push a few of the ships cannons over the edge. In the end however, it was enough. We were able to sail through, and while the last mile or so was in fact too narrow, our speed and mass was sufficient that we were able to push through, dragging the green tangles behind us, slowing down more and more, until at the very end, we exited the green sea at a pace slower than walking. But, we were out. We had braved the Northwall Gap and won our way into the Northern Seas, a place barely mapped and rarely visited by any of the cultures known to the true land. We were, as the old saying goes, off the edge of the map.

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