There was a distinct contrast between the Dead Mountains and the rest of the terrain surrounding the black city of Messolina. Most of the terrain was green with forests and grasslands. There were hills and valleys and some farmland for those that nourished themselves through their bellies.
And there were villages scattered throughout the lands also. The villages themselves dated back to the ancient times, to the times when the Prim had taken control of everything, establishing their version of peace upon the land, and the villages enjoyed their protection in exchange for goods.
But the Dead Mountains always loomed nearby, overlooking the outlying lands like a dark shadow, and the Dead Mountains were not green at all. They were as black as a night-sky without a single star or moon to illuminate it.
Nobody ever entered the Dead Mountains. Doing so was considered suicide. The Dead Mountains were controlled by the Barakai and the Barakai knew only one thing. Eat.
If a Prim were armed with a correllium sword, then that Prim could handle one or two Barakai. If that Prim were very skilled and focused she could handle three, but the Barakai hunted in packs of a dozen or more and swords made of normal steel were essentially useless against them. Their bodies were exoskeleton and the natural armor they had was harder than a normal steel blade, but they could be outwitted. The Barakai were lower thinking beings, minds operating on instinct and instinct alone, eating being their main focus, and it was the way that they ate that made dying to one of them so horrific.
Jo-Laina, as always, had the lead of the group. She walked carefully, with focus and intent, up the path that the ancients had somehow cut into the Dead Mountains. Greegus was directly behind her and the rest of the group was lined up by two behind them.
For the most part the group was making their way up the path in silence, but that wasn’t their normal way of traveling. The way that they normally moved about was louder than that. They often sang cadence songs, laughed and told jokes as they traveled, but this was different. It was different because they had all dealt with the Barakai on previous occasions, for the Barakai didn’t limit themselves to the Dead Mountains. The Dead Mountains offered nothing for them to eat on a regular basis, which forced the Barakai to hunt away from their isolated dwelling place, and return to it after their bellies were full.
But the group was silent for other reasons too.
They were silent because they all knew they were getting closer--A fact that Jo-Laina was very much aware of. They had actually made it to the legendary place that they had only previously heard of in stories—the place where the ancients cut a path into the uncuttable mountains—where valuable treasures were hidden—where tides could be turned—where broken ties could be mended—where Prim Pockets could be found.
And the Barakai were close. They all sensed it. They all knew it. The path was cut deep along the mountain. So deep that a flat, smooth wall was formed to their right as they marched their slow ascent, but that wall clipped away above them. There was no wall over their right shoulder. Over their right shoulders were ridges and ledges, openings and mountainous formations. There were plenty of places for the Barakai to hide along the way and hiding they were. An occasional clicking noise could be heard, which was the way the Barakai communicated. They were not alone as they made their way along, but the Barakai did not attack, which was unlike the Barakai to hold fast. Their stomachs usually didn’t permit such nonsense.
So they all knew how close they were entering the final cloak that was death. The swords that most of them were armed with would be of little help. They did have Jerifai’s arrows, but only a very well placed correllium tipped arrow would do any good, and if they were attacked by a dozen Barakai then Jerifai wouldn’t be able to loose enough arrows to do any good anyway.
So they walked.
“If I wasn’t seeing this for myself, I wouldn’t believe it.” Makus commented.
“Shh,” Jo-Vanna returned. She brought a solitary finger to her mouth for emphasis.
“Why,” Makus said back to her. “They know we’re here! If they wanted to feast on us they’d come down and do it.”
“He has a point,” Panpar added. He was three from the very back and spoke loudly, so that everyone could hear him. “And a good point I might add. The Barakai listen only to their stomachs, which are always empty, and yet they remain hidden from our eyes like prairie dogs in their burrows. We shouldn’t dismiss this. There must be a reason.”
Jo-Laina conceded Panpar’s point to herself. She turned it over in her head much in the same way that a cook flips a flour jack on a flat iron over a flickering flame. The Barakai were nocturnal by nature, hunting mostly at night, but even though it was morning, that in itself wouldn’t stop them from coming down onto the path to eat.
And the thought of the Barakai eating, the way that they eat, brought a crawling feeling to Jo-Laina’s spine. She tried to shake it off, but the feeling wouldn’t leave her, and the images of people that she had known who died to the Barakai, surfaced in her mind.
The Barakai had raided villages seventeen times in Jo-Laina’s lifetime and had done it at night every time. The Barakai lived in the mountains, but the mountains provided nothing for them to eat, so they came down into the forests to hunt. Sometimes the forests denied their bellies a fill and their quests for food brought them to one of the villages in the outskirts of Messolina—one of those villages being the one in which she was born—the Toshina village.
In Toshina, they had a defensive weapon against the Barakai, that wasn’t really a weapon, but form of protection from them. The village itself was miles away from the emptiness that was the Dead Mountains. The correllium mountains receded deep into Bolimar, but a vein of it resurfaced, like the wet burp of an infant, right in the middle of Toshina. That vein of correllium jutted right out of the ground, sticking ten feet out of the ground, like a straw sticks out of a cup. And it was like a straw for another reason. The vein was hollow. It had an opening just large enough for any human sized creature to enter and crawl down into. Once you climbed down below ground level, the throat of that correllium straw opened up into a cavern, and when the Barakai decided to come into their village the occupants of the village would retreat into that cavern. The Barakai were too large to fit into it and could not tear into the correllium to widen the hole, so anyone that made it into the cavern was safe from them.
But that’s only if they made it into the cavern in time. Not everyone was that fortunate, and both Jo-Laina, and Jo-Vanna had personally witnessed multiple Barakai victims. It was a sight that, once you saw it, you could never forget it.
Upon seeing a Barakai, a person would be reminded of a preying mantis. The difference in appearance first being the color of them, and the second being their heads. Their heads were more boxed shaped than triangular, and their bodies were wider than the body of a praying mantis. And when they caught a victim, they drew that victim in with their powerful front legs, their bodies seemed to split open like dual French doors, grappling like strands would shoot out from inside, yanking their helpless victims forward into their open chest cavity, and then the Barakai would begin to feed. The process was slow and agonizing from what Jo-Laina could tell, because once the Barakai got what it came for it would trot off with that victim screaming as their insides were slowly sucked from them. It was said that the Barakai kept their victims alive for as long as they could, draining them over time, and leaving nothing but an empty husk when they were done. Dying to a Barakai was not considered a good death.
So coming to the Dead Mountains, with the goal of reaching the very top, was not a decision based on intelligence. It was not something that virtually any citizen of Messolina would agree to. Nobody knew for sure how many Barakai existed in the Dead Mountains. The only thing that anybody knew for sure was that the number was a lot and that, without correllium blades for weapons or a place to run and hide, a person was doomed to die to the Barakai. There was no escaping that fate.
And yet Jo-Laina’s band of warriors joined her anyway.
Patch and Picket were not the first bolainin that the twins had. The twins could not join their minds with anyone or any creature that they wanted to. It was as if their minds had to have a specialized link with their target. The only exception to this seemed to be with meerkin. Any prim could join minds with any meerkin, but that exception seemed to be limited to meerkin alone. Before they acquired Patch and Picket their aunt Veranda had served them both as a bolainin, and continued to do so until her death.
It was through their aunt that Jo-Laina and Jo-Vanna first met and heard Panpar’s stories. Before that initial meeting Panpar had been a wanderer who only claimed to be a warrior. He had no clan to call his own, and he had no correllium chest plate. Back then he was considered to be a foolish old man who told stories that nobody believed, and he told them as often as he could get someone to sit still long enough to listen.
And it was their Uncle Freebus who convinced Veranda to get the twins to hear Panpar’s stories for the first time, which was an accomplishment in itself, because by that time Freebus’ drinking had gotten to the point that, even when he was sober, their aunt wasn’t giving him much credit.
And she had tried her best to ignore him about Panpar.
He had come home drunk for the third time that week. The only difference between the third and the other two times he stumbled into their shack, was that the third time he had stumbled in so drunk, that stumbling had virtually been an accomplishment in itself. He was excited about something. That was another difference. Getting it out of him had been a chore, and both Jo-Laina and Jo-Vanna had to help their aunt settle him down so that he could explain, in that slurry language that drunks all seem to know and love, what in the world he was so excited about.
“Tole ya dat dey bone fo reason!” he exclaimed. “Tole ju dem girls was potent.”
He had sat at the wooden table with a big grin on his face, pride beaming from him as if he’d just killed a feast large enough to feed their family for a month, and gleaming back and forth between both of the twins. “Dey goan chain the werlt, Ver Ver! They goan make de difference!” He had reached up and stroked the back of Jo-Vanna’s head after saying that.
And their Aunt Veranda had pacified him at the time. But the next morning when their uncle had sobered up and begged Veranda to let him bring the twins to Panpar, she had adamantly refused. She had said she was surprised that he even remembered, to which he boasted that he might be a drunk, but he was a drunk that remembered things (as if that were something to be proud of).
Ultimately Freebus had convinced her to at least let Panpar come to their cabin. But she had only done so after he swore up and down that Panpar wouldn’t divulge their secret. If the Prim were to find out that there were two Prim born of pure human blood then those two Prim would be beheaded before they could unite anything.
Initially both of the girl’s had been kept away, but close, as Panpar began to relate his stories to their aunt. Both of the girls were connected to Veranda, a task that in itself was difficult for a bolainin to maintain for very long. The twins had listened intently as Panpar related his fantastic stories about the prediction that there were two human born Prim that would unite all of the factions in Messolina and bring true peace to the land.
Panpar Starts his Story
He was a stranger to them both. His manner of dress was strange to them. He wore a burlap sack, with a hole cut in the top for his head, and through the sides for his arms. The sack had been long enough that it ended half way down his legs, keeping all of the necessary things covered, but his dress was made from the necessity to keep himself covered, and not for comfortability nor for impression.
His long white hair (long in the back and scarce on the top) was tied in two ponytails, and the beard that pointed toward the ground was also tied into two small tails in the front. When he talked his beard seemed to dance along with his words as if that beard knew of the things he was saying and was confirming the truth of it by moving along. He sat at that table and once his lips began to move they didn’t stop. He had a story to tell—people to listen—and hopefully the listeners would do more than feign interest, because if anyone needed to be convinced of the truth of what he had to say then that audience was it. The story he was telling wasn’t just about any two human born Prim. It was about the two human born Prim that were listening to him.
But he didn’t know that.
“There were more ancients than what we thought!” he began. He paused after saying that, but the pause wasn’t long enough for anyone to interrupt. He paused for emphasis. He paused for thought. He did not pause to allow anyone else time to speak. “In the old times, the times that we all look back on, and the times we all fear and loath, there weren’t just the Prim, there weren’t just the Moog, and there weren’t even just the listeners!”
He again paused and his eyes glistened with excitement as he began to relay his story, but there was no danger of him being interrupted, because what he was saying was so different from what they knew that neither Veranda, nor Freebus were even contemplating the possibility of jumping into the middle of his story.
“Way back then, before our records were destroyed by the Moog, many different races of peoples existed, and we were all joined together in a common purpose. We were all bound together to protect our great Black City from those that wanted to invade it and take that which was ours.”
“What other races,” Veranda finally broke her silence and asked the question that was on all of their minds.
“HA!” he said. He leaned forward, eyes wide and yet narrowed at the same time. “YOU don’t believe that … do you? It’s okay. Nobody really does, but I have seen other races. I have seen a race of men in my travels that have the skin like TREE BARK!”
“Nonsense! Nobody has that kind of skin!”
“And I know something else!” Panpar said. He pointed at her with intensity and accusation, but didn’t complete his thought before she prompted him to do it.
“What?” she said defensively.
“You, my dear lady, have a secret. I haven’t figured out what it is yet, but it is a doozy.”
Veranda couldn’t help herself. She gave a worried look to Freebus, who shrugged back at her as if to say, “I didn’t utter a word.” That look was all Panpar needed.
“HA! I’m right!” he squealed with delight. He got up from his chair, hovering above the table, looking back and forth from Freebus to Veranda. “So what is it?”
“There’s no big secret here,” Veranda tried to lie and cover.
“Nonsense,” Panpar said. “Nothing escapes this sharp mind of mine. Nothing I say, and I’ll say it again if you still don’t believe me. You have a secret that you’re keeping. As a matter of fact that secret is something that I think I need to know because that secret, whatever it is, is why I’m even here in the first place. Now spill it!”
Panpar pushed himself away from the wooded table and began to pace around the room. It appeared that he was looking for something, even though he didn’t know what it was that he was looking for, but he looked anyway. It was as he was beginning to work himself toward the back, toward the door that was supposed to be hidden, that Veranda began to tense.
Panpar turned his head toward her, edged himself a little closer, without removing his eyes from her, and said. “Whatever it is, is somewhere back here!”
He turned himself toward the back wall and gazed intently at it.
“Just you come back over here and sit down. Finish your story, old man,” Veranda tried to convince him.
“Old man? HA! You are twenty years my senior and yet you have children living in this house,” he said. “And yet nobody in this village is aware of them. I’ve asked around about the two of you and those that I asked all told me the same thing. That you both lived alone in this house.”
“Because we have no children, ya old fool!”
“Old fool,l ya say! HA!” he said as he walked back over to the table. He paused, turned toward the left to Veranda’s rocking chair which sat facing toward the only window in the shack. On the back of the chair was a single brown sock, which was way too small for an adult foot. “Then who does this belong to, I ask you? Hmmm?”
And which of you two has gone and left him evidence to find while he was here? Hmmm? She had asked them in their heads. Neither of them answered her.
“You don’t have to bother trying to lie to me, madam. I knew from the moment that Freebus asked me to come here tonight that something was amiss. You see, many people listen to my crazy stories all the time, but nobody really ever believes them. Nobody listens hard enough to remember much of it, and nobody ever asks me to come back to tell someone else. Nobody, that is, but someone who has a reason to hear more. Now what’s the reason?”
What should I do? Veranda broke down and asked the girls.
Tell him to finish the story, Jo-Laina answered him. If it’s anything important, anything that matters, maybe we’ll tell him what he wants to know.
Tell him, Jo-Laina insisted.
“Finish your story, old man. If we choose to tell you anything it will be because your story convinces us to.”