Audiobook Edition:

5

↤ A WAYS TO GO ↦

(that is, choose amongst your dangers)


No matter how unique or crafty any group of travelers believes themselves to be, there are always parts of the Trail where everything repeats year over year. The meadow, unnamed but notable for acting as a pause before the next phase of the journey, is one such place.


It was as if a hole were cut in the forest, nearly perfectly round, and embedded with grass that almost radiated a bright, beautiful green. This receives almost no mention in any of the texts or testimonies, perhaps because the next phase is more notable for the first signs of active danger people face. A calm meadow bathed in the late morning sun is not usually exciting to write or speak of, but it should be.


While lacking in thrills, the meadow is where the success or failure of the road ahead is decided, something Arteo knew very well.


“We’ve got three options,” he said, spreading out the unfolded map on the soft grass at the edge of the treeline. Kessa looked over his shoulder with keen interest.


“Which is most interesting?” she asked with her sparkly grin.


“We don’t want interesting. Interesting will get us killed.”


“There can be good interesting things to see and do,” she countered.


“I’m more concerned with surviving past tonight.” More for her than himself, but he didn’t say that.


While Arteo pondered their next destination, so did everyone else. The meadow was more than large enough to hold all of the thousand and such journeymen who had made the trek. Most were huddled in groups over the exact same map that Arteo was using — the one that combined pieces from Erod’s works, The Unknown Traveler that left behind a sparse and incomplete narrative of the Valley, and the parts of the Westfall Valley that had been assembled by the leading Fealty’s Journeyman Extraordinaire — the committee that determined starting and ending dates every year, enforced the law surrounding the Pilgrimage, and awarded those who completed the Trail with their official recognition papers that allowed them to choose one benefit above their social class


A Note on Recognition Papers
There was an unfortunate misapprehension about the Pilgrimage that completing it would allow someone to jump up a class, which was not the case. The Journeyman Extraordinaire (J.E.) took great effort to inform people about this falsity over the past ten summers to prevent conflicts.
As is well known, there are five strata of social hierarchy, each named for materials of increasing value that are mined from the mountains.
1. Molt
Making up most of the mountains, molt is the solid remnants of dead volcanoes, is easily found almost everywhere, and is entirely useless. It contains no valuable ore, becomes brittle and impossible to build with once extracted, and is the bane of miners who must move hills of it aside to find profitable minerals.
This class is made up of criminals condemned to death, exile, or shunning. A “molt” is a person that is so despicable that their cheek is branded by a thumbprint-sized sigil of a circle with a line through it, indicating they are no longer considered a person.
Those not imprisoned may not leave a certain area of the Central Continent, they may not hold a steady job, and can only survive by begging. Helping them beyond scraps and small bits of coin is taboo.
For completing the Pilgrimage, they may have their damnation struck from official records, and their brand will be tattooed over with a unique purple color possessed only by the J.E., signifying their ascent to the second lowest class. They were also allowed a one-time travel visa to exit the country and start anew elsewhere, but they could never return.
2. Windrock
Also known as “Idiot’s Iron,” windrock has a similar appearance to rock formations that contain high quantities of iron which can be mined and extracted for metalworking, but are actually nearly worthless. Some iron exists in them, but processing it is daunting and only for those desperate enough to trade excessive hours of their time for the meager reward of one one-hundredth the weight of the rock in iron ore.
This class consists of those that work disgusting or degrading professions, such as pig farmers, waste collectors, and surgeons (who were seen as defiling corpses to be able to practice their craft on the living — a necessary evil, but one nonetheless looked down upon).
While allowed to live and work freely across the Central Continent, they were not allowed visas to travel to foreign countries, could only own land in limited areas, and were not permitted to be taught a new trade above their class.
For completing the Pilgrimage, they could select any single aspect of the next higher class that they wished, but not all. They could be granted a visa, study with scholars, learn a new trade, or own land under less restrictive circumstances. While not an official benefit, they would also be seen as more befitting of respect.
3. Iron
As iron was used to make weapons, armor, and other metalworks, it was viewed as the most important ore to be mined, if not nearly the most valuable by weight. Those in this class were known as “the strength of the people,” made up of blacksmiths, farmers of fruits, vegetables, and more decent livestock, assemblers of clothing, and the workmen who constructed buildings. They were seen as necessary, respectable, and valuable. As is the water in the rivers that carve valleys, without them there would be no civilization.
They could travel with a visa once every ten summers, could own land in all but the wealthiest areas, and were afforded the privilege of being able to move up to the next class through hard work and guile.
For completing the Pilgrimage, they were offered either four parcels of land near the inner ring of the capital city, free travel rights whenever they wished, or a grant of clemency from one minor offense in the future that was done without malice or violence. Most chose the land, as it allowed them greater access to the next class in the capital, and gave them more opportunities to move up.
4. Fire Amber
Tree sap from generations ago, hardened by time, could be found all over the Central Continent. But a particular variety from the long-extinct Aflektos trees in the eastern lands had peculiar radiance and, when properly refined by an experienced craftsman, gave the appearance of a ball of flame in its center when held up to light. However without such effort, the amber was dull and lifeless.
It is appropriate that such a difference between the raw input and the resulting jewel would be given to the rung of society that held artisans, poets, makers of fine clothing and jewelry, and philosophers.
For completing the Pilgrimage, they were allowed to hold positions in governance, take a lump sum of wealth from the J.E.'s treasury, or be awarded valuable mineral rights during the next extraction phase.
5. Pearldrop
A rare and beautiful stone that shines with an iridescent light when shaped and polished. Only mined from a single deposit in the harsh northern climbs of the Ashfell Mountains, retrieving it is dangerous and difficult. The unprocessed materials are the petrified shells of a crab that used to live in the mountains when it was covered by ocean long ago.
Often set into rings, necklaces, or earrings, pearldrop jewelry was accessible only to the affluent landowners who collected rents from large swaths of the countryside, international traders that had unlimited rights of travel, and the heads of the most powerful Fealties. These frequently overlapped.
For completing the Pilgrimage, they received less tangible rewards. While it was unnecessary for them to conquer it, sometimes they would participate to show that they were not merely at the top of society due their inherited wealth, but also because they were strong and cunning. Or perhaps as a rite of family honor, as his father, his father before him, and so on, had all successfully completed it.
It was an open secret that the Pearldrop heirs who participated in the journey were afforded the great advantages of experienced guides, guardians, and specialized maps, tools, and clothing. The saying goes that a rich man in danger is better off than a poor man safe, and this was no exception.

“So what are our three options?” Kessa asked, enchanted by the painterly map laid out on the cotton-soft grass. Arteo pointed to each sketched-out trail in turn.


The first was the road north, framed in the center of the meadow opposite the path that led down from the stone summit. A wide trail, mostly untouched by anything but weeds, surrounded by the imposing and ancient forest on all sides. Eventually it would lead to the large eastern branch of the Tree, and they’d be forced to follow it farther east until it snaked around again, because ultimately they needed to go west if they wanted to reach the northern terminus. It was the safest option, but it would extend their journey by at least three or four days.


“If it’s safest, why not do that one?”


“Because,” he responded, “it’s a relative kind of safety. That trail hugs one of the Tree’s branches for most of it — a gamble. If the weather is fair and there are no unexpected movements of earth, our journey should be easy, if not pleasant. But since there are no caverns to rest at on the path until the third night, we’d be exposed. Few deadly creatures on this side of the Valley, but not none.”


Which brought him to their second choice. It would involve taking a route southwest and wrapping around the lower portion of the Valley, bypassing most of the deadly animals and plants they might encounter.


“But,” he emphasized, “we’d have to pass through one of the branches. The only one with a tunnel carved into it, the result of a number of lives thrown at it until it was completed.”


“That doesn’t sound terrible,” she said. “The lives being lost, yes, but not walking through it.”


“It might not be, but it depends. That tunnel has claimed more than one traveler's life, and if it rains before we pass through it, it might have dislodged some of the fibers from the Tree, which could float freely around there. They aren’t deadly for long once they’re in the air, but they could be, and we’d never know until we start coughing up blood.”


“You have a way with words, Tey.” She frowned at him. “So that way is perfectly safe except —”


“No way is perfectly safe,” he corrected.


“— that way is mostly safe, except for the tunnel through the branch, which might immediately kill us?”


“Essentially.”


“Lovely. And the last one?”


The third and deadliest direction was to go straight west. A narrow path that began with more of the savage thornbushes that grew along the stairs at the entrance to the Valley, it only became more treacherous thereafter.

Not being curious would alleviate most dangers while walking it — not touching any plants, wandering off the trail, or encountering any of the animus wolves that dug shallow underground holes in wait to strike nearby prey with their angry bite or front claws. A quick splash of arterial blood and they could easily pull the bloodied corpses into their burrow.


But death by wolves was an extraordinarily rare event, even for foolhardy travelers. Animus wolves were not much bigger than a common dog, and preferred smaller prey that they had a better chance of claiming.

No, the real wickedness of the western way was if they couldn’t find the cave by nightfall.

“That’s when the trees become our enemies,” he stated with grim sincerity.


“In what way?”


“Most of the trees along that path, at least for the first day or so, are covered in a mossy fungus that stays dormant during the day and releases spores at night. The spores don’t affect everyone, but they can cause strange visions and unusual, sometimes violent behavior.”


“Violent how?”


Arteo sighed, reluctant to go into details.


“I’ve read stories of entire groups turning on each other, believing themselves trapped in a nether region and having to fight monstrous demons, but they only murdered one another.”


He paused.


“Sometimes cannibalizing their corpses after,” he decided to add. Kessa’s face curled in on itself.

“How would sleeping in a cave help us avoid that?”


“The cavern on that path is above the treeline. The spores are heavy and mostly fall straight to the ground."

“Still, why would we ever go that way?”


“Because the days are long and we avoid the possibility of the Tree’s poison that way. It also shaves days off our journey. The quicker we travel, the sooner we leave. Resources are scarce, we need to mind that.”


Kessa shook her head and turned to see the other groups all doing the same calculus they were. Fussing over the time and speed and ways to avoid certain death versus nearly certain death. An acidic pang of regret was forming in her stomach, and she decided she needed something to quell the slowly building nausea.


“Do you have something to eat?” she asked.


“Oh,” he said, realizing that neither of them had eaten anything during their exhaustive hours of travel. He was working off of momentum and excited energy, but knew that he too was going to crash soon without some sustenance. “Yes, I’ve got this.”


He retrieved a few strips of the hard jerky from his pack, untying them from their cloth wrapping and handing half to her. She gripped it in her jaws and tugged a hunk free, working hard to make the dry, barren piece of meat moist enough to swallow. Arteo held his in hand, not yet ready to eat.


He obliviously chewed on his lower lip, a nervous tic inherited from his mother. His internal debate stalled when he noticed that the raven-haired girl who had verbally castrated him in the Rake had only now entered the meadow from the summit’s descent. He found it inexplicable that she would have taken so long, considering her age and physicality.


Yet as behind as she was to everyone else, she wasted no time crossing the idyllic setting, serpenting her way through the flocks of people, and entering the dangerous western path without pause, making her the first to leave the safety of the meadow. He caught a final flicker of her hooded cape as she vanished behind the swarming wall of thornbushes that flanked the trail.


“We should go west,” he said.


“The route with the most peril?” Kessa gaped at him. “That’s not the sensible Tey I know.”


“No, but I have a sense we need to go that way. I can run through the possibilities of each route all day, but the longer we wait, the more daylight retreats from us.”


He folded up the map and placed it in his bag before securing it to his back as he stood.


“I’ll keep us safe, I promise,” he said earnestly. Kessa smiled, but only a little.


“I believe you,” she replied, almost meaning it. “Lead the way.”


Arteo ripped off a piece of the barely edible jerky and hitched up his bag as he walked with Kessa in tow just behind him. As they approached the threshold of the western path, he didn’t pause to think before entering the shadowy embrace of the forest.



Thank you to my patrons!


PEARLDROP PATRONS


Jessica Blum

Maxwell Vivian

Mitch Iverson


Fire Amber Patrons


Zacharias Ayers

Anisa Mcarthur

Bryce Schultz

Eddison Holt

Julius Joyce

Noah Pitt

Ebonie Sharma

Jokubas Hensley

Gianluca Hook

Bobby Amos

Tamika Rossi

Kain O'Donnell

Benjamin Hayward

Levison Fitzpatrick

Alexandra Matthams

Adam Cox

Amira Abbott

Laurie Rodgers

Precious Noble

Sanna Trevino

Wyatt Cordova

Storm Johnston

Ihsan Jacobs

Makenzie Wyatt

Alexander Blundell

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