Uneasy Lies the Head

Session 5 Adventure Log

The three faces of the mountain

The afternoon was drawing to a close on another day of fruitless surveying. On the beach, the makeshift fortifications were taking on a more permanent character. From the wreckage of the forest a party could be seen approaching the camp. 10 men and 2 women, led by a young man with a copper tipped spear who greets the group in a barely comprehensible form of Archaic Doni and gesticulates towards the pig that was slowly turning to dinner over the campfire. Blank faces all around and the man repeats his statement – spinning his spear in a circle around his head. This time one of the sailors pieces together the recognizable fragments: it appears that all pigs, indeed everything out to the reef, is theirs and payment is due for the animal. Tomasso, nodding, passes his steel dagger to Mathias who makes an elaborate and extremely well received presentation of the gift to the leader who nods and, through the sailor’s translation, says that this is worth a number of pigs and they are welcome to them. Matthias asks what keeps them here and the man chuckles sardonically and tells them that there is no leaving the island, it is cursed, and that they are welcome to come to the village which they will need to join to earn their keep. The mention of the curse elicits different reactions from the band, perhaps not everyone subscribes to the leader’s view and, as the band departs, one of the two women looks back at Matthias with a measure of interest and grudging respect.

The next morning the group heads off by skiff taking the opportunity to survey the shore between the camp and the village. Tomasso now has enough of the shoreline surveyed that he can make calculations and the conclusions are not heartening. The island is large and very close to circular, at least 100 kilometers in diameter, judging by the curvature of the shore. The reef, impenetrable at every location that he has so far surveyed, runs parallel to the shore. It seems likely that the reef rests on the caldera wall of the current volcano’s much larger antecedent. It appears that there is nothing else to it but to visit the village and see what can be learned about islanders and their history.

Walking up the strand afforded a good view of the whole village, surprisingly intact considering the damage that Szilvia had witnessed. Obviously the inhabitants were used to these events as various pre-fabricated pieces of hut were being added to repair what damage still remained. Disconcertingly, the skulls adorning the doorways are no longer goat skulls but unmistakably human. The populace does not appear threatening, however, and the party is greeted by a crowd of onlookers including the young leader and woman from yesterday. She looks glad to see the group’s arrival. An old man, thin and bearded and with a retinue of young children moves to the front and begins addressing the party in even more archaic Doni. The party is able to piece together the general meaning of the greeting which appears to involve thanking providence, or possibly a godlike figure, for blessing the village with the stranger’s presence. Matthias and Szilvia, in an attempt to get a response from the woman and to figure out how current the village’s news of the outside world is begin by introducing themselves as members of the Sarkad family. This draws blanks from all except the woman who appears more interested than ever. They offer the services of the party to assist in any rebuilding tasks. The elder nods appreciatively and reiterates the welcome. They are free to explore the village and the environs and a meal will be provided later in the afternoon.

The group divides up to see what can be learned. The village is larger than first thought, maybe 400 people, and borders a fresh stream that winds its way down from the mountain. The stream has been cleverly dammed in several locations to divert the flow into paddies for cultivating rice. The forest, though worse for wear from the storm’s attentions, is thick and lush and filled with a multitude of the semi-feral pigs that the party had already partaken in. The strand separating the village from the lagoon holds several catamaran-style canoes designed for net fishing. Work is proceeding apace on the homes, Vida impressing the local womenfolk by routinely picking large things up and putting them down where required. In the process of doing so he notices the ceremony surrounding the reinstatement of the skulls above the newly reconstructed doorways. The skull is brought forth from a hiding place and then after a short ritual of thanks is placed in the archway. After witnessing several of these Vida asks the man who has just finished mounting the skull: “Father?” The man grins at him and says “Grandfather!”

Szilvia, meanwhile, manages to converse with the woman who exchanges a series of pleasantries but refuses to tip her hand. She appears to be speaking with an assumed accent and Szilvia suspects that she can speak much more modern Doni than is letting on. The woman explains that she is adept at repairing boats and fishing, thus explaining her position of some prominence in the village hierarchy, and she does not appear at all pleased to hear about the party’s maritime proficiency. She explains that the young man from yesterday’s expedition is the deputy war chief and the old man of today’s introductions is the deputy lore chief. It is difficult to tell with the language barrier exactly what this implies but certainly no one is mentioned who has deputized either of these two. Mathias meanwhile has struck up several conversations with local men, one of whom appears more forthcoming than most telling him that there are two other villages on the island. These are not talked about and it appears that there may be some tensions between rival clans. Responding to Matthias’ prying about the island curse, he states that the village is a good place, a rich place, they are protected and refuses to be budged from this viewpoint or offer additional information. From these and other conversations Matthias gathers that there may be a number of inhabitants who are being pressured into maintaining the appearance of linguistic purity: perhaps survivors of other shipwrecks?

The afternoon progresses and it is now time for the daily meal. Benches are whipped out from under the huts and rapidly formed into a circle large enough for who will be dining. The deputy lore chief stands up and begins droning some incantation of thanksgiving for the received bounty and food begins to make its way around. The fare consists primarily of rice biscuits and some form of meat pate. Szilvia asks one of the serving girls whether the pate is pork and she looks confused for a moment and then realizes what’s being asked saying “Pig, yes. Goat only after dark” and walks away smiling. The meal takes some time and the day is coming to a close. Dusk is fast approaching and the deputy war chief comes over to the party and tells them that they are welcome to return tomorrow but they must leave now before nightfall. They agree, not wanting to remain here after sundown, and on returning to the boat sail back across the lagoon and around to their camp. It is an uneventful night undisturbed by any sounds of drums.

Having made little headway into the nature of the curse or the villagers’ religious practices, the party decides to survey the island in the hopes of finding the other two settlements. Several pigs are smoked and fresh water is loaded and the boat sets off. The weather is calm and the lagoon between the shore and the reef is placid and easily navigable. As they leave the village behind signs of inhabitation quickly drop off. In the afternoon the procession of small rocky points, pristine beaches, palms and other vegetation changes dramatically to a barren and inhospitable shoreline of cliffs jutting out into the lagoon. The weathered rock appears in danger of crumbling and indeed the base of the cliffs is a mess of jagged boulders and debris. With no safe anchorages in sight, Tomasso urges the boat onwards and by nightfall they have passed the cliffs and are back into a lush valley stretching from the base of the mountain out to sandy and inviting shores. This valley, however, has no signs of habitation or running water. There are also no traces of the pigs that were so common in the previous valley, the local wildlife restricted to various tropical birds. The ship is moored just off one of the beaches and the party settles down to a dinner of freshly caught fish and smoked pork.

The night’s watch is uneventful and indeed the next two days pass in remarkably similar fashion. They pass two more valleys, without habitation, water or significant fauna, and broken up by the same ancient lava flows that extend the volcano right down to the lagoon. The next day, however, they pass by the broken cliffs and into a singularly uninviting valley. By this time the trip has taken them to the very north of the island and the mountain casts a long shadow that carpets the valley in a gloomy half-light. A stream flows down the mountainside, past a myriad of caves and onwards into towards the lagoon. There is no sign of inhabitation. As night falls a faint sound wafts down from the heights: the whispering and whistling of wind through the caves. In the windless calm of the lagoon there is little to drown out the noise and it drones on, hour upon hour. In the morning, a haggard party makes ready to leave. Each one has spent a night dreaming of emptiness, of an un-fillable void, and no one is the slightest bit rested.

Unwilling to explore the valley further at present the party moves on. The sixth and seventh valleys are unremarkable but the eighth looks promising. A stream flows down from the mountainside and what looks like a village, at least some form of habitation, can be seen up near the mountain’s edge. At this time there is no interest in exploring by land so they continue on past the last two non-descript valleys arriving back at the sea-side village they first encountered. Making landfall they are again greeted by the inhabitants but there is a new undercurrent of reserve. The young war chief appears to want to make issue with the continued consumption of island resources but the lore chief makes a gesture whose “why rush the inevitable” meaning is pretty plain. Vida notices the young women, previously quite taken with him, are now more reluctant to display any interest. The woman is nowhere to be seen. The party sails back to camp and spends a night before deciding to head back to the eighth valley and see what can be learned from the villagers in the foothills.

After anchoring, they debark and move up through the valley. Closer to the foothills Szilvia slips ahead and is making her way through the brush when she spots a band of men, faces painted in a similar manner to the skulls adorning the houses in the first village. They are carrying copper tipped spears and appear to be attempting to maneuver so as to cut her off. Turning around she sprints back to the group and quickly leaves the chasing men behind. They abandon pursuit when it becomes obvious that she cannot be caught. Night falling and discretion being a large part of valor, they retreat to the boat. With the arrival of darkness the hillside lights up in a pattern of bonfires, blazing then dimmed and sometimes going out altogether. It is difficult to discern a code but obviously one exists. Unwilling to let the opportunity slip by, a group rows to shore, lights a bonfire and sets about repeating the signal from one of the central caves. Immediately all the other bonfires go out and the remaining fire blazes bright and repeats the same signal back. They repeat the same pattern again and, in response, the cave fire roars to life and stays brightly lit for the remainder of the night. They fix the position on the hillside and set out in the morning to find its source.
From the valley floor to the caves is a steep climb through a thinning forest that reveals several Yaol clumps at no great distance. This is the first time that most of the group has seen the living tree and the sight of the dense, dark copses perched improbably on craggy outcroppings leaves an impression. Scrambling through several sections of treacherous loose rock they reach plateau and the signal fire at the mouth of the cave. The fire is a barely smoldering ruin of its former self and has clearly not been tended all day. The plateau is empty but, coming from the cave mouth, the sound of drums drifts up from within the mountainside. Vida is winded from the trip up and, unsure of what awaits within, the group pauses by the signal fire to let him catch his breath. As they sit and wait the drumming begins to rise in volume and in pace. They are wanted within. Rising, they light torches and proceed into the darkness.

The cave is smaller than expected, almost a hallway, leading down into the mountain. In the dancing torchlight painted wall figures seem to take on a life of their own. Matthias stops to puzzle over their sequence and in a moment of ethnographic inspiration, manages to piece together the disparate parts. The drawings appear to depict a chronology that begins with a group of small stickmen. There follows symbols for bad or evil occurrences and then a larger man with goat horns appears and leads the stickmen. The stick men multiply in number and are shown bowing to the horned man—more symbols for bad times—a reduced group of stickmen take horned skull to the volcano. Feeling slightly wiser the party proceeds onwards and enters into a much larger cavern. The space is partially natural, stalactites hang from a high ceiling, but evidence of some excavations can also be seen. The walls are covered in a multitude of different faces and creatures visible in the light of three great fires. Two of the fires blaze in pits on the floor. The third is further back in the cave on an elevated platform. In front of the fire sits a tall and spindly horned figure. From his position a huge horned shadow stretches forth to touch the entrance that the party has just walked through. Behind the third fire drums thunder and echo in a shroud of darkness. The goatman stands and raises a long stick above his head. The drumming increases in tempo and he snaps the stick in half. Immediately he takes one broken half and, placing it to his lips, drinks deeply whatever is contained within. After finishing he throws the other broken half down to the group. Matthias and Tomasso both drink from the offered branch while Szilvia and Vida abstain. The liquid is a silky white substance with a taste unlike anything the two have experienced before. The drumming takes on a more rhythmical, trancelike quality. Vida, leaning on his meditative training, resists the hypnotic effect of the drums and watches as the figure on the platform dances in various evolutions. Looking over at his charges he sees Szilvia sinking into a reverie. Both Matthias and Tomasso are swaying slowly and completely oblivious to their surroundings.

Sunk into the trance Matthias finds himself floating into wall. The stone feels warm and comforting as he moves towards the center of the volcano and he feels a sense of oneness with the mountain. Slowly he begins to rise up, out of the rock and high into the sky. At these immense heights he can see the entire archipelago stretch out before him. Over the wind come voices chanting his name over and over. Suddenly he is in another cave—he is now a small child. Simultaneously he has the sensation of being in this moment and being a great way off. He sees his grandfather kneeling in vigil over the body of a handsome young man. His body has some markings of Sarkad heritage. He is dressed in flowing black robes open and revealing a chest with a set of drawn markings Matthias cannot distinguish and a large spike through the heart. His grandfather is trying to pull out the spike—Mathias moves to help him. They strain but they cannot pull the stake free. Outside of his dream and in her own reverie, Szilvia perceives Matthias and Tomasso sliding into the walls. She races towards them and grasps at her brother trying to pull him clear but he is unresponsive and oblivious to her pleas.

Meanwhile back in his vision Matthias heaves with his grandfather at the stake and suddenly the vision wrenches free of this cave—he is now in blackness—drums all around. A face with the snout of a goat appears in front of him and says “I will now answer your questions three”. Matthias thinks for a moment and then asks “What is the safe way off this island?” The head replies: “there is no safe way but when he wakes your friend will know of a way.” Matthias then asks “what must I do to heal my kingdom?” to which the head answers “you must help the cause of the good man”. Finally Matthias asks “how can I help you?” Again the voice replies “by helping the cause of the good man.” The head fades into the mist and Matthias lapses into unconsciousness.

For Tomasso, the dream begins with the sensation of being carried over the water, the deck of a ship under him. The scene solidifies and he is at Trade’s Increase’s tiller. The vessel feels perfect underneath him, its already excellent qualities improved upon to such a point that he feels she could sail across the breadth of the sea. Knowing now with absolute certainty a path through the reef he charts a course away from the island. As the land recedes, however, there is a feeling of loss of an opportunity missed and he feels he should turn back. Before he can do so, the crew turn around, all goatmen now—Tomasso is no longer captaining the ship—a storm is brewing behind them. The ship flies before the wind, skipping terrifyingly from wave to wave and he feels almost sick. Then the storm is upon them, the wind howling and sea spray flying in his face. Suddenly all is calm—they are in the heart of a purple storm. On either side of the ship huge columns of clouds billow only to vanish in haze and lighting. In the calm a woman’s voice, perhaps Elena’s, speaks to him: “two boons you can have, sailor, if you feel you deserve them.” Tomasso replies “I do not deserve them. A man should make his own destiny.” At this he has the impression that the embodiment of the storm arches her eyebrow in surprise, impressed, and suddenly there is peace as he slips into sleep.

They wake much later to an empty cave. The fires are low and there is no sign of the horned man. Making their way out of the cave, Matthias glances at the same mural story he read on entering and this time his attention is drawn to an image whose significance he had not grasped earlier. The tall goat man is being attacked by a large man in stylized gothic plate and stick men are crying all around. They make their way down the hill and through the forest back to the boat. In the light of day, Szilvia notices that Tomasso has a birthmark on the back of his neck, faint, purple and shaped like a kiss. She’s pretty sure she’s never seen it before but can’t be certain. They board and Tomasso sets a course for the haunted valley. Vida has brought one of the stick ends back from the cave and passes it to Mo who examines it and finds the sap already hardened and no evidence of how it could have been liquefied. He suspects some form of reverse grafting that allows preparation to take place while still attached to the Yaol tree.

Several uneventful days later, the weather still cooperating, they arrive at the fifth valley and drop anchor. The crew, left to their own devices, sets up a small camp on the shore and the party sets out to ascend the mountain to find the third community of the island. The valley has a slightly less haunted feel and as they leave the forest floor behind the mountainside does show traces of habitation. Here and there among the Yaol-wood clumps are caves whose entrances look slightly too uniform to be completely natural. The climb steepens and coming to a particularly difficult section Matthias and Szilvia stop, winded, for a needed rest. Tomasso and Vida proceed up the path a ways trying to construct a rope walk to help the other two in their ascent. In the process they notice that they are being watched by a group of unarmed young men farther up the mountainside. The men make no gestures of welcome but nor do they appear hostile. The rope walk is completed and the party resumes the ascent. Another full day of climbing and then it’s Tomasso and Vida’s turn to be left behind as they succumb to exhaustion and stop to rest. It’s as Matthias and Szilvia are proceeding ahead to set up the ropes that they are met by an elderly man guarded by the same young watchers seen the day before. The man asks “What do you seek?” and Matthias replies “We seek the truth of the island.” The man replies “Why should I share this with strangers?” He moves closer and looking into Matthias’ eyes says “I see you have witnessed visions, a shadow of the truth.” His eyes grow misty “I have some access to this power. Your people have called them devils and that again is a shadow of the truth. I tell you that any power has a price and you must tell me what you are willing to pay. If you are truly willing to sacrifice you may gain some tools to aid you on your journey.” Avoiding the question, Szilvia asks about the goats and their symbolism. The man answers “It is difficult to sacrifice when you are rich. They are surprisingly loyal, not unlike a family member.” Matthias asks how they can proceed and the man informs them that there are two ways to ascend: the inside and the outside paths. Both are perilous but the outer path’s dangers are more physical and will take you to the summit before going down into the crater to the garden at the heart of the mountain.

None of the party seem particularly interested in making the exchange but Tomasso is keen to press on, suspecting that he might find answers at the summit. Vida and Szilvia decide to remain and Tomasso and Matthias complete the punishing climb to the summit. It’s a brutal ascent that both, not the strongest of athletes, are lucky to complete. The view, at least for Tomasso, makes it all worthwhile. From the peak the entire archipelago stretches out before him. He takes in the sight and glimpses a long, straight reef several days sail from the island: Sword-Gash Reef! A second marking on the handkerchief!

While Tomasso is surveying the sea, Matthias investigates the huge crater. It is difficult to tell how far down the pit extends but the precarious staircase that winds its way down the crater wall descends a good 500 feet and disappears into the murk below. Matthias gauges the possibilities of making the decent without breaking his neck and, finding them to be slim, returns to Tomasso. For his part Tomasso wants to spend the night up on the summit and watch the dawn so Matthias heads back down to meet the party. They descent is more difficult than the climb and losing his footing at one point he smashes his right arm against a rock breaking it instantly. He limps back to camp, blinded by the pain, and Szilvia asks the old man to do what he can to heal him. The man applies splints and bandages but doesn’t seem confident of a full recovery and says to Szilvia “everyone sacrifices something”. Tomasso makes it down the next morning fortunate to have avoided the same mishap.

In the meantime Vida has decided that he will try the inner path and enters the mountain through a doorway in the back of the sage’s house. Moving along the path he is assaulted by a series of spirits but ignores them by sinking into a meditative state and proceeds onwards. The cave widens and soon he arrives at a gushing underground stream. The water cascades out of a hole in the ceiling, down a steep rock wall and onwards into blackness. From above there is a faint gleam of daylight and Vida senses that he must make it through to continue his journey. The water, heated by the volcano, is far too hot to endure for more than a few moments and he must make a decision. To proceed will require a concession in exchange for progress in the Dervish way. Vida decides to let go of the memories of his past and, as they slip through his fingers, he begins to feel a magical force within him. With only a nascent understanding and control of this power he moves into the water, successfully wrapping the force around him to inure himself to the physical pain. The water is too fast, however, and though he tries he cannot ascend the stream into the heart of the mountain. Defeated in this, but enlightened for the effort, Vida returns to the entrance and the hut and meets Szilvia and the remainder of the party.

The trip down the mountain and back to the valley is uneventful, each unwilling to break the others’ silence. They arrive back at the boat and set sail, Vida desiring to re-visit the valley with the ceremonial cave once more. He has questions that he seeks from the old man. They anchor there for the night and Vida ascends to the cave. Unlike the earlier trip there is only a faint hint of accompanying drums, the cave is cool and the fires are banked low. He finds the old man and asks him for one of the sticks with the dream-sap. The man gives him a penetrating gaze and Vida can feel him reading the events of the last several days. For a while the man is silent and then he makes a dismissive motion saying “There is nothing for you here”. Vida returns to the ship.

Tomasso pilots a course along the lagoon towards their original landing and the village. Approaching the village they anchor some ways off shore, curious inhabitants crowd the beach to witness the events. Matthias yells that we are going to make an attempt to leave the island and any who wish to come are welcome. Initially there are only exchanged looks between the villagers but then one woman, the fisherwoman Szilvia met in earlier visits, drops the net she was working on and makes a run for the surf. The war chief takes his spear and with deliberate aim throws it clean through her shoulder. The woman staggers and falls but gathers her strength and plunges into the waves. Szilvia draws her bow and lets fly an arrow which flies true striking the war chief in the face. Amid the screams of rage on the beach the lore chief begins cursing the party. Lost in his chant he is oblivious to the arrows burying themselves in the sand around him. By this time the woman has made it to the boat and been hauled over the gunnels. Having now missed the lore chief three times, Szilvia abandons the attempt and he finishes his curse. A garden variety malediction only as, thankfully, no arrow made it home transforming it into a death curse. Tomasso tends quickly to the woman’s wounds and then steers a course for the section of reef known to him from the vision. There gap, though present, is navigable only through a combination of speed and timing the swell and there will be no second attempt. Lining the craft up with the tide race he orders the crew to loose the sails. Trade’s Increase picks up pace, speeding towards the reef, and with a few quick pumps on the tiller they emerge, unscathed, into the sorrowful sea.

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