“Zionil!” Pak-Pak squawks.
“Wonderbringer,” I reply, repeating by rote what he has taught me. “His portfolio is artifice, craft, and smithwork.”
“Good! Good!,” he trills. “Curna!”
“The Wise Goddess. Gives inspiration and knowledge.”
And so we continue with the gods most known in these lands. I still do not understand all that these words imply, but I repeat them back to the bird just as he has taught me.
I don’t know where he himself learned these things. His knowledge seems to come in fragments, fits and starts, as if he too is learning, but from whom I do not know. Sometimes I ask him questions, inquire after deeper knowledge of the subjects he has me rehearse. Usually he ignores me. It is in those moments as if he were just another bird; I, a madman for talking to a dumb beast.
But this land, at least – and a quiet moment to repeat my lessons – is a welcome respite from our troubles. Our most recent encounters have been with folk either helpful or indifferent, the fey creature who gave us healing mushrooms or the walking tree who questioned us only to seem unconcerned with any of our answers. There are wonders in these lands, and shade trees and cooler breezes besides, which is no small thing.
It was a hard-earned rest for my companions. We faced demons and Enalda suffered a grievous wound. I called upon the spirit that indwells all things to heal her, but I could barely soothe the pain much less knit the wound. It seems I remain too weak a vessel. She and her brother both were also infested with some sort of fiendish infection that could not merely be scraped away. I shuddered when I thought of the mango worms that would infect the dogs who scavenged among the trash heaps alongside us in Ormpé.
The foreigners Danjo and Shino suffered an even more grotesque transformation, though thank the gods it too turned out to be temporary. A formless, roiling beast emerged from the sands as we traveled, and its touch transformed them both, for a brief time, into shapeless horrors.
Nonetheless, we survived, and now we’ve had a few days to recover. I would take it as a good omen that we have met with no new terrors, but my companions are shaken with doubts and I fear our fellowship may soon fracture. I am not confident, however, that they will fare any better in Assur. I know well that cities too can be as cruel as the deepest wilds, that man can visit upon his fellow man horrors equal to the worst of fiends. As we walked, I asked them to consider what it is that we seek.
“Is it safety we want?” I asked. “Last we were in a city, we were shot, shackled, nearly burned alive. It seemed scarcely safer. Is it coin perhaps? I have never had so much coin,” I said as I jingled the coins in my belt pouch, “and this found beneath a bush in the wild. Food and drink and supplies? I’ve seen children begging for food next to merchant stalls overflowing with plenty because they lacked coppers enough to meet the merchant’s price. And in this time of scarcity, who knows what the prices will be? And these fey we’ve encountered, they seem to have found food enough here in the wild.”
But I confess, I was attempting to summon a confidence that I myself scarcely feel. I have faith that if we align our will with that spirit who dwells in all things and with the benevolent gods, that we will do well. And, thanks to Pak-Pak, I know their names, at least, and can pray for their aid. But the heavens remain unmercifully silent. I can only hope that our aims are noble and our hearts pure and that the gods will reward our efforts.