This last part of my tale about the Long South should be the stuff of a terrible dream. I wish it were so. But no, all the misfortune is real enough. Ere you doubt, I have the marks to prove it.
But again I am getting ahead of myself. It began pleasantly enough.
I had to wait very little for a watercraft bound for the havenlands. It was soon filled to brimming with eager Gaalians who energetically did all they were bid by the Dancers, who now wore golden armor and acted as any rulers or masters might.
But these Dancers remembered me from our earlier wander, and treated me with every respect. When Gaal had gone to his rest, I was invited to sleep with them where the wind blew the smells away. This I did, and I also enjoyed their food, though I marvelled at how the Gaalians had changed in so little time.
Every evening they would partake in their plant, the smoke filling the air. I was never forced to take any, however, and I opted to climb to the top of the crafts windcatcher. There I would keep watch, above the smoke and the wild noise till the recreating was at an end. They must have had only a spare amount of the stuff, for they did not act as wantonly, or for as long.
When we arrived at the headland leading to the Cauldron, I scarcely recognized it. A great hamlet had been constructed of muddies, and a road led towards the cauldron. There was even a jetty for the craft to dock, so as to avoid scraping aland. And just as Aflatan had promised, there was Hal, rocking gently in her place in the bay.
The new hamlet was ahum with activity.
–Welcome to Aflatanai—said a gold covered Dancer who waited at the jetty when our craft arrived.—you will be most comfortable here, it is as you have heard in every detail.—
Eagerly did the Gaalians stampede to a waiting feast, gorging on the fresh fruits and breadplants brought forward.
Though hungry, I waited, hoping to catch sight of my fellows.
–you do not eat?—asked the golden Dancer, a man I did not recall from our first wander.—you will need your strength.—
–I do not intend to need it.—I replied.—I am eager to be away to find my fellow people from the shadowlands…–
–But that is what I mean.—he said.—to meet them before Gaal’s departure will require a long journey.—
So I consented, readily partaking of the delicious food that had made me so happy in the distant past.
Having eaten my fill, the golden Dancer led me personally to a taller muddie than the rest. Within were a set of four similarly clad golden Dancers.
–I’ve been meaning to ask, where did you get these new clothes?—I asked the waiting group of what were quickly appearing to be soldiers.—
–Donations.—replied the one who had led me there.—they are the gifts of the people to Atash.—
–and you wear them?—
The dancers all stood in a straight line and looked at me in a manner I only recall enemies looking.
–We are the servants of Atash.—they said.
–interesting.—I replied.—I thought you were the servants of Aflatan.—
–Aflatan serves Atash too.—the first Dancer said mildly, putting an arm on one of the other dancers who looked eager to spill my guts on the floor.—let us away?—
Keeping pace with the Gaalians was always difficult, but after they became weed-eaters, the task grew even more wearisome.
I forced my companions, three of the Gaalian Dancer-soldiers, to wait while I gasped for inner wind.
We made it over the Cauldron before Gaal’s light began to fade. Looking through the smoking haze at the havenlands was eerie, for they no long appeared the same.
The hillocks contained structures, the trees were no longer as dense, and the water, once gathered in great pools, seemed to be strained and murky.
–What…have you done.—I openly spoke, for I could not help myself.
But there was no person there to answer. The Gaalians were trekking down a smoothened path that led through the cracks to the base of the smoking cliffs.
Once at the bottom I turned towards the open lands, but my Gaalian guides had turned right.
–your Folkin are here.—the lead guide said, pointing towards the steaming crevasse.
That was when, with a sudden dread, I realized.
I have always prided myself on being calm in battle, able to judge the next strike without being caught in the wild waves of emotion that lead many to their final meeting with Gaal.
There on that path was a time I needed that calm more than ever. Caught between the desire to find my Folkin and the desire to escape, I decided, no matter the terrible consequences, to follow peaceably. I was a match against any number of unarmed Gaalians from the old times, but armored weed-eaters was a different matter.
So, as I said, I followed them, all the way to that sulphurous prison, where Aflatan had organized a great mining of metals to take place.
Upon turning a corner in the narrow path, I first saw what would become my new home for only the Authorities are aware of how long…