We set out the next day, before the sun comes up. Kosman, Izydor, 20 soldiers and I. Each man hand-picked based on his combat prowess. Izydor, despite his relatively young age as a peldak, is the best swordsman of all 1,000 men of this expedition, and he spent all of yesterday personally testing each soldier. If the Maneaters want to start something, they’ll be facing a wall of the strongest peldaks we can muster.
All 23 of us leave with heavy backpacks full of gear. The mountains are a few dozen miles away and we’ll have to stop and rest for the night, but the terrain is too treacherous to bring carts or pack beasts. We each bring our own food and enough materials to create a few shared tents.
The ground is muddy and hard to slog through, it doesn’t stop raining, I swear I keep seeing Maneaters every other time I look around. I’m not a soldier and it’s embarrassing to be drenched in sweat and sucking down oxygen while everyone else can keep their breath steady. I only start feeling relaxed when we set down to eat, or when we set up camp for the night and I get to sleep besides some of the most proficient bodyguards who have ever graced this island.
Then the next day we traverse the mountain. We find a Maneater trail that zigzags towards the summit, where the ceremony will take place. It’s a shallow incline, and the well-traveled dirt is easy to walk on, but my thighs start burning long before we reach even halfway up. Everyone gets so sick of having to stop and wait for me that they eventually parse my backpack between themselves, and Izydor has me sit on his shoulders.
“Don’t feel too bad,” he says in an even voice, “I’ve been a soldier for decades. It was unfair of us to even make you try this in the first place.”
It doesn’t make me feel better.
Since I’m being carried, I’m allowed to take a good look at the land around us. I’ve always lived by the flatlands near the coast, so I’ve never seen the mountains before.
The trail is narrow. Two Islanders could walk side-by-side, but these peldaks are too broad for that. The mountain is steep, but the Maneaters dug this trail so one side is a flat wall of dirt, grass, and moss, while the other side is a near-vertical drop off. It must have taken them a long time to build it.
Between sections of the trail are tall jungle trees. Their branches extend high above us, with only certain rays of sunlight slipping through the gaps. There’s familiar birds and jungle critters scurrying around, seemingly undisturbed by our presence. They must be used to humans.
There’s only one incident on the trail and it’s my fault. As I look around, I accidentally brush Izydor’s ear with my hand and his knees collapse beneath us. The trail is narrow and we nearly tip off the edge, its impressive that he recovers.
His comrades laugh at him for being so sensitive, and his face turns a bright red as he stammers out some excuse that ‘he was just surprised’. It’s actually really cute, I’ll have to remember to sneak up behind him and flick his ears once we’re somewhere less dangerous.
As we continue up, we see more and more islanders, groups of them walking together to the summit. They keep their distance but don’t necessarily seem afraid of us. They must think we’re just another tribe that’s been absorbed into the Maneaters.
When we get closer, Izydor sets me down and I’m returned all my stuff. It’d be embarrassing to be carried like a child in front of everyone. We can hear a dull roar of activity from the summit, the ceremony will start soon.
We finally reach the lip of the mountain. No trees up here, they’ve all been cut down, the stumps left exposed. Kosman turns his head to the west and whistles. “Whew, would ya look at that?”
All of us turn, and what faces us is a brilliant sight. Miles upon miles of rich green trees set before a pure blue ocean, with fluffy white clouds dotting the sky. Wind blows past, causing the sea of branches to dance in waves, and massive flocks full of hundreds of birds take off all at once.
I squint and point to the coast, “is that Port Jahsing out there?” The individual buildings are impossible to make out, but the town is a large grey blot on the horizon, nestled in a fjord. I think I see a few cargo ships coming and going as well
“I think it is!”
One of the soldier’s ears perk, “there’s the bridge too, I think. It’s that white strip there on the right!”
I snap my fingers, “and there’s the waterfall from a week ago.”
Izydor sighs in appreciation of the view, “I guess it’s no wonder why they think they can just conquer the whole island. Who could live up here and not think they deserve everything?”
A cloud passes the sun and a wave of subtle darkness rolls over the island. The temperature drops instantly, and a warm wind blows up the mountain.
“That’s ominous,” Kosman says as he turns around. “Let’s hurry up, not much further.”
It takes us a moment to pry our eyes from the view.
The top of the mountain is curved like a half cylinder, extending up the north and south of the island like a great spine. Heading further towards the center, we reach a large crater. The highest peak of the mountain is a steep, rocky pyramid that stands the height of ten men, set just behind the crater. The pyramid is old, clearly weathered from the years. Maybe it was built before the Maneaters, but who lived up here before them?
The crater is built like a stadium, with seats carved into the rock, and a large platform at the very center. Moss, flowers, and grass grow from all corners, and it’s maintained well enough as to not feel overgrown or unkempt. This place could easily fit a thousand Maneaters at full capacity, and there’s already several hundred in attendance.
Kosman keeps his chin high as he studies the crater, then nods in appreciation. “What kind of ceremony is this? Looks like a stage for a play.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’ve never attended a Maneater ceremony, but I have to guess it involves… man eating.”
The peldaks laugh, but it wasn’t a joke, and we head to an empty section. High up, far from the central stage, and on the western side.
“If things go south,” Izydor whispers, “this spot will let us get back on the trail and retreat.”
“That’s why I chose it,” Kosman confirms. “Now, everyone, take a seat and eat your lunches. Better to do it now, just in case.”
The seats are made of rock, but they’re oddly comfortable. I wouldn’t have expected the Maneaters to be so considerate. Similarly, eating my lunch with this scenery, all the plantlife around the stadium, the ancient pyramid, the gentle gusts of wind… It’s peaceful up here. For the first time in years, I look out and see more islanders than aliens.
If only these islanders weren’t cannibals.
More and more Maneaters enter the stadium. Some head directly to their seats, others mingle with representatives from other tribes first. They all wear their finest beads, but there’s dual meanings here. Some groups are ‘Maneaters’ proper, but most wear beads which indicate their tribes as simply subservient to the Maneaters.
Izydor looks around with a harsh gaze as the seats around us start getting filled. They can’t sit behind us, and they always stay two or three seats away. “There’s a lot of warrior-looking men around us.”
Kosman keeps his voice steady and calm. “They don’t trust us any more than we trust them. Don’t start anything.”
I tug Kosman’s tan shirt. “Sir, please, you can’t expect things to go smoothly, right?” My eyes plead with him to let us walk right back down the mountain.
He gives me a kind smile and pats my head. “Of course I don’t expect everything to go ‘perfectly’, that’s why we’re armed to the teeth and ready to fight. Us being here is a show of force, we won’t be bullied by a couple of mountain men with ill intentions. Don’t you think there’s a lot of tribes sick of being under the Maneaters and would like a little change of leadership?”
I don’t agree at all, but maybe that’s because I’d be dead weight in a fight and don’t know much about this kind of politicking.
Then a group of men approach. They’re armed, they look ready for a fight. I grip the edge of my seat, trying to sink low and stay out of the way.
“[Are you with the star tribe?]”
Kosman elbows my arm, “I need you to translate.”
I jolt out of my fear, “r-right, sorry. They asked if you’re the Protectorate… a-and, um. The beads they’re wearing, they’re like a vassal of the Maneaters, if that helps.”
“Hmm,” Kosman crosses his arms and keeps his back straight. Izydor and all the soldiers flex their muscles, “indeed we are.”
The men glance over us, taking the sight of each peldak in turn. “[It takes a lot of courage to actually walk into the den of the Maneaters, even under guard. I didn’t think you’d show.]”
That’s… surprising. After a bit of stammering, I get out the translation. “A-and that word he used, the one that translates to ‘courage’, is purely positive. A very respectful term.”
Kosman looks at me with his eyebrows raised and his mouth twisted into a smug grin. The peldaks start slapping his back and playfully pushing him around in praise.
“That’s our boss!”
“Of course we trusted you, never doubted for a moment!”
“You weren’t made leader of the expedition for nothing!”
Kosman soaks in the praise for a moment, then turns to the tribal representative. “Thank you for the kind words. The Protectorate will always accept invitations to important religious ceremonies like this.” I translate, with the group nodding receptively at my words. Then, with a satisfied look, the group bids us farewell, and wishes us safe travel back to our home. Kosman then nudges me with his elbow, “the implication,” he says, “was that even if we are foreigners to this land, we’ll respect their customs and traditions. We’ll also be ready at a moments notice to come to their aid.”
The fact I was given such a quick example of his plan in action fills me with hope. Furthermore, the way he shined from being proven right so quickly, like it was obvious, lifts my spirits. But what fills me with confidence, not just aimless hope, is that several more envoys approach us one by one.
“I’m glad you decided to bring such strong-looking warriors with you.”
“Looks like the star tribe isn’t as cowardly as I may have thought.”
“While your strength has yet to be tested against the might of the Maneaters, perhaps picking the right side won’t be as easy as I first thought.”
The leader of the Waterfall-River tribe approaches us too. “It’s good to see you all again,” I translate.
“[Yes. Perhaps once this business is done we’ll be able to finish those negotiations, eyy? Haha!]” I translate for Kosman, trying to imitate his laugh.
“Hopefully. I just wanted to say that…” He leans in closer and brings his voice to a whisper. Being a good translator, I mimic his tone and inflections as best I can. “No matter what happens, I’m rooting for you, and I won’t send men to help the Maneaters.”
“[Much appreciated. We’ll be sure to remember that once it’s all over.]”
The leader takes a deep breath and is able to walk away happy.
Surprisingly, a lot of representatives approach to say something similar. They won’t take up arms against us if things turn that way.
By the time the ceremony is about the begin, Kosman is beaming, radiating a pure sense of smug satisfaction. “See, men, Panopio? So many treacherous ‘allies’ these Maneaters have, no? Now you understand why I’ve been so forceful in the negotiations up until now, haha! The Maneaters have built their reputation on fear and strength, while I have worked tirelessly to build ours on a firm sense of reserved power and reliability! When the fighting begins they know they can turn to us for help.” He turns his head to me, “I’d say it’s about two hundred years too early for you to criticize my negotiation tactics.”
Considering how I’ve chosen to translate his words, it’s more likely that everyone views the Protectorate as this benevolent force, and the many tribes are hoping we treat them better than the Maneaters. But I guess I shouldn’t mention that.
From the trail, a line of drummers approach and circle the stadium. They start playing a low, deep beat with a fervent pace, like a faint heart beat. The true Maneaters in attendance stomp their feet in anticipation, then the many representatives and envoys quickly join in. I begin to stomp my feet too, but both Kosman and Izydor place a hand on my thighs, signaling me to stop.
Shortly after, a small procession of men travels between a gap in the seating. The lead man has a crown and a ceremonial skull mask, he’s the Mountain King. Three other men walk behind him, their heads low and with pure white cloth draped over their heads. Pure white is hard to come across, so they must be important.
Behind them all is Luncai, the man who bit me. He’s wearing a skull mask as well, but it only covers the top of his face, around his eyes and forehead. He turns to me with a bright smile, showing off his teeth, then opens his mouth wide to bite down hard.
I slink into my chair, but Izydor pulls me close. It goes a long way to calming me down.
The audience goes wild as their king passes and climbs onto the stage. He then turns to the crowd, standing proudly, while Luncai and the three wait a distance behind him. The three are shoulder to shoulder, with Luncai standing just before them. The tall pyramid towers over them all.
He waits for the audience’s cheers to die down before he speaks. The drums don’t stop their heart-beat rhythm, but they do slow it to a resting rate. He starts slow, his voice calm and steady. I translate as he goes.
“Members of the Maneater tribe, friends of the Maneater tribe,” he glares at our group, “…’guests’ of the Maneater tribe. We find ourselves gathered once more for an important ceremony. A ceremony of friendship, and loyalty. The bonding-in ceremony so new tribes may be inducted into the Maneaters.”
The Maneaters in attendance stomp their feet once more. One of the soldiers takes the moment to joke “if they bring out the cooked arms, I’m gone”, and it get’s a laugh from everyone. My stomach hurts too much to laugh though.
The Mountain King speaks once more. “And what a momentous ceremony it is! For my father, and my father’s father, and his father before him, and so on for untold generations, have worked to spread the dream of conquest. We subjugated the tribe of the mountain pass. We absorbed the tribe of the pond. The frog biter tribe was quickly brought to heel. Even the cave dweller tribe, ever the hardy bunch, was dislodged by my predecessors. Many of you have never heard these names before, they’re nothing but meaningless sounds strung together without reason. Yes. For those tribes, their memory only exists within the Maneaters.”
Everyone starts laughing, and I turn to the soldiers to explain. “That was a pun. ‘Exist within us’, cause they eat their enemies and carry their essence.”
Kosman keeps his back straight as he folds his arms, “I figured.”
The speach continues, his tone more fervent. “A single unbroken legacy, the culmination of so many warriors and kings and champions. Each man we so idolize has taken their positions among the very Gods themselves for their work!” He raises his hands in a grand gesture, prompting all to look towards the sky. “My own contribution could not be understated either. When wars needed be fought, I fought alongside your sons and brothers and fathers. When famine hit our rivers and jungles, I cut my rations same as everyone else and pulled us through the crisis by negotiating tribute from the tribes nearest to the great seas! When plague came to our jungle, I braved the Gods’ wrath and cared for the sick and weak as a good Maneater should! No man has overseen the expansion of our territory like I have. When I became to old to fight, I influenced our neighbors to act exactly as I wanted. When I die, I’ll leave the Maneaters far stronger than when I found it.” He starts pacing back and forth, pumping his arms in frustration as the drums quicken their beat. “But despite the lands our forefathers left behind, there are those who seek to undo our work. Worse still, they revel in the destruction of what our ancestors built! They profit off our ruination!”
All heads turn towards us, their hate-filled eyes staring straight through our souls. Even the drums stop dead in their tracks. The only sound is that of the warm winds brushing against the branches around the stadium.
After several painful moments, the Mountain King begins again, with the drums returning once more. I fail to start immediately and Izydor has to nudge me. “N-no!” The stuttering is my fault. “Not them! Not the men of the star tribe. They are an adversary, no different than any other, and they will be dealt with in time. The real enemy, the dangerous enemy, are their pets. Those islanders who betray their brethren to enrich the star tribe at the cost of their brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers.”
I feel their stares on me. I really shouldn’t have come. The crowd begins to boo, to hurl insults my way, and the Mountain King revels in my discomfort. Izydor wraps an arm around my shoulder and pulls me close, but even his death-stares only stop a few of the Maneaters from taunting me. For the rest, their insults only grow worse from this display off affection and kindness. They say things like how the paleskin is being protective of his property. Others say I’ve gotten rich by sliding the knife into my fellow Islanders myself. Yet more suggest I don’t get paid, I betray because it’s in my nature to. Some joke about how I’m a toy for all the sharp-ears, not just the one holding me.
The peldaks don’t know what they’re saying and I won’t repeat it. I have to bare through this alone.
The Mountain king speaks over the crowd, and the drums beat faster. “Traitors to the island like her, yes! Let her know how you feel, let her understand the sadness and hurt we all feel inside! She, and those like her are the real threat!”
Kosman bounces his leg against the ground, the soldiers shake with anticipation. I can barely hear them over the soul crushing verbal assault. “Steady everyone. I feel the same but just stay seated.”
“I swear, the moment these punks start something…”
“Should we draw straws on who gets to keep that crown?”
Kosman laughs, “that’ll be going in the treasure vault for the 19th legion! Whoever takes it along with his skull get’s to write the inscription.”
“Izy, when things go south can you get her back to camp? I’m sure we’ll be busy painting that stage a nice red.”
Izydor’s muscles harden, and his grip on my shoulder tightens. “It’ll be hard to pull myself away… but yeah. I’ll get her back to camp before nightfall.”
I barely manage to notice, but some in the audience are shocked at how unintimidated the peldaks are. Even outnumbered, and on enemy turf, these peldaks look ready to fight, like their victory is assured.
The drums slow and the Mountain King whistles, calming the audience down.
“Hmph!” Kosman smirks. “Guess he tried to intimidate us but realized we weren’t so skittish.”
I translate once more. “In short order, the star tribe has swept across this island, conquering tribe upon tribe. But we still have the advantage! The momentum is with us! If we are to resist their conquest, the whole island must unite against the paleskins. All tribes, all islanders, united under one banner and one leader.”
He pauses to give the drums a moment to beat faster and faster, the dual beats pound against my ears. It’s stressful, nerve racking. I soon feel my own heart thrash against the inside of my ribcage, and not even Izydor’s touch makes me feel better. I look around and see the peldaks sit there so patiently, their ears flared up and ready to rip them all apart.
“For that reason!” The Mountain King continues, gesturing to the three men in pure white robes, “it’s time for the bonding ceremony!” The crowd roars with applause, many standing as they clap and holler.
Luncai pulls a large, ornate dagger from behind his back and raises it high in the air. He holds it in place, the bright sun casting a bright glare off the metal, as the audience to get wilder.
“H-hey, what’s he doing?” One of the soldiers says as he grips the handle of his sword.
Kosman sharply inhales, “we’re leaving. We did what we need to do but it’s too dangerous here.”
Our group stands and the drumbeats get even louder, the drummers bashing their sticks against the drum face with all their might.
The Mountain King points to us and screams. “You did this, star tribe! You took these young men away from us and through their deaths they will be cleansed!!” He turns and motions to Luncai, who jolts forward, stabbing each man’s heart in quick succession. Blood gushes out of the deep wounds, with the Mountain King and Luncai retreating towards the back of the stage and climbing up a few steps of the pyramid.
The screams of the Maneaters in the audience grow so loud I have to cover my ears. It’s like a bloodthirsty warcry, or a frenzied chant, ‘LALALALALALA!!!’ They rush the stage and tear into the three men, ripping chunks of flesh off with their teeth before downing it raw. Most, or perhaps all, of the envoys from the non-Maneater tribes are stuck in their seats, horrified as they’re forced to watch the show.
Since it’s called a bonding ceremony, I can only imagine that none of them will be allowed to leave until they’ve had a bite.
The Mountain King revels in the feast, but Luncai keeps his eyes on me. The crimson dagger still held tight in his hands.
I avert my eyes and end up looking at Kosman. He’s standing there, frozen, just watching the display. He used to be a cannibal too. What’s he thinking?
My answer comes immediately. His lips twitch, his brow narrows. He looks on the verge of tears and the utter disgust is plain on his face. He hates it. He hates being here. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say he’s being reminded of how he used to be and he despises what he sees. A certain determination fills his eyes.
Before I can think further, Izydor scoops me in his arms. “Sir! We’re leaving.” He has to yell over the drums and screams, but it’s enough to pull Kosman back.
I feel sick. A few envoys in the audience, those non-Maneaters, even puke.
The Mountain King points to us and shouts, but I can’t make out his words. It’s all too much. I see Luncai climb down from the pyramid, but he’s soon lost in the mass of cannibals.
The horde of Maneaters turn their eyes on us.
“Soldiers! Draw!” Kosman screams. The peldak’s guns are unwieldy and can’t be kept loaded, there isn’t enough time to fire a volley. Instead, for one brief moment, the air is dominated by the distinct ring of 22 hardened warriors unsheathing their swords at once. “Fighting withdrawal!”
“I-I can run,” I say. “You can put me down and fight.” There’s just too many and we don’t know if more will come. Izydor is the best fighter, he has to help.
Izydor looks down at me and, after a moment of conflict, sets me down. “Stay with the group, in the center.” I give him a nod, and he turns to fight.
We head down the mountain trail with an army of hungry cannibals nipping at our heels. Most are armed with swords or hardened clubs. The peldaks are clearly more skilled but there’s only so much they could do when faced with such opposition. Luckily the trail is narrow, and the mountain steep, so just a few can attack at once. The peldaks get some good hits in here and there. I don’t know enough about health to tell how many cannibals die, but I hope it’s a lot.
Each of these peldaks have known each other for decades, so they work well as a unit. Only two peldaks, when turned to the side, can fight on the trail at once, so when one get’s tired from the onslaught, they switch.
Some Maneaters come up from the trail below, but there’s so few of them and they’re easily killed. A war has definitely started, but hopefully not too many tribes will join the Maneater side. If enough of these cannibals die in this fighting retreat, it might instill enough confidence in the Protectorate that some choose to join us.
When the mountain tapers off into hills, Maneaters can stalk us from all directions and the fighting becomes more intense.
But the horde isn’t endless. It comes in waves, a few dozen at a time. There are periods of rest where we can rush through the forest, and even moments where we can eat and the peldaks can lick their wounds. They even finally have a chance to ready their guns. Capsules of strange orange liquid are put in a slot, a metal ball is shoved in though the barrel, and pulling the trigger results in an explosion that blows fist-sized holes in anything they hit. The sharp crack of 22 guns going off at once is what finally begins to stem the tide of reinforcements, but even that doesn’t stop the near constant ambushes and skirmishes.
Beneath their clothes is a layer of chainmail, and the Maneaters’ weapons can’t get through that. I don’t have that though, so they make sure to keep me safe at all times.
“I’m such dead weight…” I say, hunching over and trudging along with the group. My lungs are on fire.
“Not true…!” Izydor whispers as to not draw further attention to us. “We never expected you to fight anyway, don’t worry about it.”
“Yeah Pano, we’ve been slaying monsters longer than you’ve been alive.”
“Protecting you is a pretty good motivator, actually.”
Kosman doesn’t banter with everyone else. His eyes are straight ahead and he looks vicious. I’ve seen him slaughter a lot of cannibals today. Like he enjoys it and hates this downtime.
Regardless, we don’t rest until we reach camp, late that night. I collapse in the mud the moment we get inside the walls.