.

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: The Sea of Reeds :

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: Piping by Firelight :

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'

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/Travels of a Ryassophore/


The Ryassophore stared ahead through the early morning fog that covered the flat, flat landscape, sitting behind the oarsman as the man urged the flat bottom boat through the reed-grass that grew in thick clumps in the water.

It was a wide shallow lake, near wide enough to be a sea, with banks that only briefly noted each other's existence on opposite horizons. Filled with sediment carried in by the small creeks and streams that emptied themselves into it, the lake seemed to spread for miles, with little to see beyond a burble from the water from what must have been a fish or frog or turtle.

It was certainly mysterious enough, but nicely warm, which was a welcome change the Ryassophore's previous travelings. The Holy Man rolled up the draping sleeves of his plain brown robe and leaned back against the back of the boat. Closing his eyes, he listened to the low hush of wind that simpered and whispered across the clogged water, getting caught in the stringy blades of the reeds. Every now and then a rumble of toads and high-pitched cheep of spring peepers could be heard, though with the thick fog the sounds seemed to echo from everywhere, yet nowhere at the same time.

All in all, it was quite amazing that the oarsman could find his way as easily as this. If left to his own devices, the Ryassophore was sure he would get lost and die in this vast sea of reeds. Ah well, at least it was quiet, which was a difference from the darkly deep forest on the other side of the water. There, the birds and small creatures chirped and chattered in the trees excitedly, never calming, never silencing. Even in the black of night the sounds continued on, replaced by the calls of the creatures of the dark.

However, here, it was covered with a thick film of near-stifling silence. Even with the oarsman, little had been said beyond the standard questions of pricing and destination. As soon as he stepped into the boat, there was been companionable quiet, neither man feeling the need to say anything to each other. The air was so still that the low piping in the near distance came as a jolting shock, causing the Ryassophore to sit up straight, looking around to figure out the source.

There was a low, throaty chuckle from the man at the oars as the boat gently rocked from the started motions.

"What was that?" the Holy Man inquired, now that it was obvious that the sound was not a dangerous one.

"Mmm…" The oarsman pondered this for a long moment before responding slowly and deliberately. "That's the morning pipes."

"Pipes?"

"Mmm. The place you're goin' to makes them from the reeds here." He lapsed into silence as once again a deeply smooth call echoed out across the grassy waters. "You'll never hear a more melancholic sound in your life. It means we're gettin' close now."

"How curious…" The Ryassophore bent over and gripped a reed as they passed a set, breaking it neatly off just above the waterline. A turtle slipped into the murky shallows as it's hiding place was disturbed. The man held the reed in his hands and blew into it experimentally. Nothing came out but the sound of rushing air.

"You have to put holes in it, not that you'd be able to get it right." The boat veered leftly as the oarsman shifted their course, bumping over a reed clump. "Only the ones who live here can make that sound."

"Oh, I see." The passenger agreed, though he really didn't understand.

The low mournful tones grew steadier and louder, becoming a steady, constant hum that wavered as pipes faded in and out over and over again.

"Why they do it?" The Ryassophore wondered aloud.

"Who knows?"

And the boat fell silent again, now surrounded by the piping.

After a few more moment of gliding through the reeds, shadowy shapes formed in the mist and there was a bump as the boat clipped the edge of a wooden dock that bobbed up and down from the strike.

"That will be three coins." The oarsman hunched over his pole and extended a long sinewy hand.

His passenger winced. "Oh, but of course…" Reaching into his robes, he pulled out his last bit of money and handed it over to the man. "Thank you for your boat. I doubt I would have made it alone."

"Mmm." The man nodded slowly, steadying the boat as the Ryassophore stepped off.

The Holy Man turned and inclined his head gratefully. "Good luck with you, my friend."

"Mmm." The boat turned around smoothly and slowly slithered away, disappearing from view into the soupy fog.

"Well then…" With a small curious frown, the Holy man turned to look about him. The dock was connected to a similar plank that led up to a series of ladders that led up to a platform high above his head. "I suppose nowhere to go but up…"

With this plan set, he walked over, wobbling to and fro slightly, as the wood beneath him sank down and bobbed back up under his weight. It was quite disorienting, really. Finally reaching the ladders, he gripped the fifth rung up and stood still for a moment, trying to reign in his stomach, which was quietly trying to rebel.

In hopes of soothing his middle, the man stared out across into the fog. It was thick and soupy, molding itself to the reeds and patches of water that shone through the grass. There were little waves in the water, only mere ripples disturbing the surface. Combined with the low hum of the pipes coming from overhead, it was easy to imagine that there were beings staring back from the stark white, invisibly eyes peering at him, jeering.

The thought caused him to shiver and he decided to go on and begin the climb up.

It wasn't a long climb, only up a dozen feet or so.

Throwing himself on top of the platform, he took in a long deep breath before looking about him. Up here, the mist was quite thin, allowing him to see the thin wooden buildings. They were tall and slender in shape, looking like they were in the form of wedges, angling inward. The sides he could see were plain, with a window facing out towards the reedy sea.

In one such thin, screened window, a small girl stared out and gaped at him in wonder.

"Mama!" she cried, scurrying inside, a short woman taking her place within a few seconds. Running a hand through her pale misty hair, she smiled at him and gestured him over.

The man smiled in return, happy that his arrival didn't seem to cause any undue trouble. "Oh, good meeting you, miss. I am only a weary wanderer, hoping to stay for a night's lodging here."

The woman laughed, her tanned face wrinkling. "You are welcome here, Holy man. We welcome what few visitors we gain freely. Come and I will take you to our leader's home so that he may decide what to do with you. I will meet you in the front." She left the sill, shutting the window-coverings behind her.

Cocking his head to the side in curiosity, the Ryassophore wandered around to the opposite side of the building. As he had thought, the building were angled inward, with one-sided roofs that sloped heavily to the right, moisture dripping off into long troughs that collected the droplets, each running down out of view under the platform. The buildings were plainly dressed, or so he thought until he reached the front of the home.

The buildings were all wedged close together, forming a tight circle, the middle of platform formed into a small courtyard with soil piled high with greenery. Above that stood a small tower. That was were the pipes seemed to be playing.

The doors covered one entire wall, so when the woman exited her home, the entire side of the building opened up, sliding to the left easily, a soft puff of disturbed air caressing his cheeks. It closed again behind her, showing off the detailed carvings that decorated the front.

"It's this way." The woman pointed ahead to the opposite side of the platform.

"Of course, but first…" He paused once again to stare up at the tower. "What do the pipes mean? Are they played for a reason?"

There was a moment as the woman stared at him before smiling lightly. "Perhaps it would be best if you spoke with my husband about it."

"Your husband?"

"He's our current leader."

"Oh, I see. You must be proud."

The woman opened the door for him to pass through into the building. "I am happy with my life."

"Then I could wish you little else." The Ryassophore smiled at her as he entered a room filled only with a long oval table, two men sitting and talking at the far end of it. Both looked up at his entrance. One, which was thin and angular stood, bowed to the two and quickly left, the wall shutting behind him with a solid thud.

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry, I hadn't meant to disturb your chat…"

The remaining man smiled widely. "Of course not. It was only that, a chat. Nothing of importance, just gossip. Now you. You are of much more interest." He stood, wiping off his plain black shirt and trousers, walking around the table with his arms spread in peace. "Where is it you are from? You appear as a Holy Man, and we have not had many of that kind in a long while."

The Holy Man smiled. "I am indeed what you think, and would be happy to work off debts if I would be allowed to stay here for the night."

"Ah, but of course… Come, Holy man. Let's both walk and talk. I am interested in hearing about you, as you are for me." And so, the two left the building, walking out into the middle of the platform. A few heads poked from openings to look at the two.

"Ignore the stares." The leader asked absently. "We get little visitors but merchants. They mean no harm by it."

"No harm is taken."

"Good then."

As they walked, the leader in short, steady steps, he began to tell a little about his people.

The village was comprised of four large families, with a few extras from neighboring villages. Located on the south end of the giant lake, they built their homes on the platform to keep from sinking into the mud. As the buildings were heavy, despite the light-weight wood, the entire village was sinking slowly and steadily into the sucking muck that sat just below the water's surface. Since the beginning of the clan, there had been over a few dozen platformed villages built for the people, one after another.

When the platform was a few feet above the water, construction would begin on a new platform, taking wood from the boats and platform edges and whatever other scraps there were. Then the buildings slowly being taken down in large chunks and rebuilt on site, much like large jig-saw puzzles. Finally, what was left was remade into boats, and the entire process would repeat itself.

"Why do you not leave then? This life sounds very hard indeed."

The leader smiled as he looked out across the fog. "This is our home, and we would never leave it. As a clan, we have decided it is better to die in your home than die somewhere foreign. What we have here is a good life. It is not easy, but neither is it hard. While we never have a surplus in anything, we are never lacking. We are all happy with what we have. For all of its mystery, the water is kind to us, giving us drink and food and other materials. I could hope for little else. Though…"

The Ryassophore glanced at the other man. "Though?"

"The only problem are the firelights."

"Firelights?"

"Yes. They are said to be the souls of the long-dead, as they appear near the freshly dead and seem to feast upon the dead flesh. That is why we can never honor the dead here like other people do. It is simply too dangerous.

"They are a bad thing to meet when alone, for they suck out your body's heat until you die from the cold. My own aunt and uncle died while on a fishing expedition many years ago."

His curiosity piqued, the Holy man leaned in. "What do they look like? These firelights?"

"Oh, they are flames that are a deep water's blue in color. Sometimes they appear as brown, but that is rare. They pop up in the fog, regardless of the hour, and float about aimlessly, looking for a meal." The leader turned to him and smiled. "But do not fear, for I doubt that they would be able to leech from a Holy man."

Despite the reassurance, the Ryassophore was restless that night. While he was talked with near the entire village and gained much insight on how they worked and lived, he could not get the thoughts of these firelights from his head. Mixed and torn between wonderment on what they truly look at, because it was hard to judge something without seeing it yourself, and a secret bit of horror at such a frightening thing could exist.

What horrifying creature would feed on the dead flesh of the once-living?

And even more frightening was the thought that he had been boated to here without any foreknowledge of these ghostly firelights. What if they had met up with one of them? What would have happened to him and the oarsman?

Unable to lay down for a second longer, the man sat up, straightened his bed, put on his robes and left the building.

He had been given the guest home, which had taken a small group of woman a dreadfully long amount of time to clean up, as it seemed to have been a dreadfully long while since the last visitors.

Outside, the air was strangely clear with rolling clouds of fog wandering as far as the eye could see. Equally far, if not more so, was the water. While the reeds densely covered the area, they grew sparse partway to the horizon, where the moon was sitting above the water. It's reflection winked back up from the still water. From above, the low hum if pipes continued to play on.

They had yet to stop since he had first heard them.

Suddenly, all was immersed in white as a dloud of fog engulfed them in it's opaque embrace. Just as suddenly as it had come, it was gone, carried off and away by the night wind. However, the sense of dread that it came with remained on the village, a large heavy burden.

The Ryassophore shivered inspite of himself and was startled by some laughter behind him. He wiped around to see a small boy staring up at him with a wide grin. "Oh, my child, you frightened me."

"I scared you?" The boy wandered over to join the man along the end of the platform where he sat down and jiggled his feet over the edge. "But you're an adult!"

The man laughed and sat down beside the boy. "Even adults can be scared sometimes."

"Not my Mom."

"Oh?"

"Yep. She's strong and can beat up anyone she has to."

"Oh my… I hope she doesn't have to do so often…"

"Nope, not really."

"Good then."

Another cloud of fog rolled over the village as man and boy settled into companionable silence. They both watched as a small boat passed in the near distance, bright happy lights glittering around it as it slowly traveled across the water, weaving back and forth through the reeds.

"That's one of the other village's fishing boats." The boy said. "They go out alot on clear nights like this right about now and hunt the squid that come up to breed near the surface."

It was strange to hear a fog-covered night as this be described as 'clear.'

"Ah, how interesting. Have you ever eaten squid? Is it good?"

The boy grinned at the man. "Yep, it's yummy! And it's really chewy and fun to eat!"

The Ryassophore smiled back. "It sounds so. I hope I'll have a chance to try some."

Above the stars shimmered down and below their reflections back up to the sky, joining the lights from the boat. There was a soft rustling of the wind through the reeds as the pipes droned on from above near the stars. Suddenly-!

"Look!" The child jumped to his feet and pointed with a shout. There, out in the distance, directly in the center of a whirl of soupy fog, was a flickering flame of blue. The cloud neared and the flame inside popped in and out of existence, jumping from here to there excitedly as it slowly grew bigger. Another flashed behind it.

As the fog grew closer, it split in two, one moving towards the fishing boat, which hadn't seemed to noticed the approaching danger.

"Those people are-!" The Ryassophore stood up and looked around, wondering what he could do to give them notice. He was stopped by a warm little hand on his shoulder.

"It is fine." The boy said from beside him. "They have a pipe playing. They'll be safe."

"A… pipe?" The Holy man turned in confusion. "But how does a pipe…?"

"They're gifts from the Gods." The child explained. "We were given them for our humility and loyalty hundreds of years ago. They keep us safe from the firelights, 'cause they don't like the sound."

Understanding fell over the man's face. "Oh… So that's why there is always the sound of pipes…"

"Yep!" The boy laughed and spun around excitedly. "And I get to start my turn next year, too! I'm really excited! All the villagers over the adult age get their shifts. I've been paying attention to class, so I know how to breath really deep!"

The man smiled at the child's exuberance and turned to cast a worrying eye on the fog that rolled ever closer and closer to the boat. However, as the boy had said, the fog simply encircled the boat for a short second before rolling onward, beyond it to the horizon. He couldn't help but let out a relieved sigh.

He was about to turn when his sleeve was tugged on by the boy. "Hey, Holy man. You should go inside before the firelights get here. It's safer that way. You can watch out your window though. I do sometimes when I can't sleep. They can't get through the screens, so even if the pipes go out, we'd still be safe. The tower up there's all screened in, too."

The man began to, but decided against asking how this had been discovered. Instead, beginning to feel tired, he inclined his head. "Alright then. Do you need me to walk you home?"

The boy flashed a crooked grin, shook his head and skittered off to one of the buildings.

While the pipes continued to call out in the night and the rest of the village slept safely in their beds, the fog rolled over it again and again. Flashes of blue and purple and brown popped enticingly just beyond the platform, however, just as the boy said, none came any closer than that, and finally… The fog rolled on, off to find some other, less protected prey.

.

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'

The Ryassophore fingered his trinket that hung around his neck. Upon his departure, the boy whom kept him company the night before had run over, shoving a small reed pipe into his hands before disappearing into the crowd of people gathered to see him off. They were truly kind people.

The pipe was simple, a singular hole on it, presumably much more like a common whistle that not. Certainly simple for the untrained traveler to play properly.

Following the directions given to him by the leader of the clan, the man walked over the reeds on a long stretch of wooden planks that bobbed up and down on the water through the reeds. Every once in a while, his passage would disturb a turtle or frog, but beyond that, he was left in quiet solitude.

He paused for a moment, seeing something before him through the fog. It was a crackling blue-colored something.

Pipe perched upon his lips, he walked forward cautiously, edging ahead slowly, foot by foot, step by step. Rounding a bend, he came to it. A small, meagerly flashing light the size of an burning ember hovering above the still form of a rotting fish nestled in a reed clump just beside the floating planks.

As he neared, the flame seemed to take notice of him, slowly zig-zagging to him, much like a half-dead moth. When it came to a foot before him, he blew through the pipe.

A clear, bright note rang through the air. The flame froze for a moment before slowly disintegrating into the air, leaving nothing behind.

The Ryassophore stared at where the flame had floated before slowly continuing his journey to the next land beyond the fog. Behind him, the low-hanging clouds swirled and mixed together, sending out questioning tendrils across the sea of reeds.

He paid it little mind.

He still had a long way to go before he could rest.


/from the traveling diary of a wandering Ryassophore/


Author(s) Notes: A revision of a previously complete story. The original was planned well, but the execution left much to be desired, so... I'll be going back through this. Hopefully, I'll get all my stories "complete," at some point. OTL