Chapter 17

Pulled out of the pit by rope, Samantha, Grandpa, and Harr stood looking down at the slithering snakes below. Harr was still trembling and Grandpa couldn’t believe he was still alive.

“Please come into my cabin,” Ji said to Samantha and the others. “Please, I will explain.” They followed Ji down the path back to the main camp and into his cabin. Ji’s cabin was larger than other cabins, and contained a large conference table in a main foyer. Beyond the foyer were Ji’s quarters.

“Please sit,” Ji said, taking his necklace off, the one with the key to the archives. “Let’s take a look at the map.” He opened a slat in the floor to reveal a metal safe with a large padlock. He unlocked the padlock with the key from his necklace and removed an ancient document not too unlike the scroll he had pulled from his walking stick earlier.

“The scroll.” Harr said. “You were going to trade us a fake?”

“Sort of,” Ji said. “The fake is not so much a copy as a curse. You will see.” He opened the real ancient scroll onto the table. Grandpa, Samantha, and Harr looked carefully at it. The scroll was old and yellow, fragile. Samantha expected to see a map, somewhat like the record book that Harr had drawn, but instead she saw rows of musical notes. The single page contained seven lines of musical notes that ran across the page.

“This is the map?” Harr said.

“I know,” said Ji. “The ancients didn’t leave a traditional map — they just left this, which no interpreter since has been able to decipher. For years, we thought it had a code beneath it, that each note stood for a letter, which corresponded with a location. But despite our best attempts, it remains impenetrable.”

The notes initially seemed like regular musical notes, but as Samantha looked more closely, she could there was something familiar about them. She played them in her head, interpreting each key and the pacing of the song.

“When I heard you sing,” Ji said, “something sounded strangely familiar to me. At first I couldn’t place it. But then –”

“But then you connected my song with this one,” Samantha said, cutting him off.

“Yes, it was unmistakable,” Ji said. “At that point I commanded that ropes be sent down to pull you out, because you obviously know something we do not.”

“Was this the same map you were planning to trade us?” Harr asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” Ji said. “That is also an ancient map. The one we’re looking at now was glued on the underside of the other map, concealed. The map I was going to give you is a curse. Interpreters who have studied the melody of that map have at first been enchanted with its music. It is a light and springy tune, they say, one that fills your mind with a sense of carefree elation. The only problem is, once the tune enters your mind, it does not leave it. Every interpreter who has studied it enough to hear its sound has eventually gone insane. At first they hum the sounds a few days, and eventually they lose speech and fall into a kind of speechless trance that locks their mind into a catatonic state. It paralyzes their mind, and they lose all sense of mental recognition. The sounds weave through their brain in malicious patterns, trapping thought in a deafening round of music that loops eternally.”

Samantha had never thought that music could be used as a weapon, or that perhaps it could be used as a weapon against her. Maybe the forest song in her head was like that — more than just a tune.

“Like when a tune in a commercial gets stuck in your head, and won’t leave?” Grandpa said.

“Yes,” said Ji. “But literally, until you go mad. Some interpreters have actually bashed in their brains trying to make the deafening sound stop.”

Ji knew a lot more detail about the archives of the ancients, more than he had obviously told others in the clan. He possessed a leader’s knowledge of secrets handed down from one generation to another. Samantha still distrusted Ji, questioning everything he said.

“How is it that I knew the song before I saw the notes?” Samantha asked.

“I’m not sure,” Ji said. “Perhaps they’re communicating with you somehow, trying to get a message to you through song. But I doubt it, given how they tried to conceal their tracks with the fake map. You may have simply stumbled into the song the same way they did — by accident. I don’t know, but I want to join you in the journey to connect to them.”

Ji did seem sincere in saying this. But Samantha felt there was more than he wasn’t letting on, more he kept hidden.

“We will form a search party,” Ji said. “You will never make it alone in these woods without some more experience. I will give you my most expert interpreter, Philos, the most agile and instinctive hunter, Knife, and I too will accompany you on this journey. We will go together.”

Samantha felt a pang of terror. Nearly an hour ago, Ji was plotting their deaths with the snake of truth. Now he wanted to join forces on a quest to find the lost people? Could he be trusted? Did they really have a choice? He could be a powerful asset in their journey, and he knew more than anyone else about the records and the legends of the ancestors. They couldn’t exactly turn him down.

Seeing the parallels with the music, Samantha knew her destiny lay somewhere in that string of notes. She was being chosen or singled out for something — just what she didn’t know.

“Very well,” said Samantha. “You can accompany us, but let’s be clear on one thing: on this journey, you are no longer the leader. I am. You listen to me. You share all knowledge with me. You don’t hold back anything, no tricks. Got that?”

Ji nodded with an accepting humility. “Where would you like to start, Samantha?”

Samantha looked at the musical map. She thought hard. How can music be a map, she thought. Where did they go, and why did they leave a trap for future seekers? Was it a trap, or a safety mechanism to keep people away?

Ji commanded Philos and Knife to gather up their bags and prepare to leave in the morning. Meanwhile, Ji invited Grandpa, Samantha, and Harr to remain in his cabin as his guest. He pulled out three small cots from a side room and asked one of his servants to prepare bedding. At once several woodsmen began unfolding and laying blankets and pillows.

Ji said, “I hope we can move beyond the incidents of these past few weeks. We have so much to gain from our mutual collaboration.”

Samantha wondered again about Ji’s motives. What did he stand to gain from this journey? How would he benefit from the connection to his past?

“I hope you allow me to serve you dinner,” Ji said. “We must eat heartily before our journey begins.”

Samantha looked at Harr to assess his trust of Ji. Harr remained poker-faced, placid, not showing excitement about the journey, but not dismissing its possible merit. The same servants who had prepared their beds now began to set and prepare a table for their meal.

“And this journey,” Samantha said. “How will it begin? We don’t even know which direction to go.”

“I’m leaving that up to you, Samantha,” Ji said. “If we had any ideas, we would have pursued them long ago.”

One of Ji’s servants set up a table, and then brought over some food — a roasted kill of some kind. They all ate quietly around the table, no one really trusting each other. The meat was skewered on sticks, and they ate nibble by nibble.

During dinner, Ji looked carefully at Samantha, trying to determine something from her eyes, trying to guess her secret. Every once in a while he asked her a probing question, such as, “When did you first know?”

“Know what?” Samantha said, denying any special insight into the matter.

“Know about the map,” Ji said.

“I never knew about the map,” she said. “Harr mentioned it, that’s all.”

“Hmmm,” Ji said, as he looked at her suspiciously.

Was he trying to get information from her without asking directly? Could she trust Ji enough to start a journey with him?

“We all know many things,” Grandpa said, trying to diffuse the tension. “One thing I know, this meat is delicious.”

After dinner, Ji’s servants brought out several cots for Samantha, Grandpa, and Harr. Ji pretended to be laying on the hospitality, offering anything they needed at his disposal — blankets, pillows, notebooks. After they traded a few after-dinner niceties, briefly discussing the weather and the big days ahead, Ji retired to his quarters. They others laid down, looking up or the side. Before too long, they were asleep. Grandpa was snoring.

Samantha turned and turned in her cot. It just didn’t feel right. She didn’t trust Ji. What did he know that he wasn’t sharing? She knew he had more information than he was letting on. Was it worth going on this trip with someone she didn’t trust? She barely trusted Harr.

As she lay in her cot, she thought back to that first time when she had extracted musical notations from the map. Where did she get that idea? How had it come to her? Why did she have this neverending desire to music, to create it, and hear it?

She replayed everything in her head, tracing the steps that had led her to exactly where she was now. When did it stop making sense? At what point did everything start to feel just a little bit crazy?

She wanted to see the ancient curse music that Ji had showed them before. Was it really a musical curse? Was that sort of thing even possible? Was Ji just making this up? Was the music in her head her own fabrication or was it somehow connected to — or perhaps originating from — these lost people? She couldn’t return without knowing, nor could she simply write herself off as mentally ill.

Samantha wanted to hear the song again, to understand it. It didn’t come on its own, that overpowering sense of the song in her head. That state of all-encompassing musical saturation was out of her control. It happened to her. It wasn’t something she originated.

She decided to get up and get a glass of water. All this tossing and turning, thinking and replaying and remembering and pondering events in her mind, had made her thirsty. She tiptoed out of the room toward a small kitchen and looked for a glass. As she was in the kitchen, she paused. She could hear, rather faintly and in whispers, a careful conversation taking place in the next room. The voice was Ji’s, unmistabkly. She could just make out what he was saying. He was discussing plans with some of the interpreters.

“Suppose she leads us to them,” an interpreter said. “What then?”

“Are you afraid they’ll find out?” Ji said.

“Not necessarily. I’m afraid they simply kill you the first time they see you, Ji.”

“It’s been years, gentlemen. I highly doubt there are many of them left who might remember,” Ji said.

“Of course I can never forget.”

As Samantha leaned her ear up against the wall to hear better, the voices suddenly stopped. Samantha froze.

Then the voices slowly started again.

“Are we really going to subject ourselves to her leadership?”

“Of course not,” Ji said. And then he laughed. The others laughed too, and it sounded like a grand old time they were having.

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