I have been on many long marches. Night marches. Quick marches. Marches through the mountains, and marches through swamplands. I have always hated marching.
Marching is transition. Marching is working hard every day with no real sense of accomplishment. When the ground beneath your feet moves yet you seem to get nowhere new. Marching is only redeemed by one thing: the fight at the end.
If there is a fight at the end.
Some men love to march. They love making progress over land and ticking off the legs marked on their maps. They love knowing that for at least one more day they won’t have to fight.
Most soldiers, however, are just plain lazy. They would rather lounge about a camp fire and drink than lug their gear with a captain’s whip behind them. But not me. I’m not lazy. Nor do I love the march.
For me, marching is simply a stall before the real task begins. It serves its purpose, obviously, but it can be mind-numbingly boring. It’s much the same as sitting in a carriage, waiting to get to the evening’s ball. You just want to be there already. Dancing. There’s no pleasure in the ride itself. Not for me.
And with marching you have to sweat. You get blisters. You exhaust yourself. You make the fun at the end that much more difficult and unpleasant for yourself.
To be fair, it’s all worth it when you set foot in front of your enemy and he had no clue you were anywhere near. He thought you were miles away. He thought he was safe. For at least another day, he believed he would not have to fight.
And I love to fight.
I love proving myself the true swordsman. Superior. There are always questions in a man’s mind whether he’s good enough. Whether or not he’s the best.
There are no questions between two warriors when one lies dead before the other. And after an unbroken string of victories, you start to get addicted. Never mind the fear. Never mind the doubts. Those will always be there. You just want to wet your blade again.
Lugging my gear through this jungle is perhaps the greatest punishment of my exile. I have been condemned to the march. There is no end to it, save that which ends all things. There are few fights, fewer still when forced to run, and perhaps none will present themselves at all at the end of this.
There is only the march.
We wake, we pack, we march. We pause to drink, we march. We stop to eat, we march. We sleep for the night, and we start it all over again in the morning.
Someday my march will end. I focus on Salisir to get me to move. On finding his corpse, completing my mission, and returning to the Tetrarch. I dream of that day as I march. I know they say there is no going back for me. They’re wrong. Just as they were wrong to condemn me as they did.
The Old Empire may no longer want me, but it is my home. I will return, welcome or not, even if I have to march every inch of the way back.
Starlark punched Bolton square in the face this morning. There was a bit of blood, and a scuffle ensued until we could get the two of them apart. It took the better part of an hour to calm them both down.
We don’t have time for this nonsense. I think what set Starlark off were the words “Whelped of a highborn whore,” although everything that led up to that point certainly didn’t help matters. Gods, Bolton is going to be the death of us.
I don’t know what is eating at him now, but he takes it all out on Starlark. It doesn’t matter what I say to him, I can’t shut him up. I suppose Starlark has done that well enough for today, but I know it is far from the end of our problems.
We remain uncertain as to exactly where we are. I have decided to continue east but angle a little to the north. My reason for this is that Graylag lies at the headwaters of a tributary, which according to Bantish’s map runs directly north from the city itself.
If we go too far north we will come out on this river, and then can simply follow it upstream to our destination. It seems to make the most sense. The other benefit to these rivers is that, assuming we can find some sort of boat to carry us, we can make even faster time through the jungle.
Unfortunately, I think our change in direction only served to irk Starlark more.
Balthandar remains somewhat shaken from the encounter with that massive monster, what the KoraKora called “Bangara.” It has left him with a great puzzle: How do we kill it? Our blades barely left marks on its hide, and even though Dionus could cut it with the wind it seemed to recover quickly.
What if there are even bigger monsters in this jungle?
Dionus has regained his footing today. He still suffers a headache that flares up whenever he moves for too long. He has kept largely to himself, lost in thought.
I wonder if they are all regretting their decisions to follow me here.
For my part, dreams of the KoraKora are what haunt me now. Images of them eating that boy alive. I can’t get them out of my mind, no matter what I try. It leaves me wondering if perhaps we could have done something to help him. I had no idea what to expect until it had already happened.
I’ve seen such horrible things done to people. Carnage on a scale on which this doesn’t register. Why then does this incident haunt me so?
If we can just make it to Graylag we will be able to rest; we can start fresh. Then perhaps these memories will begin to fade.
We may be lost. We don’t know how far north we ran, nor can we be certain if north is truly the direction we were headed.
We did our best to keep track of such things, but it becomes impossible to be completely certain after such exertion. We are slow-moving now, but we will keep as close to our original pace as we can. The only thing keeping us safe is distance.
Considering that we only had around a day’s march left to us, we could have passed the path in our haste. This is especially possible as the road itself may be overgrown, if not completely gone. However if we were still angled to the east, we may not yet have even reached the road.
So do we travel north? Or will that only lead us farther off our path?
Balthandar appears lost in the forest. Starlark seems to think we should angle towards the south but carry on east. I am most likely to follow his suggestion, as he is the most comfortable in the trees. Bolton has decided to contradict anything Starlark suggests, which makes openly following Starlark’s advice that much more difficult.
I won’t bow to Bolton’s temper, but I must accommodate it to some degree to maintain civility. It is frustrating that he would rediscover his stubbornness at this of all moments.
Dionus is a little more stable on his feet, but he says he aches from head to toe. I can see the poison in his eyes. He has difficulty focusing on anything before him. We will still need to guide him carefully as we move.
What I would give for my own bed tonight. What I would give to have one night in civilization and a good meal. A woman… I should stop this before I let myself dwell upon such things. It’s hard enough as it is when it hasn’t been said out loud or put in writing.
Tomorrow we will angle south, and hope that Bolton either doesn’t notice or forgets his antagonism for a day. I think I’ll put him in charge of Dionus to keep him busy.
I don’t know who it was that I killed. The scene that followed has left me chilled even more deeply than watching that poor boy be eaten by the KoraKora.
Two days ago we began what we believed to be our last day trekking east. What we could not have known was that we wouldn’t make it the full day. The monster that has been stalking us for some time finally made its appearance, and it is larger than any living thing I have ever seen.
It moved on all fours, but could rear to stand much like a man. It was thick, and while its body resembled that of a muscled bear, its dark, hairless skin looked much more reptilian. It was quick, with long talons at the end of bulging arms. Its snout was long, its teeth long and sharp. There were jagged spines running along its back all the way down its tail.
If it hadn’t been for Dionus we would never have heard it coming. The beast moved silently until it attacked. Then it roared.
Dionus could sense the air rippling against its movements, though even he wasn’t certain what it was he was sensing. It was just enough to make him stop. When Dionus stops, all of us stop.
Then with a crash the monster was upon us. It burst through the undergrowth and rolled, throwing the center of our line into disarray. When it came to its feet it roared, and then attacked again. Balthandar’s spear was already in hand, and the rest of us rallied with our swords.
It attacked us one at a time, which left enough room for the rest to counter and beat it back. It did this three times before sweeping the majority of us off our feet and latching onto Dionus’ leg. It began to pull him away when Dionus struck out with a flurry of attacks that bent the trees around us back.
He slashed into the monster’s thick hide, letting loose a flow of dark blood. It released him in shock and he launched himself into the air, unleashing more blows as he retreated.
We shouted and ran to his aid, but the monster was already moving off to a safe distance. It stopped there and glowered at us through the trees. I could have sworn I saw the wounds beginning to heal. That was when we decided to run.
The monster pursued.
We ran for the better part of an hour, stopping to drive the thing back only to run with it fresh on our heels. I didn’t realize we were running north until we burst into a clearing filled with dozens of yellow-painted men: KoraKora.
We stopped, frozen. Images of the carnage from the day before flashed in my mind. And there, in the center, stood the very same man I saw leading the pack days before. The one who had gutted that boy like a butcher might a pig.
Both groups stared at each other for a long moment, then they picked up their weapons and shouted. We just ran to the east as quickly as we could to circumvent them. They were set to take chase until the monster came bursting into the scene and rolled right through them. I heard a cry go out from dozens of mouths: “Bangara!”
Chaos again ensued as we ran back into the thick darkness of the jungle. I didn’t realize until it was too late that we had just passed under the first truly open sky I had seen in a month.
The monster was now embroiled in the KoraKora, giving us a moment to build some distance. But the KoraKora nearest us, possibly oblivious to the reason for their tribesmen’s sudden madness, immediately hooted and gave chase.
Rudimentary arrows were suddenly flying through the trees around us. They stuck in the wood, or got tangled in the vines. Dionus batted the majority away, but he couldn’t keep it up constantly while running. Then he was struck by a dart.
The dart didn’t put him down immediately. In fact, he didn’t notice it at first. But soon he started to slow. Within the hour he was lagging behind so badly we had to drop back and grab him.
The question was raised whether we should just stand and fight. But there had been dozens of the KoraKora, and then there was that monster we could barely repel. We didn’t know the area, I argued. The only sure defense we had at the moment was distance, and none of us wanted to be eaten, by beast or man.
That was a sobering thought. We argued heatedly for a moment, but the first arrow to whip past us settled the debate. We ran.
I have only had to run for my life a handful of times. It gets no more pleasant with repetition. We fled through the night, unwilling to stop unless we absolutely had to. Finding the antidote along our path for Dionus was one of those moments.
Time became a haze, and the jungle blended into an impenetrable darkness as night fell.
We stumbled often, swallowing curses for fear of giving our position away. We intermittently heard the hoots and shouts of our pursuers. On more than one occasion we could hear them all around us. Somehow we avoided contact with them all through the night. I suppose they were as blind as we.
They found us as soon as the morning light began to filter through the leaves.
We were forced to hide Dionus in the tangled roots of one of the trees. They were already falling on us. Balthandar began the killing in earnest, skewering two of the savages with his spear in one thrust. The arrows posed the greatest threat, however. They shot at us more than they attacked head on.
And then their leader appeared. There was a cut across his cheek. Whether he got it from the monster or some branch along the run, I will never know. There was cold intent in his eyes. Murder.
He launched himself forward, bringing around a crude iron scythe with great force. I stepped towards him and met it with my own sword. Our blades ground to a halt as the brittle material gave way.
We fought then.
I haven’t had a good fight in a long while. He almost put one up. I wasn’t worried about losing – I rarely am – I would go so far as to say I enjoyed it. We danced for nearly half a minute, but it didn’t take long to finish him. When I did, I realized I was standing on a silent field. But only for a moment.
His followers had stopped fighting to watch their leader. Balthandar said they had great pride written across their faces until I slew him. Pride quickly drained to despair.
They immediately fell upon his body, moaning and wailing. I have never heard such pitiable cries, even from the mouths of fresh orphans. That was what these men had become. They wept, and began cutting themselves. I was afraid they might consume his corpse, as they had eaten the boy before, but they didn’t touch him. They simply wallowed in their sorrow and bathed him in their blood.
The scene took on a morbid serenity. I found myself fixated and disgusted at the same time.
We didn’t stay long. We picked Dionus back up and began to run again until we were no longer able. After a brief respite we picked up and moved again for as long as we could before stopping for good. I immediately fell into a deep sleep that only lasted a few hours when my dreams woke me. The boy. The man who killed him covered in the blood of his followers. Now, even as exhausted as I am, I cannot sleep.
Night is falling. I must try again to sleep until it is my turn at the watch. I only pray the mourning of those savages has left us enough time to escape.
We were attacked by the monster at last, and in fleeing we ran straight into more trouble.
We have spent the last twenty-four hours running for our lives without stopping. Dionus can barely walk on his own, so we must take turns supporting him as we move. Balthandar has had to carry him more than once.
We are exhausted.
The only reason we have stopped is because we physically cannot go any further today. Dionus was struck with a dart of some sort. The color of the feathers looked similar to pondsweed, a poisonous flower that Bantish had shown us.
I applied the antidote he had taught us as soon as we found a halix plant, but it was too late to stave off the worst of the symptoms. Dionus will live, but only if we save ourselves.
I must sleep. I only expect to get a couple of hours, maybe three if I am lucky. The others are all asleep already, too tired to bother setting watch. We need to start moving again as quickly as possible, but I wanted to make note of the poison. We must review all we were taught as soon as we have time to do so.
We now find ourselves tracked by an unknown monster as we seek to avoid a tribe of cannibals.
Starlark has found further evidence that such a beast is following us. Every morning he scouts the surrounding area before we move on, and again he found evidence that something giant had slept near our camp.
The bed of matted material where it lay is as large as the last time we found one. Whether it is the same animal or not is impossible to say. We don’t even know what kind of animal it could be. Perhaps it is some descendant of the forest Titans of old? Perhaps it is something entirely different.
Where only days before I wrote of how free I felt to be moving again, now I feel trapped by the motion. We push on not for progress; we push on to live.
I slept poorly last night, images of that boy being ripped apart are burned into my mind. Every time I close my eyes some new aspect of that horror revisits me.
How can people do such things to one another?
I take it as further proof that we do not belong here. It seems a miracle that anyone even continues to survive in such a place. A twisted, morbid miracle.
If there are gods left in this place, they are the cruelest I have ever heard of.
We should move east for at least one more day before turning north again. Having no knowledge of the KoraKora leaves us vulnerable, we have no way of knowing for certain just how large their territory is or what the pattern to their movements looks like.
We should be able to probe north to keep track of them as we move east until we are certain they are no longer between us and our goal. From there we should only be a day away from the road, and then only a week from Graylag.
Tonight I have seen evil incarnate itself in the form of men.
The KoraKora are far worse than I had allowed myself to believe. They are cannibals.
Bantish warned us to avoid the KoraKora for their “unsavory” practices. I never imagined he would offer such an obscene understatement in assessing said practices. With every step the Nantese prove more backwards than the last.
Dionus detected their activity shortly before we would have otherwise come upon them. Starlark snuck closer and found them assailing a small village much like Bantish’s. He came back and named them KoraKora, as identified by the yellow paint that lined their features and formed designs across their bare chests. We gathered at the fringes to see what would happen.
I don’t recall ever feeling the urge to retch at the sight of blood. Today may have been a first.
The majority of those the KoraKora had captured were bound and then tied to each other until they formed a long, interconnected queue. Once they were secured, the leader of the KoraKora dragged a young man out of a nearby hut.
No one fought back as far as I could tell. If they had, none of the KoraKora showed any wounds to prove it. This young man was already bleeding from the crown of his head where he had been struck, ostensibly to keep him down while the rest were gathered.
The KoraKora howled when they saw the stumbling captive. They beat their chests like drums in chaotic fury until all fell into the same rhythm. They chanted in time with their fists and a shiver went along my spine as my stomach churned.
The leader held a knife high as he shouted. He threw his hands wide and laughed at the canopy above as the chanting grew louder. He made a pronouncement I could not understand, and then rammed the knife into the captive’s stomach. He slid it sideways in a rough motion and took a step back.
The rest of the KoraKora rushed forward, reaching for the wound and ripping at it. They tore the man apart before our very eyes, eating him as they went. Hooting with delight. I felt as sick as I was stunned.
When they were done there was nothing left save bloody bones and torn garments. Many of the victim’s former companions could not contain their horror, but there was nothing left for them to do. With a sticky orange hue now covering the KoraKora, they led their catch off into the jungle.
I have never seen such brutality before. I don’t know what to make of it.
We can defend ourselves against these creatures, but we should do everything we can to avoid them. There is no telling how many belong to this tribe, nor what tricks they may have in store for trespassers.
I am not afraid of dying, not truly, but I never thought I would be eaten alive. Now that I find myself in just such a position I will do whatever I must to avoid that fate.
Tomorrow we strike out to the east, for that is the direction we must ultimately go in any case. We will circumvent these savages, and then make north once we feel confident we are safely away from them.
I will have nightmares of what I have seen for years to come.