The KoraKora have made no appearance yet. I am most thankful for that today.
We stumbled upon a village early this morning. The people had already fled, leaving a cooking fire smoldering nearby. I suppose they feared we were bandits of some sort, or perhaps they had no idea. They actually had a small clearing in which their huts stood with a small patch of blue sky visible high above.
I couldn’t help but stand in the center and stare straight up. I lost myself in that swath of blue for longer than I would like to admit. The peace it offered hovered just beyond my reach, a dream slipping from memory as I came fully awake.
I tried to hold on to that feeling. I pined so desperately for a few moments of untethered bliss. The moment came and went, as if with no beginning or end. Just a glimpse of tranquility, and then I was back in the jungle. Back on the move.
The huts were empty. We searched them for food or any supplies worth taking but there was nothing to be found. Bolton kicked a hole in the wall of one, whether from frustration or to amuse himself was unclear. I suppose it doesn’t matter.
There was one body, one lonely corpse covered in deep cuts to the back and arms. I found myself unable to keep from staring at it.
Whatever they had here in the village was apparently worth killing to have. Or perhaps, as the vicious nature of the wounds suggested, lives here are just another trinket for the taking. Why doesn’t someone do something about this? I suppose it seems foolish to ask in such a lawless place, but violence seems to define the Nanten.
What surprised me was that about another mile beyond the village we ran into two little old men. They appeared from the undergrowth and stopped us. One of them spoke only a little of the common tongue. All he would say was, “When waters boil, stay out.”
He was insistent. Desperate almost. None of us could make sense of it. Starlark commented that a bath sounded fine to him at the moment. Dionus joked that if they were withholding tea from us he would find out.
The little savages either didn’t understand or simply ignored them. The man took my hand in his own. They were quivering.
“When waters boil, stay out.” He gingerly touched the blue blade of the Tetrarch on my armor, as if he knew its meaning. Then he and his companion disappeared into the undergrowth.
We continued in relative silence from there out. The warning was eerie, there was no denying it. The man was scared.
Boiling waters made me think of Infiri, the goddess that Tarsh had warned us about so long ago. Perhaps she is near? Could there truly be Dread Gods walking among the Nantese? From everything I have seen of the cruelty in this place, I would not be surprised to discover one.
I couldn’t get the image of the corpse in the village from my head. For the rest of our march, my thoughts were engulfed in that lone soul lying in the village. Innocent blood.
I didn’t see his face, but I imagined his jaw broken. His face bruised. This could be the very same boy I killed so long ago. I would never ask this question openly, but I must do so here before it cracks the inside of my skull and escapes on its own: What sets me apart from these savages if I too have taken an innocent life?
I tell myself that I did so on accident. I fall back on the calling of the Tetrarch to stop the ascension of Demons. We are here to save the world, and save it from the vilest of threats. Collateral damage is unavoidable. Some few must die so many may live… why does this all fall so flat even as I write it?
I cannot escape the weight of what I have done, and though reason would absolve me of my guilt, no amount of reasoning can guide me out from under it.
The river boils. I’ve never seen something so bizarre, but the warning we received yesterday makes sense now. Assuming that Bantish’s maps are accurate, the tributary running north from Graylag boils periodically. We saw it happen twice in the same day, once when we first arrived and again five hours later.
It starts with a low broil of the surface, but within minutes the water thrashes violently as if it may explode towards the sky. There were a large number of birds on the water when it began. When it was over they were all gone. I dare say it was something we couldn’t even fully comprehend when we first saw it.
Two men with canoes found us on the shore as we began our trek south. They spoke the common tongue well enough and promised to take us to Graylag more quickly than we could walk. But the warning of the old men from yesterday tempered our desire for speed.
“When waters boil, stay out.”
I’m glad we did.
One of the men got frustrated with us and jumped back in his canoe. He called us cowards and said that there was nothing to fear. The waters, he claimed, only boiled once every few weeks. We were perfectly safe.
He pushed off from the shore to prove his point. He shouted something else as he drifted, but our attention was drawn to the surface of the water. It was beginning to broil.
His comrade shouted for him to return, but it was too late. The waters began to thrash, and within seconds the canoe and its owner had both vanished to the violence of the river. I was stunned. I have never heard of such waters. How can they boil so quickly? And why do they stop as suddenly?
More importantly, if we are to reach Matasten at any decent pace this removes our fastest mode of transport through the jungle. Unless we can unravel the mystery of what we have seen, we will not be able to travel by river.
This assumes that Matasten is even our goal. What worries me most is that I have no true sense of direction. Though Matasten makes the most sense as Salisir’s destination, as it was where the Daedric prince was said to be building his society, I have nothing to prove it. I expect to find a signpost of some sort in Graylag. There must be clues to Salisir’s path, and Bantish seemed convinced some would lie in the city.
Bantish also seemed to think Salisir died somewhere near here. Prestorn will have those answers, he said.
Prestorn. Another name to find, another guide along our journey. We are well prepared to bribe our way through Graylag tomorrow. Bolton, however, is itching to cut his way through. He seems perturbed today, but has left Starlark completely alone. He mentioned the body we saw yesterday, and muttered something about how not even animals do such things.
I don’t dare believe what I’m seeing, but Bolton, the slaver from the Great Wastes, might actually be developing a sense of compassion before my very eyes.
I never thought a sunset could look so beautiful. Though even to the river’s edge the gloom of the Nanten persists, over the water there is a long clear patch of sky. The clouds were sparse tonight and the sunlight that played off of them made my heart ache. Gold, pinks, and purples. More colors than I ever thought I could appreciate so deeply.
I miss the open sky more tonight than I did the entire time we trudged on without it, able to see it even as I write.
Graylag lies just a few miles to our south. At least there stand the ruins of an ancient city, and they are inhabited by a large number of savages.
I have never been so hesitant to approach a population as I find myself today. We have seen so few over the last forty days. Most of our time is spent alone in this sanctuary of green. What few encounters we have had keep me from wanting any more, especially with the KoraKora.
I still shudder to think of those fierce cannibals. I never knew I could hate something and fear it so strongly, even compared to my loathing of the Daedra. But regardless of whatever their “unsavory practices” may be, I do not wish to deal with any Nantese at the moment.
It doesn’t help that the people of Graylag are thieves and murderers in their own right. Will this be a city with commerce and a permanent settlement, or an encampment on the move? We will approach tonight to scout it out. Once we have done our best to gather more information we will return during the day.
There is a variation in the trees across the river. Those we have grown accustomed to still dominate the landscape, but there are a variety of shorter ones that grow among large spaces left between them. It makes me wonder what other changes we will find as we move deeper into the Nanten.
This development with the river is a blow, that of its sporadic boiling. The ability to use it as a path through the jungle could save us days, even weeks of travel. We need to do what we can to discover the regularity of the occurrences, and perhaps move between instances. However, if yesterday was any indication, there may not be a reliable pattern.
I do not want to continue through this jungle on foot. Gods, how I hate it. If only there were roads, horses, even carts in which we could ride. I catch myself dreaming of such things at night as I lay on my fraying mat. Just the feel of a saddle under me and the pressure of a horse against my legs.
I never thought I could hate marching more than I did.
I certainly can, and I most certainly do.
Graylag is vast, far larger than I imagined possible in this hellish jungle. We have hardly seen a village large enough to house a few dozen people. Graylag could be home to thousands.
It’s difficult to know with certainty how many are actually there as by night there was little movement. There were, however, a large number of torches and fires alight among the ruins through the night. Two buildings appear to stand relatively intact above the rest. The columns are thick, and decorated in a fashion unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the Old Empire.
Stone buildings are a surprise in themselves. The roofs appear to be made of wood, and though they are collapsed in sections, they seem in relatively good shape. Proof that once there were true craftsmen in the Nanten Kingdom. Large ruins scattered throughout suggest that these were not always alone, and in fact may not have always been the biggest buildings in Graylag.
There were loose watches set around the perimeter of the city, but nothing impenetrable. We had little trouble moving about as we pleased. If those on watch represent the larger force present in Graylag then they are certainly no form of disciplined army.
I suppose this should come as no surprise, as no disciplined army would ever raid and pillage their own people.
The majority of the defenses face away from the river, they seem to treat it as a defense in itself, so we will approach along its shores. We leave within the hour, and I hope to find Prestorn without delay or too much difficulty. I am sure this is too much to hope for, but I feel optimistic on this one front.
Still, I am anxious. We may have to fight, and while we will take our time to see what we can before we make our approach, we will have no true knowledge of what we face until we are already facing it. We could be walking into a trap, and there’s no knowing what kind of expressionists lie behind Graylag’s broken walls.
Dionus and I may not be the only ones who use magic here, and that worries me. What if they have Mentalists, and we wind up imprisoned without ever knowing we’ve been taken? What if they have something worse? Something I’ve never even heard of?
We will have to trust in our knowledge and ability to perceive the use of magic as it happens, but so far I have already failed to do just that with Tarsh and Bantish. I do not wish to err the same way with an enemy.
We are alive, and better than that: we are welcome. A little silver passed between hands didn’t hurt.
In approaching Graylag we were spotted by outposts long before we ever reached the ruins. A large troop of men came out to meet us brandishing all manner of spears and swords. They were as motley a crew as any band of pirates I have ever seen.
But as they came towards us they stopped short, just out of Starlark’s range. They demanded to know who we were, first in their local tongue then in the common. I shouted back that we were sent by Bantish, and looking for a man called Prestorn.
A man stepped forward and beckoned us near. “I am Prestorn,” he said so loudly there may as well have been no distance between us. “And it is lucky that you have found me first.”
Prestorn is indeed good friends with Bantish, and had already received word of what we had done for him against the Mentalists. He took us under his protection and walked us back into Graylag. Not without a well-expected gift, but to be honest we anticipated spending much more than he seemed happy to receive.
His protection was indeed helpful, if not necessary. It turns out that there are four warlords who share control of Graylag in a loosely held alliance. Each is strong, but not strong enough to overthrow any of the others on his own. This tenuous balance is held together only by a shared distrust. None of them trust any of the others enough to ally against a third.
Apparently one such alliance had been formed some years back, but the conspirators were slain by their own lieutenants, fearing war would break out and leave them vulnerable to the uninvolved party. The original leaders were thus immediately supplanted and balance restored.
It is a strained peace they maintain, but an effective one. Had I been greeted by any of the others, Prestorn said, they would have most certainly attacked us for our gear. As his guests, we were safe. Mostly. He said not to let our guard down at any point, just to be certain.
We were taken immediately to his stronghold for refreshments, and he pumped us for information on the outside world. He seemed most interested in the KoraKora and Bangara. The Bangara, he told us, was a pest bordering on menace.
I found it interesting to call a giant, invulnerable, man-eating lizard a pest, but I kept that thought to myself.
He told us that they often stalk men for days without being seen, only to pounce upon them with no warning and consume as many as they can capture.
Prestorn seemed disturbed by our encounter with the KoraKora. The man I killed, he said, must have been a great leader to command such mourning. For the KoraKora, blood is the toll to enter the next life. For a man to pay it himself is to be condemned to wander for eternity, so they bathe the dead in blood of their own to ensure safe passage.
He shuddered at the thought of the KoraKora much as I did and then moved on.
Bantish, he said, was a very fortunate find indeed. Their relationship started when Prestorn was only a boy. He had been pressed into the service of some older warlord and was on his first raid beyond what he referred to regularly as “the territory.” Bantish’s village, apparently, lies just beyond that.
Prestorn got lost during the raid. He fell sick with a fever, which he says was as much because of the terror in his stomach as any illness, and soon collapsed. Bantish found him and nursed him back to health. He tried to pull Prestorn from the life he had been forced into, but Prestorn said he was too young, too foolish, and too scared to listen to the wise old man.
They remained in loose contact over the years, however, and Prestorn learned as much as Bantish could teach him whenever they crossed paths. The most important lesson Bantish taught him, he said, was how to hide when sought. It seemed a strange thing to say, but he said it earnestly.
We were lucky, he told us, on all counts. Between disease, poisons, and predators he seemed certain we should have died already. No Imperial had made it so far into the Nanten in living memory. None, he said, except for Salisir.
I was about to start asking my own questions when we were interrupted. The other warlords had gathered, we were told, and expected us to make an appearance to beg their leave to stay. Prestorn said it was a formality, but an important one.
“To tread on the pride of the small is to entice a wrath most large,” he told us.
The council was long-winded, and involved a lot of yelling and arguing that Prestorn opted not to translate for us. The basic idea, he said, was to appear strong and mean. It kept the peace.
The warlords drank the entire time that they argued, and as the drinking continued the shouting grew louder, then subdued, until finally, on some cue unknown to us, they all decided it was time to feast. I have not eaten so well in months.
There were all kinds of meat and even a bread of some sort. There was palm wine and fried fruits… we ate until we were sick, and then we ate some more.
The warlords lounged more than sat. They wore the strangest garb, collections of a variety of different styles and incomplete sets of armor. Still, they appeared formidable. They were flanked by their lieutenants and served by spindly servant girls who they grabbed at will for their pleasure.
Many of them came alongside Balthandar and sized themselves up against him. This seemed a game more than any threat, as they would puff out their chests and try to make themselves as large as the spearhand. But most would dissolve into laughter and stumble away after a few moments. The others Balthandar just shoved back and ignored.
Among my companions, only Bolton seemed to grow increasingly tense as the evening wore on.
Prestorn showed us to the quarters in his stronghold that had been set aside for us. I told him I needed to hear what he knew about Salisir, but he said there would be plenty of time in the morning. He left no room for argument, and then abruptly left.
I suppose my questions must wait another night. Where Salisir went, and what he did around here to make himself known… but for now I am contented with a full belly and a warm welcome. We will maintain a watch tonight, as tempting as it is not to, for these men remain thieves and murderers and I doubt that their hospitality truly means much.
However I am intrigued by their customs, and look forward to investigating more as we discover our clues to Salisir’s path through these parts. Perhaps spending time with these brigands will teach us what we need to know to survive their kind throughout this lawless jungle.
I feel strangely hopeful. Perhaps once we have refitted ourselves here we will stand a real chance of finding Brin Salisir’s corpse and ending this quest alive.
“The KoraKora are coming.” Prestorn woke us in the night and smuggled us out of Graylag.
The KoraKora, he said, were hunting us. He had sent scouts out yesterday immediately after hearing my story in order to discover their whereabouts. Word was already spreading through the jungle, he said. The KoraKora are coming.
There was no protection he could offer any more. The other warlords would have us killed as soon as they found out, and there would be nothing he could do to stop them. They fear the KoraKora more than anything, and would not risk the cannibals discovering they had harbored us.
I asked him why they feared the KoraKora so much. Each warlord commanded hundreds of men, and the ruins were clearly defensible. The KoraKora, I said, were little more than aggressive savages.
He shook his head at that. Graylag was a small coalition of bandits. The KoraKora, he said, were a nation unto themselves. A small nation, but unified and powerful. The man I had killed in the jungle, he said, was the brother of their chief. The ceremonies to mourn his death would have lasted a week after the chief arrived to officiate, and that week had just ended.
Now they would hunt those that killed the chief’s brother, Prestorn said. Now they would hunt us.
He hurried us through the darkness towards the southern end of Graylag. I protested, wishing to take to the river, but he insisted. Brin Salisir, he said, once killed many of the men he called friends. Brin Salisir was no pest, he was a true menace to the bandits of Graylag.
He had harried the bandits in this place for some time, until one day he took the “life of Graylag.” Some relic that had protected them from things like the KoraKora.
Salisir had not died here, he said, but in the Akari Grasslands to the distant southeast. If we were to find any proof of his death, it would be there. He shoved a parchment in my hand as he shook it.
“There are greater threats in this jungle than the KoraKora,” he told me. “Older threats, magical things. There are spirits, and there are gods. You will never make it to the Akari Grasslands alive, and even if you do the monsters that live there are unlike anything you have ever seen. You will all die out here.”
He pointed at the parchment in my hands. “That will take you to Senida, the City of Golden Waves, but I beg you to return to Bantish instead. Find the old man and leave this land behind.” He took my hands one final time, his unblinking stare boring into me in the darkness. “There is nothing but death here.”
With that he turned and disappeared back into the jungle.
I was stunned. I am still stunned. Within twenty-four hours we have been found, fed, celebrated, and then turned out before our hosts could slaughter us. After marching all morning I still don’t know what to think. Prestorn has saved our lives, but to what end?
The parchment he gave me was another rudimentary map, as worthless as the one Bantish gave me, but covered in a strange set of symbols and runes. I don’t know what they mean. I suddenly feel so lost.
Thankfully Starlark was his quite himself in the night. He found a stash of Imperial arrows that he stole along with some choice foods. Even Balthandar wouldn’t scold him for betraying the rules of hospitality after the events that essentially dissolved them.
Now we must make for the Akari Grasslands, and pray the KoraKora do not find us.
Due southeast now we plunge into the Nanten. There lie the Akari Grasslands, the space in the gape of the jaws of the Nanten. This is not where I imagined we would go. I had seen them marked on a number of maps, but I never saw any notes that would relay the reason one might wish to go there. Why did Salisir?
For all we know, Prestorn has simply dumped us on the nearest side of Graylag to the approaching KoraKora in hopes of appeasing them. We could be marching straight into their jaws instead, and in a very literal sense.
Cannibals. Gods… I’m shaking as I write this. I cannot be eaten by such beastly men. It is no way for a Tetrarch to die. As if exile wasn’t shameful enough.
And to make matters worse, I am plagued now by a building headache. I don’t know if it is from the fear or if I am falling ill, but there seems to be nothing I can do to remedy it. And remedy it I must, for any lapse in my leadership may mean the end of us.
Starlark and Bolton are at each other again, bickering as they march. There is no overt threat in it, no blows have been exchanged, but there is a new venom lacing the insults. Starlark made some passing comment at a woman in Graylag the other night and it angered Bolton. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now I find it incredibly strange.
Why should he care if Starlark wants one of these Nantese women, or takes one for that matter? That’s what Bolton himself made a living from for decades. The jungle confuses all of us, and leaves me uncertain that I can predict any conflict before it forms between us.
Balthandar has taken to walking between them. When they grow hostile he interrupts with long stories and fables of the Summer Isles. I doubt it does much more than frustrate the other two, but it keeps them silent for good stints.
Dionus has grown even quieter than usual, but whispers to me when he draws near. Expressionists, he says. He can feel them. We are being sought by more than human eyes alone, and I can feel it too. There is no attempt to hide it from us this time, and I fear we are laid bare.
I do not wish to reveal my power here, not yet. I don’t know what eyes are watching and who might spread word throughout this wretched jungle. If Bantish can send messages to friends, then so can our enemies.
The only hope we have right now is to slip from this region unseen, and pass beyond the range of the KoraKora’s search. If we can do that, we may escape them altogether. Back on the march we go. Gods what I wouldn’t give for a horse.
No, forget the horse. I want wine for this headache. I wonder if Starlark stole any of that, too…