Bolton truly is sicker than we thought. It is midday and he has yet to rise from the cot that was made for him. He shakes and sweats, but does not awake.
Bantish assures us the fever will pass but I am not so sure. He frequently burns some strange concoction of leaves and incense next to Bolton’s contorted form. To open his airways, Bantish says. To let in the healing.
The rest of us spend our time attending to our gear, much of it oiling our blades. I’m not sure if they truly need it, or the ritual has simply become one of the few links to lives we once led. A strange form of catharsis. It’s easy to pretend you’re anywhere you wish as you stare into shimmering steel.
Isn’t this exactly what I was craving when sleeping out in the wilderness only days before?
If nothing else we can get some sleep without keeping as stringent a watch, and that in itself is a blessing. Now if only we could get a decent meal.
I find myself fantasizing about food, especially as our flatbake runs desperately low. Idleness has given my stomach too great a voice. And beer. Gods I would kill for a stout or even one of Handel’s amber ales. I knew leaving civilization would be hard. I never knew it would be the hunger that would be the hardest.
Everywhere in the Old Empire there are taverns, inns. People have food. There is always somewhere to eat. Even on long treks into the mountains we only went without a hot meal for a week at most. We are discovering that here, in the Nanten, if you can’t scavenge or hunt you will starve.
To that end, Bantish has promised to begin teaching us the plant life of the area. What is edible and what is poisonous. I am able now to appreciate just how valuable such knowledge will be. Having found and befriended him will prove to be well worth our effort.
I feel reluctant to move on with our mission today. My exhaustion is lending great clout to the overwhelming nature of the undertaking. To find Brin Salisir in this jungle? We have barely crossed its borders and already we are shaken.
On the road to Blithe I was angry and fueled by it. I had notions of sweeping through this jungle, finding Salisir’s corpse, and then finishing his mission for him. I would return to the Tetrarch and reclaim my place. And all of this would be done within the year.
Now, as I pray for the slightest of breezes to pass me by, I am plagued by doubts. This jungle is dense. The creatures that inhabit it are lethal. The discovery of Imperial Mentalists carrying out experiments with Nantese Organists leaves me disturbed to no end. What else awaits within the Nanten?
We will not starve, and we will not die of thirst. I am growing certain of that. What I am not certain of is whether we will die of fever, poison, or blades in the night. What other monsters await us?
And then there is the strife between Bolton and Starlark. It is a morbid kindness to have a day’s relief from their bickering as Bolton lies ill. I must figure out a solution to their enmity before they solve it themselves.
Gratitude should taste better. I have not often risked my life for the lives of others, but on the occasions where I have the thanks has always been more generous. Balthandar swore his life to me, for gods’ sake. Bantish and his people can barely put together a decent meal for us.
I suppose that for such poor people I should be grateful there is any food at all. But considering we have alleviated not just suffering, but a threat to their very existence, you would imagine they would produce more of a feast.
They fed us some fruit and a couple of roasted birds served over a thick puree of some root I have never tasted before. It was all terrible. Bland.
The people looked expectant, as if we were supposed to enjoy it. I suppose we did in some fashion, considering we hadn’t eaten more than flatbake in two days. I’m sure they were disappointed at our reaction. I suppose the next time someone saves their village they’ll put on a better show.
There was no bandying about for us. As soon as we had eaten the questions began to flow, pumping Bantish for whatever information he would give us.
We need to be on our way. That was what we tried to impress upon him.
He, on the other hand, wanted us to stay. At least a little longer. He put up a show of wanting to give us time to rest, and for him to gather supplies. Bolton took this as a stalling tactic. He stood, knife in hand, but Bantish thrust him back down to his seat with a gesture. The shock of it stunned Bolton, it stunned all of us.
I don’t know what power he used, but all of our hands were on our blades in an instant.
Bantish kept two fingers raised and asked us to remain civil. He promised we would have all that we had asked for and more, but told us that rest was what we needed most. Pointing at Bolton, who flinched noticeably, Bantish said that there was illness yet within us. It would be no form of appreciation to let us back into the wild without giving us the best chance possible.
He almost made it sound hopeful.
Bolton is still angry from his embarrassment. He and Starlark haven’t stopped bickering since. The rest of us are quietly grateful for the opportunity to rest, even if we share frustrations over Bantish.
I knew he was powerful. I knew he was dangerous. Now I must trust that he is as honorable as he appears.
We had to stop to rest, there was no pushing farther today. Most of the night was spent escaping the toxic forest, and now that we have made our way out we must stop. We won’t make it back to Bantish’s village tonight.
I never thought I would crave the presence of such poor savages as badly as I do right now. At least we would be able to sleep among them.
The Mentalists’ encampment was close to where we camped the other night, so close that in the morning Dionus was awoken by their arousal. They were perhaps only a hundred feet away.
Their encampment was smaller than I expected, perhaps only fifty yards in any direction. Most of the buildings were low, rudimentary things made from branches and vines.
There were a few built up on the trunks of the trees with stairways leading up to them. There was even a bridge fashioned from ropes that spanned the gap between the largest of these. The encampment itself was tranquil in the early morning. The monsters were nowhere to be seen, but there were a number of men and women mulling about the site.
Most of them were Organists, those capable of manipulating plant life. At first this was a shock, finding natural enemies like Organists and Mentalists working together, and this is where things took strange turns.
There were only two Mentalists, but they were in the most dangerous combination they come in: one controlled by the other.
Mentalism plays on the perceptions and volition of the victim, from mere suggestion to outright hallucination. The danger for the Mentalist lies in the fact that the more he pushes the will of others, the more the integrity of his own deteriorates. Eventually he is left to a well-deserved fate, powerless against the suggestion of others.
I’m sure you know this. What’s more dangerous, however, is when one Mentalist is left open to such suggestion and he becomes the tool of another. This leaves the controlling Mentalist free to use his power at will, while avoiding the dangers of exerting it all the time. The controlled Mentalist becomes his ultimate weapon, an inexhaustible exertion of his will over others.
Thus the Organists were made to be slaves to the one, and the one became the slave to the other.
The Organists were being put to work, it appeared, in order to form the disease we saw in the trees. They were being forced to create a corruption, for what purpose I remain uncertain. What follows is still hazy for me, but it has come back in pieces over the last day.
Starlark broke off from the group to scout the perimeter, while the rest of us remained hidden and observed what I have already written. He did not return.
We waited for over an hour for him, ample time to circumvent the camp. We decided to move and enter the encampment after surrounding it. But as we stood, the camp disappeared.
I walked forward, confused as if I had been struck blind. Before me stood nothing but trees and vines. I could still see my comrades, who were as confused as I, but the camp was gone.
Balthandar, among all of us, was the only one to keep his gaze set forward. He was locked on a particular spot. As I watched, he walked forward until he reached the largest tree before us and crossed his legs to sit. He put his massive spear across his lap. I could swear the tree shifted slightly to accommodate him.
Bolton was sneering, breathing heavily, and beginning to swear loudly. No matter what Dionus or I said, we could not stop him from getting angrier with every passing moment. He was terrified.
Dionus and I were aware of the hallucination, but neither of us knew how to break it. Mentalism and Organics are diametrically opposed, the key to breaking the spell on us would lie in the plants around us but they were poisoned. There was no help to draw from the trees, and no knowing for certain which were real in any case.
It is disorienting to realize you are dreaming yet be unable to wake. Which trees were there before the dream began? Which appeared thereafter?
I began to panic. We were in a prison we could not touch, behind bars we could not break. I would have spoken to Dionus but he put a finger to his lips. There was no telling who was near nor what they had in store for us. They made no move to harm us, which meant they would try to find a way and break us.
“Dionus,” Balthandar said suddenly. “Come stand by me.”
Dionus nodded to me quietly and stepped up behind the seated Islander. I took this as my cue to wait as well, but before I could sit I needed Bolton to calm down. He was starting to shout even louder. He took out his sword and began to hack at the nearest trees.
I couldn’t get him to stop, and before I knew it he had inhaled too much of the fumes and collapsed under one of his intended victims. I held my breath as I dragged him back towards the others, and then sat to watch over him. He was still breathing, though shallowly.
Balthandar’s eyes were closed. I assumed he was meditating, using some southern trick to calm his mind. But Dionus’ eyes were roving. I could sense him reaching out, testing the air as subtly as he could.
We waited for hours. I had yet to sit still for so long in the half-light of the jungle, but the way that it shifted was unnerving. Perhaps that was only a part of the illusion. I lost all track of time.
The silence was chilling. The scent of death intensified. Then Dionus clapped flint against Bantish’s bamboo. The whole world twisted sideways in that moment as the illusion was skewed.
The wind cracked as Dionus brought his hands up, and in a flash Balthandar’s spear shot up and into the tree before him. Blood spurt from the tree, and it began to shiver.
In that instant a stinging pain erupted behind my eyes. All I could hear was a steady ringing. Dionus and I covered our ears as Balthandar leapt to his feet and rammed his spear through the tree. The world quaked as more blood ran down its trunk. And then it fell.
Everything began to vibrate and spin. All three of us dropped to our hands and knees, clinging to the earth as if it might fling us from its surface. The Seventh Death hovered near, I could sense him closing in. It seemed to be the only way out. He was beckoning me to choose him, and then I realized what had happened.
“You can stop now!” I shouted through gritted teeth. It was all I could think to do. “Release your prisoners!”
And like that, the world stood still. The camp was around us, the corpse of the Mentalist lying at its center. Above us stood another, waiting obediently for his next instructions. Balthandar lunged to cut him down but I stopped him.
This Mentalist was harmless without his master, the death of whom had sent him into an unguided spiral until I called out to him. Had I not, it is likely we would have soon chosen the Seventh out of sheer terror. Assuming our hearts didn’t give out first.
The Organists awoke from their own prisons as well. Their shock at the horrors they had wrought was almost comical. Thankfully they knew exactly what they needed to do to treat Bolton. In the meantime we asked the surviving Mentalist our most burning questions.
It was he who had been able to master the beasts in the jungle. Their minds, he said, were not so different from those of men, even more pliable and easy to manipulate. The flint on bamboo, he said, disrupted his hold on them momentarily. They were also more difficult to influence the farther out they went, and were thus more unpredictable.
As for the toxins in the trees, he had no answers. He said it was being refined for some war in the north, and that its final composition had been smuggled out by a third Mentalist the day before. What purpose something like this could serve was beyond him. He simply guided the Organists into believing they were creating a cure, and then used their skills to do just the opposite.
Eventually Starlark wandered back into the camp, even more disoriented than the rest. He had been about to put arrows in the Mentalists’ backs when the trap was sprung.
Both of them were Imperial. The survivor grew up in the capital, but he couldn’t say where his companion was from. He said they were sent here, but by whom and to what ends he did not know. Truly unwitting, through and through.
In the end, we decided to leave him in the hands of the Organists he had enslaved. The enmity between the two expressions was strong before, but for these poor savages it is only all the more real now.
He may have been little more than a tool, but he deserves the fate that awaits him at their hands. I searched both the corpse and the survivor before we handed him over. All I found was this key. The markings on it are strange. It is not of Imperial make, at least I have never seen a lock to which something like this might fit.
As for us, now that we have left the weeping trees behind we will rest for the evening. In the morning we will return to Bantish’s village. Bolton is still not quite right, but he can walk. I still find myself disoriented and uncertain if I can trust my senses.
Illusory Hypnosis, that’s what they call it. It feels like my very mind has been violated. I doubt I will sleep well tonight.
Balthandar had to cut off his head to break the spell. Even now I have to squint to focus on the page as I write.
My mind… nothing like that has happened to me in so long. We must escape this place before the fumes from the trees overwhelm us. I have no time to write, but I must put something to paper. If for no other reason than to prove I am sane.
It is done. Our task for Bantish is complete, but at no small cost.