The villagers and priestesses held a small ceremony for us to say goodbye. I didn’t know what to do, so I simply let them proceed as they wished. They poured river water from one set of bowls into another, offered up some prayers, and anointed us with purified water from a small vial.
They gave my companions blue turtle pendants to match my own, and one of the priestesses gave a special one to Bolton that had extra gems in the turtle. She was as round as she was tall, the first fat person I have seen within the confines of the Nanten.
The turtle, they told us, represented balance of life between water and land. It pleased Bolton immensely to receive his special pendant. I could tell because he smiled as the priestess backed away, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile like that.
Starlark has taken to calling Bolton a “Nanty-lover,” which gets under his skin far too easily. Their animosity has flipped in the last two weeks. Where Bolton was once the aggressor for no discernable reason beyond Starlark’s pedigree, now Starlark has turned on Bolton for his growing love of the Nantese.
It is no surprise that Starlark harbors ill-will towards Bolton after all he has endured, but it does not help our cause to have them bickering still. It worries me more that Starlark has taken up the offensive, and Bolton’s easily offended sensibilities regarding the Nantese add a very potent and unpredictable element to the mix.
Balthandar, surprisingly, remains the most distrustful of the Nantese. He looks down on them with pejorative distaste and refuses their aid or hospitality at every chance that does not cause direct insult. He is wise enough not to antagonize them as Starlark seems fond of doing, but he loves them no more for his own wisdom.
I don’t understand Bolton’s love of the Nantese, personally. Their customs are bizarre, and the world in which they live is a terror. They are a backwards people, to say the least. But I will say that I am impressed with their display of hospitality and the genuine nature with which they cared for us.
I don’t show it as best I can manage, but there is a part of my heart that warmed to the Nantese in the last week. Even if they are backward savages, they have done better by us than we would have ever done by them. It’s something to consider as we continue, and to humble us as we reflect.
We have begun east again and soon will angle more towards the south. Talita instructed us on where to find an easily crossable ford, and assured us that the KoraKora are nowhere near any longer. They gave up the chase once we were taken in, she said, for fear of Inifra’s wrath.
I cannot imagine how they feel so calm when Inifra is nowhere near, but I suppose that is between them and their goddess. Clearly she is not always present to stave off danger, otherwise we would not have needed to save that other village.
Back into the jungle we plunge. We should reach the Akari Grasslands in a few weeks if all goes well, though I am learning enough to know that I should never expect for that to happen.
Inifra appeared at the ford. I’m not sure how she did it, but she caught us all completely off guard and simply arose as if transported by the ripples of the water. She is more beautiful than I imagined.
Her robes are of a bright blue and green, light in weight and revealing the long curves of her body. Over them she wears dozens of different jewels, pieces of armor, and decorative gold works. Gifts, she told us, of the many who have bent their knee to Infiri over the centuries. Powerful gifts.
Her face glittered, framed by long feather strips of gilded materials that wove together to form a tall blue helmet. She is a warrior disguised as a queen, but there was no hiding the immense power within her. There were mists on the water as she stepped out of it, and she seemed under no exertion at the time. I haven’t seen someone wield enough magic to create mists like that with such ease in a very long time.
She demanded to know where we were going, so I told her. She shook her head quietly as I explained why we were moving that direction. Salisir, she said, was no man to go chasing, and the Akari Grasslands no place to visit.
I have to admit that I found it difficult to focus. I was intimidated by her presence, but absolutely enraptured by her beauty. Tarsh had said that her beauty was famed, and that proved to be no exaggeration.
She asked a few more questions about our mission, and confirmed that she had heard the same rumors of an “evil” prince in Matasten. She said there was no proof but that the closer to Matasten one drew, stories of expressionists vanishing at random without a trace became more common. She said that there was something dark brewing in the heart of the Nanten, but that it was beyond her realm.
I was disappointed to hear any confirmation that there may be a Daedric society in Matasten. The disappearance of expressionists only seems to add weight to the claims.
I had dozens of questions to ask her, but she seemed so stern and distant. There was no room for curiosity about gods and the Nantese, so instead I asked if she thought Salisir was alive.
She shrugged and looked off to the east. “He was always very alive,” she said finally. “In a way I doubt he will ever truly die.”
I would have asked her what she meant, but her posture bid no further questions. She pointed to the southeast and said that we should be wary of the KoraKora. They are still hunting for us, despite what we were told yesterday, and she said they would continue to hunt us until we were dead.
She was happy to have helped confound them for a time, at least, but she didn’t want us ever to return.
With that she took her leave, walking back into the water as if descending stairs to some unseen basement. I called out to ask if we would see her again, and she replied without looking back that we should hope that we did not. Then she was gone.
It was then I sensed Dionus’ tension. He had been fully prepared to fight the entire time, and only now did he begin to relax. I told him it would have been foolish to help us recover only to kill us here, but he was not convinced. Something about her has agitated him, and I believe it is the threat she poses in her power.
But Dionus has me concerned for other reasons. I noticed that he spends as much time staring at the sky when we can see it as I do. In fact, he often spends even more time looking up. It could be simple homesickness, or the need to think in silence, but I fear it is something far worse. If the wind is calling him it has chosen the worst possible timing. I cannot afford to lose him, not yet.
Bolton is changing. He spends much of his time in camp staring into the blue turtle stone around his neck, twisting it in his fingers. I can’t be sure what is happening, but he grows quieter with each passing day, more reflective as well. This concerns me because the entire time I have known Slad Bolton, both when he wanted to kill me and now that he works to help me, I have never seen him quiet.
Bolton is a man of little conscience, although admitting he even has one seems disingenuous to the character he normally portrays. He is spiteful and wretched through and through, a man who sells women to be slaves in pleasure houses and children to work in mines.
I have never respected Bolton as a man, though he is certainly proficient at whatever he puts his hands to. He has always been consistent in these ways, and now he is changing into something else. I don’t know what to expect from him, but I know I speak for my companions as a whole when I say that it has us disturbed.
When I called for aid I was desperate. I sent letters to every man who owed me his life, and I put forth no distinctions or prejudices. Bolton is making me regret that now. When he arrived in Calith the day before we set on the road to Blithe, I was shocked and more than a little hesitant to bring him with us.
But how could I turn him away? I needed all the help I could get. It isn’t for the first time now that I fear this lapse in judgment will result in too great a cost.
The jungle appears much the same as it has for the last two months, with the exception that now there are shorter trees scattered throughout the massive ones we have grown accustomed to. These are a welcome change, because in most of them we find an abundance of wildlife from which to poach to our satisfaction.
It also means that occasionally there are gaps in the canopy above, not often, but enough to make a notable difference in the gloom around us. We have had no sightings of any potential threats, and nothing stands before us except for the jungle through which we must slog. And slog we will, for we have no other choice.
There is no safe path out of this jungle, especially now that we are two months into our trek. Behind us lie bandits, cannibals, and angry gods. Man-eating lizards, poisonous plants, and snakes with fire for venom can be assumed to await us at any turn. There is no safe place to which we may run. We must move onward towards our goal. For while we stand no better chance of surviving by doing so, at least if we die we will die for a reason.
Starlark’s mood has lightened notably since leaving our Nantese hosts behind. He seemed ill at ease among them, as if offended and simultaneously threatened by their very gentleness. And seemingly in response to the apparent changes in Bolton’s character, a dark cloud has settled over him. It was good to laugh with him tonight, though I remain concerned.
I don’t know how we got on the story, but I think Balthandar mentioned how unpleasant it can be imprisoning friends. One of the hazards of being a nation’s ranking bodyguard. Starlark laughed and suggested Balthandar try being the one imprisoned if he wanted to know what ‘unpleasant’ was. But then, he said, not all prisons are the built same.
He told how he had been arrested in some backwater in the woods north of Silverdale. He’d gotten drunk and had tried to seduce some farmer’s daughter, or steal a pig – he wasn’t certain why he had been arrested. He was pretty drunk at the time. Bolton suggested that perhaps he’d tried to seduce a pig.
In any case he found himself in a small room with a dirt floor and only one window, the sill of which was just a few feet out of his reach. His friends, as drunk as Starlark, staged an ill-fated rescue attempt. It was easy to find his cell as they could hear him through the window, singing off-key as he is so irritatingly apt to do when he’s had too much to drink.
Starlark said he was startled when one of his fellow bandits dropped to the floor in front of him from the window above. The ugliest miracle of his life, he said. The would-be rescuer told him the plan: He was aided over the sill by their comrades, and now that he was in the cell he could help Starlark back out.
It didn’t occur to any of them until Starlark was standing outside that they had a gaping hole in their plan. They laughed in the drunken joy of their success until a pitiful “Lads?” came floating out of what should have been a vacant cell.
Various iterations of the same plot ensued. Two of their party were aided in climbing into the cell, and then three. Eventually some crates were found upon which they could all climb to the sill without needing to help each other. The crates, however, were too large to filter through the window with them to the other side.
An argument broke out within the cell, as it was now occupied by seven grown men – each of whom had his own equally brilliant plan for escape. Finally it was agreed that they should sleep on it and make another attempt come dawn.
Sometime well after dawn, a confused jailer discovered his prisoner along with six unexpected additions sleeping in his solitary cell. Jailers, understandably, pay little attention to those whom they are jailing when there is only one cell and only one prisoner within it to identify. Thus it should come as little surprise that he would not have recognized Starlark from a raccoon in the first place. The ability to do so would ordinarily be unnecessary.
However in his only cell, for it was a tiny prison to begin with, he was faced with identifying one criminal in the midst of seven presumably innocent men. It would have been a difficult task even had he not met Starlark in the middle of the night, and to be fair he hadn’t truly been all that sober at the time himself.
Thus confounded, and considering that whatever crime Starlark committed had likely been more pitiable than damnable, he simply stood to the side, dumbfounded, as the seven men exited. As Starlark said to bring the story to a close: it was simultaneously the simplest and most complicated escape he had ever made.
It dawned on me as I wrote that story down, what concerns me in the deepening shadows of Starlark’s face. I’m not sure how to put it, but I can best do so in contrast to Dionus.
Dionus is the kind of man you want at your side when the world is coming to its end. When all is dark and defeat most certain, Dionus carries with him the last light of hope in his very presence. In fact he thrives when death looms unavoidably on the horizon. In many ways it is precisely why he is alive today.
Starlark, however, is only good on a quest whose odds of success increase over time. He is the kind of man you want around you when you’re winning. The kind that exults on the wave and rides it crashing over his enemies.
His arrival in Calith was not a surprise – I doubt that there is anyone in the world that Starlark holds more dearly than myself. But this mission is not one for him. I worry that he will only get worse from here as our path leads ever deeper into the horrors of the Nanten.
When Brin Salisir was my instructor at the Scourge he taught me many things. He taught me to fight, how to carry on fighting when I was wounded, and how to make someone pay dearly for wounding me in the first place. He taught me how to move quickly, how to hide, and how to kill without warning.
More than anything, Brin Salisir taught me how to hate.
Salisir was my guide into violence. It is not something most people have in them naturally, the ability to harm other people at will. To kill them. Some few men have no issue with such actions, the rest of us have to be taught. Salisir made killing easy.
Brin Salisir was a master of violence. Whatever story about his past you believed, it was clear that he had every reason to become a violent man. Salisir was a musician whose only instrument was the human body, and he knew how to make it sing every note imaginable.
But his hatred for the Tetrarch was something I never understood. They had trained him, had given him every opportunity he would have never otherwise had. How could he hate them so? When that hatred turned on me it became one of my greatest lessons.
Hate is something that will boil away at your insides, cooking you like a fever until there is nothing left that can function. That was what I saw in Salisir. He was distant more than he was present, his thoughts consumed at all times. When he came to reality it was always in a rage. You didn’t want to be the one to have to break into that distant look, for when those eyes focused on you there was recompense to be made.
But hate can be put to better use. Hate can be contained, and rather than boil away at your insides it can be used to wash away impurities and fuel motion. Hate can be focused and used like another source of strength. My hatred for Salisir is what got me through his beatings, what picked me up when he knocked me down, what made me strong in spite of his efforts to subdue me.
In a way, Brin Salisir’s hatred freed me even as it hurt me. He taught me to contain my fury, and use it to subvert his own. Salisir taught me to see through the obvious actions of others to their core, to their real motivations. Once you see what those around you want, why they do what they do, they are vulnerable.
Once I saw his hatred for what it was, my victory was to succeed in the face of it. My vengeance was to withstand his venom and thrive. My joy was to see him condemned.
Starlark found the bed of a Bangara near our camp this morning. Needless to say, it has left us all in a perpetual state of watchfulness bordering on paranoia. Whether or not we can hold the giant monster off should it attack us is secondary to the knowledge that it could kill one of us before we knew it was even here. We cannot afford to be caught off guard.
Unfortunately, this seems practically impossible. The beast is absolutely silent, and undetectable even to Dionus as it moves – which is as terrifying as it is impressive considering Dionus can pinpoint the location of small birds and lizards moving around us.
Balthandar seems particularly perturbed. I finally asked him why the Bangara does this to him and he said that in the Summer Isles there was a creature fabled to exist that fit the Bangara’s description perfectly. He said that it fell in line with a number of myths and legends he had never taken seriously, but now that he had seen the Bangara in person it left him wondering what other monsters would prove to be real. It made him question everything he thought he knew to be true.
We’ve all had a similar experience coming here, I have seen it in each of my companions. I believe Starlark is recognizing his mortality for the first time. Even when he was facing the noose on the day I saved his life he never thought he might actually die. Now, so far from home and everything we have ever known, I believe he is accepting the reality that he may never return to it. Or perhaps he is rejecting it actively. I don’t know how he will handle reality once it has settled within him.
Dionus continues to have brief moments staring off at the jungle’s canopy. I need to ask him about it, but I’m afraid of what the answer will be. I’m afraid the winds are calling him.
Bolton is undergoing the greatest change of all of us. Much of the conversation he engages in now revolves around trying to win us over to appreciating the Nantese. He has made a number of references to his past that lead me to believe he is actually struggling with guilt. Many of the questions he poses are quantitative, wondering rhetorically how many families he has destroyed. How many villages he crippled. Whatever ghosts haunt Slad Bolton are after him in force right now.
Neither am I immune to doubts and revelations. I cannot help but dwell upon those who sent me here. I put my faith in Silver Hall and the elders of the Tetrarch. I believed that they would always look out for me, that we were family. But no family would send their sons to die in this hell. They cast me out so quickly, it’s almost as though I never belonged in the first place.
How could they do this to me? I was set to rise through the ranks to the very top of our order.
Salisir must have felt similarly, even though he never did belong. There was a Daemon; that was why he joined our order. Daemons and Demons differ in their origins and their power, as you may be aware. Demons ascend from the spiritual realm into our own, beings that were created and set loose by the ancient Relequim. There are only nine of them, though they are far more powerful than any other evil imaginable. To date, seven of them have made the ascension.
Daemons, however, are men. Or at least they were once. They are the ultimate level of power to which all Daedra aspire. But for every thousand Daedric followers who set themselves on that path, only one at most will ever attain it, if that many. The vast majority succumb to the corruption of their souls, their very bodies deteriorating before the transformation ever has a chance to begin.
The Daemon that Salisir faced was going through just such a transformation.
Salisir was still among the Chaplains at this point in time, seeking out and killing Daedra with the same impunity he always had. But when he stumbled on the Daemon, incomplete as it was, he was no match. It beat him badly, and he never wanted to be found wanting again. Thus service to the Tetrarch seemed an appealing possibility. And this was the promise the Tetrarch made him when he joined the order: that they would train him to hold his own against such evil. They would give him what he needed to succeed in the only way he had ever failed.
And then, after all the training, after all the conflict, distrust, and hatred that grew between them, how betrayed must Salisir have felt to have failed again in exactly the place he was promised never to? In that one particular way, Salisir and I have something in common: The Tetrarch made us grand promises, and disposed of us both when we failed.
When we awoke this morning we were greeted by a rapid share of horrors. Starlark was being consumed by a giant snake.
The snake was massive, too thick to wrap your arms around and longer than we ever fully discovered. It had piled itself upon him and was slowly eating him from the feet up. It took us ten minutes to kill it and get it off of him. It took a few more minutes to bring him back to consciousness. Pulling him from its throat was the most disturbing thing we have had to do since entering the Nanten.
Poor Starlark has yet to fully recover from the experience.
Once we had pulled him from the snake we sought out a stream in which he could wash. Whatever lined the snake’s throat was corrosive and already dissolving the external layers of Starlark’s boots, pants, and the bottom of his shirt. Thankfully there was a small river within a stone’s throw of our camp.
No sooner did we get Starlark in the water did a Bangara attack us.
Dionus and Bolton were standing watch at the river’s edge while Balthandar and I helped Starlark strip and wash in the water. Then, so sudden as to be instantaneous, the Bangara was upon us. It rammed into Bolton from behind, sending him flying across the river. Then it whipped around and slammed Dionus into a tree with its tail.
We had to drop Starlark in the water and rush to Dionus’ aid, but the monster was ready for us. Its tail smacked Dionus in the head, throwing him down as the monster dove into the river and tackled me. Everything went dark under the water as I fought to breathe more than I fought the monster.
It rolled with me, squeezing and clawing at me as my lungs screamed for air. It seemed like we were entangled in the river for an eternity before it released me.
When I came back up the Bangara was gone. It took me a few minutes to gather my wits, but when I did I realized it was Balthandar that had run the monster off. He had rushed back to our smoldering fire and lit a torch he said he had made just for this. The flame, as puny as it seemed to me, was enough to scare the monster off.
He said he’d seen an illustration of a Bangara being scared off by villagers with fire in a book of myths in the Summer Isles. He said it seemed worth trying, and I’m glad he did. It also explains why the Bangara never attacks us in camp.
I wish I had found more resources on the Nanten before being forced to leave Silver Hall. There are so many tricks like this that we could have learned already. I shouldn’t have focused my search solely on Salisir.
It took a while for Bolton to come around, and while Starlark is unharmed he remains understandably shaken tonight. Dionus was on his feet more quickly, but needs to rest as well. I’m afraid one or more of his ribs may be broken. We moved at a very moderate pace today, and will probably do the same tomorrow. And to add insult to injury I found three leeches on my leg from the gods damned river.
We have built our fire twice as large tonight to sate our own fears. Gods I hate the Nanten.