There has been no sighting of the Bangara since yesterday. It took some cajoling, but I managed to get Starlark to make a sweep of the area before we left this morning. He hardly slept last night.
I know it is good for him to keep to his duties, however, so I will press him on those. We all need things to set our minds on right now, otherwise I worry we will begin to capitulate to our fears.
Being eaten. None of us has ever even fathomed the idea as existing within the realm of possibility. If it isn’t snakes, it’s cannibals. If it isn’t the bloody leeches in the streams, it’s a Bangara from the banks. Death by sword, hanging, or illness has crossed each of our minds at one point or another. Death by digestion… that’s new.
It has been hammered home even more completely by our discovery of another village today. The inhabitants were not far off, and most came back once they realized we were not bandits or KoraKora. It seemed their curiosity won out over any caution they may have had.
Many of them were missing limbs. Some were missing legs at the knee, others arms at the elbow. Some had lost entire appendages.
One of the young men was excited to try to speak the common tongue with us. He told me his name was Kantoo. I asked how he knew to speak to us, and he said his grandfather had been a tradesman. He had insisted his children and grandchildren learn. Even Kantoo was missing his right leg from the buttock, but he hopped around quite nimbly on a bamboo crutch. I asked what had happened to him, to the people in his village.
The KoraKora in this region, Kantoo told us, do not often take entire villages when they raid. Within their own territory they treat the people much more like cattle. They visit unannounced and take tribute in the form of limbs. Outside of their territory, he said, is where they find and take whole people.
I asked what they did with the limbs. Without missing a beat told me as a matter of fact that they ate them, usually in front of the person they had just cut them from. Bolton was listening intently, his veins bulging at the story.
Bolton asked the boy why the people didn’t leave. Why would they stay and face mutilation like this? Kantoo just shrugged and said they were safer here. If they left the territory, he said, they would lose more than their limbs.
The people were kind enough to offer us their hospitality. The children keep calling us “Ocada.” I’ve heard it a few times before, but never so brazenly directed to us. Kantoo explained that is their word for Imperials, or at least the light-skinned among us. I think the first Imperial trader to the Nanten had a similar name, if I remember my history correctly.
Bolton immediately set himself to helping with whatever tasks he could find. He almost seemed in a panic, rushing to do whatever he could to make himself useful. I could read it on his face, it’s a look I’ve seen on a dozen others – his ghosts are closing in.
Guilt has infected Bolton like a plague. These poor mutilated Nantese only inflict it upon him with greater intensity. In them he sees his own victims on the expanse of the Great Wastes.
We will leave for the Akari Grasslands as soon as we can tomorrow. The last thing we want is for these people to get tied up in our conflict with the KoraKora.
Kantoo, the one-legged boy from the village we discovered yesterday, has joined us on our journey. Starlark opposed the idea vehemently, which led to a long argument with Bolton who wants nothing more than for the boy to join us. Balthandar seemed as nonplussed as ever, so long as the crippled boy could keep up both he and Dionus were fine with the idea.
Beyond translation skills and a local’s knowledge, the major benefit seems to be that Kantoo knows of a path that will lead us directly to and across the Akari Grasslands. He says that we must take a very particular path through them to Senida or we will never make it.
Starlark called the boy some slur, I didn’t hear it, but Bolton had a knife to his throat in seconds. It took us some time to get them off each other and calmed down. There was no winning for me on either of their counts, so I made my decision based off what I felt was best for us as a whole.
Thus, in the end, Kantoo got his desire. I told them there was no harm in having him along. It would be a great help to have a guide, but I told Kantoo he had to keep up and feed himself. To our collective surprise he never fell behind us once. In fact, with his little bamboo crutch and solitary leg he was able to get well ahead of us on a number of occasions.
He carries no possessions with him save for a knife and a water skin. He’s always chewing on the root of some plant, and he never seems to cease grinning. I find it a strange delight to have him with us. His attitude is incredible considering what all has happened to him in his life. He told me today that he didn’t lose his leg all at once.
The KoraKora came when he was a child and took everything from the knee down. He said they boiled it in a stew on the village’s own cooking fire. The worst part, he said, was that even though he knew his own leg was in it, the stew still smelled good to his starved senses.
The KoraKora had a salve and treatment that made recovery surprisingly quick, but he said it did not work for him again – not the second time.
They came for the rest of his leg only a few years ago. Apparently they didn’t think he needed the stump, so they took it for themselves. Kantoo said it nearly killed him. He bled so much that he was unable even to roll over for a month. He contracted every form of illness his village elders had heard of and then some, yet somehow he managed to pull through.
I think that’s why I like Kantoo, and why I am secretly glad he has joined us. Like the rest of my companions, he’s a survivor. Like me, he’s a fighter.
Bolton spends much of his time walking with Kantoo, asking him every question about the Nantese he can think of. Most questions I have overheard have been humorously naïve, like whether the Nantese have any tolls on their roads, but some have been rather thoughtful.
For example, Bolton brought out the fact that Kantoo was unaware that there are two moons. In fact, Kantoo believed the sun and the moon to be one unified heavenly body. A god, even. He said that the fiery sun was the face of the god, passing over to cast judgment down on the land. The moon was its back, calm and ignorant of what transpired on earth.
It made me realize that the Festival of Stars will be happening soon. The season of light should be upon us in the next few weeks, although I cannot see the sky to be sure. I hadn’t even thought about it until today. To see both moons in full would lighten my heart in the midst of the eternal gloom of the Nanten. To celebrate on the streets of the capital would make me weep for joy. Home…
Starlark keeps as far from Bolton and Kantoo as he can. He’s angry with me as well for letting Kantoo come with us. I tried to reason with him, but wherever Bolton is involved reason flees my friend. It makes our journey to the Akari Grasslands feel even more daunting with Starlark in such a dour mood.
Dionus tried to ask Starlark a few questions while they were near to each other in line. I heard him ask Starlark why he wears the long-tailed star on his shoulder as the Crestward’s emblem is a storm cloud. Starlark responded that even storms can’t hide the beauty of the stars forever. He’d rather align himself with the eternal. Needless to say, Dionus’ questions didn’t exactly lighten Starlark’s mood.
Kantoo has already led us to a number of new roots and other edibles, including a plant that has a fantastically sharp flavor. It will make for good seasoning. Another wonderful find was a fruit that looked much like a knot growing on the side of the smaller tree. Once opened it revealed dozens of smaller red fruits within that were bittersweet and juicy. The gas that fills the rest of the space, Kantoo said, clears and sets a light head to right.
In spite of his helpful levity, his missing leg is a constant reminder of the KoraKora, and though he is a welcome distraction the gravity of our situation is never far from mind. There is a Bangara nearby that I can only assume is still tracking us, and who knows if there are more of those massive snakes around?
When we told Kantoo of the snake that nearly ate Starlark – as much to try and excuse Starlark’s behavior as share the story – Kantoo was left aghast. I wasn’t sure which he found more shocking, that Starlark was almost eaten by the snake or that we killed it.
Then he said we should not have killed the snake. They are incredibly old, he told us, and not many remain. It is up to us to keep them from trying to eat us. He said he would teach us a few tricks to make ourselves unappealing targets and seemed genuinely sad that we had killed it.
Sad that we killed a man-eating snake… we are never want for surprises with the Nantese around.
I decided to ask Dionus to explain his expression to me today. There are currently no Walkers among the Tetrarch that I know of, and few among us who know the expression of the Wind at all. My basic assumption was that it was a system of pushes and pulls, much like Telekenetics, but Dionus explained that the mechanics are vastly different.
Wind is ancient, he explained, the first expression to be formed all the way back in the Golden Era (one of only two existing schools of magic to be founded in that time). It is also the only expression for which there is no opposite. Where each expression has a balancing rival, wind finds itself alone without any counter. For this reason it is known widely as the “neutral” expression.
It is also the most difficult elemental expression to master, and its offensive capabilities are only unlocked at higher levels of mastery. Thus it is not one that has been broadly adopted by the civilizations of the world. This also has led to the idea that it is a peaceful expression. Indeed, I grew up with the impression that all Wind expressionists were kindly old men who spent more time meditating than sleeping.
This is why the Walkers were such a shock to the world when they first arrived. It’s also why their name has survived to present day.
Hundreds of years ago, a band of Wind expressionists took to banditry and were incredibly effective at it. They eventually took over a large portion of one of the southern provinces in the First Empire and ruled over it as tyrants. They were vicious, and nearly impossible to withstand. It took an army and a concerted effort to defeat them.
Their name derived from the idea that they could walk upon the wind, and they claimed that they were in every way superior to those they subjugated. Each wore an eagle’s feather on his breast, and together they were a force with which to be reckoned. The general populace has given their name to Wind expressionists at large ever since.
Within the expression itself the term “Walker” is used in reference only to an elite Master, and only those who take the aggressor’s path.
I asked about the feather, for though I knew it to be the symbol of a Walker I did not know its significance. Dionus told me that it takes little skill to call up a gust of wind, or even many violent attacks. What takes skill, he said, is finesse. The ability to manipulate cuts of the wind or small objects with tactile precision is extremely difficult. Thus, the ancient test has always been the eagle’s feather.
To be considered a Master of the expression, an individual is expected control a feather to the point that he can not only make it dance and move as he wishes, but can make it stand absolutely still on its tip. If he can do this, he is permitted to wear the feather on his breast. It is a badge of office, but also an invitation to challenge.
He demonstrated by unpinning the feather from his cloak and dancing it out and away from us. Then there were a series of snaps. With the speed of an arrow from the string the feather shot down until it struck a log immediately below it. There it stopped and rotated slowly in place on its point until it fell utterly still.
Dionus smiled, then recalled the feather to his hand as if it were an obedient pet.
As with any expression, he said, there are two dominant skills that play off each other. The first he called “Pressurize,” which is his ability to pick a point and repel the air from it. This causes a rapid pressurization of the gas around it and pushes objects away. The other he called “Evacuate,” and said that it was the opposite. With it he can compress the air rapidly to a single point, causing a local implosion. He said the names were confusing, because they could go either way, but that they were generally accepted as he had described them.
Of the Four Known Skills, he said, meditation was the predominant choice within the expression. It is another reason that so few Walkers exist, for expressionistic meditation is one of the most difficult skills to teach. But there are a few hand motions as well, which he took a moment to try and teach me.
The trick, then, is to understand how pressurizing and evacuating points of air affects the gasses around them. He said that it was much like understanding the dynamics of water, only more subtle and far more difficult to see. The snaps and pops we hear, he said, are the more instantaneous pressurizations or evacuations. The more of those you hear, he said, the quicker you need to look for cover.
The more sudden and precise attacks he knows, he said, rely on thousands of small influences on the air. If he wanted to call up a whip of the wind, named for its effect as much as the sound, he said that there are over three thousand individual points that must be pressurized or expanded. Creating a shield, as he had done to defend us from the darts of the KoraKora, could take three times as many.
I asked how he kept it all straight and he just smiled. You build over time, he said, and eventually you release entire chain reactions without having to think about it. The bigger manifestations of power are even easier.
He said that with the proper application of pressure on the air he is able to draw up gusts of wind, replicate storms, and even fly. He paused for a while after saying that, looking up at the canopy like it served as some sort of cage. Flying was the single greatest privilege of his power, he said after some time. It also posed the only real threat to him as an expressionist.
I knew what he was referring to, but I didn’t dare ask then. I still can’t bring myself to ask him if the winds are calling him. For where all other expressionists eventually succumb to the corrupting influence of their magic, Walkers face only the freedom of flight. Once they’ve tasted it, the legends say, it is only a matter of time before it whisks them away forever.
What I fear is that that freedom will take Dionus away from me before we can finish our task together.
Kantoo has laid out our path before us with no small store of knowledge. There are many paths to the Akari Grasslands, but the one we want is the direct path to which he is leading us. It should be no more than a month’s journey from where he joined us. But to cross the Akari Grasslands, he said, there is only one path we can take.
Kantoo said that he has always been a messenger between villages, and that he has been taught all the paths of the region. The one we will take, he said, is rarely used. Although it is the most direct, it is the most dangerous. I gave him a scrap to draw on so we could better understand.
To get to the Akari Grasslands, and then Senida, we must travel south by southeast. The inherent danger to this path, he said, is the Deadwood.
The Deadwood is a portion of jungle that is made up of nothing but ashen trees. They look just like the other trees of the jungle, Kantoo said, except they are gray, bordering on white. The Deadwood, he said, is never in the same place twice, and is often difficult to distinguish in the half-light until one is already walking among its trees.
Once you lose sight of the living trees, Kantoo said, you cannot return to them. The Deadwood shifts, it changes, and it will trap you forever. Starlark scoffed at this and asked how Kantoo knew any of this if no one ever returned to say. Kantoo simply said it was how his father had died.
It is rumored, he emphasized heavily for Starlark, that within the Deadwood the spirits of those who have died in the Nanten congregate. Those who enter living are left to their mercies. He shook his head after a moment of silence and continued to draw on his makeshift map. He said there is no certainty to where it may be at any given time.
I should note that I find most of this hard to believe, but I am learning not to assume my experience means much in this accursed jungle.
After avoiding the Deadwood, his plan is to take us to the “stone path.” There is only one path through the northwestern portion of the Akari Grasslands that is safe, he said. And even then, it is only safe if you stay on the stones. Dionus asked what happened if you stepped off the stones, and Kantoo shrugged. He had never strayed from the stone path.
The smaller stones all lead to large ones, he said, which is where you can camp. On his map the path looked like an ant’s trail between a few nuts. You cannot sleep on the small stones, he warned, for at night there are other terrors that can reach you. And you cannot stay on the great stones during the day, for they get too hot in the blinding sun.
The sun. That was what stuck with me from all of that. We haven’t been in the sun in so long… all of us, save for Balthandar and Kantoo, will burn in minutes I’m sure. But I crave it now more than anything.
I took his map and laid it next to the one Prestorn had given us in Graylag. They looked surprisingly similar, which gave me a greater sense of confidence in the boy. Our present location is easy to find by the rivers we’ve crossed, and it demonstrates that the maps we have been given conform to no true sense of scale. Even Senida seems closer on Kantoo’s map than Prestorn’s – and that, I hope, is true.
I meant to ask him if he recognized the symbols that are scattered around Prestorn’s map, but I will have to do so tomorrow. He seems to know so much, it doesn’t feel like a stretch that he will know their meaning.
One week until we reach the Akari Grasslands. As long as the KoraKora do not find us, I feel confident we can handle any other threat that comes our way.
Somehow an endless stream of calm runs through Balthandar. He is ever steady, and inserts himself into the most volatile of moments in just such a way as to cut off their escalation. In the mornings he hums to himself as he packs for the day. And when Starlark and Bolton get after each other, he tends to insert a fable or legend from his homelands.
He told one such story tonight that I had never heard before. I liked it so much that I thought I would record it in my journal. Starlark was harassing Kantoo, calling the Nantese backwards and telling him how his people could learn a lot from the Old Empire. Bolton, of course, did his best to defend Kantoo and the Nantese in general, which only exacerbated Starlark’s frustrations.
Finally Balthandar, no citizen of the Old Empire himself, piped up with a fable about Toron (a classic, recurring figure from Islander lore) that I had never heard before. The style is different than most of Balthandar’s stories, which I think speaks to its origins. It is long, and overly silly, but I think it perfectly illustrated the point he wanted to make.
Toron and the Pickle Famine
Once there was a man named Toron, a man both fat and foolish. Toron came from a land whose people ate naught but pickles. And Toron loved pickles, they were by far his favorite food. Toron moved away from his home to work in a poor village a great distance from his own, and of course he brought his own supply of pickles to last the transition.
The day came when Toron’s last pickle jar was empty. “Well then,” he said. “I shall simply buy more.” So Toron made for the shop at the center of the village. “Hello, fine sir. I will take some pickles, please. Two jars if you can.”
“I’m sorry,” the shopkeeper responded. “But we have no pickles here.”
“No pickles?” Toron was shocked. “But how can that be? What do you eat?”
“They simply are not something we know around here.”
Toron returned home, certain he would find pickles if he looked hard enough. There were none in the pantry, and none in his cupboard. There were no pickles in the stove, and there were none under even his bed.
Toron looked everywhere for more pickles until finally, after half-destroying his home in the search, he gave up.
“Whatever will I eat?” He said to himself. “Without pickles I am surely doomed to starve!”
He thought and he pondered and he wracked his thick brain. “Of course!” he said at last, after no small time had passed. “I’ll ask my neighbor! I’m sure he’ll have a pickle that could hold me over.”
He got up off the floor, where he had been sitting for some time, and made for his closest neighbor across the field. “Excuse me,” he asked through a low window. “But can you spare a pickle? The store seems to be quite out.”
“A pickle?” His neighbor looked confused. “But whatever is a pickle?”
“A pickle! Long and green and delicious to eat.” Toron shook his head in wonder at the ignorance of the man.
“Oh, food?” His neighbor said at last. “Well I have no pickles, but I do have bread and cheese if you have need.”
“Bread?” Toron asked. “Cheese? What things are these? I need food, my good man! And so must you, for surely this ‘bread’ and ‘cheese’ can be no good.”
Toron continued on from his neighbor’s, flustered at the poor man’s condition. “How can a man live without pickles? Surly he must be malnourished and sick.” But every neighbor he visited was quite the same. Some had bread, others had cheese, and even a few had nothing to share with him at all. There wasn’t a single pickle to be found in the entire village.
“Good gods, I’m going to starve!” Toron moaned when he returned to his home. “How could I move to a village where there is no food? These backwards people don’t even realize how dire their situation is!”
And then realization struck. “I have to save them!”
Toron picked himself back off the floor, where again he had settled, and made for his cart. He immediately hitched it to his neighbor’s horse, and rode off down the road. His neighbor, as might be expected, protested the theft of his only working animal, but Toron shouted back, “Don’t worry! I’ll bring your horse back. And with food!”
Toron had seen a place not far down the road where cucumbers grew. “I could fill this cart so full that it would feed the village for an entire year!”
But as he filled the cart he knew that the cucumbers were still inedible. “They must be prepared, they aren’t quite ready.”
Once the cart was full he made for a nearby winery. “Have you any fouled wine, good sir?” He asked the vinedresser.
“Vinegar?” the vinedresser responded, confused. “There should be a few barrels near the canal, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
“Thank you!” Toron shouted as he sped to the canal. He was overjoyed as he put three massive barrels into the back of the cart, tying them down over the cucumbers so as not to lose anything. “This should do the trick!” he said. “The villagers will be so excited to finally have real food!”
Toron rode back into the village, but quickly realized he had nowhere big enough to cure his new hoard of cucumbers. “Even my bath is too small,” he thought.
And then inspiration struck. “The well!” he realized. “Of course!”
As quick as he could, Toron raced to the well at the center of the village and immediately began dumping his cucumbers by the armful.
“What are you doing?” A little boy nearby asked, empty bucket in hand.
“Saving the village!” Toron responded. “Everyone is starving, but this should solve that.”
“Starving?” the little boy asked. “I just had some bread this morning.”
“Bread?” Toron was shocked. “Why, bread is no food! Pickles, boy. Pickles are what you must have to thrive!”
And with that, Toron began dumping the barrels of vinegar down the well. “Won’t that foul the water?” the little boy asked.
“Nonsense!” Toron replied. “It’ll do no such thing! Why, if nothing else it will help you grow big and strong!”
“This is how pickles are made?”
“Of course!” Toron scoffed at the boy’s ignorance. “I know it seems strange, putting such inedible things together, but in the end they come together to make delicious food.”
“And now what?” The little boy asked as the last of the barrels was emptied.
“Now we wait,” Toron said with a satisfied grin. “Soon there will be pickles enough for everyone.”
And so they waited. Toron knew that pickles took some time to cure, so he sat very patiently with the little boy as they watched the well. Toron gently turned anyone away who came for water, and explained that soon there would be food for everyone. This earned him a number of confused looks, and a couple of angry mutterings, but he knew it would all be worth it.
Soon they would praise him as a hero! Soon, there would be a feast.
“It’s been two days now,” the little boy said at last. “Surely that’s enough?”
Toron agreed. Certainly two days was enough to make a batch of pickles, no matter how large, and so he lowered his bucket down to fetch a few to try. The bucket took a while to lower, and took even longer to come back full. When it did, all it contained was murky water stinking of vinegar.
“But where are the pickles?” Toron asked, dumbfounded. “Where is the food?”
“I don’t think pickles are made like that,” the little boy shrugged. “Who makes food by dumping it down a well?” The little boy sniffed the water. “But now we have a bigger problem.”
“What could be a bigger problem than having no pickles?” Toron demanded.
“Now we don’t have any water,” the little boy said. “This is our only well.”
“Nonsense,” Toron dismissed the notion. “Pickle juice is a fine drink. We just need this filth to settle back out of it is all. As for pickles, clearly we just need more cucumbers to add to the mix!”
But no matter who Toron asked, there were no cucumbers to be found. No one wanted to help him.
“What stubborn, foolish people!” Toron said as he became exasperated. “If you want to starve, go ahead then!”
As Toron walked through the village, he saw more and more people along the road. Wagons were packed, and faces were somber. He walked back to the well where the little boy was looking down into its murky depths.
“No one is helping!” He complained to the boy. “Instead they are leaving.”
“They are,” the little boy said as he turned and sat on the well. “We must find a new home.”
“But why?” Toron demanded. “That’s no way to deal with problems! There’s no need in any case, we simply need more cucumbers.”
“We need water,” the boy said sadly as he hopped off the well. “There’s none left here.”
Toron snorted as the little boy walked past. “Why can’t you people see what’s right in front of you? I’m here to help! Just listen and follow and do as I say!”
But the little boy kept walking, and the village kept moving, and soon it was empty save for Toron and his well. “Fine,” he said as he sat on the ground with his back to his well. “I don’t need this ignorant lot. Leave it to Toron to solve this problem alone.”
Let Toron’s story serve as a warning, that in new places and strange lands your answers may not be correct, and your way of living may not be best. Even should the people be poor and desperate, even should your intentions be pure, it is best to listen and learn before you speak and act.
Inifra… I dreamed of her last night. I feel a gravitation towards her, even though she is nowhere near. Perhaps it is more the idea of her, of what I believe she could be, but… I want her. I feel so foolish as I write the words, ashamed of myself almost. But I haven’t felt such a visceral pull towards anyone in so long.
She’s marvelous, and though I haven’t written of her here she has rarely been far from my thoughts. I simply never felt compelled to admit it in writing until now.
I couldn’t keep from thinking of her during our entire day’s march. If nothing else the idea of her creates an escape from the hell of the Nanten, notwithstanding the irony that she is in fact one of its most powerful components.
Gods, these trees just go on forever. There is little in the way of true topography in the Nanten. We enter small draws and ascend gentle rises, but we would be hard-pressed to label anything as a hill.
Like the rise of the land, the events of our day were thankfully quite flat. I used my dreams of Inifra to draw my thoughts away from what otherwise threatens to consume them: home. And now, as I write, I’ve drained the last of our wine from Graylag to try and accomplish the same thing. Still, I cannot help myself.
It’s strange that I drift back to the capital more than anywhere, when I spent no more time there than any other city. My greatest adventures were in the north, my simplest times in the south. But the capital has a magic about it all its own, doesn’t it?
You would know best as you’ve lived there your entire life, though perhaps your proximity has blinded you to its charm. I know that I come to take many things for granted the longer I have them. But Sterling, Sterling is a city I don’t think I could ever take for granted. The mingling of cultures, their foods and endless art. The Crystal Spires, however, are possibly my favorite sight in all the world.
The way that they rise up to soar above the city like sails of glass, as if they would propel the city off and into the mountains. One magnificent vestige of the Golden Era. How they capture and refract the moonslight, keeping the city bright and alive night or day.
The bustle of Fenn Alley after dark. Did you know my favorite restaurant is squarely in the middle of Toil’s Square? Truan pan-fried dough in duck sauce… gods I’m so hungry right now.
I miss home so very much. How could they just cast me out? All for doing my duty. For killing Lystra.
If she hadn’t stood between me and her lover she would be alive today. Bereft, but alive.
How devastating can it be to lose a traitor in any case? What was she thinking? And now because of Lystra’s foolhardy selfishness I am condemned to the jungles of the Nanten, while everyone I know prepares for the Festival of Stars. They will eat until they can’t stand, and drink until standing is a poor choice anyway. All while I sit under some rotten tree fending off blood-thirsty insects, sleeping on my frayed mat under a never-ending canopy of nightmares.
The greatest swordsman in the world, and they put me out like a stray cat. The fools.
To hell with them. To hell with all of them.