The Deadwood has no end. I have no idea how large it truly is, for Kantoo made it sound as though it was something we could easily circumvent, but after wandering through it for an entire day I no longer have any frame of reference. The trees are nearly indistinguishable from one another. The undergrowth is stiff, brittle even, and ashen gray.
It feels like we are being watched.
We make every effort to keep within each other’s sight at all times. Bolton cannot move much at all, which helps to anchor us together, but where would we go even if we could run?
Then there are the screams.
I heard only a few last night. They were distant, muffled by the acoustics of the jungle, but distinct. They were human. Mournful yet hateful, most could best be described as wails. Then today we were startled by a number of different outbursts.
The screams seemed completely random and nearly sent us running more than once. Their source was close at hand, but nothing presented itself. They are aggressive, angry. Terrifying.
Their increased proximity drives the irrational fear in me that somehow, while barely moving, we have been enveloped even deeper into the Deadwood.
Bolton needs lots of time to rest, so we never make it far. We have had to repair his stitches twice now. He sleeps as though there was nothing nearby to harm him. It’s in those long hours, sitting with him under a canopy that has lost all its color, that I wonder how I got here. Morbidly, I wonder how I’ll leave.
Then there’s Starlark. We shout for him occasionally, but it feels as though when we do we draw the attention of whatever lurks among the trees. Dionus and I can feel it, magic is in constant use here but we know not in what form. The air tingles with the energy of it, and there is a low white mist that covers the ground constantly. None of this makes for comfort.
I feel a great weight to it all, subdued like a prisoner under the wrathful watch of his accusers. Yet I see them not, nor know how to escape their glare.
Gods help us, or we will die in this place.
Starlark. My thoughts turn to him constantly as the weight of the Deadwood bears down upon us. There is little light left by which to write, but I must put something down. Anything. This journal is my last connection to the world beyond these ghostly trees.
As long as I have known Starlark I have felt responsible for him. He is young, the youngest of the Crestwards and always young among his second family of bandits. From the second most powerful family in the Old Empire to the margins of society, his story is more unique than any of ours.
What Starlark lacks in maturity he more than compensates for in skill and passion. He has seen more than twenty summers. By the way he acts you would think it was far fewer. By the way he shoots you would think it was far more.
I saved him from hanging. That’s what no one knows. I saved him from being hung by a very justified, very lawfully appointed executioner. It wasn’t my intent to save him. That’s what Starlark doesn’t know.
I was on a mission gone very wrong. The Daedra we had been hunting in the forests north of Silverdale had successfully ambushed and run us from their territory. Of the five of us that went into the ambush, only two came out alive. Daedric followers tracked us for miles, we were running for our lives. And then I stumbled into a makeshift gallows.
They’d caught Starlark and two other bandits stealing chickens from a nearby farm only to discover that they were in fact wanted for many more grievous crimes. One of his companions was quite infamous in the region, mostly for murder and arson, which led to the speedy construction of a gallows out in the woods.
The patrol that had captured Starlark was actually loyal to his father, though they failed to recognize Starlark for a Crestward and Starlark refused to identify himself as one. Pride probably kills more young men than any other affliction.
We burst into the clearing moments before they were to roll the plank and drop all three to their deaths. I demanded that the patrol join and protect us in the name of Silver Hall. Either they didn’t realize that the Tetrarch commanded that authority or they chose not to heed it, but they decided to ignore me. I tried reasoning with their captain, but he would not listen.
So I cut the hanging ropes at their anchor. I figured that would get their attention more effectively. I asked the bandits if they would fight in exchange for their lives as they jumped to the ground. That may have been a poor choice on my part. The patrol drew their swords.
Thankfully that was when the Daedra caught up to us. Daedric followers aren’t necessarily well trained in war, they rarely live long enough to learn the skills that only open combat can teach you, but they can often amass quite a force. Thankfully we had a fresh patrol-full of morons to absorb most of this one.
In the brawl that ensued, Starlark managed to repay me twice over by saving me from both the Daedric followers and the patrol. When the killing was done two Tetrarch and two bandits remained. I told them they could go free, but Starlark asked if he could help us finish our mission in the woods. He licked the corners of his mouth in a devilish grin that I have come to know all too well. He relishes winning as I relish swordplay. That was the first time I fought alongside Starlark, and the first mission he helped me complete, but it would not be the last of either.
I’ve always enjoyed his energy, his zeal for life – as short-sighted and foolish as it often winds up being. And now he is lost to me, separated by forces I don’t fully comprehend. There is more than a touch of the third tier to this, more spiritual power than I have ever felt. If Kantoo was right, and there truly are spirits here, then we may have wandered into a rift. I’ve never heard of one like this before.
I hope it does not take Starlark away from me.
We nearly lost Bolton this morning. We didn’t see him when we awoke and immediately began searching. He wasn’t far, in fact he hadn’t moved. He had fallen asleep sitting up against one of the trees, which had pulled him almost entirely into itself. Even the undergrowth had leaned in as if to hide him from us.
It took some careful work, but we were able to chip away at the wood until we could pry Bolton free. When he finally awoke he was incoherent for twenty minutes or so. Then he told us the tree had spoken to him.
Welcome, the tree had said to him. Your sins have brought you here, and here you shall absolve them.
He hasn’t stopped mumbling about the Nantese since, especially Kantoo. It took a while to get him on his feet, but we thought it best to continue moving. None of us wanted to stay near that tree.
Bolton seems to be making a steady recovery, in spite of the fact that he should be getting worse. Whether the Martingue is to receive credit or the tree that nearly consumed him, I do not know. He is still quite unstable on his feet and weak, but he doesn’t look like he will die any longer. Of any of us, Bolton has received the worst of the Nanten’s wrath.
Assuming Starlark doesn’t have it worse at this moment on his own. There is still no sign of him, and no clue to our exit. What worries me more is that we have yet to stumble on any streams, and the trees release no water when tapped. We cannot survive without water, and we only have a few days’ worth left to us at best.
We heard Starlark’s voice this morning. For a brief moment we were able to shout to him and hear his response, but no amount of it brought us any closer to him. In fact as we moved towards his voice, the last thing we heard from him seemed to come from the opposite direction.
The Deadwood is full of illusions and terrors. The sudden screams that seem to come from the trees themselves get no less startling with time. Then there are the spirits. Last night I am certain I saw a wraith moving among the trees. It was coming nearer to us, steadily drawing close. I could see it. Feel it.
I could not speak. Even though I felt compelled to scream I could not. I was too terrified. Deteriorating rags hung from it, its eyes sunken black, and its fingers… inhumanly long. It moved from tree to tree until it stood before me. It looked straight through me, right into my very soul. It cocked its head and whispered, “Lystra.”
Then it screamed.
I screamed then too, but it had vanished. No one saw it but me. I have no way of knowing if it was an illusion or not, but it felt so very real… more real in a way than anything I have ever experienced.
Sleep is not forthcoming in this place. Ghosts, in every sense of the word, most certainly are.
As we walked later I sensed a break in the activity of whatever magic is master of this place. I came across it like a sudden dip in the ground, it felt like a gap of silence in constant noise. I called for Dionus, but by the time he came it was too late. A few hours later, however, he found one of his own.
Both of us sensed the silence pointing in a particular direction, as if funneled there. We must keep our wits about us as best we can in this ashen jungle of madness. Hopefully this is the clue we have been searching for to leave it.
Dionus has me worried though. He’s itching for something, I can see it in him. The fight with the KoraKora has opened some desire in him. I hope we can get out of here before he does something foolish.
A specter came for Bolton in the night. The Deadwood would take him if we did not impede its every effort. It hungers for him.
I awoke to the same sense of terror as the night before. This specter was different. It was at least nine feet tall, pale white, armored in ashen rust and draped in a deteriorating cloak. It carried the single largest sword I have ever seen, even greater than the legendary Cleaver. I could not see its face.
It looked as one of the Seven Deaths made manifest.
It floated towards us, then stopped next to Bolton. None of my companions moved. I was the only one awake. The specter of death raised its sword and I had to scramble just to intercept the blow with my own.
There was a flash of white, the weight of the blade more than I could bear. It ground down upon me, forcing me to kneel. Then Balthandar was there. He shouted in his booming voice and thrust his spear into the specter’s side. Nothing happened.
It withdrew its sword from mine and swatted his spear away, then lined up another blow for Bolton. As it raised its arms I saw four symbols etched into its armor. Four symbols I recognized.
Its blade came down on mine again, driving me straight to my knee this time. And then I realized where I’d seen the symbols before. They were on the map that Prestorn gave us.
Dionus’ attacks were proving as futile as Balthandar’s, so I shouted for him to get the map. The symbols, I cried, read the symbols. But Dionus couldn’t read them, so he ran to us and held them up before the empty mask of the specter.
And in the greatest mystery to occur yet, it relented. It withdrew its sword, then angled off to its left and floated between and off through the trees. We haven’t seen it since.
Bolton awoke shortly thereafter, none the wiser to what had almost befallen him.
We will move on as soon as we have recovered. None of us know what to make of this place, even if we have this one clue. We need out. Now.
We have had two strokes of luck. We can hear Starlark with relative regularity, and Dionus and I have found more gaps in the magic of this place. They all point in the same direction as if to a common point.
We have given Starlark the best instructions that we can and have tried to explain what we have learned. We have no idea what separates us from him, but the silence seems to bridge him more closely to us. He is terrified, and it only deepens my grief to hear it. Starlark has been a loyal friend to me for years, I cannot bear to hear such fear in his voice and be unable to do anything for him.
Bolton keeps bringing Starlark up to me quietly, as if to keep the matter private. Bolton doesn’t want me to let Starlark become like him. I keep trying to assure him I won’t, as if he ever would. It worries me that Bolton keeps talking like this, like he is dying. In a strange way his open concern for Starlark almost convinces me he must be.
We are waiting for him to feel strong enough to move, and then we will carry out our plan. Each of the gaps grows narrower as we follow it along, leading us to believe that there is a seam in the fabric of our prison. If we can find it, we hope we can exploit it. We have no idea how we will do this, but my hope is that the symbols on Prestorn’s map hold the key.
Once we are out there are no guarantees we will know where we are. How far have we been moved from the path Kantoo had us on, and where does it meet up with the stones he insisted we follow across the Akari Grasslands?
Will the KoraKora be waiting for us on the other side? The Bangara?
More importantly, will Starlark be able to find his way out? He does not have a sense of the magic that surrounds him as Dionus and I do. He could be lost in here forever, trapped with the ghosts of the Nanten.
I had better do my best to guide him. I will write when next I can.
I must write all of this before the sun rises too high. If what Kantoo said about these stones is true, then we will not be able to stay long into the morning. I do not want to find out what other horrors await us if we do, but I am terrified to brave the grass again.
As soon as Bolton felt ready to move yesterday we followed the gap in the magic as we had planned. It became increasingly narrow and difficult to track for both Dionus and me, but then suddenly we were in a completely quiet space. There was no activity, the magic was absolutely silent. Inactive.
Surrounding us stood four trees, and beyond them four different darkened pathways through the forest. Four symbols were carved into each tree in the darkest black I felt I had ever seen. Each tree had the same four symbols upon it in a diamond, but each was in a different order.
It was as if they had been rotated between each instance.
Dionus pulled Prestorn’s map out and held it up. There were plenty of symbols on it, and among them were these same four, but on Prestorn’s map they were arranged in a square.
Did the symbols between them matter? Which was the top, that on the left or the right? We debated for a moment before I heard Starlark shout, “Compass.”
It was the compass rose for the map, and as Dionus tilted it to match north it also matched the symbols of the tree before us. I held him back from dashing past it. We would exit, we hoped, but where? And could Starlark follow us? He was difficult to hear.
If we rotated the map, the orientation changed and matched the different trees around us. I turned the map in his hands so that the easternmost symbol was on top, then pointed towards the tree with that order upon it. I felt certain we would exit on the east if we did so. Starlark said he could see the same pattern, so we walked past that tree. And then the green began to return to the forest beyond.
Dionus and Balthandar picked up the pace and I followed without thinking, leaving Bolton on his own. It’s all my fault. We were in the jungle again, the Deadwood behind us forever. I was elated. And then I heard Bolton scream.
I looked back at him through the trees. Then I saw what he was screaming at. Out before him stood the chief of the KoraKora, his hand gripping Kantoo’s hair like a handle. Kantoo pointed past me, he shouted to run, and then the chief slit his throat.
The chief laughed. I will never forget the look on his face as Kantoo died. Though the words he said meant nothing to me, they too are ingrained in my mind: “Bora no kandoh mahotoo.”
Bolton howled. He stumbled forward, struggling to draw his blade with his remaining hand, and then the KoraKora came flooding through the trees beyond him. I ran back, calling for help as I drew my own blade to defend Bolton, but I was intercepted by more KoraKora. New ones sprung up as quickly as I cut them down, but I hacked through the savages even faster and left them to die.
I made it to Bolton just in time… gods… I made it to Bolton just in time to watch him die. There was a hole in his throat, straight through the side and out the other. He was gurgling, and as he dropped to his knees all I could see in his eyes was guilt. The guilt of Kantoo’s death closing in upon him along with every ghost that had ever haunted him.
I had to break away then, fighting to run the way that Kantoo had pointed. Fighting to keep the tears from flowing. I was in a rage, but I could not die too. Arrows flew around me and Dionus began to bat them away. I shouted for Starlark, but he was nowhere to be seen. There was nothing we could do but run. Night was falling, and the KoraKora were all around us.
I was angry. I was so angry, and all I could see was the smile on that bastard’s face when he killed Kantoo. It’s all I can see now, and all I can hear is his voice. Bolton is dead, and Starlark is lost.
Gods, I can’t write any more of this… the sun is rising anyway. We need to move.