Although we must stay on guard at all times, in case one of those horned bulls wanders close enough to see us, our trek across the Grasslands now induces less anxiety. While we no longer have a clear path, I am grateful that our life-and-death attachment to one is over. Though we are harassed, we do not feel as threatened.
However the sun has not relented in its own assault. Though I do my best to cover my skin it still manages to burn me in various patches every day. Unlike me, Balthandar does not burn. His skin has gotten so dark, in fact, that it is difficult to distinguish the tattoos lining his features any longer. I think it brings him no small level of joy to be back in the heat of the sun again.
It brings me joy, but that joy is counteracted by the blisters.
I only wish I could share this with you, not in writing, but in person. In this moment. Or at least with Dionus, who would have some quip about the fragility of my skin or the irony of shit-eating hawks.
And then I think of Naline.
The echo of my own voice on these pages brings me the greatest sense of loneliness of all. It accentuates the knowledge that even should I survive this madness, I will never be able to share it with Naline. I will never be able to sit across a table from her, drink, laugh, and then share my darkest moments in her confidence.
She is taken from me.
Yet it was I who put her out to die, apart from me.
She gave me so much. I never told anyone about Naline, though of course my own pack knew her. She was my secret, and she kept my secrets. She was my friend, a link to a world beyond the Tetrarch where life was not about Demons and Daemons, but food and laughter. Where the darkness of the night was not frightful for its promise of attack, but for the greater threat of solitude.
Most girls who have taken to me have done so because of my reputation. Even Lystra never loved me for who I was, but for the fame and for the pride of claiming me as hers. Naline was removed from those spheres, so far so that she had scarcely heard of me before we met.
I don’t know why Naline loved me. She saw me for who I really was, and she loved me.
Gods, I’ve thrown away the only person in the world to do so.
I can see you. All of you. I can read your thoughts through the twitching of your muscles. The tenseness of your legs. The shifting of your feet. I can see you.
Don’t breathe. Don’t move. Turn not to your left nor right, or you will die. Do not back down, or even let the thought of flight take your mind. You will die. You have seconds to make your decision, a bare instant to steel yourself, and no time at all upon which to act.
If your sword is not already drawn, then you are already dead.
Do not think for a moment that I will not beat you. I have seen every trick there is to play with steel, every front, every feint, and every approach. There is not a step your feet can take nor a twist your trunk can make that I have not already outmaneuvered a dozen times before.
I can see your eyes. What you watch tells me who you are. Where you focus reveals how skilled you are. My hips? Excellent. My hands? Fool.
The blade may be the sharpest part of me, but it is not the most dangerous. Steel is a tool, an extension of myself, but it is not lethal. I am lethal. All of me. The blade merely expresses that in the final instant. Without me it is inert. Harmless.
This is why I am the deadliest sword in all Eight Kingdoms. In the reaches of the Old Empire, I am first on the field. In all the godsdamned world I have yet to meet my match, because there is no one I cannot see. There is no body I cannot read. There is no plate I cannot pierce.
Unlike Dionus, my reputation protected me rather than bringing an endless stream of challengers to my door. Unlike Bolton, my life’s work was honorable and something of which I would never be ashamed. Unlike Starlark, I was not cast out but drawn into the folds of every righteous circle. And unlike Balthandar, I have a sense of all that I have lost in coming to the Nanten.
No one here knows who I am, nor should they. But they will. I built a reputation for myself in the civilized world. A reputation that was marred the day the Tetrarch cast me from the order. I will build a new one among these savages. The jungle will ring with the sound of it. They will tell stories of the great Ocada that slew the darkest evil they had ever known.
Whatever Daedric Prince sits at the heart of the Nanten, I will find and kill him where Salisir failed. Then they will know me for a prince in my own right. When I leave this jungle it will be on my own terms. I will not be an exile, but a hero. And then I will return to the Old Empire, and reclaim the name that is rightfully mine.
Even with the constant threat of attack from these horned beasts, what Balthandar has begun referring to as “Mortuga,” this southern portion of the Akari Grasslands feels significantly less threatening than the part we have left behind. I wonder if we are even halfway to Senida by now, but surely we must be drawing near.
In fact the farther we go, the more the Mortuga seem to be giving us space. Now that I think about it, since noon today they have actually kept their distance. This is well enough, we already have more of their meat than we should rightfully carry.
There have been no signs of Starlark or Dionus. I would be surprised if there were, but I still find myself scanning the horizon for their approach. Have the winds truly taken Dionus from us? Is he gone for good? And whatever happened to Starlark? I could hear him as we exited the Deadwood, though I never saw him. Did he ever escape it? Did he find himself surrounded by KoraKora and cut off from us?
Perhaps he too is dead. The body count never ceases to grow, as inexorable as time itself. Someday soon we may be forced to make our own contributions.
In the meantime I must do my best to avoid speculations. I cannot know when or where we will meet our lost companions, if ever we will. Focus on my goals is what is needed right now.
Balthandar has regained all of his regal composure, but he remains at a slight distance from me. I think both of us have withdrawn into ourselves in the face of all that we must overcome. We have been thinking too broadly. At least I have. My thoughts have been consumed with home and have willfully pushed aside the reality that there are some significant obstacles between myself and a grand return.
I must focus on finding Salisir.
That is my first true goal. Should there be a Daedric Prince at the heart of the Nanten, unseating him and destroying his society can come second. If I succeed at all of that, and survive the journey back out of the Nanten, then I can set my thoughts to home. Reclaiming my place comes last, and in all honesty will probably never happen. I’ve been lucky to survive as long as I have.
On to Salisir then. And in order to find Salisir, I must find Senida.
The City of Golden Waves, Prestorn called it. Now I understand why.
We must be drawing near Senida. The Akari Grasslands have undergone another dramatic change as we have continued pressing southeast. The grass is waist high, and as golden as wheat ready for the harvest. Even moreso, it sparkles in the sun like nothing I have ever seen any plant do before.
Under some unknown impulse Balthandar broke of a stalk and began chewing on it. The smile that spread across his face generated all the impulse I needed to follow suit. The grass is like sugar cane. It was almost too sweet to the taste.
I haven’t had sugar in months.
Needless to say, the fields took on a magic quality to us as we continued walking. We could not help but laugh.
There are no Mortuga in these fields. No holes containing rodents that bite. No hawks that dive nor wraiths that slash. There is simply the blue sky above and a sweet sea of gold below.
Perhaps it is the sugar coursing through my veins, but I feel perfectly happy tonight in a way that I have not felt for some time.
Senida is a waste. There is nothing here…
Gods, what have we done? There are no people. The city itself stands mostly untouched. Unlike Graylag, Senida is a shell more than a ruin. The buildings are intact, finely crafted of a white stone so milky pure it could be ivory.
But there is no one here.
Did Prestorn know that when he sent us here? Did Kantoo? We have spent the entire day searching from building to building for any sign of life. There is none.
While many homes still contain utensils, furniture, and even the remnants of food long-spoiled, there is no indication that this place has been inhabited in – well – in years.
We still do not trust the land, nor accept that there may be no threat to Senida. How can we? We don’t know what happened to the people who certainly must have lived here.
We have made a camp for ourselves on the open roof of one of the taller buildings. There are still trees growing up here that were planted along the roof’s edge and at its center. We dragged some old mats up here to make beds under the terraces, and are enjoying our first bit of shade in almost two weeks. There was a well nearby from which we drank until we felt sick.
We will take turns keeping watch tonight until we know this place to be as safe as it feels. We have barricaded the trap door to the roof and will continue our search of the city tomorrow.
There is an eerie quality to a vacant city. Perhaps it is simply the rarity of the silence along such streets, but the looming threat of whatever destroyed these people cannot be discounted. It is always there like a specter – watching our every move, waiting to be discovered.
Balthandar and I continued canvasing the city until the sun began to set. There was a sense of urgency to our actions today. It felt as though whatever clue we sought would be found in the tiniest of details. As though we must be careful to observe everything in order to keep from missing it. And yet we do not know what it is we seek. What here could possibly tell us of Salisir’s passing?
The sensation is shared, I know, because neither of us needed to speak as we went from door to door, building to building, room to room. These people lived in a luxury that belies the savagery of the Nanten. The architecture is much more Klotian than it is Imperial or Nantese. Perhaps that lends to the eerie atmosphere more than any other feature.
Klotia. It should not surprise me that the lower reaches of the Nanten would be influenced by their dark neighbor to the south, but I have not seen Klotian architecture in years. I did not recognize it as such until around noon, though I knew something was off. I have never seen Klotians build anything in white. It was almost as milky as Klotian skin. Still, their influence is unmistakable.
It’s the jagged finish that is put to everything. The intentional asymmetry, the gruesome spikes and gargoyles. The smooth whiteness of the stone hides these darker encroachments better than you would expect. It creates a subtlety that almost leans one’s opinion of it all towards beauty. Perhaps that’s the strangest sensation of all: appreciating anything Klotian.
We did not find what we were looking for. There are no clues as to what befell the people of Senida, be it disease or war. Or worse.
There is a story from before the Apocalypse, before even the Golden Era and the Long Rise. They say that once there was an Expressionist so strong that she could do something like this. That in fact she once did make an entire population disappear. She took a city in her hand, and then the people were no more. They say the mists that were the byproduct of that one action lingered in the city for years.
What if there is someone so powerful near us tonight?
What happened to the people of Senida?
We decided to return to the roof early today. There seems to be no reason to rush our exploration of the city, even though we share the strange impulse that we must do so. That feeling is losing ground to our exhaustion. Instead we have spent the afternoon sleeping and cooking Mortuga meat.
The last neighborhood we explored seemed cleaner, better-maintained than the rest we have explored. It’s as though it was only recently abandoned.
We found a spice shop there that had a variety of spices still sealed in glass containers. We’ve been experimenting with different combinations to make the Mortuga taste a little less acrid. It certainly isn’t the finest meat we’ve ever had.
Being in this city is a surreal experience. It feels whole, yet hollow. Somewhere within it lies the secret to its people. Where they are and what happened to remove them.
While we remain silent in the streets. On the roof Balthandar has spent much of his time telling me about the various cooking traditions of the Summer Isles. It’s fascinating the differences between our cultures, both subtle and overt. They don’t use straight salt to flavor their food, for example, but only mix it into robust recipes of spices.
He said that salt on its own was for peasants. I suppose if I grew up in the shadow of the Spice Barons I would feel the same.
If we make it out of the Nanten alive, I have promised to go with him and visit his home. I have never wanted to go to the Summer Isles, but tonight as I watch the sun set over the golden waves of Senida, I have the feeling that not doing so has only robbed me of experiences I would otherwise cherish.