I must confess I was far happier to reunite with Dionus than I was when Starlark returned. I didn’t think to notice it until last night, but I realized that I had hardly felt a thing when Starlark came back. I thought I was happy to see him. I thought I had truly missed him, but the reaction of my heart to Dionus’ reappearance proved by contrast that I had not missed him half as much as I had imagined.
Does he realize this? Is that the source of his angst? The rejection of an idol is a horrible feeling, and that is precisely what I have always been to Starlark. I never intended to close him out of my heart, to cool my friendship towards him. If it has in fact cooled, I would argue that it is largely due to his own actions.
My life is plagued by the children of the powerful. You should see this by now, though I hope you do not consider yourself a plague. Lystra was the daughter of the King’s Sword, and her privilege showed through her every action. She was lovely, to be sure, and as perfect as any woman can ever hope to be. But the perfection was a lie, a façade that was worn to prevent the work that needed to proceed within.
She was my lover for a time. My love for Lystra was real. I can’t deny that. Then I came to understand how false her heart had been to me. There was a great potential in Lystra, there always was, but she refused to undergo what changes were necessary to bring that potential to reality. She was the perfect shell, and she refused to let any true substance inhabit her.
In many ways Starlark is her opposite. His father, as you well know, is the King’s Scepter. Their life, removed from the capital as it was, demanded less in the way of appearances. But where the attentions of Lystra’s father drove her to polish an impossible exterior at the expense of her character, it was the lack of attention Starlark’s father paid him that fostered his own self-destruction. Starlark worked over-hard at everything that could help him stand out. He strove to be worthy of the attention he never received.
When that attention never came, nor the love he associated with it, he rejected everything he had ever held dear. He fled his old life and turned his new one into constant rebellion against it. If he could not be a rose in his father’s garden, he would become a thorn in his father’s side.
For the longest time that served my purposes well enough. I liked Starlark, for he was always passionate and eager to help, clever in his own way. He was always willing to join me when our paths crossed, and has served me well on numerous hunts in the forests of the West. But that hatred for his father, that loathing of his own family, it has seeped into every part of him now. He has become nothing but a spiteful wretch.
How could I be expected to find joy in his return?
The burdens of power do not good fathers make. How unfortunate that I should have to kill the one child, and now risk my life to keep the other alive.
We march again at first light, and hope the Makonga makes no appearance in the meantime. We should make the jungle tomorrow, and from there we will continue north in search of Salisir’s corpse. In the meantime I hope that we do not join him in his fate.
The presence of the Makonga returned last night, though we never saw it. It is as though loneliness and grief were turned into material gasses and infused in the very air we breathe. There was a weight to it that pressed in, promising only to grow. The light of day released us from its grip, but never fully.
I asked Inifra what we could do to turn it away and she said she was thinking on it. She said to leave her to her thoughts if I wanted to live. While I don’t know what exactly I was hoping for in her joining us, I know it was something warmer than this.
All of us marched in near-silence today. We are equally subdued by the Makonga’s touch, each of us lost to our own mournful thoughts as we walk. Even as night falls on the borders of the jungle, those thoughts only grow more powerful.
I loved Lystra. That is what I cannot bear to think, yet exactly what has been pressed upon me over the last week. I always loved her, to a depth that surprises me even now. I hate the idea of it, for I feel that no one deserved my devotion like Naline did. No one treated me better, nor cared for me more deeply, and yet I did not love her as I should have.
Isn’t that obvious? Wasn’t it always? If I had loved Naline with the intensity that I always loved Lystra I would never have left her in Elandir. I would never have cared that the Tetrarch would have frowned upon our union.
No I loved Naline, but only to a certain level. Never as much as she deserved. Never as much as I should have. Gods, but I can’t even hate myself properly for it. Too much of me was tied up in Lystra.
When I left Lystra it was out of pride. When I dropped her it was mutual, at least in the moment. I avoided her later attempts at reclaiming my heart by leaving for the hunt. I left my honored station in Sterling to put distance between us, to reinforce the certainty that leaving her had been the right thing. But what I never knew, at least what I never admitted until now, was that her hold upon my heart had never truly weakened.
When I returned to Sterling, when I was called to resume my post in the capital, she had a new lover. Of course she did, for she was expected to be courting someone. It was not her nature, nor what society would expect for her to remain celibate.
Did it matter that she rejected me in turn? Did it compromise me when they announced their engagement? Did the threat of losing her forever drive me to cement that distance? When I found out that her fiancé was a Daedric follower, was that purely pretense to inject myself back into her life?
Everything within me screams that no, what I did was done because it was my calling. Killing him was my duty, and killing her was only the collateral of war. She was not the first to attempt to save a loved one from the blue blades of the Tetrarch. I was not there for her.
But under the breathless oppression of the Makonga, with the weight of all my guilt pressing down upon me with a physical force behind it, I know the truth. There is no denying it any longer, and no amount of self-deceit can conjure up convincing lies. I did not enter that house to kill a Daedric follower. I entered it to kill my pain, and in the process made it permanent.
We have made our return to the jungles of the Nanten.
Inifra began our day by warning us against our feelings. She said that the power of the Makonga lay not in revealing the truth, but in overwhelming the soul with whatever tools lay near the surface. It revealed our guilt, yes, but it also built upon it to make something new.
She explained that she bore the memories of over a dozen of her predecessors, and every fault of theirs was being presented to her as if it were her own. She asked us not to listen to the Makonga. If we did that we were surely dead.
Balthandar said that there was a beast like this in the mythology of the Summer Isles. He said that it was a disembodied sailor, one that floated the waters between the isles looking for mutineers. When it found such a ship, it would torment the traitors until they could stand their guilt no longer. Once driven to madness they would burn their very ship they sailed until it sank.
He said it was a story that was told to keep men from turning on their captains, but one that no land-dweller ever believed.
At least no land dweller until himself. And unfortunately for us, there were no hints as to how to stop it except to give it the lives of the mutineers at hand.
Inifra said there was little threat that we would ever harm each other. The desire that manifests more clearly is to harm one’s self, to end the oppression of the Makonga by letting it end one’s life.
The Seventh Death. Suicide. There is no worse way in which to die, and I will not take that way out. But is there any other way to save my companions? If I am the murderer in our midst, if this is all my fault, then how can I hold on to my life at the risk of all the others?
They would not be here at all if it were not for me. They would not face this danger now if not, again, for me. Do I truly bring death to all I love? It seems so cliché for that to be my worry, for that to be the depression that rises up to stifle me. But isn’t it proven by my life so far?
And those who do not die reject me completely. My brothers, even my father and mother. The Tetrarch, the Old Empire… everyone.
Perhaps leaving this world behind is the only kindness I have left to pay it.
Starlark went raving mad in the night. He started screaming into the darkness, hollering challenges at the Makonga as if it were an enemy to coax into a duel. Balthandar physically restrained him until there was no option left but to tie him to a tree.
It took hours for the episode to pass. Starlark has not been the same since. He remains fidgety, anxious, and unwilling to speak to any of us. But his eyes continue to rove, darting from tree to tree as if they might uproot and fall on us at any moment.
For my part I found our return to the jungles of the Nanten brought me unexpected comfort. There is a sense of familiarity to these trees. I have overcome their initial challenge. I have learned how to survive in this place.
Balthandar was sad to leave the sun behind.
Dionus stood among the roots of the first trees, staring up at the sky for a long while before he finally turned and submitted to the canopy of the Nanten. Of us all, only Inifra seemed truly eager to enter the Nanten. And the trees are tall. What other obvious statements can I make?
While we waited for Starlark to regain his composure, she gathered the necessary roots and leaves to perform the rituals that she says will blind the Makonga to our presence. If it does not, then we know it hunts a murderer among us.
It does feel strange walking among these trees without Bolton. I continually expect some grunt followed by a string of complaints. There are no insults between him and Starlark. No pleas to better appreciate the Nantese. Only silence he once filled with words I used to loath. Bolton and Starlark. One would think they had nothing in common.
The irony is that when I saved Bolton’s life, he was tied to a post much as we tied Starlark to that tree.
Bolton swore to kill me when we purged a Daedric sect from a stronghold in the Great Wastes. They had been a consistent client of Bolton’s, purchasing slaves off his crew for sacrifices and worse. Killing the lot had an ill effect on the local economy. Years later, on another excursion into the Wastes, we happened to catch up to our Daedric prey in the midst of their own slaving efforts.
The irony was that it was Bolton and his crew who were in captivity.
His malice didn’t lessen that day, but what little sense of honor existed in Bolton steeled him against the idea of killing me. His revenge would be in repaying me for my unintentional kindness.
Now he’s dead, all for following me. In a way I suppose I did kill him after all.
Let us hope I can save Starlark where I failed Bolton.
Inifra spent most of the day with her eyes locked on Starlark. She had been leading the way into the jungle until today, but then she fell to the back of the group. Where she once ignored us to the best of her ability, her attention was suddenly focused tightly on the archer.
Despite the broiling suspicion behind her eyes, I could not help feeling a little jealousy. Perhaps it’s the fact that we have hardly seen a woman in the last four months. Perhaps it is that I actually want this one.
What distressed me most were her questions. There were only two:
“Weren’t there five of you before?”
“Have you noticed the touch of the Makonga lightening?”
I didn’t know what to make of her questions at first. She was clearly working out her own thoughts as she asked them, knowing the answers before I responded. But was there something she was trying to say? Something behind the questions?
It’s true. I barely feel the pressing weight of the Makonga any longer. Did the ritual yesterday work?
However Starlark is certainly changed in the opposite. He has taken on animal, feral qualities. Hunched over, he walks as though the very canopy of the Nanten were pressing down upon him. What do we do to help him? The Makonga’s touch has not lessened but seems to be crushing him.
Her implication was simple: Starlark is the murderer among you, and your missing member is the man that he killed. She didn’t need to say it openly. Those thoughts were just beneath the surface of my own mind. I realized it even as she separated herself from me and continued walking.
Bolton died from an arrow through the neck. It didn’t stick, I never even saw it, yet I knew instinctively that was what had made the hole in his throat. What I also knew, but refused to recognize, was that I was in a place where wounds like that were impossible.
The Nantese display no accuracy with their bows, not as we think of it. What we have seen leads us to believe that there are few marksmen among them. The KoraKora’s inability to hit any of us effectively seems proof of that. But Starlark is an expert with a bow. He can uncork bottles of beer without scratching the glass. I’ve seen him do it.
I rejected the thought at first. It felt like a betrayal to even dwell upon the suggestion, unspoken as it was. And yet, I cannot escape it. I found that I too was watching Starlark. I had been since he came back. I’ve known all along.
Gods, what do I do?
Starlark had it out with me today.
I don’t think he’s ever spoken an ill word to me let alone yelled at me before.
I was his family, he said. I was all he had, and like every family he had ever had I threw him away. I asked him what he was talking about. I had never thrown him away. We were still together!
The Deadwood, he said. I left him in the Deadwood. Alone, all alone save for the ghosts and the ghouls and the nameless horrors that visited him in the night. Then I ran. We escaped that hellish place, and without hesitation I ran from him.
I tried to console him, but he shouted that it was obvious I didn’t want him. None of us did. None of us had cared about his disappearance, come looking for him, or even bothered to hear what happened to him once reunited.
Never mind that we had tried speaking with him in Senida. That searching for him was impossible. All I could do was calmly ask what had happened to him.
“This!” He started weeping. “All of this.”
He won’t speak to any of us. We had to stop marching for the day and make camp around him. He remains inconsolable, either with his face in his hands or his reddened gaze lost beyond the trees around us.
Starlark… why won’t you let us help you?
As for the Makonga, we have no ideas of what to do. We have scarcely seen it after entering the Nanten. It is still present, that sense has never left us, but it seems to have focused its efforts. It is pressing in upon my friend, and there is nothing I can do to save him.
Gods be good, what can we do for Starlark?
Starlark is gone.
We searched everywhere we could, but he has left us no trail by which to follow. He left his pack, his sleeping mat, and… everything. The only missing items were his bow and one solitary arrow.
A final duel with death. Starlark has left us.
We stay. If there is any chance he will return, we will not abandon him. But how long can we? The Makonga draws near again. I feel it. We all do.
Inifra has spent the morning gathering the roots and leaves she says are necessary for the ritual to blind it to our presence. It will come for us, she says, no longer with a solitary hunger for a murderer. It will use Starlark to entrap us all.
If we are to stay put, she says, we must at least stay alive. We will perform the ritual to blind it. If the Makonga leaves us after that, we will know with certainty what it sought.
I could not help you, but how I wish I could have. I wish so many things, and the Nanten denies them all.