Inifra came to me twice yesterday and again today. Finally I let her sit with me in my hut. She wants to go with him. Gods help me, but she wants to go with Salisir.
She says he has a plan. Everything we have spoken of, all of the dreams she has for peace within the Nanten, all of it comes together brilliantly in this plan of his. He knows the Great Recess, she says. He knows Matasten. He has learned it all, and he knows how to make it whole.
She says that it is the Nantese who will save the Nanten in the end. That is what excited her the most: The Nantese will rule themselves again.
How can she trust him? This man beat me as a child. He hated me and I hated him. He was exiled for his incompetence, his failures, and his rebellion against the Tetrarch. How can such a man be thought fit to unify a nation? How can he have a plan at all?
How can she want to go with him?
She is so excited.
My stomach hasn’t stopped churning since that conversation. I never had a chance to make her that excited myself. I have lost whatever chances I will have with her in the future. She is taken with this plan. With this man that I hate.
I refused to hear what he has told her. I cannot bear it.
She has asked me to join them. She told me I am needed. Now I am needed? Now, when he is here, now she needs me? But it isn’t her, is it? It’s them. They need me, whoever ‘they’ are.
Balthandar and Dionus have not found us yet and these two wish to move off into the jungle tomorrow. Can I let her go with him? How could I stop her? I may lose her forever. And finding Salisir was my mission. As false a mission as it may have been, I need to know what he knows about Matasten. I have to know his story or I can never go home. Even if I did, would your father ever let me return?
But if I leave tomorrow, what will happen to my companions? Are they even near us now, or do they need help somewhere to the south? Staying on the river is the best chance I have of ever seeing them again. I cannot abandon them, not like I abandoned Starlark.
But what if by staying here I lose Inifra to Salisir, and my companions to the dangers they face elsewhere? I could be sitting in the very place from which I can do the least good.
I am out of pages in this journal, and that is well enough. I need to put my pen down and think. I need to make a decision and must do so by morning. Gods, but I hope the right one.
Fall of the Arbor King starts tonight!
He stepped through the foliage and into the firelight like a ghost. He still is a ghost, the ghost that haunts my every step.
Brin Salisir walked into my camp last night as if it were his own. He spoke to me as if unsurprised by my presence. He spoke to Inifra as if she were an old friend. All of my fears, all of the torture of this voyage, the pain, the death, all of it negated in gravity by his cock-sure swagger.
The way he sat on that stool as if he were in his own home lounging…
I didn’t even hear what he said over the crackling rage that built within me. I wanted to lunge across the fire between us and strangle him. I wanted him dead, hoped him dead.
I had believed that Brin Salisir was dead, and that was as I wanted it.
Then he stepped into life. There wasn’t a care that burdened him, nor any crack in his comfort among the Nantese. Not only did they recognize him, but immediately they began to speak to him as if he were a long-lost friend. The bastard speaks Nantese.
He didn’t bother asking why I was there. He didn’t care to find out that Slad Bolton and Roos “Starlark” na Crestward – the son of the bloody Scepter of the Realm, I should add – had died searching for him. He didn’t give two shits for us.
Brin Salisir didn’t ask me a single question until he looked at me and requested I join him. The bastard asked me for my help.
I walked away then, because if I didn’t leave I would draw my sword and kill him sitting. I would shift. I would freeze time itself, walk up to him, and slide my blade between his neck and collar bone until it pierced him to the bowels and pinned him to that stool. I wouldn’t let anyone see me do it. To them it would appear to have happened instantaneously. But they would fear me for it.
This entire jungle would fear me for my wrath.
I walked away so that the ghost before me could live another day.
Inifra came to me later but I turned her away. I didn’t want to hear his name on her lips. I hated that she recognized him even though she had never seen him with her own eyes. I could not… I don’t know that I can handle this.
We moved down the river about a mile to a small fishing village. There is some form of illness that has claimed the lives of a number of children here. Inifra has spent the day investigating, but has yet to guess at the cause. It is nice to be among people again, and it makes sense to wait here. Much easier for our companions to find a village than the two of us alone in hiding.
Where are they, though? The path couldn’t have come out more than ten miles south of here, and is likely closer than that. Why has it taken them so long to reach us? As soon as I am strong enough it will grow tempting to try and find them instead of staying put.
But remaining in one place, as agreed, is the best chance we have of seeing them again.
We are off Salisir’s trail in any case. The last clue we had was that he had gone north, above the cliffs. It’s possible he came down here after that, possible even that he made it all the way to Matasten. But as unlikely as our survival has been, his was even less likely.
I realize now that it is probable that we will never find the proof of his death that I crave. Even should we follow our clues, at some point they will stop coming. Whether he died between destinations, or the last to see him alive have died as well, there would have come a time when we came up short. There would have been an end to this path with no further guesses or legends to follow.
And then what?
We would have to make a decision then much as we must do now. Do we move to Matasten to search out the source of these Daedric rumors, or choose some other path? My sense of duty screams for Matasten. My pity calls for the aid of the Nantese before me. My heart… I have given up trying to guess at what my heart desires.
What do we have before us now but a village in need? We can tend to them for the moment. When Balthandar arrives he will be able to treat their ill as well. We can go from there, to Matasten to find out about this Daedric Prince or just to the next person in need of help. We have been in need many times in this jungle. If it were not for those who helped us along the way we would be dead.
Now it is our turn to do the helping.
There has been no word from our companions yet. Inifra says the people of Hamada watched them cross the Broken Circle from the cliffs. They lost sight of them once the rains began, and by the time the storm had quit there was no sign of the travelers below.
Gods but I am anxious for them.
Inifra and I resumed our discussion of justice in the Nanten today, but from a different angle. At least my angle has changed. I cannot continue to ignore the plight of the people across whom we stumble, not in good faith. My callousness to their suffering is tantamount to inflicting it upon them. If I can stop it and don’t, how am I any better than the KoraKora who plagued them?
It almost angered me how happy it made Inifra to hear me say that. She went off on her dreams for a peaceful, unified nation. One whose people lived in harmony with one another.
I am not entirely certain what good it will do in the end, for any vacuum in power here is bound to be filled by the worst sorts of people. But creating those vacuums is better than leaving the cruel and despotic rulers of these regions unpunished.
Inifra doesn’t seem concerned with power herself. She wants to spread the influence of Infiri and raise her standing among the Nantese, but it is not an exclusive goal. She doesn’t want to oust any other gods, nor does she wish to rule in a political sense. Inifra’s desire is to spread her religion. I don’t see it as enough to unify this people. What I want to know is what we can do to help them regain greater stability.
She seems to think that helping one person at a time is enough. I can aid her in that for the time being, but I doubt that will be sufficient for me in the long run. And what of Salisir? Discovering his fate is my pass to return home.
Do I even have a home? Or is the Nanten my home now? Perhaps I could make it my home if Inifra would be a part of it. If only I could get a better read on her. With momentary exceptions, she goes cold at the most inconvenient of times. I would tell her how I feel, but every opportunity I get is preemptively sabotaged by her attitude and distance from me.
It’s as confounding as it is confusing. Perhaps that should serve as communication enough. This desire for intimacy and my longing for her to open up to me, to be mine, is just that. It is mine, and mine alone. I should not be so foolish as to think she would share it.
Another couple of days drinking Martingue broth and I should be healthy enough to continue on. I hope that Dionus, Balthandar, and Timber join us by then.
Inifra left me for a few hours to check on Hamada. The people there are having a difficult time making their way across the rapids to return home. Destroying the only bridge that crossed the Nanten River was an unfortunate necessity. My ears didn’t stop ringing for days after that blast.
I can’t stop thinking about the chief of the KoraKora, nor how deeply he hated me. What shocked me, and what continues to shock me, was how similar we were. He is the only other Timeshift I have ever met who hadn’t lost himself to the shift. The only other swordsman I have ever met who could match me in a fight.
A chill ran through me last night when I realized I no longer hated him. The place he held in the world has left a gap in me, one that I didn’t realize was there: A loneliness for someone who understands me. Someone who knows himself and his skills as well as I do but, more importantly, whose skills are the same as mine.
He followed me for months to avenge his brother. He mobilized an entire nation for vengeance. That is not something I would ever do, but I am no stranger to revenge. Or could I have missed something? Was it because he knew that I too was a Timeshift?
What keeps me from crossing that invisible boundary that borders good and evil? Or is that border so wide that I find myself in it already, traversing the no-man’s land of grey between the black and white in which I always thought the world was draped? Am I so good?
I murdered the only woman I ever truly loved in a moment of blind rage. I forsook wisdom to perpetrate that crime, and left my brothers behind where no Tetrarch should ever venture on his own. I took my people and despised them, cast them aside in favor of my own self-righteousness and jealousy.
How is it that I see the Nantese as something other when the very villain they feared was a brother to me? How can I see myself above them when, truly, they have been the kind ones. The hospitable ones. The ones to sacrifice themselves for total strangers, whose hearts were blackened by bigotry and murder.
I am no better than them. I deserve none of their assistance. None of their care. Yet they give it so freely.
What can I give in return? I do not feel the pressing weight of guilt or self-hatred that I would expect. I simply feel detached. Distant. I feel as though I belong to some race entirely separate from the human one, an alien who does not feel what it should feel nor love how it should love. I feel numb, and it is far worse to be standing here staring at the contrast of who I am and who I should be than any wave of loathing could ever feel.
What have I become?
The monsters of the Broken Circle are unlike anything I have ever seen. Spiders grown larger than horses, with armored plating and long forelegs like iron scythes. We could see them roam the surface of the circle during the day. They are quick, lythe. Somehow that makes them all the more disturbing. They roam on the hunt, returning to hide in the cracks and crevasses that crisscross the land.
Inifra says the caves under the Circle are vast and convoluted. I can only imagine the most hellish of images: unknown beasts fighting for dominance in the darkness and rising to the light only to feed. They hide in the low trees that grow atop the broken hills. I know this because when the rains come, they drop immediately and scurry into the nearest crevasse.
They also drop from the trees when any unfortunate animal happens to wander too close. I saw a deer with straight antlers come to such an end. Those sharp forearms killed the poor beast instantly. If they hadn’t, the weight of the monster on top of it would have crushed it in any case.
Having seen all of this from the safety of our island, I was reluctant to cross the water. But Inifra knew the timing of the rains, which was what made our passage possible at all. Minutes before they came she helped me swim to land. There were rapids just below the lake, so taking the river out of the Broken Circle was not possible for me. We had to make land and move on foot.
More than once Inifra struck out at something in the water to keep it at bay. I never saw it myself, and I did not want to know what it was. Finally the rains came. From where we floated in the water we could see three of the giant spiders drop from trees and scramble for cover. I would never have seen them otherwise. They were terrifying.
We made our way along the shores of the lake and then the river. At every point where the crevasses opened nearby those things attacked us. The reward of food outweighed their distaste for the rains. Inifra could use the falling water against them, splintering ice in their eyes – of which there were plenty to attack – and pressing them back underground by sheer force. Only when the rains stopped did we have troubles.
I was unable to fight. It took all I had to keep moving forward. Inifra had to start drawing water from the river to force the monsters back, but they no longer retreated underground. Instead they began to follow and harass us. At one point there were three of the monsters, though they began to jostle for position then.
Their mouths were small, but lined with hideous teeth. Inifra began to grow weary keeping them back, and then by accident knocked one in the river. It sank. Immediately she knocked a second in the river. It sank as well. The others backed off then, though they never fully left us alone.
We made it beneath the familiar towers of green and away from the Broken Circle after a few hours of steady progress. For all we could tell, the spiders did not follow. Regardless, we moved another mile into the jungle to build some space. We will stay by the river and wait for the others to join us. I need the rest, and it makes for a better landmark than anything south.
I hope they have had less difficulty than we did in their crossing.
It is an unbelievable pleasure to have these pages between my fingers again. Alive, every moment I receive feels unbearably sweet. Having my journals returned to me only heightens the sensation. As if the torture of waiting for the KoraKora had not been bad enough.
They attacked us before dawn. The horns and drums carried on through the night, but never approached the city. We thought they were still preparing off in the jungle, when in reality they were amassing on our borders to strike without warning.
What few scouts we had were overwhelmed without making a sound. The only alarm was a scream from the first layer of fortifications as the KoraKora flooded over them. Balthandar and I were not there yet. We had woken early, anxious and unable to sleep well, but were still finishing preparations at the second (middle) layer we had built.
That scream was all the warning we would receive. Immediately we roused any defenders that were sleeping and began lighting and throwing torches over the makeshift ramparts. The yellow-painted bodies of the KoraKora looked like skeletons in the torchlight. They moved silently forward, creeping until they knew we could see them.
We released what arrows we had to shoot and they responded with a volley of their own. The shower of missiles subdued our line. They didn’t relent until their comrades were climbing to fight us. By the time the KoraKora stopped shooting, half of the defenders were dead.
Balthandar and I held our position as long as we could, but our flanks dissolved and we were overwhelmed within minutes.
We fled to the hall, barricading the doors with large stones. Archers shot down into the KoraKora from the floors above while others cast down stones. Entire sections of the hall’s outer catwalks had been loosened and were now leveraged and slid out onto the writhing mass of KoraKora.
Still, no matter how many were crushed or shot, more poured into the square below. Many began scaling the walls, while others called for a ram to be brought forward. They had constructed ladders in the jungle and others had ropes with hooks. Hundreds of attempts to breach the hall were being made at once.
We were unable to fend them all off. We had to call for the retreat before the KoraKora were among us, or there would be no point. What forces we had left withdrew and fled across the bridge. There was one last bastion on the far side which could be garrisoned to hold the KoraKora back. At least long enough to give the refugees on the far side a chance to escape.
The KoraKora made it over the walls then and began pouring in through the upper levels. Balthandar had lingered to set his trap and suddenly we were locked in a fight before we could get out the door. Slowly they pushed us back. No matter how many we killed, more came. Soon we had the bridge to protect our flanks, but even then we were steadily being pressed. Arrows began to fly from the walls, landing indiscriminately in the fight.
And then he was there.
The chief of the KoraKora, covered in bones and the brightest of feathers. His warriors stopped fighting before we could see him. They held back even before he walked through the doors. As he did so they parted before him to make a path. Silence turned to a slow chant, which built in volume and fervor as their chief approached us on the bridge.
Soon the KoraKora were stamping and howling, cutting themselves and writhing with a collective bloodlust greater than any I have ever seen. The chief raised his arms and the KoraKora went silent. He reached over his shoulder, drawing a double-bladed bone sword off his back. Both blades ran up from the hilt, one large and the other slender. The smaller blade ran along the dull side of its larger counterpart, coming to its point at three quarters the other’s length, a gap of only an inch between them. A fascinating weapon.
He made a curt call and a captive was brought forward. One of the children Timber had befriended. Even the waterfall beneath us could not diminish the weight of the silence as that poor child was dragged forward. With great pomp and ceremony the chief inspected his sword, appeared displeased, and then plunged it into the boy’s chest. When he withdrew it to inspect it again he grinned.
“My blade finds today good for drinking,” he explained in the common tongue. His deep voice quivered when he talked. “I have waited long to avenge your murder of my brother.”
Then he shouted something in Nantese and the KoraKora cheered. I’d had enough. My blood was boiling to a rage. This man had chased me for months for killing his brother. For killing a man who was trying to kill me. I was itching for this fight.
I knew he was good when he stepped in to meet me. It was his footing, the grace of his motion. He was quick and skilled. Trained by the Klotians no doubt, or at least someone who had learned from them. His form was perfect. I adopted a Windswept stance and he immediately countered with a Southern Diamond.
He knew his swordplay. I had an advantage as I was better, but not enough to find my window. I was tired from fighting all morning. He was not. The KoraKora erupted, chanting and roaring for their chief as we rotated and spun along the bridge.
It would be a stalemate, I realized. Everything was going to come down to chance, and I needed to end it. To end him. That’s when I decided to shift time. If there was ever a time to cheat in a fight, it was then, so I slowed time and pushed my body to move ahead of it. But my blade did not slide past his.
The shock ran deep. He was a Timeshift. He had known all along. My gut dropped as he grinned. He was dragged along with my perception of time, the two of us locked in step even as I tried to pull away. I could feel him grasping for it, working to gain control of time over me.
And then the hall exploded. Balthandar had set one of the two charges at the base of the structure. The devices could direct their blast with startling accuracy, and he had set it away from us to shatter the structure’s foundations. The KoraKora were blasted and crushed by the hundreds. The cannibal nation stood in a moment of shocked silence before their chief turned on me in a rage.
Every tendon and vein in his neck sprung taught as he screamed at me. Then his real assault began. He swung his bone sword in a hailstorm of blows, hammering at me and bellowing the most terrifying noises. It was all I could do to signal Balthandar to set his second trap. I couldn’t make it. I knew I couldn’t make it, but I told him to do it anyways.
I knew in that moment that it was better I die if it meant this lunatic went with me.
He pressed into me, shards of bloody bone flying from the force of his attack. He pushed me back. I could barely stand against him. That was when I saw it and cursed myself. His fault, I found it all too late to use it against him.
I needed to master the situation if I were to shift time. If I were to trap him on that bridge. So I did what I have never done before. I let his sword pass my own. Gods but it tore through my shoulder like fire. The blow was an unexpected victory for the chief, one that elated him far too much. Elated him just enough to distract him. Thank the gods it worked.
With his focus on my shoulder, he didn’t notice the shift. He didn’t realize that in those two seconds of gloating, he was dead.
That bastard grinned as he hauled his blade free of my upper chest. He swung his sword around to finish me. Then Balthandar’s second blast ripped the bridge to shreds beneath his feet. Though I was behind the blast, I wasn’t spared the concussion. It knocked me senseless, and when I came to I was struggling to breathe.
I was underwater. But not for long.
Within seconds I was flying free. The mixture of water and air confused me for only a moment before my heart sank. Or rose. I guess it depends on which way I was flipping at the moment.
I was falling hundreds of feet to the Great Recess with a gaping wound in my left shoulder. Even if I didn’t die on impact, and somehow survived drowning, I was going to be weak. I was going to sink, or get eaten by something worse than a Bangara. Worse than the KoraKora. I was going to die.
I can’t explain it, but the certainty of it made me smile. Images of Hamada emptying out as we fortified the hall filled my mind. Images of Nantese children. Lives the KoraKora couldn’t claim. Lives across the entire jungle were safe now, if only for a moment. Lives were avenged. Bolton. Kantoo.
I could die, I decided. And then everything went black.
I woke up a day later, lying on a tiny island in the lake that forms beneath the falls. Inifra was there. She had dragged me from the water and bound my wound. She had saved me again.
“I thought that was it,” she said through tears. “I thought I was dead.” Strange words, considering I was the one who nearly drowned. Who was stabbed, inches from being blown to pieces, almost crushed by a massive fall, and then nearly drowned.
I had never seen her so undone. She wept over me. She watched me as I slept. She kept me safe until my companions could finally descend the cliffs and rejoin us. But they cannot rejoin us. The path at the foot of the cliffs is connected to one of the only safe passages across the Broken Circle, and that is miles south of here. We cannot meet along the cliffs, but must find a way to be rejoined within the jungle on the far side. Balthandar refuses to be tossed by Dionus, and though he himself can fly, Dionus cannot carry him.
Somehow Inifra managed to find my sword at the bottom of this lake. Dionus has been able to bring us some supplies and my pack, but he cannot carry full-grown adults. The distance across the Great Circle, he says, is too far to safely throw us as he did on the Grasslands. I sent him to help Balthandar and Timber across the Broken Circle. Inifra and I must find our own way into the jungle.
The minute we leave this island we are in the thick of it again, but I am glad to be alive and satisfied at how things ended with the KoraKora. Gods be good, but I hope they are destroyed forever.
My wound is deep but clean. We will give it until tomorrow and hope that is enough time to start moving. Thank the gods for Martingue broth and my armor, without which I would be dead twice over and crippled ten times again.