Entry 248 – Day 373

Entry 248 – Day 373

Hembila’s reaction to our encounter with the Latala has been a combination of fury and increased diligence. We’ve seen less of him for it; he keeps to the perimeter to ensure its integrity. Conversely, we see more of his men, a sign that the perimeter itself has shrunk as a result of their losses. Thankfully there were more than the thirty we initially guessed. Balthandar offered to join the rotation, but Hembila refused with a silent shake of the head. He does not trust us.

For my part, I will stay close to Wudan and Dionus. They seem to be the only two in real danger, both from those who assail and those who are supposed to protect us.

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Hembila’s men harass Dionus whenever they get the chance, goading him as if they think he might turn and fight them. If only they were aware of how dangerous a game they play. Inifra has taken to positioning herself between them, glowering at any who dare to mock Dionus. That quenches most of their foolishness.

Inifra respects Dionus and holds him in high regard. She has told these men of how he risked his life to save the fishing village with her on the Nanten River. How he fought valiantly to destroy Zorga’s fortress and free captives destined for the KoraKora. Unfortunately these men do not seem capable of extending their respect for Inifra to Dionus, regardless of how highly she lauds him to them.

The sooner we can leave them behind, the better. I overheard her ask Dionus if he doesn’t like girls at all. He shrugged and said he’d liked a few. I wish he’d laugh it off, but he’s still too angry. I remember once when a man asked him the same question and he said that if he was drunk enough, he could overlook a woman’s failings for a night. I wonder what Inifra makes of it – it’s clearly a foreign concept to her that one man might want another. At least she seems to accept him regardless. If only our escort would follow suit.

I’m surprised at how many there are traveling with us. I would have thought losing twenty men to be a crippling blow, but even leaving a few behind to tend the wounded didn’t put Hembila in a mind to halt our journey. Lighter numbers leave us more vulnerable, but I trust Hembila’s judgment. I would continue on in any case, even if he decided he must turn back.

Hembila got things in order quickly yesterday morning, and after marching all day yesterday and again today I doubt we have lost much progress. He’s certainly efficient. I hope his bigotry doesn’t ruin him as an ally. If we are to mobilize the other two nations for the assault on Matasten, he will prove useful. If not necessary.

The more I think on it, the more certain I am that I need to see Matasten myself. At the very least, I need to hear first-hand accounts to have a better idea of what it is we face, to know how developed this society is. Perhaps an all-out war is avoidable if only we can find and assassinate their leadership. I’ll have to ask Dionus about that tomorrow. If anyone among us knows how to pull something like that off, it’s him.

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Entry 249 – Day 374

Entry 249 – Day 374

Inifra has laid out more of Salisir’s plan for me than I have heard from the man himself. I still struggle to hold conversations of any length with him. I know I ought to; I know that I cannot afford to maintain this strained distance from my old teacher, but I cannot overcome my loathing of him. It’s a lower form of hatred now, a smoldering burn that is kept alive more by pride than any active reason. I will grow out of it eventually.

Salisir already laid out the overarching differences between the people of Yatusu, Batsu, and the Sondu, the ruling tribe in Motasta. Inifra has painted a more colorful picture of the barriers that hold between them – those that more actively prevent unification. They all revolve around the fact that neither Oroun nor Fodafa want the other to rule in Matasten.

Oroun does not wish to return to totalitarian rule, and neither do the people he leads in Yatusu. The way that Inifra talks about them, they sound highly educated for a people living within a failed state. Their survival has hinged upon raising competent citizens to positions of responsibility, and by the sound of it they have done quite well for themselves.

The Sondu believe such competence is nascent at best in the low classes, something the upper classes are simply born with. Something the common man naturally lacks. Inifra says that Fodafa sees Oroun as an upstart and a fool risen above his rightful standing.

I asked her what she thinks. She spread her arms as if to hold herself as an example. “What was I when Infiri chose me? Poor. Frail. Certainly common. If we could not rise above our station, I would still be all of those things. The Sondu are proud. They carry old traditions and would do what they believe is right by the people of the Nanten, but not all traditions lead to what is best.”

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I asked her how Salisir was going to bring them together against the Daedra if each was afraid of the other ruling. She said Salisir encouraged compromise. Ultimately, she said, the only way the Sondu would accept peace would be under the leadership of their own. The people of Yatusu could be persuaded to follow if the Sondu were shown to be capable, and as long as the Sondu agreed to promote Yatusu leadership within their government.

Sensible, but I gather that such a resolution would not be so easily reached.

In any case, the rising power of the Daedra is an obvious enough threat on its own that all can agree something needs to happen. A common enemy is a powerful motivator, and she says Salisir has been playing that up more and more. The time to strike is nigh. Motasta has mobilized an impressive number of troops, like the ones Balthandar and I saw on parade; they only wait for Oroun to concede his claim on the throne. She really wants to meet Oroun; she said she has heard of their way of living for some time and wants to see it for herself.

I asked about Nienatara, the leader of the Batsu. Inifra said Salisir is less concerned about Nienatara. All she wants is a guarantee that her people will be able to establish and rule themselves. She will pay tribute to whichever king takes the Oaken Throne, for it is not a seat she craves to sit, but she does not wish to be enveloped into their government.

Motivating the Batsu will require peace between the Sondu and the citizens of Yatusu. She also said that Salisir is hopeful that our presence will alter Nienatara’s mood. Apparently Nienatara doesn’t much like Salisir, but for some reason he believes she will like us. Why this is the case, Inifra doesn’t know. But she does know that Nienatara needs to feel confident in her allies before she will move from their jungle strongholds.

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So we are already playing into Salisir’s plan. If I had a better view of the board, I would feel more secure. As it stands, the pieces are already in motion and I have no choice for the moment but to play the pawn.

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Entry 250 – Day 375

Entry 250 – Day 375

Dionus wants to kill them all. I can see it in his eyes, the way he relishes the thought of carrying out an assassination in Matasten. It isn’t about Matasten for him right now, any more than it is about the Daedra or liberating our oppressed Nantese friends. Dionus wants revenge.

The calm in him was shaken by seeing that young man skewered in Motasta. He hasn’t been fully himself since.

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We are in agreement, however, that infiltrating Matasten would serve us well. I think that if I were to ask, he would just go do it on his own. There’s a different itch crawling the skin of my friend, one that cries for blood. Perhaps revenge is too simple to be his true motive. I think he needs the challenge.

The Batsu will be our best source of information in either case. I trust that they will know enough to gauge the likelihood of success should we approach Matasten.

Timber’s language skills are catching up to her blade. We need Inifra to translate less and less when talking to the girl, which is a blessing and a curse because her questions flow no less for the impediments of her second language. She wanted to know where I learned to fight. I told her about the Scourge, and about the many lessons that came after from all different corners of the world.

She told me she was jealous, though it took a minute or two to figure out that jealous was the word she sought. It was awkward talking about the Scourge in front of Salisir, and when she found out that Salisir had once been my teacher she insisted on a demonstration.

Not today, I told her.

Salisir watches whenever we train together. He spares few words for me, though I see that as a concession to me now, not an insult. He lets me keep my distance. I’m fine with that.

Balthandar has accepted Salisir’s presence easily enough. It’s the first time I’ve seen him lower his walls so quickly to someone for whom mine stand strong. It’s another call against my hatred of the man, the sense that I alone see him for what he is. Perhaps I see him in all the wrong ways, under lights that cast shadows only because of where I stand.

The shadows over Hembila have solidified, however. He doesn’t speak to us at all any more, though I wish his men would follow suit. Why I should care that Hembila would shut us out is beyond me, but I do. There’s something about a strong leader, a man who has earned the respect of his own people. The opinions of such men are always of considerably higher value than the rest.

This is shaping up to be a very long march to the Batsu.

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Entry 251 – Day 376

Entry 251 – Day 376

As if things weren’t tense enough, Hembila found a Bangara bed not far from our camp this morning. I let out a long string of curses under my breath when he told us. If there’s one, we have learned that there are often many. The giant reptiles are quick, lethal, and terrifyingly silent in their movement.

In fact, aside from the skulls donned by Fodafa’s guard as helms, I have yet to see one dead. We learned to run them off with fire, but that is as close to a defense as we have come. And now one stalks us. Yet again.

Part of me had hoped that they were only to be found in the outer reaches of the Nanten, and not within the Great Recess. That hope has been crushed.

Salisir seems unfazed. At least he took the news in stride, much as one might react to being told that rain was likely when it had previously been assumed merely possible. What horrors has he seen in this place to react so? After twenty years, I can only assume he has seen deeper into the depths of hell here than I can imagine.

A life spent dealing and dodging death will leave one numb – not from emptiness, but from oversensitivity. The brokenness that gradually shatters the nerves and leaves them raw forces one to withdraw over time. Better to dull all sensation then than risk feeling the burn of every passing ghost.

The longer we spend in his presence, the more I realize that I do not truly know him.

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Balthandar has a look about him that tells me he’d like another stab at one of those monsters. He was the one that figured out fire was the key to frightening them. I doubt the search for a way to kill them has been far from his mind. Balthandar doesn’t like vulnerabilities he can’t patch – I take it as a remnant of his days as a bodyguard.

I would feel safer being at the center of a larger group like this, except that I’ve seen the Bangara crash heedlessly into KoraKora amassed by the thousand.

I doubt I need to put it in writing, but we’ve stoked our fire to blaze through the night. Now to see if we can sleep in the additional heat.

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Entry 252 – Day 377

Entry 252 – Day 377

One of Hembila’s men has taken it upon himself to antagonize Dionus at every opportunity – above and beyond the petty jabs of his companions. Dionus does what he can to ignore the man, but I thought he would kill him tonight. His name is Kodara.

Two nights ago we ate what looked like a handful of roast geese, though I’m not sure what their proper name is. Dionus was eating the leg of one. Kodara pretended to trip and kicked some dirt and twigs over Dionus’ hands, spattering it with the debris. Dionus picked the meat clean, coldly watching Kodara who feigned an apology then walked away laughing.

This morning Dionus awoke to find his pack soaked in urine. We didn’t see who did it, but every time Kodara walks near us he pantomimes choking on the stink of it. We will have to wash Dionus’ pack thoroughly when we get to another creek. Inifra attempted to offer up an excuse for the incident by explaining that in many places, urine is used as a cleaning agent. She stopped when Dionus’ glower turned to her.

I was thinking about putting Kodara in his place until Dionus opened up to me tonight. “Let them laugh,” he said at last. “They’ll be behind us soon enough.”

I asked if he didn’t want revenge, at the very least to humiliate Kodara? Dionus said no. He wants to let Kodara have his joke. “Let them all have their laugh,” he said. “It proves them the fools. Playing into their games would only make it worse.”

I’m not so easily persuaded. It shocks me to see Dionus contain himself like this, especially considering all I want to do is ram my sword through Kodara’s stomach and watch him choke without the need for mimicry. Even Salisir has been put on edge by the hostilities. If I’ve seen any flicker of uncertainty in the old man’s eyes, it has come when watching to see how Dionus will react to the next affront.

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Will Dionus snap? That is the question I quietly share with Salisir. I do not know the answer. The old Dionus would have responded with his own insults at the very least, or perhaps killed these men right out. This new Dionus is changed. He has some other goal in mind when suffering these fools. I will be happy when we have left them far behind.

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Entry 253 – Day 378

Entry 253 – Day 378

One of Hembila’s men has gone missing. There is no certain explanation, but the word “Bangara” is never far from the lips of the rest. The formation around us has tightened notably yet again.

Hembila spends his time weaving through the trees to check on his men, both on the move and at camp. The grim determination on his face washes away all possibility of reading his thoughts. It was while we were on the move that his man went missing.

Hembila called for a full stop when he made the discovery. His men pulled in to make a defensible perimeter, torches burning in every other hand, and Hembila counted heads. I was surprised to see him hesitate before he gathered a small search party and made off in the direction the man had last been seen in rotation.

His men trust him, but with every passing mishap I can see the strain on him grow. Morale cannot be easy to maintain on a mission like this.

They discovered nothing during their search, but Hembila agreed with the rumors that the Bangara was to blame. There had been signs of it, he said, and nothing else. I know those signs. Fresh gashes in the bark of the trees, undergrowth stamped down in a swirling depression. I asked Hembila how they kill Bangara.

“We don’t.”

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Not the comforting words I was looking for.

“Bangara die in their own time,” he said. “Until then, it is best to avoid them.”

Unfortunately avoidance is no longer an option. I asked Balthandar if he had come up with any ideas on how to kill the Bangara. He shook his head in response. We are still two weeks from Batsu territory. We may not make it as long.

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Entry 254 – Day 379

Entry 254 – Day 379

Another of Hembila’s men has gone missing. The simple silence of their disappearance is the most unnerving part. If it were not for the weaving pattern they make through the trees, crossing paths with one another at regular intervals, we might never notice them gone. Hembila has added a nightly muster to our routine for just this reason.

The discipline in his troop shows through in their ability to continue using Hembila’s pattern to move through the jungle. It has to be unnerving to walk out among the trees, alone for minutes at a time with a Bangara in the shadows. The fact that they haven’t collapsed in upon our center to huddle for a greater sense of safety is impressive. Perhaps Hembila understands the Bangara better than he lets on.

From our limited experience, the monsters relish a crowd.

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When we were first tracked by a Bangara months ago, it stalked us much as a cat might. Unlike a cat, however, when confronted with a massive crowd of KoraKora, the Bangara barreled straight into them. The result was much like that of a fat child discovering an unprotected basket of sweets.

Grouping together is only safe at night, when we can build fires around which to sleep.

One would hope that the tensions driven by a Bangara’s presence would draw the focus of Hembila’s men, but they find their ridicule of Dionus to be the perfect distraction. I do not know how he has kept his calm.

If my journal hasn’t already illustrated this fully enough, Dionus is not just a man but a force of nature.

The story that leaked out about Dionus to make him famous was one of the few I have heard which has not been, and probably cannot be over-exaggerated: the Glass Feast. That doesn’t mean it has been told properly.

The Crown Prince of Earlshine was as famous for being a prick as he was for being a prince, which isn’t necessarily all that uncommon of princes, but he made quite the show of it. Dionus has never told me who it was that hired him to kill the prince, professional standards and all that, but he has told me that he was paid an exorbitant amount to ensure it was a noteworthy end.

Assuming that’s true, I would argue that no one has ever gotten more for their money.

The halls of Gromond, the capital of Earlshine, are the perfect example of how a ruling class can contrast their subjects. Within the eight kingdoms, I doubt there is a finer show of it. Gromond itself is a dump, a place that waste goes to dispose of its leavings. The streets are narrow and cast in a gloom not unlike that of the Nanten. The buildings are crowded and loom over the streets where they can’t press any further into one another.

The palace of Gromond is the exact opposite. Its corridors are wide and well lit, the halls and chambers tall and filled with the finest glass gold can buy. It was the glass that undid them.

The Crown Prince was to marry the daughter of Silverdale’s wealthiest landowner, second only in station there to the Crestwards. It was a marriage that would strengthen ties that Gromond hoped would help unseat the Crestwards as the High King’s scepter and bring that title north. This is where most speculations arise that it was the Crestwards who were behind the plot. I actually asked Starlark about it once, but he said his father would never be so bright as to assassinate anyone who threatened him.

There were a number of other people who wanted to see the union disrupted, if not many within the families themselves. For this reason it was probably one of the best guarded events in modern history.

The way he told it, there were seven Masters at the feast as bodyguards. Only two served the King in Gromond directly, the rest had either been hired on or loaned to him by close allies. Two Breakers, two Hydrons, a Telekenetic, and two Kinesthetic warriors of immense strength and aptitude.

These on top of a few hundred house guards put in strategic locations all around the palace, including a ring around the walls of the main hall itself. Outside, on the palace grounds, a full battalion of soldiers stood as a buffer against any assault. As if the slums of Gromond didn’t serve as buffer enough.

Dionus once told me that he took the job not for the pay, but because of the sheer challenge it presented. Timing was important, too, as he needed to ensure that the casualties inflicted would be acceptable to his client. Thus the Temple was out, as were the open streets. The feast was the best location and the last opportunity before the marriage was consummated.

He said he struck seconds after the first course was served. It would be expected, he assumed, that any assault would come after the guests were good and drunk. He preferred to attack while the guards were still settling into their watch after permitting the guests.

He told me his only regret was that he wasn’t inside to see what the glass looked like when he first struck. The windows were twenty feet tall, filled with massive unbroken panes. The entire length of the hall was dressed in them, and every single one shattered in the same instant. Dionus sent the glass shards swirling inside, then floated into the hall after them.

Unlike with the Shahn he had assassinated in the Northern Range, Dionus stayed afloat. He rose the winds around him, calling forth a tempest within the hall. He said he never drew his blades. The glass served as his weapon that day.

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The roar of the glass scraping the walls drowned out the screams and the tearing of flesh below. The room sparkled red with every flash of lightning outside. No light remained within the hall itself. They say they were never able to get the blood out of the walls.

War was only prevented because no one knew whose purse had paid the price. And Dionus certainly has never told. He did say that they built iron bars across those windows when they finally made repairs.

If these men that surround us tonight knew stories like that, I wonder if they would continue to pester Dionus like such spoiled children.

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