Entry 269 – Day 397

Entry 269 – Day 397

Wudan managed to find himself a Sympathetic Healer, or at least the old man sensed Wudan’s call. What we couldn’t understand in Wudan’s searching was clear enough to him, and he appeared today as if summoned. He was frail, and older than anyone I have seen within the reaches of the Nanten. His appearance might be a function of his Expression, but I think he truly was old.

With him was his granddaughter, a homely young woman who carried his affects. He entered our small camp quietly, and though he was a stranger to us, no one moved to stop him. Where he had come from, or how he had lived in the shadow of Matasten for so long remains a mystery.

Together, the old man and his granddaughter moved to Wudan’s side. The man placed his hands on Wudan’s arm.

“He is dying,” Salisir translated. “This boy is of great strength. More than I have ever felt in this place.”

Balthandar asked if he could save Wudan. The man nodded solemnly.

Entry-269-Quote-Sympathetic

“This is why I am here. You have to promise me, promise to see my granddaughter home. Promise to see for yourselves the plague that has stricken the Nanten, and then cut it out.” He looked right at me as he said it, his gaze unbroken until Salisir had finished translating.

I promised him we would.

He nodded slowly, sadly, then stood and embraced his granddaughter. She began crying, though I didn’t yet understand why. And then, as he released her and turned to Wudan again, I understood. The age, his frailty, no matter how strong he was in power, his body would not survive this.

There was a part of me that wanted to reach out to him. To offer him a way out. But if Wudan was to live, there was no other way, and this man had clearly lived a long life. He knew what he was doing, though what end he saw none of us yet know.

He put his hands on Wudan’s forearms, resting his weight over the silent figure of the boy, and then began to hum. The tune was deep, slow, and pensive. The Healer began to shake as he pulled the damage from Wudan’s body and spread it into his own. He clutched Wudan harder, the tune strained but unbroken. Balthandar moved to hold him up, but his granddaughter put a hand out to stop him.

Entry-269-Healing-Wudan

I’ve never seen a Sympathetic Healer work so quickly. Within moments he had pulled enough of Wudan’s ailment from him that the boy awoke. He remained still, eyes staring at the canopy until the tune cracked. The old man fell on Wudan, notes drifting from his dried lips in weakened fragments. Then suddenly he shuddered and breathed his last.

His granddaughter let out a long wail, then pulled her grandfather into her own lap and cradled him until the life was gone from him.

None of us said anything, even as Balthandar moved to check on Wudan. Finally the girl spoke up and Inifra translated. “This boy must live. He must grow into the man he is destined. My grandfather knew this, and for that reason he gave his life.”

Wudan didn’t speak at all, but was able to eat a little and drink. Neither Balthandar nor Inifra have left him unattended all evening. We buried the Healer under the roots of one of the trees to our south, then sat with his granddaughter as she mourned. How much sadness we encounter in the Nanten. How much of it we cause.

She recovered after a few hours, her grandfather’s death an expected thing for her now. She said she was happy he had been able to give his life for something good in the end. I only hope it proves so worthy. Her name is Nodora.

The final shock came to us as I remembered my promise. I asked her where she was from, where did we need to escort her safely?

Matasten.

Impossible, Hembila said. We couldn’t have gone so far north. But we had, she said. We were only three days from the city. We have covered three times as much territory underground than we would have above. Her grandfather’s hiding place was only a day north. It was from there they had come. Upon reflection, this made sense. Even our slowed pace in the darkness of the tunnel was quicker than any race through the jungle. Wudan’s call came in the middle of Nodora’s visit to supply the old man with what few things he needed in his exile.

In his exile. I am not alone in this world, though my peers seem to be dropping dead with disquieting frequency.

Now we are to take her to Matasten. The debate hasn’t stopped raging since we discovered this, but I do not want to let convenience or my own safety rule the day any longer. Dionus and I wanted to get a view of Matasten in any case – what better opportunity will we have than this? Perhaps it is brash, but I plan to leave at first light. Salisir can’t stop me in this place. His blessing offers no more protection from the Daedra here than a straw helmet.

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Entry 270 – Day 398

Entry 270 – Day 398

Hembila argued against taking Nodora north until she promised to show us another tunnel along the way. This one makes due east and should get us to the Batsu in a matter of days. It has guards, but not many as it a jealously guarded secret. We asked her how she knew of its existence if that information was kept so closely. She said her grandfather hadn’t idled away his years in hiding.

It is difficult for me to resist the temptation to see Matasten in person. Wudan can’t move far in any case. Though his body has recovered well, he remains disturbed by the Healer’s sacrifice to save him. Even with Nodora’s insistence that it was a good end of a long life, I think Wudan has had his first unwanted jolt towards maturity.

Kodara was sent into the tunnel to bring the rest of Hembila’s remaining men north with the baggage. While Balthandar, Inifra, Timber, and Hembila’s two remaining men stay behind to guard Wudan, Hembila himself has joined Dionus, Salisir, and me in our trek to Matasten. I think his motivation is a mixture of his sense of responsibility for us as our escort and curiosity of what lies behind the Daedric veil.

This territory is hillier and more broken up than we are used to. Nodora’s experience in moving undetected through it was evidenced immediately in how she led us. She knows the lowest point in every draw and the safest routes around each village. She says the villages look abandoned, but they are not.

Hembila asked how she lived in Matasten if the darkness ruled. Salisir translated her responses for Dionus and me.

“The smallest fern’s leaves are eaten last. If we keep to our business and do not speak up, we are ignored.”

Entry-270-Quote-Matasten

The more she explained life in Matasten to us, the more normal it sounded. Though the stress of living under the Daedra was present in everything she said, it sounded much like life lived in any other warzone. Business was able to continue much as normal. Though taxes were high and access to goods and supplies low, she said they were not starving.

“It is the ritual that you must beware,” she said. “We try to remain invisible so that we are not chosen. When I was a girl, no one from Matasten was ever chosen. Now many are.”

Hembila asked to what ritual she referred, but she struggled to define it any further. “The ritual,” was all she could say, as if that alone stood as sufficient definition. I have a sinking feeling I know what she’s talking about, though I fear the scale to which a Daedric society might take it.

Dionus asked when these rituals were carried out. “When the Dark Prince demands it.”

The way she talked made all of it sound quite matter-of-fact. She has never known anything different. Salisir asked her if the gates were barred and she said no. I asked him why he asked, never having thought he would have seen the city himself.

“The gates of Matasten are famous,” Salisir said. “Matasten is the only city in all of the Nanten with a true wall. It’s built behind a solid ring of trees, and the gates are taller than any other you will ever see.”

“As tall as the trees?” Dionus asked.

Salisir laughed. “Not that tall, but when you’re standing under them it sure feels like it.”

Hembila objected to the idea of entering Matasten outright. Better to see it from a safer distance than be caught within the city itself. I would agree, but I want to see the inner workings of this society so badly. My emotions on the matter are unsettled. While the concept of a mature society raises great fears in me and drives me to anger, I have long moments of uninterrupted curiosity.

We will be there soon enough; it all seems so surreal. We are only two days away from answers I may soon wish I had never discovered.

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Entry 271 – Day 399

Entry 271 – Day 399

My coaching is paying off; Dionus has been able to still his touch on the Atmosphere completely. It leaves him blind; his anxiety over the matter is visible whenever we stop to rest. It is necessary though. While his skill in sensing danger as it approaches is invaluable, calling a Daedric horde down on us is the last thing we need right now.

I asked Salisir if there was anything he could teach me when we stopped for the night. I want to pry every SwordSkill from his hands if it kills me. He said it was foolish to use any form of magic so close to Matasten. I handed him a stick. Thankfully, he laughed.

“Fine,” he said. “We don’t have time to heal out here, and that old man was the last Sympathetic Healer you’ll see within the reaches of the Nanten, so I’ll teach you how to steal some for yourself.”

DrawnLife, he called it. The motions were similar to PiercePunch, but distinctly different in the details. The final motion requires that I draw the tip of the blade from my intended target towards myself. He says it will transfer health from my opponent, though it isn’t lethal. I asked him where he could learn such a skill, it seems horrific to me.

“It’s what all the Blood skills are derived from.” He looked at me as if I should know precisely what he was speaking of. Then with an expression that said he had revealed too much, he shook his head and muttered a “Never mind.”

Does he mean there is an entire expression dedicated to stealing life from others? I’ve never heard of such a thing. Terrible as it sounds, I imagine I would have. Perhaps it has yet to be formalized into an expression, but it sounds like it would counterbalance Sympathetic Healing, the ability to give one’s health to another in exchange for any malady. Gods but I hope we don’t run into that in the Nanten.

Entry-271-Quote-DrawnLife

I know the motions to do it myself now. What would it feel like to take life from another man and use it to bolster my own? Even in the midst of battle, would such a thing be right to do? It seems despicable, and I can’t help but feel as though its ties are strong to the Daedra. Their obsession with blood has left innumerable scars on the world.

The jungle feels thicker here where hills rise sharply on our flanks. The foliage along the slopes towers over us much as the trees do, and I feel all the smaller for it. Tomorrow evening should put us within striking distance of Matasten. I am more anxious to get this over with than anything.

The closer we draw to the seat of the Arbor King, the more I can feel his presence. Perhaps it is the presence of the society as a whole. It doesn’t help that I can smell death on the breeze. Matasten must be stained with the stench.

We may do our best not to touch the Atmosphere as we move, but that does not mean it doesn’t touch us. I do not like whatever taints it in this place. We march straight into the maws of an evil beast, and we do so with our arms held down at our sides.

Entry-271-Awakening

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Entry 272 – Day 400

Entry 272 – Day 400

Tomorrow we will creep within sight of Matasten to decide our course of action. Nodora has done an amazing job of keeping us from sight these last few days. Her knowledge of the area was something required for survival, she told us. Having a family with magic in their blood didn’t just endanger their lives, but hers as well. It was a secret that must be kept or she would be chosen.

Chosen. Not a word I have heard, but one I would certainly put to the process. The Daedra do choose their victims, but Nodora makes it sound like an honor for how little she desires it. An honor to be sacrificed; that puts a new spin on it.

Daedric Slicks are terrible places. They reek. The only thing that keeps the rot out is the fresh blood that flows every night to cover and wash away the old. I’m sure you can imagine how ineffective this is over any period of time. The stench of death thickens as all manner of disease and filth accumulate, and still they practice their arts unceasingly.

The Daedra believe that to build upon the residual layers of blood is to bring good fortune to their rituals. They believe the closer death is kept at all times, the more likely it will open the necessary gateways for ascension. Perhaps this is true. If it is, Matasten must be ripe for such an occasion. I could smell it for the last two days.

One never forgets the smell of a Daedric Slick. One never wants to smell it again.

Entry-272-Quote-Slick

I wish I could say they smell sweeter when you burn them, but I would be lying. The stench can sour the satisfaction.

The smell is not the greatest repellant right now, however. There is a sense that we are walking into a tangled hopelessness, a darkness of mood has settled in us as a shadow spreads over our minds. I see why they call it the darkness. Every step north intensifies the oppression that laces the air. Even the gloom of the Nanten has deepened. I hope I’m only imagining it, but I know I am not. I can see its effect on my companions.

Only Salisir and I have seen Slicks. I’m not certain we will see any tomorrow, but I am less certain how the others will handle it if we do.

We are all of us nervous tonight. Our conversation has dwindled to a minimum. Dionus sits with his back to a tree, flexing his hand in a fist and then spreading his fingers as wide as he can. Hembila chews on a root as he stares off into the distance, forgetful that his mouth is even occupied. Salisir has been polishing his sword for far longer than necessary, and Nodora has been obsessing over one of her braids for as long.

It’s on nights like tonight that I am grateful for my journals. If it wasn’t for the distraction of these pages, and the ability to think in private on paper, I don’t doubt my own sanity would have frayed in these past few months.

After Nodora shows us the safest route to the hills outside of Matasten, she will leave us to return home. She says we do not need to accompany her over the river to the island on which it sits, and for that I am secretly grateful. The closer we draw to Matasten, the farther from it I wish we were.

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Entry 273 – Day 401

Entry 273 – Day 401

They once called Matasten the Sapphire City. That was before it glistened ruby red. I don’t know that such a place can truly be saved. The Daedric Prince is real. Rumors be damned; the Daedric Prince is real.

The spires and towers of Matasten are incredible, soaring so high they can be seen well above the trees that surround the city. They are again different than any structure I have ever seen, with columns and colonnades running their entire height and jutting out at odd angles as if to leap from their own heights. From a distance it is impossible to gain a full sense of scale, but I have never seen anything so tall in my life. I think they may even be taller than the Crystal Spires.

Nodora got us safely to a hilltop overlooking the bridge to the island upon which Matasten sits. It was there that we saw him in full parade.

There is a small village on the near side of the river and the far side is covered in low buildings that disappear into the trees, but the sheer volume of people that came to watch the procession was enough to guess they had come from Matasten.

The side streets and roofs lining the banks of the river were choked with people. At first we thought there must be a market on, but Nodora told us it was a river ritual. Usually, she said, the rituals were carried out at the foot of the palace walls. Today the Prince wanted to bless the river. Today he wanted Matasten surrounded by his power.

Entry-273-Quote-Daedric-Prince

I could never have imagined the scale of it. The drums. The drums lined the main thoroughfare from deep within the far jungle, down to the bridge, and across. The depth of their resonance carried in my bones as they rumbled in time. Then the people began to chant. All of them, in unison, as if they had done this a thousand times. They knew the songs. The songs of the Daedra. Songs I had only heard in passing whisper; tunes I could only recall upon hearing them. Everything in me wanted to run.

Dozens of carts were wheeled down towards the river from Matasten. Dozens. Three prisoners stood in each cart, tied with their backs to three posts. Expressionists and their families. Around them danced Daedric Priests. Over a hundred Daedric Priests.

Each was dressed in the Nantese version of the ritual garb. Long cords and strings tied and dangling over tall horns and broad shoulders, obscuring the size and shape of the priest beneath. Arms up and out, flailing, their dance carried one unified motion. Each was outlined in bright red feathers, and on their wrists were fastened long blades that ran two feet from their fists.

The carts drew closer, pulling onto the bridge and stopping until the entire surface was covered in two long columns of writhing prisoners. Behind them came the Prince.

The Daedra danced. Their chanting grew louder, then the Priests began to shriek with the tempo of the song. And he was there. Carried on a platform of his own, the Prince emerged from the distant trees wearing the mightiest set of armor I have ever seen. It took fifty men to carry him. As he drew near, the crowd’s chanting grew to a fervor that shook the boughs of the forest.

The bearers lowered the platform ten yards from the bridge and he danced down the steps and out over the river along the bridge. He moved as though the metal he wore weighed no more than the feathers of his priests, and in it he must have been at least nine feet tall. He danced between the carts, his deep booming voice clear even among the shrieks and the chants.

Entry-273-Daedric-Prince-is-Real

Then he was on another platform, one at the center of the bridge I hadn’t noticed before. He raised his arms, and though he spoke in Nantese I needed no translator to know the words: “Children of the Night, in this hour these lives are forfeit. I come for your souls.”

And there were children. Dressed in feathers and bright red bands of cloth, they rushed from the village and far shore carrying large wooden bowls. I’ve heard that call to sacrifice a dozen times. I never imagined they would really use children in the ceremony.

The amassed priests danced even harder; their arms rotated out, dipping to the ground and back to the sky as they spun and howled. Then the drums pulsed, the crowds shrieked in time, and the Priests plunged their blades into the prisoners to punctuate the rhythm. Again and again, the Preists drove the blades deep into their standing victims until the blood was flowing.

Each cart was designed to catch and direct it into gutters that poured over the sides. The children caught the blood in bowls, and as each bowl filled they ran with it to the central platform.

Four priests there took the bowls and, in a constant rotation, dumped the contents over the head of the Prince as he danced on the platform. I heard him laugh; I heard him roar. The blood flowed into gutters along the platform’s edge, then out from the corners and over the edge of the bridge. The river turned red within minutes.

Then the Prince turned and pointed at the carts closest to us. Instantly they burst into flames. He continued dancing, pointing at carts seemingly at random, and each time they burst into flames. The execution ground became a funeral pyre.

The priests fled the bridge just in time, but the Prince remained in the center as the inferno grew around him. The flames looked to consume him, burning up the platform upon which he stood, but minutes later he emerged from the smoke and fire untouched.

We could no longer hear him over the roar of the flames, but I knew he would preach for some time. We moved lower down the hill until the heat and noise were blocked from us. None of us said a word. I didn’t realize until that moment just how badly I was shaking. From fear. Anger. The sheer horror of what we had witnessed.

Finally Nodora told us she needed to go. She had family in the village on the near side of the river. They would care for her until the bridge was passable again. She reminded us of the path we took and where to find the tunnel east; Hembila told her we would have no trouble finding our way. We said some small goodbyes and watched her leave. How can she walk towards such a hell with such calm? Things like that should not be considered normal.

We moved away from the burning river in silence. We didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves but, more than that, we didn’t have any words left to us. If any of my companions held any doubts over the threat of the Daedra, they are lost to them now. We face the single greatest evil of our time and we have yet to unify the forces necessary to do so.

Let us pray that the Nantese can be brought to reason, and quickly, or all is lost.

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Entry 274 – Day 402

Entry 274 – Day 402

Hembila drew us all together tonight; he wanted to talk about what we had seen. We marched in silence through the day, sticking to the low points and hidden paths that Nodora showed us on our way north. It was good to speak in the light of our small fire.

He had known the Darkness to be a threat, he said, but never a threat like this. What we saw yesterday was enough to convince him that whatever compromise needed to be reached, it must, for the sake of all their people.

Salisir asked him what he thought Fodafa would say to that. Hembila said it would not be easy, but Fodafa must be made to listen. Whatever that took, Hembila was willing to help. The reluctance was still there, but I could see his fear of the Daedra winning out over his distrust of Salisir. The Darkness, he said, must be stopped.

Salisir asked if he would agree to the terms of the Yatusu and Batsu? Appoint Yatusu leaders to key positions in the government, and allow the Batsu to form a principality in the east. Hembila nodded slowly.

“Yes,” he said. “I would do such things if I were king. They are small prices to pay, and if the Yatusu are as successful as their reputation holds, then it would be foolish not to give them the appropriate offices to maintain. But my brother, he will not see it so easily.”

“Come with me then,” Salisir said. “Come see the Yatusu for yourself, see that they are noble and wise. Then perhaps your brother will come to see reason if you vouch for their leaders.”

Hembila thought on that for a moment before agreeing. “My brother will expect me back sooner.”

“I have messengers waiting for us with Nienatara,” Salisir said. “I’ll send them on to let your brother know you’re continuing with us, and to plead for him to mobilize his troops. You can see our time grows short. With displays of power like that, it’s only a matter of time before things escalate beyond our ability to contend.”

“I can see that,” Hembila agreed. “But how will you get the rest to mobilize?”

“We will have to tell them what they want to hear.” Salisir’s eyes never broke contact with Hembila’s. “You will have to tell them what they want to hear, Hembila.”

After a long breathless pause, Hembila slowly nodded again. Salisir’s plan has hinged on this man lying for him, making promises he cannot keep, and I’m afraid it may truly be the only way. I wonder if Hembila would ever have agreed to this without seeing the blood rituals over the Nanten River. How convoluted are Salisir’s plans? They cannot be riding such a thin edge as this. What if Hembila had never joined us as our escort?

Entry-274-Quote-Salisir's-Plans

Dionus brought up the fact that Wudan would make an ultimate sacrifice, of sorts. He asked what would happen if that came to pass. Salisir simply said “Chaos.”

I told Dionus that the Tetrarch teach if a Prince or Daemon can sacrifice enough Pures, or just the right one, it can ascend into something akin to the Dread Gods of old. As powerful as Infiri, and not hindered by the limitations of the flesh that Inifra brings to her incarnation. I told him I had read such things but never believed them. Before yesterday, I had only read of parade sacrifices and never believed them possible either.

Wudan aside, I said, we don’t know how close this Prince is to unlocking his own ascension or that of his master. It could be weeks, it could be hours. All I saw yesterday amounted to my worst nightmares manifesting in broad daylight. If we don’t move against the Daedra soon, we may never again have the strength.

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