They came for us at nightfall.
Fear manifests itself in different ways for all of us. Some get sick to the stomach, others get weak in the knees. I feel fear in the tension of my scalp. When I get scared, the world slows down.
The world slowed to a stop last night.
The howling picked up again after nightfall. The source of it came from multiple directions and constantly shifted as if swirling slowly around us. But last night was different. I could feel it. The tension physically grew along my brow and I knew they were getting closer.
The howling built in intensity, to a storm like nothing I have ever heard. There was a violence in it. Trees in the distance creaked and groaned as if against a mighty wind. And then silence.
Every one of us had our weapons drawn. We kept our backs to the fire we had lit at dusk. It burned low. In our desperation for light we threw more wood and vines on the embers. This only caused it to sputter and smoke. I think the smoke may have been what saved us.
In that thick haze of ash and fear, the monsters attacked. They lunged from the undergrowth, reaching for us and clawing as they screamed. The smoke was what repelled them at first. Every time they breathed it in they recoiled with a hiss. They were hideous.
Like wretched, bent old men, yet covered in thick oily hair, they were unlike anything I had ever seen. They were ferocious. Even in that dim light I could see the hunger in their eyes. Each tooth in their gnashing grimace was as sharp as a dog’s. We didn’t sally forward, but rather remained within the protective shield of the smoke of our fire. It wasn’t to last, however, as in time the smoke began to clear.
The yelping and screaming grew and erupted to new heights, their frustration at this final impediment drove them to madness. Balthandar rammed his spear straight through the open mouth of one beast. Its own momentum carried it half-way up the shaft before it stopped, hatred yet gleaming in its dead eyes.
The creatures were visible up in the trees now, howling and hooting from the trunks above us. Then I heard the knocking.
I wouldn’t have noticed it if the monsters themselves hadn’t begun quieting down, but there was a distinct knocking noise coming from the north. Like a hollow stick hitting a rock to a steady rhythm. The monsters immediately dispersed in a flurry of howls and broken branches. Within moments we were surrounded by nothing save silence and trampled plants.
Moments later, as the knocking grew louder, a small man wrapped in an orange and blue sash appeared from the ferns.
“The flint on bamboo,” he said thoughtfully, as if to himself. “It drives them away, but I do not know why.”
“Who are you?” Bolton demanded of him immediately. None of us had lowered our weapons.
“I am called Bantish.” The man said with a smile. “And you, it would appear, are lost.”
Bantish is a small man, especially when compared to my companions. Among them Starlark is by far the smallest, and even he stands a head taller than the little savage. He is wrapped in a fine, brightly colored silk, with bare feet and a small staff to which his few possessions are tied at the top. They rattle as he walks, along with the wooden charms around his neck, but he moves without making a noise.
Bantish is dangerous. Of this I am certain. I have never met a man whose nerves remained so calm in the midst of the carnage we faced last night while moving unarmed. Neither have I ever met one who could move so quietly who did not have good reason to have learned.
He is darker in skin than even Balthandar. His head is clean-shaven, knobby joints protruding like the knots in his staff. His eyes are huge.
He brought us to a waypoint last night. That is the best description I can come up with for it. There is no settlement, only a few rickety lean-to’s built against rocks and an established fire pit covered with ash. It is the first sign of human settlement we have seen since Blithe.
He seemed to be taking measure of us. We were all of us on edge.
It took me the better part of the day to realize that Bantish was speaking the common tongue, but I suppose such oversights are justified in the wake of death’s near-passing.
He assured us that many within the Nanten still speak the common tongue, a lingering effect of the lucrative trade it once maintained with the rest of the world. It is hard to believe anyone could live long in such a hostile place, let alone trade. The fabled wealth of this country remains hidden from my eyes.
Bantish, however, seems to have a breadth of knowledge that will prove valuable in itself. I asked him if he had heard of an Imperial named Brin Salisir, and he nodded solemnly.
The name, he said, carried weight in the land. That says something in a place with so little inherited memory. I asked Bantish where we could find Salisir.
He said he didn’t know anything beyond rumors, and asked why we were seeking him.
I explained my mission to him, to find Salisir and obtain proof that he had completed his goal of unseating the Daedric Prince. If that hadn’t happened, I was to do it myself. Bantish just shook his head.
“Of princes there are none left in this place, save for those who fashion themselves into such and claim rights that none have bestowed upon them. Great violence ravages this jungle, from north to south and east to west, there is no safe place within its borders. Yours is an impossible task.”
I told him that supplies and direction to Matasten would suffice. With those we would be on our way, but he refused. He told us that such things were not to be given freely within the Nanten, and that the currency for it would be our aid.
This is not what I expected to hear, so I swallowed my indignation and asked what help he needed.
“There is a menace in these parts of the Nanten, the briefest encounter with which you have come into contact. It savages my people, and keeps us from building lives for ourselves. You must save my people from this danger, and in payment I will put you on the path to Matasten with whatever supplies you require.”
Bolton almost killed him on the spot in a rage. Starlark suggested his lips might loosen with a blade under the ribs. It was almost nice to see them agree on something for once.
“This is the price you will pay,” Bantish said without the slightest sign of trepidation. “No threats will open my mouth, and no torture will open my stores. How else will you survive? You know not where to go, nor where to find food. You don’t even know what horrors roam this jungle, and yet you crash heedlessly through it. I know all of these things and more. Serve my people, and I will serve you.”
Dionus stood before Starlark or Bolton could respond and reprimanded them. He told them they were no longer slavers or thieves, but in the service of a greater calling. And he made a painfully accurate point: we were in no position to proceed on our own without help.
I was forced to agree.
Thus Bantish, a name that has been so mysteriously impressed upon me, has pressed us into his service. If we survive, I expect exactly the aid that we need. We have nothing to lose. I should not begrudge his guile considering his need, but I cannot help myself. I do not want to face those howling creatures again.
There was such hatred in their eyes… an evil resides within them that I do not understand. It leaves me shaken to be so ignorant to these things. I can’t share these fears with anyone but this journal. I never thought I would be so grateful to be able to do just that.
I’ve seen poverty before, but nothing like this. Bantish has brought us into his meager village, although such a title seems generous for where he lives. There are huts made of vines and clay that stand well-hidden within the thick undergrowth, and little else. This appears to be the only defense they have: to hide.
The people have nothing, barely enough cloth with which to cover their shame. There are rudimentary tools available to them. Surprisingly they have iron even though I have yet to see steel. They bind it to pieces of bamboo to make spades and other utensils. What small gardens they have grow plentifully enough, so at least they are not starving.
Most speak in a tongue I have never heard. Even Balthandar, who has traveled more broadly than any of us, holds no recollection of such speech. It is punctuated with very distinct consonants, but still slurs together in my ears.
The women appear to be every bit as strong in presence as the men. They direct whatever work unfolds before them, and even partake in some of the heavier lifting. Everyone who is able to work is expected to. This is probably the most respectable aspect of these people as far as I have seen.
Bantish bid us rest a night, and although I begrudge him withholding his help at least he gives us time to recuperate. I doubt I’ve ever felt as tired as I do right now, lying on my mat writing these words. The last week of travel through this jungle has made me ache to my bones.
In some strange way it makes me smile. I welcome a new challenge – I haven’t had a good one in a long time.
Journaling like this has been cathartic – and my sketches give me some small glimmer of joy. It takes me back to more certain times, allowing the flow of the pen to carry itself across the page. It is strange how you can find nostalgic peace couched in the crux of exhaustion. How moments of peace spring upon you in the midst of constant danger.
Tomorrow we set out directly east. Bantish says that’s where the heart of this menace will be found. They’re some form of ape, although he claims that there has never been such a ferocious breed in all his years. Something darker is afoot in the jungles near Bantish’s village. Something that seeks to undo him, and anyone else who would enter this territory.
We have no choice but to seek it out and kill it for him. If this is what I must do to move closer to my goal of finding Salisir, so be it.
I wouldn’t have thought it possible for the jungle to get any thicker, but as we move east that is exactly what it does. Bantish brought us a few miles along until he found a particular creek. He told us to follow it, and then disappeared back the way we had come.
A few minutes of cursing his existence passed between my companions before we moved on. One can only delay so long before courage must win out or fail completely.
Our movements are slow, cumbersome. It is painfully pronounced to me now that I have seen the grace that someone like Bantish can exude gliding through these same obstacles. Vines, roots, none of it impedes his movement or slows him down.
When he was leading us he spent as much time waiting for us as he did moving forward.
All he gave us were two sets of flint stones and bamboo, carved with intricate runes he swore would protect us. He said we would know when we were drawing close – that he had once ventured east until the waters ran black and the trees grew sick. He said that once we are in such territory, the power of the flint and bamboo will decrease dramatically.
He said that in that territory the dark magic was too powerful for his own. This brings me no comfort. Bantish exudes veiled power.
But what is one suicidal mission traded for another? And if we should die, we might as well do it while accomplishing something. This is far better than wandering aimlessly through the trees, hoping to find some new clue. I am itching for a fight, as are my companions. And now that we have one to focus on, there is no more bickering among us.
We have found our next step. Now all that remains is to take it.
I would never have believed water could run black. It is the strangest thing, as downstream the water appears clean and is safe to drink. However there is a cloudiness that appeared steadily as we followed the creek, like the outer reaches of smoke dissipating into the sky. It gets thicker and the water grows darker with every passing hour.
It reminds me of the mist created when magic is in heavy use.
The water itself gets no more viscous, there is no property that changes save its color. I only hope the supply we carry with us is enough to get us through because I will not be drinking from this creek. Unfortunately the leeches don’t seem to share our distaste for such waters. Pulling them off makes for the low point of too many evenings.
We must be crossing into the territory Bantish has sent us to, and yet there is no sign of the menace we hunt. The trees do appear sickly. The farther we go, the more of them we spot weeping a dark green substance. Some is so dark it appears black. Starlark sniffed at one of the afflicted trunks, his knees buckled and he coughed for the better part of an hour.
Needless to say, we now give such trees a wide birth.
What wildlife we had grown accustomed to seeing, mostly birds and small lizards, have disappeared completely. It leaves my stomach unsettled, for where animals vacate is rarely a place one wants to visit.
The scent of the dead lingers in the air, something apart from the rotting trees and blackened water. I’m accustomed to it, which is why I knew it before I realized what I was smelling. Somewhere in this jungle there is an accumulation of death, and I fear we are walking straight towards it.
The monsters came for us last night. Not minutes after I laid my pen down did the howling pick up in the distance. It swirled around us as before, but with even greater ferocity and speed. There was no pretense, no attempt to scout us out before attacking us, they simply flooded our campground.
They are indeed some form of ape, but with greater jaws than I have seen in the drawings of the almanacs.
Starlark saw them coming first. He put an arrow in the eye of two before any of us had seen one. Bolton kicked the pile of leaves we’d collected onto the fire to create smoke, and the fighting immediately began in earnest.
They were still repelled by the smoke, but its strength as a defense was greatly diminished. Starlark began calling out directions as the monsters came in quick waves, striking first from the south and then the west. They continued to clash with us in groups of ten, until suddenly they came from every direction at once.
Within moments we were pressed into each other, striking out from our small cluster with a ferocity that matched that of the monsters. Dionus raised a quick whip of the wind, slashing down this first full wave, and yet more came on their heels. They pressed in upon us until I thought we would surely break. And then Bolton struck the bamboo with the flint.
The noise gave the monsters a moment’s pause, as if struck dumb by some unforeseen force. Their ferocity returned quickly, and they pressed in again until Bolton struck the bamboo once more. This time, while the monsters were still dumbstruck, Dionus let loose with a series of explosive blows from the wind.
The monsters were thrown into disarray, many killed by impacts with the surrounding trees and hidden stones. The suddenness of the assault, combined with their inability to understand what caused it, drove the beasts to flee. At least as far as I can guess. Bantish was right, the power of the bamboo is soon to be lost to us. The next time they attack, I doubt it will be of any use.
Just a short distance away from our camp site I found our first real clue. On one of the trees I found a carving of a swirling arrow, a symbol I know all too well.
Somewhere ahead of us there are Mentalists.
The trees aren’t just dying, they’re killing everything around them. Whatever this substance is that they’re weeping is toxic. After Starlark’s encounter with it the other day we have kept clear of them, but that is becoming impossible. Walking within feet of any open sore leaves us light-headed or coughing.
We’ve found animals dead at their base. We’ve stumbled across birds, lizards, even a massive wild cat. All of them appear to have choked to death on these fumes.
The carvings on the trees are growing more regular. Keys and swirling arrows are abundant, along with other less-common Mentalist symbols with which I am unfamiliar. The dark substance is always seeping out from these scars.
Our progress has slowed even more as we move with greater caution. This area is unnaturally silent. Everything is dead or dying, trapped in a state of living decay.
I hate Mentalists. It’s a wonder that they haven’t been exterminated. If it were up to me they would be just below Daedra as a priority for just that.
I’ve only encountered a few in my life that I know of. Their tricks have always been difficult to detect. I don’t know if you have ever encountered a Mentalist in your young life, but they are vile. They exploit the weakness in any mind and use it to their own ends. They are villains, without exception.
Mentalists create illusions from which no one can escape. They manipulate perceptions, and tug on the unseen strings tied to the volition of men. They are thieves, con-men, and swindlers. And it would seem that somehow they have become the masters of these horrifying monsters.
Whatever they are doing to these trees appears just as dangerous. Finding wood that we can burn is becoming a challenge, so we will sleep in the dark tonight. This seems wise in any case, for we do not know what lurks in the silence and stalks us.
I am actually scared of night’s advance. I do not know what it will bring, or if we will wake to some horrifying hallucination. My stomach twists in upon itself as it burns with anxiety. I put on a stern face, but I do not have the spirit to match it tonight.
I have stepped back into the wars of my past, across time and distance…
I hope I am blessed with a dreamless sleep. I do not want to relive the past on the verge of creating yet more nightmares.