Our ferryman, Tarsh, sways between moments bordering on utter madness and others marked by clear lucidity. This worries me. If he were to turn on us, or sell us out to some unknown ally across the sea, our journey could end here.
It is in the mad moments that he mumbles the name, Bantish.
I have asked him many times now for a name or a place where we could find traders that could guide us into the Nanten. He never responded until last night, and now the name is rarely far from his lips.
I don’t know who this Bantish is, if it is a name that even belongs to a person, friend or foe. Perhaps he is thinking of some forlorn trading post or faded memory. But it sticks with me now too, as if this name on its own will act as the key to the Nanten for which I have been searching.
There is power in it. Even from the lips of a muttering fool.
Bolton hasn’t stopped watching Tarsh since. He’s as suspicious of the old man now as the old man seemed to be of us from the start. I can’t blame him, every passing moment on this barge leaves me increasingly distrustful of Tarsh as well. At least Bolton has stopped harassing Starlark for the time being.
Slad Bolton is by far the least likely member of my patchwork crew. He has hated me for so long I was surprised to find that his honor could outweigh his spite. Almost as surprising as the idea that he had honor in the first place.
Bolton is a slaver from the Great Wastes, one who once swore to kill me. I suppose saving his life turned the debt in my favor.
When I sent out to the men who owed me, he was the last I expected to respond. His disposition towards me has never been kind, and he has tried to kill me more than once. But how can I refuse his help, especially now when my position is most dire?
As long as he does not try to kill Tarsh while we rely on his service, or Starlark, who is like a brother to me, I can put up with his bile.
The surface of the water passes steadily under the broken edges of the barge, marking the advance of our progress in spite of the never-changing nature of our surroundings. The thought of what’s to come makes me anxious. My chest constricts. Nearing the Nanten feels like approaching a wall. Knowing I must pass through it somehow or press into it and be crushed. I see no way over it, nor around it, and there is no slowing its approach.
The Blight Sea itself is as dead as its surface is calm. The perfect contrast to the thriving jungle it leads us to. There are no fish that probe its depths. At least, what lives in this sea you would not recognize as fish should you see them.
Tarsh seemed to find his lucidity once we took to the water. I trust him no more for it. He eyes our gear constantly, licking his lips unconsciously as he is carried off to distant dreams.
He is weathered and gnarled from age and exposure. It’s hard to distinguish him from the wood he hammered into a barge. This thing is little more than a floating platform, ten paces across in either direction. The aft port quarter is covered by an overhang of dried palm branches, but aside from this there is no shelter on board.
The sail holds the wind well enough, in spite of the numerous holes and tears that cover its surface. Tarsh just stands at the rudder, day and night. His mumbling has gotten clearer, but he still stares at us like we’re hiding food under our clothes.
He has ferried others across the sea to the shores of Nanten, he told us, but none of them ever come back. Whether that’s a veiled threat or a warning, I’m still uncertain.
He still won’t speak of Salisir, no matter how we ask.
He did tell us a story I had never heard before. The Blight Sea, he said during one of his more lucid moments, had not always been so large. Nor had it always been devoid of life. I thought it worth noting:
“Once,” he said, “There was a tribe that lived near the center of where this sea now sits. A poor tribe, dyin’ of thirst in the grasslands that once bordered the Nanten and rested between the two great mountain ranges. Well they prayed, and they prayed, and as things got desperate, Infiri heard their pleas.”
Infiri is the name of the local water goddess, he told us. Some variation on the Dread Gods of old, but one that he claimed is very much alive today.
“She told the chief of this tribe, ‘I will give you my water, precious as it is in dry places. But you must never tell anyone of its whereabouts. Keep it a safe secret amongst only yourselves.’
“The tribe swore to keep the secret close, and gave Infiri their fealty with joy. So Infiri drew a lake up out of the tribe’s withered well, and left them with a great supply of fish to eat as well as water to drink. Time went on, and the grasslands tribe flourished along with the landscape. Until one day an Imperial trader came along.
“’Tell me,’ says he. ‘Where do you get your water? We wish to establish trade with the Nanten, and need a place to refill our casks along this route.’
“’Not here,’ says the tribesmen. ‘We have no source that could satisfy your thirst.’ And so the Imperials moved along, but not with any lack of suspicion. There was a lushness to this tribe’s territory, and a bounty of game. They knew there was water, and they bided their time.”
Our ferryman burst into song at this point. As dry and crackled as the skin on his hands, and obscenely loud for the silence of our surroundings. I didn’t understand a word of it. It made me uncomfortable.
“One of those tribesmen,” he said after he had stopped singing. “He got greedy. And as the traders came by with their furs and their spices, well, he had to have some for himself.”
As best I understood what followed, the tribesman gave the location of the lake to the traders at an exorbitant price, but they couldn’t find it on their own. Some enchantment of Infiri’s kept it hidden from outsiders. And so the tribesman had to show them the way himself. It didn’t take long for the traders to sully the pristine lake, between their pack animals and camp followers they did their damage quickly. Then Infiri showed up.
“That goddess…” Tarsh, our ferryman-turned-storyteller, let out a long whistle. It dropped an octave as he shook his head. “Don’t scorn a woman, that’s what me mum always taught me. It should follow for the man of thought that you never scorn a woman who’s a god too. Terrible idea.”
Infiri was furious that the tribesman had broken his promise. She boiled the waters in an instant, killing everything in them, then opened fissures in the earth. Water erupted from most, and salt came spouting from the rest. The entire valley was flooded faster than anyone could escape.
“Them traders, they tried to run. Didn’t make it far. Nor did that traitorous tribesman. Scalding salt water destroyed the entire region. When it settled, well, you’re floatin’ on it now.”
When I asked him if he believed the story he just shook his head. “Apt story for the Nanten though. A warning they should’ve heeded.” I asked him what he meant.
“The jungle’s always been fierce and treacherous territory. That won’t ever change. But people used to live there peaceful-like. They warred to be sure, still human as any of us. But it weren’t so different from other parts of the world you’ve seen. When the Imperials came they brought more than trade. They brought their greed.
“That jungle there,” he pointed to the rising darkness on the horizon. “It don’t take well to greed. It turned on those people, and it never relented. As for Infiri, she hates Imperials to this day. Her beauty is famed, no man can resist her. The difference between her and any other witch you’ve heard of is that she don’t seduce. She just kills.”
Perhaps that’s where my dread comes from as the waters continue to flow past. A jungle that has already rejected my kind. That has turned on its own with ruthless impunity. And gods whose vengeance has yet to be slated.
Perhaps that’s why, for the first time in my life, I wish I could turn back rather than move ahead.
I killed an innocent once. It’s funny, the things that never leave you. The ghosts that hover ever present.
I killed him purely by accident. He ran into the road before my horse as I was chasing down a Daedric priest. He was young. Probably ten or eleven summers old, if that. He was frail. The snapping sound when my horse struck him stands out most in my mind.
I remember it more clearly than I remember anything I have ever done. I didn’t stop, I couldn’t. This was the first mission I had ever led. I couldn’t fail for anything. We were down some overgrown trail on the chase. I had been hunting this priest for weeks, and now I had him.
I don’t know what that boy was doing so far from his village. I suppose now I never will. I barely remember catching the priest.
It wasn’t until we rode back that I saw his body. It was broken, though there wasn’t much blood. Not really. Though when you’ve seen Daedric slicks, no quantity of blood shocks you anymore.
It’s funny the things that stick with you. The details you never think to notice.
He had knobby knees. Small thumbs. His face was one massive bruise. Flies already crawled in and along his mouth even though it had only been an hour. I felt sick.
I’ve never felt such shame in my life. My brothers reminded me it was a casualty of war, an unfortunate occurrence, a sacrifice to the greater good of stopping the Daedra. The words felt hollow. I had heard them before. I had said them myself.
Words were empty that day.
The boy’s hair was so lank. Matted. Had it been matted before I ran him down? Or had it shone? His jaw was broken, mouth askew. Flies crawled in and along that broken line, bringing the illusion of motion to an unmoving scene.
I stared at him for a long time. Death is something we all face, and those of us that deal it must live with it intimately. That death, however, is one I have never forgiven myself for. I still see that bruised face, the broken jaw, the knobby knees. I can feel the flies hum past my cheek. I still wonder if he combed his hair that morning. If he was out playing in the woods, and if his mother ever found his broken body.
The death of the innocent is something that the Tetrarch does not stand for, nor does it seek. Our very calling, at its core, is in place to save the innocent. To save the world.
I share this with you because I believe it stands in stark contrast to the crime for which I am exiled. For killing Lystra.
How do I feel about Lystra? How do I feel about killing her when she got between me and her lover? I feel no guilt. There is no shame in the crime I committed to fulfill my mission that day. My conscience proves me innocent, even if my exile says otherwise. She tried to protect a Daedric follower from the Tetrarch. Where is her innocence?
Lystra deserved what she got. I certainly do not deserve what I am getting. This punishment is unjust, and someday I will revisit it upon those who imposed it upon me. I have lived a righteous life, though I certainly am no perfect man. Even the crime I committed was no crime at all, but a political misstep.
I carry that boy’s death with me, and will do so to my own. I give Lystra no second thought except that it is on her account that I am condemned.
Today we reached the Siltlands. They border the Blight Sea, a swath of land reaching over a mile from the shore where nothing lives. Nothing can grow next to this accursed water. Its taste is more acrid than that of the ocean. Just beyond the silt, on the far western shore of the sea, stands Blithe. The final trading post to the Nanten on its western borders.
There are few men left who find profit in this region, and I’m certain they are driven more by desperation than anything. The wretch we found to take us across the sea is one such man. Tarsh is his name, at least as best we understand through his toothless mumbling. Old and withered by the salt as much as the sun, Tarsh is a profiteer by nature.
He runs what meager supplies fall his way over to the shores of the Nanten. He returns with whatever the poor people there have to trade. Tools made from bone, ropes woven from the fibers of some twisted vine. On the northern borders raw materials and gems can be smuggled out of the Nanten at a healthy profit. Here in the southwest, Tarsh is lucky if he can live off of what he can scrounge.
It only cost us three silvers to gain passage. I was surprised at how quickly he jumped at the sheen of the metal, starving just to feel its weight in his hand. I don’t think he’s touched Imperial coin in a while. Regardless, his reaction killed any hope he may have had of negotiating for more and he knew it. It was followed by a long look of suspicion, as if our very clothes hid golden bodies from his searching gaze.
Tarsh hid the coins within the ratty folds of his robes and shuffled off. He didn’t come back, the pirate, so we had to go and find him.
But what led us to Tarsh wasn’t solely his services. We came to him for the path on which he lies. Salisir came this way 20 years ago as best as I can tell. There are two ways into the Nanten from the Old Empire. The first is over the Highridge Mountains and then south along their foothills.
Salisir swore he would never cross the Highridge Mountains again, which left him only one option: sail directly from the west, over the Blight Sea.
Neither of these routes are heavily traveled. Trading posts along them have long disappeared, and while the Nanten is rich in raw materials few find the risk worth the potential reward. No one intentionally goes to the Nanten. No one, it seems, except Tarsh.
I only hope he can be trusted. Hunger drives desperate action, and Tarsh is clearly very hungry. He did his best to delay, to try and haggle for more silver and short us on supplies. Balthandar simply glowered at him and twisted the shaft of his spear restlessly between his brown hands. That moved Tarsh along. But out on that water we will be vulnerable. Anywhere from this point on, truly, we are exposed.
If Tarsh was here when Salisir came through, he won’t say. But he needed no explanation as to what we wanted. Although it took cajoling, when he saw the blue blade of the Tetrarch on my armor he knew exactly what to do, gathering supplies and beginning preparations on his barge. Somehow the image of the blade has softened him to us.
We’ve only waited a day, and already he beckons us to board and begin our short voyage across the lifeless waters.
If only the jungle to which we sailed were as lifeless, perhaps we should have a greater sense that we might survive what is to come.
Brin Salisir, a name that has haunted me all my life. Just over two decades have passed since Brin Salisir made my days a waking hell. Seven years we are called to train to earn our right. Seven brutal years where everything is stripped away from us, cleansed by pain and discipline. The first two years of that torment was increased tenfold by Salisir.
He beat us. Unlike any other of our instructors, Salisir would reward failure with physical harm. I carry two of the scars to this day.
Then Salisir was exiled to the Nanten. It was the worst fate he could have received, and the greatest relief of my young life. I won’t lie to you, hearing that Salisir was being sent to his death made me happy. Truly happy.
Rumors circulated that some Daedric prince had claimed the Nanten Kingdom, a country as large as any two provinces in the Old Empire. No one had confirmed this. Salisir was expected to do just that, and to kill this prince should Salisir find him. It was a death sentence.
No Imperial went to the Nanten any longer. They hadn’t for nearly a century. The few who did never returned. The tales fed to the world by traders on its fringe only inspired horror stories that cemented the world’s distance.
That hasn’t changed in the last twenty years.
Twenty years ago Salisir disappeared. Twenty years have passed since he was sent on a mission that would only ever be given to someone in disgrace. Someone the Tetrarch would rather see dead than in its service. And now I am to follow in his footsteps. To my death, I am sent to find him.
This is my punishment. But if nowhere else, I may plead my own case in ink, even as I approach a certain death. I hope against all odds to explain these things to you in person one day. I won’t hold it against you if you have turned your back on me as all others have. But if I am never to see you again, I hope that these words find you. I hope that as I fill out this journal you discover that I died as honorably as I once lived.
Already three months have passed since my exile began. Three of the most difficult months of my war-scarred life. Now that my companions have joined me, I may truly begin.
Tomorrow we must find a way to cross the Blight Sea. If we cannot, all this will be for naught. It is our path into the jungle of the Nanten. Tomorrow I begin my journey in earnest, to discover what happened on Salisir’s final mission and, perhaps, to finish what he started. If I am lucky, I may survive long enough to deliver this journal to you myself.