We had to stop to rest, there was no pushing farther today. Most of the night was spent escaping the toxic forest, and now that we have made our way out we must stop. We won’t make it back to Bantish’s village tonight.
I never thought I would crave the presence of such poor savages as badly as I do right now. At least we would be able to sleep among them.
The Mentalists’ encampment was close to where we camped the other night, so close that in the morning Dionus was awoken by their arousal. They were perhaps only a hundred feet away.
Their encampment was smaller than I expected, perhaps only fifty yards in any direction. Most of the buildings were low, rudimentary things made from branches and vines.
There were a few built up on the trunks of the trees with stairways leading up to them. There was even a bridge fashioned from ropes that spanned the gap between the largest of these. The encampment itself was tranquil in the early morning. The monsters were nowhere to be seen, but there were a number of men and women mulling about the site.
Most of them were Organists, those capable of manipulating plant life. At first this was a shock, finding natural enemies like Organists and Mentalists working together, and this is where things took strange turns.
There were only two Mentalists, but they were in the most dangerous combination they come in: one controlled by the other.
Mentalism plays on the perceptions and volition of the victim, from mere suggestion to outright hallucination. The danger for the Mentalist lies in the fact that the more he pushes the will of others, the more the integrity of his own deteriorates. Eventually he is left to a well-deserved fate, powerless against the suggestion of others.
I’m sure you know this. What’s more dangerous, however, is when one Mentalist is left open to such suggestion and he becomes the tool of another. This leaves the controlling Mentalist free to use his power at will, while avoiding the dangers of exerting it all the time. The controlled Mentalist becomes his ultimate weapon, an inexhaustible exertion of his will over others.
Thus the Organists were made to be slaves to the one, and the one became the slave to the other.
The Organists were being put to work, it appeared, in order to form the disease we saw in the trees. They were being forced to create a corruption, for what purpose I remain uncertain. What follows is still hazy for me, but it has come back in pieces over the last day.
Starlark broke off from the group to scout the perimeter, while the rest of us remained hidden and observed what I have already written. He did not return.
We waited for over an hour for him, ample time to circumvent the camp. We decided to move and enter the encampment after surrounding it. But as we stood, the camp disappeared.
I walked forward, confused as if I had been struck blind. Before me stood nothing but trees and vines. I could still see my comrades, who were as confused as I, but the camp was gone.
Balthandar, among all of us, was the only one to keep his gaze set forward. He was locked on a particular spot. As I watched, he walked forward until he reached the largest tree before us and crossed his legs to sit. He put his massive spear across his lap. I could swear the tree shifted slightly to accommodate him.
Bolton was sneering, breathing heavily, and beginning to swear loudly. No matter what Dionus or I said, we could not stop him from getting angrier with every passing moment. He was terrified.
Dionus and I were aware of the hallucination, but neither of us knew how to break it. Mentalism and Organics are diametrically opposed, the key to breaking the spell on us would lie in the plants around us but they were poisoned. There was no help to draw from the trees, and no knowing for certain which were real in any case.
It is disorienting to realize you are dreaming yet be unable to wake. Which trees were there before the dream began? Which appeared thereafter?
I began to panic. We were in a prison we could not touch, behind bars we could not break. I would have spoken to Dionus but he put a finger to his lips. There was no telling who was near nor what they had in store for us. They made no move to harm us, which meant they would try to find a way and break us.
“Dionus,” Balthandar said suddenly. “Come stand by me.”
Dionus nodded to me quietly and stepped up behind the seated Islander. I took this as my cue to wait as well, but before I could sit I needed Bolton to calm down. He was starting to shout even louder. He took out his sword and began to hack at the nearest trees.
I couldn’t get him to stop, and before I knew it he had inhaled too much of the fumes and collapsed under one of his intended victims. I held my breath as I dragged him back towards the others, and then sat to watch over him. He was still breathing, though shallowly.
Balthandar’s eyes were closed. I assumed he was meditating, using some southern trick to calm his mind. But Dionus’ eyes were roving. I could sense him reaching out, testing the air as subtly as he could.
We waited for hours. I had yet to sit still for so long in the half-light of the jungle, but the way that it shifted was unnerving. Perhaps that was only a part of the illusion. I lost all track of time.
The silence was chilling. The scent of death intensified. Then Dionus clapped flint against Bantish’s bamboo. The whole world twisted sideways in that moment as the illusion was skewed.
The wind cracked as Dionus brought his hands up, and in a flash Balthandar’s spear shot up and into the tree before him. Blood spurt from the tree, and it began to shiver.
In that instant a stinging pain erupted behind my eyes. All I could hear was a steady ringing. Dionus and I covered our ears as Balthandar leapt to his feet and rammed his spear through the tree. The world quaked as more blood ran down its trunk. And then it fell.
Everything began to vibrate and spin. All three of us dropped to our hands and knees, clinging to the earth as if it might fling us from its surface. The Seventh Death hovered near, I could sense him closing in. It seemed to be the only way out. He was beckoning me to choose him, and then I realized what had happened.
“You can stop now!” I shouted through gritted teeth. It was all I could think to do. “Release your prisoners!”
And like that, the world stood still. The camp was around us, the corpse of the Mentalist lying at its center. Above us stood another, waiting obediently for his next instructions. Balthandar lunged to cut him down but I stopped him.
This Mentalist was harmless without his master, the death of whom had sent him into an unguided spiral until I called out to him. Had I not, it is likely we would have soon chosen the Seventh out of sheer terror. Assuming our hearts didn’t give out first.
The Organists awoke from their own prisons as well. Their shock at the horrors they had wrought was almost comical. Thankfully they knew exactly what they needed to do to treat Bolton. In the meantime we asked the surviving Mentalist our most burning questions.
It was he who had been able to master the beasts in the jungle. Their minds, he said, were not so different from those of men, even more pliable and easy to manipulate. The flint on bamboo, he said, disrupted his hold on them momentarily. They were also more difficult to influence the farther out they went, and were thus more unpredictable.
As for the toxins in the trees, he had no answers. He said it was being refined for some war in the north, and that its final composition had been smuggled out by a third Mentalist the day before. What purpose something like this could serve was beyond him. He simply guided the Organists into believing they were creating a cure, and then used their skills to do just the opposite.
Eventually Starlark wandered back into the camp, even more disoriented than the rest. He had been about to put arrows in the Mentalists’ backs when the trap was sprung.
Both of them were Imperial. The survivor grew up in the capital, but he couldn’t say where his companion was from. He said they were sent here, but by whom and to what ends he did not know. Truly unwitting, through and through.
In the end, we decided to leave him in the hands of the Organists he had enslaved. The enmity between the two expressions was strong before, but for these poor savages it is only all the more real now.
He may have been little more than a tool, but he deserves the fate that awaits him at their hands. I searched both the corpse and the survivor before we handed him over. All I found was this key. The markings on it are strange. It is not of Imperial make, at least I have never seen a lock to which something like this might fit.
As for us, now that we have left the weeping trees behind we will rest for the evening. In the morning we will return to Bantish’s village. Bolton is still not quite right, but he can walk. I still find myself disoriented and uncertain if I can trust my senses.
Illusory Hypnosis, that’s what they call it. It feels like my very mind has been violated. I doubt I will sleep well tonight.