Starlark’s mood has lightened notably since leaving our Nantese hosts behind. He seemed ill at ease among them, as if offended and simultaneously threatened by their very gentleness. And seemingly in response to the apparent changes in Bolton’s character, a dark cloud has settled over him. It was good to laugh with him tonight, though I remain concerned.
I don’t know how we got on the story, but I think Balthandar mentioned how unpleasant it can be imprisoning friends. One of the hazards of being a nation’s ranking bodyguard. Starlark laughed and suggested Balthandar try being the one imprisoned if he wanted to know what ‘unpleasant’ was. But then, he said, not all prisons are the built same.
He told how he had been arrested in some backwater in the woods north of Silverdale. He’d gotten drunk and had tried to seduce some farmer’s daughter, or steal a pig – he wasn’t certain why he had been arrested. He was pretty drunk at the time. Bolton suggested that perhaps he’d tried to seduce a pig.
In any case he found himself in a small room with a dirt floor and only one window, the sill of which was just a few feet out of his reach. His friends, as drunk as Starlark, staged an ill-fated rescue attempt. It was easy to find his cell as they could hear him through the window, singing off-key as he is so irritatingly apt to do when he’s had too much to drink.
Starlark said he was startled when one of his fellow bandits dropped to the floor in front of him from the window above. The ugliest miracle of his life, he said. The would-be rescuer told him the plan: He was aided over the sill by their comrades, and now that he was in the cell he could help Starlark back out.
It didn’t occur to any of them until Starlark was standing outside that they had a gaping hole in their plan. They laughed in the drunken joy of their success until a pitiful “Lads?” came floating out of what should have been a vacant cell.
Various iterations of the same plot ensued. Two of their party were aided in climbing into the cell, and then three. Eventually some crates were found upon which they could all climb to the sill without needing to help each other. The crates, however, were too large to filter through the window with them to the other side.
An argument broke out within the cell, as it was now occupied by seven grown men – each of whom had his own equally brilliant plan for escape. Finally it was agreed that they should sleep on it and make another attempt come dawn.
Sometime well after dawn, a confused jailer discovered his prisoner along with six unexpected additions sleeping in his solitary cell. Jailers, understandably, pay little attention to those whom they are jailing when there is only one cell and only one prisoner within it to identify. Thus it should come as little surprise that he would not have recognized Starlark from a raccoon in the first place. The ability to do so would ordinarily be unnecessary.
However in his only cell, for it was a tiny prison to begin with, he was faced with identifying one criminal in the midst of seven presumably innocent men. It would have been a difficult task even had he not met Starlark in the middle of the night, and to be fair he hadn’t truly been all that sober at the time himself.
Thus confounded, and considering that whatever crime Starlark committed had likely been more pitiable than damnable, he simply stood to the side, dumbfounded, as the seven men exited. As Starlark said to bring the story to a close: it was simultaneously the simplest and most complicated escape he had ever made.
It dawned on me as I wrote that story down, what concerns me in the deepening shadows of Starlark’s face. I’m not sure how to put it, but I can best do so in contrast to Dionus.
Dionus is the kind of man you want at your side when the world is coming to its end. When all is dark and defeat most certain, Dionus carries with him the last light of hope in his very presence. In fact he thrives when death looms unavoidably on the horizon. In many ways it is precisely why he is alive today.
Starlark, however, is only good on a quest whose odds of success increase over time. He is the kind of man you want around you when you’re winning. The kind that exults on the wave and rides it crashing over his enemies.
His arrival in Calith was not a surprise – I doubt that there is anyone in the world that Starlark holds more dearly than myself. But this mission is not one for him. I worry that he will only get worse from here as our path leads ever deeper into the horrors of the Nanten.
When Brin Salisir was my instructor at the Scourge he taught me many things. He taught me to fight, how to carry on fighting when I was wounded, and how to make someone pay dearly for wounding me in the first place. He taught me how to move quickly, how to hide, and how to kill without warning.
More than anything, Brin Salisir taught me how to hate.
Salisir was my guide into violence. It is not something most people have in them naturally, the ability to harm other people at will. To kill them. Some few men have no issue with such actions, the rest of us have to be taught. Salisir made killing easy.
Brin Salisir was a master of violence. Whatever story about his past you believed, it was clear that he had every reason to become a violent man. Salisir was a musician whose only instrument was the human body, and he knew how to make it sing every note imaginable.
But his hatred for the Tetrarch was something I never understood. They had trained him, had given him every opportunity he would have never otherwise had. How could he hate them so? When that hatred turned on me it became one of my greatest lessons.
Hate is something that will boil away at your insides, cooking you like a fever until there is nothing left that can function. That was what I saw in Salisir. He was distant more than he was present, his thoughts consumed at all times. When he came to reality it was always in a rage. You didn’t want to be the one to have to break into that distant look, for when those eyes focused on you there was recompense to be made.
But hate can be put to better use. Hate can be contained, and rather than boil away at your insides it can be used to wash away impurities and fuel motion. Hate can be focused and used like another source of strength. My hatred for Salisir is what got me through his beatings, what picked me up when he knocked me down, what made me strong in spite of his efforts to subdue me.
In a way, Brin Salisir’s hatred freed me even as it hurt me. He taught me to contain my fury, and use it to subvert his own. Salisir taught me to see through the obvious actions of others to their core, to their real motivations. Once you see what those around you want, why they do what they do, they are vulnerable.
Once I saw his hatred for what it was, my victory was to succeed in the face of it. My vengeance was to withstand his venom and thrive. My joy was to see him condemned.
Starlark found the bed of a Bangara near our camp this morning. Needless to say, it has left us all in a perpetual state of watchfulness bordering on paranoia. Whether or not we can hold the giant monster off should it attack us is secondary to the knowledge that it could kill one of us before we knew it was even here. We cannot afford to be caught off guard.
Unfortunately, this seems practically impossible. The beast is absolutely silent, and undetectable even to Dionus as it moves – which is as terrifying as it is impressive considering Dionus can pinpoint the location of small birds and lizards moving around us.
Balthandar seems particularly perturbed. I finally asked him why the Bangara does this to him and he said that in the Summer Isles there was a creature fabled to exist that fit the Bangara’s description perfectly. He said that it fell in line with a number of myths and legends he had never taken seriously, but now that he had seen the Bangara in person it left him wondering what other monsters would prove to be real. It made him question everything he thought he knew to be true.
We’ve all had a similar experience coming here, I have seen it in each of my companions. I believe Starlark is recognizing his mortality for the first time. Even when he was facing the noose on the day I saved his life he never thought he might actually die. Now, so far from home and everything we have ever known, I believe he is accepting the reality that he may never return to it. Or perhaps he is rejecting it actively. I don’t know how he will handle reality once it has settled within him.
Dionus continues to have brief moments staring off at the jungle’s canopy. I need to ask him about it, but I’m afraid of what the answer will be. I’m afraid the winds are calling him.
Bolton is undergoing the greatest change of all of us. Much of the conversation he engages in now revolves around trying to win us over to appreciating the Nantese. He has made a number of references to his past that lead me to believe he is actually struggling with guilt. Many of the questions he poses are quantitative, wondering rhetorically how many families he has destroyed. How many villages he crippled. Whatever ghosts haunt Slad Bolton are after him in force right now.
Neither am I immune to doubts and revelations. I cannot help but dwell upon those who sent me here. I put my faith in Silver Hall and the elders of the Tetrarch. I believed that they would always look out for me, that we were family. But no family would send their sons to die in this hell. They cast me out so quickly, it’s almost as though I never belonged in the first place.
How could they do this to me? I was set to rise through the ranks to the very top of our order.
Salisir must have felt similarly, even though he never did belong. There was a Daemon; that was why he joined our order. Daemons and Demons differ in their origins and their power, as you may be aware. Demons ascend from the spiritual realm into our own, beings that were created and set loose by the ancient Relequim. There are only nine of them, though they are far more powerful than any other evil imaginable. To date, seven of them have made the ascension.
Daemons, however, are men. Or at least they were once. They are the ultimate level of power to which all Daedra aspire. But for every thousand Daedric followers who set themselves on that path, only one at most will ever attain it, if that many. The vast majority succumb to the corruption of their souls, their very bodies deteriorating before the transformation ever has a chance to begin.
The Daemon that Salisir faced was going through just such a transformation.
Salisir was still among the Chaplains at this point in time, seeking out and killing Daedra with the same impunity he always had. But when he stumbled on the Daemon, incomplete as it was, he was no match. It beat him badly, and he never wanted to be found wanting again. Thus service to the Tetrarch seemed an appealing possibility. And this was the promise the Tetrarch made him when he joined the order: that they would train him to hold his own against such evil. They would give him what he needed to succeed in the only way he had ever failed.
And then, after all the training, after all the conflict, distrust, and hatred that grew between them, how betrayed must Salisir have felt to have failed again in exactly the place he was promised never to? In that one particular way, Salisir and I have something in common: The Tetrarch made us grand promises, and disposed of us both when we failed.
When we awoke this morning we were greeted by a rapid share of horrors. Starlark was being consumed by a giant snake.
The snake was massive, too thick to wrap your arms around and longer than we ever fully discovered. It had piled itself upon him and was slowly eating him from the feet up. It took us ten minutes to kill it and get it off of him. It took a few more minutes to bring him back to consciousness. Pulling him from its throat was the most disturbing thing we have had to do since entering the Nanten.
Poor Starlark has yet to fully recover from the experience.
Once we had pulled him from the snake we sought out a stream in which he could wash. Whatever lined the snake’s throat was corrosive and already dissolving the external layers of Starlark’s boots, pants, and the bottom of his shirt. Thankfully there was a small river within a stone’s throw of our camp.
No sooner did we get Starlark in the water did a Bangara attack us.
Dionus and Bolton were standing watch at the river’s edge while Balthandar and I helped Starlark strip and wash in the water. Then, so sudden as to be instantaneous, the Bangara was upon us. It rammed into Bolton from behind, sending him flying across the river. Then it whipped around and slammed Dionus into a tree with its tail.
We had to drop Starlark in the water and rush to Dionus’ aid, but the monster was ready for us. Its tail smacked Dionus in the head, throwing him down as the monster dove into the river and tackled me. Everything went dark under the water as I fought to breathe more than I fought the monster.
It rolled with me, squeezing and clawing at me as my lungs screamed for air. It seemed like we were entangled in the river for an eternity before it released me.
When I came back up the Bangara was gone. It took me a few minutes to gather my wits, but when I did I realized it was Balthandar that had run the monster off. He had rushed back to our smoldering fire and lit a torch he said he had made just for this. The flame, as puny as it seemed to me, was enough to scare the monster off.
He said he’d seen an illustration of a Bangara being scared off by villagers with fire in a book of myths in the Summer Isles. He said it seemed worth trying, and I’m glad he did. It also explains why the Bangara never attacks us in camp.
I wish I had found more resources on the Nanten before being forced to leave Silver Hall. There are so many tricks like this that we could have learned already. I shouldn’t have focused my search solely on Salisir.
It took a while for Bolton to come around, and while Starlark is unharmed he remains understandably shaken tonight. Dionus was on his feet more quickly, but needs to rest as well. I’m afraid one or more of his ribs may be broken. We moved at a very moderate pace today, and will probably do the same tomorrow. And to add insult to injury I found three leeches on my leg from the gods damned river.
We have built our fire twice as large tonight to sate our own fears. Gods I hate the Nanten.
There has been no sighting of the Bangara since yesterday. It took some cajoling, but I managed to get Starlark to make a sweep of the area before we left this morning. He hardly slept last night.
I know it is good for him to keep to his duties, however, so I will press him on those. We all need things to set our minds on right now, otherwise I worry we will begin to capitulate to our fears.
Being eaten. None of us has ever even fathomed the idea as existing within the realm of possibility. If it isn’t snakes, it’s cannibals. If it isn’t the bloody leeches in the streams, it’s a Bangara from the banks. Death by sword, hanging, or illness has crossed each of our minds at one point or another. Death by digestion… that’s new.
It has been hammered home even more completely by our discovery of another village today. The inhabitants were not far off, and most came back once they realized we were not bandits or KoraKora. It seemed their curiosity won out over any caution they may have had.
Many of them were missing limbs. Some were missing legs at the knee, others arms at the elbow. Some had lost entire appendages.
One of the young men was excited to try to speak the common tongue with us. He told me his name was Kantoo. I asked how he knew to speak to us, and he said his grandfather had been a tradesman. He had insisted his children and grandchildren learn. Even Kantoo was missing his right leg from the buttock, but he hopped around quite nimbly on a bamboo crutch. I asked what had happened to him, to the people in his village.
The KoraKora in this region, Kantoo told us, do not often take entire villages when they raid. Within their own territory they treat the people much more like cattle. They visit unannounced and take tribute in the form of limbs. Outside of their territory, he said, is where they find and take whole people.
I asked what they did with the limbs. Without missing a beat told me as a matter of fact that they ate them, usually in front of the person they had just cut them from. Bolton was listening intently, his veins bulging at the story.
Bolton asked the boy why the people didn’t leave. Why would they stay and face mutilation like this? Kantoo just shrugged and said they were safer here. If they left the territory, he said, they would lose more than their limbs.
The people were kind enough to offer us their hospitality. The children keep calling us “Ocada.” I’ve heard it a few times before, but never so brazenly directed to us. Kantoo explained that is their word for Imperials, or at least the light-skinned among us. I think the first Imperial trader to the Nanten had a similar name, if I remember my history correctly.
Bolton immediately set himself to helping with whatever tasks he could find. He almost seemed in a panic, rushing to do whatever he could to make himself useful. I could read it on his face, it’s a look I’ve seen on a dozen others – his ghosts are closing in.
Guilt has infected Bolton like a plague. These poor mutilated Nantese only inflict it upon him with greater intensity. In them he sees his own victims on the expanse of the Great Wastes.
We will leave for the Akari Grasslands as soon as we can tomorrow. The last thing we want is for these people to get tied up in our conflict with the KoraKora.
Kantoo, the one-legged boy from the village we discovered yesterday, has joined us on our journey. Starlark opposed the idea vehemently, which led to a long argument with Bolton who wants nothing more than for the boy to join us. Balthandar seemed as nonplussed as ever, so long as the crippled boy could keep up both he and Dionus were fine with the idea.
Beyond translation skills and a local’s knowledge, the major benefit seems to be that Kantoo knows of a path that will lead us directly to and across the Akari Grasslands. He says that we must take a very particular path through them to Senida or we will never make it.
Starlark called the boy some slur, I didn’t hear it, but Bolton had a knife to his throat in seconds. It took us some time to get them off each other and calmed down. There was no winning for me on either of their counts, so I made my decision based off what I felt was best for us as a whole.
Thus, in the end, Kantoo got his desire. I told them there was no harm in having him along. It would be a great help to have a guide, but I told Kantoo he had to keep up and feed himself. To our collective surprise he never fell behind us once. In fact, with his little bamboo crutch and solitary leg he was able to get well ahead of us on a number of occasions.
He carries no possessions with him save for a knife and a water skin. He’s always chewing on the root of some plant, and he never seems to cease grinning. I find it a strange delight to have him with us. His attitude is incredible considering what all has happened to him in his life. He told me today that he didn’t lose his leg all at once.
The KoraKora came when he was a child and took everything from the knee down. He said they boiled it in a stew on the village’s own cooking fire. The worst part, he said, was that even though he knew his own leg was in it, the stew still smelled good to his starved senses.
The KoraKora had a salve and treatment that made recovery surprisingly quick, but he said it did not work for him again – not the second time.
They came for the rest of his leg only a few years ago. Apparently they didn’t think he needed the stump, so they took it for themselves. Kantoo said it nearly killed him. He bled so much that he was unable even to roll over for a month. He contracted every form of illness his village elders had heard of and then some, yet somehow he managed to pull through.
I think that’s why I like Kantoo, and why I am secretly glad he has joined us. Like the rest of my companions, he’s a survivor. Like me, he’s a fighter.
Bolton spends much of his time walking with Kantoo, asking him every question about the Nantese he can think of. Most questions I have overheard have been humorously naïve, like whether the Nantese have any tolls on their roads, but some have been rather thoughtful.
For example, Bolton brought out the fact that Kantoo was unaware that there are two moons. In fact, Kantoo believed the sun and the moon to be one unified heavenly body. A god, even. He said that the fiery sun was the face of the god, passing over to cast judgment down on the land. The moon was its back, calm and ignorant of what transpired on earth.
It made me realize that the Festival of Stars will be happening soon. The season of light should be upon us in the next few weeks, although I cannot see the sky to be sure. I hadn’t even thought about it until today. To see both moons in full would lighten my heart in the midst of the eternal gloom of the Nanten. To celebrate on the streets of the capital would make me weep for joy. Home…
Starlark keeps as far from Bolton and Kantoo as he can. He’s angry with me as well for letting Kantoo come with us. I tried to reason with him, but wherever Bolton is involved reason flees my friend. It makes our journey to the Akari Grasslands feel even more daunting with Starlark in such a dour mood.
Dionus tried to ask Starlark a few questions while they were near to each other in line. I heard him ask Starlark why he wears the long-tailed star on his shoulder as the Crestward’s emblem is a storm cloud. Starlark responded that even storms can’t hide the beauty of the stars forever. He’d rather align himself with the eternal. Needless to say, Dionus’ questions didn’t exactly lighten Starlark’s mood.
Kantoo has already led us to a number of new roots and other edibles, including a plant that has a fantastically sharp flavor. It will make for good seasoning. Another wonderful find was a fruit that looked much like a knot growing on the side of the smaller tree. Once opened it revealed dozens of smaller red fruits within that were bittersweet and juicy. The gas that fills the rest of the space, Kantoo said, clears and sets a light head to right.
In spite of his helpful levity, his missing leg is a constant reminder of the KoraKora, and though he is a welcome distraction the gravity of our situation is never far from mind. There is a Bangara nearby that I can only assume is still tracking us, and who knows if there are more of those massive snakes around?
When we told Kantoo of the snake that nearly ate Starlark – as much to try and excuse Starlark’s behavior as share the story – Kantoo was left aghast. I wasn’t sure which he found more shocking, that Starlark was almost eaten by the snake or that we killed it.
Then he said we should not have killed the snake. They are incredibly old, he told us, and not many remain. It is up to us to keep them from trying to eat us. He said he would teach us a few tricks to make ourselves unappealing targets and seemed genuinely sad that we had killed it.
Sad that we killed a man-eating snake… we are never want for surprises with the Nantese around.