Kantoo has laid out our path before us with no small store of knowledge. There are many paths to the Akari Grasslands, but the one we want is the direct path to which he is leading us. It should be no more than a month’s journey from where he joined us. But to cross the Akari Grasslands, he said, there is only one path we can take.
Kantoo said that he has always been a messenger between villages, and that he has been taught all the paths of the region. The one we will take, he said, is rarely used. Although it is the most direct, it is the most dangerous. I gave him a scrap to draw on so we could better understand.
To get to the Akari Grasslands, and then Senida, we must travel south by southeast. The inherent danger to this path, he said, is the Deadwood.
The Deadwood is a portion of jungle that is made up of nothing but ashen trees. They look just like the other trees of the jungle, Kantoo said, except they are gray, bordering on white. The Deadwood, he said, is never in the same place twice, and is often difficult to distinguish in the half-light until one is already walking among its trees.
Once you lose sight of the living trees, Kantoo said, you cannot return to them. The Deadwood shifts, it changes, and it will trap you forever. Starlark scoffed at this and asked how Kantoo knew any of this if no one ever returned to say. Kantoo simply said it was how his father had died.
It is rumored, he emphasized heavily for Starlark, that within the Deadwood the spirits of those who have died in the Nanten congregate. Those who enter living are left to their mercies. He shook his head after a moment of silence and continued to draw on his makeshift map. He said there is no certainty to where it may be at any given time.
I should note that I find most of this hard to believe, but I am learning not to assume my experience means much in this accursed jungle.
After avoiding the Deadwood, his plan is to take us to the “stone path.” There is only one path through the northwestern portion of the Akari Grasslands that is safe, he said. And even then, it is only safe if you stay on the stones. Dionus asked what happened if you stepped off the stones, and Kantoo shrugged. He had never strayed from the stone path.
The smaller stones all lead to large ones, he said, which is where you can camp. On his map the path looked like an ant’s trail between a few nuts. You cannot sleep on the small stones, he warned, for at night there are other terrors that can reach you. And you cannot stay on the great stones during the day, for they get too hot in the blinding sun.
The sun. That was what stuck with me from all of that. We haven’t been in the sun in so long… all of us, save for Balthandar and Kantoo, will burn in minutes I’m sure. But I crave it now more than anything.
I took his map and laid it next to the one Prestorn had given us in Graylag. They looked surprisingly similar, which gave me a greater sense of confidence in the boy. Our present location is easy to find by the rivers we’ve crossed, and it demonstrates that the maps we have been given conform to no true sense of scale. Even Senida seems closer on Kantoo’s map than Prestorn’s – and that, I hope, is true.
I meant to ask him if he recognized the symbols that are scattered around Prestorn’s map, but I will have to do so tomorrow. He seems to know so much, it doesn’t feel like a stretch that he will know their meaning.
One week until we reach the Akari Grasslands. As long as the KoraKora do not find us, I feel confident we can handle any other threat that comes our way.
The KoraKora found us yesterday, and now we have lost two members of our party… gods be good, it only gets worse from there.
The day started out like any other with the exception of Bolton’s condition. He was in a great deal of pain, but seemed to accept the loss of his arm with a surprising level of calm. Starlark scouted out the surrounding area while we packed as usual, and that’s where things began to go wrong.
He found a Bangara’s bed not thirty feet from where we had slept. And then, within moments, he found another.
We were anxious the entire morning, expecting Bangara to attack us nearly every step of the way. How could there be two? Did they hunt in packs? There was no way we could stay still, and thankfully, though Bolton had a difficult time of it, we were able to make progress.
Balthandar kept feeding him Martingue broth he had saved in the empty wineskin, and Kantoo served as Bolton’s crutch as much as Kantoo’s bamboo did for him. We made it the whole morning without any new threats revealing themselves. Until the KoraKora found us.
There was only one scout, as surprised to see us as we were him. Starlark put an arrow through his throat before he could sound his horn. We immediately picked up our pace.
It didn’t take long for the KoraKora to find the corpse. Horns began sounding behind us with responses coming from a multitude of directions. We were not surrounded, but they were on our every flank.
Then came the drums. The KoraKora were on the hunt.
We ran then. We had no choice, even though Bolton’s stitches threatened to split. This time I was not buffered from the terror by illness. My mind was clear, my senses unhindered. The world slowed down around me to match my fear.
Then the KoraKora were before us. It was a small party, maybe twenty of them. We fought, but as we killed them Starlark saw more coming from the southeast. We broke off and ran north, pushing Bolton ahead of us as quickly as he could manage. I don’t know how he kept his feet when Balthandar wasn’t carrying him.
As we ran Dionus and I dropped back sporadically to keep the pursuing KoraKora at bay. Each fight grew more ferocious, and soon they were driving us back faster than we were able to hold them off. It was then that I heard Balthandar shout for me.
We ran north. It was there we came into a clearing where before us stood thousands of KoraKora. At the center of their line was their chief.
The KoraKora beat their drums, screaming and hollering in chaotic fervor. Behind us more yellow-painted KoraKora began to line the edge of the clearing.
The chief of the KoraKora slowly raised his arms, the drums halting as they aligned with his shoulders. Bones. He was covered in the bones of men, pierced by them in a dozen different ways. “Come now villains,” he boomed in the common tongue. His twisted grin formed the words. “Let us bring justice upon you.”
The KoraKora cheered. They rushed forward as one. And then the Bangara attacked.
There were three of the giant monsters, and they must have seen our confrontation as a feast. They rolled through the ranks of KoraKora like cats in the snow. The Bangara served as a distraction, but they were not the solution to our problem. While many KoraKora turned to the new threat, most of them did not.
They rushed in on us from south and north. Dionus now had room to work and began to let out even more violent attacks than he had been able in the confines of the trees. Starlark forsook his bow immediately and drew his sword, while Balthandar began skewering the KoraKora two at a time on his spear.
We had a real fight on our hands. Gods… we had fight.
They crashed upon us with terrifying weight, throwing themselves into our midst with no regard for their own lives. We slew them by the dozens, their weapons no match for even our light armor and their zeal no match for our skill. Still, even with the distraction of the Bangara, their numbers were overwhelming. We could not hold for long.
I was tempted to take matters into my own hands, but Dionus caught my eye from above. No. And that was all I needed to hold back. Not yet. He pointed to the east and shouted that the way was clear. With a loud series of snaps and booms, the KoraKora between us and the east were sucked up and blown into the trees.
We disengaged and ran.
Dionus was like a god. He stayed above the battlefield, hovering over us as he struck down at the KoraKora again and again. Batting them back. Slicing their front rank, and slicing into them again. His efforts bought us the distance to the edge of the clearing.
We were forced to carry Bolton then, running with him between Balthandar and myself. I do not know how Kantoo kept up with us on his crutch, but he managed.
Starlark started to pull ahead, scouting for the enemy, while Dionus worked to catch up from behind. Bolton came to in a start and started struggling against us until we had to put him down.
“I can carry my own damn self,” he said with a glance to his shoulder. “What’s left of it.”
So we let him.
Balthandar ran immediately behind Bolton, pushing him to move as quickly as he could, with Dionus immediately in front in case the KoraKora circumvented us again. I brought up the rear. We were running single file, and then Kantoo was screaming.
I turned to find that Kantoo had stopped running. He was almost out of sight between the trees, and it took a moment for me to understand what he was shouting: Deadwood.
I turned back to see my companions entering a white forest, a white forest within which I had already began to run. I only had an instant before I would lose sight of them. I made the choice without hesitation: better to enter the Deadwood than lose my companions forever.
And so I plunged after them, keeping them in sight and yelling for them to stop. As soon as I lost sight of the green jungle behind me, I never found it again.
Balthandar stopped running and began shouting for the others ahead of him to do likewise. Bolton was immediately at hand, and Dionus was just a little farther on. Starlark was nowhere to be found. We shouted for him, and though at one point we could hear him shouting back there was no other sign of him.
After an hour of this we decided to take the risk of the KoraKora and tried to retrace our steps. We had only been a few hundred feet into the Deadwood, surely it would be only a few hundred feet back the way we had come. Yet the edge of the jungle was nowhere to be found.
Bolton needed rest desperately, and I was unwilling for any of us to let us lose sight of the others, so we bedded down for the night. But we could not make a fire, for the ashen vines of the Deadwood will not burn. As darkness fell the trees became no less visible to our eyes, as though burned into our vision like bright flashes of the sun. The jungle became as a forest of bones.
The pervasive silence around us turned to the sound of a light breeze, yet the air moved not. And as we sat in the Deadwood waiting for sleep to take us, our fears turned to other things which might claim us instead. I never thought I would wish for those familiar trees of green to sprout up above me. I am more terrified now than I have ever been in my entire life.
I have written this by first light. I hope it is not my last entry.
The Deadwood has no end. I have no idea how large it truly is, for Kantoo made it sound as though it was something we could easily circumvent, but after wandering through it for an entire day I no longer have any frame of reference. The trees are nearly indistinguishable from one another. The undergrowth is stiff, brittle even, and ashen gray.
It feels like we are being watched.
We make every effort to keep within each other’s sight at all times. Bolton cannot move much at all, which helps to anchor us together, but where would we go even if we could run?
Then there are the screams.
I heard only a few last night. They were distant, muffled by the acoustics of the jungle, but distinct. They were human. Mournful yet hateful, most could best be described as wails. Then today we were startled by a number of different outbursts.
The screams seemed completely random and nearly sent us running more than once. Their source was close at hand, but nothing presented itself. They are aggressive, angry. Terrifying.
Their increased proximity drives the irrational fear in me that somehow, while barely moving, we have been enveloped even deeper into the Deadwood.
Bolton needs lots of time to rest, so we never make it far. We have had to repair his stitches twice now. He sleeps as though there was nothing nearby to harm him. It’s in those long hours, sitting with him under a canopy that has lost all its color, that I wonder how I got here. Morbidly, I wonder how I’ll leave.
Then there’s Starlark. We shout for him occasionally, but it feels as though when we do we draw the attention of whatever lurks among the trees. Dionus and I can feel it, magic is in constant use here but we know not in what form. The air tingles with the energy of it, and there is a low white mist that covers the ground constantly. None of this makes for comfort.
I feel a great weight to it all, subdued like a prisoner under the wrathful watch of his accusers. Yet I see them not, nor know how to escape their glare.
Gods help us, or we will die in this place.
Starlark. My thoughts turn to him constantly as the weight of the Deadwood bears down upon us. There is little light left by which to write, but I must put something down. Anything. This journal is my last connection to the world beyond these ghostly trees.
As long as I have known Starlark I have felt responsible for him. He is young, the youngest of the Crestwards and always young among his second family of bandits. From the second most powerful family in the Old Empire to the margins of society, his story is more unique than any of ours.
What Starlark lacks in maturity he more than compensates for in skill and passion. He has seen more than twenty summers. By the way he acts you would think it was far fewer. By the way he shoots you would think it was far more.
I saved him from hanging. That’s what no one knows. I saved him from being hung by a very justified, very lawfully appointed executioner. It wasn’t my intent to save him. That’s what Starlark doesn’t know.
I was on a mission gone very wrong. The Daedra we had been hunting in the forests north of Silverdale had successfully ambushed and run us from their territory. Of the five of us that went into the ambush, only two came out alive. Daedric followers tracked us for miles, we were running for our lives. And then I stumbled into a makeshift gallows.
They’d caught Starlark and two other bandits stealing chickens from a nearby farm only to discover that they were in fact wanted for many more grievous crimes. One of his companions was quite infamous in the region, mostly for murder and arson, which led to the speedy construction of a gallows out in the woods.
The patrol that had captured Starlark was actually loyal to his father, though they failed to recognize Starlark for a Crestward and Starlark refused to identify himself as one. Pride probably kills more young men than any other affliction.
We burst into the clearing moments before they were to roll the plank and drop all three to their deaths. I demanded that the patrol join and protect us in the name of Silver Hall. Either they didn’t realize that the Tetrarch commanded that authority or they chose not to heed it, but they decided to ignore me. I tried reasoning with their captain, but he would not listen.
So I cut the hanging ropes at their anchor. I figured that would get their attention more effectively. I asked the bandits if they would fight in exchange for their lives as they jumped to the ground. That may have been a poor choice on my part. The patrol drew their swords.
Thankfully that was when the Daedra caught up to us. Daedric followers aren’t necessarily well trained in war, they rarely live long enough to learn the skills that only open combat can teach you, but they can often amass quite a force. Thankfully we had a fresh patrol-full of morons to absorb most of this one.
In the brawl that ensued, Starlark managed to repay me twice over by saving me from both the Daedric followers and the patrol. When the killing was done two Tetrarch and two bandits remained. I told them they could go free, but Starlark asked if he could help us finish our mission in the woods. He licked the corners of his mouth in a devilish grin that I have come to know all too well. He relishes winning as I relish swordplay. That was the first time I fought alongside Starlark, and the first mission he helped me complete, but it would not be the last of either.
I’ve always enjoyed his energy, his zeal for life – as short-sighted and foolish as it often winds up being. And now he is lost to me, separated by forces I don’t fully comprehend. There is more than a touch of the third tier to this, more spiritual power than I have ever felt. If Kantoo was right, and there truly are spirits here, then we may have wandered into a rift. I’ve never heard of one like this before.
I hope it does not take Starlark away from me.
We nearly lost Bolton this morning. We didn’t see him when we awoke and immediately began searching. He wasn’t far, in fact he hadn’t moved. He had fallen asleep sitting up against one of the trees, which had pulled him almost entirely into itself. Even the undergrowth had leaned in as if to hide him from us.
It took some careful work, but we were able to chip away at the wood until we could pry Bolton free. When he finally awoke he was incoherent for twenty minutes or so. Then he told us the tree had spoken to him.
Welcome, the tree had said to him. Your sins have brought you here, and here you shall absolve them.
He hasn’t stopped mumbling about the Nantese since, especially Kantoo. It took a while to get him on his feet, but we thought it best to continue moving. None of us wanted to stay near that tree.
Bolton seems to be making a steady recovery, in spite of the fact that he should be getting worse. Whether the Martingue is to receive credit or the tree that nearly consumed him, I do not know. He is still quite unstable on his feet and weak, but he doesn’t look like he will die any longer. Of any of us, Bolton has received the worst of the Nanten’s wrath.
Assuming Starlark doesn’t have it worse at this moment on his own. There is still no sign of him, and no clue to our exit. What worries me more is that we have yet to stumble on any streams, and the trees release no water when tapped. We cannot survive without water, and we only have a few days’ worth left to us at best.
A specter came for Bolton in the night. The Deadwood would take him if we did not impede its every effort. It hungers for him.
I awoke to the same sense of terror as the night before. This specter was different. It was at least nine feet tall, pale white, armored in ashen rust and draped in a deteriorating cloak. It carried the single largest sword I have ever seen, even greater than the legendary Cleaver. I could not see its face.
It looked as one of the Seven Deaths made manifest.
It floated towards us, then stopped next to Bolton. None of my companions moved. I was the only one awake. The specter of death raised its sword and I had to scramble just to intercept the blow with my own.
There was a flash of white, the weight of the blade more than I could bear. It ground down upon me, forcing me to kneel. Then Balthandar was there. He shouted in his booming voice and thrust his spear into the specter’s side. Nothing happened.
It withdrew its sword from mine and swatted his spear away, then lined up another blow for Bolton. As it raised its arms I saw four symbols etched into its armor. Four symbols I recognized.
Its blade came down on mine again, driving me straight to my knee this time. And then I realized where I’d seen the symbols before. They were on the map that Prestorn gave us.
Dionus’ attacks were proving as futile as Balthandar’s, so I shouted for him to get the map. The symbols, I cried, read the symbols. But Dionus couldn’t read them, so he ran to us and held them up before the empty mask of the specter.
And in the greatest mystery to occur yet, it relented. It withdrew its sword, then angled off to its left and floated between and off through the trees. We haven’t seen it since.
Bolton awoke shortly thereafter, none the wiser to what had almost befallen him.
We will move on as soon as we have recovered. None of us know what to make of this place, even if we have this one clue. We need out. Now.
We have had two strokes of luck. We can hear Starlark with relative regularity, and Dionus and I have found more gaps in the magic of this place. They all point in the same direction as if to a common point.
We have given Starlark the best instructions that we can and have tried to explain what we have learned. We have no idea what separates us from him, but the silence seems to bridge him more closely to us. He is terrified, and it only deepens my grief to hear it. Starlark has been a loyal friend to me for years, I cannot bear to hear such fear in his voice and be unable to do anything for him.
Bolton keeps bringing Starlark up to me quietly, as if to keep the matter private. Bolton doesn’t want me to let Starlark become like him. I keep trying to assure him I won’t, as if he ever would. It worries me that Bolton keeps talking like this, like he is dying. In a strange way his open concern for Starlark almost convinces me he must be.
We are waiting for him to feel strong enough to move, and then we will carry out our plan. Each of the gaps grows narrower as we follow it along, leading us to believe that there is a seam in the fabric of our prison. If we can find it, we hope we can exploit it. We have no idea how we will do this, but my hope is that the symbols on Prestorn’s map hold the key.
Once we are out there are no guarantees we will know where we are. How far have we been moved from the path Kantoo had us on, and where does it meet up with the stones he insisted we follow across the Akari Grasslands?
Will the KoraKora be waiting for us on the other side? The Bangara?
More importantly, will Starlark be able to find his way out? He does not have a sense of the magic that surrounds him as Dionus and I do. He could be lost in here forever, trapped with the ghosts of the Nanten.
I had better do my best to guide him. I will write when next I can.