I did not fully comprehend what was happening in the Deadwood while we were in its clutches, and only in the eerie peace of Senida have I had time with which to reflect upon it. Are the myths of the Nantese true? Do their dead congregate in that wood? I cannot deny the power of the place, nor the ghosts that visited and even assailed us.
The questions I have remain unanswered, and perhaps there are none to be found. Why did it seem to actively seek Bolton? Is that where his soul somehow remains? Will ours travel there should we die too? I physically shudder at the thought of being trapped in that place forever, and if that is truly Bolton’s fate I pity him above all men.
Those questions, though most pressing in my mind, are not the most important. The mystery of the magic fueling the Deadwood is.
Hierarchies of Power, the second book of the ancient Loremaster, is the tool to understand the mysteries of not only the Deadwood, but the wraiths of the Akari Grassland as well. At least, what I remember of Hierarchies of Power – I wish I had a copy of it to read.
The Loremaster’s compartmentalization of the world’s powers into three tiers is generally accepted as true: the spiritual, metaphysical (what he called the Atmosphere), and physical. What I want to know, and what few agree upon, is what presence or power the spiritual actually has among us.
The metaphysical is obvious, the source of all “magic” and power obtained beyond man’s natural ability. Unfortunately most of the Loremaster’s writings on the subject are useless to us as he lived before the Long Rise, at the tail end of an age where beings existed who could exert nearly limitless power upon the Atmosphere with the simplest of mental suggestion.
They lived in an age of unparalleled creativity, something that those living today scarcely believe could have been possible. The Loremaster’s account of his own abilities sound godlike. But one ability that he had which we can identify with today was what he referred to as “enchantments.” Although different from the enchantments of today, they are similar to our magic in general and offer key insights into the nature of the Atmosphere.
In order to explain it to the uninitiated of his day, he likened it to teaching their machines complicated algorithms so that they would take in information and respond with a desired result. In the same way he could teach the atmosphere certain responses to physical interactions. Thus he could design doors which would not unlock without the proper stimuli, or traps that would spring as if from thin air.
The Atmosphere, he said, was moldable. Teachable. He could attach its power to certain objects and states, creating powerful reactions even in the absence of someone as strong as himself.
Our understanding and how we express magic is much like this. The Four Known Skills are all different ways we interact with the Atmosphere (hand motions, meditation, the spoken word, and alchemical binding), triggering premade reactions that align with any given expression. Pures, people who essentially have a natural gift for interacting with the Atmosphere, are able to teach the Atmosphere to react to them in consistent, predictable ways.
A formalized expression is born when those methods are detached from the Pure himself and passed on to people with no natural connection to the Atmosphere. Thus the Hydro waves his fingers in just the right way and causes water to freeze, while the Unbound forms a particular mental picture through meditation and loosens gravity’s hold upon him.
The metaphysical Atmosphere, according to the Loremaster, exerts greater influence on the physical than the physical can return upon it. The hierarchy of the three tiers of existence is immutable, the metaphysical affecting the physical and the spiritual having power over both. Power and influence flows down actively with only a passive return.
What bothers me about the Deadwood is that few people are powerful enough to create mighty enchantments that sustain themselves actively over time.
The enchantments on my armor, for example, were masterfully made but only enhance the physical qualities of the armor or myself by an objectively small amount. The effect is significant to the user, but if we were to apply mathematics it wouldn’t add to the armor or myself what would exceed a fifth of our innate qualities. I doubt there are many persistent enchantments in the world that are much more powerful than this (though considering the variety of enchantments in the world, a direct comparison is difficult in general to draw).
Thus the amount of magic in constant use within the Deadwood could hardly be due to enchantment, but was clearly Atmospheric in nature as the persistent white mists should have proved (as you should remember from your training, white mist is a natural byproduct of the transference of energy between the metaphysical and physical states – the more energy transferred, the more mist is created). But what can exert that much power consistently? Even Inifra, whose appearance at the ford from the water itself created a thick mist, did not and probably could not keep up that single manifestation of power for long, let alone forever.
My fear is that there is some rift in the third tier, some spiritual breach into our world in the center of the Deadwood. I fear this because there have only been a few rifts recorded in the history of our world, and only one ever produced any good. The manifestations within the Deadwood, whatever power sustained them, were not good. What opens a rift is a mystery in itself, and no one knows with any certainty how to close one once it has opened.
I need to discuss it with Balthandar tomorrow and see what insights he can offer. This mystery is not my purpose for being here, nor can I risk a return to the Deadwood for answers, but I must record all that I can about it in hopes that one day these words find their way to the outside world. For if there is a rift in the Nanten as powerful and persistent as the Deadwood, then perhaps a Daedric Prince is not the greatest threat the jungle has to offer after all.
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.
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 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.
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.