(Note: misspellings and incorrect grammar corrected for readability)
Let's see … How should I start this?
Angeal once told me it would be a good idea to keep a journal to record my missions. And since Seph's mentioned it a few times too, I figured now might be a good time to start, considering this is the first time I'm commanding a mission myself from the beginning! Planned it from the start and everything. Gotta say, I'm a bit nervous about it, but I don't plan on telling anyone.
Except you, Angeal. And Seph, if you read this, but I don't see why you would. … Or anyone who finds this journal, but that brings up a whole bunch of depressing thoughts on why that would happen, so, moving on!
We've been shipped off to Mideel, me and two Thirds, and two infantrymen. Cloud couldn't come, sadly. He's got training. But he said he wasn't interested in visiting … how did he put it … "a forest steamy enough to cook vegetables before you even had a chance to strike the fire." Come on, Cloud, it's not that bad! I mean, I'm from the jungle. Granted it's a northern jungle compared to Mideel, but still! How bad could Mideel possibly be?
Well, today I found out how bad it could possibly be, but that's getting ahead of myself.
We were sent to Mideel to investigate some monster activity – there've apparently been a few disappearances, according to the locals. ShinRa's got a contract with the town to provide SOLDIER support if the local monsters ever get out of hand, which happens on a regular basis, since the Lifestream is so close to the surface here and they mutate. In exchange for that, ShinRa gets a permanent scientific outpost to study the Lifestream, and its effects on the wildlife and people. They'd build a reactor here, I'm sure, but Seph tells me that the land is too unstable, what with frequent earthquakes and such, also caused by the Lifestream being so close to the surface.
All I know is that all that geothermal activity means hot springs! I am totally looking forward to those when this mission is over! Got a few days of leave from Seph, and it is going to be a-mazing. Costa del Sol has nothing on that!
Anyway me, Hammerson and Stover (the two Thirds), and Harley and Allen (the two infantrymen) arrived early this morning, having caught a night flight out from Midgar. We stopped in Junon for a smaller, more rugged plane that could land at the tiny Mideel airstrip, but there was a three-hour delay because they couldn't find the dang co-pilot.
Well, to make a long story short, we finally made it here a few hours after dawn. I would've let everyone snooze for a few, but our guide was already waiting, and he was rather insistent that we get going as soon as possible, if we wanted to make it to the Ba'keel tribe before nightfall. I kinda felt sorry for the infantrymen, but Hammerson and Stover are SOLDIER, so they can put up with it.
The guide was one Matthew Walker, a local naturalist who works part time at the Mideel ShinRa Research Center. He seems like a nice enough fellow, rather accepting of ShinRa's presence in the town, which surprised me. Actually, all the locals seem like a pretty mellow bunch – guess they know ShinRa can't do too much to them out here.
Dr. Walker was supposed to escort us out into the jungle, making sure we don't get lost, and arrange a meeting with the true locals – the Ba'keel tribe – to guide us to where people have been vanishing. They're a rather secretive bunch, and have been here since before Mideel was ever settled. They don't really bother the townspeople, and the townspeople don't really bother them, so I guess it works out. I hear they do some occasional trading, and sometimes help each other out, but that's about it. They don't speak Midgar Common, though, so Walker's going to be our translator, too.
Anyway, we collected our bags, picked up a few things I thought we'd need that our guide didn't already have ready, and headed out. Stover's grumbling about not getting enough sleep was really getting on my nerves, so I made him walk point with the two bushmen we hired. Let him hack at some trees for a while – maybe that'll help him cool off.
There's not really a lot to say about the trip to the Ba'keel village, except that it was long, and hot. I couldn't decide whether all our thrashing through the brush was more likely to attract monsters or keep them away, but we didn't see much of anything. Saw a few pods of the white, caterpillar-like crysales hanging out in the trees, but we steered clear of those. Not much of a threat, but their fuzzy scales flake off into a powder that'll put you to sleep as quick as any Seal materia, and they've got some ugly looking jaws that inflict a nasty pinch. Other than those, there were several rustlings in the bushes; never did find out what caused 'em.
I think it was sometime after noon when we found a pond fed by a small waterfall. By this time, our uniforms stuck to us like a second skin, so we decided to take a lunch break and cool off. Water was a little on the warm side, but compared to the air, it was Heaven! I'll admit, we probably lingered longer than we should have, but everybody needed it. And we all got a good laugh out of a head hunter trying to take a swipe out of Hammerson's backside. He was okay – I nailed the thing before it got the chance. He'll never live down that girly scream, though!
Everyone's spirits picked up after that, and we made good time to the village, arriving shortly before sundown. Surprisingly, they already knew we were coming – there was a welcoming party waiting to take us to the chieftain. In asking Walker about it later, he told me that we'd been shadowed by a couple of tribesmen since about the time we left Mideel, and we'd have known about it if only we knew what to look for. I asked him if he'd known about it. He said yes, and that it was no wonder we didn't see them – ShinRa's ignorance blinded us to what was right under our noses.
I didn't think it was funny that we'd been tailed so easily. But he seemed to be having a good laugh at our expense, so I told him that sneaking up on a SOLDIER was a good way to lose a head, and he sobered up pretty quick after that.
I dunno, maybe Wutai's been a bad influence on me.
Anyway, we were led to the chieftain's hut. He and the rest of the Ba'keel are a very dark-skinned people, with black hair and rather prominent foreheads and wide noses. A lot of them didn't wear much of anything, though there were some with light, summer clothing obviously from Mideel. The more traditional clothing looked like it consisted of animal skin loincloths or solid fabric wraps; and everyone wore strings of beads, or feathers, or coins, or animal teeth.
The chieftain's face was painted, and he had a headdress that looked like it was made from some kind of poisonous snake's skin, with feathers and strings of beads sprouting from it. He also wore a necklace with large claws on it, which I think belonged to a gryphon, and held a staff with even more claws strung on it, and what looked like … some kind of shriveled lizard's head at the top.
We'd been forced to leave all our weapons at the hut's entrance, so I was admittedly a bit nervous. But the chief seemed like a good guy, even greeting us with a heavily accented "Weeelcome, ShinRa!" before reverting to his native language.
Walker translated for us. I figure the chief – Maal Bak; apparently Maal is their word for chief – already knew why we were there, but we laid it out for him anyway, requesting that he provide someone to guide us to the part of the forest where travelers have been disappearing. He was agreeable to that, according to Walker, and invited us to stay the night – they'd be having a dinner in our honor.
Well, I was agreeable to that! Besides, if it meant we wouldn't have to break out the tents and cardboard ShinRa rations, so much the better!
The remainder of the evening was a lively affair, with nearly the entire village gathered, cross-legged, around the fire. There were dancers and music, much of it strange and exotic, while the cooking food sent amazing smells into the air. I won't even try to guess what exactly they served us – various meats and roots, I suppose; it was probably best that I didn't know for sure – but it was heavily spiced with something sort of like curry, along with other seasonings. To finish things off, they brought out some kind of large, deep red fruit that had been wrapped in leaves and cooked in the fire. You first pry it open to drink the juice while it's still steaming, and then eat the thick rind. Kinda weird, but really good!
I thought we'd be done after that, but there was still more to come. Everyone was served some kind of thick, hot, dark drink, their after-dinner special, I suppose. It looked like mud, so it wasn't very appetizing. But it wasn't bad – tasted bitter, with a hint of chocolate and a bite of spice. Walker said the natives called it nakda. It was kind of relaxing, really.
While we were more or less enjoying that, the chieftain told us the story of their people, and how they came to know of the 'Strangers from Across the Water' (the settlers, most likely). Then he went on to talk about an ancient legend of spirits inhabiting the forest and how they, and the ancestors of the land, would make it known when they were displeased. They were displeased now, and the natives needed to make amends to the spirits … but they were afraid to because they were being hunted by something Walker translated as 'the Ghosts in the Trees.' Apparently this had happened one other time, long ago.
This seemed a bit confusing. Were the 'Ghosts in the Trees' the same thing as the spirits? I asked that, but never got a real concrete answer. The chieftain kept repeating, "They are taking us away."
I asked him if he'd ever seen one of these 'ghosts.' He hadn't, but he'd known people who had. And they had never returned from the jungle; the only thing left was their screams in the night.
Actually, to relate the story more accurately, the chief said, "We do not let them return." Walker was as confused as I was about that point, but again, the chief repeated the same phrase.
Honestly, I wasn't sure what to make of that story, but it sure was a bit creepy. I'm pretty confident, though, that we're just dealing with some kind of monster here that probably wandered too close to a Lifestream pool. I wouldn't be surprised if the natives thought it was a bunch of supernatural hocus-pocus going on.
The night concluded with what Walker told me was a 'warding ceremony,' designed to protect us from the 'Ghosts in the Trees.' Several of the tribe's elderly women provided a chant, while the younger women were – get this – assigned to paint our faces. I noticed the bewildered expressions on the other soldiers when they realized what was going on … and then it was my turn. I suddenly spotted a rather beautiful young lady whispering and giggling into the ear of someone who was probably her little sister, before sending the little girl my way with a shallow clay bowl of what looked like white paste. The girl was cute, wearing a simple, bright orange dress, and she hesitated bashfully when she reached me. There was a shout behind her – probably her sis telling her to "Go on," or something – then, with a quick glance backward, she dabbed her hand in the paint and reached up toward my face. Rather bewildered myself, I let her do what she wanted. Besides, her serious expression of concentration was adorable.
She drew a line down my forehead and nose, very purposely marked a squiggle on my right cheek, and finished up, quite boldly, with a full handprint over my right eye. Then she spun around and bolted for the arms of her sister, who was holding a hand over her mouth in amusement.
Protection ceremony … riiight …
I think I must've been pouting, because the young lady cocked her head and mimicked the expression, before abruptly laughing and turning away to gather several of the other women. To make an embarrassing situation even worse, we were instructed, in no uncertain terms (by the women tugging at us and Walker's translations) to remove our uniform shirts so they could continue to paint various "protective" symbols on our backs, arms, and chests. Despite our protests, it happened anyway. I found myself stuck with that same young lady who'd been laughing at me, and I'm sure I was as red as a tomato. I tried talking her out of it, but my tongue seemed to be tying itself in knots, and Walker wasn't helping out any. I … kinda think she was flirting with me, but I had no idea what to do!
… Don't laugh at me, Angeal.
Gosh, I hope Aerith never finds out …
She ended up getting a bit too comfortable after a bit, and I was beginning to think that she'd been done painting for a while. Finally managing to break away, I threw my shirt back on with a bunch of stuttered apologies, and went to round up the crew so we could get some sleep before heading out. It had been a long day after all, and none of us had slept much since leaving Midgar!
Seems the other guys had rather enjoyed the attention, though their women had been a bit more professional than mine had. Stover asked that, now that we were painted warriors, if we could break regs and leave our shirts off so the "protection spells" could work.
Giving him a long look, I finally said sure. I also said I was pretty sure mosquitoes didn't count as spirits, but if he wanted to parade around in the jungle without a shirt, I didn't care.
That got him back into his uniform real quick.
The rest of the events that night don't really bear much repeating. We all ended up in small huts, two each, except for me, since I apparently warranted my own hut as the "honored leader." I wondered if that's also why I got a little girl's handprint over my eye, instead of the warrior-like designs the other guys had.
Oh well. Guess it's time to put this pen down and get some rest. If I can. This place doesn't sound at all like the rainforest back home. There's all sorts of strange noises from the critters out there, including something that sounds an awful lot like someone screaming in the distance. When I first heard it, I bolted from the hut, but the guard out there didn't seem worried and shooed me back inside.
Guess it's really nothing to worry about …
Kinda wish they'd saved the ghost stories for morning, though.
Well, g'night, Angeal, wherever you are. You know I miss you, right?
to be continued …