The Madukii Swamp was a place of opposites. Situated at the border of the frozen realm of Karinska and the crippled Brutic Kingdom of Thesaly it remained somehow untouched by the wars that had scoured the two regions and in stark refusal to comply with the laws of nature it was never cold, even in deepest winter it exuded an unsettling warmth. Ghostly yellow gases constantly erupted from pools of muddy, foul-smelling liquid, that glowed in the darkness and emitting an almost tropical heat. It was one of nature’s many oddities, but it was not one that Lord Odius Drovalak found particularly amusing.
For two days now he had been riding at the forefront of a small band of men, Muscovite conscripts mostly, sworn to his father’s service as a qualifier for his continued loyalty. His father was the Arbaron of Nordmere, a small Brutic colony that had barely survived the war that decimated its neighbours, and without the aid of Karinska’s forces would likely have been wiped from the map entirely, though the Arbaron of Nordmere was too proud a man to ever admit this was ever a possibility. Following the war an agreement drawn up between Nordmere and Karinska gave the former colony semi-autonomous control of its own lands and resources, a feat both unique in Karinska and much envied by the nobles of the Realm of Ice and Steel. Through expert negotiation, Nordmere secured its role as a trusted ally while still retaining its freedom. After all, had Nordmere not called on Karinska for aid they would have remained impervious to the coming threat, a fact that troubled the court more than they would ever admit.
As the future ruler of Nordmere, Odius was often called upon by his father to fulfil duties that he was too busy or too important to perform himself. As such Odius had travelled far in his life, entertaining the courts of Muscovy and Arcados, even travelling to distant Tahg in the Sal-Habim desert and taking audience with the reclusive Sultan. Through his son, the Arbaron had put Nordmere at the side of every major power known to man. It was for this reason that the assignment to the Madukii Swamps was such a curious one.
Odius turned to see his retainer, a Thesal by the name of Jethrin Lockwood, pull up beside him. Jethrin was a short man, with an ugly scarred face and matted hair that more resembled the mane of some wild beast than that of human hair. Odius had often joked that he had the spirit of a jackal and the looks to match, a resemblance that was not lost on Jethrin who wore the words like a badge of honour.
‘The men are addled, my Lord,’ the retainer remarked.
‘Of course,’ said Odius, turning his gaze from the man and back to the twisting yellow mist that hung before them. ‘This climate vexes them. It vexes me too, but they will have to come to terms with it.’
‘It’s not just that, though that is a part of it,’ said Jethrin. ‘The men are superstitious; with good reason too I might add. They think the swamp is haunted, and that the men in the mists will drag them off.’
‘Men in the mists?’ Odius sneered. ‘Are these not the same breed of men that marched with us into the Temple of the Haemomagus? In those halls we saw death a thousand times, and yet a simple marsh disrupts their sensibilities?’
‘As you say, the climate vexes them,’ continued Jethrin, mindful of his master’s growing anger. He knew that Odius, a man of learning and science held no love for religion or folklore, it was not the Nordmere way. ‘But do not overlook their fears so readily. They talk of beings that walk like men but only tread on ground that is touched by the mist. They may be thinking of witchcraft and hellsmiths but all I hear is “men in the mists”, and I cannot help but wonder if perhaps we’re being watched.’
‘Then why not just say that?’ snapped Odius. ‘You know how little I care for indirectness. If you believe we are being watched just say it.’
‘I didn’t want to make it too obvious that we were talking about that,’ said Jethrin. ‘The men are strong but their minds are fragile. Something has reduced them to whispering about ghosts and looking back over their shoulders. There is something in this, of that I am convinced.’
Odius nodded in agreement. He was still staring at the mist, watching patterns form and dissipate with the phantasmal green glow of the pools below. The bioluminescent water was something he had encountered once before when travelling. He had been told that it was a by-product of the algae collecting on the surface of marshes taking in the light of the sun and releasing it once more when the sun had set. It had struck him as a curiosity and a natural beauty at the time but there was nothing beautiful about it now.
‘Keep your opinions under lock and key,’ said Odius, finally turning to face his retainer and sergeant. His face was set in a deliberate scowl, as though the entire situation filled him with distaste. ‘I have fought too hard to gain the respect of these men; I will not lose all that I have worked for because of superstition and scaremongering. Have two men act as lookouts. Choose only those with a predisposition for level-headedness. Make it look like a military decision, and if any man speaks out about spirits or any form of hellsmith, have them report to me. I will knock the cowardice out of them personally.’
Jethrin nodded. He turned his horse, kicking up a spray of dirty water and then moved back down the line. Odius had only the utmost respect for his retainer. Unlike the others, neither of them had been born in Karinska, and though Jethrin was a Thesal he had spent the majority of his adult life in service to the sovereign domain of Nordmere.
Years of neglect had seen the Nordmere colony left to fend for itself, stuck as it was between the borders of the frozen lands and the forests and mountains of northern Thesaly. To this end Nordmere had bred a pragmatic people who willingly accepted alliance with Karinska in exchange for respite from the cruelties of their isolated lands. It had been around this time that Nordmere had declared itself to be secular and a realm of science, casting out religion and sentimental practices in lieu of those that benefited both themselves and their allies. The loss of religion had not come as a great blow to the inhabitants of Nordmere. In truth few still actively practiced, having foregone the use of Gods when the harsh reality of war had proved to them that their prayers would never be answered. Those few that refused were easily silenced, through one of the many avenues open to the Arbaron of Nordmere. Their passing was not mourned.
Both Odius and Jethrin were products of an age built equally on strife and co-operation, and though Jethrin was not his social equal, he privately thought of him as his closest advisor and the nearest thing he had to a true friend. In truth he was very much in the man’s debt, as his martial prowess and leadership abilities had taught him much and impressed the nobles of Karinska enough to allow the Arbaron command of a small company of their own soldiers, a not inconsiderable feat for someone without a drop of Karinskar blood in his veins. The only thing that Odius ever found truly distasteful about the man was his willingness to entertain the fantasies of the superstitious.
Though not a believer himself, Jethrin enjoyed the mystery of such stories. He entertained the belief that without them the world would be a much smaller place, something that Odius found to be decidedly contrary to his own belief that only with the complete eradication of superstition could progress truly be made.
‘So what are we doing here?’ asked Jethrin an hour later when his orders had been fully carried out. Two men were now standing away from the group as they rode on, carrying torches and peering into the mists. The mood of the soldiers seemed to have increased slightly, with Odius occasionally catching the end of a whispered joke or two. He did not mind this, it meant the men did not constantly fear that ghouls would pull them from the air, though he would never laugh openly at the jokes they told, that would be inappropriate.
‘I have already told you,’ said Odius, ‘Must I explain again?’
‘Hunting rebels,’ said Jethrin. ‘That is what you told me and nothing more. I may not be as learned as yourself but even I can see the ambiguity in those words. What rebels? What have they done?’
‘They have rebelled,’ said Odius, grinning at his own joke.
‘You don’t say?’ scowled Jethrin. ‘But you know what I am asking, Lord. We have fought through enough battles by now, and slain guilty and innocent alike…’
‘No man that attacks a son of Nordmere is innocent, Jethrin,’ retorted Odius.
‘Not all are men, either,’ replied the retainer, matching his master’s grin. Odius smiled at the obviousness of his comrade’s intent.
‘Would you prefer me to say we are hunting ghosts?’ asked Odius sarcastically.
‘No,’ replied Jethrin stubbornly. ‘So what are we hunting?’
‘Ghosts,’ said Odius, without a hint of deception in his voice.