(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
A sea of dancing silver light swirled and rippled around Elder Swansow’s face as he looked down at his own body, crossed-legged and leaning towards the stone altar in a state of deep meditation. The ether-world was grey and bland, far from the fairy stories he had been told as a boy so many years ago. He was standing in the midst of a colourless tide pool with various shades of grey flicking through white streams before disappearing from sight, like dust in the wind. A strange feeling always accompanied these out of body experiences, usually a twitch of unease, or a crawling sensation on his ethereal flesh at the weirdness of the situation, followed by the familiar uncertainty that the body and mind once separated would ever again be fully whole. This time the feeling was different, more elusive yet concentrated. He could breathe it in, even taste it on his tongue, but like a forgotten word its significance strayed from his mind. It would have to wait.
Free from mortal distractions he bid his mind to wander, phasing through a shadowy replica of the real world all the while floating just above the ground. He was invisible to the soldiers, intangible in any real sense of the word, but he could see and hear them as though he were standing in their midst, and what’s more he could taste them as well.
Emotions could be read inside the ether as easy as written word, though they were always different depending on who was perceiving them. For some they shone, the texture and frequency of the light fluctuating to announce subtle changes in temperament or feeling, while others experienced them in the form of melancholic music, the highs and lows depicting passion and despair. For Swansow it was smell and taste. Each soul emitted a unique aroma, that he could trace with expert precision directly to its source.
As it was the fear of these strange soldiers was an odour more pungent than even that of the swamp itself. It was a constant stench, like rotting meat. He could taste their confusion, and uncertainty, awash with the after-taste of obedience and apathy. Its rich texture was mouth-watering, though Swansow could not truly say why.
Denying the impulse to stay and sample their fear more thoroughly he continued his journey, descending between a number of soldiers that were busying themselves by readying horses or checking supplies whilst their comrades sat and ate their rations, stopping briefly between mouthfuls to converse in hushed tones.
Swansow felt his ethereal feet hit the ground. It was an odd sensation, like standing on a pool of electrified water, it took some getting used to. If he wanted to he could sink through lower, phasing through the ground itself, but the thought made him uneasy, and there was no need for such a frivolity.
Instead he decided to walk, committing every image to memory as he scanned the group for anything that might be important later. There were twenty men with the group and a further five lurking on the outskirts. All of them were only lightly armoured, wearing leather tunics rather than steel plate, and they all wore the symbol of Karinska, a gold embroidered church tower with a dome shaped roof that reminded him of a an onion, and a pair of spiked weapons half-sword, half-sickle crossed through it.
Where then was their leader? The one that his nephew had been so vocal about and deemed worthy of breaking his concentration. Where for that matter was Hansel? The boy had been far longer than expected. He would beat him for his inefficiency, or should he be too weak to do so, he would beat him all the more the next time that he failed. Obedience was important, but intelligence more so.
Swansow stopped in his tracks as he heard a voice. ‘It’s a nasty cut, but it’ll heal,’ it said, in a Thesal accent. He turned in its direction and walked briskly in search of its source.
‘Will he be okay?’ asked a second voice, a younger male with a thick Karinskar accent, more like that which Swansow had expected, ‘I didn’t mean to… I didn’t realise he was…’
Even though his mind and body were separated by miles he could feel the sensation of his hairs pricking up as a surge of panic spread through his body. Aware that this heightened emotion would soon rupture his concentration he sprinted forward, his ethereal legs carrying him forward at speeds that his mortal ones could never achieve. As he ran the colourless world flickered past him like lightning. In places it merged into great walls of grey, the streams of energy slowing to a crawl and congealing into one dull mass. By the time he reached the two men’s location the ether had melted into a cone of grey mulch, covering everything outside his path.
There were, it turned out, three men, standing over something covered by a blanket. One was a soldier, wearing the same uniform that all the others did. He deduced that he was most likely the young Karinskar. At his side was a much more armoured man whose face was a patchwork of scars and weathered lines. He was looking at the soldier apathetically, but Swansow could taste the cool, bitter revulsion that lingered in the air around him.
‘He is well,’ said the man, immediately identifying himself as the Thesal, ‘for now at least. Either way you can quit sitting around on your backside and get back to work.’
The soldier nodded and held his head low as he turned and marched off in the direction of the other soldiers. Swansow watched him leave, noticing two fresh bruises on his face. The man stank of fear as well, but his bouquet was of a blacker flavour. It was intriguing, but vulgar also and the Elder found it difficult to stomach at such close proximity. He found himself reaching for his throat as if to choke out the taste but all he could muster was a hacking cough.
‘What was that?’ asked the third man. He was hidden from Swansow’s sight, swallowed by the wall of grey.
Swansow narrowed his eyes in confusion. Had they actually heard him? No, it was impossible. It had to be something else.
‘The boy stirs again,’ said the Thesal, his tone indifferent.
The boy. Swansow’s fears had been realised. He crept closer, pushing to the centre of the cone and the body that lay there. Tattered, messy and covered in bruises both old and new lay Hansel, his eyes slowly fluttering open, his breathing slow and irregular. The Elder’s despair was palpable. A mixture of emotions flooded his system as he looked down at his nephew. All around him the wall of the cone began to contort and rupture, each broken shard gravitating towards the centre as though pulled by the power of his emotional outburst.
Panic filled his veins once more as Swansow turned to see the spikes of grey incoherent ether speeding towards him from every angle. He looked at the boy then back at the spikes and grimaced. There was only one thing he could do.
In one motion he leapt towards Hansel. Within less than a second the cone compacted fully around him, turning the ether into a single massive block of grey.