(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
Heavy hooves shattered stagnant pools of glimmering water as they trudged onwards through the swamp. Darkness had long since fallen and it would be many hours before the sun emerged. They needed to reach the settlement, and quickly or else they’d be spending the night in the swamp.
Odius had no wish to so much as entertain that thought. For one it would mean sleeping on the horses, with those without horses forgoing sleep entirely so as to keep watch. In any other circumstance he would have had no issue pushing the men under his command, but the thought of mutiny in the air and the fact that the men were already on edge had made the choice an easy one. He did not wish to test their loyalty further, and besides, a good night’s sleep in something vaguely resembling a town could put their minds at ease. He doubted this, but it was a reassuring lie.
Jethrin had managed to overcome his pride, appropriating one of the supply horses as his personal mount and riding once more at his lord’s side. He still felt bitter about losing his horse in such a wasteful fashion, but needs demanded that he refuse to give in to his anguish. He hoped that one day he would look back on this moment and see that it had been a life spent wisely in service to an important goal, but the memories of the horrors he had witnessed in the Gnarlfist Mountains had been brought to the surface by his lord’s words earlier, and he was finding it very hard to shake them. At the time he had wondered if it would have really been so bad just to leave them to their madness, but he had dismissed such thoughts upon returning to Nordmere as the remnants of a cowardice he would never indulge. Time for reflection had helped, but the thought of confronting such darkness again brought back all his doubts and fears.
The conversation with the Elder had not helped much either. For all his half-hearted interest in superstitions, the reality of sorcery set his teeth on edge. Sages were magicians of tremendous power, known to few, they prided themselves on their enigmatic image and the freedom they were always granted as a matter of course.
Not that this was ever a real choice. It was nigh impossible to stop a sage. Unlike most practitioners of sorcery their control of the unnatural arts was not taught, they were simply born with it, giving them unlimited access to forces most mortals could barely comprehend. Jethrin did not know how the kingdoms could tolerate such powerful individuals, though to their credit there had never been a reported case of a sage turning rogue, and they were always there to offer aid when times were bleakest.
He could still recall the sages being called in to aid his homeland of Thesaly during the war that had all but destroyed the nation, but memories of that terrible time were always bitter. He had been little more than a child, and the destruction had left more scars inside of him than were carved upon his body. At the time it had seemed almost as though the sages had caused as much damage as those they fought, but he considered that could just have been the bitterness talking.
In any case they had made a deal with a sage now and in so doing gained a potential ally. That had been several hours ago, and upon ending negotiations the Elder had left, leaving the boy to fall once more into a deep sleep. He rode behind him now, bound to his seat to prevent him falling. Occasionally Jethrin would glance back at the boy, concerned that he may fall prey of the Elder’s possessive magic once more. As he looked at his scarred face he could not help but feel a sense of familiarity that chilled him greatly. Like looking at a mirror image of his own at that age.
‘Halt,’ yelled Lord Drovalak from the front, raising his palm high for those too far to hear him. As the echo of his words faded the procession finally stopped. Those furthest to the back brought their horses round so as to be level with the others.
‘Why are we stopping?’ asked Jethrin, but no sooner had he turned his attention away from his passenger than his question was answered. Ahead of them was a colossal gas cloud, the same one from earlier. It had seemed large back then as well, but now it was right before them he could truly appreciate its size. It was the height and length of a fortress’s walls, but it was not stone that blocked their path but a ghostly twisting yellow fog that swirled in the hideous light. It was too dense to see through it and there would be no going round it.
‘Scouts,’ called Odius. At his call five men sprang forward, formed a neat line at the side of their commander’s horse and bowed their heads. ‘It is far too dangerous to risk travelling through before we know what is on the other side,’ Odius continued. ‘You will need to go into the mist ahead of us and see that there is a safe route. Once found, return immediately and we will go through together. Do not linger, understood?’
‘Understood, my lord,’ chimed the scouts as one.
‘See to it then,’ said Odius, watching intently as they rushed off in the direction of the cloud.
‘Is that wise, my lord?’ asked Jethrin, ‘If there is danger ahead better we face it together than throw lives away just to check if it’s there in the first place.’
‘Better we lose men and more horses by entering that thing unprepared you mean?’ retorted Odius bitterly. ‘No, this is the only way.’
‘As you wish, my lord,’ said his retainer.
Odius watched as the last man disappeared inside the cloud and gritted his teeth. Jethrin had been partly right. They would have to move through the cloud all together anyway, regardless of what the scouts found, but still he would be able to avoid or at least limit any accidents by following a safe path. He had no wish to lose men as well as horses. Not if he could avoid it.
The group of soldiers waited, watching the swirling cloud intently. Not one of them uttered a single word. It was less than ten minutes before the screaming started.