(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
At Odius’s insistence a temporary camp was erected short of the cloud. There were a number of good reasons for doing this, though it dented his pride to admit them. Chief amongst these was the fact that he dared not risk leaving the soldiers to their own devices. Things were escalating now. He could see that for himself. If he did not task the men with something vaguely resembling a genuine purpose there would be plenty of time for mutiny to take hold. Or, he thought, to burrow deeper.
A supply tent had been assembled at the front of the group as a private space for Odius to discuss the future of the expedition. It was far less impressive than his actual command tent, having been designed simply to keep provisions dry and little more than that, but he needed to separate himself from the men. The constant watching eyes and whispering voices served only to distract him. He would not be cowed into a confrontation, that would make things far easier and give justification to their treacherous feelings. Instead he would remain calm and plot the next move. Whatever that may be.
Naturally Jethrin had disagreed with him. The grizzled veteran preferred to face problems head on, charging them mindlessly and to hell with the costs. As he had said before they would indeed have to pass through the cloud eventually, delaying this allowed doubt to fester. Doubt, he had added, that could have been avoided entirely if only Odius had been honest from the start. He had hated Jethrin for saying that. Who was he to question? How could he not know that there was a very good reason for keeping the men in the dark? Perhaps he had coddled the man for too long, spoiling him with privileges above his station out of pity and a juvenile sense of brotherhood.
Brotherhood. He laughed to himself. The word was just as false as all the gods and hellsmiths he has fought his entire life to deny.
So why deny them further? The words just appeared in his mind, perhaps from some dark pit far beyond the reaches of his rational mind. They resonated some truth though, after all the fight for rational truth was a difficult one in a world where men could inhabit each other’s bodies or bewitch whole villages into believing that self-mutilation would bring back their crops. What was rational about that?
‘My lord,’ said Jethrin, his voice adopting the rigid tones Odius had come to associate with his extreme discomfort, ‘the Elder is returned, he wishes to…’
The retainer was interrupted by a short figure entering the tent. It was the boy, Hansel, once again standing uneasily, face contorted into a near comical grimace. It was an expression for a man years older than he was, and in any other situation would have appeared highly ridiculous, but the timing of his arrival so soon after thinking about him was disconcerting. It was almost as though he had conjured him… or maybe he had always been there, watching him, reading his mind.
He attempted to push the notion aside, but the unsettling feeling of paranoia could not be so easily shaken.
‘Lord Drovalak, why is it that you have yet to traverse to the settlement?’ asked Swansow.
‘Have you not seen the wall that stands before us?’ said Odius, too exhausted to spar with such an absurd opponent. ‘It blocks our path and bewitches our men. We have lost four scouts to it already, with only one returning driven half-mad by visions of blood and unliving fiends that supposedly make their home in its embrace. How is Dachaski recovering by the way?’ Odius turned to Jethrin, deliberately pulling him into the conversation and ignoring the livid face of the possessed boy.
‘He is fit and well,’ said Jethrin anxiously. ‘His memory of his time in the cloud is cracked but I gather that may be more of a blessing than a curse. He sleeps now but his dreams are more feverish than when he is awake. There was talk of a stream of blood, miles of corpses, his comrades being burnt away by the touch of the mist on their skin.’
Swansow snorted, and Odius was tempted to strike him for his insolence before realising that it would only serve to harm the boy and not the Elder himself.
‘You find this amusing, sage?’ he growled. ‘Four men are dead, one delirious. Illuminate me to the humour of the situation.’
‘I doubt they’re dead,’ said Swansow, rubbing his eyes more from habit than genuine need, ‘It’s one of the more charming effects of the swamp gas, you see. Concentrated as it is so greatly here it draws on the fears of those that come into contact with it. More than likely your other men suffered similar episodes and were simply driven out the opposite side.’
‘But the vision was so vivid,’ said Jethrin shaking his head. ‘All of this was simply in his head?’
The boy nodded, a patronising smile on his face. Hatred overcoming him Jethrin sprang forward shoving the boy to the ground. Swansow gasped at the force of the impact, looking down at his hands in confusion. They were gnarled and old. They were not Hansel’s hands, they were his. Somehow his actual body had reacted to the attack. He could half-feel it aching like a terrible thought at the back of his mind. Jethin did not fail to notice the Elder’s confusion and smiled with smug satisfaction.
‘Not quite invulnerable are you?’ said Jethrin slyly, offering his hand to the fallen boy and dragging him to his feet. ‘Oh you feel the pain alright, but I wonder what would happen if we were to try some experiments. See I imagine that your nephew can take a lot of pain, his body is covered in scars already. What are a few more to him? He’s young after all, he’ll recover just fine, but as for you, are you sure you could survive it?’
Sage and retainer stared at each other, their gazes locked in mutual dislike. Jethrin had heard tales of spirits that could inhabit a body like a cancer, entrapping its true owner within a cage of their own body while their occupier abused the freedoms their new body gave them. Those had been ghost stories, but this was real and he was damned if he would let it continue.
‘Enough,’ yelled Odius. ‘Elder Swansow, by refusing to inform us of the perils of the swamp you have directly endangered the lives of my men and the future of this expedition as a whole. The man stand on the brink of treachery and this is all because of you. I am sorely tempted to end your sorry life but unfortunately for now you hold information that is important to me. Now I am not entirely against torture as a rule, but to torture a child is an act I find repulsive to the extreme. Even so, that is a boundary I will willingly cross if you continue to hold our alliance in such contempt. Do you understand, Elder?’
‘I understand,’ said Swansow bitterly, the irony of his situation not escaping him. ‘What do you wish to know?’
‘I wish to know everything, sage,’ said Odius, revelling in the reversal of fortune. The balance of power was on his side once more. ‘I wish to know the real reason you are here, and why you wilfully hindered my path. I wish to know why you sent a boy who is little more than a child to spy on a company of armed soldiers, and why you even now fail to reveal your true self to us. Yes, Elder Swansow there is much that you will tell me in time, but for now I all I require is a way to overcome the effects of that damned cloud.’