From the Plains of Elar, Grathis Sornstead could see the vastness of the swamp. It appeared as any mire might, yet as they drew nearer, his opinion quickly changed. Morroc Swamp looked and felt like a diseased forest, pale and lifeless. The air was thick and suffocating, and a warm fog littered the landscape.
I can see how myths and children’s stories are created by this place, Grathis thought to himself as he and his men trotted lightly amongst the soft ground. He commanded eleven men of the Guard as their Captain, and he was charged with investigating bandit activity in the area, as well as one other task… one he kept from his men. Rumors had been spreading and reports accumulating, speaking of soldiers vanishing in the lands surrounding the swamp. Grathis contemplated what his superior, General Ballinger, had told him prior to their departure from Dawns Gate. The Narrows are to the south, and they were dangerous – everyone knows that, he tried to convince himself. But if it had been corpses left behind, that would have been a different story, and the disappearances were increasing week by week.
The sounds kept them alert; the brooding bugs, ticking and whistling about, and even the eerie stillness of the water somehow made its presence known. The men were quiet, and Grathis wondered what sort of myths they chose to believe in their own minds. I wonder if I should tell them why we are really here… what Ballinger had charged me with. Grathis thought better of it, however. He wasn’t even sure if he believed it.
“Morroc Swamp is one of the largest swamps in Cadere, how in the Unknown are we supposed to find anything in here?” Ebbard Stonely asked, spitting in frustration.
“We’ll see what we can see,” Grathis responded. “The day is still young. Keep your eyes open for a suitable place to set up camp… it might be tricky to find a good spot out here.”
It was true, Grathis knew. Morroc Swamp’s glooming wastes stretched for miles, almost reaching the citadel of Hornsboth in the southwest. The locals in these parts warn travelers to stay clear and for valid reasons. The witch… It made Grathis laugh thinking about it. Witches and wizards were a thing of the past. No one had seen or used magic since the First Age. But General Ballinger appointed this task to my men and I. He’s not a man to believe in such nonsense. It has to be true…
Hours went by and they came across nothing. Living things were scarce, and everything felt decayed or rotten. All that seemed to be living were bugs, and more bugs. He could tell that his men were growing restless, but Grathis grew eager, and the weariness of his soldiers worried him.
“Captain, surely this foul air can’t be good for our health,” pleaded Smitty, who looked about nervously. Smitty was a coward, everyone agreed. Why he joined the Guard – and how he kept a post as a soldier – Grathis would never know.
“Smitty, if I wanted cravens on this squadron, then I would have asked for ten more,” replied the captain. The truth was, however, most of his men were appointed to him. New captains had little say in the men they would lead. With experience and laurels a captain can begin to choose his own guard. Damon hand selected some of his men. I am just as capable as he is, and I’ll prove it to him and everyone else.
They rode out from Dawns Gate four days ago on horseback, making excellent time across the western wilds. Now Grathis and his squad had almost slowed down entirely. The swampland is no place for horses. The thick, mossy undergrowth was difficult to tread, and a number of horses were struggling. One horse neighed loudly and reared its rider off. The man Grathis believed to be named Timothy Waller fell on his back, sinking two feet into the soft mud, cursing all the while. A few men laughed; even Grathis held back a smile. “A little help here?” Timothy complained.
Grathis called a halt to the group once Timothy was back on his feet. He took a moment to contemplate their situation. As far as his eyes could see the water and damp grounds didn’t yield, and he was unsure how much further they would need to travel to find sturdier land.
“Let the horses go,” Grathis commanded his men.
“What do we do when we get out of this forsaken place without any mounts?” Smitty asked.
“It’s not terribly far from Hornsboth, we can get horses there, and hopefully some new boots too,” Grathis said, trying to kick some of the mud off his plated boot. “Timothy may need a whole new set of armor,” he joked.
“I wish we had stayed at Cragstone just a little longer,” Boran Demfort admitted as he unsaddled himself. “Their kaeran wine is to die for.”
“I can’t stand that swill,” said Ebbard. “The fire whiskey does the job. Those orcs sure know how to make good booze.”
“And kill brain cells,” Grathis said. He wasn’t much of a drinker, but oftentimes there wasn’t much else to do whilst on duty. If they travelled from Dawns, they usually stayed in towns and patrolled the borders. His cousin, Damon, was tasked with patrolling Northwatch, and was always on the road. Now those are soldiers, Grathis thought, thinking of Damon and the men under him. It’s the first mission for most of my men. He looked at their faces – few were older, but most were young, and inexperienced. They were good, honest men, despite their lack of subtleties, and they were all the captain had. He would turn them into fine soldiers yet.
Their twelve horses were released to wander back to Cragstone. Damn this place, Grathis cursed. He couldn’t help but notice the paradoxical nature of the swamp: the air was dry and warm, but the ground beneath was wet and cold. Why would anyone in the world want to live here, even some crazed sorceress?
A sharp howl wasted off in the distance, and all twelve men came to a halt.
“A werewolf?” one of the Guardsmen asked in a hushed voice.
Grathis rolled his eyes and let out a long sigh. He couldn’t be mad at their naivety. They likely believed all sorts of nonsense about why soldiers had been going missing. What’s more realistic, a werewolf roaming the lands or the fabled witch of Morroc Swamp enslaving the minds of soldiers? It did seem like a tough question, Grathis realized, finding the humor in it.
“There are no werewolves this far west,” Grathis said, deciding to give them an honest answer. “Werewolves require a substantial amount of meat. Tell me how many wild animals you have seen wandering around since we got here.” When nobody answered he knew he had answered well. “We need to find somewhere to set up camp. We are running out of daylight.”
Grathis’ skin was layered in sweat and his armor itched and felt heavy around his body. Bugs whistled past them and were a constant annoyance; a reminder that perhaps their last post at Sirrans Gate wasn’t so bad. The soldiers approached a peculiar section of the swampland; the tall grass had shrunk and the surrounding area was more visible. There was noticeably less water around them and they finally had solid ground to tread upon.
“This spot will do,” Grathis said. He sat down against a felled tree on a dry patch of land. Thoughts led to his cousin, Damon, and the last time they had seen each other. He missed him, truthfully, but Grathis was still angered and wounded by the last thing Damon had said to him. He was wrong, he must know that. Why would he say such words after everything we went through together? Grathis felt guilt aside for never reaching out to him. Northwatch could be dangerous to patrol, and if anything ever happened to Damon he would never forgive himself for the silence over the years.
“… Werewolves,” Ebbard said, snickering.
Boran bellowed, laughing along with Ebbard. Even Timothy joined in the laughter, forgetting that he had been covered in thick mud. Grathis couldn’t help it, and laughed into his glove alongside his men.
A short time went by after they had settled in. Grathis thought it best to broach the subject of the witch, and the nature of their mission. “Listen up, there is something I must tell you.”
The eleven soldiers gathered around him, cautiously. Okay, here we go. But something felt… off. Grathis looked around their campsite… at the rising fog. He felt strange – at ease even. His men began to look at each other with queer expressions.
“Don’t you feel it?” he asked them.
The Guardsmen looked around and stared blankly at one another in close proximity through their steel helms. No one said a word. They instead looked to their captain to divulge whatever was on his mind.
“There’s nothing,” Smitty said.
“Yes,” Grathis agreed. “There’s no crickets, no flies… nothing.”
Then Grathis heard it, a whisper at first. It became more audible as the twelve of them looked around in dismay. Is it a song? No… it’s too hard to make out. What is it? Then Grathis knew – he knew the legend was true. The voice was that of a woman, foul, yet beautiful at once. She spoke an enchantment through the mists, but there was no one in sight. They do not train to fight songs in the Guard; this was a battle Grathis was not ready for. I should have told them… I should have warned them. What have I done? Damon, my cousin, my best friend, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.
“Run…” he tried to shout to his kinsmen, but his voice was cut off.
The men were all frozen on the spot, unable to move or speak. The song of the witch had caught their ears. Grathis tried with all his might to reach for his sword, but to what end? What use was metal against magic?
He turned his head to look at his men, his brothers in arms, and then he saw her at last; a dark figure moving towards him from the white shadows of the swamp.
Part 1: Sojourn