Updated: Mar 28, 2021
He didn’t even look up from his desk. His eyes were glued to the papers before him as he sorted them. I felt my heart pounding in my chest, I knew he had heard my request. As a newly appointed Custodian, I was given the right to choose my first project.
During my time at the Great Library, I had read of a lake in the Black Marshes. It was said that there were bodies chained to the bottom of it, but none knew why. Other reports spoke of strange things and structures near the lake, but much of the information was inconsistent.
As Custodians for the Great Library, we search for knowledge wherever it may be. We seek to understand and piece together the mysteries of our world. They were pieces of a grand puzzle, one that demanded to be put together. There was much we didn’t know about The Marches and the lake seemed to a good place to start.
The Loremaster sighed, pulling his glasses off and rubbing his eyes. “What fool's errand would make you want to go there?” He was acting as if this wasn’t the first time someone had made such a request. “Solenus, you know the rules. The Black Marshes are forbidden for research and exploration.”
“But, Loremaster Jedson, I simply wish to confirm the records, perhaps we might even find the reason why they are chained as the stories say. Perhaps there are ruins to help us know more about the people who called The Marshes home.”
The old Loremaster shook his head, separating the paperwork in front of him into two piles. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk, pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. His eyes were closed as if frustrated. Some might think it was due to the strain of sorting through so many reports. I, however, knew better.
“It’s too dangerous,” he said. “As much as I would love to grant your first research request, Solenus, I simply in good conscience cannot. You aren’t ready for such an ambitious undertaking.”
Unbelievable! “Loremaster, please! These years I have spent learning at the Great Library have not gone to waste!”
The Loremaster frowned, his age lines showing. “The magic you have learned from the tomes not available to the public is effective, but you must consider the war trolls and dragons who call the swamp home. Not to mention the other creatures and deadly flora we are aware of. That place was cursed millennia ago, it’s not meant for men like us.”
When I told, Canlin, Katerine, Joeval, and Haerin, of Loremaster Jedson’s answer they were furious. I knew the stories, we all did. There were dozen of tomes on The Marshes and it’s dangers. Some of the tales seemed overdone like the fairy tales told to children so they learned to behave. The tales, however, could lead to new discoveries and lost knowledge.
“He can’t be serious!’ Canlin said. “That old man has been stuck in the office for far too long.” He was shaking. Canlin had chosen to study plants as his field of expertise. The Marches were full of unknown varieties of exotic flora and fauna. He wanted to catalog them.
“Calm your yourself, Canlin,” Katerine said. “He is simply thinking of our safety. There are many places we can still go.”
Katerine, like me, loved history and unearthing ancient forgotten lore. She was brilliant and languages were her specialty. She spoke over twenty.
Joeval and Haerin remained quiet, but I knew what they were thinking. They wanted to proceed regardless of what I had been told. As brothers, they were stubborn and pigheaded. The library had taken them in at a young age. Joeval was a fighter, he soaked in books on martial combat like a sponge. Some of us jokingly teased him about having Absonian blood in his veins.
Haerin simply loved books. He would spend hours reading the stories of old, often daydreaming of writing future tales for himself. He wanted to discover new stories. Tales from cultures lost or recount their histories as accurately as possible.
“We leave anyway,” Joval said. “We have the funds and we’ve spent a year planning this. Solenus is skilled with magic and I can fight. Canlin knows his herbs, my brother can cook and Katerine is good at spotting things that are out of place. She can also communicate with most creatures fairly easily. Each of us brings something to the table.”
The others agreed and before we knew it, our bags were packed, supplies were bought and travel arrangements were underway. I brought the maps between Haerin and me, we could navigate our route easily enough. We kept everything quiet, otherwise, the Loremasters would have stopped us. After a week, we set out.
We had to circumvent the Great Wall following along perimeter at a distance. Absion had initially built it many centuries ago to protect itself from the war trolls. The nation’s eastern border, from north to south, ran the length of The Marshes. At its southern edge, the border met with the Sinkra Alliance and Baneese.
The Alliance would be the easiest to deal with. Katerine spoke Sauration. The lizardmen would think us mad, but wouldn’t try to stop a handful of humans and their porters from entering the marsh from their borders. Most of their territory was considered part of the marsh to begin with, but they had somehow managed to remain unscathed by the trolls.
Upon arriving at the first village, I could see that the Sauratians were curious, but also cautious. Katerine spoke to them, using a variation of Hand Sign and their native tongue. I was always amazed at how fluidly she could communicate with others and place them at ease.
“They know of the lake. They say it’s cursed and no one goes there, but I was insistent and the told me that it will take about three days with the rough terrain. We’ll need to reach the river if we want to arrive sooner, but that involves greater risk.”
She was staring at me expectantly, they all were. “A boat would be too dangerous, we don’t know the area or what creatures we might encounter here,” I said. “We can follow the river, but we should keep our distance from the shoreline.”
“According to what we mapped,” Haerin chimed in, “ we’ll need to deviate from the river after a day, that’s assuming that maps are correct.”
Assuming. The word filled me with a chill. We hadn’t told the others, but it was mostly a guess to find the lake. We had spent hours correlating stories and compiling the coordinates.
“Solenus,” Katerine said, reaching out and placing her hand on my arm. “We’ll find it.”
I smiled, feeling my cheeks flush when I gazed into her brown eyes. “We’ll find more than just a lake,” I replied. “We’ll find the answers to what was here before.”
After a short rest, we set out. The Marshes were every bit as inhospitable as the journals I read had said. The humidity was horrendous. We were on constant watch for snakes, venomous spiders, and other dangerous creatures. As we navigated through a waterlogged area filled with cyprus and deadwood trees One of the porters screamed. A large alligator had taken him. Joeval tried to save him but the beast had already taken him under and into a death roll. The thing was fifteen feet in length.
We were forced to run to the nearest embankment leaving the man to his fate. I could have used an incant to finish the beast, but I needed to save my magic for trolls and worse. In the water, it had the advantage.
By the end of the first day, we found drier ground and the river was in sight a few yards away. Katerine was quiet, we all were. It was the first time we had watched a man die. While the others broke camp, I used my magic to place alarms and protections against anything else that might venture too close. We couldn’t afford to lose anyone else.
Shortly afterward was when we met her, a seemingly innocent Shaylin girl. In truth, the sight of her was unnerving. I mistook her ruddy appearance as a result of her time in the swamp, but no, it was more than that. I could feel it.
Only the War Trolls and Sauratians call The Marshes home. At first, she was pleasant, hospitable even. Her fiery red hair was captivating. I had never seen a Shaylin with red hair. As far as anyone knew, elves only had varied shades of brown, while a few had blonde. The Darkren, or dark elves, were the opposite. They favored blonde hair over brown.
Haerin immediately took a liking to her. He was always fascinated by the elves. He’d spend hours studying whatever histories he could find on them, truthful or not. The Shaylin were cautious about letting much about themselves be known to the world beyond their borders. Though stories were leaked.
The red-haired girl warned of the dangers we would find on our journey to the lake. She offered to help us navigate in our search for it without fear of trolls. While I was reluctant, but because the others readily agreed, I accepted.
Haerin and she talked endlessly, I honestly think he was falling in love. Kintra, as she called herself, seemed to enjoy his company. Often asking him about the outside world and the places he’d been. He would go on the stories he knew and the tales he had studied, all of which the red-haired girl absorbed with delight.
She would occasionally turn her attention toward Joeval, Haerin becoming noticeably jealous, as a result. Joeval seemed to enjoy agitating his brother, showing Kintra different fighting stances by taking a ‘hands-on’ approach as he taught her. Kintra would flirtatiously play along, but honestly, I wouldn’t expect any Shaylin not to. They could be capricious like that.
As our time blended together, she took a strange interest in each of us. Often asking about ourselves and where we came from. She was especially interested in what we learned at the Library. As the days carried on, something also struck me as odd. Our journey appeared to be taking longer than it should.
Kintra had begun to change as well, growing increasingly agitated and erratic the closer we drew to our destination. When we passed a ruined structure as we followed the river, she even seemed fearful. At times she would mumble to herself. It was only later that night, after we broke camp, that Canlin had vanished.
I checked the enchantments designed to warn us of danger, none had been triggered. Upon his disappearance, she appeared calmer and full of clarity at first glance. We searched everywhere, but there was no sign of him. His effects were where he had left them. It was as if he had simply faded into thin air. I spent the day consoling Katerine, she wanted to turn back, but we all knew that was impossible.We had disobeyed an order from a Loremaster if we didn’t bring back something worth such an act, there would be no home for us to return to.
By the end of the next day, Kintra’s behavior from the previous night had resumed. She was curled into a ball and shaking. Joeval tried to help her but she swatted him away, her expression filled with terror and a hint of something else.
There had to be something in these ruins as the cause, perhaps a reminder of something terrible that had happened to her. As if she was being forced to relive some terrible memory. I decided to look around, to understand what this ruin was.
The Black Marshes were vast and still unexplored. Thanks to its deadly denizens many of its mysteries remained undiscovered. Legends say, according to the Shaylin, that it was once a vibrant nation. The Library only has a few documents and books to correlate the tales.
The Shaylin of Daeshal weren’t very forthcoming with sharing much about this nation or its fate. Then again, much history was lost after the Invasion. Its name was in the Library’s records, Tae Slen, and the three main rivers of the Marsh were its lifeblood.
It was late into the night before I finished my search, but my findings were nonetheless fruitful. The ruin was a singular building amid dozens more that had long sunk into the mire and muck. From the dimensions and placement, we were standing in what had once been a small town.
My heart races as the prospects of we could learn. With the knowledge of how to navigate our way safely here, the lake seemed a pittance by comparison. In my excitement I rushed back to the camp, the others would want to know.
Upon my arrival, I only saw Kintra, everyone else had vanished. She appeared calm and in control of herself. A fire had been built and she had already started cooking the evening meal. I felt strange, my mind, hazy.
“Where are the others?” I asked.
She looked up at me confused. “Others, Solenus?”
“Katerine, Joeval, and Haerin, Kintra,” I replied. “ The porters too. Where are they?”
“Solenus, it has been just been you and me,” she answered. “I found you wandering aimlessly, scared and lost. Don’t you remember? You said some Reds had chased you. That they had captured your friends. You begged me to help you rescue them from the trolls.”
She reached for her spear beside her. It was metallic, ornate and ancient in appearance. The designs etched into it were fluid, as if mimicking the flow of water toward its tip.
Did you always have that?
I stared, my ears not believing what they had heard. “No, there were five of us from the Library, plus the four porters we brought with us.”
“No, Solenus,” she replied. “You are confused. The diamond head’s poison must still be affecting your mind. You were bitten earlier this morning when we were packing up camp. Check your arm.”
I reached up my sleeve, through the folds of my tunic. To my horror, there was a diamond-shaped bitemark on my arm. “What…is this?”
I collapsed on the ground, a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. It didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. I looked up at Kintra, her elven features were stoic, eyes empty. I never realized she had been this close.
I felt cold as if ice had passed over me, a sense of weightlessness on my body then the rattle of a chain, and the tug of something around my neck. I looked to Kintra, her hair was hovering about her head and swaying as if underwater. Her dark brown eyes turned black and then I knew.
We had indeed found the lake. We just didn’t know about her. I began to remember what had happened and what was happening.
Kintra smiled, her visage growing paler, sores forming on her angular features. “It gets so lonely here, they pass on so quickly,” she said. “But I learn many things before then. I learn of the world beyond these waters.”
The stories…They were inconsistent because of you…
She laughed. “Of course they were. I always let someone go. Otherwise, no one would ever come. Though everyone remembers something different.”
She pulled away and I saw them all. My friends, the porters and those who had come before us. Only Canlin was missing. He was the one who had been set free.
The others were held by a chain around their throats, some long decayed with the ravages of time. A few of the chains were empty as if waiting. I stared at Katerine, my heart breaking. She was staring at the lake’s watery surface far above us, her eyes empty and mouth open in a twisted scream. I could tell by her appearance we had been here for some time.
I’m so sorry, this all my fault.
“Solenus,” Kintra said. “I died so very long ago. Before your nations were ever given thought when these lands were whole and pure.”
I used to think that I might go screaming but staring at her, at this shade, without an idea of when my death had taken place, I felt nothing at all.
How long will I remain here?
“Until I there for me to learn,” she replied. “I’ve already sent whispers for others to come.”
Then I shall endeavor to keep you entertained.
She smiled and that was when I knew I had her.
Do you know of Kings?
“Which King?” she asked.
It was my turn to smile. I was never good at the game, perhaps it was because it never seemed worth taking seriously. Now, as I match wits with this ancient thing in this cursed lake, I suddenly came to appreciate its merits. All I can do now is pray that I last long enough so others will never have to share in my fate. If foolishness had taught me anything, it’s that some mysteries are best left alone.