Part 5 of 8 – 1000 Words
This work of fiction contains strong elements of horror and violence. Reader discretion is advised.
“Hold up now, son,” said Ozzen massaging the bridge of his nose. “Let me see if I can get this straight. You are telling me that something killed five Lupekin warriors, the very same Lupekin warriors that slaughtered your patrol, and did that without showing itself and without making hardly a sound?”
“Yes, sir,” said Ambroys, his face a mask.
Ozzen nodded thoughtfully and leaned toward the fire to finally light his cigarillo from a taper. Though the dwarf was rarely caught without a one clenched between his molars, Ambroys had never seen him actually smoke. It was a change in the seasoned veteran, a foreign wind. The young soldier tensed all the muscles in his body to keep from squirming in his seat.
Candle Ozzen eased himself back into the chair and took a few contemplative puffs, his arms crossed. “And you say, you never caught a glimpse of it? Never heard a splash or a rustle or gust of wind?”
“Yes, sir,” said Ambroys. He fought to bite back his irritation. Of course, he hadn’t seen or heard anything! He had already said as much. Why make him repeat himself?
“Boy, I’ve seen a lot of things in that there Morass. I saw me a flock of harpies once. I even saw a stink ape wrestle a bear but I ain’t never seen no swamp demon like that,” said Anton eyeing Ambroys over his whiskey.
They don’t believe me. The realization struck him hard in the ribs. He did not know what to say.
Ambroys’s surprise must have leaked onto his face because Ozzen leaned forward looking Ambroys over with his perpetual squint. “Way back–must have been seventy-five years ago now–I had just had my first Eye stitched on.” He pointed to the single golden eye insignia embroidered on the shoulder of Ambroys’s ravaged tabard. “I was stationed with the Marsh Hawks just outside of Window, green as new grass. One day my squad and I are on a routine sweep for smuggler’s caches along the coast. We should have been paying more attention, but the littoral patrol boats had already reported clear and it was a hot, sticky day of slogging through the mud when we knew we wouldn’t find a damn thing. What we didn’t count on was a gang of smugglers out of Risen Crest had paid off the patrol boat skipper for the day. Me and my whole squad stumbled right into them.”
Ozzen took a long pull on his cigarillo and swirled his whiskey. “We were completely surprised. I got hit hard on the head and went down early in the skirmish. When I came to my whole squad was wiped out and the smugglers were gone. Now I struggled with the guilt of that for a long time. Hells, it still churns my gut to think that they’re all dead while I’m not.” He took a swallow of his drink before continuing.
“Son, the point is you’ve been through hell. Someone only has to look at you to see that. It’s natural to feel guilty for surviving when your friends didn’t but no one would blame you for living.”
“Sir, I’m not lying-”
“No one is accusing you of that, son,” cut in Ozzen. The dwarf wore a sad smile that he probably thought looked comforting. In the shifting slick of firelight shadows, it just looked grim. “All I’m saying is that grief does funny things to us all. It can… blur the details, warp them out of proportion.”
Ambroys’s mouth hung open. They think I’m losing it, cracking at the edges. They think I’ve been through too much and my mind is warping reality to deal with the guilt. “I–I–,” stammered Ambroys grasping for some response.
“Maybe it ain’t one devil,” said Anton looking as helpful as a man selling prayer books door to door. “Maybe it was a whole mess of them. You know, the Grimwood tribe might’ve done this! Now there’s a group of goblins with a flair for the dramatic. Why I once saw them use flash powders and burning oil to drive a terror bird into a trap. If they were trying to drive out a pack of Lupekin they might do something like that to make sure fear keeps the mutts gone. Why I wager that’s exactly what happened,” he said slapping his knee and beaming at the others with a creamy smile.
Ozzen shook his head. “I don’t see it. I have nothing but respect for the Grimwood people. Savages though they may be, they do indeed have a way with theatrics. However, I find it hard to believe that a band of goblin primitives would be able to accomplish such a mission against a Lupekin pack that slaughtered eighteen trained Vigil soldiers.
“Well now, Candle, you just might be an expert in war and tactics and such. And you ain’t no stranger to the Morass. But I think you are giving them goblins short shrift,” said Anton. “I have been wandering the Morass since I was a sprout tagging along after my Papi. Them gobbies have more tricks than a squirrel in a nut house. Why once when I was trapping along the Bywater–”
“It wasn’t goblins, Grimwood tribe or any other,” interrupted Ambroys, frustration giving his words more bite than intended. Then turning to Ozzen, he continued, “Sir, it was one creature. I know that is hard to believe but it’s true.”
“Son, I know–,” started Ozzen.
“Sir, I’m not confused. I know what it was because I saw it,” said Ambroys. His face was flush, and the fire danced in his eyes.
“But you said that you didn’t see the creature,” said Ozzen leaning in. His natural squint narrowed until his eyes looked nearly shut.
Ambroys stared back eyes locked unflinchingly with his superior. “I said I didn’t see it then. It was later while I was running through the swamp.”
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