From the Archives of Arasunia
Recorded by Vestigo in Ephemeris from Beyond the Verge
~3745, Maliken’s Beast Heart
If Death’s Cradle is the armpit of Newerth—and it is, despite what the damned botanists in Adkarna say—then the Rulian Marsh is the ass crack of our glorious land. One may wonder how an armpit and an ass crack can share a long, ragged border, but those people have never seen the It is a foul, damp, dangerous place without a single welcoming feature, unless you enjoy blistering sores and chafing that quickly escalates into bleeding. I do not, just as I do not appreciate being dispatched to this sweltering sinkhole by the counselors of the Capitol who would never deign to dip their robes in these fetid waters, which have ruined my one good cloak.
Even so, it is good to get out of Adkarna. The city is on the verge of panic, possibly collapse, in the wake of the King’s disappearance. Young Jeraziah has been recalled from the hidden Sang-La monastery to take the place of his father, at least for now, and though he tries to hide it, the crown trembles upon his naive, uncertain head. This alone has the city on edge. I cannot imagine the fallout should they ever discover the true reason for their King’s absence: the poor sod discovered he’d been sharing his bed with a shape-shifter, and the daughter they’d made can speak to the very beasts he’d been trying to bleed into extinction for over twenty years. Who can fault him for vanishing into the wilderness?
I can, that’s who. Because of his disappearance, men like me have been dispatched across Newerth to quietly search for him so he can be brought back and use his infamous iron fist to quell the whispers of anarchy and rebellion fomenting among the Legion troops. Perhaps iron gives too much credit. The bewitching of Sylvia has made Maliken Grimm soft, which is likely why he scampered off when he faced her true form, rather than mounting her deceitful head above his throne.
So here I am, trudging through thigh-high muck that chills my flesh yet also leaves a burning sensation for hours after it is washed away. I collected a sackful for the botanists so they can study it firsthand when I smear it across their damned faces. I hope to have enough left for Archivist Mortin, who was sent to wander along the shore of the Inner Sea to make sure our King did not merely take an unannounced holiday at the beach.
But despising Mortin won’t keep the blood-sucking insects off my neck, nor will it relieve the oppressive humidity that bloats my journal pages and smears the ink upon them. Let me document this malodorous land so I may escape it forever.
As I write, I sit upon a rectangular stone table obviously shaped with intent, but by whom I do not know. They are long dead. The table is in the center of a large square platform also made of stone. These blocks were cut and aligned to form a glorious sunburst with their seams. Marshwater rises to the edge of the platform and seeps into its cracks, and when I stand at the brink and probe my walking stick over the edge, I can feel the stone face continuing down into the blackness. This, along with the carvings, lead me to believe I stand atop a nearly submerged structure of great size.
Ah, the carvings.
The side near my dangling legs shows a pyramid, its height stepping up from a wide base to a narrow top, where a burst of light surrounds several crude human figures. Other carvings show wildly decorated, daemonic-looking people stabbing and decapitating prostrate victims, who grin with an unsettling look of bliss. These victims lie atop a rectangular shape, which—along with the brownish stains and deep grooves carved into the top surface—leads me to believe I am sitting upon an ancient sacrificial altar.
This does not improve my mood.
From where I sit, I can see no fewer than seven more platforms like this rising out of the slime. They are hard to identify, for the Rulian Marsh is ever dim beneath the canopy of moss and vines, and the structures are overgrown with twisted mangrove, cypress, and tupelo. The manmade shapes are also hidden by bulbous, clustered fungi that seem to reproduce every time I glance away.
I shudder to think what could be below me; chambers full of captives trapped in time, buried under hundreds of feet of muck and decay, waiting in terror for their turn upon the slab. I ponder which god or devil these people sacrificed to. Regardless, as I survey the crumbling, moldy remnants of the dead civilization being overtaken by the Rulian Marsh, it apparently did not work.
I spend a few moments imagining our good King Maliken Grimm, Uniter of the Five Clans of Man and Lord Commander of the Legion Armies, fleeing Adkarna and ending up here, ruler of mushrooms and swamp gas. Impossible. Even if he craved complete solitude he would not have come here. No sane man would. And if he had tipped his gourd too far south, as they say, and found himself alone within this soggy wasteland, my optimistic opinion is he would not last a week. The Rulian Marsh is alive, growing, and it continues to do so by killing just about everything that enters.
It is time for me to go.
As I step from the platform toward a half-submerged vine thick and strong enough to act as a boardwalk above the mire, a glint of metal catches my eye. It is wedged into a seam between two rocks at my feet. I pry it loose and find a brass shell casing as thick as my thumb. Odd. As a slick of green ooze falls from the empty brass, I cannot believe such a thing would remain intact for long in this marsh. This leads me to reconsider the brown stains on the sacrificial stone. I touch a finger to one, and it comes away sticky.
A feeling of forlorn dread overwhelms me as I circle the stone. The smaller end piece has more carvings, but these are much more elaborate, made with a finer hand—perhaps the same hand shown in the carvings, holding an ornate blade and eviscerating a naked victim who seems to relish the agonizing death.
More shell casings scatter around my feet in the cold water as I turn the corner and look upon the second wide canvas of the sacrificial stone. The record of sacrifices for this time period reads like an anatomical chart, with dissected skulls and twisting strands of DNA torn apart. These are hard to decipher, though, because someone much more primitive has etched a crude symbol over them. It shows a fanged skull atop a jagged shield with hooked tusks jutting out to the sides. Part of the skull is missing over the left eye, and I know not if this is intentional or simply lazy craftsmanship.
What I do know: this was made recently, and likely by the same person or creature scattering shell casings about and adding fresh blood to the sacrificial altar. The lines of the symbol are still white and fresh with bits of grit and dust clinging to the edges. I also know I do not want to be present when the symbol’s owner returns.
I thump across the vine to a rise of warm, spongy soil and moss that releases foul gases with every step. It strikes me as completely unacceptable that I should travel so far into the Rulian Marsh, avoiding quickmuck, mire serpents, and creeproot; ingesting the foul elixir prepared by Arasunia’s alchemists to keep the sentient spores from growing upon my flesh; and urinating far from anything that looks even remotely like a trunk borer, only to be shot by a marsh thug who cannot even draw well.
If Maliken himself rises before me, rejoicing over his rescue, I will slap him slack-jawed and curse his bloodline for dragging me toward such a ridiculous end.
But he does not.
I slop through muck and sludge thick enough to threaten the laces of my boots but I do not slow, because something with large, silent wings has detached itself from the canopy above and is following me. I do not look up. Whatever it is, instinct tells me it is waiting for me to see it before it dives, so I will die screaming. Amid the sloshing marshwater and the sludge slurping at my feet I hear the unmistakable rasp and click of a gun being cocked. Something large but hidden by the thick drapes of moss laughs at my frantic pace and flailing arms. I tear the satchel from my shoulder and pull the pouches of gold from within, scattering the heavy coins in my wake. My only hope is that these savages sacrifice their victims to the one god who binds us all: greed.
The strings of the last pouch loop over my hand and refuse to fall free. I shake my arm to no avail, and on the third attempt a single shot explodes from the shadows within a pile of overgrown ruins. The muzzle flash illuminates a green, heavy-jawed face, grinning widely through a tusked underbite, and just as quickly it is gone, lost in the darkness. The pouch of gold falls into a throbbing nest of fungi, its string shot clean through.
The darkness laughs.
“Your gold is welcome here,” it tells me. “But you are not.”
I do not require more proof.
The flooded bog slowly recedes as the land rises. The spongy moss, twisting vines and sagging mushrooms give way to harder ground, thorned grasses and brambly trees. I never thought I’d write these words, but thank Sol for Death’s Cradle.
Perhaps our King has fled here.
Perhaps I search for a ghost.
Either way, if he has set foot in the Rulian Marsh, Prince Jeraziah had best get comfortable beneath the crown.
I fear our King is gone forever.