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Demongrass Swamp

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Demongrass Swamp, as the locals called it, was actually just a mud lake that covered a huge area. The most eye-catching part of the 'lake' was the grass that grew on its surface. They looked like dense growths of eupatorium plants[1] floating above the water, with their long stems reaching down deep below the water's surface. From afar, it looked just like a normal piece of land with tall grass. While the grass near the sides of the lake was rather tough and could bear human weight, the ones closer to the center couldn't. With but a misstep, one would fall straight in and sink to the bottom.



It wasn't that mud had no buoyancy; the problem was with the grass that grew from the very bottom of the lake itself. Even crocodiles, the 'kings of the swamps', don't dare to enter the lake for fear of being tangled up in the roots and drowning. Apart from insects, smaller fish, snakes, and frogs, there weren't any other animal within the lake. Most larger birds wouldn't even bother to hunt there.

Reidy wasn't unfamiliar with this kind of grass. Near Northsea, completed just two years earlier, the opposite shore of Azure River was Blackmud Marsh. The household had developed that part of the marsh into rich farmland, but ironspine crocodiles still lurked on the opposite shore of the river.

Without battleforce of at least the silver rank, one couldn't damage them at all. One couldn't even put a single scratch on their backs without a blade glow. This was precisely why the house's Oceanic Legion used armor made from ironspine crocodile leather. Not only was it strong, it also floated better and had great heat-insulating properties.

When the household developed that part of Blackmud Marsh, they fashioned two extremely huge steel ballistae solely for use against the crocodiles. Lorist also had the largest one they killed embalmed and displayed on Northsea's plaza. As a result, the plaza was known as Crocodile Plaza. Some kids even used the embalmed crocodile as their playground. One could often find little figures climbing in and out of its huge mouth.

When the house built the long wall from Tortoise Hill to Azure River, some construction sites were attacked by the crocodiles. Thanks to the frequent waves of ballistae bolts, the crocodiles learned to behave and no longer swam to their deaths of their own accord.

'Since the crocodiles won't come over, we'll go to them,' was the conclusion the Oceanic Legion came to. They had two boats equipped with the steel ballistae, which allowed them to hunt the crocodiles as they sailed down the river. In time, not a single crocodile was visible anywhere near the wall. The hunters had to go into the deeper parts of Blackmud Marsh itself.

Blackmud Marsh was so wide that even after several years, the Nortons had only explored a third of it. During some of their expeditions, they discovered a few mud lakes just like Demongrass Swamp. At first, the hunters thought the crocodiles would surely hide in such a dense growth of grass and decided to set them on fire to flush the beasts out. They only discovered the true nature of the lake, within which was the network of roots. Simply by tossing a hook and pulling it up, they found bundles of fine stems as well as some rotten ironspine crocodile carcasses.

When Reidy was training at Firmrock Castle, he would occasionally go out for changes of pace. One time, he was asked to tag along for a trip to the marsh with Paulobins and fell in love with the sport of ironspine crocodile hunting, more specifically, fighting one on one with middle-sized crocodiles armed with nothing but a sword, using them as his sparring partners. Having spent quite some time in the marsh, he was familiar with the muddy lakes, so, when he saw one in Egret Basin, he thought of using it to escape from his pursuers and teach them a lesson.

One day, when Reidy had just arrived, he was elated to find such a dense grassland in which he could hide from his pursuers. But after taking two steps forward, he noticed something was amiss. Quickly drawing his sword and poking downwards, his blood cooled.

Isn't it all mud below? If I had taken a few more steps forward, I really would've been done for...

That night, Reidy cut a few bushes and trees near the lake for wood and used what remained of his torn-up leather armor and some vines to make a rope. He tied the wood together and laid it in the lake. While the mud did have buoyancy and wouldn't cause a living being to sink right away, it was the grass's stems and roots that mainly entangled any living thing that panicked and struggled within. The more one struggled, the faster one would be entangled and drown.

Even though Reidy had carefully laid the little wooden raft in the lake, he was nevertheless very cautious when he got aboard. Keeping one's calm was the key when entering the mud lakes. Should one ever make any extreme movements, one's limbs would end up caught between some of the grass stems.

First, Reidy gently laid himself on the raft and pulled at the grass in the lake carefully to propel him toward the lake's bank. While doing so was Reidy's only hope of escape, it would've been far safer if he had someone watching over him from the shore.

Right now, however, he was alone. He spent the whole night getting ready before he hid amidst the grass not too far away from shore and he waited for his pursuers to arrive. No matter what, he had to steal some rations. Otherwise, it would be incredibly difficult to survive the cooling weather.

The first ones to arrive were the silver-ranked guards of House Fisablen, led by Blademaster Xanthi herself. She had seen Reidy disappear into the curtain of grass as well as the dozen corpses on the ground.

"Find him right now!"

"Yes!" replied one of the guards.

He took ten or so others with him and into the 'grassland'.

Xanthi didn't think the silver ranks could deal with Reidy in the first place. All she wanted was for them to hold him back and buy her time to make her approach. As long as that quiet attendant of Lorist wasn't allowed to escape, Xanthi was confident she could take care of him. She recalled that Lorist had once personally introduced Reidy as his eldest disciple. She could remember how laughable it had all seemed when she heard that a youngster like Lorist had taken disciples to mimic true masters despite his youth.

A few years had already passed since that encounter when House Norton just managed to defeat the second prince's army and stormed The Northlands while they were at it. At that time, Xanthi and Sylvia were both trapped in the duke's mansion at Gildusk. They had even captured Baron Shazin Hennard and his gold-ranked knight as hostages to negotiate their release. Unexpectedly, however, Lorist himself barged into the mansion and defeated Sylvia before moving on to beat the blademaster, forcing her to release their hostages. Despite that, the matter ended without incident after Lorist personally escorted them out of The Northlands.

She had always thought of Lorist's victory as a fluke, justifying her loss by believing that she had to hold back and not go too far given she was in enemy territory. It didn't help that she still had some energy left even after she was defeated while Lorist fainted right away. To this day, Blademaster Xanthi didn't think Lorist was truly her match.

As they traveled back to Eastwild, she learned that Sylvia got along with the new leader rather well. Xanthi took the opportunity to find out about the origins of Lorist's sword style through Sylvia. The count trained in the ancient combat arts of the now-extinct eastern martial monks of legend. It was no wonder his style was so drastically different.

It didn't mean Xanthi considered Lorist's skills seriously by any means. Even though Lorist's critique of her sword style let her gain some valuable insight to bypass her bottleneck, she didn't consider it a favor either. Xanthi believed she would've been able to fix the problems with her swordsmanship herself if she spent a few months pondering the matter. She also thought Lorist gained quite a bit of insight from their duel himself, so, strictly speaking, he gained more from it than she did.

Xanthi never took kindly to Lorist's relative lack of ambition. But even so, her beloved adoptive daughter actually began to have feelings for him, something she definitely couldn't allow. Xanthi hoped Sylvia would wed a world-changing hero instead of an average-looking count that trained in the unreliable and unproven arts of the eastern martial monks. While Lorist's household had a few centuries' worth of history and background, all it did was stay put in its dominion. It paled severely in comparison to House Fisablen's performance when it helped the second prince establish the Iblia kingdom.

What Xanthi couldn't help was how things developed so swiftly that nobody was able to react quickly enough. In but a year, she heard that House Norton mobilized their troops to conquer Windbury and capture Second Prince Iblia as payback for the latter's sending of Blademaster Zarinan to assassinate Lorist. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Nortons also defeated the two cavalry divisions commanded by Viscount Kristoph and captured all 15 thousand of his troops.

Given the situation, Duke Fisablen had no choice but to take a step back and send Sylvia to discuss a trade agreement, using livestock to exchange for large numbers of military equipment and negotiate for the release of the 15 thousand troops, all the while causing House Norton to let their guard down while House Fisablen began their campaign against the grassland barbarians.

Nowadays, House Fisablen finally managed to consolidate lots of military might. It caused Xanthi's impression of Lorist to dip even further, as it was the greed of the Nortons for gold that allowed for the formation of the strong military of House Fisablen. The duke managed to form an undefeatable light cavalry force, many parts thanks to the incessant supply of military equipment from the Nortons and conquered the greater and lesser golden creeks, an achievement that patched up one of the house's last shortcomings.

The Nortons could never imagine how much a set of cavalry equipment cost on the grasslands. Some of the barbarian tribes were prepared to beg the duke for a few sets of armor. Sometimes, Xanthi fantasized about what would happen should House Fisablen grasp the secrets of making the equipment. At any rate, they definitely wouldn't sell them for the sake of a few coins and livestock like the Nortons. It was arming one's enemy.

Of all the men in the world, her beloved Sylvia had actually fallen for Lorist, much as it vexed her. But given her understanding of her adoptive daughter's personality, she knew that nothing good would come from being too forceful. Xanthi had made a few subtle hints to dissuade Sylvia and take back her heart filled with love and fantasy, to no avail. In the end, she had no choice but to force Sylvia to enter secluded training for a few years until she broke through to the two-star gold rank.

Perhaps the passage of time will let her understand the lovestruck state she was in is but an illusion, Xanthi had thought at the time.

The last thing she expected was that four years of seclusion actually intensified her yearning for Lorist, to the point that she went all the way to The Northlands herself just to invite Lorist to participate in the knighthood tournament. Xanthi's plan had backfired completely. Fortunately for Xanthi, the duke almost flipped out completely against Lorist during the tournament and didn't agree to House Norton's request for the princess's hand in marriage. But back then, Sylvia actually didn't participate in the tournament because of the death of her short-lived, noble-blooded younger brother. Instead, she traveled to The Northlands once more to take her mind off the matters, with Xanthi by her side, of course, so as to not give Lorist any opportunities to take advantage of the princess.

After hearing about the murder of the duke's nephew by Reidy of House Norton, Xanthi knew her time had come to forever sever the ties between Sylvia and Lorist. She joined the hunt for Reidy with fervor. Should Reidy actually die fighting her, Lorist would definitely turn against House Fisablen for good. That way, there was no way Sylvia could marry him. On the other hand, Duke Fisablen, with his renewed and empowered forces, could unite what remained of the kingdom and consolidate his power without fear for the threat of the Nortons.

Splash! Splosh! Splush!

What followed was a stream of shrieks and cries for help that caused Xanthi to turn over, only to witness half of the silver-ranked guards gradually sinking into the 'grassland'. Their bodies descended ever so slowly, covered with fine fibers of grey, black, green, and white that were laden with different kinds of leaves. The fine fibers got more tangled the more the men struggled. They sunk faster the more they struggled. Before Xanthi leaped to save them, she saw a few guards that hadn't fallen into the grass patch stretch their hands out towards their comrades, only to end up falling into the water and getting tangled up by the fibers as well.

In a few short moments, only three silver-ranked guards remained afloat. The three were slightly more intelligent than the rest. They had not moved an inch despite also calling out for help. They realized that moving and struggling would only accelerate their demise. Terrified, Xanthi didn't dare to approach the mud lake at all.

Instead, she turned to the soldiers coming from the distance and ordered, "Quick! Go pull those three out!"

After some hesitation, the three silver-ranked guards were rescued. Xanthi heard the explanations of a few local hunters and realized her mistake. Even though she saw Reidy make his way through the dense grass, it never occurred to her that it was some sort of natural trap. Still, being unable to enter the lake, what would she do?

"Burn everything. I'll see how long that bastard can stay in there. Without the grass' cover, we'll be able to know how he got in there. We'll capture him easily then!" barked Xanthi as she grit her teeth in anger.

"But... Madam Blademaster, Demongrass Swamp is far too big. We'll have to bring lots of fuel! Otherwise, the moist grass won't catch fire," said one squad leader.

"Get the fuel then! Go, now! As for the others, set up a perimeter around the swamp. Don't let that bastard escape!"

[1]Eupatorium plants: link to picture.

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