If we leave them alone, they leave us alone.
To us, that's all that matters. We have our small village, our meagre possessions, our small patch of tilled earth.
We've tried for more in the past, and they stopped leaving us alone. They force us back to our dirt, to our place. While they maintain sovereignty over the rest.
We don't know where they came from or what exactly they want, but they've been there for longer than I've been alive and I boast one of the longer lifespans of the village. They don't interact with us unless they have to, which is when one of us steps out of line. They don't speak, or make any noise. They just are.
We call them the Swamp Keepers.
They resemble humans on a physical level, however they stand anywhere between eight and 14 feet tall. They have skin, but it hangs loose off their bones, sometimes falling off in sticky clumps. What skin that stays on is a sickly grey colour. Wherever it can find purchase, swamp slime sticks to them.
The swamps start a few hundred meters from our village. Soft, watery, deadly mud which has claimed more than a few lives extends for what we guess to be hundreds and hundreds of miles in all directions.
Just as we live on solid earth, they live in the mud, almost always under the surface which makes their number hard to realise. We don't know of any other patches of solid ground out there in the mud, but we have to assume, at least for now, that we’re alone with the Swamp Keepers.
There are a series of rules that we've figured out to all this.
First of all, they only ‘attack’ when we try to drain water from the swamps. They rise up out of the mud and disable or destroy our equipment, forcing us to retreat back to our huts.
Secondly, they leave us alone if all we do is travel across the swamps. Groups of villagers have journeyed many miles across the water and found nothing. Some dead or dying trees growing out of almost solid patches, reeds and slime everywhere else. And everywhere, all over, signs of them. Even as far as Jori the Greats journey, which is supposed to have made it as far as an ocean, has images and tales of these creatures.
Thirdly, while they are primarily creatures of dawn and dusk, they have been seen at all hours and neither daylight or nighttime will prevent them from reclaiming what we attempt to take from them.
Finally, and what interests me the most about these things, they have a religion. Not in the sense that you or I do, that would be absurd. But they have been witnessed partaking in strange rituals on certain nights of the year. Some form of dancing, where a group of them pace in circles, bending their lanky forms up and down to a beat that only they can hear. We've seen this happen in groups of between 12 and 20. The moon has something to do with it, as these rituals happen almost exclusively at night, and when they do happen during the day, it’s when there is a clear, full moon visible in a cloudless sky.
I wish I could tell you this is a story about how some young boy or girl found a way to claim more land for our village from the Keepers, or even how we wound up defeating or allying with them. But that story, should it ever be told, will be long after I'm buried deep in the solid earth.
No, this is a story about why they exist. See, we live our lives covered in the bliss of ignorance. My parents, and their parents and probably their parents have lived with the dark figures all around us, scaring us a lot of the time, but always watching.
When I was a child, all those years ago, my parents would tell me a story about the ocean. I used to believe that they had seen the ocean, or it was in some way accessible for me, or would be when I grew up. I grew up to realise that the bedtime story was probably based on the Jori travels. Now, though, I am beginning to doubt even that.
See, I wondered whether or not the Keepers could, somehow, live or travel through the solid dirt we all lived on. So I got a few men together and organised them into a digging group. We chose a spot far from the mud and Keepers and dug for almost a week.
By the end of it, we had a hole that was maybe 50 or so feet deep and there had been no sign of them coming to stop us. It wasn’t the Keepers that stopped us. It was what we discovered at the bottom of this hole that did.
We found a box sealed with a lock that mystified even the most intelligent mind we had. So, failing some solution filled with wisdom, we broke it open.
Inside were several books, filled with writing we couldn't even begin to translate, along with pictures. We couldn't believe it, these were either the best paintings ever made or something we had only ever heard about from Jori’s stories – photos.
According to the legend, there were devices which could replicate, on paper, a landscape or person, anything really. Of course, in our history, only Jori the Great, or Jori the Liar, if you bent that way, had seen them. But here they were, in our hands. Two or three of them had some words written on the back along with the name Jori.
There was one in particular though that caught my eye. I grabbed it and ran around the village, looking at it and the swamps beyond until I found the spot I was looking for. I held the picture up to the horizon then flipped it down, flipped it back and flipped it down again. The distant mountains in the image were the same as the distant mountains in real life.
The difference was that in the picture, there was no swamp between them and here, only a lush green valley, littered with farmland and houses.