The bog engulfed them in the gusty black night, and Klemgathed was overwhelmed by the sour reek of the endless dark expanse. He and T’agan had been given strict instructions by the Mistmire. A host of information was drilled into them again and again in the last days before they slipped out of Stricken, and one still rang through Klem’s mind, on pain of death, make no sounds. The Mistmire were angry when the pre-journey meetings first began, and belligerent in their contempt for the dozens of adventures that had come before them.
“And all of them are dead,” spat Dipdunk, the old rogue’s eyes glittering in the stinking lamplight. “Dead because they wouldn’t listen to them who’s job it is to survive here.” He looked around at the other three Mistmire, and nodded at the group’s unofficial leader, Fennick, and turned back to Klem, and said “We are tired of fools dying and having to clean up what they stirred up!” Dip pointed with his knife at wide-eyed T’agan, and said “You’ll not be praying aloud every morning, and you won’t be wearing that get-up either.”
Moonblood stepped out of the shadows and handed T’agan a bundle of leather mail and said, “Quieter. Safer.”, and then stepped back, and Fennick spoke up. “We will teach you the signals. Hand-slang that the ‘Mire have been using for generations. You never speak once we begin. You do not cry out, you do not whisper, you do not mouth anything. Rakasha sees and hears everything.”
Tesseract, the Bogweaver, said, “We will be traveling under cover of illusion, do you understand? We must be the swamp, we can leave no ripple, no trace of our passage, or the witch will send everything against us. Risen will come at us until we are outnumbered ten-to-one.”
Dipdunk, filling his mug with the foamy mushroom ale that Stricken produced en masse, turned and interrupted, “The godsrotting bog will still come at us, aye. Have no doubt of that. The creatures and plant life are all out to get a mouthful of us, and the dangers are manifold, and once we get to the blasted citadel, things will real–” Tesseract cut in, irritated as always when Dip was into his cups, and back-bent with complaint and woe. “We have many defenses to shield us, and as long as you both listen and remember what we have taught you, then we stand a very good chance of making it to the castle unharmed. I don’t think we have a chance against the witch, but I’m tired of fighting her. I want it to end. Let it be with these two.”
Dipdunk scowled, and sculled the rest of his tankard, letting out a raggedy belch as he wiped his face.
Fennick laughed, embarrased, and said, to T’agan, “You said your order has trained you to fight necromancy. What can you bring to shield us? Have you any skills beyond being a soldier?”
T’agan stood, his shoulders squared up and he looked Fennick in the eye as he would his commanding officer, and said, “I have not always been a soldier. I was trained as a druid in the Quluthane, but my desert skills will not help us here, I agree. If the creatures of the swamp obey Rakasha’s will, then they must be evil. I have many ways to shield us from malevolence, and I intend to use all of them, to my death if need be, to see this witch destroyed! I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, because I don’t think we’d stand a chance without your guidance, but I am no tenderfoot!”
Fennick stepped back and looked at Moonblood, who shrugged, and they watched T’agan pace, his voice measured, but firm, as he detailed the campaigns he had been a part of in the deserts of Ashaaria, and it was all very impressive, but the Mistmire, and Klemgathed, were both of the same mind: Could this man learn to take orders and keep his emotions under control during an onslaught of which he could not even conceive? They all doubted it. But Klem’s thoughts did not turn away after this conclusion. He had a belief that this man would transform into something quite remarkable after his character, and his life, was tested in the most extreme ways. Klem interruped T’agan’s empassioned monologue, with “I believe in you, T’agan. I would not trust my life to anyone else.”
The paladin stared at Klemgathed. Perhaps a minute passed, the Mistmire all silently watching.
Klem laughed and tossed his empty tankard to T’agan, and teased, “Doesn’t mean you still can’t fetch me beer, and not laugh at my jokes.”
T’agan fielded the catch, and frowned, and the room erupted in laughter, all but T’agan in on the joke, who turned to fill the monk’s cup, and turned his mind inward, calling on his training. Soon he felt a warmth inside himself, and he let that good light grow, and felt it expand beyond his body, and it filled the room, surrounding the others, and he felt a pulse from two of the others. One was the mage, which was no surprise to T’agan, but the other one was Klem, which was. He smiled and let the light fade away to just a wisp inside himself, ready to be called upon again if needed, but never to extinguish.
Klem was a good dwarf. He had chosen to risk his life to help free the people of Stricken. T’agan would watch him, though, and if he turned away from that path in the dark of the swamps, well… Then he would have to be dealt with, but it would not come to that, the paladin was sure.
Klem’s body jerked awake and he looked up and around, slightly panicked. He had been dreaming. Gods, how had he fallen asleep? Adreneline dumped into his system as he felt the bog’s vapors close around him once again. The fetid stench of the black mud they all had to slather themselves with before they got into the swamp was enough to turn his stomach.
The two muckfighters were alert, in the prow of the large canoe, bows half-drawn, scanning the darkness before them. Tesseract was in trance, maintaining the illusion that hid them all, the canoe “as a large, floating log,” he said as they shoved off. Dipdunk was in the stern, a single paddle stroke every ten to fifteen seconds was his only movement. They lazily slid through the tangled hassock islands of the Black Bogs, as drowned hills and stubbornly hungry maw-trees formed a labyrinth impossible to imagine, but mentally-charted by the ‘Mire over hundreds of years, the journey-songs memorized from youth, and reinforced with yearly contests and revels of boasting and sour mushroom beer.
T’agan was also in trance, behind Tesseract, in the middle of the canoe. He was attempting to sense the approach of evil creatures, but when he first dropped in, he was almost overwhelmed by the smothering blanket of Rakasha’s malice. It was a constant presence, like a dissonance in his mind, and it was hard to concentrate, even harder to sense changes in that harmonic. He scowled and shifted in his seat.
Klemgathed was the only not really doing anything. He could not use a bow, and he had no magicks to call upon. His head was down and he was lost in thought. His eyes fell on the dried and well-packaged provisions the ‘Mire had packed. Nothing was left to chance. Nothing was forgotten. They must live on this canoe for almost two weeks, Fennick had said, barring any run-ins with the wildlife or Rakasha’s detection.
Moonblood, on starboard point, gestured in hand-slang to Dip to slow their speed. The longboat instantly slowed and Fennick and Moonblood’s bows came into line. They looked like mirror-images, elbows cocked, chins up, and then they loosed, as one, and as Klem blinked, the bows were nocked again and loosed again, in unison, and Klem heard a distant, low squeal, but no outcry of pain.
The muckfighters relaxed, and Dipdunk pushed them into motion again, slow and steady, and so it went, through the long night, until Klem would go mad from the tension. Two more times the muckfighters aimed and loosed their silent bows. Whatever had threatened them, died swiftly and without fanfare. Klem never saw any of them, and kept his silent vigil, his mind churning, wondering what the dawn would bring.
The season brought heavy, cold winds in the mornings, gusty and full of ice. These were the miserable times for the water-bound party. Their faces and fingers would go numb, and once Moonblood’s bowstrung snapped without warning, and though it lashed his wrist and drew a lot of blood, the muckfighter did not cry aloud, and T’agan wondered again who these people were, that could drive themselves to such discipline, and would choose to stay in such a cursed place.
The sun was feeble, watery and weak through the heavy cloud, but it brought enough light to show the two outsiders just how desolate their surroundings were. They could not see one single green thing. All was a drab smear of greys and browns, with the black, smelly mud that gave this part of the swamp its name encrusted around every tiny island, like pie muck on a fat man’s gob.
Stirge and black fly drifted in hungry clouds in the skies above and around them. Their mud-armoring kept the bloodsuckers from finding them, and Klem gave a shiver. He hated godsdamn Stirges, and this place was fecund with them. Hangman trees drooped twitching vines into the waters and fished up whatever swam near. Froghemoths, fifteen-foot tall monstrosities that shambled through the waters and scooped up black crabs from the muddy waters often screamed in ear-splitting recognition calls that drove the outsiders to distraction, while the incessant croaking of billions of flesh-eating frogs threatened to drive them insane.
Throughout all, daytime or night, was the soft whispering of Rakasha’s lustful entreaties, to cast off their possessions and sleep in the watery bed of the lonely, but beautiful queen. All of it began to take its toll on Tesseract, whose illusions were the sole reason they could travel in such safety. He could not rest, or take his ease at all until they reached a bolthole that the ‘Mire had long used, some two more days into the future. A week without sleep or rest, forced to hold a mathematical construct in your mind took a fortitude that Klemgathed admired, and he wondered again if the arcane path was one he should pursue. After I’m done being hunted by the Empire, that is, he thought.
They had come nearly a hundred kilometres, and they had several hundred to go, and they were only twenty kilometres or so from a place of relative safety, an underground cavern with its entrance hidden in the middle of one of the larger islands. It had been re-inhabited a few times, once or twice with tragic consequences, before the Bogweavers put a permanent illusion at its mouth, and renewed the repulsion fields that surrounded it every season, if they were able.
As the sun was setting, and the party all resigned themselves to another long night in the squealing dark, Tesseract’s strength finally faltered. His weary mind wandered and the illusion surrounded them collapsed. The mage slumped forwards, into the paladin’s back, and Klem hauled him upright and grabbed his limp face, checking his eyes, and silently cursing to himself. Tesseract was out cold.
Dipdunk dropped his breakfast of salt-fish and jerky and scrambled for the paddle. The canoe shot into the waning light of the bogs fully exposed, as the muckfighters knelt in the bow, trying to keep a low-profile. T’agan dropped his divinations and helped Klem attend to Tesseract. The monk wasn’t doing much other than slapping the unconscious mage’s face as hard and as quietly as he could, and T’agan grabbed his hands and glared at him. Klem raised his eyebrows and sat back, gesturing to the paladin as if to say, “Let’s see if you can do better”.
T’agan said a silent prayer to Lodis, and asked for his strength to heal Tesseract’s body and mind, so that they could carry the fight all the way to the witch’s heart. He opened his eyes and laid his hands on Tesseract’s head and could feel the hot burn of his Lord’s divine power flow through him and into the mage. Tesseract’s eyes fluttered open and then fear and concern crushed his face. He sat up quickly, pushing T’agan away and immediately knelt and bowed his head. He gestured in Arcan, setting up the framework for a concealing illusion, when the boat suddenly rocked violently, and he was knocked into the gunwale, the strands of foundational power suddenly winking out as he cracked his head.
The canoe fetched up against the side of a small island and the party scrambled out as the canoe was flipped upside down and the rotting corpses of a mob of Risen emerged, dripping, from the muck.
The party fought in silence, the fear of speaking so-drilled into the outsiders that they never even considered yelling out or calling for help as they once would. Though they had never fought together before, they proved themselves well, T’agan moreso than the monk, who nearly got himself surrounded as he underestimated the strength of the shambling zombies.
Barely a minute after the first group of Risen were put down, another came at them from another direction, nearly three dozen this time, and Fennick signaled that they must flee, and they scrambled for the canoe, three paddles out now, stealth-be-damned, and they barreled away from the mob of undead, who slowly sunk under the water again, as if they never had been.
Tesseract got the illusion up again, but not before they were attacked twice more by Risen, and the mage had to spend precious spell energy on waves of fire and sheets of acid to help put them down. Even after they were hidden by the magicks again, none of them could stop shaking, the Mistmire had never seen that many Risen come at them at once. Before, the witch would only send a few at at time, maybe once an hour, enough to keep them rattled, but not driving them to outright flight. The party all concluded that this time the banshee-witch was not toying with them for her amusement. Dipdunk wondered again who these outsiders were, to draw such a reaction from the banshee. If the illusion failed again, they would likely not survive.
They were in stealth mode again, Dipdunk on the single stern paddle, and all was as it was before, except now they had tasted the fury of Rakasha’s hatred, seen the rotted corpses serve her will, relentless until they were nearly fully dismembered, and Klem’s hands and feet were covered with dried gore. They somehow made it to morning again, a day from their bolt-hole, when Moonblood turned and gestured wildly in the rising light. He pointed into the sky, again and again, and Klem and T’agan followed his pointing hand and saw something that made Klem’s stomach flip over.
Cruising in the dawning morning sky, was a large, dark shape, flying with a grace that could only be found in the airborne acrobatics of a dragon, and even undead it was a sight to behold, liquid beauty-in-motion, tumbling and sliding through the hazy morning fogs.
They had found Muckskull-the-Foul, and worse than that, Tesseract had warned, back in the stinking shack in Stricken, that the dragon’s senses could pierce his magicks as easily as a knife through butter.
With a cry that echoed through the festering swamps, the dragon turned and came for them, a predator that could not be denied.